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Only Way for Theresa May to Get a Deal Passed Is by Gaining the Support of Brexiteers

25 Jan 2019

Ryan Bourne

The Prime Minister, for now, appears to have learnt the correct
lesson from the past fortnight.

Votes cast in the parliamentary no-confidence motion and subsequent MP
manoeuvrings have convinced her that the only way to pass a
withdrawal deal by March 29 — while delivering Brexit and
maintaining her administration — is to harness the support of
Brexiteers and the DUP.

This is a daunting prospect. The vast majority of the 118 Tory
rebels and 10 DUP MPs would need to switch sides, without much
attrition the other way. But with anti-Brexit forces focusing
minds, there might, just might, be a route to a compromise that
could squeeze the deal home.

The Conservative Party,
and the country at large, now needs a full debate about the desired
long-term future economic relationship between the EU and
UK.

The first step, and most important, is to convince the EU to
time-limit the proposed “backstop” customs
arrangements. This must be buttressed with tightening the legal
text to make clear that Northern Ireland cannot be kept within such
arrangements without the rest of Great Britain.

Brexiteers don’t like the idea of any backstop and think
its inclusion in the withdrawal deal unnecessary. But if it were a
UK-wide customs arrangement, kicking in after transition for a
maximum of three years in the absence of other agreed border
solutions, many would live it with it. Such a framework could be
renewed if both the EU and UK agree. The important point though is
that a time limit would give the UK the right to unilaterally
exit.

Yes, this would require an EU and Irish climbdown and amendments
to the Withdrawal Agreement text. The scale of May’s
parliamentary defeat though appears to have convinced the EU that
movement on this would not get the deal over the line anyway.

So it’s crucial to get an indicative vote on a time limit
through Parliament, with solid support from Conservative
Brexiteers, the DUP and hopefully some open-minded Labour MPs. That
result would show the backstop remains the single biggest near-term
hindrance to passing the deal.

The EU has so far proven intransigent. But members of national
governments, not least Poland, have said a time-limited default
customs arrangement should be on the table. With the EU now
flip-flopping on whether no deal would necessitate border checks in
Ireland, their opposition to a time-limited alternative makes even
less sense.

Commentators talk about the backstop as an insurance policy. But
if you are supremely worried about the hard border you’re
insuring against, you wouldn’t spurn insurance for a few
years on the basis that you weren’t guaranteed insurance
forever.

The EU’s current public position, given the rejection of
the deal, is therefore not credible. It should recognise that no
sovereign country could accept — as the UK is being asked
— to bind itself to potentially permanent economic
arrangements with no right of exit.

Indeed, the EU’s unwillingness to negotiate on this taps
into Brexiteer fears that the backstop is not so much about the
border, but about shaping future trade arrangements (particularly
for Northern Ireland). A time limit goes some way to allay these
fears by removing that default.

Such a move is necessary but not sufficient to get other
Brexiteers on board. Changes to the Withdrawal Agreement would have
to be buttressed by changes to the political declaration, such that
Brexiteers did not feel the UK was handing over £39bn of taxpayer
funds only for the future trade agreement to be impossible.

Second, then, the Prime Minister should request removing
language from that declaration that suggests the future partnership
will build on the backstop customs arrangements set out. This is
not merely symbolic. Most Brexiteers want Britain to control its
own tariffs, to be able to conduct an independent global trade
policy and to take a full role at the World Trade Organisation.

Yes, the PM would have to be careful here not to haemorrhage
other support by overly specifying a Brexiteer-friendly free-trade
agreement. But the “Conservatives for a customs union”
cohort is relatively small.

Provided the political declaration is kept general enough to
attract the support of those Conservatives favouring everything
from a long-term Canada-style deal through to those who’d
ideally prefer deeper relations but who will prioritise an orderly
Brexit, this should add up to some more votes.

Finally, the Prime Minister must recognise on this point that
she has personally lost the faith of her party and the DUP in
negotiating that future relationship. The way she blindsided
ministers in the Brexit department on the withdrawal deal, breached
the trust of unionists, and wasted time pushing the deal despite
absence of support, has undermined faith in her abilities.

The Conservative Party, and the country at large, now needs a
full debate about the desired long-term future economic
relationship between the EU and UK. That requires a leadership
contest and a change of direction. As such, Theresa May should
explicitly commit to resigning once a revised Withdrawal Agreement
is passed by the Commons.

Now all this is a big ask. The EU must play ball. Theresa May
would have to cede her premiership and her desired future EU-UK
partnership. But large groups could come out with credit.
Brexiteers and the DUP could argue they compromised on a withdrawal
deal containing much they didn’t like, but that they helped
secure the Union, avoided the vassalage of the backstop and kept
the Brexiteer free-trading vision alive.

The Prime Minister could rightly argue she ultimately delivered
an orderly Brexit, resisting those who would have overturned the
result. Labour moderates could have a crucial role too, knowing
their votes on a revised deal could swing whether a no-deal Brexit
is avoided for some, and giving cover to others in Leave-voting
constituencies.

All sides could then participate in an open debate on the
UK’s future economic relationship going into the 2022
election, without the current backstop prejudicing these
visions.

Ryan Bourne
holds the R Evan Scharf chair for the public understanding of
economics at the Cato Institute.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal