Chuck Chequers or risk letting in Corbyn: Tory party split over May’s Brexit deal could hand Labour the reins of power, writes NORMAN LAMONT
Prime Minister’s Questions was subdued last week. One MP described the atmosphere to me as ‘almost sombre’, as if MPs were pondering the huge political events of the next few weeks. They will be as momentous as any since the end of the War.
True, there has been plenty of cautious optimism about the prospects for a deal at this week’s summit of European leaders. But we cannot be certain. We have been here before, after all.
And if there is a deal, what sort of deal would that be? Can the Prime Minister be right to insist there is no alternative to her Chequers plan for Brexit?
Theresa May’s attempt to push it through in the teeth of serious opposition from her own party is a big gamble, one that could end up destroying the Government and breaking up the party in the process.
Theresa May’s attempt to force through the Chequers plan could end up destroying the Government and breaking up the party in the process
Many of her backbenchers are now hostile to the Chequers deal. Some Cabinet Ministers are threatening to resign.
This latest crisis goes back to July and a marathon Cabinet meeting at Chequers, her country home.
There, a new Brexit plan was agreed which envisaged that the UK and Europe would maintain close harmony for trade in goods; that the British courts would take European law into account in their rulings; and it suggested a complicated customs arrangement allowing the UK to apply different trade tariffs to goods bound for Britain and for Europe. Freedom of movement would be ended.
Yet there is clearly no majority in the House of Commons for Chequers or any similar deal. In fact, there is no majority for anything – for a Canada-style free trade agreement, for ‘no deal’, for a second referendum, or even for an Election. And faced with such chaos, the Prime Minister has decided the best course is to stick to Chequers, despite its clear lack of popularity.
Mrs May is sincere, of course. She believes her proposals provide continuity for business and are the only way to solve the Irish border issue.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has repeatedly said that such a deal is on offer, but with the unacceptable proviso that it would not include Northern Ireland
Behind the scenes, the Government chief whip believes that the Conservative party will ultimately fall into line and back Chequers, particularly if the proposals gain the support of the other EU states . This is the Prime Minister’s gamble. But is it realistic? I am not so sure.
A significant number of her backbenchers believe that Chequers does not deliver what was promised in the referendum and that it leaves the UK too far under the influence of EU regulations and the European Court of Justice.
They also believe it will inhibit our ability to sign free trade agreements with other governments.
For many Conservatives, a more obvious and attractive option would be a free trade agreement of the type settled between the EU and Canada, but with some additional arrangements, notably for financial services.
This would give us preferential access to the EU market and also allow us to sign trade deals with other parties.
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Interestingly, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has repeatedly said that such a deal is on offer, but with the unacceptable proviso that it would not include Northern Ireland.
So here we come to a second major problem – the question of the Irish border and the crucial negotiating mistake that many MPs think the Government has made. In accepting the EU demand that we guarantee there will be no hard border between the north and the Republic until a trade agreement is reached – the so-called backstop – we have allowed the EU to rule out any deal that is not on the EU’s terms, including the ‘Canada’ proposal.
No one wants to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which had nothing to do with the EU. No one wants to have a hard border.
Yet is the issue really so difficult? Why is the question of a border dividing northern and southern Ireland so different from Switzerland’s border with Germany, France, Italy or Austria? Switzerland is not in the EU, yet the border is barely noticed by the passing traffic.
These days, most customs and other checks are at warehouses, not borders, and 99 per cent of customs declarations are electronic.
To me, the so-called issue of the Irish border seems a ploy by the EU and Ireland to keep us in the customs union or half in the EU. Even so, the Prime Minister has ruled out ‘Canada-plus’ precisely because of it.
Conservative MPs are united in not wanting an Election and certainly don’t want to risk putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street by accident
Had the Irish border not been made into such a problem, it is difficult to see how anyone could possibly have objected. Moreover, technology helping overcome these issues is advancing all the time.
I can sympathise with the Prime Minister having to negotiate on several fronts at once – in front of her with the EU and also behind her with her backbenchers. Then there is the Labour Party to take into account.
Hedging its bets, it is moving some way towards a second referendum, which could mean voting against a deal.
Mrs May is making an outward show of confidence. The Government chief whip insists that, if there is a Chequers-type deal agreed with the EU, they are confident they will be able to persuade their Conservative critics and win the day, perhaps with support from up to 25 Labour MPs.
Yet opponents of the Chequers deal seem equally confident that they, too, have the numbers to prevail. Who is right?
Mark Harper MP, a former Tory chief whip, a former Remainer and a May loyalist, is particularly well-qualified to assess the mood of the Commons – and his answer is not good news for the Prime Minister.
Chequers, he says, has ‘no prospect of success’ in getting through the House. The Prime Minister should ‘evolve’ her plans into a Canada-style agreement.
If Mark Harper’s judgment is right and the Government is defeated on the vote following whatever deal emerges from the negotiations, what would happen?
Conservative MPs are united in not wanting an Election and certainly don’t want to risk putting Corbyn in Downing Street by accident.
But it seems to me inevitable that, should the Government indeed be defeated, we will find ourselves heading for, at the very least, a period of crippling political uncertainty, which could ultimately lead to a General Election or a second referendum. It is not credible that a government should carry on after such a humiliating defeat.
That is why both sides within the Conservative debate – those backing Chequers and those against it – must be prepared to compromise.
Personally, I wish the PM would indeed ‘evolve’ her proposals towards a Canada-style free trade agreement. She is taking a big gamble in not doing so.
But the Brexiteers, too, should be prepared to give some ground.
The stakes are high, after all. The public is exasperated. And, however much we like to reassure ourselves that he could never be elected, a government led by Jeremy Corbyn is not impossible at all, despite the horrors that would inevitably follow.
As the deadline for withdrawal approaches, it is now urgent that we face reality and reach a clear agreement – and so safeguard all our futures.
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