Downing Street is doubling down. Its way of presenting the Brexit White Paper, published yesterday and which fills out the Chequers statement, is to carry on as though “nothing has changed”. The essence of Theresa May’s article in the Sun yesterday was to this end: that her plan will empower Britain to take back control of its borders, laws and money.
It is true that the White Paper proposals would take the country, after transition, out of the CAP, the CfP and the foreign and home affairs pillars. And one can understand why Number Ten feels aggrieved about some of the write-ups of its plans. They do not amount to a Soft Brexit, in the sense that the term is usually used – that’s to say, an explicit EEA settlement in which Britain remains a member of the Single Market, a member of the Customs Union, and in which freedom of movement continues.
Downing Street insists that the last will end, and it is indisputable that there will be pushback on the Government’s proposals from the EU, which will insist that they would bust up the four freedoms, and are thus unacceptable. Dividing goods and services, as the Prime Minister proposes, will also be opposed by the Commission, as a ploy to cherry-pick the Single Market – and it will claim that the two can’t be separated in any event. These dissimilarities between the Government and EU positions gape so wide that the negotiation may break down altogether.
No, Downing Street’s real problem is different and deeper. There is fierce dispute this morning about whether the Government’s plan really would remove Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. But whatever one’s view on whether the Prime Minister is wide of the letter of her red lines, it is indisputable that she has breached the spirit of them. As we have said many times, her approach has been not unlike that she followed when, as Home Secretary, she took Britain out of 135 EU criminal justice measures…and opted back into 35 of them, including the European Arrest Warrant.
Under her plan, we will be out of the Customs Union. But we are unlikely to be so by the time of the next election, even if the Facilitated Customs Arrangement is acceptable to the EU, because the systems necessary to implement it doubtless won’t be ready. Furthermore, whether we are or aren’t is immaterial to the prospect of future trade deals with non-EU countries. Under May’s proposals, we will be out of the Single Market. But as Donald Trump makes clear in his sensational Sun interview this morning, signing up to its rules on goods and agri-food shipwrecks the possibility of a useful UK-US trade deal. As it will do for other non-EU countries who want agri-foods especially to be part of any arrangement. The pattern of opting out only to opt back in endures. The free trading dream is beached.
Most devastatingly of all, the backstop will remain in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement. In effect, this gives the EU a veto over any future prospect of divergence. For if and when a future Government attempts to break free of “the common rule book”, the Irish Government, the Commission, and other members of the 26 will argue that it is going wide of agreement to stick to them, and that the backstop provision should thus kick in. The Prime Minister’s plan would leave us bound, when it comes to manufactures, by a common rule book we will have no part in writing – and at a time when new technologies mean that fundamental change to its contents cannot be postponed forever.
What’s your alternative, Number Ten asks – short of the extremes of EEA membership, which would allow no proper means of controlling immigration, or No Deal, which would undoubtedly be a shock to the system? The answer comes from the very department that May herself set up the manage the Brexit withdrawal. Enthusiasts will doubtless spend many hours trawling through DexEU’s fullest White Paper draft, which we began publishing yesterday, and the version drawn up in Downing Street and released yesterday. But a visible and central difference is obvious. The Government’s goods plan is founded on “ongoing” harmonisation. The key principle in David Davis’ was mutual recognition.
It will be claimed that the DexEU version was unacceptable to the EU. By way of ripsoste, it can be pointed out that the Government’s final version may not be, either. But this debate is beside a central question. Why won’t the Prime Minister level with Conservative MPs, let alone voters, about backing off the DexEU plan, as set out at Mansion House in March, when she referred to “a comprehensive system of mutual recognition”? In briefing journalists, Downing Street admits that its new plan is “a necessary compromise”. May’s introduction to the White Paper makes the same point. “Some of the first proposals each side advanced were not acceptable to the other. That is inevitable in a negotiation. So we have evolved our proposals, while sticking to our principles.”
Her letter to Tory MPs concedes the same point. But the Prime Minister has made no public attempt to explain why: what happened to drive her off the policy she set out only four months ago; when she decided to drop it (how soon after the Mansion House speech?) and, above all, what further concessions she may now be prepared to make. After all, the White Paper is not a final position. It is an opening bid. May is already on the edge of a Parliamentary precipice. Our best estimate is that up to a third and no less than a quarter of Tory MPs are raging about the White Paper. Jacob Rees-Mogg is preparing a revolt next week over the Customs Bill. The Whips may be talking up a no confidence vote in the Prime Minister in order to have one now, win, and kill off the prospect of another for a year.
For the first time since the turbulent debates on free trade and protection, the possibility of a split in the Conservative Party cannot be ruled out. Nick Hargrave’s thoughtful piece on this site yesterday raised in public possibilities that are already being discussed in private. The challenge of UKIP during the run-up to David Cameron’s calling of the EU referendum did not pose these to anything like the same extent – if at all. When Conservative backbenchers, be they Dominic Grieve or Jacob Rees-Mogg, are recruiting their own guerilla forces from the Government’s army, and leading them in raids on supplies, we are truly approaching unknown country.
Two years ago to this very day, Theresa May became Prime Minister. At the start, with Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill in place as her co-chiefs of staff, her message to voters was: je vous ai compris. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” she told a rapt Conservative conference. She appeared to offer a Britain divided by the EU referendum a workable solution, by representing in her person a Remainer who grasped why we must now leave.
Today, it is all very different. Yesterday’s White Paper had compromise written on its heart, as Calais was said to be written on that of Queen Mary. Downing Street would reply that the EU has had to compromise, too. May seems reluctant to make the point herself – for fear, presumably, of being drawn into making her negotiating strategy public. That is understandable.
But saying nothing about where she is now, how she has got there, why she changed her approach and what she plans to do next is unsustainable. Communicating with voters and MPs as though “nothing has changed” risks them believing they’re being taken as fools – with the same consequences as when she used the phrase last summer.
Last week, the Prime Minister funked going on the Andrew Marr Show to level with voters. She needs to do so this Sunday. Only by getting on the front foot, and following up elsewhere, does she stand a chance of convincing wavering MPs, and a mass of the enraged public, that her proposals would be good for Britain. We have already concluded otherwise.