I’m finishing this piece on the 11thNovember having watched the wreath laying on our Cenotaph at 11.0am.  How ahistorical are our politics.  Remember, remember I’d say.

Anyway, backstop? Everyone these days seems to be using that word – backstop.  But what does it mean? This is about Brexit, and it is of course, shorthand for something which I vaguely comprehend but don’t totally understand. I am therefore going to delve into what’s been happening and why that word is being used over and over again.

Btw, I haven’t written on this blog for several weeks.  I’ve been waiting for something to happen and the problem is things are happening right now and then again, they’re not happening.

But let’s start with this. I think for a large number of people who voted to Leave, the Referendum was a single act. Rather like St. George slaying the dragon those who were left behind after globalisation closed their factories, who saw the EU as a deeply flawed institution, who wanted the money sent to the EU to be spent here in the UK, who wanted the sovereignty of their country to be retained rather than be drawn deeper into alliances with countries they knew little about, their vote was cathartic and quick. We voted. We won. We’re out.  But did anyone think we have to extricate ourselves from 40 years of regulations and agreements? That we have to negotiate? We have to forge new ways of being outside the EU? I don’t think so. We all, both Leavers and Remainers, we voted with emotion rather than any facts, or any sense of reality of what leaving the EU might mean.

Can I remind you what has to be agreed? As I said in my last blog post there is no possibility of any talks about trade with any country until we have left the EU – which as you might have noted hasn’t happened.  With regard to trade with the EU while everyone talks about and wants frictionless tariff-free movement of goods it is an impossibility as the red line for the EU is that the single market must mean freedom of movement, while Theresa May’s red line is that the UK will not have freedom of movement under any circs.

So, what was to be agreed by October (dearie me) is/was the following: i) The financial settlement. The figure of £40 billion has been bandied about and there are other commitments to the EU budget that we must keep. This is kind of agreed, but not quite. Then ii) Citizen’s rights. The EU wants all EU citizens living in the UK to have the same rights as they do now.  But as that includes the protection of the European Court of Justice, which is another red line for the UK, that is not agreed. And then iii) the very big question and stumbling block of Northern Ireland where nothing is agreed.

The whole thing of the border between Northern Ireland and the arguments around it is an absolute disgrace and a stain on our ability as a nation to think through consequences.  Furthermore, I cannot do justice to the history and blood that has been spent in that area in one paragraph. Look, I include myself in this condemnation because although I voted to Remain and if Remain had won we wouldn’t be in this quandary, nevertheless, taking all that into consideration, I didn’t think once about that border. Did you?

So, what’s the stumbling block? If we leave the EU and there are no deals or agreements there will be a hard border, with all the infrastructure that goes with that, between Northern Ireland and Ireland.  At the moment, there are no checks, and seriously, you cannot put up border security there, in that place – you just can’t. A bloody, bitter civil war was fought in and around and beyond that border. And the settlement itself is fragile. So, this is where we get to the ‘backstop’.

The backstop, apparently, is an agreement that Northern Ireland will remain within the European Union’s custom arrangement indefinitely to prevent this hard border. Two things: i) the Tory party is a minority government propped up by the ghastly Democratic Unionist Party. The Tories needs those 10 DUP MPs to vote with them all the way.  And they will as long as Northern Ireland never ever gets separate treatment to the rest of the UK.  In other words, the DUP see Northern Ireland being in the customs union alongside Ireland as the beginning of something they really, really don’t want – you get my drift? And ii) that word ‘indefinitely’. If Northern Ireland were to remain in the customs union the government wants to end that arrangement when they consider it right and proper. Their view is, this is not to be an indefinite arrangement, and ends not when the EU says so, but when they say so.

Another backstop solution, the one proposed by Theresa May, is that the whole of the UK would stay in the customs union, with the UK leaving the EU in March 2019, the single market in December 2020 but staying in the customs union for much longer.  But the EU doesn’t like that idea, as it means the UK is staying on in the customs union without any obligations to the EU. And nor do the hard-line Brexiters like it much, as it still ties them to the EU and prevents any trade negotiations elsewhere.  Again, the length of time of the arrangement and who can end it is key to any agreement.

