26 Nov 2018

In search of Brexit Plan B

Back from Brussels to Westminster and just about every Tory you talk to is trying to look through the deal itself to work out what follows defeat. Theresa May at the press conference in Brussels yesterday, and again in the Commons today, said that defeat would bring “division and uncertainty.” A lot of MPs are trying to work out an end destination with a bit more definition. As for division, that’s already here.

One hot topic is Nick Boles’ proposal for what plan should fill the hole if the Commons decisively votes down Theresa May’s deal. It involves going into the Transition Period – as outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement signed off in Brussels yesterday – but then heading into the single market along the same terms as Norway and into a customs arrangement with the EU (which would look a lot like the Customs Union).

It runs a Eurostar train through Theresa May’s red lines. The UK could claim to have left the ECJ jurisdiction but as it would be in the EFTA court it might not feel like it. Proponents could claim to have ended freedom of movement but it would be quite a challenge to justify that line. They couldn’t even begin to claim to have stopped chunky payments to the EU. Conventional trade deals of real substance would be for the birds.

But two ministers I spoke to today said they thought it was the only game in town if there was a chunky defeat of Theresa May’s approach. Nick Boles says several Cabinet ministers have sought him out to talk about it. You need something relatively familiar and easy to assemble to get it in place in time for the Transition, the argument runs. Even this might require a short extension of Article 50.

There are many obstacles to such cross-party cooperation and the plan, as Nick Boles admits, is not loved by anyone. It would require some who are passionate for a second referendum or would like a much cleaner break to swallow their objections. It is hard to see how proponents would sell the abandonment of immigration controls for a Norway style approach to freedom of movement – especially when the government under current plans could just have unveiled different immigration proposals as a sweetener to the Commons vote.

And then there’s the damage to the political parties such cross-party cooperation would bring. When I suggested it would blow the Tory Party apart one minister said: “that’s well in hand.” One former minster who also leans to this Plan B said current divisions were “worse than when the referendum was actually happening.” “I don’t see how the party doesn’t split,” a current minister said, looking beyond the vote on the deal.

I don’t linger on the plan because it is likely, certain, probable – but just because it was striking how often it swirled around in conversations in Parliament today.

Tweets by @garygibbonblog