Rob Wilson is a former Minister for Civil Society, and was MP for Reading East from 2005 – 2017.
Theresa May must feel like the pet shop keeper in the famous Monty Python sketch, where the irate customer tries to return his dead Norwegian Blue parrot. May wasn’t selling a dead bird to MPs, but you don’t have to go far within the corridors of power at Westminster for someone to tell you that her “Withdrawal Deal is dead”. Selling someone a dead parrot – let alone “a dead deal” – takes a remarkable salesperson and a high degree of ruthlessness.
It’s still hard to imagine how anyone within Number 10 could have believed the Withdrawal Deal was ever going to fly in its original state, as it was an agreement that fell off its perch well before it got out of the shop. But how dead is it? Is it merely resting (for those of you who know the sketch), pining for the Norwegian fjords, stunned, or actually bang-it-hard-on-the-counter dead? If you listen to all the commentators, experts and politicians, it deceased, expired, dead.
As things stand today, the deal is dead – but could it be resuscitated? What would it take to make it attractive enough to break through the Westminster logjam?
The Government understands it will take a large dollop of desperation for some form of its deal to be accepted. Desperation from Ministers, MPs and the EU to find some form of accommodation to avoid a No Deal Brexit. The Prime Minister is currently able to sit back and watch the chaos as Norway plus, Canada plus plus, a second referendum and Labour’s promised model all fight like ferrets in a sack. Meanwhile, the only negotiated deal on the table is hers as the tick-tock to the deadline grows louder. If you peer through the fog of war this does look and feel like a tactic, and one that the EU has probably agreed.
However, both the Prime Minister and the EU know that allowing the clock to tick down close to midnight without certainty is high risk. Labour and opposition parties could hold firm and many Tories hate the deal and like the idea of No Deal enough to simply leave without agreement and trade on WTO terms. Hence the Prime Minister is forced to negotiate again, even though the EU appears not to be playing ball. My firm belief is that the EU will give ground in January – but will it give enough?
Here’s the four things I believe the Prime Minister needs to do to have a chance with the Withdrawal Treaty.
First, and most important, the dreaded backstop arrangement will need to change. The UK must be able to leave it without what is an effective EU veto. This is the issue that most vexes those who believe in UK independence and sovereignty. The Prime Minister knows this and she has moved her position significantly due to the no confidence vote, promising MPs she would deliver legally binding terms that deliver certainty as opposed to best endeavours or assurances. She now has to deliver a legally enforceable agreement with the EU that either sets an end date to the backstop or, for example, give Parliament a vote as to when the backstop ends. I understand several ideas around how the trade deal might be used to stop the trigger of a backstop are now being considered. The key issue is that the UK must have power to decide to end any customs union-style arrangements within a time limited period.
Second, there needs to be clarity around when the UK can enter into its own free trade deals. The obvious answer would be at the end of the transition in December 2020, but with the EU able to extend a backstop indefinitely no date can currently be set for the beginning of new trading relationships. Whilst we can negotiate during the transition and backstop periods, we cannot implement trade deals. The trade benefits of an outward-looking UK are essential to delivering the benefits of Brexit, so the Prime Minister has to have certainty about when they can begin to smooth the way for her Treaty.
Third – and particularly important for the DUP and other Unionists – is the question of whether Northern Ireland will be subject to different rules and regulations from the rest of the UK now and in the future. Of course the plan currently on the table means that it will. Separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK on regulation of goods or customs arrangements is simply not going to be acceptable due to the political ramifications in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister must therefore deliver a UK-wide temporary transition arrangement, that concludes for Northern Ireland at the same time as the rest of the UK. If she doesn’t, Scotland will certainly ask for the same special customs arrangements with the EU, putting pressure on the Union of the UK. Treating all parts of the UK the same is a key test of success.
Fourth, sovereignty is the golden thread that runs through Brexit for many people. Those who voted for Brexit do not want to be ruled by foreign courts like the ECJ, so the question of whether its jurisdiction continues is an important one. The Prime Minister will have to provide evidence that its days of interfering in UK law are time-limited and that UK law has supremacy. In the same vein, sovereignty over our seas is part of what is known as “taking back control”. Scottish Tory MPs in particular want it absolutely clear that Parliament will decide who fishes in our rich and fertile waters. As we saw at the last EU summit, the French President wished to use letting the UK exit the backstop as a bargaining chip to get what he wanted for French fishermen.
Getting the EU to agree to what largely amounts to the Prime Minister’s own red lines is no easy task. With a Conservative Party that does not want Theresa May leading it into another General Election and over a third of her Parliamentary Party having no confidence in her as their leader, her room for manoeuvre is severely limited. She simply has to get concessions for her deal to go through. Despite the failure of the no confidence vote, the EU will know that if the ‘meaningful vote’ fails in January, the Prime Minister could be toppled and chaos will reign and there will be no way of stopping it. The implications for the EU, when it has so many of its own problems, are unthinkable.
One might think ‘nothing has changed’, as everything is still in one almighty logjam In Parliament and with the EU. But of course things have changed after Conservative MPs’ no confidence vote, and the EU knows it. They know the person they have painstakingly negotiated with over the past two years will be toppled if they do not compromise – and they will not be able to control what follows. An avoidable political, constitutional and possibly an economic crisis will leave the EU badly scarred. So the EU will make concessions, so now is the time for the Prime Minister to prepare for No Deal as never before and hang tough with the EU for the things she needs conceded.
If she does, and it’s still a substantial if, her Norwegian Blue of a dead deal might just surprise everybody, take wing and fly.