But tbh, it’s a mess. Now the media is saying that 95% is agreed – really? If that’s so, then the 5% is something that is going to wreck our leaving.  Did you know (I write for those of you living outside the UK) that another Johnson has resigned? This one is Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, who resigned from being Transport Minister on Friday saying that the choices are we either leave tied to the EU for ever (leading to vassalage) or we will crash out with a no-deal (leading to chaos). And amazingly argues for a 2ndReferendum. I think he must have done some work on what might happen if we don’t make a deal – queues on the motorway in and out of Dover and all that.

That’s more homework than Dominic Raab, our Brexit Secretary, has done, as he surpassed himself last week at an event where he said, and I quote: “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at how we trade goods and services, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

Look, the EU is a deeply flawed institution – I get it. I’m currently reading a book on the Left’s argument against the EU. I’m not sticking my head in the sand about the EU’s faults and I would go with the so-called majority, I would, but who’s in charge of our leaving?

It is easy to say – absolute idiots – you want another quote? Here’s our Northern Ireland Secretary saying: “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.” I mean, what? It’s so, so basic.

But what you do have are a number of MPs in Mrs May’s Cabinet who do want a hard crash-out. And actually the idea of remaining in the customs union for ever and a day, or whenever, is daft. If we’re leaving – let’s leave and negotiate for these amazing trade deals, which will take years, of course, but never mind that.

There’s a key Cabinet meeting next week and I’m not sure whether May’s proposal is going to last much longer.  Or, she might well hang on in there.  But will this ‘final’ agreement be accepted by i) the EU and ii) Parliament?? Jo Johnson thinks it’s better to not leave, well, well, well.

I’ll finish this piece with the thought that there are some quite dangerous people in charge of our future.  Because I give you another quote from our Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, who at the Tory Conference was the warm-up act before Theresa May’s speech saying that Britain would come to life after Brexit and, quoting Milton, he said:

“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: Methinks I see her as an Eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzl’d eyes at the full midday sun.”

Seriously? I despair – we are in the charge of English Exceptionalists who have an exaggerated sense of the worth of this country and don’t care for anything other than this going it alone as a Sovereign nation.

Well, we might manage a last-minute deal but consider Northern Ireland – that is the sticking point.

Will keep you up-to-date as things are beginning to unravel. There must be a lot going on behind the scenes.

Penny Kocher 11thNovember 2018

P.S. I welcome comments but please be respectful of views that are different to yours – thanks



For further reading:

Costas Lapavitsas: The Left Case Against the EU. Polity Press 2019

James Meek: Brexit and Myths of EnglishnessLondon Review of Books Volume 40 Number 19  11 October 2018

And numerous articles in The Guardian (which shows my bias) including

Marina Hyde: Dummy’s guide to geography helps Dominic Raab plot an idiot’s Brexit. The Guardian, Friday 9 Nov 2018

Dan Sabbagh: Who is Geoffrey Cox, the new figure at the heart of Brexit talks. The Guardian, Tue 6 Nov 2018

Heather Stewart: Jo Johnson quits as minister over Theresa May’s Brexit plan. The Guardian Friday 9 Nov 2018


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20 thoughts on “What is this ‘Backstop’?

  • 11th November 2018 at 13:55

    Well said Penny. I’m a reminder who never thought about the NI question because I didn’t need to. Voting remain meant no change. Jo Johnson was a remainer as are his sister and father. Must make for interesting family dinners
    You are right. The government is full of idiots. I despair frequently

    • 12th November 2018 at 09:03

      Yes, so true, if we Remainers had prevailed the Northern Ireland situation would not have mattered – sadly now it does matter, a lot.

      Tbh, I hadn’t thought a lot about Jo Johnson before!!! I wonder who else will resign??? Who knows! What a mess!

