Tuesday 5 December 2017

A Flexible Brexit or No Brexit at all for the UK?

The UK seems to be getting closer to some agreement with the European Union (EU) that will convince our erstwhile partners in Europe, that enough progress has been made on the preliminary issues, so that we can move onto talking about a future trade deal. The three issues that the EU has said must be resolved first, arrangements for EU/UK nationals residing in the EU/UK and payment of Britain’s outstanding financial commitments appear to be agreed, but the Irish border problem remains.

This issue was also close to being the subject of agreement, before the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) objected to the suggested arrangement, whereby Northern Ireland would in effect stay in the European Single Market, albeit called something else, which allows for ‘no regularity divergence’ from single market rules.

As we discussed last week on this blog, the DUP fears that having separate arrangements for Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, will usher in the prospect of a united Ireland with Eire. But it could be that the arrangement will not be different to at least some parts of the UK. If in principle one part of the UK can in effect stay in the single market, then why not others? Political leaders in Scotland, Wales and London have all been quick to point this out, and it could lead to a deal which is acceptable to all parts of the country, those in, and those out of the single market.

The minority Tory government, of course is dependent on the DUP for a governing majority, and I expect the DUP threatened the prime minister, Theresa May, with blocking the deal on our exit from the EU. But May perhaps could do without the DUP, for just one Parliamentary vote on our withdrawal terms from the EU?

Say the Scottish National Party, were offered the same terms as Northern Ireland, staying in the single market and customers union, or ‘no regularity divergence’ from these rules? Might they support the government in the vote in these circumstances, and make the ten DUP MPs votes irrelevant to the Brexit Bill’s passage through Parliament?

The DUP though may have gone further and threatened to end the confidence and supply deal which sustains the Tory government in power. This would inevitably lead to a general election, and the possibility of the whole Brexit process being reversed. My bet is that the DUP back down, but get some concessions. We really can’t be having the tail wagging the dog like this.

An opinion poll from Survation, this week shows a 16 point lead (50% to 34%) in favour of a second referendum on EU membership, by far the largest margin recorded. Survation did get this year’s general election forecast pretty accurately, one of the few polls that did.

It also found that Labour has an 8 point lead (45% to 37%) over the Tories, and Labour seems to be warming to the idea of a second referendum on EU membership.

The Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner, appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics said:

“The only way in which in my view you could possibly contemplate a second referendum was if you had the threshold that I believe should have been there in the first place of a two thirds majority, but that I stress is not Labour Party policy.”

It looks like the government is now aiming for the softest, most flexible of Brexit’s, having finally realised that all of the bluster of the last year is a waste of time. The EU has us over a barrel, if you want talk about trade deals, the preliminary issues have to be agreed first. It is a massive cave in by the British government, but it was always likely to be the case. All the bravado of Boris Johnson’s ‘go whistle’ for the money etc, ends in this humiliating climb down.

The government seems to have settled on trying to replicate our membership of the EU, by ‘regulatory alignment’ but call it leaving the EU. It may also apply to the whole UK. Whether the hard leavers in the Tory Party, including many MPs and ministers, will wear this, is something only time will tell. They may fear a Corbyn led Labour government more than a watered down Brexit. 

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