“The Conservative Brexit choice,” we wrote in July. “Seek to park the UK in the EEA under a new Tory leader. Or press on.” Nothing has changed for Party and country since then – other than the weather getting colder, the skies darker, the rain more intense and the ground more treacherous.
The guide has lost her way. Her Chequers map leads round in circles. Nor is her word always her bond. A fortnight ago, she put to Cabinet members a plan that would break her pledges over Northern Ireland, the Single Market, and new barriers in the Irish Sea. Now, she is mulling proposals to breach another commitment – to restrict any transition period to roughly two years only. She has already bust an earlier pledge about it, namely to start ending free movement while it takes place. Her staff don’t always tell the truth to Cabinet ministers – whether by omission or commission, goodness only knows. The latter are demanding that any claims she makes about new proposals are confirmed by the Attorney-General in writing. Each new proposal to break out of the trap would take longer and cost more.
Which returns us to that Norway-to-Canada alternative route. If you believe that there is no real risk that No Deal could go badly wrong, you will dismiss it. To you, No Deal will be preferable. If as a Brexiteer you think that there is no substantial chance that Parliament, confronted by this prospect, would enforce No Brexit instead, you will also wave away Norway-to-Canada – and double down on No Deal.
We are not so confident. A No Deal No Deal, as it’s called in the trade, would be manageable in the long-term; it would be disruptive, at least, in the short. If the alternative is separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the country, with knock-on effects on for Scotland and the union, then it must be endured, as the Government seeks to turn its freedom of manoeuvre to Britain’s advantage. But if No Deal is better than a deal, a good deal would be better than No Deal. No sensible person would yearn for the latter instead.
The appeal of Norway-to-Canada is that it has something for everyone. For Soft Brexiteers, that’s Norway. For harder ones, it is Canada. It holds out the shimmering possibility of bringing the Conservative Parliamentary Party together, and marching it off together in one agreed direction. It also offers the country the prospect of no Brexit cliff-edge next year. This is why there’s rising interest in Parliament and outside. We floated it last summer. William Hague did so this month. David Davis’s former Chief-of-Staff, Stewart Jackson, did so this week.
The logic is clear. So you’ve offered us Norway or Canada, the Government would say to the EU. Very well, then, we’ll have both – in turn. We’ll drop Chequers. You drop the backstop. Transition is cancelled. And, hey presto, we have a deal – one that takes us next year out of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, and the foreign affairs, defence, and home affairs competences.
Norway-to-Canada is like a popular West End show – conceived by George Yarrow, written by Rupert Darwall, produced by George Trefgarne and now choreographed by Nick Boles. But would it really wow the audience on the night? There are questionmarks about its negotiability and deliverability.
On negotiability, put aside for a moment the fractious dispute over whether, after we leave the EU, we retain operable EEA rights. Legalities are one thing; politics another. Would Norway have us? Why should it and the other EEA members admit us to their club for a few short years before we spurn it for somewhere better? Could the Norwegian stage of the project really deliver, via an emergency brake on immigration, coherent and workable immigration controls? Would the EU disrupt the whole plan? If so, would Spain, say, be able to lead a successful charge against us leaving the fisheries policy? (This is also a problem with the Chequers proposals.) What about costs? Above all: are we simply out of time, given the imminence of March 29?
On deliverability, the Commons voted this summer against a proposal to join the EEA. Would it change its mind? And isn’t the scheme too clever by half? If Soft Brexiteers like the Norwegian stop-off, wouldn’t they refuse to move on to Canada? If harder ones like the Canadian destination, would they refuse to travel via Norway? Furthermore, the scheme is essentially an ultimatum to the EU: take it up, drop the backstop – or it’s No Deal. The Soft Brexiteers and the Remain diehards, both on the Conservative benches and elsewhere, might jib at that. So could the EU – to put it mildly. There is no sign that it is prepared to compromise on the backstep. Part of the history of this negotiation is one of the UK misreading the EU. Wouldn’t Norway-to-Canada do so again?
Then there is another, bigger problem that our Brexiteer readers will have clocked.
In a nutshell, Norway-to-Canada moves the threshold for No Deal from – well, more or less now – forward to the spring of 2020, if it simply replaces transition. But why would the Government risk short-term disruption, and perhaps more, nearer the date of the next general election? Wouldn’t it simply postpone the Canada stage – and, hey presto, the UK would be marooned in the EEA. We would become a sort of Norway-in-reverse. It joined the EEA as a staging-post to joining the EU. It hasn’t. Under this scenario, we would join as a staging-post to leaving fully. But wouldn’t. That would risk being seen as two fingers by Britain’s pro-EU ascendancy to the referendum result.
Now, there are potential answers to this objection. One being mooted is that, since a Canada-type deal doesn’t have to be written from scratch, it could be negotiated by 2020 – or, if we push the boat out a bit, by 2021. So a legal commitment could be written into any deal that the UK would be out of the Norwegian stage and into the Canadian one before the next election.
There is one further issue.
Conservative MPs and others must trust their leader to deliver all this. For all the desk-banging and wall-thumping at yesterday evening’s 1922 Committee meeting, confidence in Theresa May is very low. Perhaps she really could chuck Chequers, about-turn, and rally the Party, the Commons and the country behind Norway-to-Canada. But that looks like a very big ask.
The implication of a new policy is a new leader with a new mandate, which only a very risky general election could provide. Jackson’s piece suggests that Davis believes himself the person to deliver all this. However, it ain’t necessarily so. Sajid Javid or Penny Mordaunt or Jeremy Hunt, to pick three names almost at random, might be able to carry out the policy just as well, and see if the present Commons would swallow it. So could Boris Johnson. But whoever such a leader might be, one point is clear: he or she would have to believe in Brexit.
The balance of the argument has tilted from simply pressing on as we are to actively considering options. Norway-to-Canada might not be the perfect one, but it is the only such show in town. Or else Tory MPs, Cabinet members and backbenchers alike, must cling to Theresa May’s raft, frozen rigid by irresolution, hoping against hope for rescue, as Chequers sinks in the background and it heads towards the rapids. Or face the tumble over the waterfall, or the raft running aground before it gets there, with a kind of wild abandon.