What’s the state of play?
Well, it’s complicated. Brexit negotiations are getting more like Marrakesh souk-style haggling by the day. There are now at least four competing bidders bargaining over the same bit of rug: chief carpet bagger is Theresa May and her Brexit lite ‘Chequers’ supporters which now include most Tory Remainers and the less ideological eurosceptics. Then you have the extreme Brexiteers in the European Research Group, a smaller grouping of Tory and Labour MPs pushing for a softer EEA/Efta style Brexit and the all powerful DUP, the government’s confidence and supply partners, and of course the burghers of Brussels.
Where are we now ?
Confused. On the one hand, the message from No 10 is that Theresa May is close to polishing off a new Chequers proposal which will be acceptable to Brussels and get a majority when it goes through parliament.
Downing Street hopes this improved Chequers proposal – although no longer being called Chequers – could be signed off as part of an emergency Brexit summit due to take place with the EU in November. No 10 doesn’t want to sound too optimistic but word is that – give or take a few compromises on the Irish border – the PM now has the upper hand.
The noises from Brussels have also been warmer of late, with talk of reaching a November deal.
On the other hand, Brexiteers are now officially back on the war path after claims that at least half of the 80 members of the ERG will vote down May’s proposal if it is still looks or smells anything like Chequers. They want a complete break with Brussels and a looser Canada style free trade agreement.
Steve Baker, ex-Brexit minister and lead ERG rebel, reckons at least 40 Tory MPs will blow the PM’s deal out of the water. What’s more, Baker says the government is determined to have a “high-alignment Brexit, something like the EEA (European Economic Area) plus something like the customs union” to make it easier to rejoin the EU at a later date. “It might be because they do not want to leave the EU and wish to create the conditions to rejoin it later, with all that would mean, no rebate, adopting the euro and so on.”
What is Chequers and why do Brexiteers hate it so much?
The PM’s Chequers proposal is seen by the purists as a fudge: half in, half out. It outlines a free trade zone for manufactured and agricultural goods, underpinned by a common rule book, and a combined customs territory.
It’s been cleverly devised by Remainers and is supported by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, and business secretary Greg Clark, who want to keep the UK as tied as possible to the EU to make trading between the two blocks easier and tariff-free. A free trade zone for manufactured goods is also understood to be part of the delicate promise made by Clark to car manufacturers such as Nissan and Land Rover Jaguar after they raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on their supply chains.
Who would support the PM’s plan when the chips are down?
If 40 Tory MPs were to rebel against the PM’s plan, it would be almost impossible for May to get an agreement through the House of Commons in the vital vote.
Even Mark Harper, a former chief whip and May loyalist, is now warning the PM that she will never get her proposal through the Commons and needs to ‘chuck’ it in favour of a Canada-style deal. The MP for the Forest of Dean added that the idea of getting Labour MPs to back Chequers had “no prospect of success”, adding: “We are going to have to carry this deal on our own benches. If you’re the Prime Minister you do have to listen to colleagues.”
The position is all the more precarious because PM is reliant on the support Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP party and her 10 MPs, if she is to win a majority vote in the Commons.
Why won’t May backdown?
It’s the backstop, stupid. The PM and her cabinet allies have consistently claimed that a Canada-style agreement is not possible because it does not provide a solution to the Irish border issue and risks separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. However, the PM is said to be hopeful about reaching a compromise deal with Brussels on the Northern Irish ‘backstop’ by offering some sort of additional regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
To date, the EU’s offer means that NI remains in the customs union and single market, thus avoiding a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. It’s possible that Tory Brexiteers – who are most opposed to NI staying aligned – might be willing to accept some sort of temporary customs arrangement beyond 2020 – when the transition period ceases.
The DUP’s leader Arlene Foster is in Brussels meeting EU leaders, this week, and she will also tell them that any barrier to trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain would be “catastrophic”.
If the PM can get a proposal which solves the Irish question agreed with Brussels, then she may pull it off. True, the arithmetic doesn’t look good with 40 Tory MPs threatening to vote down a Chequers style agreement. But the PM has become rather adept at playing off one bidder against the other so far. She is bloody-minded enough to be betting that when it comes to the crunch, most Tories and Labour MPs will vote through a squidgy Brexit on the grounds that its better than No Deal. Even the Blairite Labour MPs might go for that, as it gives them the double joy of seeing Corbyn’s Brexiteer supporters being stiffed too. My hunch is May will get her way: and lead the party into the next election. Who else is there with her balls of steel?