Some cry betrayal while others reserve judgement – initial Brexiteer reaction to the Chequers proposal

Some cry betrayal while others reserve judgement – initial Brexiteer reaction to the Chequers proposal

Yesterday the Cabinet spent all day at the Prime Minister’s Chequers retreat to agree its plan for Brexit to present to the European Union and we have reproduced the full text of the summary issued by the Government last night, of which the main points are:

  • Establishment of a “free trade area for goods” to “avoid friction at the border, protect jobs and livelihoods, and ensure both sides meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
  • The UK and EU to agree to a “common rulebook for all goods including agri-foods“, with British ministers committing in a treaty to ongoing harmonisation with Brussels’ rules necessary to provide for frictionless trade at ports and the border with Ireland.
  • Parliament would have the ability to choose not to incorporate future rules, but accepting there would be “consequences” for trade.
  • “Regulatory flexibility” for services, with the UK recognising that would mean neither side enjoying “current levels of access” to each other’s markets.
  • Agreement of a common rulebook on state aid, preventing either side from subsidising their own industries, with co-operation between competition watchdogs on either side of the English Channel.
  • A commitment to maintaining high environmental, climate change, social, employment and consumer protection standards.
  • Establishment of a joint institutional framework to oversee UK-EU agreements, with the UK agreeing to pay “due regard” to EU case law in areas where the common rulebook applies.
  • A “facilitated customs agreement” to remove the need for customs checks by treating the UK and EU “as if a combined customs territory”, with the UK applying the EU’s tariffs and trade policy for goods intended for the bloc but able to control its own tariffs and trade for the domestic market.

Downing Street inisisted that the plan would result in an “ambitious relationship that nonetheless respected the UK’s sovereignty and the EU’s autonomy”, claiming the following benefits:

  • Frictionless access for goods, protecting supply chains the the just-in-time model used by major manufacturers such as carmakers.
  • Avoiding the need for a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or within the UK.
  • Allowing the UK to have an independent trade policy, with the potential to join countries including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
  • Ending free movement “giving the UK back control over how many people enter the country”.
  • Ending “vast annual payments” to the EU budget, although “appropriate contributions” will still be made for joint programmes in specific areas.

All of this is along the lines of what was leaked to the media during the latter half of last week – plans which had caused uproar among Brexiteers who believed that Theresa May was breaching her own red lines, in particular on the need to be outside of the Single Market (and all its rules and regulations) and the Customs Union.

Most of the Cabinet Brexiteers had met in Boris Johnson’s office on Thursday night to discuss how to resist the plan together at yesterday’s summit. However, there were no resignations and the letter the Prime Minister sent to Tory MPs last night (also reproduced on BrexitCentral) stated that having allowed ministers to express their individual views during the development of Brexit policy, “agreement on this proposal marks the point where that is no longer the case and collective responsibility is now fully restored”.

There has been no public word from the likes of Boris Johnson and David Davis overnight, although BBC Newsnight‘s political editor Nick Watt tweeted that one Cabinet Brexiteer had simply told him that “we were well and truly outnumbered by 20 to seven, so no point in pushing it to a vote”. His source added that if the PM tries to water down plans even further if they are rejected by Michel Barnier then “it will be a problem”.

But many extra-parliamentary Brexit-backers clearly have a serious problem with what was agreed yesterday. John Longworth, the Co-Chair of Leave Means Leave, was quick out of the blocks to define it as “BRINO – ‘Brexit In Name Only’ – a fake Brexit”:

“This is a bad deal for the UK which will only slide further as the EU take more and more… The Prime Minister has totally misled 17.4 million voters and left it as late as possible to reveal that she remains a stubborn Remainer. Worse still, she has personally deceived us by promising in the Conservatives’ election manifesto that Brexit means Brexit… Now we are faced with becoming a vassal state of the German/French racket, they have us exactly where they want us – unable to compete, taking enormous quantities of their products at inflated prices, protected from global competition by the fortress Europe tariff and regulatory wall, and impeded from doing trade deals around the globe. We will be controlling neither laws, nor trade, nor borders. A total, humiliating capitulation.”

