Neither Johnson nor Gove’s buddy has a credible Brexit plan

by Hugo Dixon and Luke Lythgoe | 03.09.2018

Theresa May’s critics are right to want to “chuck Chequers”. But the alternatives put forward at the weekend by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s buddy Nick Boles don’t stack up.

Johnson is openly saying we should rip up Chequers, accusing the prime minister of “waving the white flag”. Gove isn’t saying so in public but Boles says May’s proposals amount to “humiliation”.

They have a point. As Johnson puts it: “We will remain in the EU taxi; but this time locked in the boot, with absolutely no say on the destination.”

But the only way to keep our power and our prosperity is to cancel Brexit entirely, not follow Johnson or Boles down their blind alleys.

Boles’ blind alley

Look first at the Boles proposal. He thinks we should tear up everything so far agreed with the EU – including the promises to pay £39 billion to settle our past bills and keep the Irish border open. Instead, we should park ourselves in the European Economic Area (EEA) while we negotiate a long-term deal. (Listen after 1’10”)

The EEA would give us full access to the single market in the same way as Norway, which isn’t part of the EU. We’d also avoid customs controls, which apply to Norway, by staying in a temporary customs union with the EU.

We’d then negotiate a new free-trade deal with the EU that would be a bit like the one Canada has (which, incidentally, isn’t nearly as good as what we’ve got now). We’d be able to get such a deal, according to Boles, since we would no longer be under time pressure.

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Gove himself has toyed with such a plan in private, according to the FT. It has multiple defects:

  • It is legally doubtful whether we can stay in the EEA now that we have triggered Article 50 to quit the EU.
  • While the EU might be happy for us to rejoin the EEA post-Brexit if we were doing so on a permanent basis, it won’t want us as temporary members.
  • The EU would, in any case, first want us to settle our bills and agree to keep the Irish border open. It would also expect us to pay a membership fee, as Norway does.
  • Boles thinks we can quit the EU’s agricultural and fisheries policies immediately. But it’s hard to see how the EU could then agree to keep its borders open, as there would then be nothing to stop food and fish crossing the frontier.
  • Brits would be asked to buy a “blind Brexit”. We would be quitting the EU without any idea of what the eventual deal would look like.
  • Voters wouldn’t even know how long this purgatory was going to last. Although Boles speaks of three years, he also says there wouldn’t be “artificial deadlines”. He isn’t even clear whether purgatory would end before or after the next election.

Johnson’s Irish non-plan

Now look at Johnson’s idea. He, too, wants to end up with something like Canada but to get there in one bound rather than “lurch for a Norway or EEA option”.

The key is to rip up May’s commitments on the Irish border. Johnson instead says the few large companies which trade across the frontier could be “subject to spot checks in warehouses or at points of sale – not at the border”. Meanwhile, small traders and farmers should “obviously be given a de minimis exemption”.

Johnson’s argument is a non-starter. Even before the prime minister agreed to keep the border open, the UK had made similar commitments in the Good Friday Agreement. Johnson essentially ignores this by focusing on trade in goods. Keeping the border as open as it is today means the same standards for agriculture, hospitals, professional qualifications, and much more. In each case this will mean the UK sticking closely to the EU’s single market rules.

Johnson’s idea that smaller companies shouldn’t be checked at all is also problematic as it would amount to a green light to smugglers. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has already described May’s Chequers proposal as an “invitation to fraud” – and her blueprint actually tries to keep track of goods from outside the bloc. The EU will not allow a situation where, for example, chicken produced in China under less stringent standards can be imported into Belfast and moved across the border into the Republic of Ireland.

It is now 26 months since the referendum – and the Tories still don’t have a clue what to do. The prime minister’s Chequers’ proposal is virtually dead. But those who brought us Brexit haven’t got a viable plan either. The only sensible solution is to ask the people if they are still willing to stomach this blind Brexit.

2 Responses to “Neither Johnson nor Gove’s buddy has a credible Brexit plan”

  • Remainers are criticised for their focus on risks of Brexit…hence the title Project Fear (1, 2 and possibly 3). It is very hard to criticise Brexiteers plans because they have none…just aspiration and arm-waving, with a vague hope of “better days ahead”. Could we name this “Project Fantasy”, because that is exactly what it is? So, the next time Mogg or his cohorts start spouting about the wonderful future perhaps the BBC interviewer could ask them if this not just Project Fantasy again. It would be great to hear them defending their Brexit rubbish.

    BTW, anyone noticed the similarity of the relationship between Mogg and Boris and that between Colonel Parker and Elvis? Boris for Vegas when this all collapses?

  • Project Fantasy is a good label but cannot be a substitute for reasoned argument. Brexiteer discourse, larded with words like “scaremongering” “project fear” and “traitor”, reveal that they know they have no sensible arguments to support their policy. The Remain position must continue to be fought for using evidence-based arguments and avoiding the vilification tactics used by the Brexit campaign, while continuing to flag up these deceitful practices whenever they occur.