I’ve spent the last few days trawling through endless reports and analyses of Theresa May’s Chequers proposal for leaving the EU, and it’s fair to say my brain is fried.
From the initial newspaper reports and tweets shouting “Betrayal!” to reading the government’s 3-page summary and thinking “Hmm, that actually looks like quite a good deal that appears to deliver most of what I voted for while reassuring the fears of most Remain voters”, to reading Martin Howe QC’s analysis of the 3-page summary and thinking, “Oh no, maybe not such a good deal after all”, to hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg dismiss the proposal as “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200”, to David Davis and Boris Johnson resigning, to Donald Trump declaring that it would wreck the chances of a trade deal with the United States, the reporting has gone from bad to worse.
But is it really such a bad deal? The government certainly hasn’t helped itself by releasing a white paper that runs to 98 pages of mostly waffle about a “deep and special” relationship with the EU that will enable us to take back control of our borders, our laws and our finances, but with very little clarity over exactly how much control we will actually have over any of those areas.
Most people won’t bother to read a 98-page document, so will rely on media reports to tell them what it contains. And the media reports have been almost exclusively negative. Attempts by the government to sell the benefits of the plan, have fallen on deaf ears.
As if that isn’t bad enough, Steve Baker, David Davis’ deputy in the DexEU department, who resigned at the same time as did Davis, subsequently went on national television and made it clear that he was extremely unhappy about the way his team’s proposals had been sidelined by the Prime Minister and her aide, Olly Robbins. The Conservative Home website has now published a series of excerpts from Davis and Baker’s “alternative” Brexit white paper, with accompanying commentary about how these “almost finalised” proposals show the deep divisions between Davis’ vision and that of Mrs May.
The problem is, having read a few of the “alternative” white paper extracts, all I can think is “almost finalised? Are you kidding?” Littered as it is with typographical errors such as “Trade prays a highly visible role…”, “EU induitries”, “resolve disputes as the arise”, “as frictionless ass possible” (all of the above examples found within four paragraphs alone) and square brackets around virtually every numerical estimate, indicating these need to be checked, it doesn’t appear to have ever been proof-read, let alone almost finalised.
The key difference being trumpeted by Conservative Home, is that the “alternative” white paper makes provision for “mutual recognition” of standards as opposed to the “common rulebook” proposed by the government white paper. And as Martin Howe QC explained in his initial analysis of the government proposal, “common rulebook” amounts to the UK having to unquestioningly follow the EU’s rules and standards, whereas “mutual recognition”, as the name suggests, implies both parties mutually agree on standards.
But let’s think about this for a moment. “Mutual recognition”, in the case of a deal between the UK and Australia, each negotiating as independent countries, makes perfect sense. But “mutual recognition” between the UK – a single nation – and the EU – a large bloc made up of 27 nations – will invariably mean the UK will end up having to acquiesce to whichever standards the EU wishes to impose. So Davis and co can call it “mutual recognition” if it makes them feel better – and it may convince a number of Leave voters that it’s a better prospect – but essentially it’s no different from the “common rulebook” to which the Chequers proposal commits.
Worse still, the “alternative” proposal provides no more clarity than does the official white paper, on what the likely impact leaving the single market would have on the UK’s service sector. Given services make up nearly 80% of UK GDP, it beggars belief that both proposals can be so thin on detail as to what the likely costs of coming out of the single market will be, and what benefits will derive from no longer being tied to it. What has the government been doing for the last two years, if not analysing such questions?
In fact, that brings me to my biggest issue with both proposals. Nowhere, in either proposal, is there any tangible analysis of the economic benefits – or costs – of leaving the EU. At no time in the past two years, it appears, has anybody in government made any attempt to set down in writing, what economic benefits we hope to achieve by leaving the customs union and the single market, and striking out into the world as an independent trading nation. The DexEU proposal, in particular, has an extremely long and detailed section on the digital services sector, the huge role it plays in our economy and our existing relationship with the EU, but absolutely no detail on what, if anything, in our existing relationship is preventing us from selling services to the rest of the world, what we wish to change about our relationship with the EU going forward, and what the likely impact will be of no longer being a member of the EU.
The very first thing the government should have done, before even triggering Article 50, was to put together a ‘no deal’ scenario that set out exactly what the impact would be if we had to trade with the EU on WTO terms. That assessment, as far as I’m aware, has never been done. If it has, it has not been made public. All we have had, have been high-level Treasury estimates based on apocalyptic assumptions that we would no longer be able to trade with the EU at all.
