May’s Brexit white paper finally provides clarity – neither MPs nor the EU will accept it

The Prime Minister is stuck between a rock and a hard place: her plans aren’t soft enough for Labour or Brussels, but are too soft for Tory Eurosceptics.

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With today’s release of the white paper laying out the government’s plans for Brexit, Theresa May has finally given MPs and the EU27 the clarity they have been begging for.

Unfortunately, the only thing it really clarifies is that, in their current form, the government’s Brexit proposals will neither pass parliament nor be accepted by Brussels. 

Until today, the government’s problem was a lack of detail. Now there is plenty of it, but it’s almost exclusively the wrong detail as far as the people with whom May is negotiating in Brussels and Westminster are concerned.

It underlines a truth from which May hasn’t yet found an escape: that the Brexit she is proposing is too soft for a critical mass of her MPs, and neither soft nor hard enough for Brussels. 

While there has been a qualified welcome for some aspects of the paper from the EU – the European Parliament has welcomed its call for a Ukraine-style association agreement, for instance, and Ireland has welcomed its language on the backstop proposal for the border – it is clear that Brussels will demand further concessions.

Too many cherries are picked for it to be acceptable, and its convoluted, untested Frankenstein customs model – the facilitated customs arrangement – has already been privately dismissed as unworkable. 

Ordinarily, May would expect these sorts of problems to be ironed into a palatable compromise over the course of a negotiation. But as far as dozens of her own MPs are concerned, it is already a compromise too far; and no matter how many overtures Downing Street makes to Labour, its MPs will not vote for it. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg has dismissed its contents as “not something I would vote for nor... what the British people voted for”. Tory MP after Tory MP – more than enough to wipe out the government’s commons majority – made similar complaints in the Commons this afternoon.

The only way the Prime Minister could get them back on side would be to significantly harden the stances laid out in the white paper – which in most areas would effectively see the UK bend over backwards to maintain the same sort of economic relationship it currently has with the EU. 

To strike a deal with Brussels or have any hope of convincing any Labour MPs to cancel out those Tory rebels, May inevitably has to move in the opposite direction – that is, moving further into the vassaldom that is already exercising dozens of her MPs. Moving the other way means breaking promises on the Irish border. 

But regardless of the direction she chooses, there is one certainty: that the chances of a no deal Brexit being forced upon her are getting higher.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.