The leaked plan of how the Government might try to sell the Brexit deal contains a telling passage. The memo instructs the Cabinet Office to talk up the agreement by ‘comparing it to no deal but not to our current deal’. For all the claims by a government spokesman that the ‘misspelling and childish language in this document should be enough to make clear it doesn’t represent the government’s thinking’, this key phrase is the closest we have come to a disturbing admission: that Theresa May’s deal could leave us worse off than remaining in the EU.
The suggestion that this might be the case – coupled with the speed with which it seems Downing Street wants to market the deal to MPs and business leaders once an agreement is struck – appears to show just how desperate May is to have a Brexit deal in place by Christmas. And she will do it regardless of the cost. The Prime Minister’s famous pledge that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ now seems like a distant memory.
May knows she is woefully unprepared for an acrimonious exit from the EU and believes that no deal would plunge the country into chaos. But in making that so obvious, and by failing to have a contingency plan, she has left herself exposed.
The genius of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has been to trick the UK into thinking there is only one plan it can follow: it must accept indefinite membership of the customs union unless it is prepared to trigger a hard border with Northern Ireland. May has fallen straight into his trap. She has refused to play her one calling card – no deal – for fear of rocking the boat. This is despite the fact that no deal would sidestep the Irish border dilemma and throw the ball back into the EU’s court: they would be the ones choosing to construct the border between Northern Ireland and South, disrupting trade and possibly peace.
Theresa May is afraid of no deal because it would give the EU a license to potentially punish Britain with gridlocks at Calais and hostile trade agreements. But Brussels wants to make an example of Britain even if it opts for May’s deal: it will kick an EU trade deal into the long grass and keep Britain in the customs union for as long as it can.
Under May’s Brexit deal, global trade deals would be out of the question. We would still be bound by Brussels’ standards and regulations and yet enjoy none of the benefits of being a voting member. No wonder Number 10 appears to be reluctant to compare its Brexit deal to the status quo.