13:22, July 08 104 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-08 13:22:04
The Guardian view of May’s Brexit: reality dawns, but is it too late?

Theresa May’s plan for leaving the European Union is a rare moment of victory for common sense in the madness of Brexit. We now know what Mrs May’s Brexit means. The good news is that it is softer than she has previously claimed it would be. The bad news is that it is still Brexit. The prime minister has sensibly realised that her red lines, drawn up to please the hardliners in her party, would have been a disaster for British business and jobs. She has made a decisive, and correct, move to junk them.

Instead of being completely out of the single market and diverging from the EU’s regulations, Mrs May proposes to “maintain a common rulebook for all goods”, including agricultural products, after Brexit. Rather than ending the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, Mrs May’s plans would see that continue, with UK judges paying “due regard” to EU case law. Magical thinking is still being indulged: Brussels won’t allow Britain to reject future EU goods regulation and restrict freedom of movement even if Westminster accepts “consequences” for trade. Neither will it accept the bureaucratic wheeze of a facilitated customs arrangement, which asks the EU to outsource the collection of customs duties to a third country. This has no chance of being agreed with Brussels, which will no doubt ask instead for a permanent backstop in the withdrawal agreement that will see Britain in a customs union with the EU until it can come up with a workable alternative.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that reality has dawned in Downing Street and that cabinet ministers have been forced to sign up to the plan. There are signs that Mrs May’s Brexit has a “landing zone” but she is a long way off from it, especially as the EU will want further concessions and clarity from the UK. Brexit is much more about the crisis in the Conservative party than the reality of what the 27 other nations of the European Union can ever agree. Conservatism, like social democracy, is struggling in an age of disruptive globalisation where habits of life, work and family are in flux. A party designed to protect business heralds its intellectual collapse when a controlling faction opts to wreck capitalism.

There is a glimmer of hope for Britain. Different member states are moving at different speeds in the EU. In such a Europe, being in a form of single market and within a customs union would put Britain in an outer lane. But it would not have been forced off the road altogether. Later, the UK could move closer – or, if it wanted to, farther away. Hardliners might cast this flexibility as a form of bondage. Yet in uncertain times, this option looks like realism. The UK needs a workable model for being out of Europe’s political project but firmly linked to its economy. Brexit, whatever its flavour, is an act of self-harm. Mrs May appears to offer cosmetic changes on free movement while limiting the damage to business. Britain ends up as a rule-taker not a rule-maker. This is demonstrably worse for Britain’s sovereignty than the status quo.

Yet Brexit’s true believers are ideologically opposed to the European Union, which they wrongly blame for all this country’s ills. For this group of MPs, Mrs May’s breach of faith goes beyond the death of an empty slogan. They want to accelerate away from Europe at such a pace that Britain attains a geopolitical escape velocity, a speed fast enough to free itself from what they see as the constraining gravitational influence of the EU. Europe has weakened the right of the party by dividing it. There are those for whom Brexit is desirable but second to the unity of the party. They will live with Mrs May’s fudges. Those who will not are the irreconcilables, who view the EU as an existential threat to this nation. It is this group that Mrs May must confront on Monday when she addresses her MPs at the Conservative 1922 committee. It is of little solace that in two years Mrs May has managed to produce some form of programme that takes into account the realities that face Britain in leaving the EU. But without seeing off the hard Brexit parliamentary rump, she will not be able to come up with a plan for the UK to leave the EU that might ever prove practical.

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