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Analysis

Could Tories flip to Canada – and then call snap election?

by Hugo Dixon | 23.09.2018

With her Chequers proposal dead, the prime minister is under increasing pressure to switch to a Canada-style free trade deal instead. If she buckles, this would amount to her biggest u-turn yet. It would threaten the unity of the UK itself as well as badly damaging the economy because “Canada” is vastly inferior to our current trading arrangements with the EU.

Nevertheless, Theresa May’s position is so hopeless after last week’s Salzburg fiasco that the scenario can’t be totally ruled out. The pressure to go for Canada is coming from two directions.

First, most Tories hated Chequers because it would have turned the UK into a rule-taker as the price for keeping our borders with the EU open. It caused Boris Johnson’s resignation. He prefers a simple trade deal where we make our own rules and close the borders – and is expected tomorrow to back a proposal from the Institute of Economic Affairs arguing for exactly that.

Many other Tories only went along with Chequers because they were told the EU would accept it. Now the bloc has rejected it, at least six ministers are considering telling the prime minister to scrap it at tomorrow’s Cabinet, according to the Sunday Times. Even Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, didn’t rule out a Canada-type of deal when questioned on Saturday.

The other source of pressure is from the EU itself. It only wants to keep its borders with the UK open if we are full members of its single market and customs union. A normal trade deal, however, wouldn’t be a problem because there would be border checks.

Northern Ireland, again

There is, though, one big exception: Northern Ireland. The EU is insisting that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland stays open. But it’s not possible to have an open border in Ireland and border checks between Britain and the EU unless there are frontier controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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So to get a Canada-style deal, May would have to accept a border in the Irish Sea – and that would start to divide the United Kingdom. Some hardline Brexiters in her party may be prepared to do that. But it’s hard to see her getting such a deal through Parliament. Northern Ireland’s DUP, which is propping her up, would vote against it, as would the pro-European wing of her own party.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the idea is necessarily dead. May (or another Tory prime minister) could call a snap election in the hope of winning a big majority and then ramming “Canada” through Parliament without having to rely on either the DUP or pro-European Conservatives. Although Downing Street has dismissed such a ploy as “hogwash”, some of her aides have been discussing precisely such a scheme in recent days according to The Sunday Times.

Desperate plan

It would be a desperate plan. May didn’t exactly perform well when she called an early election last year. With the public turning against Brexit and Labour warming to a People’s Vote, the Conservatives could be defeated this time. Prominent Brexiters such as Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith could even lose their seats.

What’s more, if the Tories did win and rammed through “Canada”, the economy would take a severe knock. All the supply chains linking us to the EU would be messed up; such a deal would do nothing to help our world-beating services industries either.

Meanwhile, introducing border checks in the Irish Sea could set off a chain reaction that undermines peace in Northern Ireland. The Scottish National Party could also say that, if Northern Ireland was staying in the EU’s single market, Scotland should too – even though that would mean border controls between England and Scotland.

But viewed from the perspective of narrow self-interest, there are advantages for the Tories in pivoting to Canada. Although it would divide their party, the split probably wouldn’t be as big as if May sticks to her hopeless Chequers scheme.

The prime minister is one of the few Tories who seems genuinely to care about what she calls “our precious union”. Despite their party being officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party, many Tories are English nationalists. As the contradictions of Brexit take their toll, we may soon find out whether the hardline Brexiters are so fanatical that they are willing to throw not just the economy but the union under their notorious bus.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

9 Responses to “Could Tories flip to Canada – and then call snap election?”

  • It took 7 years to negotiate the EU-Canada agreement and it has still not been ratified by the Member States and Italy is threatening not to ratify. So the UK could be left having to fall back on the WTO rules at the end of the transitional period.

  • You are of right that May could make the switch you describe. Her top priority all along has been to stop a big Tory split and the Canada option might be the best way of doing that. In a desperate situation a high risk strategy can seem appealing.

    Such a move would be accompanied by an effort to put the blame on the EU. She could even refuse to implement the back stop for Ireland and then dare the Republic and the EU to put up barriers on their side of the border.

    I cannot see how she could get this through the House of Commons, though. The Labour nationalists might vote for it but they would surely be outvoted by rational Tories who would see that this plan would spell the final hard right-wing takeover of their party. This might even provoke enough defections to defeat the Government on a motion of confidence. If not there would have to be another referendum.

    Either way Labour would have to spell out what it would actually do. At the very least there would have to be a substantial delay to Brexit to restart negotiations under a new government. There would be no deal (if the House of Commons rejected Canada) to put before the voters so the choice would have to be coming out with no deal or staying in. In truth that has always been the real choice and it probably had to be faced up to sooner or later.

  • The only thing that seems to matter now is will Article 50’s notice period be extended beyond two years, or until sanity returns to this country. I’m not overly optimistic…

  • HI
    We live in France and have for the last 18 Years. We are totally fed up with the UK government mess. We don’t know weather we will going to still get our pension and increases each year, and most of all our health care. It is about time all remainers start to shout very loudly to Boris J and co Farage etc how very wrong they are to leave and prove all the untrouths the duped the public with in the leave campaign. I see Farage is spouting again in Bolton. Please stop them some how. How about somebody thinking of the Brits living in the rest of the EU. for a change.Nothing seems to be said about US .

  • A Labour Government would be economic ruin. The problem is that at the moment any choice between Tory and Labour is a choice between rubbish and garbage. A LibDem majority is not realistic. So the choice I suppose is ‘the economy stupid’.

  • Eurobob’s point about the EU agreeing an extension of time for a referendum, is well made. They are surely more likely to do this if it includes the option to remain.. Hence Len McClusky’s idea of a referendum omitting this option may not appeal to them, nor to anyone else for that matter. We might as well hold a referendum on whether to leave without a deal, or crash out.

  • How long will it take to negotiate a Canada-style deal? Longer, I suspect, than six months. The idea is just another fudge to cover up the deep divisions in the Tory Party, and play for time they haven’t got.

  • My daughter and family (all UK Citizens) currently live and work in Spain. They voted Remain in the referendum. I was shocked to learn from my daughter that some Brits living in other EU countries voted to leave. We cannot understand their logic.

  • “Prominent Brexiters such as Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith could even lose their seats.” Oh, please !!!!

    Re pensions for expats. If you receive your pension in your foreign account it should still be paid, regardless, since the state pension comes via the States (which is why it’s delayed when they have a bank holiday). So even a hard Brexit will not affect that – assuming the UK still has enough dosh to pay us.