Another Brexit fingertrap for the govt

Finger trap: the government is being tested by its own criteria
Finger trap: the government is being tested by its own criteria
Ian Dunt By

Today's report by the Brexit select committee provides a third fingertrap, to complement the ones which already exist in Brussels and on the opposition benches. In each case they hold the government to an impossible test, which they have set themselves, and try to force a soft Brexit outcome on them when they inevitably fail to achieve it.

In the case of Brussels, this involves demanding that Westminster live up to its promise that the Irish border remain frictionless, with 'full regulatory alignment' as the backstop if it fails. In the case of the opposition, it involves demanding that ministers secure the "exact same benefits" as single market and customs union membership, or they will vote against the deal and have parliament take control of the process from there.

Today's select committee report is more thorough, but less powerful. It has a long list of demands, many of which the government has no hope of achieving. They include:

  • An open border in Ireland with "no physical infrastructure"
  • No tariffs on trade between the EU and UK
  • No additional border or country-of-origin checks
  • No additional costs to UK businesses trading with Europe in either goods or services
  • UK financial services selling into the European market "as at present"
  • Convergence with EU laws "in all relevant areas"
  • Continued participation in Horizon 2020, Erasmus and various EU agencies

In short, it cannot be done. The Irish border problem remains impossible to solve if you leave the single market and customs union. The idea businesses would face no additional costs, even in soft Brexit, is for the birds. There's no way that financial services firms will sell into Europe "as at present".


What happens when the government inevitably fails the tests? The committee recommends that Britain does a Norway and joins Efta and then the EEA - staying embedded within the EU ecosystem, taking on EU rules and basically executing the softest of all possible Brexits. "Efta/EEA membership remains an alternative which would have the advantage of continuity of access for UK services and could also be negotiated relatively quickly," they conclude.

In all these cases, critics of the British government are taking it at its original word. Not its word now, when Theresa May walks around like some kind of zombie hostage and David Davis looks like he hasn't slept in 50 years. But the promises from before the brutal hangover morning that is 2018, when the two of them were full of drunken joy, promising that Brexit would be the land of milk and honey, libelling Remainers on a daily basis and insisting, above all else, that everything would be terribly simple.

They must now be nursing those weary heads and regretting all their terrible foolishness, like someone waking up after an office party and remembering what they told that colleague they always fancied. Brussels, the Labour leadership and now the Brexit select committee have taken them at their word. They took those drunken promises and set them out as the formal basis upon which the government should be judged.

The committee, of course, split along Remain-Leave lines in publishing the report. Member Jacob Rees-Mogg disassociated himself from the tests. He told Politico:

"The high priests of Remain on the select committee voted through another report seeking to thwart Brexit by stealth. This serves no useful purpose as select committees' reports are only influential if they are unanimous — dividing on Leave-Remain lines just refights the referendum."

We now live in the land of impossible tests and Rees-Mogg's is as impossible as those the committee set. There is no scrutiny of Brexit he will allow without branding it an attempt to "thwart Brexit by stealth". When you make it clear that no bridges can ever be built, don't be surprised when everyone else just gets on with things without you.

It's plainly true that the committee loses authority when Leavers divorce themselves from its findings. But the choice they face is between that eventuality and having Leavers just neuter the body altogether. They've evidently decided to take the least painful of the two options.

Does the committee gain anything by setting these tests? After all, it can't force the EEA option. Unlike Brussels, which can credibly get that backstop solution into the treaty, or Labour, which has the power to whip MPs against the final deal, the committee is ultimately fairly toothless.

There is some power there though, in the form of influence. It can inform MPs as to what the government originally claimed it could secure and the basis upon which they should therefore vote in autumn, when the Brexit deal comes back to parliament. It seems to be trying to install the mental architecture for how that judgement should eventually be made, and alluding to various alternate models in the event of a rejection. It's relatively minor work, but useful.

There is full steam ahead for Brexit now that the transition has been agreed. But everywhere the government looks there are carefully laid traps, both at home and abroad, which hold it to its own nonsense rhetoric. Today's is another one, which could ultimately prove quite useful down the line.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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