Theresa May’s Chequers agreement reminds me of the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch. The parrot is the agreement. Michael Palin, the shopkeeper, is the Prime Minister. And John Cleese, the customer, is political reality.
Cleese argues that the parrot “is no more”, that it is “bereft of life”, and that it is an “ex-parrot”. Palin asks “what’s wrong with it?”. Cleese responds,”‘e’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it”. But Palin resists, arguing that the dead parrot, nailed to its perch, is merely resting.
Whichever way you look at it, the Chequers agreement is dead.
Let’s examine the various possible scenarios.
Scenario one sees Chequers rejected by Brussels because of a red line on the “indivisibility” of the EU’s four freedoms. In short, they refuse any attempt to opt out of freedom of movement of people, as the Chequers plan outlines.
Scenario two sees the EU accept the Chequers agreement, subject to major conditions: the UK has to accept EU employment law, environmental regulations, and customs policies. This would almost certainly be too high a price, and the UK would reject it.
Scenario three sees the EU accept the agreement with minor revisions, which are acceptable to the UK government. However, this would merely shift the focus back to the House of Commons and be rejected by Conservative backbenchers in the ERG group, and also MPs in constituencies with small majorities where people voted Leave.
Scenario four sees the Prime Minister trying to secure opposition votes to get the legislation through parliament. But this would surely lead to open warfare in the Conservative party and guarantee 48 signatories calling for a leadership election.
Each scenario leads to Cleese saying, “look matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one”. Either the EU or May’s own MPs will confirm that the Chequers agreement is dead.
The biggest surprise is that she has managed to hoodwink us for so long that the parrot is only resting. Boris Johnson, David Davis, and MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have dismissed the central plank of the agreement – the customs partnership – in the most withering terms.
The Prime Minister and her supporters are merely rattling the cage in an attempt to make the parrot move. But all it does is confirm that it is dead.
In other words, we’re staring a no deal Brexit in the face. This is already being presented as a political and economic failure. But, as organisations such as Economists for Free Trade (which I am a member of) have shown since the referendum, in order to make the UK economy thrive post-Brexit, we need to be outside both the Single Market and the customs union.
We must be able to put “skin in the game” in free trade negotiations across the globe. And that means moving away from the corpse of Chequers, towards something new.
In the Monty Python sketch, Palin eventually accepts reality, but then makes the situation even more complicated by coming up with the solution that Cleese needs to go to the pet shop run by Palin’s brother in Bolton, in order to obtain a refund.
Let’s hope the Prime Minister doesn’t make the same mistake.