If the impact of this UKIP-controlled cabinet in separating the Party from its core, educated voter base could be described as “unmanaged divergence”, so this week we have the latest slogan from No 10 – “Managed divergence”.
As a compromise between soft and hard leavers, this apparently involves sorting out the key areas in which we have been following EU regulations into three “baskets”, some of which will continue to be closely aligned, some of which will diverge in implementation method but not objectives and some of which will diverge completely. (Our suspicion at TAB is that the baskets will get so heavy they will need to be put into suitcases, so becoming basket cases…….).
The problem with this approach is that it continues to reflect the “have your cake and eat it” approach first elucidated by Mrs May over 18 months ago and dismissed out of hand by the EU immediately.
Ministers are ridiculing the EU’s position as merely the posturing at the start of a negotiation – and normally one might give credence to that. In this case, however, there are quite a few factors which mean it’s unlikely to be the case:
Firstly, because the EU is not a nimble negotiator. With a consensus required among 27 countries, they first work out their position and then give it to their negotiating team. If Mr Barnier’s mandate is not to agree to cherry-picking, he won’t be able to. So while one may sympathise with the UK team in having to negotiate with a team that can’t make big decisions (it’s an awful and frustrating position to be put in), let’s not pretend they have not been given notice of that repeatedly.
Secondly, because if the EU allows departing nations to pick and choose the bits of “Europe” they like, it would set a terrible precedent. There is no way the EU can let the UK end up better off out than it. It would be an existential threat to itself.
Thirdly, because the EU negotiating position is just so much stronger than ours. That’s not “talking Britain down” (I only wish it were). It’s recognising that a market of 500 million people, no country in which sends more than 8% of its exports to the UK, is in a much stronger position than a country of 60 million which send 44% of its exports to the EU.
Finally, there is a gun to our head. Even Brextremists recognise that the UK hasn’t even begun to prepare for a “no deal” Brexit, with the necessary procedures, customs posts, dockside parking etc which would be required. But the clock is ticking – in just 13 months, we are supposed to leave and, as the deadline nears, so our desperation for any deal at all will increase daily. We will have no choice but to take what we are given – truly, a “bend-over Brexit”. By triggering Article 50 a year before she had any idea where she wanted to take the UK, Theresa May has put the noose around our necks – and surely around hers too.
And let’s not forget that momentum is building towards a Commons majority for staying in the Customs Union – which well and truly scuppers the Cabinet’s position.
In the end, the truth will out – it is more blessed to merge than diverge. We will stay in because the options for leaving are all, without exception, a total shambles.