UK’s Brexit regulatory wish list dead before it is even articulated

New obstacle for Brexiteers in Jeremy Corbyn’s policy shift on customs union

Downing Street away day at Chequers: regulatory plan occupies no reality outside the minds of its progenitors. Photograph: Downing Street/PA

Downing Street away day at Chequers: regulatory plan occupies no reality outside the minds of its progenitors. Photograph: Downing Street/PA

 

Brexiteers were buoyant after Thursday’s eight-hour meeting at Chequers, when Theresa May’s Brexit war cabinet united behind their demand for regulatory divergence from the EU. They agreed that, in a speech next Friday, the prime minister should tell the EU that Britain wants to be free to set its own regulations after Brexit.

In return for access to the single market for goods and services, however, London would agree to align with EU regulations in some sectors, to adopt similar regulations in others, and to go its own way in a third basket of sectors. If Britain wanted to diverge from EU regulations in the aligned basket, it could do so without asking the EU’s permission. If Brussels was unhappy, it could take the issue to a new arbitration body which would be independent of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

For all its delicate complexity, this regulatory arrangement occupies no reality outside the minds of its progenitors and the EU has rejected it before May has had a chance even to articulate it.

Dream of divergence

When the Brexiteers awoke from their dream of divergence on Friday morning, it was to a fresh threat that was real, imminent and potentially fatal to their project. An amendment to the trade Bill proposed by Conservative Remainers and their Labour allies would oblige Britain to stay in a customs union with the EU after Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to change Labour’s policy on the customs union means the amendment has a serious chance of success when it is debated after Easter. May’s confidence and supply agreement with the DUP gives her a working majority of 13, so only seven Conservative rebels are necessary if all other opposition MPs vote against the government.

A number of Labour Brexiteers are likely to vote with the government, so the rebels need 10-15 Conservatives to be confident of victory. When the government was defeated on a Brexit amendment last year, only two Labour Brexiteers voted with the government.

Corbyn’s change of policy on Brexit reflects his strategy of staying one step behind the public on the issue and one step ahead of the government. The policy shift is likely to help Labour in May’s local elections in London, which is overwhelmingly anti-Brexit. And by defeating the government on a major issue, Corbyn would move closer to his goal of precipitating a general election he is confident of winning.

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