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May’s Straw Man

July 7th, 2018

The Chequers Brexit Plan is about winning the blame game

Works away days invariably disappoint their participants and for all the beauty of the surroundings, the cabinet’s day out at Chequers won’t have been much different. Twelve hours of intensive discussions in literal hot-house conditions, to hammer out a Brexit policy that they could all stick to is surely no-one’s idea of fun.

Even those politicians who have long dreamt of Britain leaving the European Union, the agreement of a policy that would deliver a workable Brexit must come with very mixed feelings. For one thing, the policy that they’ve signed up to is not the ambitious, buccaneering free-wheeling country that they envisioned a little over two years ago. For another, but relatedly, the fact that they haven’t resigned means that they’ve missed the boat to establish themselves as the true voice of Pure Brexit and volunteer activists and backbenchers will hold (and judging by Twitter, are holding) them accountable on that point. But thirdly, the deal is almost certainly dead before it gets back within the M25.

For all the concessions to Brussels, the package agreed remains very much in the cake-and-eat-it category. It is certainly inconsistent with the EU’s negotiating guidelines; at times, it is inconsistent with itself (a hall-mark of documents produced quickly and by committee). For example:

The cabinet want to remain harmonised with the EU on goods but not services. Apart from the fact that there isn’t such a clean distinction, the EU has been consistent on no cherry-picking of the Single Market – a unilateral voluntary alignment won’t be sufficient to produce frictionless trade.
– Giving Parliament the right to pick and choose which legislation to adopt runs completely counter to regulatory alignment.
– Ending Freedom of Movement will also be seen as cherry-picking the rules of the Single Market. Goodness knows what a ‘mobility framework’ is.
– The FaxFac Plus solution to customs has already been dismissed by Brussels. Putting forward more-or-less the same plan with a different name is not going to get any change in response.
– Signing trade deals with other countries or blocs will be extremely difficult to align with the commitments to the EU.

Those are just some of the inconsistencies or points already dismissed. Other aspects of the agreement – the insistence on withdrawing from the CFP and taking back control of UK waters, for example – will be strongly resisted by Brussels.

All of which means that the document, and the White Paper it should spawn, are not really negotiating positions as such, because they are so far from what the EU will accept that there isn’t scope for a negotiation that will lead to an agreement.

So if it isn’t a negotiating document, what is it?

The only answer I can come up with to that question is that it’s a demonstration of goodwill not to the EU but to the UK public. Undoubtedly, the document goes much further than many Brexiteers would like. If implemented, it would mean that Britain was a rule-taker on goods markets, indefinitely. It would mean that the EU could amend UK law without any British input. It would hugely inhibit any future trade policy. It would in many ways be Brexit in Name Only.

And yet it will still be rejected, which is probably the point. It’s been clear for some time that the talks were going nowhere fast and that No Deal and No Leave were increasingly becoming the options. By putting forward a reasonable set of proposals, the government is no doubt hoping to demonstrate its goodwill and, hence, if the EU reject them, the government will be able to say that they were dealing with unreasonable people and that they did the best they could. Some might question whether the proposals were workable or whether the government could have done better but the main question remains: was any deal that respected the Brexit vote ever possible? Presumably, the cabinet Brexiteers recognise this, which would explain their otherwise supine attitude today.

Because if Britain does end up in a Crash Brexit next March, something it’s done precious little preparation for (though nor has France or Ireland – the two EU countries most affected), there will be a lot of disruption and damage. Who is to blame for that might not matter to those affected but it matters hugely politically.

Hence yesterday’s Chequers Straw Man. It might in theory be the basis for a deal, and if it was, then the confirmed Leave tendency wouldn’t like it at all. In practice, it’s more likely that it’s been put up to be knocked down.

One practical effect of that though is that rejection will not just harden opinion against the EU; it will strengthen Tory support for the PM. The lack of resignations today and the probable refusal to concede further to the EU means that Theresa May is very likely now to remain at No 10 until at least next summer.

David Herdson