4 Sep 2018

Brexit: Chequers deal, where next?

As parliament returns today, Theresa May has united the warring wings of her party over Brexit. Tory MPs from the pro-Remain and pro-Brexit wings of the party now seem agreed that the Chequers plan the prime minister unveiled in July is dead. MPs from both sides of the argument on the Brexit Select Committee who met Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday felt they were listening to him delivering the last rites to that approach.

The ERG (European Research Group) of pro-Brexit Tory MPs is looking like it may make a push for a Canada-style free trade agreement to replace Chequers. Sources say the plan could look a lot like the one that former Brexit Secretary David Davis was cooking up inside DEXEU before his resignation. There would be close integration in EU rules for certain industry sectors like the chemicals sector but nothing like the wider alignment with the EU envisaged by Chequers.

David Davis has said he rather thought that this was the government’s “Plan A” until, as he sees it, the lead official on Brexit, Olly Robbins, ambushed ministers with an alternative plan.

Former minister Nick Boles openly refers to his newly published approach as a “Plan B” ready to be deployed when the Chequers approach is abandoned.

Mr Boles’ plan is to jump straight into a Norway-style relationship next year with a new departure date maybe 3 years later, giving time for a new, more distant, trade relationship with the EU to be worked out. He says Theresa May would be able to survive the shift of strategy because with only 29 weeks left to the Brexit date the party doesn’t have time to go through a leadership contest that could take nearly 2 months to complete.

So was Chequers part of a secret plan to lure Tory MPs into an even closer relationship with the EU than Chequers allowed for? The EU would ask for compromises and, under pressure of the March deadline, Tories would fold and back a Norway-like relationship?

The numbers would never really be there in the Commons for that and Theresa May would have to go shopping for votes on the opposition benches. You can still find Labour MPs who will tell you privately that they would be open to an offer from Theresa May to back a softer Brexit if she came asking. Theresa May’s whips in recent months have gone fishing after pro-Brexit Labour MPs like Kate Hoey, Frank Field and Graham Stringer. They haven’t built up relations with the sort of pro-Remain Labour MPs who might back a soft Brexit deal. As one opposition MP said, she just “doesn’t have it in her, it’s not who she is.”

So could Chequers still serve any kind of purpose?

Two years on from the referendum, Theresa May needed to broker a government position that could fill the yawning gap where a plan for the future relationship was supposed to be. But a new theory now stalks Whitehall. It was only ever a holding position, something that could be the basis for a brief but woolly document on the future relationship with some language in it to please both sides. Clarifying the future relationship would be work left for another day (and maybe another government). The priority would be making sure Brexit happens on its set date and in relatively good order.

Olly Robbins is said to have long thought a pretty thin declaration on the future relationship would be all that could be achieved and should be the target. David Davis, when he was in office, had Theresa May on his side arguing for something more substantial. The thinner document idea seems to have picked up some support in Brussels over the summer. It still leaves the challenge of sorting out an acceptable solution on the Northern Ireland border. It also leaves a lot of Brexiteers worried that they will be trapped in a Norwegian purgatory of EU rules from which they will never escape.

Welcome back to Westminster.

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