  • 11th November 2018 at 14:27

    I agree with you that we are in a mess but although I voted to come out I did not expect that 40 years of membership would be disentangled over night. I broadly support the compromise that May is trying to negotiate, ( I would not be in her position for all the tea in China, to use an antiquated expression!)

    I always thought that common sense would prevail on both sides- perhaps I’m too idealistic! I still can’t understand how the EU as a whole will benefit from the various disaster scenarios that are being bandied about. We are a very important trade partner to them as well as vice versa, one would have thought.

    However, we are now told that Brexit is a very minor issue compared with the other very serious problems in mainland Europe, i.e. financial meltdowns in Italy &Spain, right wing nationalism in Hungary to name but a few. In which case why expend time and effort trying to frustrate and control the UK which is how it feels to many?

    I do find it slightly surreal to be on the opposite side on Brexit to many people and institutions with which I have formally found common cause. I keep wondering if I’m missing something but then someone comes out with an idea that only reinforces my position e.g Macron says we need a common EU army! Why can’t anyone see that political union remains a live aspiration for some members, and let’s face it France and Germany are the only ones that actually control contribute to the debate? Those who receive more than they contribute are understandably keeping a low profile.

    However, I must admit that I didn’t consider the Irish question in my decision making. The idea that N Ireland must be treated the same as the UK is a bit strange because they are not treated the same today. It has been given powers which allow laws to be different from ours – no same sex marriage for instance & abortion is prohibited in almost all circumstances. The Catholic majority are also very disapproving of contraception. As a woman I find this very disturbing.

    I was very surprised to discover on a recent trip to Belfast that N Ireland receives the same amount of money from the rest of the UK as we have been paying to the EU each year. I think 10 billion was mentioned but don’t quote me! No wonder the DUP is keen to support the Conservatives in case another government decided to review such a vast expenditure.

    As to the ‘backstop’ – I think it is just that, a ‘last ditch’ safeguard but one which neither us or the EU will agree to be in place indefinitely. At the same time as we acknowledge the longevity of our close association with the EU we seem very unwilling to accept the time it will take to leave it completely. I also want us to be able to put some energy into tackling other important issues like homelessness, public health, social care, escalating inner-city violence.

    There was an interesting piece on Instagram where people who were demonstrating against Brexit were asked whether they would prefer democracy or the EU Commission. The most coherent responses were included and they were worryingly ill informed. ‘What’s an MEP?’ I know the same lack of knowledge would be demonstrated by people on the other side of the argument which I think helps make the case for not having another referendum on the final deal.

    I do like the quote from Milton but it sounds as if there is a rival candidate to Mr. Reece-Mogg for the accolade of ‘member for the 18 century’ ! We must get this awful lot out of power but how? The way Corbin looked behaved at the Cenotaph today is another black mark against him for me. How arrogant can you get? All he has done is feed the right-wing press press’s appetite for ways to denegate him and his party. As for Emily Thornberry (who I rate generally) clinging to the infamous ‘6 tests’, one of which is that we should have all the same benefits without being a member of the UK, I despair. I feel completely disenfranchised now I can no longer in good conscience vote LD. Not so happy days!

    • 12th November 2018 at 10:19

      OK, I’ll be respectful. But…
      1. You state that the EU is expending time and effort “trying to frustrate and control the UK”. Sorry, but this is absolutely not the case. The EU has been clear and consistent in its position and arguments from the outset of this whole sorry saga. The EU is a rules-base organisation, it has reminded the UK on several occasions what the rules are, and in particular what would not be acceptable under the rules. Despite this, the UK has insisted on coming to the negotiation table several times with proposals that they had already been told could not be contemplated. The UK has also been inconsistent – not to say sloppy – in its approach, the government unable even to agree with itself on a negotiating position. And the UK both within and outside government has been intransigent and insulting to the EU – the comments made by lightweights like Raab and Hunt are unhelpful to say the least, whilst Johnson, Farage, the Murdoch press and so on pour out spite and lies about the EU – something not reciprocated in mainland Europe.

