Let’s rehearse the charge sheet. First, the EU set a framework for the Brexit negotiation uncongenial to the Government, with talks on a free trade deal dependent on “necessary progress”. Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs put up with it. Next, an outline agreement was reached in December which, on one reading, suggests that Northern Ireland, if not the whole country may, because of the Irish border issue, stay in parts if not the whole of the Single Market and Customs Union post-leaving. They rolled over. Finally, this month’s transition deal confirmed that Britain will remain a de facto, though not de jure, EU member after it leaves a year tomorrow. Free movement will continue. Fishing will not be repatriated. As the Prime Minister might put it, “nothing will change”. They knuckled under.
It can be countered that they have had no means of protesting. There will be a Commons vote on any fully-fledged trade deal, or on the heads of agreement that we may get instead. There was none on the December document, nor on the transition terms. As Jacob Rees Mogg put it in yesterday’s MoggCast on this site, “there will be no further fob-offs once we know the end state”. None the less, unhappy backbenchers can find institutional means of making their unhappiness known – by rebelling on other votes, for example. This doesn’t seem to be happening.
Our point isn’t that they should be doing so. The EU may control the negotiating battlefield, but Theresa May has won some victories none the less. For example, the December Agreement outlined the end of direct ECJ jurisdiction in Britain. On money, the EU seems to have met the Government at least halfway. The latter’s position on criminality checks won out. Arguably, transition was always going to be not an implementation period, but the status quo. (After all, it looks as though there will be no fully-fledged trade deal, agreed before March 29 next year, so there will be nothing to implement after it.) The essential structure of the Government’s position remains intact.
Rather, we’re suggesting that the logic of the negotiation to date, combined with that of British politics, is that pro-Brexit backbencers may huff and may puff, but they won’t blow the Prime Minister’s house down – however far any heads of agreement deal may be from perfection. They will not let the best be the enemy of the good: billions of pounds will eventually be paid to the EU, a post-transition reduction of EU migration must balanced off in the negotiations against minimum friction on trade, and it may even be that the Northern Ireland “backstop” of “full alignment” with Single Market and Customs Union rules contines post-transition, at least for a while.
The alternative would be to join Labour and the opposition parties in voting down any heads of agreement later in the year (or later still). Are pro-Brexit Tories really up for that? And for its consequences, which could include the end of May’s premiership? And which could, for all the presence of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, lead to an early general election, with its attendant risk of a Corbyn-led government? We doubt it. Conservative MPs in marginal seats would be particularly hostile. They know that the risk of blowing down the Prime Minister’s house is that they simultaneously blow down their own.
Perhaps the biggest risk of a substantial Brexiteer rebellion is if the Government feels obliged to swallow what in effect would be continued Customs Union membership because Parliament won’t have it otherwise. But it might be that May has a growing confidence that no such revolt would happen, at least if her words yesterday to the Liaison Committee are anything to go by. “I think it is fair to say that, as we get into the detail and as we look at these arrangements, then what becomes clear is that sometimes the timetables that have originally been set are not the timetables that are necessary when you actually start to look at the detail and when you delve into what it really is that you want to be able to achieve,” she said of future customs arrangements.
It is part of the Prime Minister’s modus operandi to be obscure when in defensive mode, blocking questions in the way that Geoff Boycott, her childhood cricketing hero, blocked deliveries. And her words were certainly hard to read. What did they mean? When she said “necessary”, did she mean “possible” – in other words, to suggest that customs systems won’t be ready, on either or perhaps both sides of the channel, by the time transition ends in late 2020? It has been a leitmotif of this site that the Government must be “Ready on Day One”, and some reports suggest that it may not be on either customs and borders. What May said is not inconsistent with such a reading – and with others, which was part of its art.)
Maybe the most significant aspect of them is that they were said at all. But if the Prime Minister was hinting that we will stay in the Customs Union post-transition until those systems are finally in place, one conclusion stands out. On present form, pro-Brexit Conservative MPs would grumble about it, but go along with it.