Bobby Locke, the South African golfer, said that “you drive for show but you putt for dough”. At first glance, what may be true of golf is true of the proposed Brexit deal’s Political Declaration, now expanded from a slim seven pages to a slightly longer 26. By contrast, the Withdrawal Agreement runs to 585 pages.
This points to the essence of the proposed deal. The Withdrawal Agreement is for dough. In other words, it means business: it will be legally enforceable, if agreed to. The Political Declaration, by contrast, is not. It is, ultimately, for show. “Ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership…common European heritage…shared values…unique context”: all the cliches of official-ese are present, but the Declaration, unlike the Agreement, will not be enforceable before a court.
For this reason, we won’t probe it at the length we afforded to the Withdrawal Agreement. Instead, we return to a core observation we made about the latter. The UK has scored some tactical wins in these negotiations, some of them with striking implications, but the EU has won the strategic victory. From the start, it has offered a choice: between a kind of Norway-plus-customs union option, or a sort of Canada-minus-Northern Ireland option.
In sum, the Declaration reflects this offer. Considered as a whole, the deal will have the effect, if Parliament approves it, of turning the Conservative Party into a kind of pushmepullyou, as James Forsyth suggests today. On the one hand, its Eurosceptic instincts will pull it in the direction of the Canadian-type option; on the other, its Unionist beliefs will push it towards the Norwegian-shaped one – since most Tories will not want to widen the customs and regulatory gap which the Agreement opens up between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
True, there is a minority strand in Conservative thinking that would let the latter go its own way. But it is not possible simply to hive the province off, even were this desirable (which it isn’t): the preservation of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs and regulatory arrangements, without the province’s elected representatives having a future say in them, would have dangerous knock-on effects on the British Isles as whole. Furthermore, the implications for Scotland are considerable – and baleful.
British statecraft has kept the Union together for over two hundred years. No Tory MP should vote for a deal that endangers it, as this one does. And while the wins for either side the EU in the Agreement are bankable, those in this Declaration are not. Take fishing as an example. On the one hand, the Declaration envisages Britain as an independent coastal state, in control of its own waters. On the other, it envisages a new fishing agreement with “access to water and coastal shares”.
As with immigration, this represents change in principle (though how much in practice is being disputed). But there is a difference: migration is essentially covered by the enforceable Agreement, not this unenforceable Declaration. It is otherwise with fishing. Similarly, the Declaration contains some warm words about finding “alternative arrangements” to the backstop. But, again, the backstop is set out in the Agreement; this nod to MaxFac is restricted to the Declaration.
We see little in the last to keep alive the Chequers dream of a separation between manufacturing and services. Nor does it envisage trade arrangements which end friction rather than minimise it. The implication is that the less friction in trade the UK wants, the more EU alignment and migration it must take: that’s the theology of the four freedoms at work. The deal as a whole separates these slightly, but the EU will resist them coming apart.
A staple of magicians’ stagecraft is misdirection. While his audience is gawping at one thing, the magician is swiftly doing another. So it may be with the Declaration. Even as politicians, analysts and journalists prod and poke at it, don’t rule out, during the run-up to this weekend’s summit, a sudden flourish on the Agreement – a dramatic concession on the backstop (say), whether substantial or meaningless, aimed at collapsing backbench resistance to the deal.
Finally, we apologise to Locke. We said that at first glance the Declaration is for show, and so it is. But on reflection, like the Agreement, it’s for dough, too – all £39 billion of it.