Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov, at 10 Downing Street in London, December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville Image Credit: Reuters

Here’s an idea: let’s abolish the wheel. Let’s escape the tyranny of the circular device, and spend the money saved on axles, spokes and hubs on — oh, I don’t know — the National Health Service (NHS). Let’s take back control of rotation! But wait a minute. This can’t be done overnight. We shall still need some means of transporting ourselves and our goods until we have formally renounced the wheel, but before we have agreed on a new device. There’ll probably need to be an “implementation period” in which we remain “aligned” with the existing circular format.

Then, when we’ve finally got rid of the old system — let freedom ring! — we’ll need a new, bespoke mechanism. What we’ll want is our own round component that rolls around an axis; an independently designed disc that turns reliably to enable easy movement. Something that gyrates smoothly along the ground. I wonder what we should call it.

This, of course, is what the Brexiteers fear that UK Prime Minister Theresa May has signed up to in her initial agreement with Brussels. They look with unease at a passage that decrees “in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support north-south cooperation [between Northern Ireland and the Republic]”. That looks suspiciously like leaving the single market and customs union in legal fact, but not in technical practice.

For those of us who voted remain, this is welcome, in as far as it goes. For the leave camp, it represents a tremendous risk. The senior cabinet Brexiteers — Boris Johnson and Michael Gove — have been reassured that “alignment” refers to broad goals rather than specific regulations, that last week’s text is non-binding at this stage, and that it will in any case be superseded by the comprehensive trade deal that ministers must now start to draft. The Brexiteers’ calculation is two fold: first, that at this point, it was not in their interests to be portrayed as wreckers, conspiring with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) against the prime minister at a moment of crisis. Johnson, in particular, has an eye to posterity and fears being personally blamed by historians if Brexit goes wrong.

Second, they have gambled upon the power of postponement and their conviction that initially strict “alignment” will morph into something much more nuanced and customised as the putative UK-EU trade deal takes effect. Hence Gove’s wink in Saturday’s Telegraph. “If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU,” he wrote, “the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.” Like most apparent statements of the obvious in politics, this was no such thing. What he was really signalling to his fellow Brexiteers was this: when she’s gone, chaps, we can fix all this.

It would be churlish to deny that the government is stronger than it was on the day that the DUP scuppered the PM’s first draft and humiliated her on the global stage. But it remains the case that May’s weakness is her only true strength. As unhappy as the DUP and the Brexiteers remain with what has been agreed, they were not ready to risk the fall of the government and Jeremy Corbyn kissing hands at the palace. It was they, not the PM, who blinked.

As so often, it was our old friend “constructive ambiguity “that got May, her party, the Irish government and Brussels over the line. You can read the text as a victory for British sovereignty, a significant retention of power by the EU, a step towards Irish unity or a safeguarding of the union. This kind of ambiguity was essential to the Good Friday agreement, which entrenched an open-ended process founded upon euphemism. In contrast, the Brexit talks assume and depend upon the eventual achievement of clarity — even if, in many cases, that point is not reached until long after the UK’s formal departure on March 29, 2019.

How, for instance, does the UK claim the right to “diverge” from EU standards if it so chooses, and yet still avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? The government’s “position paper” on the subject, published on August 16, raises more questions than it answers, pledging to “continue some of the existing agreements between the UK and the EU, put in place new negotiated facilitations to reduce and remove barriers to trade, and implement technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures”.

Yet now, more than ever, I think last year’s referendum outcome was an emotional event rather than a forensic verdict. According to a report published last week by NatCen Social Research, only 28 per cent of leave voters now think the UK will secure a good deal, down from 51 per cent in February. Yet there is no comparable switch towards remain, no surge of buyer’s remorse. It is as if the voters are saying: good or bad, we want out.

This is bizarre only if you look through the traditional analytic prism of policy formulation, institutional development and economic rationalism. Brexit has become (and perhaps always was) an identity-marker, not a progress-determinant. It is not primarily perceived as a means of increasing GDP per head, empowering trade deals or liberating the legal system. It is a banner that you brandish as a means of expressing embattled identity and cultural grievance. It enshrines visceral allegiance — the currency of populism. The true shame of the leavers is that they inflamed the worst impulses of the electorate — on immigration, cultural uniformity and social change — while maintaining a smile of respectable innocence. They raised expectations that cannot be met (and, in the case of immigration, should not be).

Which raises the real problem: what happens when those expectations are not matched and the new campaign is revealed as the con it always was? What happens when the voters realise that what they have been left with is still, after all, a wheel?

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Matthew d’Ancona is a senior columnist and writer.