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Analysis

May is damned if she gets fudge; and damned if she doesn’t

by Hugo Dixon | 10.09.2018

Some people think the prime minister’s Brexit plan will fall apart if she negotiates a detailed deal with the EU; others that it will collapse if it’s vague. They are both right.

The problem with a detailed blueprint is that it will give critics a clear target to aim at. We have already seen Theresa May’s Chequers’ proposal being savaged from all sides – and it won’t even fly with Brussels as drafted. Any “son of Chequers” deal that she manages to negotiate is going to be even worse than her opening gambit, requiring us to follow even more EU rules without a vote on them and to pay a membership fee too.

Brexiters such as Boris Johnson says Chequers will turn us into a “vassal state”. Patriotic pro-Europeans hate it because it would do little for our vast services industries while also turning us into a rule-taker. As a result, there isn’t much chance that Parliament will support a detailed blueprint.

Fudge isn’t the answer

So isn’t fudge the answer? Wouldn’t that allow the prime minister to pull the wool over voters’ eyes so they didn’t know what Brexit meant until after we had left? Wouldn’t that also let her keep her MPs guessing? Everybody from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Anna Soubry could keep hoping that their favourite flavour of Brexit would ultimately triumph.

It even seems as if the EU is prepared to go along with this cynical idea of a “blindfolded” Brexit – to help May get a deal and avoid the abyss of crashing out. An unnamed diplomat is quoted in the FT today as saying the EU is planning a “save Theresa” operation.

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But the government says it wants nothing of the sort. And most Brexiters don’t want it either. They are worried that, as in Hotel California, we could check out of the EU but never leave.

The people don’t like the idea of such a dishonest scheme either, according to recent polling. After more than two years of humming and hawing by the government, voters want to know what Brexit means. They don’t want a pig in a poke.

The only person who seems keen on fudge is Michael Gove. He appears to think we can get the hard Brexit he craves if we first have a few more years of soft Brexit when very little changes, apart from the fact that we will have lost our influence.

Irish backstop or frontstop?

Now, it could be that the prime minister is bluffing when she says she wants a detailed scheme. After all, she has up to now been an expert in kicking the can. But there’s one reason she won’t want fudge this time: the Irish “backstop”.

Whereas the political declaration about our future relations will be contained in a non-binding annex to our divorce deal, the backstop to keep the Irish border open in all circumstances will be contained in the legally-binding withdrawal agreement itself. The EU is showing no signs of fudging this. Indeed, in the same FT article that promised a “save Theresa” operation, an unnamed official said: “We do have a requirement for a legally operable backstop.”

What this means is that, if we can’t agree a future trade deal that keeps the Irish border open, the backstop will kick in. It will become the “frontstop”.

Hardline Brexiters now have this issue firmly in their sights. This was what Johnson described as a “suicide vest” in the Mail on Sunday yesterday.

As a result, the prime minister won’t be able to get a majority of MPs to approve the backstop unless they are sure it will never be used. But to do that, the political declaration about the future will have to be spelt out in great detail – Ivan Rogers, our former ambassador to the EU argued out last week. The snag is that everybody will then have a clear target to shoot at.

It’s not just any “son of Chequers” which would be savaged. If the hardline Brexiters browbeat the prime minister into negotiating a Canada-style deal instead – which won’t involve following EU rules but will require border controls – that too would be in trouble. This is because the only way of then keeping the Irish border open will be by having customs checks in the Irish Sea – and that would drive Northern Ireland’s DUP, which is propping up the Tory government, mad.

What this means is that May is damned if she goes for fudge – and damned if she doesn’t. The only sensible solution is to stop Brexit entirely.

3 Responses to “May is damned if she gets fudge; and damned if she doesn’t”

  • This is why the referendum was advisory, and why treating it as binding is so foolish. Ultimately only Parliament can deliver Brexit, and there is no majority for any feasible outcome on offer.

    It is time for Parliament to thank the electorate for its advice, but to politely decline it.

    -A.

  • Conservative supports should join the Tory party as should Labour Supporters join the Labour party . If you want to remain put your money where your mouth is . The brexiteers are doing it aren’t they ?