â€˜Badge engineeringâ€™ is a long-standing practice in both the car industry and the IT industry, and basically amounts to selling identical products with different labels or badges on them. It never really fooled anyone, and wasnâ€™t usually intended to; it was more about appearing to sell products targeted at specific markets by using brand names familiar to the relevant audience.
Todayâ€™s so-called crunch meeting at Chequers looks like an attempt at something similar, except that in this case, there is indeed a deliberate attempt to mislead. From what has been revealed so far, it seems that the Prime Ministerâ€™s latest composite proposal is an attempt at rebadging something very close to membership of the single market Ã¡ la Norway in such a way that the Brexiteers will think that it amounts to non-membership whilst those who think otherwise get a nudge and a wink to say that nothing much will change at all. The deviations from the Norway model will still cause problems and are likely to be rejected by the EU, but this proposal isnâ€™t really aimed at the EU27 at all. The only aim of the proposal is to get the cabinet united around a proposal from which the PM and her team can then negotiate a route to a form of membership of the single market, called something different. And as long as, at the end of those negotiations, the only difference is what itâ€™s called, the EU27 are likely to agree. A rose by any other name, etceteraâ€¦
Itâ€™s almost a wizard wheeze, except for the simple fact that itâ€™s so obviously a ruse that no self-respecting Brexiteer would be able to swallow it. Richard Murphy suggested yesterday that the main question to be asked is â€œWho will have quite the Cabinet by Monday?â€�. Itâ€™s a reasonable question; the gulf between the two sides in the Tory party is so large that there is no chance of any substantive agreement being reached on anything which is remotely likely to be acceptable to the EU27. If they do manage to reach agreement today with no resignations, it will be because theyâ€™re continuing to demand that the EU27 gives them that unicorn but they have solemnly agreed to call it something different. In short, another fudge which kicks the can even further down the road.
The Prime Minister said today that the Cabinet have a â€˜dutyâ€™ to come to an agreement on what they want. For once, I agree with her â€“ but that duty didnâ€™t suddenly come into being today. Theyâ€™ve been under the same duty for the last two years, ever since the referendum vote, but itâ€™s a duty about which they have signally failed to do anything. Itâ€™s not clear why that is suddenly going to change. And whatever she says, she certainly doesnâ€™t trust the people whom she has appointed to the cabinet further than she can see them. Telling Ministers that â€˜they will have to hand in their phones and any smartwatches on arrival at Chequers on Fridayâ€™ (as the BBC report) doesnâ€™t strike me as the action of someone who has any confidence that she can rely on the people around her. And if even she doesnâ€™t trust them why on earth should the rest of us?