The palaver about David Davis’s remarks in the Commons last week about the Single Market and British payments is curious. The Government has ruled out a Soft Brexit: that’s to say, membership of the Single Market, because it follows that we would have no effective control of immigration. But it has not ruled out a hard one: in other words, walking away from the negotiations with the EU institutions and countries if necessary, and relying on WTO terms. Obviously, it is is not seeking a deadlock: it wants a deal. And its outline has been clear since roughly the time ConservativeHome described it at the end of October.
Theresa May has conducted an EU negotiation before: the one on criminal justice measures, in which she opted out of 133 EU-wide measures and then opted back into 35 of them – including, to this site’s disapproval, the European Arrest Warrant. This looks like the model she wants to adopt for the coming talks. Her intention is to leave the EU entirely: her Party Conference speech made that clear. “We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts,” she said. That means an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
What she then wants to do is opt back in to parts of the Single Market, probably on a sectoral basis, as the Nissan deal suggested. Downing Street is dismissive of questions about whether we will be “in” the Single Market or “out” of the Single Market, “in” the Customs Union or “out” of the Customs Union, because the Prime Minister’s intentions is to opt back in, so to speak, to bits of both. Being formally out of the latter should give Liam Fox the room to negotiate the new trade deals which his department was set up to do, and without which a Brexit Britain cannot fully realise its economic potential.
Migration from the EU will come down, under this vision of a settlement. The means of controlling it will probably be some sort of work permit system, as floated on this site by Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK. As he pointed out, 80 per cent of EU immigrants who have come to Britain in the past ten years are in low-skilled work. Employers have become reliant on the contribution they make. So the door will not be slammed on all of them. But it will clearly be shut on some. If it isn’t, May doesn’t have a prayer of reducing net migration to tens of thousands (at least without severe measures elsewhere), her repeated aim during her six-year term as Home Secretary.
Paying for Single Market access has been floated for quite some time. Our columnist Nadhim Zahawi has suggested handing over part of the £8.5 billion net payment we make now. He did so in the Mail on Sunday in October, arguing that withdrawing the entire sum would, by damaging other European countries, damage us too – so “we should help bridge some of the EU’s funding gap, but only on the condition that the EU delivers our demand of providing British businesses with tariff-free access to the single market”. The Stratford-Upon-Avon MP was not scragged by his co-Brexiteers, and is still alive and well, at least as far as we know.
Davis was not supporting Zahawi’s scheme last week. Indeed, he wasn’t backing anything at all: he simply said that the Government will “consider” means of getting “the best possible access for goods and services to the European market”. That could mean a general payment of the kind Zahawi seems to envisage. It might mean more specific ones – for example, to fund the participation of British Univerisities in EU university programmes, as advanced by David Willetts. The taxpayer may not fork out for the whole of whatever sum is paid for whatever access; business might fund part of the costs.
The Sunday Times (£) today calls this outline a Grey Brexit. ConservativeHome has been doing a bit of ringing round Brexiteer MPs, and finds no great resistance to the principle of making payments. The bottom line for most of them is that we are no longer subject to the rule of the Court: that we becoming a self-governing country once again. The Prime Minister is right not to want to reveal her negotiating hand. But the rough sketch of some of it that we provide this morning is no secret. Nor is the Government’s stress on the contribution we make to Europe’s collective security: Donald Trump’s ambivalence towards NATO may concentrate the minds of our interlocutors on it.
They may of course reject such a pick-and-mix proposal entirely. We cannot know. What we do know is that the EU institutions and other EU countries are unwilling to open negotiations before Article 50 is moved – which is why the Prime Minister was unwise to seek an agreement with Angela Merkel last week on the respective rights of EU and British citizens in each others’ countries post-Brexit. But Merkel may be a weakened position by the end of the year, or even out of office altogether. Germany goes to the polls in the autumn. Italy’s referendum takes place today. Holland has elections next March; the French their presidential poll in May.
In short, we may face a different set of interlocutors by the end of next year – assuming that the Supreme Court does not dynamite May’s timetable altogether if, as expected, it rules against the Government in the appeal that kicks off this week. John Longworth has some stern words for the court on this site today. But amidst the swirling fog of these uncertainties, the Brexit Secretary is beginning to stand out. Davis is often lumped together with Boris Johnson and Liam Fox as one of “The Three Brexiteers”, but his role in the Government’s planning for Brexit is more central than theirs.
The Foreign Secretary has had Brexit responsibility stripped from his department; the Trade Secretary can’t motor in full throttle until we have departed the EU. Davis, by contrast, is a core figure. He reconciles in his person the recent history of Conservative views on Europe. He was for Brexit, laying out his pre-Government view of how it should work on this site. But he was also Europe Minister under John Major, and a whip at the time of the Maastricht Treaty. So while he doesn’t exactly have a foot in both camps, he certainly has ears open to most comers. And he is also keeping his mouth firmly shut, at least when not required to open it in the Commons.
For there has been much less of him in the papers recently; most of the anti-Brexiteer briefing has been against Johnson and Fox (and very tiresome it is too). This is significant. The Brexit Secretary is quietly working away behind the scenes, co-operating not only with Downing Street but also with Philip Hammond, with whom he seems to have reached an understanding. He appreciates that May has raised him from the political dead. He was Davis the Grey; now he is Davis the White. He is 67. He at last has an opportunity to perform a major service for his Party and his country – which is why he, with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, is now at the heart of the action.