The moment of truth may really be very close – but what truth?

All we can do it count heads and count down, for the cabinet to take a decision – or non-decision – on Theresa May’s negotiating plan or face up to the serious option of No Deal. They have until Wednesday to agree proposals for triggering a late November EU summit and 21st January to seal the deal or bid to extend Article 50. Or for the Tory party to throw Mrs May out and plunge Britain into an unprecedented political crisis. At least when they toppled  Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and Anthony Eden in 1957 after the Suez debacle, obvious leaders and strategies  were right at hand.

From the sidelines, Boris Johnson calls for cabinet mutiny

No member of the Government, let alone the Cabinet, could conceivably support them, or so you would have thought. And yet the awful truth is that even if the Cabinet mutinies – as they ought – it will make little difference

The so-called Chequers proposals are in truth very far from dead. The essence of the idea – that the UK should remain in the customs union and the single market for goods and agri-food – is what the backstop entails. And you can be absolutely sure that this idea will be at the heart of the “deal” that I have no doubt the Prime Minister will shortly and magically secure.

She will delay for as long as she reasonably can, and then she will say that unless MPs sign up to this surrender, we will have the chaos of “no deal”. As a scare tactic, it is infamous. The Government has deliberately and flagrantly failed to prepare the UK to walk away from the talks, the better to be able to bludgeon MPs into voting for surrender. As a scare tactic, it is also false: yes, there might be some temporary effects, but as with the Millennium Bug I do not think the planes would fall from the sky or that medicines would have to rationed, or any of the other nonsense. And it is also false as a pair of alternatives.

There is a much, much better way forward for this country – sketched out repeatedly by myself and many others: we get rid of the backstop; we agree with the EU, the Irish and the commission that there is no need for a hard border in Ireland; and we get on with a SuperCanada free trade deal.

Writing in the Times Sam Lowe of the Centre of European Reform describes in the Times the mountain both the UK and Northern Ireland would have to climb, whatever course is adopted over the backstop.

“If reports are correct, the landing zone for Northern Ireland and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is in sight. If, by December 2020, the future trading arrangements between the UK and EU fail to obviate the need for physical infrastructure or associated checks on the land border with Ireland, the UK will face a decision: whether to extend the standstill transition period or enter into a “backstop” that would mean Northern Ireland remaining effectively in the EU’s single market for goods and agrifood, supplemented by an EU-UK customs union.

It’s worth noting that an ultimate insurance policy, or backstop to the backstop, that means Northern Ireland exclusively remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market for goods will probably continue to lurk within the agreed text.

In all likelihood, even if the future trading arrangements were to be deep enough to avoid a hard Irish border, just under two years will not be long enough to conclude negotiations. This will require one of the two options to be taken, but which?

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is reported to favour extending the transition period over entering into a backstop. From an economic perspective this is the logical choice. During the transition, UK businesses trading with the EU will continue to do so on the same terms as now. However, politically, it could be difficult; extending the transition would mean continued freedom of movement and additional payments to the EU.

The alternative of moving into the UK’s proposed backstop comes with its own issues. While the backstop would ensure the UK as a whole remains a single customs territory, it would erect an intra-UK regulatory border in the Irish sea, with some new checks required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The backstop would also mean new barriers for UK trade with the EU. While an EU-UK customs union would remove the burden of rules of origin – meaning that tariff-free trade would not be conditional on exporters demonstrating their products are sufficiently local – it would still create more friction at the border and bureaucracy.

For example, unless supplementary provisions were included, companies trading with the EU would be required to deal with import and export declarations; products of animal origin sold to the EU would need to enter via veterinary border inspection posts where they would be subject to document, identity and physical inspections; VAT would become payable upon import, causing cash-flow issues for some companies; and selling services into the EU would become significantly more difficult.

Some barriers are not so obvious, but could be just as cumbersome. While British companies currently able to self-certify products to European standards would still be able to place the European mark on their goods, the relevant technical dossier would now need to be held by an EU-based representative or the importer, who would now be liable if something were to be amiss.

Ultimately, entering into the proposed backstop means asking business to adapt twice: once when it comes into force, and then perhaps once more when a final EU-UK relationship – that might resolve many of the issues stated above – is concluded.

However, going the backstop route would mean the UK had taken a step further in its quest to extricate itself from the EU. Being in a customs union would place some constraints on UK trade policy – specifically its ability to unilaterally amend its import tariffs – but it would, theoretically, be free to negotiate new international agreements covering other areas such as services, intellectual property, data and procurement. It would also be free to tweak domestic regulation in areas it had previously faced EU constraints (with the caveat that the EU will insist on safeguards to ensure a level playing field and prevent competitive deregulation).

All of the above assumes the withdrawal agreement is signed and ratified and the agreed Northern Irish protocol looks something like what has been articulated here. But both options – transition extension or embracing the backstop – only exist to further postpone the inevitable. The UK will eventually need to embrace the consequences of its decisions; if it wants a Canada-style trade agreement then Northern Ireland will require its own distinct relationship with the EU.

A closer UK-EU relationship might ensure an all-UK solution, but it would constrain Britain’s ability to act entirely independent of EU influence. And so it ever was”.

 

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