Wilkins Micawber and Theresa May have a lot in common. They both pin their faith on something turning up.

“The DUP’s resistance to this fudge has been tempered simply by Theresa May’s broad accession to their objections, and then simply to add them on top of the other undertakings by Britain to the other parties;”

So far, nothing has turned up for Theresa May. The ‘agreement’ over Ireland that has allowed Britain to move to phase two of the Brexit negotiations with the EU, have cost the other parties to the agreement (Ireland, Northern Ireland and the EU), precisely nothing. Theresa May has attempted to be like St.Paul, to be ‘all things to all men’ (and women), and devise a form of words that gives everybody, broadly, everything they asked. The promise to meet the hard substance behind the vague form of words that have moved everything along, however is Britain’s alone.

This is why all the other parties can relax, move on and still provide this warning; summarised cogently and softly by Donald Tusk:

“We need more clarity on how the UK sees our future relations, after it has left the Single Market and Customs Union …let us remember that the most difficult challenge is still ahead. We all know that breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder. Since the Brexit referendum, a year and a half has passed. So much time has been devoted to the easier part of the task. And now, to negotiate a transition arrangement and the framework for our future relationship, we have de facto less than a year.”

Let us look at the terms of the joint statement this morning, on the matter of Northern Ireland; paragraphs 42-56 of the ‘JOINT REPORT FROM THE NEGOTIATORS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION AND THE UNITED KINGDOM GOVERNMENT’, for anyone who wishes to read the full text. I have reproduced paras., 49-51 in full below:

“49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom 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, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

50. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

51. Both Parties will establish mechanisms to ensure the implementation and oversight of any specific arrangement to safeguard the integrity of the EU Internal Market and the Customs Union.”

It requires little close reading or forensic analysis to see that it is very difficult to reconcile the statements offered here to Ireland (and the EU), or to Northern Ireland, or to see how the inherent tensions, inconsistencies and fault-lines that run through these three paragraphs can be reconciled to the satisfaction of all parties, or even fixed; save that it is Britain – nobody else – that is undertaking to reconcile them.

Phase two negotiations are clearly going ahead only because Britain has undertaken to all the other parties, to unravel this Gordian knot on everyone’s behalf, somewhere down-the-road, and without cutting it. The DUP’s resistance to this fudge has been tempered simply by Theresa May’s broad accession to their objections, and then simply to add them on top of the other undertakings by Britain to the other parties; and no doubt, also by DUP reluctance finally to destroy the British Government’s weak grip on power altogether, at this precise moment.

The rest of this flummery is window-dressing.

Of course there is at least one simple resolution of the conundrum. If Britain leaves the Single Market and Customs Union, but undertakes to run a parallel, ghost EU-aligned regime that continues to follow closely all the EU single market and custom unions requirements, without being a member, and paying the consequent price (including the large bureaucracy required to duplicate the regulation, trade, tariff requirements currently supplied by the EU and paid by 27 countries); then that may fulfil the needs of all the parties. Of course in doing that, it is not quite clear what point there is in leaving the EU, or in undertaking Brexit ….

Eventually, after a series of false starts and misadventures, something did turn up for Micawber; he emigrated to Australia. Theresa May should probably look for a solution along similar lines, taking her Government with her.