Theresa May nailed it at Lancaster House, so how did we end up with the disastrous Chequers plan?

Theresa May nailed it at Lancaster House, so how did we end up with the disastrous Chequers plan?

When the Chequers Plan communiqué winged its way to MPs and the media following a full day of debate at the Prime Minister’s country retreat, I was concerned at the lack of detail and what clearly looked to me like a number of areas where this much-heralded proposal would fall far short of the Prime Minister’s own personal commitment that “Brexit means Brexit”.

I recall vividly sitting behind my desk in my Scottish Parliamentary office watching the Prime Minister deliver her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. It was a tough gig given that the Prime Minister, who had campaigned to Remain in the EU, had to outline a vision for Brexit, put meat on the Brexit bones and outline her twelve objectives for the negotiations. But I felt a great sense of pride that day: I thought she nailed it. I even had MSP colleagues who had campaigned to Remain stop by my office to say she had done brilliantly and that it was the best speech they had ever heard her deliver. I couldn’t agree more. In that speech the Prime Minister articulated a Brexit blueprint that united the parliamentary party whilst holding true to the referendum result. It was even welcomed by Donald Tusk as “realistic”.

In that speech the Prime Minister could not have been clearer that Brexit meant:

  • Taking back control of our own laws by ending the jurisdiction of the ECJ in the UK.
  • Taking back control of our borders. In fact she stated: “As Home Secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe… Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.”
  • Free trade with European Markets with the Prime Minister explicit that her negotiating priority would be for a “bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement” with the EU. She went further, stating that there would be no membership of the Single Market and that we would no longer be subject to EU rules and regulations on goods and services. Again, to be clear, she stated: “European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘four freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the Single Market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country. It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.”
  • Signing new trade deals. The Prime Minister talked about the opportunities for Global Britain to strike new free trade deals across the world, to be a leader in free and fair trade and that to achieve that objective we could not remain members of the Customs Union.

The Prime Minister set out a “comprehensive” and “carefully considered plan”. The proposed deal she had so eloquently articulated was, as she said herself, the “economically rational thing that both Britain and the EU should aim for”.

Therefore, after such a clear and passionate vision for a Brexit deal was extolled at Lancaster House, that rallied people behind it, it became deeply disconcerting in the immediate hours following Chequers that the plan agreed that day would be an “evolution” of the Prime Minister’s clear Brexit vision and negotiating red lines.

The weekend following the announcement of the Chequers plan, rather than immediately comment I decided to reserve my judgement until I could hear from Downing Street themselves on the Monday in the hope that I could get some reassurance. That reassurance wasn’t forthcoming and I left the briefing for MPs clear that the proposed plan would be such a dilution of what the Prime Minister had said at Lancaster House and what the country had voted for that we would become a vassal state in an EU orbit and that the great prizes of Brexit would be thrown away.

I was amazed that immediately, before the White Paper was even published, that colleagues wrote for national newspapers in support of the Chequers plan without even having seen any of the detail, let alone a draft of the new EU treaty to implement it, as details really do matter.

I awaited the White Paper and I was in the chamber for Dominic Raab’s statement to MPs, to witness the shambles at first hand with chaotic scenes in the Commons as copies of the White Paper were flung across the benches to members, getting our hands on it for the first time hours after the media. Having digested the White Paper, my fears about this proposal were truly confirmed.

What has spurred me to write this article is my growing frustration at the spin surrounding the Chequers plan. It’s become fantastical, just missing the Brexit goblins and and fire-breathing dragons. In that vein, we are told that Chequers actually means leaving, restoring the supremacy of our courts and that it’s a pragmatic compromise. I want to set out why this is fictional spin that will do more damage to the country than good.

At Lancaster House the Prime Minister told us that being in a situation where we were out of the Single Market but had to apply EU rules would mean “not leaving the EU at all”. Yet, the White Paper seeks to “establish a new free trade area and maintain a common rulebook for goods, including agrifood”. This is staying in the Single Market in all but name. It means that instead of freeing ourselves from burdensome EU regulation, we will continue to be tied to the bad regulations that small businesses keep telling us they want scrapped. This would apply to all goods produced here in the UK for the UK market.

In practice, this means we would still be restricted by crazy EU red tape, such as their ban on vacuum cleaners with motors more powerful than 900w. And now, not only would we be bound by these daft regulations, but we would have no say over them at all. Even worse is that we would be compelled to follow future EU changes and new rules. Having left the EU’s institutions where these rules are decided, the UK would become a voiceless rule taker.

I’ve heard colleagues argue that as the Chequers plan only covers goods and not services, this can be “sucked up”. This is naively simplistic. As many readers will recognise, many goods and services are often linked. For example, the purchase of an elevator comes with the service of installing it and maintaining it, so to claim that EU rules will only therefore apply to traded goods is wrong.

The Government has argued that some time in the future, Parliament could decide to diverge from the EU rule book. However, as the White Paper states, our refusal to implement EU regulations or to change them would result in “consequences” with the EU allowed to impose penalties and sanctions.

In cases where there is a dispute between the UK and the EU the White Paper proposes an independent arbitrator. However, the reality is that if the dispute centred around a point of EU law then any “independent” arbitration panel would refer that point to the ECJ to make a ruling. What this means in practice is that the panel would simply rubber stamp ECJ rulings where the UK would have no veto.

This ties neatly into my next point of concern. At Lancaster House we were told that we would take back control of our laws and that the jurisdiction of EU judges in the UK would end. Yet being forced to comply with poor and bureaucratic regulation as described in the White Paper as a “common rulebook” – which is a very cute description for what in reality is the EU rule book – means that EU rules and the European Court of Justice would continue to be supreme in the UK. Worryingly, looking at paragraph 42 of the White Paper, it’s not clear that the scope of the ECJ would just be limited to the common rulebook but to cover the environment, climate change, social and employment as well as consumer protection.

Furthermore, ECJ judges would be the final arbiter in disputes between the UK and EU over the UK’s £39 billion ‘Brexit bill’, whether our services regulation is deemed “equivalent” as well as the wider workings of the Brexit process. Therefore, the bold claim at Lancaster House that the supremacy of British courts will be restored is just plain wrong as the Chequers plan would mean ECJ jurisdiction in perpetuity.

The golden opportunity of Brexit is regaining our ability to set our own trade policy and to sign new trade deals with the growing economies across the world. The Prime Minister majored on this point at Lancaster House. However, under the Chequers plan we would be aligned and tied into EU standards on traded goods, making it impossible to strike these new deals with countries such as the US which expect mutual recognition of each other’s regulatory standards. Therefore rather than seizing the opportunities for Global Britain, the Chequers plan would hand that prize away to the EU and lock us out of that economic opportunity.

We are told that the Chequers Plan should just be accepted, despite how bad it is, because “it’s practical”, we “need to compromise” and because those of us critical of the plan have no alternative plans. This is total rubbish. The options for our future relationship with the EU are:

  • The status quo whereby we stay in the EU. Some want this but it would betray a clear referendum result, which would be devastating for our democracy and see the rise of dangerous and populist parties as we have seen across Europe.
  • A Comprehensive Free Trade Deal as articulated by the Prime Minister at Lancaster House speech. This is the preferred option for all sides as well as the best outcome preferred by Leavers and Remainers.
  • The DExEU plan which was worked on by David Davis based on the widely-welcomed Mansion House speech given by the Prime Minister.
  • The Chequers plan, which pleases no one.
  • Trade on WTO rules, which is how we already do trade with countries like the US and China.

The way forward in my view is for the Government to focus on the issues around the border between the UK and Ireland in order to secure that preferred Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (known as CETA +++).

The Government made a major mistake when it allowed the issues around the border to be settled in December 2017 before sorting out what our future trading relationship should be.

The issue of the Irish border has been used by the Taoiseach and the EU to block all avenues to a decent Brexit deal in order to try and force the UK into staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union. Remember, the EU do not want Brexit to succeed because if it does then you could have Grexit, Frexit and Spexit. Other member states would follow and their glorious plan for a united Europe under an EU banner will unravel.

In relation to the Irish border, we need to be tougher and call the EU’s bluff. Currently a border already exists between the UK and Ireland – in currency, VAT, excise duties and security which do not present any problems at all. Using new technology as well as extending schemes such as the Authorised Economic Operator scheme means any post-Brexit customs checks can be done without a hard border. The EU insists on customs checks but in reality no UK or Irish Government would ever accept a hard border. Those making the case for the Chequers plan off the back of threats about the Irish border are simply playing into the EU’s hands.

It’s imperative that we bear in mind that the Chequers plan is not a deal. I keep hearing colleagues referring to it as a good deal. But it’s not a deal, it’s an opening offer to the EU to be compromised and watered down. Already the EU is pushing the UK towards a combination of EEA and Customs Union membership which would be an unacceptable undermining of the public vote to leave the EU.

The commitments, promises and pledges given either at the Dispatch Box or in speeches by the Prime Minister, we have been told, have now “evolved”. That is gloss to justify the Chequers plan departing from the Lancaster House speech and handing away the prizes of Brexit. With Chequers we would end up with the status quo but none of the benefits. The UK would be worse off. It’s not in the country’s best interests.

Now don’t just take my word for it on the perils of the Chequers plan. Listen to the public. The Times recently reported that “by more than two to one, voters do not believe [Theresa May’s] plan keeps faith with the referendum result”. Moreover, recent opinion polling since Chequers shows that the Conservatives have averaged 37% and not led Labour in a single poll.

The voters are clearly unhappy with the Chequers plan and their confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver Brexit has plummeted. 17.4 million people voted for the UK to leave the EU. If Brexit is not delivered properly, there will be severe consequences at the ballot box.

Now, I’ve heard it being argued that we have to back the practical Chequers plan or we’ll end up with Corbyn in Downing Street. That’s a ridiculous argument. In reality, if the Conservatives don’t deliver Brexit fully, we will lose seats like Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Moray and many more. To fail on Brexit would usher in the chaos of Corbyn. Get Chequers, get Corbyn at the next General Election.

This White Paper is an unmitigated disaster that has crossed the very red lines set out by the Prime Minister. It rows back on the pledges made at Lancaster House and sets us on a course to become a voiceless EU rule taker and subordinate to the ECJ. It is not the Brexit we were promised. It does not deliver on the referendum result. Therefore I will be working with colleagues to constructively engage with the Government on the alternatives and I hope that the Government engages with us with an open mind.