When the House of Commons voted for Sir Graham Brady’s amendment in January, it sent a clear message that the very worst part of the Withdrawal Agreement – the Backstop – would have to be “replaced with alternative arrangements” before it could accept the Prime Minister’s deal.
It is easy to see why.
The Backstop would be an outrageous breach of the Belfast Agreement.
The UK could be locked into its arrangements indefinitely as a permanent rule-taker with no say as to how those rules are made.
The Attorney General, therefore, knows exactly what he needs to bring back from Brussels.
Better still, he goes there armed with the knowledge that the Malthouse proposals, discussed by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group in many hours of meetings with officials, are workable.
The Brexit Secretary has agreed with the EU to set up a joint Taskforce to work up the proposals in practical detail, to be deployed before the end of the Implementation Period.
He knows that if he can secure a legally-binding commitment to the solutions agreed by that Taskforce with a definite deadline, he will have succeeded.
Best of all, he knows that, even if the EU refuses to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, the Malthouse “Plan B” proposals offer a sensible route forward.
The UK can continue to offer its “Plan A” but will act to ensure that trade is not disrupted, with or without a Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK would offer to pay our net contribution of £10bn per year in exchange for going ahead with Implementation Period, while still leaving the EU on the 29th March as planned.
In parallel, it would offer legal text to support a GATT Article XXIV temporary arrangement.
This is not perfect but, as Nicky Morgan has said, “it would allow time for both parties to prepare properly for WTO terms, but also provide a period in which the parties could obviate this outcome by negotiating a mutually beneficial future relationship.”
WTO terms need not be an end state – there is nothing to stop us negotiating a trade agreement soon after Brexit – but neither are they anything to fear.
The ludicrous predictions of Project Fear have been debunked and, as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrote this week, a no-deal relationship with the EU has not stopped Australia doing $70bn worth of trade with the EU every year.
“It must baffle pundits,” he said, “but Australia trades with the EU without being part of any customs union.”
Geoffrey Cox’s objectives could not be clearer. The ERG’s group of eight senior lawyers are looking forward to assessing what he returns with.
So it is bizarre that the Prime Minister has buckled now, bending to troublemaking Remainer Ministers and opening the door to an extension of Article 50 which would surely be a trap.
EU leaders have already hinted that they will block any extension or will, at least, insist it is a one-off.
Given that, it is likely that any delay will be lengthy and – with the EU having no incentive to negotiate further – we will simply drift on in a purgatorial state.
But if the Prime Minister takes the right course, there are huge gains to be had. The Remain market for votes is getting very crowded.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, TIGgers and now even Labour are standing on a platform of overruling the largest democratic verdict in British history.
Where are the 17.4 million Leave voters and all those Conservative members loyal to the Party’s manifesto commitments to go?
The Prime Minister can answer that question.
If she delivers Brexit on time and in full, they will find their home in the Conservatives – the only Party genuinely committed to honouring the result of the 2016 referendum and securing a prosperous, independent future.
But if she does not – if she fudges, delays or reneges – then they will know exactly who to blame.
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