      2. “Macron says we need a common EU army!” Yes, he does. And just exactly what is wrong with that concept? It would be a big and radical step – but in a world that has changed beyond all recognition in only a few decades, radical ideas are needed. I can quite understand a reluctance to dilute or lose British Army traditions and regimental identity – but this would not necessarily be the case – and there would be chain-of-command issues to resolve (but these would be no different to those in Nato). An instinctive and immediate opposition to the concept of an EU army to my mind betrays a sort of faux-patriotic nostalgia combined with good old xenophobic Anglo-exceptionalism. And amounts to the same dangerous clinging to the past that led to British red-coated soldiers marching into ambushes by fast-moving guerilla forces in 19th century wars, and – as we have only just memorialised – the slaughter of 100s of 000s of young men, led by out-of-touch arrogant fools, clinging to ‘the British Army way’. (Penny, I’d be interested in your take on this, given your father’s Army background.)

      3. “Why can’t anyone see that political union remains a live aspiration for some members?” This is another Brexiter misapprehension; the ‘direction of travel’ has been clear since the 1970s. Worth reading https://infacts.org/mythbusts/voters-werent-conned-1975-referendum/ on this – here are a couple of key points from it:-


      <<many of the changes Brexiteers dislike and claim they were misled about – free movement, harmonised taxation, social and labour provisions, the supremacy of European law – were spelled out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, whose preamble also referred to an “ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”.


      Sorry to go on at such length, but this is a complex matter – and one about which I feel very strongly. Britain simply cannot afford to make such a catastrophically historic mistake as leaving the EU. And I don’t mean simply financially – to leave would be even more catastrophic socially, culturally, politically and yes, even spiritually.

      • 12th November 2018 at 11:44

        I accept that our part in this negotiation has been unedifying – I do not support the Conservatives – and of course the whole thing being held in the glare of publicity where positions must be taken. I have no time for the hard Brexiters and Johnson is a disgrace – I’ll go no further for fear of slandering him!
        We don’t need a European Army – we are allies so would come to each other’s aid in the very unlikely event that a conventional war occurs. As you day we have NATO (of which France is not a member) and the EU. Do we really need the massive expense when there is so much else more important to spend the on?
        It’s got nothing to do with ‘faux patriotic nostalgia’ which I do not have nor am I a xenophobe as you conclude. The UK is special to me because I am one of it’s citizens but I do not think I’m essentially superior to citizens of any other country. I cannot understand why an unwillingness to remain part of an undemocratic, wasteful organisation is translated into a fear or loathing of other European citizens. Nothing could be father from the truth for me at least. The EU is falling apart in front of our eyes and it is not related to us leaving. The euro has been a disaster for so many of our friend and neighbours, something I once thought was a good idea. I genuinely feel their pain.
        I voted to be in Europe in 1975 and I admit I did not really understand the what I was really voting for in my optimistic youth. This was 43 years ago now and surely things have changed? During the referendum process I went to meeting of where I was assured that the EU was no longer pursuing political union then I heard the French Finance Minister speak & say the opposite. As I said before I’m on the left and I expected to vote to stay in but I did my own research and changed my mind. I won’t be posting again on this topic because I can do with out having my heart-rate raised like it is at the moment!

        • 12th November 2018 at 12:15

          Lynda, I certainly didn’t mean to raise your heart-rate, and I can see that you’re that rare thing, a thoughtful Brexiter. I’m sure there are many things we would agree on – but on Brexit, I’m sorry, but no.

    • 12th November 2018 at 10:27

      Sorry, couldn’t resist one more!

      You mention Labour’s ‘six tests’ which include the ‘exact same benefits’ phrase. I would point out that this is an exact quote from a speech by David Davies “What we have come up with … is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.”

