Friday 8 February 2019 8:33 am

Kamikaze Brexiteers may end up in a hell of their own making

Hell hath no fury like a Brexiteer scorned.

From the backlash this week, you would have thought that European Council president Donald Tusk had suggested that the EU get custody of the Queen in the Brexit divorce.

“I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely,” declared Tusk.

“After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country. Sounds more like heaven to me,” quipped back Nigel Farage, while the DUP’s Brexit spokesman called Tusk a “devilish euro maniac”.

“Outrageous insult”, “spiteful”, and “disgraceful” were some of the other words flying around from the Tory benches.

And in a slightly left-field show of solidarity, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted: “Probably very similar to the place reserved for those who designed a monetary union without a proper banking union and, once the banking crisis hit, transferred cynically the bankers’ gigantic losses onto the shoulders of the weakest taxpayers.” Pithy.

Tusk’s undiplomatic language is evidence, if ever it were needed, that the EU is not always the grown-up in the Brexit negotiating room.

Perhaps he was being deliberately provocative – in which case he got exactly the reaction he wanted.

Alternatively, as with his humiliating tagline “sorry, no cherries” on a photo of Theresa May next to a cake stand, maybe he is too obtuse to realise how galling such comments seem when they cross the Channel.

Or maybe he doesn’t care – after all, bombastic Brexiteers have sent plenty of their own choice words in the other direction over the years.

Alas, we’ll never know Tusk’s true motivation – and it doesn’t actually matter. Because while social media was eating its own tail in the battle of who exactly belonged in what type of hell, the pieces in the never-ending game of three-dimensional chess that is Brexit have been busy.

First, let’s look at the hardcore Brexiteers. When May’s withdrawal agreement failed to pass by a historic 230 votes, the word on everyone’s lips was “backstop”.

Those outside the UK appeared slightly taken aback by the visceral aversion to what is essentially a plan-B insurance mechanism for securing continuity across the Irish border, which the EU has insisted is unlikely to ever actually be used.

As my bemused Australian friend put it, “isn’t the backstop backlash just a branding issue?”.

He’s mostly right, but however brilliant a PR you are, it’s hard to pull off a branding makeover on a contract with no unilateral exit mechanism.

And that’s the issue: timing. Back in October, Conservatives were fixated on ensuring that the backstop would be time-limited – including leading Brexiteer Steve Baker, and cabinet ministers Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, and Penny Mordaunt.

When May failed to secure that, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey both quit in protest.

Fast-forward to this week, and tweaking the language to include assurances that the backstop will be temporary has been one of May’s key proposals. And, shockingly, there have been cautiously warm noises in EU, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brussels heavyweight Martin Selmayr.

But the goal posts appear to have moved. The European Reform Group (ERG) is now demanding that the backstop be scrapped entirely.

Even if May does achieve a legally-binding time limit, there is no guarantee that this will be enough to get her recalcitrant backbenchers to vote her deal through parliament.

Enter Labour. On Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn presented May with a new offer: move to a softer Brexit, and Labour might be on board.

Labour’s plan, which includes a permanent customs union and close alignment to the Single Market, is even further from the ERG’s vision of Brexit than May’s withdrawal deal. In fact, it looks very similar to EU membership.

Labour, of course, doesn’t really want May to move centre-wards. The party would rather have the Conservatives take full responsibility, absolving Corbyn of any blame if (when?) it all goes wrong. And it’s a relatively safe bet, given that May has not so far shown herself particularly open to compromise.

Nonetheless, the harder the most devout Brexiteers dig in their heels about axing the backstop, the more tempting a grand coalition with Labour might appear to May.

Finally, there’s the wildcard: a second referendum. True, momentum has slowed in recent weeks, but it could be kickstarted again if Labour’s overtures are rebuffed and the schisms in the Conservative party deepen. Ditto a snap election.

The die-hard eurosceptics are in essence playing Russian roulette with Brexit. Yes, there’s a slim chance that they run out the clock and end up with the no-deal Brexit which they insist (wrongly) will be risk-free and easy.

But there’s a higher chance that their zealotry backfires, forcing May to move to a Norway-esque position or gridlocking parliament to the point where another election or people’s vote suddenly look attractive.

Are the ERG hardliners really prepared to go full kamikaze and sacrifice an imperfect but workable Brexit with a time-limited backstop for the sake of the perfect Brexit that exists only in their minds?

If so, they may indeed find themselves in their own personal hell: a hell in which Britain effectively does not leave the EU at all.