The Government White Paper has not been well-received.
With every passing day, it seems clearer that the Chequers deal is in serious difficulties. It is being assaulted from both sides: this morning another Conservative PPS, Scott Mann, resigned because he thought the deal was not what the public voted for. At the same time, pro-EU former cabinet member Justine Greening denounced the deal, calling for a second referendum.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister is determined to push ahead with her Chequers agenda. It might just get supported in the House of Commons – possibly with some Labour support offsetting dissident Conservatives – if there are no attempts by the EU27 to amend it.
But I do not think that will be the case: the EU27 will push for further concessions. In fact, the sounds that were coming from the European Union last week suggest just that; they are treating this as a starting position for the UK’s negotiation with the EU.
If this happens, we may slide towards ‘no deal’, which, given the result of the 2016 EU referendum, might well have been the best way ahead given plenty of time to prepare for it, but which looks more hazardous as time is running very short.
Another referendum is a possibility, especially since it has now been brought up by Justine Greening, but it is not clear what the options would then be, especially if it was held after 29 March 2019, by which time we will no longer be an EU member, and thus applicants to re-join not just the EU but the euro too.
That is why I think that, right now, the most likely option looks like being a fudge. The UK will agree a bad deal on a ‘temporary’ basis, which then becomes semi-permanent.
This could be very damaging to the British economy. On one hand, it would mean that we are tied to the Europe Union on bad terms for the foreseeable future, with little flexibility to take control of our own laws and economy. On the other hand, it would continue the uncertainty that is currently plaguing our economy.
How did we ever get into this predicament? The answer is that a long list of government mistakes weakened the UK’s negotiating position, with blame spread over almost everyone concerned.
First, far too little preparation was made both before the referendum and after it had taken place. The UK government made few scant plans before triggering Article 50 to start the withdrawal process. This was partly the EU’s fault because they said they would not begin substantive discussions until the Article 50 process was under way.
Second, when negotiations did get under way, the UK agreed, under EU pressure, to discuss the Irish border, citizenship and money ahead of trade. This bogged down negotiations for months on territory favourable to the EU, with assurances over the border in Ireland becoming a hostage to fortune which the EU has ruthlessly exploited.
Third, we had a general election in June 2017 which deprived Parliament of any majority for walking away from a bad deal, leaving the EU in a position where just saying “no” inevitably triggered further UK concessions.
Fourth, we had the Withdrawal Bill, although eventually passed by the House of Commons, subject to wrecking amendments in the House of Commons and especially the Lords, which made the UK look more and more divided.
Fifth, ‘soft Brexit’ politicians and civil servants, principally through the Europe unit in Number 10, have taken over control of the negotiations from the UK side; largely ignoring many of the public, who would have favoured taking a tougher line.
The result is that we have been left with a White Paper that ties the UK almost as tightly to the EU as our current membership. Although nominally the Prime Minster can claim that few of her red lines have been crossed, not many people, as the polls show, really believe this.
The reality is that the UK – the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world – is due to have large sections of its commercial and economic affairs controlled by an external organisation over which we will have no control and which manifestly does not always have our best interests at heart.
How did we get into this mess? Sometimes, all the cards fall the wrong way. This looks like what has happened here.