Richard North, 04/12/2018  

It is a little hard to get excited about Speaker Bercow ruling that there is "an arguable case" to make that Mrs May's government is treating parliament with contempt. There is nothing new there at all, as the government quite routinely treats both Houses with contempt – and not without good cause.

In fact, this is more like one of those old-fashioned lovers' triangle, where each treat each other with contempt, both treat the public with contempt, and the public tends to reciprocate, treating the whole damn lot with contempt. And on top of the dung hill is Bercow, whose greatest contempt is for the hard-pressed taxpayers who have to bear his over-generous expenses, right down to his drinks bill and Sky TV package.

One is aware, however, that the term has a technical dimension, in that the government has failed to publish the legal advice available to the cabinet on Brexit when it made its formal decision to back the prime minister's plan, following a humble address ordering its publication.

As always, however, the politicians are playing games – and especially opposition MPs, who see in the government's stance an opportunity to make mischief. There is no yearning desire to improve their knowledge on the withdrawal package. The explanations they need – or as good as they will get - were published yesterday.

What is perhaps significant about this document – and others like it - is how little of substance they are telling us that we don't already know and hadn't worked out on the first day of publication.

The key issue in the draft withdrawal agreement remains the Protocol on Ireland and, within that, the touch-paper item is the backstop and the ability (lack of) to withdraw from it unilaterally in the event that we fail to reach an agreement on the future relationship.

The point I made, up front, was that nothing in the political declaration could lead to any arrangement which would ensure frictionless trade across the border. And, on that basis, the criteria set for the EU to release the UK from the backstop could not be satisfied.

Nevertheless, Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, would have it that the parties "would be obliged, in good faith, to use their best endeavours to conclude by 31 December 2020 an agreement that supersedes [the backstop]". But the fact remains that there is no satisfactory arrangement that can be agreed, on which basis, the theoretically temporary backstop would effectively become permanent.

Predictably, this has become the point (or the main point) on which as many as 200 MPs may or may not vote against the plan, with many MPs having convinced themselves that a major defeat will force the EU to re-open the negotiations.

Even though the chances of that happening are as close to zero as makes no difference, that hasn't stopped Nick Boles leaping out of the woodwork with the latest iteration of his "Norway Plus" master plan.

With the hubris that only an ego-centric Tory MP could manage, he triumphantly tweeted about hoping:
… that our Norwegian friends have noticed that we have listened to their concerns and adapted the proposal. All the MPs supporting Norway Plus understand it implies indefinite membership of the EFTA pillar of the EEA. We'd be in it for the long haul.
This prompted Chris K-B, a less than impressed observer, to ask Mr Boles, "How on earth did you not realise this from the outset?" Suggesting that our Pete is right about the man, he goes on to say: "I'm a dad to two young children and I have a job, a hard one, and a busy life, and I'm not an EU expert and I'm not very clever, but even I knew this".

It was then left to Chris to express a sentiment that needs to be addressed to the bulk of our MPs, and in as direct a form as possible: "Up your game or fuck off", he says.

In an  article – the only paper which seems to have carried news of the conversion to the indefinite membership – Mr Boles makes great play of having "listened to criticisms". And, when he has modified the proposal to meet them, he proudly declares that he has "not pretended that nothing has changed".

One would not be aware from his article however, that Mr Boles has been very selective in the criticism he has listened to. Despite having been told, unequivocally, that a customs union is unnecessary in the Efta/EEA scheme, he has us staying in the EEA and [re-]joining Efta, yet still "moving into a temporary customs union with the EU until we've agreed new arrangements with the Republic of Ireland and the EU".

Nevertheless, we are not told what those "arrangements" might be, even though nothing in a customs union adds anything to the Efta/EEA option that could not already be provided by the EEA Agreement or which will help maintain frictionless trade.

Not only do we have this incoherence, though, the man has been listening to the naysayers and completely thrown in the towel on free movement. One major downside, he says, is that we would still be bound by the principle of "free movement".

Bizarrely, he then goes on to say that, under the EEA agreement, we would also have the opportunity to exercise an emergency brake on free movement if it causes "serious economic, societal… difficulties". The brake, he adds, "has never been used and we don't know precisely what it would achieve, but it is a legal remedy that we did not have as members of the EU and it would give us additional leverage in a negotiation".

Still mistakenly referring to the "emergency brake", he thus ignores a substantial body of work, including Monograph 1 and Monograph 10, which have been drawn to his attention. This is classic behaviour of the breed – the inbuilt arrogance that has Boles position himself as a superior being who can ignore the work of us "invisible" plebs. He has his own brand of contempt down to a fine art.

The reality is, though, that Mr Boles's efforts are wasted. Even if his work was sound – which it isn't – the EU has made it very clear that it is not prepared to re-open negotiations. Thus, his ambitions of having "Norway Plus" used as a Plan B in the event of Mrs May's plan being rejected by parliament, will come to naught.

Even then, there is further incoherence. Mr Boles would have MPs supporting the withdrawal package, so that the UK could leave the EU next March and "enter" the EEA (despite his saying we're supposed to stay in) and Efta at the end of 2020. This has certainly confused the Mail which has the man setting out a proposal for Britain "to stay in the EEA until a free trade deal is negotiated - effectively to leave the EU but stay in close orbit as a member of the single market".

In the real world, though, we would be committed to Mrs May's package, which includes the political declaration. To shift from this would require a major change of direction and a willingness of the EU to abandon its current plans for a future relationship. That is not likely to happen.

Probably, the only workable scenario for an agreed settlement is to run with the withdrawal package as it stands, negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement to take effect at the end of the transition period. This would have to have a strong element of regulatory alignment, amounting to a "shadow EEA", effectively the EEA Agreement in all but name.

Only after that, could we then seek to transform this agreement into a fully-fledged Efta/EEA membership, which might take three or more years to negotiate. By that time, of course, everyone will have forgotten about "Norway Plus", while Mr Boles will have found something else to play with. And, as it has been since 2014, Flexcit will still be there.

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