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September 12, 2018

It is easy to criticise Chequers but very hard to come up with an alternative

It is not that easy to come up with an alternative to Chequers that resolves the Irish border question by respecting the need for no customs borders for trade goods. Even those most critical of Chequers - the various members of the strangely-named European Research Group - cannot come up with an alternative as George Parker reports. The reason is that they are hopelessly divided over Brexit themselves. The failure by the ERG to agree on its own long-promised blueprint is perhaps the best hope to rally sufficient support around the Chequers deal when push comes to shove, he writes.

The ERG last week produced a draft that was loosely based on a Canada-type deal, but that draft is now off the table. As Parker notes, the eurosceptics in the ERG are united only in their support for Brexit in principle, but not on the details. The group includes people like John Redwood, the former Tory cabinet minister, who would be most happy with a no-deal Brexit while others take a totally opposite position. 

The Sun, meanwhile, believes that the draft has only been shelved temporarily and will resurface soon. The proposal would solve the Irish border problem by keeping the border open and deploying flying squads of tax inspectors to make spot checks, the paper can reveal. We can reveal that if this mad proposal ever made its way to a negotiating table in Brussels, it would be rejected by the EU. The truth is that it is far too late now for any alternative to Chequers.

Rafael Behr, a Guardian columnist who has been supporting a hard Remain position, i.e. advocating a second referendum, writes that his lot face a big hurdle. Most Brits want the government to get on with it:

"Disengagement is the biggest obstacle to the cause of reversing Brexit. Now unrepentant remainers also come across as cranks, banging on about Europe in ways that cause agnostic eyes to glaze over. I have seen research in this area for one pro-European campaign group, and it is a rebuke to anyone who follows each twist of the negotiations, each barrage in the Tory civil war, and imagines that the nation is gripped."

Apart from agreeing a deal with the EU, Theresa May faces two specific hurdles on the road towards parliamentary approval. The first is a possible leadership challenge. This is both a threat and an opportunity. She has a reasonable chance to see it off and, if she did, she would remain unchallenged for at least another year. If elections were held in that period she would be the candidate. Voting in favour of a deal would then be the only way for the Tories to prevent her from triggering an election and killing the leadership ambitions not only of Boris Johnson, but of everyone else around her.

The second hurdle is the potential three-way nature of the vote. Hard Remainers are talking about collusion with the hard Brexiteers, hoping that the ensuing chaos would lead to a second referendum. We think they are miscalculating but, since they have been miscalculating all along, they might still press ahead with such recklessness. Chances are that they inadvertently trigger a hard Brexit. May will need to find a way to make it absolutely clear that a No vote will indeed mean a hard Brexit. 

If we put ourselves into the prime minister’s position, we would try to get at least one friendly EU member state to declare in advance that it would not accept a request to extend the Brexit period. Or, even better, to get the entire European Council itself to make that declaration. If a deal is agreed, it will also be the EU’s deal.

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