Brinkmanship needs a brink. Britain’s EU brink comes as border gates slam shut at Dover, the M20 jams and the French visa office is besieged. That prospect may delight Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but even the deepest cynic must assume those elected to lead the country will not let it happen.
From the moment, early in her leadership, that Theresa May pretended she could have both Brexit and open borders with the EU “in all circumstances”, a crisis of reality was bound to come. And it would be Ireland that provoked it. But this was only because Ireland showed most starkly the meaninglessness of a “frictionless border” between the EU and any neighbouring state without a customs union. Until that meaninglessness is resolved, common sense requires that trade continues to flow. This weekend’s row was over how long such a transition should last, and how, if at all, it should be terminated.
Since Britain is, in reality, pleading to be allowed to continue trading with the EU, which must mean on EU terms, it is reasonable for the EU to call the shots. The idea that the EU has “more to lose” by no deal is one of many fantasies of Brexit land. On the other hand, it is equally silly of the EU to make the nature of termination a sticking point, given May’s short-term predicament. In such diplomacy, as Donald Trump is proving, guarantees, promises, dates, red lines are for the future, if not the birds.
These are times when politicians seem to love misbehaving. The Tory party is reverting to being the nasty party – nasty to its own. For Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg to claim that “striking new trade deals with the rest of the world” – an incoherent fantasy – justifies toppling their leader, is explicable only by raw personal ambition. When billions of pounds and tens of thousands of jobs depend on the outcome, it is inexcusable. But then the unwillingness of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to do anything but seek party advantage from the country’s post-referendum plight is equally so.
The issue is not what May wants or her party wants, it is what the country expected when it voted, narrowly, to leave the EU. Evidence from running polls since the referendum suggests that Labour’s stated support for a continued customs union is in line with that expectation. It is also what a majority of MPs appear to want. If May cannot mobilise that expectation – even to cover the transition – then Labour should surely attempt to do so.
Come the brink, a temporary deal must be reached on the customs union, pending the completion of further negotiations. The issue is the nature of that completion. Meanwhile, there must be a sensibly open border with the UK’s biggest trade partner. The idea that the UK would be “better off” with no deal is madness. A form of words must be found. We elect people to do that.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist