The Times splashes today with: “Boost for May as EU backs Irish border plan”. The Guardian‘s account reads: “Brussels nearing impasse with May over Irish border proposal”. Whichever account you prefer, one point about the current state of the Brexit negotiation looks clear enough. Both sides of the table are fixated by the land border between the UK and Ireland.
That’s because it is one of the three features of last December’s outline Withdrawal Agreement. The famous Articles 49 and 50 of that document, which set out the so-called “backstop”, raise issues that have yet to be resolved. And the EU, whose grip on the negotiation’s sequencing was confirmed by last year’s general election result, is primarily interested in the withdrawal agreement rather than trade talks. No wonder: it is the former that is set to deliver it another of those three features – £40 billion of British taxpayers’ money.
Understanding all this is also key to understanding how the Prime Minister may seek to get any deal she agrees through Parliament.
The summer and this month’s Commons session have seen shadow-boxing between the Government and Brexiteers about the Chequers proposals. Theresa May has written to Party members in defence of her plan; Boris Johnson has fulminated against it in his Daily Telegraph column (again today); Jacob Rees-Mogg has urged the Government to “chuck Chequers”; Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb have attempted to sell it to Eurosceptic MPs.
To follow all this is to go splashing into deep water after a red herring.
As we pointed out when the Commons returned, it won’t vote, in the event of an agreement, on “Chequers”. Nor on Chequers Plus, Chequers Minus, Canada Plus, Canada Minus – or any combination of the main options that can be conjured up.
Rather, it will vote on a final Withdrawal Agreement and a political declaration. If – and it’s a big if – the disagreement over the backstop can be solved or glossed, why has either May or the EU an interest in anything other than the vaguest of vague political declarations? One so cloudy, indeed, that it would be difficult to tell if Chequers or Canada had actually won out?
The plus for the EU would be that it could return at its leisure post-Brexit to unpick the incompatibility of Chequers with the four freedoms. It could go back to pushing what it has pushed since the referendum result – a Norwegian or Canadian solution (plus the backstop) to Brexit. The £40 billion would be committed to its pocket. Nick Clegg, who knows a thing or two about how the EU works, apparently has a portmanteau word for how it will seek to blur Chequers and Canada pre-deal. Cheqada.
The plus for May would be that, as she clung to the form of Chequers, she would simultaneously switch to the substance of Canada – at least when making her case to Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group. She would emphasise that nothing was set in stone, including the elements of Chequers that Brexiteers find noxious, such as regulatory harmonisation. She would seek to draw a link between progress in talks and the payment of money. She would pitch her policy into what football commentators like to call “the corridor of uncertainty”.
Think of it from her point of view. To Dominic Grieve and his friends, she would emphasise the dangers of No Deal were the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration to be voted down. To Rees-Mogg and his allies, she would stress the perils of No Brexit, and a revived campaign for a second referendum. (Watch for Labour at its forthcoming conference to tilt its policy in that direction.)
The Prime Minister would also have another argument to try on the Brexiteers, though it would doubtless not be one that she would make directly. She could hint that she won’t be in Downing Street forever – indeed for very long at all after Brexit Day. Neither of her most likely successors are signed up to Chequers. Boris Johnson opposes it. Sajid Javid critiqued it during the awayday in July, and the ideas he advanced were more consistent with a Canada-type solution. The Government will push for Canada Plus Plus Plus after I’m gone, she could indicate to the ERG. This was what Michael Gove was driving at yesterday on The Andrew Marr Show.
And with no firm Chequers plan to oppose, the Tory Brexiteer vote against the political declaration would crumble. May would get her deal. The second referendum campaign would have the ground cut from under its feet. Britain would leave the EU on March 29 next year. May could then depart with the applause of a grateful party, having delivered “Brexit with honour”. (“Good old Theresa! Always said she’d come through. We’ll miss her.”) And Boris Javid or Sajid Johnson or Penny Raab or Dominic Mordaunt would push for Canada Plus as the post-Brexit negotiations rolled on towards the sunlit uplands or cloudy downlands.
Too clever by half? Probably. After all, it would take only a handful of Tory rebels to sink a deal, if the opposition parties are solid against it. The twin peril for Number Ten is that if a political agreement offers too much detail, it will go down – as Brexiteer MPs pick off elements in it that they find objectionable, whether over alignment or free movement or services. And if it offers too little, it will go down too – as those same MPs ask why the British taxpayer should fork out £40 billion for nothing substantial. It was fear of the latter that led David Davis, when mulling resignation in June, to push for a White Paper and a Chequers summit to flesh out the detail of what was then a policy based on mutual recognition rather than regulatory harmonisation.
But Cheqada is exactly the sort of approach that would commend itself both to the EU and the Prime Minister. Brussels is the past master at opaque language, blurring differences, last-minute compromises and kicking cans down roads. (This week’s Salzburg meeting will surely be a study in the latter.) And when the winds of high political drama blow, May’s habit is to take refuge in the impenetrable thickets of jargon and detail.
“It seems we’re to have a British waterworks with an Arab flag on it,” says Dryden near the end of Lawrence of Arabia. Watch out for a British stately building with a Canadian flag on top of it.