Richard North, 10/08/2018  

When the Centre for European Reform (CER) came up with what they called their "Jersey Option" - the brainchild of John Springford and former Friends of the Earth activist Sam Lowe – I thought it so self-evidently mad that I didn't even bother to review it.

Without offering much detail (and the devil is always in the detail), with this "magic mushroom" option, the pair would have the UK agreeing a customs union with the EU and accepting the Single Market regulations on goods, while rejecting rules on services and freedom of movement.

This was picked up by the "usual suspects", including Philippe Legrain of the London School of Economics, and it was given a good airing by the Financial Times. Apart from that, though, it got very little traction in the general legacy media.

But, in the run-up to the now-notorious Chequers cabinet meeting, even the Financial Times had given up on the idea, the summary execution being delivered in a piece by Alan Beattie, headed: "The 'Jersey option' looks good for Brexit Britain. It isn't".

Beattie noted that, "if the frenzied speculation is true, this week's special UK cabinet meeting will end with Britain asking for a customs union with the EU plus accepting its regulation of goods, while rejecting single market rules on services and freedom of movement".

This model, he wrote, is generally called the "Jersey option" after the British crown dependency in the English Channel, which already has such a relationship with the EU.

Analysing the prospects, he concluded that, the option "may look cosy and inviting, but pull a thread and it begins to unravel". Apart from anything else, he argued, if the UK gets it, quite a few other EU member states might be wanting one too.

Part of the reason France is such a fierce opponent of the Jersey model, he continued, is almost certainly that its leaders fear the domestic reaction. French voters may wonder whether they too can also have a deal whereby they continue to export champagne, Renault cars and Louis Vuitton bags to the rest of the EU while not having to take in Polish plumbers or Romanian builders.

Nevertheless, this did not stop a breathless Sam Lowe, on 2 July, issuing his own press release, confining it to just the few lines of the FT which had predicted that the cabinet meeting would go for his model – without repeating any of the demolition.

Sadly for Mr Lowe's personal ambitions, it was not to be. Not even the cabinet was rash enough to go for something so obviously mad – not that it could ever have been politically conceivable. Had Mrs May then conceded to staying in the customs union, abandoning one of her strongest "red lines", it is probable that, by now, she would no longer be prime minister.

The one thing you have to give the legacy media, though, it that it will never let a bad idea go to waste. Over a month after Mr Lowe's madness had been given a decent burial, it now transpires that the all-important stake through the heart has been omitted.

Thus, up pops The Times, with a piece bearing the by-line of the three musketeers, Oliver Wright, Dominic Walsh and Bruno Waterfield, hidden in the business section under the headline: "Sterling slumps to new low as fears grow of no Brexit deal".

Pomposity abounds as the newspaper self-importantly intones that "The Times has learnt", leading into the claim that "European leaders are preparing to negotiate a deal that would let Britain remain in the single market for goods while opting out of free movement of people".

As with all such stories, there are no named sources - we are required to accept that this comes from "sources at the highest level of Brexit negotiations", an interesting formula which does not exclude British informants.

The meat of the claim is that Member States "have let it be known that they could abandon one of the bloc's ideological red lines in return for more Brexit concessions from Theresa May". We are told that they expect her to replicate all new EU environmental, social and customs rules in addition to those set out in the Chequers white paper. And for that, there is the "potential trade-off", amounting to releasing the UK from freedom of movement provision.

All this is to be discussed at what is described as "a special meeting of all 28 leaders in Salzburg next month". The framing is a little disingenuous as one might infer that the meeting had been called to deal with this matter. In fact, this is a long-standing informal meeting of the European Council, where the main topic on the agenda is to be "security and the fight against illegal migration".

Ironically, as recently as yesterday, the Express was venting its outrage with the headline: "Row erupts as stalling EU says it might NOT discuss UK deal next month".

Downing Street, this source claims, insists Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz, who is hosting the meeting, has agreed for Brexit to be at the top of the agenda. But no such message has been heard from Austria, and Donald Tusk remains undecided. Meanwhile, an EU ambassador has said leaders would be unimpressed if the Prime Minister fails to present a fresh idea to the table.

That clearly has opened the way for The Times to peddle its story, where it appears that the "Jersey Option" label has been planted by British officials, with a senior EU source then saying: "If May came with the Jersey model there would be a serious discussion among leaders for the first time". Deconstructing the story, therefore, in the words used by The Times, "European leaders would listen if Mrs May adopted the Jersey model wholesale".

Thus, the entire report rests on one speculative idea, amounting to the premise that "European leaders would listen if Mrs May adopted the Jersey model wholesale, based on the response of an anonymous "senior EU source" when asked to guess how the European Council would react.

There is nothing at all to suggest, much less substantiate a claim that Mrs May intends to propose adopting the "Jersey Option", and nothing at all to indicate that the EU-27 would be prepared to do anything more than listen. We are, dear readers, looking at a silly season filler, invented by its own creative authors.

Oddly enough, with The Times having buried its own story in the business section under a non-descriptive headline. It then offers a leader asserting that: "EU leaders are starting to show some belated but flawed flexibility on Brexit".

Referring to its own report and stretching it beyond breaking point, it claims that the European Union "is looking for three new concessions from Mrs May".

First, it says, she would have to ditch her customs plan in favour of a full-blown customs union. Second, she would have to commit to swallowing EU rules on labour and the environment to reassure Brussels that Britain would never engage in a "race to the bottom". Finally, she would have to abandon the idea of diverging on goods regulations where they are not directly relevant to border checks, such as rules on food labelling.

Then, even the leader-writer allows a chink of reality to creep in. "Given the politics of Brexit, and the fact that two senior ministers resigned over Chequers", the scribe intones, "this looks a forlorn task".

However, with the silly season in full flow and the rest of the media struggling to find something to publish, the leader was enough to ramp up the Mail into delivering the headline: "Brussels 'prepares a Brexit climbdown and is set to agree the UK can stay in the EU single market for goods without having to accept free movement'".

With no other source than The Times, coprophagia is rampant as multiple other papers recycle the story. The only addition of substance that the Telegraph could manage was that: "The European Commission declined to comment on the plan, but did not deny that member states 'may be discussing it'".

But there is one national paper that most definitely is not indulging in the coprophagic feast. This is the Guardian, offering an editorial that sternly advises us that it is "time to make real choices". There are only three outcomes now, it says: "No deal is one of them. A Norway-type compromise is the second. And the reversal of Brexit is the third".

They get there eventually.

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