So much has happened since the publication of Theresa May’s latest Brexit proposal at the, now infamous, Chequers meeting on the 6th July.
The Prime Minister has faced a backlash from both brexiteers and remainers. She has endured resignations from senior members of the Cabinet. She narrowly avoided defeat on a key amendment to the Trade Bill that would have forced the UK to remain part of the Customs Union unless a suitable alternative was agreed by early next year. Her saviour? A small group of rebel Labour MPs who favour Brexit to counter-act the rebellion from Pro-European Conservatives. Four Labour MPs voted with the Government (a swing of 8 votes). The Government won by just 6 votes. Rumours have since circulated that if the vote had gone the other way, the Government would have faced a vote of confidence next day.
Following ATCM’s attendance at of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions on the 20th July, we now learn that nearly 40 Brexit supporting Conservative MPs want a leadership contest. With pressure from all sides, it’s fair to say that the minority Government faces the most extraordinary game of chess following the Chequers meeting.
So, what are the key points from the Chequers White Paper, and why is there concern from so many MPs?
The Chequers White Paper recommends a free trade area for goods between the UK and the EU to avoid friction at the border and to protect jobs, especially in Northern Ireland where the UK shares a land border with the EU. The UK and EU would maintain a common rulebook for all goods including agri-food by committing to harmonisation with EU rules. This would not extend to services.
The White Paper recommends a fair trading environment is sustained with the UK committing to apply a common rulebook on state aid and maintain standards on environment, climate change, consumer protection, and employment.
These proposals have received mixed responses across the Brexit divide with supporters and critics on both sides. There is concern from both pro-Brexit and pro-European MPs that this halfway house is unsatisfactory because if commits the UK to aligning to EU law without getting a seat at the table to shape these laws. UK Parliament will have the option of vetoing new laws but under the understanding that no alignment with EU laws could bring the arrangement to an end with potential consequences for the Irish border and free trade agreement.
The EU, on the other hand, might point to this arrangement as the UK attempting to cherry pick favourable elements of the Single Market which is something it has resisted so far.
The White Paper also recommends a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and EU. The UK would apply tariffs and trade policy for goods designated for the UK, and EU tariffs and trade policy for goods designated for the EU.
In our EU Referendum Briefing Paper published over two years ago, we stated then that uncertainty and the Irish Border would both be significant issues which the UK and EU would need to overcome.
This detailed proposal is a step forward to reducing uncertainty but the response from Parliament has been mixed with suggestions that there now may be no parliamentary majority for any option, whether hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. To be clear, the vast majority of Conservative MPs voted with the Government during the recent big showdowns in the Commons, and the vast majority of Labour MPs voted with the opposition, but with a minority Government that is only able to command a slim majority by virtue of an alliance with the DUP, it does not take many rebels on either side to influence a vote. And the Government has to add the EU to the mix as it’s very likely its proposals will come under some pressure from the negotiators.
Our members in Ireland and Northern Ireland have outlined the need to sustain an open border to support towns on both sides. There is a strong appetite for this from many. For ATCM, this remains one of the biggest challenges for the UK departing the EU. Our Border Towns statement has already been shared with the Irish Government and will be shared with the UK Government, the opposition and the European Commission.
ATCM has gone further by supporting the Heritage Council’s workshops which bring together Border Towns to discuss shared challenges and offer solutions.
The twists and turns of Brexit are not over yet. It would take a brave commentator to guess what happens next in this game of chess.