Nigel Farage was fuming, tweeting that “this Brexit strategy is a sell-out to the global corporates, as it was during Maastricht”, although Douglas Carswell, the one-time UKIP MP (who later fell out with Farage) opined that “those itching to cry ‘betrayal’ ever since June 22, 2016 will cry betrayal. The rest of us should welcome an arrangement that allows incremental divergence”. Carswell’s friend, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, also indicated conditional support for the proposal: “I am more relaxed than some Eurosceptics about regulatory alignment in goods. The prospects for meaningful divergence, at least in the short term, are slight. But why the hell include farm produce? We should be buying from the world, outside the EU’s agri-racket.”

Mark Littlewood, Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that the proposal “offers up many more questions than answers”, which he proceeded to list thus:

“How far, in practice, would UK regulations be able to diverge from the EU’s, or have we just regained control in order to copy their rulebook? And how would a facilitated customs arrangements differ from the New Customs Partnership, which practically no-one thought would work? It is unclear whether freedom to diverge on tariffs will be enough to do new trade deals with third countries if we cannot also diverge on non-tariff barriers and regulations. Moreover, it is not apparent what becomes of financial services. Will we press ahead with proposals for mutual recognition? If so, it begs the question of why if mutual recognition is good enough for the City, it is not good enough for goods? In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the Government will at least press ahead with contingency plans for ‘no deal’, or whether all the flexibility is going to be further towards an even softer Brexit. And who knows, perhaps the EU will reject these proposals anyway.”

The EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said last night that he awaited next week’s White Paper with interest and that he would “assess proposals to see if they are workable and realistic” considering the European Council’s negotiating guidelines (although he had seemed to dismiss it earlier in the day). But it should also be noted that the ministers at Chequers acknowledged that “it was responsible to continue preparations for a range of potential outcomes, including the possibility of ‘no deal’” and that such preparations would be stepped up in the coming weeks.

As to how former senior Remain campaigners have responded, Sir Craig Oliver, the former Communications Director for David Cameron who played a key role in the Remain campaign tweeted that “this is a worse deal than remaining in the EU”. Meanwhile Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable concluded: “The only reason Brexiteers in the Cabinet will have agreed to this position is that they trust the EU will reject it, Britain will crash out with no deal and they will blame Brussels… The Brexit campaign claimed to be about taking back control, these plans would give Britain less of a say and less control.”

One of the most interesting observations – made before last night’s government statement was issued – came from ex-Lib Dem leader Sir Nick Clegg, who tweeted:

“I hate to say this, but Brexiters would be right to reject PM’s plan. Dual EU/UK tariffs would create vast red tape, smugglers would boom, Parliament would be humiliated. MPs would rubber stamp goods/agri rules from Brussels – right to refuse would never be used as costs too high.

While some are crying betrayal, most Brexiteers are reserving judgement this morning and over the weekend and the days running up to the publication of the White Paper next week, Brexiteers in Parliament (and indeed inside the Government) will spend many hours discussing how best to proceed.

What will be particularly playing on their minds is the parliamentary arithmetic and the fact that there simply do not appear to be the numbers in the House of Commons for the pure, clean Brexit that most BrexitCentral readers would want to see enacted – and, lest we forget, that the country voted for in June 2016. However, given those parliamentary numbers, the question they will be asking is whether opposing the new proposal on the table outright risks a scenario where Brexit might not happen at all in any way, shape or form.

Conservative MP and European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg has been one of the few parliamentary Leave-backers to speak publicly since last night’s proposal was published when he appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He said that it “raises a number of questions” which he hopes they will be answered when the full 120-page White Paper is published next week. However, he was clear that “I will not vote for something that doesn’t deliver Brexit”. Click here to listen to the full interview.