Tucked away in Parliament and hidden in the corridors of power, a moment in history has been unfolding over recent weeks – something which will determine the future of the UK.
Largely unnoticed by a population bored of Brexit and bemused as to why we haven’t simply left the EU, the Prime Minister and her close officials have been machinating over parliamentary arithmetic and the merits of a Customs Union with the EU. Only now has it emerged into the post-Easter light that there was – and perhaps still is – a very real chance of the Prime Minister acquiescing to some form of customs union membership: a fudge to undermine Brexit by stealth and a further climb down by the Prime Minister in the face of bullying by Brussels.
The realpolitik behind all this is, however, coloured by the Gordian knot represented by the Prime Minister’s mutually exclusive commitments and red lines, the fulfilment of which depended entirely on the goodwill of Brussels – an outfit whose stated intention is to give the UK a “punishment beating” for having the audacity to leave the EU, lest others might follow suit.
The Prime Minister has committed to leave the Customs Union, to a “soft border” in Northern Ireland and to an ambition for a deep and special relationship with the EU, including as frictionless trade as possible.
These various red lines are likely to be incompatible and the net result of all this is that Mrs May is, in reality, going to be faced with a choice between three possible options.
The first option is of having a Great Britain-only Brexit and therefore leaving Northern Ireland within the EU sphere – something that she has rejected.
The second option is that of keeping the whole of the UK in the Customs Union and thus having Brexit in name only, as the UK would continue to be shackled to EU tariffs, EU trade restrictions and in practice, regulatory alignment, all overseen by the European Court of Justice.
Her final option is that of leaving the EU without a deal. This is true Brexit, but would nonetheless produce short-term disruption.
If Remainers continue to act as a fifth column, making common cause with our adversaries in Brussels, the most likely of these is that we will leave without a deal. This will be very good for the UK in the medium to long term, but not optimal.
However, the Prime Minister still has the option of playing a “get of jail card” which would produce the same result as a no-deal approach, but with minimum disruption: that is to take up the EU’s offer of a Canada-style deal and to execute that deal by October. This would allow for the free movement of the vast majority of goods and agricultural products and would enable us to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union. It would also facilitate a much shorter transition period – only as long as it takes the 27 member states to ratify the arrangement.
The Prime Minister could claim to have fulfilled all of her commitments, achieved a deal and a triumph of diplomacy.
Should seeking such a deal result in further mendacious intransigence on the part of the EU, then it will be crystal clear that our only option is to go for a clean break immediately – and that Brussels is our enemy not our friend. In which case, the Prime Minister would be entirely justified in seeking to just leave. Even the most ardent Remainers would find it difficult to argue with that.