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27 September 2018

On 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. 

By Patrick Maguire

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.  

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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.)

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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.