As there seems to be a Parliamentary majority for Brexit, but against both a ‘no deal’ Brexit and ‘May’s Deal’, it is tempting to ask what majority for a different kind of Brexit could there be?
A “Permanent” Customs Union
The substantive objection given by Labour to May’s deal is that they would prefer a permanent Customs Union with the EU with a British say in future deals. This is unpersuasive for four reasons.
First “May’s Deal” not only does not rule out a Customs Union, it all but guarantees it. The backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement guarantees that Northern Ireland must remain within the Customs Union so as to ensure that there is no border in Ireland. Because the United Kingdom succeeded in obtaining agreement that the backstop applied to the whole United Kingdom, it has the option of remaining entirely within the Customs Union. Unless the United Kingdom wishes there to be a border between the mainland and Northern Ireland, and the current government and any conceivable government are opposed to that, that entails the United Kingdom remaining in the Customs Union. To that extent, there is no difference between the government and the opposition. (Although no doubt there would be agreement on the United Kingdom no longer having any option.)
Second, as has been made clear for over two and a half years, the EU will not be agreeing the form of the future relationship until after Brexit. It is inconceivable that a change in UK government would alter that.
Third, as the competition law silk George Peretz QC has explained, the idea that the EU would agree to give a third country such as the UK a ‘say’ in the trade deals it could enter into is hopelessly unrealistic.
Fourth, nothing in life, including Customs Unions, is forever. Just as with the Single Market, there will be nothing to prevent a future UK government leaving (or joining) a Customs Union. Membership of the European Union provided certainty because it is so hard to unpick, as we are discovering. Any future relationship will not be like that. As a result, the fight over the ‘future relationship’ will carry on for the rest of my life. Which is something to look forward to.
The bottom line is that there is no difference between the positions of the government and the opposition, despite the noise.
A more serious alternative is that of Norway Plus. This has been advocated in a pamphlet by the Labour MP Lucy Powell, and the Conservative MP Robert Halfon. The polemicist Owen Jones and the journalist Stephen Bush have both argued that this option may have more prospect for a Parliamentary majority than May’s. This is because it entails membership of both the Customs Union and the Single Market. It therefore has appeal to those favouring a softer Brexit.
However, this option cannot simply be adopted by Parliament, as Mr Jones at least seems to believe. The future relationship is still all to be agreed. The only deal entered into so far is the Withdrawal Agreement setting out the terms of exit. What would be required is a government in power with the policy of pursuing Norway Plus. Initially, at least, we would require the current political declaration (which is what lawyers call a Statement of Intent and not a binding agreement) to be changed by the parties.
This is not the current government’s policy, and stands no chance of being the policy of any conceivable Conservative government. MPs, such as Mr Halfon are a minority in his party.
It seems probable that a majority of Labour MPs would favour a government that pursued this policy. It is not, however, the current policy of the leadership, and Mr Corbyn’s speech today although unclear on many things, was clear that this would not be the policy he would pursue. Labour MPs do not have the power to remove Mr Corbyn.
As a result, even if there were a General Election, the result would not be to put in place a government that favoured pursuing Norway Plus. Although there may be a majority in Parliament who favour this option, what is required is a government that is prepared to obtain an agreement on this basis. No such government is in prospect.
Given Brexit, the choice reduces to May’s deal or no deal We are currently in a game of chicken, familiar from Rebel Without a Cause. Will those who oppose May’s deal pull up in time to prevent no deal? Oh dear.