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Ex-No 10 Brexit spokesperson: 'Brexit has made the rest of the UK more like Northern Ireland'

Matthew O’Toole spoke about where Brexit goes from here, and how it’s made the rest of the UK more like Northern Ireland.

A FORMER CIVIL servant who worked as the Brexit spokesperson at 10 Downing Street  has said the current Prime Minister may have a decent chance of getting her EU divorce deal through parliament – but only because the alternatives are so unpalatable.

Matt O’Toole worked at Number 10 in the communications section under both David Cameron and Theresa May, before leaving his role in September 2017.

He told that although it was an “amazing experience” to have been part of, there was also a sense of frustration with the approach to Irish issues that Brexit created both before and after the referendum in 2016.

Brexit wounds

The Brexit endgame has been going on for quite some time now, but we’re now at the most critical moment yet in the negotiations between the UK and EU.

May has agreed a Brexit deal with the EU, with a draft deal on their future relationship settled during the week.

But, she faces a major challenge to get this deal through the House of Commons. Brexiteers within her own party loathe it. DUP members – who had been supporting her government – are irate. And the opposition Labour party has also said it won’t support the deal.

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on Thursday that a “critical moment” had been reached ahead of this weekend’s EU summit.

The deal has proven controversial – in particular around what it’ll mean for Northern Ireland. It guarantees a backstop, if all other talks fail, that would prevent a hard border and keep the North aligned in a regulatory sense with the EU.

Focus may be fixed on how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland now, but O’Toole – who’s from Northern Ireland – said this was something that was sorely lacking in debates in the run up to the referendum.

“Even if you don’t give two hoots about the border, which is a thing you should care about, you’re going to have to negotiate with the EU who do care about it,” he said.

Politicians should have been putting that in a careful and coherent way.

Whereas in recent successful campaigns – such as the remain side in the Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election – the Conservatives under Cameron had been able to sway the public by saying the alternative would put the economy at risk, this wasn’t successful during the Brexit vote.

While the possibility of the UK voting to leave seemed a distant one to the civil servant in the run-up to the referendum, the difficulties that were faced by the remain side – which then-Prime Minister Cameron advocated – were clear at the time.

“One of the challenges about the referendum was trying to convey how something as structurally important to the UK economy and its position in the world affected people’s everyday lives,” O’Toole said.

In terms of British politics, what was going on in the EU wasn’t really talked about. People didn’t understand how it was all relevant to them.

Part of identity

When the people of the UK ultimately voted to leave the EU, O’Toole found himself with someone new living in Number 10 Downing Street, after Cameron resigned and May took over. 

He’d gone from being a spokesperson from the perspective of being in favour of staying in the EU to one that had to express the view of leaving it in a short space of time. 

“It was radical in policy terms,” he said. “A distinct and different change in the context of a much bigger change in UK politics generally.”

Part of this new policy that the civil servant had to espouse and present to journalists and the public was the mantra from Theresa May that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Although he would have been responsible to defend this in his dealings at the time, O’Toole now said: “The phrase is mind-bendingly circular.

There’s the sense that Brexit has a kind of emotional force that has become internalised in lots of people’s identity, not to sound patronising. It’s a cause that people identify with. 

He said that rather than what the phrase actually means – which of course we still don’t really know – it became imbued with a sense that people could culturally identify themselves as a Brexiteer or a Brexit supporter.

“It’s actually reminiscent of Northern Ireland,” O’Toole said. “And that’s one of the tragic things about Northern Ireland – the extent to which people have very tribal identifications. Brexit has made the UK as a whole a little bit more like Northern Ireland, hardened into one of these tribes, and how people see themselves in society.”

Stepping down and where we go from here

Over a year after the Brexit vote, O’Toole left his position as the Brexit spokesperson for the Prime Minister.

“It wasn’t that I walked out in protest,” he said. “But I think that there should have been more emphasis on Irish things before the referendum.

The European project is all about unifying the peoples of Europe by making borders less important, and lessening divisions between States. I think it was never accepted – and still isn’t – that this was part of the rationale of the UK joining the EU. The UK isn’t an island nation. It’s an island nation plus a land that has an invisible border with an EU country.

When he left his job, the DUP had made a confidence-and-supply arrangement with May’s government, further complicating matters concerning Ireland post-Brexit.

O’Toole also said it took quite a while for the position of the UK government on the guarantee of no hard border to align with that of the Irish government on the issue.

The deal now agreed between the EU and UK reflects that.

He said: “The thing that’s changed is that the UK has de facto accepted that its relationship with Ireland is going to play a huge role in its end relationship with the EU, rather than it determining things for itself.

It’s a good thing for the island of Ireland.

And the chances of May getting the deal through a bitterly divided House of Commons?

Although not yet certain, the numbers don’t look good at present for May. There are a large number of dissenters within her own party, although of talk of challenging her leadership has died down significantly in the past week. 

Her party only has a majority in the House of Commons through the support of the DUP, but this support will not remain with the current Brexit deal on the table.

Theresa May’s Conservative party has 316 seats, and it has also secured the support of the 10 seats from the DUP. The opposition have said they won’t be supporting the deal so the Prime Minister has a great deal of convincing to do in the next few weeks.

O’Toole said that all eyes are now on British parliamentarians, and it will be down to them if this doesn’t go through.

“I think the main chance [for May's deal] is the two alternatives are structurally unpalatable,” he said. “A no-deal is calamitous. Now the UK has agreed a deal, the culpability for rejecting a deal will be with parliament. They can’t blame the EU. And then no Brexit is politically very difficult for people on both parties.

We’re set for a very unpredictable few weeks. There’s no majority for anything. It’s just that the easiest majority to get might be for this deal that no one wants.
Matthew O’Toole is taking part in a panel at Ireland’s Edge in Dingle on 30 November and 1 December.

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