Richard North, 12/05/2018  

Stephen Hammond is Conservative MP for Wimbledon. And, for a Tory MP, he's doing a slightly unusual thing – writing in the Guardian.

Furthermore, Mr Hammond is setting himself up as something of a hero, telling us that Brexit is a "national crisis". We need "a compromise solution", he says, presenting us with the view that protecting Britain’s economy is vital – "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA is the best way to reach a consensus".

Mr Hammond hasn't always felt this way. In February 2016, prior to the referendum, he had seen the terms of David Cameron's "renegotiation" and the uncertainty of leaving the European Union weighed heavily on his mind. "We have no idea what out would look like", he said, "and different leave campaigners have wildly different views on what it should look like".

His concern, was to retain good access to the European Union's market but didn't like the idea of membership of the EEA like Norway. We would, he said, be subject to most European Union regulations anyway with very little influence over them".

Rather, he thought that we should stay in the "reformed EU which gives us access to the single market, stops ever closer union and political integration out of irritation and pique". Leaving, was a move that he did not think was "in our national interest".

Now, however, he seems to have undergone a change of heart. "Everyone agrees that Brexit must not harm our economy", he now says. "Everyone also agrees that we will need a customs arrangement that allows frictionless trade coupled with the ability to access the single market without barriers, if not be a member of it".

The problem, though – in Hammond's view – "is that a consensus has not yet emerged as to how this can be achieved. However, there is now a growing acceptance that compromise must be achieved and a dawning reality that the slogans need to be ditched". He adds:
The House of Lords has passed amendments to the EU withdrawal bill to the effect that a customs union and access to the single market are necessary. This has concentrated the minds of many pragmatic politicians to seek practical solutions that are achievable within the ever-shortening timeframe.
Unfortunately, he then goes slightly adrift, asserting that real evidence of this willingness to build a consensus "came on Thursday when Daniel Hannan MEP, an arch leaver, backed joining the European Free Trade Association (Efta)".

In fact, for most of his career, Hannan has advocated Efta membership, but exercising what he calls the "Swiss option". But Hammond now wants to go further, joining Efta alongside retaining our membership of the EEA.

This, he says, "would remove the need to check regulatory compliance and allow goods and services to continue to be traded freely". But he' s changed his mind about having very little influence over the law. "The UK would be consulted on all new regulations, which is when the real decisions are made", says the born-again Hammond.

But he's not quite there. "The UK could also restrict the free movement of people, as EU citizenship would not apply", he says. No Article 112 for this man. And we would be out of the common fisheries and agricultural policies, he tells us – as if this was necessarily a good thing in the immediate future.

Nor can the man be said to be on top of his brief – whatever that was. "We will need a customs union or partnership-type solution as well to avoid damage to our economy", he says, because: "this is essential to avoid tariffs and costly rules of origin requirements that would create a physical barrier to trade across Ireland, but also to prevent the need for increases of infrastructure at ports in England, Scotland and Wales".

Clearly unaware of what the Single Market does, he declared that "the assertion that technology renders a customs union unnecessary to avoid a hard border in Ireland does not survive scrutiny", citing the Commons' Northern Ireland affairs committee as its source.

Not for Mr Hammond is the idea that the Single Market, plus technology could give us a near-invisible border. The Conservative MP for Wimbledon wants to go the whole hog, then arguing that new free trade agreements could still be possible, in a customs union or partnership with the EU.

For example, financial services are not covered by customs rules or arrangements so would be the best starting point for any new deal. But we should also be clear on the real economic benefits the UK could gain from new free trade agreements once we leave the EU. There is little evidence that these would compensate for the loss of EU trade and offer anything above the EU’s existing free trade agreements – which is true, after a fashion.

In something of an understatement, Hammond then observes that it is abundantly clear that no model will satisfy everyone. But, he says, "there is a recognition that 'no deal' is potentially catastrophic for our economy and our living standards".

Thus, he asserts: "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA with frictionless trade and customs arrangements would be sensible and command majority support in the House of Commons".

If we took out the nonsense about "customs union" and substituted "customs cooperation", then we are nearly there. And if Hammond is right that Efta/EEA would command a majority in the House, then there is at last a glimmer of hope for us all. And Mrs May's Brexit strategy is in serious trouble.

Hammond concludes by saying that, "in a national crisis – and this is a national crisis – the British political class has always had the ability to put aside ideology, reach a national consensus and act in the national interest". He therefore says that: "We must build that national consensus and achieve the best outcome for Britain".

Better late than never, we might observe – Brexit should always have been a matter for national unity rather than party politics. But this is closer than we've ever been to our Efta/EEA target.

Sadly, though, just as we could be seeing real progress, Corbyn has formally dismissed calls to back EEA membership.

Speaking during a visit to Scotland on yesterday, Corbyn displayed his profound ignorance of the issues, stating that "We've made it very clear our whole strategy is that we recognise the result of the referendum, that we obtain a tariff-free trade relationship with Europe and that we develop a customs union to go alongside that".

"The EEA of itself", he says, "does not offer that because the EEA would not offer us any power to negotiate, we would merely be rule-takers not rule-makers in that".

With even the likes of Hammond now knowing this to be false (even though he doesn't have the complete picture), we have backbenchers who are ahead of the game, in what could have the makings of a grass-roots revolution.

But, for this to prevail, MPs from both sides of the House must rebel against their leaders in sufficient numbers to make it happen – and that's going to be difficult. Nevertheless, we are led to believe that there are enough from Labour and the Conservatives who, together with the Lib-Dems and the SNP, could carry the day.

This most likely explains what Mrs May is delaying bringing back the Withdrawal Bill to the Commons until after the Whitsun break. In the meantime, the whips will be busy and party strategists will be working to get the rebels back into the fold.

However, there is a thought here. Since Corbyn is also failing to back the Lords amendment, this issue is taking on a cross-party dimension. It will be very difficult, therefore, for the prime minister to turn a defeat into a vote of confidence issue. And, in the event that a vote was held and lost, Corbyn would have forfeited any claim to be the natural successor.

And while the Commons has a never-ending capacity to disappoint, it would be hugely ironic if Brexit was to precipitate a successful cross-party back-bencher rebellion – with the rebels acting in the national interest.

We might then even begin to think that we have not lived in vain.

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