Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

Brexit is going badly

Yesterday, the Government seems to have agreed to give Parliament the final say over the EU negotiations. This substantially changes the dynamic in European Union negotiations. To be unable to proceed with no deal would kill off any chance of a good deal. The European Commission would in such circumstances never need to offer us a deal, but instead seek to keep us paying in, abiding by the rules, but having no seat at the table – which has always been the best outcome for them.

Despite what parts of the media say, Brexit is not impossible. However, it was always likely to be difficult. The purpose of Brussels is to impose a federal superstate on the peoples of Europe. This is why Britain needs to stop kicking the can down the road – because when the road runs out, the Commission has a cage ready for us.

As long ago as 2016, I argued that there were three key points necessary to grasp on Brexit, and one overarching approach that followed from them:

  • The losses to European economies in terms of reduced trade won’t be significant enough to encourage the EU to offer a good deal.
  • Politics trumps economics for the Commission.
  • Grasping and playing the internal politics of the EU, particularly the Eurozone crisis, would be vital for us to succeed, and the Commission would try to harm Britain as far as possible because it was in their interest to do so – if they could get away with it.

The most important thing, therefore, was always how the member states of Europe view our proposals. The UK needed to have a clear ask, consisting of a reasonable deal as soon as possible; to prepare for a “no deal” Brexit; and to work hard to sell that reasonable deal to other member states.  All this is still true. But time is running out, and we are in serious difficulty.

Without the option of a hard Brexit and the UK disengaging from the EU more broadly, the chances of a good, reasonable deal are drastically reduced.

We need to be realistic and focus on the best possible deal as things stand.

As I wrote earlier this year, the best we can now hope for is a deal based on the following formula.

  • Outside the formal Customs Union and Single Market.
  • Regulatory alignment with the EU to remain partly under the umbrella of the four freedoms (both in goods and services).
  • Some limits on freedom of movement, but still with preferential treatment for EU migrants and visa-free travel – again partly within the four fundamental freedoms.
  • Payments to the EU still being fairly sizeable, though clearly reduced, so both sides benefit.
  • Control of fishing, farming, home affairs, and so on restored to Britain over the next two years from March 2019.

This deal – which represents my own position, rather than that of my colleagues at the Centre for Policy Studies – would largely resolve the Irish border issue. Some Leavers may find it unacceptable. But the Commission and member states will not let us have our cake and eat it. It is therefore the best hope we have.

Such a vision on regulatory alignment should be based on the principle that we align our aims with the EU, but are given greater freedom on how to achieve those aims. Regulatory alignment need not be the same thing as regulatory duplication, but merely an agreement to reach a shared goal. This would not preclude future movement away from EU structures if necessary.

This deal would satisfy what most member states want – the UK outside the EU, but not completely detached.

Theresa May needs to focus on selling such a deal to the member states

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the current domestic impasse is that it means we cannot spend the necessary time selling our chosen deal to other EU countries. We need to set out a clear offer, and then to be clear to our European partners that we will use every lever at our disposal to get it.

As a personal view, I would argue this needs to be tough – without a deal, they will get no money from us, reduced troop levels in Eastern Europe, less help on refugee issues in the Mediterranean. No deal in the future would also mean no EU migration to the UK to mop up their unemployment and the loss of the Eurozone’s financial centre. Above all, they risk seeing a UK radically diverging from the EU – which, if it succeeded, would boost populists across the continent.

This threat needs to be backed up by the Prime Minister hammering home at every single meeting that this is a reasonable deal and if the deal is rejected, the Commission will never need to listen to member states’ concerns again, because they will have shown that to stand up to the Commission will lead to swift and harsh punishment. In short, we must make this about other countries’ needs, not British special pleading.

Parliament has no majority for Brexit – but the Conservative Party does

To achieve a good deal, we need to try to bring Conservative rebels on side. We are in a paradox. Parliament has no majority for Brexit. But the Conservative Party does.

I do not agree with Conservatives such as Nicky Morgan on Europe. But they seem genuine in their attempt to push for a semi-attached state. The Conservative rebels seem to think we will get EEA with freedom of movement. They are wrong. We will get instead all the responsibilities of membership with no seat at the table.

We therefore need to set out our proposed deal, including regulatory alignment, and ask the EU to either agree it or extend the negotiation period to finesse it. If not, the Prime Minister must ask MPs to vote for hard Brexit – because the Commission will have shown it is not interested in a reasonable compromise. Rebel Conservative MPs can currently believe they are not opposing a good deal, because there are no proposals on the table other than the “have cake and eat it” approach. Which is why the Prime Minister needs to produce such proposals: because, if the Commission rejects them, this will show moderate Conservative MPs that the Commission is not interested in being reasonable

In terms of that worst-case scenario, even if we cannot pass the legislation to prepare for a hard Brexit now, the executive can prepare draft legislation, and undertake other activity (e.g. ports assessment, backstop “open skies” proposals). A Brexiteer “no deal” Minister still could and should be appointed within the Treasury.

If we continue to flounder, trying to pretend the Commission is our friend, and that no one in the Conservative Party has to compromise on anything, we risk the worst of all worlds: being left as voiceless contributors to the EU, with no influence on rules we have to abide by, still paying in, still unable to restrict migration. Which, in turn, would lead to humiliation for the Government and, very possibly, Jeremy Corbyn coming to power. The only way to avoid such an outcome is putting forward a reasonable, genuine Brexit deal – and then selling it at home and abroad.