It’s clear from the Chequers proposal – and the ‘alternative’ proposal – that the government has never seriously considered the possibility of a ‘no deal’ exit that would see us trading with the EU on WTO terms. Just as, it seems, the government never considered the very real issue of the Northern Ireland border, prior to offering a referendum in the first place.
The reality is, much though many Brexiteers refuse to admit it, we can’t simply leave the EU without a deal. Not unless we’re prepared to accept a physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – and there simply is no parliamentary or public support for such a proposal.
So yes, the proposal is a sell-out. Yes, we Leavers have been lied to, and betrayed – but we have been lied to, and betrayed, as much by the Leave campaign as by the government. Where is Johnson and Davis’ grand plan for Brexit? Now that they are no longer in the government, there is nothing to prevent them from showing their hands. The truth is they don’t have a plan – they never did. The ‘alternative’ proposal is no more a plan for a clean Brexit, than the official document. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for all his bluster, similarly has not put forward any credible alternative to the “vassal state” plans he has been so willing to condemn.
Yet I’m not convinced that all is lost. Mrs May, despite her obvious misgivings about Brexit, does appear to have taken the referendum result to heart. The Chequers proposal does return a number of powers to the UK Parliament. Mrs May insists that it will allow us to control immigration to a greater extent than we can do currently. And the amount of money we will be contributing to the EU budget will be vastly reduced as a result of no longer being a member. Crucially, it will put paid to any fears about the UK being drawn into the EU’s plans for Ever Closer Union – the EU’s grand strategic plan for a United States of Europe, solely designed to prop up the euro.
As to the claim that we will still have to follow all of the EU’s rules and regulations, while no longer having a say in those rules – seriously, how much of a say do we have currently? A key argument of the Leave campaign was that we had been outvoted on every single occasion that we had raised any objections to EU regulations. It is a bit rich for them to suddenly claim that we have a great deal of influence in the EU Parliament. And besides, neither Norway nor Switzerland seem to suffer too greatly from being “rule takers” within the EEA – so why should we?
And finally – let’s look at the claim that the “common rulebook” will prevent us from being able to do a free trade deal with the USA. The Brexiteer dream of a big, beautiful trade deal with the USA – that will make up for any lost trade with the EU – is just that: a dream. The USA, particularly under Donald Trump with his “America First” promise, is no less protectionist than the EU. The notion that any trade deal we will be able to negotiate with the USA will be on mutually beneficial terms, is a fantasy. Leaving the EU without a deal because we don’t want to be a “rule-taker”, only to negotiate a trade deal that sees us as a “rule-taker” to the USA, is a ridiculous notion.
So much though I’m uneasy about the Chequers deal, and deeply unhappy with the government’s pitiful approach to negotiation, I’m reluctant to fall for what is clearly a great deal of political manoeuvring going on at present. Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg all have their own political interests at heart when they seek to stick the knife into Mrs May, and lay the blame for this poor deal solely at her door. Yet not one of them, in the two years since the Leave vote, has come up with a better proposal.
Many ardent Remainers, such as Nick Clegg, who may appear to be showing sympathy for Brexiteers when they announce that even they don’t think it’s a good deal, have questionable motives. What better way to try to convince Brexiteers to change their minds about leaving, and possibly to win support for a People’s Vote, than to peddle the idea that we would be better off remaining in the EU than accepting such a poor deal?
Time for Brexiteers to face reality. This is not the strong, clean exit from the EU that we all hoped we would get. But the reality is that our trade, our economy, our laws and our entire way of life are so deeply interlinked with, and dependent on, the EU, that we were incredibly naïve to believe in the first place, that we could simply walk away. If the last two years have taught us anything, it should be that the EU simply does not compromise. If they actually accept this deal – which is, absolutely, a compromise – it will be an extraordinary achievement for Mrs May.
I suspect this won’t end up being the final deal. I will be surprised if the EU accepts it in its current form, and equally I expect the political manoeuvring will continue and we may yet see a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party. But the attempts to blame the current situation on Mrs May alone, are dishonest and cowardly. It’s time for the hardline Brexiteers to put up their best alternative proposal – or shut up and admit they never had a plan in the first place.