We repeat that the only practicable means of abandoning the EU referendum verdict is a general election that produces a different one. Time for a second referendum before March 29 is running out. It is now almost impossible for such a a poll to be held before that date, given the governing party’s opposition to one and the exigencies of the Parliamentary timetable.
Setting out that view doesn’t mean that we favour an election, let alone another referendum, let alone junking Brexit. We simply state the facts. Persons unknown in Downing Street may be pondering them too. Today’s Sunday Times claims that “two senior members of May’s Downing Street political operation” are “war-gaming an autumn vote to win public backing for a new plan”. That last would essentially be Canada Plus Plus Plus – the scheme originally drawn up for the Prime Minister by David Davis, when he was Brexit Secretary, and set out in the Alternative Brexit White Paper published on ConservativeHome during the summer.
The prospect of an election itself need not detain us long today. The vagaries of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act didn’t stop prevent one last summer and wouldn’t stop one this autumn. Opposition to the idea within the Conservative Party itself just might. Tory MPs would hate a poll, especially those in marginal seats. So would some Cabinet members. Above all, are Brandon Lewis and his team at CCHQ any more ready for an election this year than Patrick McLoughlin and his were last? There are more questions. Who would – if we may touch on a delicate subject – write the manifesto? Would Theresa May really undergo a character transplant and morph into a extrovert campaigner? Might the campaign not drift off Brexit, like the last one, and fix itself on the economy – with the risk either way of Prime Minister Corbyn and a Marxist Government at the end of it? Then ponder this: what if an election produced another hung Parliament?
It may be worth noting that the Sunday Times doesn’t report that May’s aides are pondering an election if the talks break down altogether – a scenario that has the potential to render all those questions irrelevent, and turn such a poll into a given. Rather, the floated election would be a pre-emptive strike: an attempt to gain a mandate for the Canadian scheme. If some in Downing Street recognise that Canada is now their best shot, then that’s progress. In the short-term, the Prime Minister might just about survive the Conservative conference pretending that Chequers scheme is still alive – wrapping it, as she does so, in the Union Flag, just as she did on Friday.
But the brutal reality is that she is winding it round a corpse. Our colleagues in the pro-Brexit media love a British Prime Minister standing alone, and are naturally drawn to the defence of a woman surrounded by hostile men. But the unavoidable truth is that France, the EU Commission and Germany were not acting irrationally or even unreasonably in Salzburg, given their fundamentals – which include a hostility to the Chequers scheme from the off, previously stowed underground for reasons of diplomatic convenience. Bungling on both sides of the table seems to have brought it to the surface.
Some claim that Chequers can be patched up, and that both the EU and May want to climb down. But what element of Chequers is acceptable to Emmanuel Macron? Separating goods and services? The complex customs scheme? Frictionless access to the Single Market? Admittedly, the Northern Ireland backstop is an obstacle to a Canada-style solution. But the latter at least boils the main impediments down to one. Chequers presents a mass of them, because it is necessarily entangled in the four freedoms that are an integral part of EU theology. No wonder Jeremy Hunt refused to rule out a Canada plan on Friday. No wonder, either, that Sajid Javid and other Cabinet members favour it. Don’t expect a Cabinet revolt over Brexit strategy tomorrow (though there’s likely to be a narrower row over immigration.) But in the wake of Party Conference, and perhaps even at it, a shift by the Prime Minister to Canada Plus Plus Plus is the only manoeuvre that, in terms of resolving the talks, makes any kind of strategic sense. Tomorrow, the IEA will be setting out its vision of such a scheme. The ERG has already floated a detailed proposal for Northern Ireland, summarised on this site by Theresa Villiers.
So might May seek an electoral mandate for a Canadian scheme? We doubt it. The first response to any political story in the paper should always be: why’s it there? Who planted it? Cui bono? Very often, the answer is: no-one – because there’s less in the yarn than meets the eye. That’s likely to be so in this case. But in our conspiratorial way, we find another explanation. Were all Conservative and DUP MPs to vote for a deal based on Canada, it would pass the Commons. The biggest barrier to this end are pro-Soft Brexit Tory Parliamentarians. Those Downing Street aides may be sending a message to them (and the Chancellor).
If so, it is: “would you really prefer an election, with the risk to Britain of a red government, to Canada?” But whatever the reason for the story may be, one point is plain. Some in Number Ten grasp that the game is up for Chequers. Prepare for a Rule Britannia defence of it at conference…followed by its rapid junking afterwards, as May casts around for a solution. The most plausible one open to her is Canada.