There is a reason why Theresa May was elected Conservative Party leader and PM in 2016. The Brexiteers believed that she was secretly one of them; the Remainers that she was still one of them. By triggering Article 50, she sustained the support of the former; in the form of the December 2017 draft Withdrawal Agreement, she gave some reassurance to the latter. But at some point, it seemed clear that she would eventually have more fundamentally to disappoint one or the other. Hence the long, damaging, delay in arriving at a U.K. plan.
In the wake of the Chequers agreement, the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson might suggest that the British Prime Minister has chosen to side with the Remainers. But in Brexit, nothing is ever that simple. With arch-Remainer Peter Mandelson condemning the Chequers plan, and Labour saying they are opposed, has Theresa May managed to satisfy no-one?
Yet, several leading Brexiteers remain in the Cabinet. For them, Brexit means Brexit and the fact of leaving is sufficient in itself and they will take their chances on the scope for regulatory divergence and independent trade deals over time. The Cabinet Remainers are sticking with a soft exit, believing it can mitigate substantially the disruptive risks of a cliff-edge departure.
For the EU institutions, they have a choice. A legalistic response, making the UK’s continued participation in EU rules, programmes and Agencies dependent on a rigid adherence to the four freedoms; or a political deal, recognising that a substantive acceptance that the U.K. is out of freedom of movement, with cosmetic deals on ECJ, can deliver a high degree of continuity. Britain was a semi-detached EU member in any case; now it will be detached. Political realism.
Nonetheless, the EU is asked to allow the U.K. to keep most of the EU cake whilst eating Brexit. Take the example of health-related issues: the U.K. is asking for mutual recognition of professional qualifications, as now; participation in all technical aspects of the European Medicines Agency (without voting rights) including safety and clinical trial frameworks ; reciprocal healthcare cover for state pensioners ( as if the U.K. were still in the Social Security Regulations); continued participation in the EHIC scheme; health security cooperation; participation in European Reference Networks; and in EU research funding programmes.
There are good reasons why both sides should agree to this level of cooperation; but the overall effect is to sustain the UK’s involvement in all the key health-related EU programmes. It will sometimes feel as if the U.K. hasn’t really left.
Should the EU accept it? The hard-line Brexiteers hope they won’t; then they will go for crashing out and blame the EU. Equally, hard-line Remainers will be encouraged to say that this “Brexit in name only” is a worst of all worlds, being obligated and committed at all levels except the democratic and political. They will increasingly and credibly call for a second referendum, to break the impasse.
Nonetheless, Theresa May’s Chequers coup is the only and best plan for the EU now to engage with. They should go with it. Even then, there is a risk that no solution can command a House of Commons majority and Brexit once again is mired in confusion and division.
The author is a former Leader of the House of Commons in the U.K. Government.