Listeners were treated this morning to the unusual sound of Nicky Morgan and Iain Duncan Smith agreeing with each other about Brexit on the radio. The problem is that what they have agreed on will not fly with Brussels.
Only yesterday, Michel Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand said that the EU were looking not just for something that could scrape past the meaningful vote but a proposition from the UK that could secure a “stable majority”. So on the face of it, it should be good news that Conservative soft Brexiteers like Nicky Morgan have found common cause with arch-Brexiteers.
There is just one big problem with their plans A and plans B (which together make Plan C) – they are unnegotiable.
The 'Plan A' is based on an idea for the Irish backstop which has been rejected time and again
Plan A is based around the proposals made by the European Research Group (ERG) for the backstop in December. But they have a longer pedigree – the ideas for a system of mutual recognition of regulations and facilitated customs arrangements, and checks away from the border, were floated by the Government way back in Summer 2017. If they had been the solution then we would never have needed the backstop.
They are not the solution because they require the EU to surrender its hardest red line on its right to protect the integrity of the Single Market through adherence to its rules and enforcement by the Commission and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EU would not make an exception for the UK when the Prime Minister proposed this in Florence; nor when she proposed it at Mansion House. It won’t change tack now.
Plan B is the ERG’s managed no deal proposal
Plan B is nothing more than the long-running ERG proposal that we use a couple of years’ contribution to the EU budget to buy a transition period even if the Withdrawal Agreement fails. It is the Withdrawal Agreement with an extra year of transition, but without the backstop. This arrangement also assumes that we can use Article 24 of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) to allow free trade to continue while we negotiate, a proposal which most trade experts dismiss.
More crucially, the EU has said repeatedly that the backstop is integral to the withdrawal agreement. No backstop, no withdrawal agreement. Only yesterday Sabine Weyand said that even if there was no deal the EU, the UK and Ireland would have to talk about backstop arrangements to protect the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
The big question is why is this commanding support across the party?
One of the UK’s problems throughout the negotiations has been the assumption that we just need to sort out the UK line and the EU will gladly gobble it up. But they are likely to choke on the current proposition. The idea that they will now reverse because 'soft Brexit' Conservatives have signed up to an ERG plan looks far-fetched. But maybe a day of party unity is such welcome relief that the supporters do not care about the merits of the plan they are backing.
It is far from clear that it helps the Prime Minister either. She will already have to explain why, by deciding to whip the party in support of the Brady amendment (whose passage this plan might help), she is promoting something other than her deal. But if these are the “alternative arrangements” she wants to promote, she might as well save her Eurostar fare.
This plan shows that any semblance of collective responsibility has disappeared
It is one thing for Nicky Morgan (sacked from ministerial office) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (never asked) to conspire against the Prime Minister, but some of those involved in the plan hold ministerial offices. Unless they had the green light from the Prime Minister to try and concoct an agreement, this seems to be the biggest breakdown in collective responsibility we have yet seen, at a time when its currency is already drastically devalued.
The Prime Minister still has a choice. Will she back this idea, in the full knowledge that it is unnegotiable? Or will she sack her ministerial helpers for making her negotiating task even harder?