The Guardian view on Mrs May’s Brexit: blocked by naysayers | Editorial

The prime minister has squandered opportunities to build bridges across parliament and is now paying a heavy price

It is an unwritten rule of politics in Northern Ireland that everything proceeds from the word “no”. The establishment of trust in the dialogue that led eventually to the Good Friday agreement was a slow and meticulous business. The Democratic Unionist party never endorsed that deal, which is relevant to the difficulty Theresa May now has in persuading parliament to vote for any Brexit plan she might agree in Brussels. At the heart of the impasse is a historical fact that the leave campaign shamefully belittled: the Good Friday agreement was possible because both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were EU members. Brexit picks at the seam of peace. Arlene Foster, DUP leader, is immune to appeals for compromise based on the sanctity of a treaty that her party rejected. Her concern is that the prime minister appears ready to concede customs checks between mainland Britain and the island of Ireland under “backstop” arrangements – the regime to operate in the absence of a comprehensive free-trade agreement. There is a legal duty to examine certain goods on their way into the single market once the UK is outside it. The prime minister asserts that this is academic because a future trade deal can be done in time. It is unclear whether she really believes this. No one else does, least of all the DUP, which acts as if the union cannot survive phytosanitary inspection at Irish Sea ports. In reality, the cause of preserving the union was best served by voting remain in 2016 and is best served now by implementing the softest possible Brexit – or aborting it altogether.

The case for pressing ahead with Mrs May’s methods is crumbling. Jo Johnson, the transport minister, today resigned citing as his reason the prime minister’s determination to present parliament with an intolerable choice: a half-complete package, worse than EU membership, or the chaos of exit with no deal at all. Mr Johnson’s analysis on that point is right. His proposed remedy – inviting the public to revisit the 2016 referendum decision in the light of what has subsequently been learned – is also more honourable than the approach preferred by his elder brother Boris, who resigned earlier this year in pursuit of guerrilla attacks on the government’s plan with no hint of viable alternatives.

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