The Tories are taking delusion to a new level.
The Cabinet met for 8 hours yesterday to hammer out a unified position on Brexit. The official version is that everyone emerged thinking they had gotten what they wanted.
That simply means the bickering will be on hold for a bit. There is no way for the hard and soft Brexit factions of the Tories to reconcile their positions. And more generally, in negotiations when the two sides have meaningful differences in their position, a good deal is one where both parties come out feeling a bit bruised. They had to make meaningful concessions. So unless there was some blood on the floor and one side emerged a significant loser, differences were merely papered over.
The Tories are unwilling to deal with Brexit in a serious manner because if and when they do, the two camps will have to duke it out. As Richard North put it:
Rebellious Tory backbenchers can be full of fire and fury when their government has a big majority but, when the margin is slender and the opposition looks poised to win the next election, the MPs invariably rediscover the advantages of obedience, and put the party first.
Right before the ministerial meeting started at Chequers, the EU put out a document that had been reviewed by member state diplomats, that reaffirmed the EU’s position on key issues. It is remarkable how many times the EU keeps repeating the same basic points about what the UK can and cannot expect to achieve, and the UK keeps acting as if it can demand something not on offer and have it delivered.
One of the UK’s pet demands has been that it shouldn’t have to conform with EU rules all that tightly, yet should still have the benefits of streamlined (or per the UK pipe dream, frictionless) trade. The EU has said no to this and sadly saw the need to say no again.
Under what is understood to be Mays [sic] preferred model, the UK would be in regulatory alignment with the EU in some areas while finding different ways to achieve the same outcomes in other sectors. In the so-called third basket of sectors, the UK would in time diverge from the EU and go its own way under the model.
Yet, with something close to incendiary timing, the European commission, hours abefore the cabinet get-together, has published a document ruling out the model.
It is claimed by Brussels that such an approach would breach an agreement among EU27 leaders to prevent cherry-picking by the UK that it is said would pose a risk to the integrity of the single market.
The document says: “UK views on regulatory issues in the future relationship including ‘three basket approach’ are not compatible with the principles in the [European council] guidelines.”
The paper, discussed and agreed among member state diplomats, claims the model proposed by the UK would also appear to give the UK a say in EU decision-making. The paper responds that “no EU-UK co-decision” is possible and that the UK is either “in or out”.
The document adds that the approach proposed by the UK would also have to involve a central role for the European court of justice. Even if the UK weakened its stance to allow this, the paper claims, there would be a problem in enforcing the court’s decisions without the rest of EU law being applicable.
So what came out of the Cabinet confab? It’s almost painful to read. From the Financial Times:
The 11-member Brexit cabinet committee was said by those at the Chequers meeting to have endorsed a proposal dubbed “Canada plus plus plus” by David Davis, the Brexit secretary.
Under the plan, Britain would seek to negotiate a free-trade agreement similar to the EU-Canada deal, but then try to embellish it by securing better access to the single market for goods and services through close regulatory co-operation.
Brexiters seized on the broad agreement at Chequers that Britain should be able to set its own rules and regulations, allowing an “ambitious managed divergence” with the EU over time.
But Remainers, led by Philip Hammond, the chancellor, insisted that the starting point should be that Britain and the EU would have high levels of alignment…
The EU and UK would agree common regulatory goals, known in London as an “equivalence of outcomes”, but would be free to achieve those goals in different ways.
The “right to diverge” would be overseen by a dispute resolution mechanism, imposing market access sanctions if either side tried to disrupt the level playing field. There would be a mutual recognition of each other’s rules and regulators.
The EU had rejected all of this even before the meeting. Barnier even developed a cute graphic that showed that the only type of deal the UK could have given its red lines was a Canada-type arrangement. You could call it “Canada plus” to allow for the idea that a deal with the UK would require an extensive section on services, which was not part of the Canada treaty. But “plus plus plus” is old “deep and special” wine in new bottles. And that wine turned to vinegar quite a while back.
Similarly, the EU had told the UK no “equivalence” for financial services. It has said if the UK is going to have single-market type access, as it will during the transition period, it needs to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ. And “mutual recognition of each other’s rules and regulators” has never been on offer. The EU will conform to UK requirements when exporting goods and services to its market as it does with all other third countries as a matter of course.
I wish I could come up with a suitable Monty Python clip to illustrate this bizarre dynamic. But that’s not a fit, because the characters in Monty Python, no matter how daft, are still adults. Despite the OxBridge veneer, the UK is acting like a child who thinks if he makes enough of a ruckus, the adults will give in. The EU has already shown it isn’t of that school of parenting.
This episode generated many pithy comments from Financial Times readers, such as:
Hi – I’d like to discuss driving my LH drive car on your UK motorways. I’d like to follow my own local laws but I’m going to make sure that I follow the principle of “equivalence of outcomes” so I will always drive with the aim of not crashing. I recognise that continuing to drive on the right as I do at home would create difficulties given the flow of traffic in the UK, but obviously on a motorway I will be able to drive in the outside lane and treat it as the equivalent of the slow lane at home – I believe this will be an acceptable compromise that recognises my sovereignty while creating a deep and special road-based relationship.
I find roundabouts confusing but traffic lights are ok, so I’d like to diverge when I get to a roundabout, always subject to the overriding “equivalence of outcomes” principle, so I promise to not actually crash. Your police may be concerned by the screeching tyres and evasive action of other road users as I exercise my very limited and reasonable “right to diverge” but I hope you will regard this as evidence of the vibrant and dynamic nature of our new deep and special relationship.
If an accident does happen I don’t want to be subject to UK courts since that would infringe my sovereignty. Instead I propose that we set up an independent tribunal to adjudicate.
Over time there my be other aspects of your motorway laws that I find difficult to comply with or just hard to understand so I reserve the right to follow a programme of “ambitious managed divergence” – we can discuss the details as we go along (just call me on my mobile – it’s not hands-free but I can usually reach it in the passenger footwell – I can always stop if I think it’s unsafe to continue driving – people hoot as they swerve to avoid me parked in the fast lane but reaching the hard shoulder is such a pain and I find driving without the music of the horns is distracting).
I look forward to forging a deep and special partnership of motorway users. But let us be creative as well as practical in designing an ambitious partnership which respects the freedoms and principles of the UK, and the wishes of the foreign drivers like me. A partnership of interests, a partnership of values; a partnership of ambition for a shared future: UK drivers and me side by side delivering prosperity and opportunity for all.
This is the future within our grasp – so, together, let us seize it.
In many ways, Mrs May is now confronted with an unsolvable dilemma. The practical, political and legal hurdles, separately and combined, have conspired to create a perfect storm of unsolvability (if that is actually a word) which would defeat a constitutional or political genius and surely prove beyond the ken of our current prime minister, who is self-evidently neither.
The question then must not be what manner of deeds are required to cut a Gordian knot of such dimensions as to make the original look little more than a snag in a running line. If Brexit means Brexit, as a newly-appointed prime minister was keen to assure us, then unsolvable means unsolvable.
We are way past anything that will get Mrs May’s “war cabinet” off the hook on which it is impaled. The task now is to put the creature out of its misery as fast and humanely as possible, and to minimise the damage and mess as it thrashes around in its ungainly and violent death-throes.
Politically, this is the embodiment of the age-old joke, occasioned when certain tourists asked for directions to Dublin, only to be told, “I wouldn’t start from here”. There is no way, from her current political location, that Mrs May can make it to her destination – whatever that might be.
May is set to give a speech on Brexit next week. So expect the usual infighting to resume then.