My initial reaction to the lack of resignations from Brexiteers following Fridayâ€™s â€˜agreementâ€™ by the UK cabinet was that they were so confident that the plan would be rejected by the EU27 that agreeing to the â€˜planâ€™ was not so much a concession on their part as a prelude to the no-deal crashing out which they crave. It certainly appeared as though Mayâ€™s rebadging-with-conditions was putting down a series of conditions to which the EU27 could never agree; and her demand that the EU now start to be flexible sounded like the usual Brexit demand for the EU27 to abandon at least some of the basic tenets of the single market. But yesterdayâ€™s resignation makes me wonder whether at least some of the Brexiteers are starting to realise that the plan does actually contain the outline of a possible deal, if we regard it as a two-year late opening position, rather than a last minute set of immutable demands.
Take the â€œcombined customs territoryâ€� for instance. It sounds a lot like a new name for a customs union, and the chief difference between the two seems to be that the May plan assumes that the UK will have the right to negotiate different tariffs from those set by the EU. This is obviously fraught with difficulty; apart from being a smugglersâ€™ charter for any goods where EU tariffs and UK tariffs are different, the proposed use of technology which doesnâ€™t yet exist to control where imported goods end up looks like being completely impractical when one considers raw materials turned into components turned into finished goods. Without a physical border check to determine whether the contents of a lorry are what the electronic â€˜paperworkâ€™ says they are, the potential for UK firms to gain an unfair competitive advantage is something that the EU will never allow. But what if the â€˜rightâ€™ to negotiate different tariffs was accompanied by an agreement that the â€˜rightâ€™ would never actually be used? Thatâ€™s hardly an unusual approach from the EU, and it would leave the â€˜combined customs territoryâ€™ different only in name from the customs union. I canâ€™t see the EU27 being particularly averse to allowing the UK to call it something different.
Or take the proposal to replace freedom of movement with a â€˜mobility frameworkâ€™. If the only difference between the two is that the UK starts to apply restrictions already allowed for in the EU treaties (or can be negotiated to that point) â€“ something which successive governments have decided not to do â€“ then why would the EU object to the UK simply using a different nomenclature?
Or consider the â€˜harmonisationâ€™ of rules instead of membership of the single market for goods. If the UK is prepared to guarantee that it will follow all relevant EU rules for goods (in which the EU has a trading surplus with the UK) and accept that the interpretation of those rules is down to the ECJ, whilst excluding services (in which the UK has a surplus with the EU), then why, in principle, would the EU27 not be willing to discuss the details of how that compliance is guaranteed and implemented?
The amount of money which the UK will need to pay into the EU budget will be something of a sticking point; it will certainly be higher than the May plan envisages. But a little bit of creative accounting under which it becomes a series of individual payments for specific services will allow it to be presented as something other than a contribution to the central EU budget â€“ again, as long as the amount they receive is consistent with other deals and meets their requirements, why would the EU 27 be particularly bothered about what the UK decides to call it?
The only way in which Mayâ€™s plan can be considered to adhere to any of her red lines is by assuming that those red lines apply only to what things are called, not to what they achieve. The plan, as Brexiteers are coming to realise, not only ignores the substance of all those precious red lines, but might also provide a sound basis for negotiating something which will end up looking an awful lot like the Norway option which Brexiteers correctly characterise as Brexit-in-name-only, and under which the UK would follow the rules whilst having no input into them.
If only we had an alternative government-in-waiting which was prepared to look at all of this and ask one simple question: â€œWhy bother?â€