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2 July 2018

How a Norway-style Brexit would put Theresa May’s premiership at risk

The power of Conservative Brexiteers has always been that they are willing to break their own government. 

By Stephen Bush

The week is barely a few hours old but everyone is already looking forward to Friday and another make-or-break episode of Name That Brexit! In this week’s adventure, the gang head to Chequers to hammer out a compromise over customs.

But Theresa May might already have made her choice, according to the Times‘ Oliver Wright. Olly Robbins, her top Brexit civil servant, has told the cabinet what ought not to be, but somehow is, news to them: that there are only two flavours of deal on offer: a Canada-style high regulatory freedom, low market access arrangement or a Norway-style arrangement of low regulatory freedom and high market access. And one government figure tells Wright that “Downing Street is moving towards the Norwegian model.”

Even if you buy the Johnsonian argument that in the long term everything we know about trade flows and growth is wrong and that the United Kingdom will be better off with a high freedom, low market access Brexit, the problem, as John Maynard Keynes once said, is that in the long term we’re all dead and in the short term Jeremy Corbyn beats you in the general election. Or words to that affect, at any rate.

For any sensible government with an eye on the next election, Norway is always going to better than the alternative. But what about insensible backbenchers? In today’s Telegraph, Jacob Rees-Mogg warns the PM that if she backslides on Brexit, there will be hell to pay.

Of course, the problem that Rees-Mogg and the other committed Brexiteers in the European Research Group have is that there aren’t enough of them to bring down May alone. They can call a confidence vote in her leadership of the Conservative Party but they can’t win one. They could join the opposition parties in voting no confidence in the government, but that doesn’t advance their preferred Brexit model either.

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But they have one important asset, too: their willingness to vote against the government if the final deal isn’t to their liking. Whatever happens, Labour will vote against the deal as that’s the only way to keep their electoral coalition on the road and their parliamentary party even vaguely united. The SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas all will too. Now it’s an awfully big step to vote against your government’s own deal in a vote that could trigger another election. But the power of Conservative Brexiteers has always come from the fact that, unlike their pro-European counterparts, they are willing to break their own governments. The chances of enough of them – remember, they only need seven – breaking ranks to vote down May’s deal are higher than they look.