Theresa May still holds the initiative over her Brexiteer critics. But she needs a new Big Idea – fast

The Sunday Times report that No 10 have been gaming a general election, although now comprehensively played down in the Times, is evidence that the options are tightening as much for  her party critics as the prime minster.

The initial reports  claimed that Brexiteer cabinet ministers were  putting her under pressure today to abandon  the Chequers plan and  reinstate a version of  David Davis’s “Canada plus, plus, plus” plan she rejected at the Chequers  cabinet  awayday  that provoked the resignations of Boris Johnson and Davis himself .  To cover their U turn within 24 hours, the Times headlines a new element, an open door for EU immigrants for the transition period put forward by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, as the latest bone of cabinet contention.   While Brexit strategy is inevitably more fluid than the tone of May’s “take it or leave it” combative statement on Friday suggests, she has not abandoned Chequers. The substance of her statement contained the pledge “we are ready” to continue negotiating if the EU offers more than a sharp rebuff.  She is not one to change tack easily.

In Brexit circles, “Canada” is back in vogue as more like the clean break trading agreement they much prefer. For much the same reason, it might even be preferred by the EU. It might even swing a cabinet majority.  May will therefore come under pressure to shift her position just as Davis, Johnson and other Brexiteers, back a version plan drawn up by the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank.

The IEA plan is unveiled today in ConservativeHome. It recommends a Canada-style deal using technology, trusted trader schemes and a separate Anglo-Irish trade treaty on goods to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic.

Plan A+ puts forward a new approach to a backstop for Northern Ireland that would allow the Withdrawal Agreement to be concluded on the basis of a framework for a free trade agreement for the whole of the UK and the EU. In effect, the parties would agree an optimal framework of a comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA), including advanced customs cooperation, service provisions and regulatory coherence, to be set out in principle in the Withdrawal Agreement and finalised during the transition period.

The backstop that would come into effect if such agreement were not be concluded by the end of the transition period would be a basic FTA, focused on goods and customs cooperation, and a commitment by the UK and the EU to deploy best practice and the necessary resources to provide for all customs clearance activity to take place away from the border.

Unlike the model in the Chequers proposal, the kind of FTA envisaged in Plan A+ would enable the UK to move away from increasingly prescriptive, anti-innovation EU regulation and take a direction that favours competition, free trade and consumer welfare. Some raise fears that this kind of approach means abandoning regulations that protect the safety of consumers.

But “Canada” has four major drawbacks. One, it fails adequately to address the EU’s legal case and assumes a fresh start. Too late.  Two, it omits most services, 80% of British output.  Major areas like fisheries, aviation and security would be left to a vaguer political declaration of the future framework, to be negotiated. Three, it would widen divisions between supporters of as clean a break as possible and those who favour a closer relationship. And four, the EU’s version of  the backstop on Northern Ireland. a UK anathema, would kick in. All parties to the negotiations have already dismissed the European Research Group’s prescriptions for the border.

Could there be a mix of both? A transition period titling towards “Norway” would allow continuing UK/EU alignment on customs and the single market and create space for a final deal also covering services, closer to “Canada.”

Arch Remoaner Nicky Morgan MP makes the pitch for “Norway.”

My preference, and that of many other MPs, is for the UK to follow the Norway model: to re-join EFTA and, through that pillar, remain in the EEA. There are a number of Leavers who also could accept this model – or would have done had the Prime Minister’s red lines not been set down so hard and fast so early on in the Brexit process, leading them to imagine that a clean break from the EU is both possible (it isn’t: even on WTO terms we would need to continue to cooperate with the EU on security, aviation, borders, etc) and desirable.

If we make a conscious decision to opt for Norway now we would leave the EU – thus honouring the 2016 referendum result – and, more particularly, leave the EU’s political institutions.

Such a sequence could narrow the gasp within the Conservative party. But the Irish border would remain the problem.

So; any route has its cul de sacs. Can a revised package be devised in time or will it emerge as the outcome of  the next few weeks of negotiations with Chequers still the UK template?  Discussion of the options in general political terms has tended to create a starker binary choice than appears when policymakers go into detail. This explains why the politics look dire but elements common to all the options remain in play, waiting to be packaged in acceptable form.

One option for the border hinted at by Theresa May was an Assembly role for administering a solution with the ability to change it by consent. While in itself this seems absurd at the moment, one can envisage a north –south, British/Irish bespoke inspection regime on both islands as part of a treaty extension of the GFA, administered jointly by both governments and monitored by the EU. A reconstituted Assembly could in time take over the Northern end of many new-north-south arrangements as a body representing both EU and British citizens.

The crucial votes in Parliament on the withdrawal agreement are due after the EU summit in mid October is supposed to clinch it. But these are likely to be postponed until after the emergency summit in November.  In advance, there’s just too little time to mount a basic challenge to Theresa May short of forcing a meltdown. .Even the most efficient form of pressure, for Conservative MPs to force a leadership challenge, would require the suspension of the negotiations beyond the end of the year.  The tightness of the timetable then, is to May’s advantage for now.

As Nicky Morgan says:

the most important calculation for Downing Street now is the parliamentary arithmetic. There is no majority in the Commons for no deal, there is no majority for CETA Mark II, at the moment there is no majority for a second referendum. But there is a majority for EFTA/EEA. It is time for the Government to work out how they get from Friday’s statement to a deal which the Commons will approve. And they don’t have long to do it.

May will have to steer a tricky course at her party conference next week.  But the pressure on her is unlikely to  peak before she returns from Brussels and puts a withdrawal agreement before MPs in mid November – or no deal.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London