Norway for now is Theresa May’s new Brexit mantra
PUBLISHED: 08:00 06 July 2018
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ANDREW ADONIS discusses Theresa May’s latest inanity, designed to get her through a week when different thirds of her cabinet threatened to resign each day.
Theresa May’s latest inanity, designed to get her through a week when different thirds of her cabinet threatened to resign each day, should be interpreted as follows: “Brexit for me has come to mean ‘Norway for now’, but I am so weak I can’t currently say that, still less negotiate it with a united government. And I may never be able to do so. So thank God the People’s Vote gives us all a way out of this impossible situation.”
Let me explain. When David Cameron walked out of his government in June 2016, the vacuum was immediately filled by the Leavers. For a few days it looked as if they would take complete control, including the premiership, but when Gove, Johnson and Leadsom fell out, the Brexiters had to settle for a hybrid arrangement whereby they controlled the policy but tolerated the just-Remain-turned-Leave Theresa May as prime minister.
At this stage ‘Brexit means Brexit’ served a double purpose. It was a declaration that May was not going to seek to reverse the referendum result, while giving her space to work out a policy for implementing it. This is where May made her fundamental – maybe fatal – mistake. As is now increasingly clear, whatever one might like Brexit to mean, if it involves leaving the EU without undermining trade and the economy, then for a good while – at least five years, maybe ten – it must involve a status similar to Norway’s.
This keeps the UK in the essential legal and regulatory structure of the EU so far as the economy is concerned, with a few tweaks to meet national concerns, but without participating directly in the ‘federal’ Brussels institutions. ‘Norway for now’ would then become ‘Norway for ever,’ unless we were able to return to the EU proper.
It was astonishing at the time that May did not seek to do ‘Norway for now’, but instead made her crazy Lancaster House speech of January 2017 announcing that after a short ‘implementation period’ Britain would be leaving pretty well everything with the word ‘Europe’ in the title, including the customs union, the single market, Euratom and all EU-related agencies and associations.
She did this because her then eminence grise was Nick Timothy, a very right-wing Europhobe. Timothy can craft a speech but has hardly a practical policy bone in his body, as last year’s disastrous general election campaign and its imploding Tory manifesto demonstrated.
A slow motion implosion has been happening with the Lancaster House speech ever since it was delivered. It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against a ‘leave everything Brexit after a two years transition’: it simply can’t be done. And even to attempt it is also undermining of the Good Friday Agreement because it requires a customs and immigration border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Timothy was forced out of No 10 after last June’s election, whereupon Olly Robbins moved into No.10 and started shifting policy towards ‘Norway for now’ – but without being able to declare it as such, partly because of Timothy’s continuing influence over May and partly because of opposition from Brexit ministers, the DUP and Rees-Mogg’s European Reform Group.
The result was the chaotic last minute negotiations leading to last December’s heads-of-terms agreement between May and Barnier, and the resulting fudged agreement. This moved decisively towards ‘Norway for now’ by adding to a 21-month standstill ‘implementation period’, a further backstop of the legal status quo if no comprehensive trade and regulatory agreement is in place by the end of 2020. Although this was cast in terms of a settlement to protect Northern Ireland, it de facto applied to the whole UK because it is obviously impossible to have two entirely different legal and regulatory systems applying within the UK.
However, May never actually declared that her new policy was ‘Norway for now’, and Robbins was never allowed to be this explicit in his negotiations either. What both he and May clearly hoped was that this outcome would just happen by force of circumstance as the end-game of negotiations approached. Which is precisely where we now are. So the question is, can May hold her government together to get a five-year ‘Norway for now’ deal, or will she be unable to do so and be forced instead into a ‘no deal’ situation – ‘no deal’ not meaning literally ‘no deal’, but no agreement to anything beyond the 21-month implementation period and the backstop beyond?
If her warring cabinet forces May down this path, then a parliamentary crisis is inevitable at the end of the year, when this ‘no deal’ is presented to the House of Commons. And the only viable course consistent with avoiding an economic meltdown would then be a People’s Vote to halt Brexit. So now you know what ‘Brexit means Brexit really means Brexit’ really means. All clear?