      It was included in the six tests with the perfectly reasonable intention of holding the govt to account…

    • 12th November 2018 at 11:03

      Hello Lynda
      Thank you so much for your comment. I think it’s so very interesting to see other points of view. Really I do, and I hope you continue to communicate via this blog. But we do hold different views – you know that. So, here goes. I absolutely disagree with you about the EU controlling and frustrating us – it was our decision to Leave and our negotiators (well, possibly not the civil servants behind the scenes) but the politicians we have are hopeless and useless. No, I just don’t see that the EU is try to frustrate and control the UK – absolutely no, it’s us that are being the difficult ones. And I am really worried at this blaming the EU.

      Second , I’m not all that bothered by the idea of an EU ‘army’. Nato has one as does the UN, it really doesn’t worry me at all. And political union? I’d like to see that happen (said in an ironic and exasperated tone. No, that’s not on the agenda.

      Third, Corbyn. Well, I did allow myself a very small sigh at his coat. But on reflection what was wrong with him and it? He wore a slightly less dark coat than the others. Yes, there’s a ‘uniform’ look which he chose not to follow, but what does that matter. What is interesting is that apparently he didn’t go in for lunch and drinks, but stayed out to applaud the veterans. I’ve only seen one report of that so can’t verify but if he did, I know who I support and prefer. It’s his attitude to the idea of a 2nd Referendum that bothers me, not his coat!!!!.

      Thanks again, Lynda, I’ll be writing another piece quite soon as things are really ramping up – keep the comments going!!!

      • 12th November 2018 at 12:05

        Thanks for your reply Penny but I won’t be posting again on this topic because I value my cardiovascular system too much!
        I’ve responded to another person so I’m not going to reiterate all that. My point about Corbin is that if you go to the Cenotaph you should be prepared to do it properly or not do it at all -send someone else. Sorry, this is my conventional upbringing showing here because I think it does matter. ( I won’t go into the whole argument about what does or doesn’t ‘matter’ ). As I said before, I’m also distressed that he continues to give ammunition to the right-wing press which I abhor. It’s obviously good that he applauded veterans but I think many of them would be critical of the way he looked – why was he the only one in the line who could not hold up the wreath?
        What also interests me is the way in which Brexit has meant that people have come out to be counted by expressing the sort of views that they usually don’t discuss. It is disrupting social cohesion on all levels but of course most people are too busy trying to make ends because of the terrible effects of austerity and our crumbling infrastructure. I think that’s something we can agree on Penny!

        • 17th November 2018 at 10:27

          I left writing a further reply to you for several days for a variety of reasons (not least your heart rate!). We do agree on many areas, Lynda and I so detest the way this country has been fragmented and split by this Referendum which should never have taken place, and with a result that came about with the lowest of the low campaign. The debate and the negotiations must have eaten into so many important areas of which austerity is up there as one of the most important issues, but THE most important issue is just off the agenda and I’m talking about climate change and the rise to 3-4, even 5 degrees I saw quoted recently. We’re talking end of species and end game for us – not for the planet that will recover – but the planet for our grandchildren when they’re my age (72) will be a sorry place. And all we can talk about is a ‘backstop’ – of that I do despair. Which is why I’m off to write about a film and a skirt!!!!!

    • 12th November 2018 at 09:05

      I just can’t turn away from the mess we’re in, Debs. Watch this space, and let’s see what happens.

  • 12th November 2018 at 12:15

    Bravo! This is the most coherent and well argued piece I have seen on the whole Brexit topic. Penny, you should be a politician for your reasoned and respectful approach. The EU blame game has been going on for forty years inside the Tory party and now the nation is washing its dirty linen very publicly. I recognise that the EU is not a perfect institution – what is? but to walk out stamping our feet and complaining that the EU is being awkward when it is following its own protocols, clearly stated at the outset? No. We have been appallingly badly served by our own politicians, leaders, press and media on all sides (with a very few honourable exceptions), most of whom don’t even seem to understand the brief they have been given. Nor were they seemingly able to envisage the impacts on different parts of the UK prior to embarking on this shambles. Isn’t that part of what we pay them to do? The voices of reason have been drowned by the lies and self interest. The rest of the world is watching us self destruct and as a nation we come out of this looking very bad indeed, let alone what we are doing to the future generations who will have to live with the consequences of our decision.

