The best part of three years ago, ConservativeHome summoned Sherlock Holmes from his continuing retirement on the Sussex downs, and asked him to solve the mystery of Theresa May’s Brexit policy. He explained that the solution was to be found in her opt-outs, as Home Secretary, from no fewer than 135 EU criminal justice measures. After which she then opted back in to 35 of them.
She would, he said, repeat the exercise: that’s to say, ensure that Britain first left the EU through the revolving door of Brexit…only to go back in again. This may have been an exaggeration. But as we strain this morning, through a mass of briefings and counter-briefings, to see the shape of tomorrow’s Chequers Cabinet summit, the great detective seems, as ever, to have grasped an essential point.
As far as can be seen, we will indeed, if the Prime Minister gets her way, leave the Single Market. But we will align to it in regulation at least for manufactures, thus cramping, if not closing down altogether, the possibility of new trade deals. We will leave the Customs Union. However, under the terms of the backstop agreed last December, we will none the less remain bound by the Common External Tariff, thus blighting those prospective deals further – at least until the technology and systems are ready to implement whatever mix of maximum facilitation and the customs partnership the Cabinet agrees upon. We will depart the jurisdiction of the European Court – directly, anyway, though the constitutional lawyers will doubtless clash on the point. And we may take back control of immigration, but let any EU national enter and stay who has a job offer. (Good luck with policing such a system – and defending it to very many Leave voters, especially those outside the M25 Remain Belt.)
Yes, such a plan would be consistent with the wording of last summer’s Conservative Manifesto. This doubtless explains why Julian Smith felt able to read the relevant extracts aloud to pro-Leave MPs earlier this week. But it would arguably be Brexit in name only. It would certainly not be Canada Plus Plus Plus. It wouldn’t even be Norway Minus, since the EEA countries are not bound by the Common External Tariff. Norway is in the Single Market, but not the Customs Union. Turkey, by contrast, is in parts of the Customs Union, but not in the Single Market. The distinctive feature of the Prime Minister’s thinking is that her proposals seem to envisage clinging to elements of both the Market and the Union. Ukraine Minus Questionmark Plus, anyone?
If what is agreed at Chequers is roughly the sum of all this – and we wait to see – the Prime Minister will truthfully be able to claim that “nothing has changed”: that such a plan is entirely consistent not only with the Conservative Manifesto, but with her Party Conference speech of 2016, the Lancaster House speech of the following year – with all her speeches. She will now, as then, command the detail. But the big picture looks very different from that originally sketched out for her by Nick Timothy. The nothing-has-changed meme did her nothing but harm last summer. It marked the moment when a mass of voters lost their trust in her, summed her up as evasive and tricksy rather than strong and stable, and prepared to deprive her of a Commons majority.
Should Brexit-backing Tory MPs and Party members prepare, in the event of all this, to rise in revolt – and even get ready to bring her down now, as Andrea Jenkyns hinted in her interview with this site yesterday?
The answer depends on whether Brexit is best seen as photograph, in which what we get on Day One, or Day One after the end of transition, is frozen in time; or whether it is more like a film – an emerging story of which Day One, or Day 730, is only a chapter.
If the latter is a better way of thinking about it, it follows that the logic of the great decision which the British people made in record numbers on June 23 2016 will work itself out over time. Slowly but surely, UK regulation will gradually decouple itself from EU regulation as the proportion of British exports going to non-EU countries rises. The technology that will allow maxfac to work as intended will eventually kick in: we will escape the Common External Tariff; we will be able to strike those trade deals. Seen in this light, Brexit is a kind of opposite of ever-closer union – less an event than a process. If it is right, one mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. A Brexit in the hand is worth two in the bush. For better or worse, this is our view. It’s why the third of Mark Wallace’s three laws for leavers applies especially: be happy.
You may well think that this take is far too indulgent of the Government. But there is a sting in the tail. And, no, it isn’t that the EU Commission and the EU27 may well reject such a set of proposals entirely – though that it is indisputably true. Rather, it’s what may follow if they are accepted.
May is not forming her proposals in a vaccum. They are not a motion for a debating society. The Chequers meeting is not an academic seminar. The most important element of them isn’t whether Boris Johnson will quit, despairing of the drift from a clean Brexit; or whether David Davis will go, in revolt against the persistence of elements of the customs partnership; or whether Michael Gove will tear up his Cabinet membership, in protest over the role of the ECJ; or whether even as loyal and aspiring politician as Liam Fox decides that he can no longer preside over an emasculated department. (All these developments are unlikely.)
It is, rather, that the UK view of the negotiation has always been, boiled down to its essentials, money for access – for a free trade deal. If the Government offers the EU the concessionary package we describe, but receives nothing in return other than vague burblings of goodwill, the Commons should vote any such deal down in the autumn. It may have little choice: voters will protest against any suggestion of handing over £40 billion for nothing. An imperfect Brexit may be better than none, but no deal remains better than a bad deal. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
As we understand it, this remains the Government’s position. It is the most elemental test of the claim that “nothing has changed”. Which helps to explain why Downing Street must step up the preparations for a “Deal No Deal” now. It should be doing so anyway as a matter of simple prudence. Otherwise, the ground before the Prime Minister risks becoming, to borrow another line from the Holmes canon, “like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track”.