Another week, another bad day in Parliament for Theresa May. The government’s Valentine’s Day defeats, however, were not a massacre, and are not of any great significance.
Brussels predictably interpreted the Government’s defeat as a breakdown of Tory support for a Withdrawal Agreement minus the backstop. This gave the EU yet another reason to continue their intransigent position of refusing to renegotiate the WA.
The vote was of course not a reversal, nor was it confusing as much of the EU press suggest. It merely showed that the recent Tory love-in has not blinded Brexiteer MPs to the risks of taking No Deal off the table too early. Mrs May had tried a tricksy motion. Why does she bother?
For now, she ploughs on trying to save her Withdrawal Agreement. Neither the DUP nor the ERG will accept an unchanged Withdrawal Agreement plus an add-on codicil indicating an EU willingness to replace the backstop quickly. Such a codicil would be a trap since any replacement of the backstop is likely to be very similar to the existing backstop.
Meanwhile an Alternative Arrangements Working Group has seen Tories explaining the Malthouse Compromise (see below) in a series of meetings in the Cabinet Office. Sophisticated commentators like the Telegraph’s (pro-remain) Peter Foster tell us that this idea is a non-starter with Brussels, but of course it is today as the EU digs in. The important point is whether the EU will prefer Malthouse to No Deal when the chips are down in the final days of negotiation.
It should be unacceptable that firms need to wait until the last minute to know whether they will face tariffs and border checks, but this is how the EU works especially with member states presumptuous enough to try to leave their club. For us it merely adds to the long list of reasons for getting out.
Good news this week included the signing of a Mutual Recognition Agreement for trade with the USA. This simplifies regulatory procedures as a precursor to a free-trade agreement and follows similar MRAs with Australia and New Zealand.
Irish writer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, has written an article for The Belfast Telegraph, entitled ‘Lord Trimble’s challenge will hopefully throw a legal spanner in the works of backstop plan’. She argues that the UK government has capitulated to a distorted view of the Good Friday Agreement:
“What has been alarming is not just that the Irish Government has obediently consented to the Belfast Agreement being weaponised by Michel Barnier… and all the other cynical Eurofanatics who have exploited a bogus problem, but that Theresa May… and her team of Europhile civil servants, who seem to have no understanding whatsoever of the Belfast Agreement, have caved in on the principle, and have closed their ears to eminently practical suggestions from authorities like Dr Graham Gudgin on how to make a soft border work.”
Graham Gudgin’s work against the backstop has also been praised by Ben Lowry politics editor of the Belfast Newsletter, noting that “Lords Trimble and Bew and Professor Graham Gudgin have been distinguished voices against this madness.”
On the website this week
May’s custom union con-tricks, by Harry Western
Senior private-sector economist Harry Western shows how – from Chequers to the WA’s backstop – the government has sought to trap the UK in the customs union, whilst delivering a so-called Brexit. Worryingly, mooted alternatives – ‘Norway plus’ or Labour’s suggestions – also entail this, and would continue to restrict any post-Brexit UK trade policy.
“In public, May’s government continues to claim it wants the UK to have an independent trade policy in the future and be outside the EU single market. In reality, it has not been pursuing such an end-state for at least a year.”
The Keys to Downing Street: Leave-Voting Marginals, by Richard Johnson
Politics lecturer Richard Johnson uses polling statistics to show how if either the Conservatives or Labour want to win an election in the near future, they will need to listen to the concerns of those who voted Leave – the majority of whom have not changed their minds.
“The most likely outcome of [Labour] backing Remain would be to give the Tories an overall majority.”
The Problem with Norway Plus, by Rupert Darwall
Rather than being the long-awaited Brexit panacea, policy analyst Rupert Darwall explains how the initial Norway-style deal which emerged a few months ago has been stealthily refashioned to keep the UK in the customs union – with no say in future trade policy.
“Norway Plus would see Britain bound hand and foot in a tight but impotent relationship with the EU in perpetuity.”
“It’s not the apocalypse. Calm down”, by Briefings for Brexit
A series of focus groups across the country has revealed most voters are less hysterical than some media outlets would have you believe. Phlegmatic about the risks of no-deal, suspicious of EU politicking and reluctant to extend anything past 29 March, the hoi polloi appear shrewder than their Westminster representatives.
“People are pretty well informed and shrewd in their opinions, even though understandably weary of the whole thing.”
A Negotiator and a Journalist Walk Into a Bar, by Briefings for Brexit
In light of Olly Robbins’s indiscreet conduct in a Belgian bar this week, BfB wonders optimistically whether this will be the jolt needed for UK and EU politicians to realise that the backstop will never be acceptable.
“This keeps the No-Deal sword of Damocles hanging over the negotiating table until the last minute.”
The Malthouse Compromise, by Graham Gudgin
Co-editor Graham Gudgin sets outs how the ‘Malthouse compromise’ is an attempt to construct a proposed agreement which could command the support of Tory remainers as well as leavers. The Compromise is based on a free-trade agreement and border technology but could include a transition period and continued payments. The UK will have a strong hand in the final days of negotiation including the promise of its £39bn ransom and a need for the EU to avoid high UK tariffs for its car and food exports as well as a desire to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
“There are strong political and economic reasons [for the EU] to accept the Malthouse Compromise – once the present Withdrawal Agreement has finally sunk, and the EU realizes that a deal is in everyone’s interest.”
A new divorce bill danger: why the EU rejects legal process, by Briefings for Brexit
The divorce bill has previously been talked about in terms of a binding contract, but the EU’s attempts to soften this should sound alarm bells. This would move the ransom payment from being enforced in an international court of law to being a ‘moral obligation’ which the EU could cynically claim has never been settled decades down the line.
“So much for EU’s boasts of being dedicated to the rule of law … it should be nipped in the bud and not allowed to enter into received wisdom, as has happened with so many of the EU’s doubtful legal interpretations.”
“If the hotel is on fire it’s better to get out before the roof falls in”, with Dr Stephen Davies
Dr Stephen Davies, Head of Education, Institute of Economic Affairs tells BfB why he believes the UK’s party system is going through a fundamental realignment and why the EU project has failed.
“It’s a mistake to talk about coalitions of the centre, you have to talk about the centre of what particular political division? The whole point at the moment is that we have got new divisions over national identity and national independence as compared to supra-nationalism and globalism.”
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Readers on Facebook are as forthright as ever – in response to Harry Western’s article, Peter Gorton urges “Don’t allow your MP to be conned by May. She’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must avoid being caught up in the EU crashing.”
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An Oxbridge PhD Student
Dr Graham Gudgin
Economist, Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School University of Cambridge
Professor Robert Tombs
Emeritus Professor of French History, University of Cambridge