    • 17th November 2018 at 10:53

      It’s a very funny thing becoming a politician as you have to go through such a lot of local stuff first. It would be attending all those evening meetings that put me off (thought about it decades ago). And I know of one friend whose son has turned away from that path as it meant he would have been out every evening 7/7. And with two children he decided they were more important – good for him!

      And yes, what an act of self harm this leaving the EU is! There’s a possibility of a 2nd Referendum – but would a vote to Remain have any bigger result than the one we have now of 52-48%. I rather fear that like the States we’re a divided nation. All the more important therefore to understand why people voted the way they did – and would do.

      • 19th November 2018 at 15:53

        People used to suggest tome that I would be good in politics, mostly I think because I’m quite a good speaker! I did become a local councillor in 2110 but it was truly awful and I was deeply relieved when I gave up at the end of my four year term. The pure slog every spring when there were elections, especially when I did extra to cover for those who would not knock on doors, really wore me down. The council meetings were often acrimonious & lengthy and getting things done for the residents was a test of persistence. I was no good at hiding my feelings or being nice to people whom I disliked or did not respect. These abilities are essential to get anything done as politics is the art of the possible and most solutions are compromises.

  • 12th November 2018 at 14:36

    From across the pond and all the way to Berkeley, California.
    This is not about Brexit, but to apologize to all Europeans about our
    president’s inability to show up for the Armistice Day memorial in France.
    There was a beautiful picture of de Gaulle and JFK standing in the rain for the memorial
    many years ago. the other day, Trudeau gave a lovely speech.
    Hi Penny- thanks for the illuminating essays and the response re Brexit–
    helpful to understand–

    • 17th November 2018 at 10:36

      Oh my, your President. But I can’t say all that much really, as we also have a bunch of idiots in charge of our destiny. (Although in actuality, Theresa May is more like your Hillary without the emails) Thing is with Trump is that he must have been in a really bad place as I believe he also missed something at Arlington? We went there on our (only) visit to the States and I remember tears appearing in my eyes when I saw the flame on the Kennedys’ graves. Altogether an awe inspiring place I thought.

  • 12th November 2018 at 15:08

    It’s a fine old mess we’ve got ourselves into, thanks to the stupidity of David Cameron, and I can’t believe he’s trying to inveigle his way back into the govt because he’s bored. The govt was so complacent about victory before the vote that they didn’t bother to outline all the problems that would arise from dismantling all those years of EU rules and regs. I wish the ministers would think before they speak, and avoid saying things like they didn’t realise the implications around NI, or that Calais is as important as it is. This ignorance gives us no confidence whatsoever in the govt. As to whether Labour would do any better, probably not, as they can’t seem to purge their party from anti semitism and bullying. I despair at the lot of them. I was a Remainer (still am) and currently seeking an Irish passport.

    • 17th November 2018 at 10:44

      Well, if Scotland ever became independent and joined the EU (if we leave as I expect we will) I’d be first in line for a Scottish passport, as both my mother and grandmother and all of that line were born in Scotland. As for Labour yes, absolutely about the anti-semetism, but it’s their non-policy to Leaving that gets me. Do you know I put it all down to the leadership. Corbyn is a great campaigner and loves speaking at adoring meetings and rouses all the young (OK and great) but there’s a mighty muddle around their approach to the EU. A general election – in your dreams, Corbyn. I’m so sorry that he and Labour is the only alternative, and I’m saying that as a Labour voter !!!!!!!

  • 24th November 2018 at 18:21

    Really interesting post and thanks for the reading list. I’ve never dispaired about politics as much as now. It really is a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum – on both sides of the house. I was even arguing the other day that perhaps we should pay MPs more to try and attract a better standard, but I don’t think that will work neither.

    Thankfully, we have Irish links so can get an EU passport that way. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Scottish independence! I’ll be straight over the border.


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