Cabinet may be moving towards Canada. Are the DUP about to back No Deal?

Not normally the keenest of DUP watchers, the New Statesman have their eyes on Sammy Wilson, who is the DUP’s Brexit spokesman in the Commons when it isn’t Nigel Dodds. Sammy is at heart a No Deal man. While I believe Chequers has the legs to move closer to Norway (these images become more bizarre by the day), Canada is now said to be favoured by a cabinet cabal – but not by Sammy, who has spoken against it . But let’s face it; Theresa May did notice when she ruled Canada out on the plane to New York. Weren’t those cabinet members listening? Or did they not care?

Who in the government is working on the DUP these days I wonder? It used to be Gavin Williamson, the chief whip who negotiated the DUP deal, now Defence Secretary. The NI Secretary then James Brokenshire was expressly excluded from the negotiations to keep him pure to govern impartiality as the GFA requires.   Let’s hope his successor is excluded too; otherwise we’re certain to fall off that cliff.

From the New Statesman

In Brexit, the cabinet and the DUP are moving in different directions

Ministers want May to pursue a Canada-style agreement as a plan B to avoid no deal. But it has been rejected by the DUP and instead they should be pushing for a softer, not harder, Brexit.

Is a bad deal better than no deal? That is the conclusion several members of Theresa May’s cabinet, staring down the barrel of parliament’s imminent rejection of her Chequers plan, have reached this week.

Today’s Times reports that several ministers – including Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, and Sajid Javid – want the prime minister to pursue a Canada-style free trade agreement deal with the EU if it rejects her plans.

May said last week that doing so would amount to a “bad deal” – on the grounds that it would “break up the United Kingdom” – and would thus mean no deal. (Northern Ireland would effectively have to remain part of the customs union and single market in order to prevent a hard border.)

The ministers in question are keen to avoid that. Ditching Chequers for Canada come what may – which the EU has always been happy to negotiate – is their suggested means of doing so. In that event, things would look a bit rosier for May in the immediate term: it would get her off the hook with the Brexiteers in the European Research Group, and in Brussels, as well as averting a disastrous no-deal scenario that the country is ill-prepared for.

So what’s not to like? The problem for those that would like to see May pursue a Canada-style deal is that she is right. By the government’s own standards, it would be a bad deal, as it would require differential arrangements for Northern Ireland.

This leads us to the DUP. For any deal to pass parliament, it will need their support. The problem for advocates of Canada is that they will not buy it. Sammy Wilson, its Brexit spokesman and most doctrinaire Eurosceptic, tells today’s Belfast News Letter that the Canada-style plan presented by Tory Leavers last week is too “vague and contradictory” for them to vote for. (It would not pass Labour’s six tests or the conditions for support outlined in Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech either, and nor would it win the support of pro-EU Tories.)

Wilson tells the paper:

“I am not sure if this report is deliberately vague or just not very well thought out.

“It talks about the goods which are regulated differently in EU member states, and uses the phrase ‘of which there are many’. Are they saying that the UK government would commit to, or the NI Executive would be required to commit to, copying all of the EU regulations in relation to that myriad number of goods? That is not clear.

“Also, if there was a commitment to UK law being changed only in relation to NI on a whole range of goods, then what does that do to the government’s guarantee that we would not be divorced from our main market in GB?

“For example, if the EU changed regulations on what you could have in some processed foods, would we be tied to that and would that then restrict our ability to sell to GB market? So there are worries around the vague language and the range of goods which the government could commit to changing regulations for in NI only.”

“It talks about checks being done away from the Irish border, and I have no difficulty with that.

“But why would checks need to be done if there was a guarantee that all the regulations would be similar? There would be no need.”

He adds, in what can be interpreted as a de facto official warning from the DUP leadership, that the plan is “not something that we would support”.

