Brexit means Brexit … ish. That is Brexit negotiating position the Prime Minister has finally agreed on at Chequers. The statement sees Cabinet support the establishment of a ‘common rule book’ for goods and agri-products, due regard paid to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding goods, and the establishment of ‘mobility framework’.
Achieving this statement has not been easy for the Prime Minister. In order to exert as much leverage on her Cabinet colleagues and prevent unwanted discussion in the press, details of her plan were kept as close to her chest as possible. This withholding details of the plan from her colleagues until Thursday, after she met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Theresa May also re-asserted her authority by insisting on a no-phones policy and re-enforcing collective responsibility after the meeting.
The statement proposes to resolve the vexed issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland through the combination of harmonised regulation and a customs partnership. Firstly, the creation of a ‘free trade area for goods’ comprising of four elements. Firstly, a ‘common rule book for all goods including argi-foods’. This comprises of the Government making an upfront commitment, through the withdrawal treaty, to ongoing harmonisation with EU regulations on goods necessary to facilitate frictionless trade over the border. The incorporation of EU regulations would be overseen by Parliament. However, they would also have the ability to not integrate EU regulations, which the statement recognises will involve consequences. This is augmented by the ‘Facilitated Customs Arrangement’. This bares striking similarity to the previously-defeated New Customs Partnership, where the UK applies the Common External Tariff for EU-bound goods in tandem with an independent tariff regime. A mechanism will be phased in that ensures businesses pay the correct tariff, with the majority of cases being treated as a ‘repayment mechanism’.
Additionally, the Cabinet have agreed to reciprocal arrangements for state said, cooperative arrangements between regulators with relation to competition, and maintaining existing environmental, social, climate change, employment, and consumer protection. In other words, maintaining a ‘level playing field’ between the UK and EU. Thirdly, the statement sets out that UK courts will continue to pay ‘due regard’ to ECJ case law in regards to the ‘common rule book’.
The Cabinet believe that the path they have agreed on has multiple benefits. These include; facilitating frictionless trade between the UK and EU, enabling regulatory flexibility with regards to the services sector, negates the need for a hard border between the Republic of and Northern Ireland, enables the UK to withdraw from the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy, enable the UK to pursue an independent trade policy, re-asserts the supremacy of Parliament and strengthens the devolved administrations, allows the UK to leave the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), enable freedom of movement to cease, allow for the establishment of a mobility framework for areas of ‘joint action’ including science and innovation, end UK contributions to the multi-annual financial framework, and enable the UK to maintain an independent foreign policy.
Now that the Cabinet has an agreed vision of Brexit, they aren’t sailing through calmer or more certain waters – far from it. As the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. The EU now need to assess the statement and see if it is something they are able to work with. This is not certain at all. While it will undoubtedly be welcomed as a step in the right direction from their perspective, it’s still riddled with cherries that the Prime Minister has picked from the EU cherry tree. The Cabinet are yet to overcome what is appearing to be an insurmountable obstacle – the integrity of the Single Market. Crucially, the statement excludes services from the ‘common rule book’. This equates to picking the ‘goods’ cherry from the Single Market tree. Additionally, the ‘mobility framework’ stops short of freedom of movement. Combined, these two aspects would undermine the integrity of the Single Market and divide the Four Freedoms. Weakening the chances of success in Brussels yet further, the proposed dispute resolution mechanism, while allowing for ‘due regard’ to be paid to CJEU jurisprudence, removes the UK from the CJEU’s direct jurisdiction. This will be a sticking point for the European Commission.
Despite the Prime Minister securing a much-needed victory at Chequers, this may be short-lived. While Michael Gove emphasised the benefits of the Cabinet statement on this mornings The Andrew Marr Show, or criticising it as Jacob Rees-Mogg on Radio 4’s Today programme. Whereas Boris Johnson and David Davis have remained silent. This is telling. The two may be waiting to gauge the weather and for the reaction to the statement to set in to maximise the impact of their intervention. Key figures such as the DUP and Jacob Rees-Mogg emphasising the need to wait for more details. If the statement is indicative of the eagerly-anticipated white paper, it may be too early for remain supporters to consider this to be an assured victory.
The Prime Minister’s next challenge is starting to form up. This time, it may come from behind her. The statement has gone down like a bitter espresso with many on the back-bench and outside Parliament. The Telegraph reports that three more backbench MPs have added their names to a list of MPs supporting a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Jacob Rees-Mogg told Andrew Neil that this ‘is not Brexit’ and would be a ‘serious mistake’. Additionally, he is reported to have said and that the ‘common rulebook’ will be tantamount to vassalage to the EU. the Conservative MP Lucy Allen. tweeted that this ‘is not Brexit’ and makes the UK a ‘rule-taker’. Conservative Home’s snap poll of Tory members would make for bleak reading in No. 10, with three in five respondents not supporting the government’s plan. Adding to this, a recent Survation poll has the Tories behind Labour for the first time since March. Similarly, YouGov has Labour up three points and the Tories down one. This validate polling conducted by BMG Research on behalf of Change Britain, showing that the Conservatives will loose votes if they cross the Prime Minister’s red (or pink) lines.
Whether this has proven to be what Henry Newman described as ‘a compromise too far’ that sends the final letters to Sir Graham Brady is yet to be seen. No matter how much many would wish otherwise, a change of leadership at this stage will not fix the numbers in the Commons. There simply aren’t the numbers for the clean Brexit that Rees-Mogg dream of. The Chequers away-day does, however, mark the point of no return for Theresa May. While she may intend to lead the Tories to the next election, that is simply a fiction. After pinking her Brexit red lines and selling out Tory Brexiteers, she has signed her (blank) death warrant. If pressure from her backbench and Tory members fails to unseat her in the immediate short-term, she will almost certainly not survive to celebrate Easter in Downing Street.