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Brexit Deconstructed: White Paper is the last temptation of May

The Tories' Last Supper at Chequers. Picture: christhebarker - Credit: Archant

With the government’s white paper set to be published, JAMES BALL argues that a hypersoft Brexit just doesn’t work – despite its appeal.

Whenever a complex political deal is presented to ministers – but not to those of us who vote for them – a good rule of thumb to judge it is usually to see who’s smiling and who’s scowling.

Looking at the condemnation from Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ERG colleagues, coupled with the resignations of cabinet Brexiteers Boris Johnson and David Davis, it might therefore be tempting to assume that the Brexit proposal presented by Theresa May at Chequers would hold some good news for Remain voters – or at least for advocates of soft Brexit.

On this occasion, alas, such hopes would be misplaced: Theresa May’s plan is not a plan for a soft Brexit, would not serve to address the Irish border issues, and crucially is not going to survive contact with EU negotiators.

One way to think about the Chequers proposal is that it is the softest possible version of a hard Brexit: there is much in it that Brexiteers dislike, but it would involve leaving the single market (and in theory the customs union), ending free movement, and limiting the role of EU courts in UK law – all traits regarded as essential for a hard Brexit.

Roughly speaking, the UK would try to stay in the single market, but only for the export and import of goods – not services, capital, or labour.

The UK would reserve the right to set its own tariffs eventually, and collect Europe’s at the border (the proposal earlier rejected by the EU), but until this was in place – with no specified deadline – commit to effectively remaining in the customs union. And the UK would sort-of-commit to keeping to EU standards on things like food and product safety.

Compared with some of the grand rhetoric of Brexiteers, this proposal might sound to start more realistic and reasonable – and it is, but only by comparison to its earlier insane offers. The EU has made it clear it regards the ‘four freedoms’ of the single market – goods, services, labour and capital – as indivisible: if you are in the single market for one of these things, you are in it for all of them.

The UK’s new bid to try to separate out the single market for goods is, then, just another refashioned version of trying to have our cake and eat it. We might once have been asking to keep a three-tiered wedding cake, whereas now we’d settle for a budget traybake, but that doesn’t change the political unlikeliness of us being allowed to do it.

We should probably be glad it isn’t possible: services are much more important to the UK economy than goods, especially when it comes to exports. We run a surplus on exports of services to the rest of the world, and a deficit on goods – services are where we make our money, goods where we spend them. By focusing in on the bit of the economy that benefits the EU more than us, we’d risk further impoverishing ourselves and moving jobs overseas.

There are plenty of other concessions Theresa May would have to make, either to reality or to the EU (if not both) before this plan would be anywhere near workable: it would require further movement on the role of the Court of Justice of the EU (sometimes wrongly called the ECJ), on how we would enforce regulation, on the border backstop, and more.

But we should zoom out from that and reassess where we are: let’s imagine for a second that May – with Brexiteers out of her cabinet and a new negotiating position – retreated to the very softest of Brexits, which would do the least damage to the economy. This is generally called the Norway option, and keeps us fully in the single market.

This position would turn the UK’s relationship to the EU into what Leavers pretended it already was: we would have to accept freedom of movement, we would have to accept new EU laws, but we would no longer have any role in shaping them.

We would also still have to pay into EU budgets, and accept its courts.

This would deliver none of the things that Brexiteers wanted from their vote to leave the EU – but also just be an objectively worse position for Britain than the status quo, which would hardly enthuse Remain voters either.

Any Brexit harder than this will come alongside a major hit to our economy, our international standing, and to our jobs and livelihood – but might at least deliver some of the things Brexit voters wanted: control on immigration, or more ‘sovereignty’.

This is the dangerous path ahead for Remain supporters: we have warned since very soon after the vote that if Brexit looked like it would go badly, prominent Brexiteers would jump ship, accuse Remainers of sabotage – or undermining the vote – and try to lay the blame for everything at their door.

Boris Johnson and David Davis have jumped ship. Others may yet still follow. The current Brexit proposal is hard enough to damage the economy, soft enough to upset Brexiteers, and cakeish enough to get rejected out of hand by the EU.

Danger lies with each step ahead: if Remain-leaning Labour MPs and the Conservative cabinet manage to shift right up to a real soft Brexit, the howls of outrage will resonate for years to come, and possibly lead to a resurgence of the populist right in the UK – and all for a deal most Remain voters would hate.

If they let through a fairly-hard Brexit that delivers something, but harms the economy, they’ll be landed with the blame for a kludge that everyone hates. And if they refuse to vote through either, they face – against all justice – getting saddled with the blame for a no-deal Brexit.

That’s almost all of the paths ahead for MPs in the next few months. There is no more time to delay, to waffle, to talk about ‘exact same benefits’ and try to play all sides against the middle.

If none of those paths look like ones that MPs want to walk themselves – let alone lead the country down – then they have one path left: try to convince the country either to reverse Brexit or take a second referendum. They will just have to hope they’ve left themselves enough time.

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