Such is the nature of May’s bind on Brexit. She cannot move in any direction without losing the support of a key caucus, be it the ERG or the 10 DUP MPs. And at the heart of the problem is her political inability to pursue a Brexit plan that reconciles her red lines with avoiding a hard border. If the cabinet wants to avoid a no deal, they will need to push May to soften, not harden, her Brexit.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman’s political correspondent

“SuperCanada” has Boris’s backing. And once again, he waves the border away. In doing so is the Brexiteers’ favourite for next PM dismissing Sammy’s case as well as Theresa May’s? The Irish Times has no doubts.

Boris Johnson has called on the British government to abandon the commitment it made last December to a backstop for the Border and seek to have the issue removed from the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“Go back to our EU friends and tell them that the December 8th Irish ‘backstop’ arrangement – which effectively gives Brussels the perpetual right to the economic annexation of Northern Ireland if it deems there is ever any regulatory divergence between NI and the rest of the EU – is no longer operative and no longer acceptable to this country. That means we will need a different Withdrawal Agreement, stating that the Irish border question will be settled as part of the deal on the future economic arrangements, and that both sides are committed to avoiding a hard border..

“I recognise that this would be a difficult step, given the diplomatic energy squandered on the backstop, but it cannot be acceptable that the constitution of the UK should be held to ransom in this way, or the Belfast Agreement subverted in the manner proposed by the EU.”

Has he actually considered the DUP?  If he has, does he think he can bring the likes of Sammy and Nigel round to a “de-dramatised” solution  not unlike Barnier’s?  Or is he adopting a wrecking strategy to bring May down and somehow emerge  from the ashes to back No Deal?  Perhaps those are questions for after the party conference..

Further extracts

If a Canada or SuperCanada style deal has so much to commend it, then it may be asked why the UK and the EU have not simply agreed it. The answer – so we are constantly told – is that such a deal is impractical because it would impose a new customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or somehow be contrary to the Belfast Agreement.

The UK of course accepts that the EU will insist on ensuring the integrity of the Single Market, and that some extra procedures will of course be needed – but to the extent that these are unavoidable, they can be carried out away from the border; as they are, very largely, today.  These processes can be strengthened by using the existing trusted trader schemes and by a sensible and pragmatic attitude to very local trade. They would be fully compatible with the Belfast Agreement.

Opponents of Brexit frequently try to paint such arrangements as complicated or highly unusual by international standards.  They are not. Indeed it is well known that for a year or so after the referendum the UK and Irish Governments were beginning to negotiate a facilitated border on these lines, until the EU and Ireland changed their approach during 2017.

What is true is that this border will look different to other borders around the world. That is inevitable, given the history and the sensitivities involved.  But arrangements that make it work are perfectly possible and practical, and the experience for businesses using the border can be smooth and hassle-free.

Is the EU really so dogmatic about the need for checks to take place at the Irish border – when those checks are simply not necessary – that they would throw away the chance of a giant free trade deal with Britain, in a lost opportunity that would damage Ireland more than any other EU country?

All this makes bits of  Chequers look better and better..   

The best that can be hoped for in terms of political harmony might be an indefinite grumbling truce, and the only option with any chance of achieving that is something like May’s split-the-difference approach. “Nobody likes it” may be true, but that is irrelevant to either the desirability of Chequers or its prospect of prevailing. That prospect depends overwhelmingly on whether something like it could emerge as an agreement between the UK government and the EU.

What, exactly, is the essence of Chequers, and what is dispensable? Where, in other words, can May yield once she has got through her party conference (if she is still in office then)? It has at least three components: the hybrid customs arrangement in which the UK would supposedly charge different tariffs (its own and those of the EU) depending on where an import ended up; a common rule book that the UK hopes to still have some freedom to follow or not; and the conceptual notion of frictionless trade in goods. Of these three, it is the last one May emphasises the most, such as in Salzburg where she rightly said there was “no solution that resolves the Irish border which is not based on the frictionless movement of goods”. If she prioritises Northern Ireland and the UK union over new trade deals, and industry supply chains over the City of London, she will move on the first two in order to get agreement on the last one.

And that puts the Brexiteers including the DUP,  on the spot.

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