Let’s get a Brexit deal now – and address the future UK-EU relationship after a general election

Let’s get a Brexit deal now – and address the future UK-EU relationship after a general election

Successful negotiations rely on credibility, something in distinctly short supply for the UK Government currently. The Benn Act, the recent Supreme Court ruling and the loss of 21 parliamentary colleagues have all served to undermine the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.

Should the Prime Minister fail to secure a notably improved deal from Brussels in the next few weeks, the likely consequence would be a toxic combination of a long Article 50 extension, parliamentary and judicial confrontation, the possibility of an interim Prime Minister and, when it comes, a highly damaging backdrop for a Conservative general election campaign – one which would likely force the party into some form of alliance with the Brexit Party. Although polling data suggests it might be successful, this strategy would come at a heavy price for the nation’s economy and reputation as investment decisions are delayed and international relationships damaged.

What is now needed is a bold and decisive move that delivers a deal before October 31st. The Prime Minister should de-couple his aspirations for a new, improved Withdrawal Agreement from debates over the Political Declaration which sets the scene for future negotiations. Instead, he should argue that a general election – something he desperately seeks – is the best way to determine the long-term template for our engagement with the EU. This move would force Opposition parties to directly confront whether they want Brexit (or not) and to finally come clean on their precise post-Brexit aspirations in a manifesto.

Under this proposal, the PM will seek to deliver a new Withdrawal Agreement with a widely drawn Political Declaration that allows for all the possible end states for the UK–EU relationship previously suggested by the House of Commons, including a Free Trade Agreement (the Government’s policy), the possibility for sector specific pacts, partial (or full) Customs Union arrangements or European Economic Area membership (‘the Norway option’). Such an offer, combined with the guarantee of a general election on a mutually agreed date, should prove attractive for a majority of MPs, from both sides of the House, who simply want to break the Brexit impasse and move forward.

Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration effectively work together to produce a particular set of end states: a Customs Union for goods and a free trade agreement in services. The fact that it was the UK Government itself which asked for this (by asking for “frictionless trade” as opposed to trade “as frictionless as possible”, which is current government policy) matters not at this stage. A new Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration needs to be fundamentally changed so that other end states are possible.

A revised “neutral” Withdrawal Agreement, by which I mean one where both it and a revised Political Declaration do not commit a future government to any particular course of action in their negotiations, is something Michel Barnier has repeatedly said the EU would entertain, if asked. To ensure that this was not seen as another “elephant trap”, it would be necessary to throw in flexibility in the length of the transition period which could be amended to endure for between six months and three years post-departure, but importantly with a six-month notice clause (which could be instigated by either party) to ensure that negotiating momentum was retained.

The current draft Withdrawal Agreement has two key problems to be addressed. Firstly, it commits the UK to a single customs territory and requires the parties “to build on the common customs territory and common rulebook” in future negotiations. This clause can readily be deleted as part of this exercise and it would seem unlikely that the EU would argue for its retention given the language appears repeatedly in the ill-fated Chequers document. Far more seriously, the current Withdrawal Agreement backstop protocol on which the future relationship is to be built directs the UK into a Customs Union for goods and commits the country to various one-sided level playing field commitments and Geographic Indicators – items which should form part of our future negotiations, post-exit.

The Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission has drafted two protocols to address the Irish border. Protocol AB creates a set of obligations on the UK which must be fulfilled and means that it is solely up to the UK to ensure that the backstop is not triggered. The Attorney-General’s new legal advice would conclude that since it is up to the UK Government to avoid the backstop, it can legally be avoided. Protocol C simply replaces the existing backstop with commitments based on alternative arrangements for both the UK and EU. Both are “legally operable” promptly; some measures could be rolled out within nine to twelve months, most within 18 months, and all of them within 24 to 36 months.

Having consulted with a wide array of parliamentarians, Northern Irish and Irish interest groups and border stakeholders, it is clear that special arrangements are needed for Northern Ireland in a revised Withdrawal Agreement. Unlike Great Britain arrangements which can plausibly end in 2020, it seems highly unlikely that Alternative Arrangements can be defined and rolled out (in totality) in less than two to three years. As such, there remains a strong likelihood that Great Britain will diverge from Northern Ireland, in certain areas, for a limited period of time.

The critical element to such a plan is democratic consent, and there are substantive grounds to believe that Stormont (once reassembled) would consent to such a plan. The likely proviso is that there needs to be an annual review of progress in each area of historic alignment. In each case, Stormont could consent to continued alignment with the EU, or elect to adopt the agreed Alternative Arrangement solution. A final release date is a desirable feature and should occur within a reasonable period of time after the targeted rollout period. Should the EU (read the Republic of Ireland) not be willing to entertain such an ultimate termination date, it would send a very strong signal to the UK that it did not believe that a complete exit for Northern Ireland from the Customs Union and Single Market was ever possible. The consequences of this are well known to Brussels, and would make any deal at all extremely unlikely. The result could be precisely what the EU does not want – a very competitive UK aligned more to the US and Asia.

Notwithstanding the detailed work the Alternative Arrangements Commission has undertaken, time is clearly limited and one option requiring consideration is the idea of defining the Alternative Arrangements and the workings of the annual consent mechanism within the Implementation Period, should the replacement Backstop protocol not be agreed in time. This may also favour Leo Varadkar, who will be able to modify the Irish stance with less public scrutiny.

I urge the Prime Minister and his negotiating team to step forward with a plan along these lines. It is time to recognise that an exit deal before a general election is far more desirable than a delayed Brexit. The time has come to deliver Brexit and allow a successful general election campaign to deliver a new government with credible future plans. It is one thing for the EU to reject proposals when a Prime Minister lacks a parliamentary majority; it is quite another to do so when he has a refreshed democratic mandate aligned behind a coherent strategy and when he has an updated Attorney General opinion addressing historic concerns.