Less than a month ago, Cabinet members rejected a draft Brexit deal, prepared by Olly Robbins and Sabine Weyand, that would have –
- Hived off Northern Ireland in economic terms from the rest of the UK, because there would be no unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop.
- Kept the rest of the UK in a separate customs union with the EU, perhaps with no firm end-date, thus preventing us from striking our own meaningful trade deals.
- Paid the best part of £40 billion for these terms, thus giving up our leverage for future trade talks, and seen that loss written into a legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement.
Today, it is clear that Theresa May is close to finalising another deal. Perhaps it will not be ready to be put to Cabinet members this week.
But if it is, here are five questions that they should ask about it.
- Hiving off Northern Ireland? Will there be either an an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from the backstop?
- Break-up of the Union? If there isn’t, and Northern Ireland is effectively to be kept in the Single Market, won’t that boost the SNP’s campaign for Scottish independence – and the break-up of the Union?
- Trapped in a customs union? If Great Britain is to be put into a parallel customs union, will there be either an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from it?
- Money for nothing? Since a future trade deal will be covered by an unenforceable political declaration – not the Withdrawal Agreement – what safeguards are there against shelling out £40 billion for nothing?
- Chequers or Canada? Given that the political declaration is likely to be written in vague, Cheqada terms, which future does it really point to – Chequers or Canada?
And here are three conditions that they should insist on over any new deal.
- It cannot be put to Parliament without their endorsement (as is constitutionally proper).
- They will not endorse it before seeing written legal advice on its meaning from the Attorney-General, which will also be published.
- And they will not endorse it before receiving an assessment from the Chief Whip about whether it could only be carried in the Commons by Labour votes, thus dividing the Conservative Party.
It could well be that there are good answers to all our questions, or even that reports of a forthcoming deal are mistaken.
But is is also possible that we are on the verge of a proposed deal that wrecks the prospect of meaningful trade deals, hands over £40 billion for no bankable gain – and potentially threatens the break-up of the UK.
Would a Brexit on these terms be worse than No Deal at all – even if No Deal risks the possibility of a Corbyn Government? And what are the chances that Parliament could overturn No Deal and insist on No Brexit?
Whatever their own answers to these questions and others may be, this could also be the week in which the Cabinet must, to coin a phrase, Take Back Control.