The Grand Old Duke of Grieve can’t have liked the view from the top of the hill.  Spread out before him will have been the vista we described yesterday morning – the likely fall of the Prime Minister before Christmas, were his amendment passed, and in all likelihood a general election too.  As this scion of the establishment gazed at it, his loyalist instincts and reflexes evidently won out.  So he blinked, and marched his men and women down again – or rather, some marched down and some stayed put.  Six of them voted against the Government.

But whether the Commons will eventually get a “meaningful vote” – and whether the Government’s Written Ministerial Statement of clarification yesterday had any real meaning at all – are beside the point this morning.  The EU Withdrawal Bill has passed through Parliament.  And for all the challenges by rebels and defeats in the Lords, Ministers lost only one solitary vote on it in the Commons.  That’s no mean achievement by David Davis’s team and the Whips.  Julian Smith will be more battle-hardened after the events of the last few months and weeks.

The glimmer of light that we saw recently thus shimmers again this morning.  The June EU Council must presumably be written off.  But afterwards will come the Chequers Cabinet summit that Davis wrung out of the Prime Minister earlier this month.  It will provide a chance – perhaps the last chance – for Theresa May to get her bedraggled Brexit policy into proper shape.  Here’s a rough outline of what it must address and what she should do, starting now.

  • Sort the backstop.  As long as it stands, the UK will be bound, in the event of an agreement, by full alignment, whatever that phrase may mean, with many Single Market and Customs Union rules.  We will also be tied still to the Common External Tariff.  That will hinder if not halt any trade deals we would look for as a consequence of being free of the Common Commercial Policy.  The ability to make them is an integral part of any coherent Brexit.  The only way of breaking free of the backstop is to have a workable alternative to propose.  The Chequers summit should bin the Customs Partnership model and go with the Maximum Facilitation one.  But if the necessary technology really won’t be ready for use away from the UK/Ireland border by 2020, the Government must spell out when a likely start-date could be.
  • Come clean on alignment and divergence.  Max Fac offers a potential route out of elements of the Customs Union, but it is not a catch-all answer to the border question – nor to others.  It doesn’t deal with the linked matter of regulation, alignement and divergence.  The last Chequers summit came up with an agreement on a “three baskets” model.  But what does the Government believe should go in each basket?  Is it planning to take up the Open Europe idea, floated on this site by Stephen Booth, of alignment in manufactures but divergence on services?  If so, are Ministers giving up on those trade deals, since such alignment would inhibit them, if not make them impossible?  Can services and manufactures be separated in this way?  What is the dispute resolution model?  What about the regulation of new products?
  • May must stick to her guns on taking back control of immigration – and ending ECJ jurisdictionThis is the next big battle.  The EU will argue that if the UK wants freedom of movement for goods it must swallow freedom of movement for peoples.  But taking back immigration control was the second-biggest driver of the EU referendum vote.  The Prime Minister’s long-standing rejection of the EEA option is founded in the knowledge that it offers no proper system of controlling migration.  She must keep it and everything else out of the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
  • Put Davis in charge of the negotiation.  Having a civil servant haggling with a politician doesn’t work.  It is no coincidence that May’s grip on the Brexit talks, on managing Parliament and on decision-making, has weakened since Olly Robbins left DexEU and went to Downing Street, becoming in effect the Government’s lead negotiator.  It is unfair to civil servants to expect them to have the political feel of senior ministers.  The Prime Minister appointed Davis and must let him get on with it – take back control, if you like.
  • Above all, prepare for No Deal. None of the above – MaxFac, present or future regulatory divergence, immigration control, and for that matter a UK-wide backstop – may be acceptable to the EU.  In December, it more or less met May halfway.  It may do so again.  But we cannot be sure – indeed, cannot know.  That means preparing for what’s best called a No Deal deal now – to kick in from next March, rather than the spring of 2020.  Government is not remotely ready for one on that date.  Steve Baker’s position should be bumped up and he should attend Cabinet automatically.

Finally, many Brexiteers will put up with the bird in the hand of a messy Brexit now for the two-in-a-bush of a cleaner one – accepting that Brexit is itself a journey to a new future, and that final destinations aren’t reached on day one.  However, what the overwhelming majority won’t accept, in the Commons or outside it, is a bad deal – whereby the Government commits to handing over £40 billion in return for vague promises of goodwill.  That’s another reason, were one needed, for getting Ready for Day One, not getting Ready for Day 730.