Often when the police appeal for information to solve a notorious crime they make the point that circumstances, allegiances, and loyalties change. Such is the case concerning parliamentary support for the ‘Norway’ option: shorthand for continuing and permanent post-Brexit UK membership of the European Economic Association (EEA). For a period, it was promoted mainly by Remainers seeking the softest of Brexits, for example, the Labour Campaign for Single Market .
That changed last autumn when Conservative MP, Nick Boles, a former head of the influential Policy Exchange think-tank and a close confidante of Brexiteer but latterly loyal Cabinet apologist for May’s deal, Michael Goves, attempted to move it mainstream with a twist to provide an escape from parliamentary deadlock. He proposed that UK should rejoin the EEA on the 29 March – but only for three years – and enter a ‘temporary’ customs union with the EU, on Brexit day and without a transition period. It soon attracted the label, Norway for Now, reflecting its expected transitory nature.
This website in Jersey rather than Norway-Now dismissed it as a red herring. This was for three main reasons.
First, EEA membership was not designed to be a temporary holding pen or a marriage of convenience, entered into to allow time for a former EU (but one now seeking to remain an EEA) member to put into place a comprehensive replacement bilateral free trade agreement with the same trading bloc that it had just left.
Second, the EU’s Northern Ireland (NI) backstop red-line meant that it could not be time-limited.
And, third, the mechanism identified for the UK to join the EEA applying to become a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), on the face of it, appeared also incompatible, or, at least, inconsistent, with the UK remaining in a Customs Union (CU) with the EU. Nor could it be expected that special arrangements for the UK could be agreed with the EU for a temporary and time-limited period of membership, in contrast to one offering a continuing and progressive template for a long-term replacement trading relationship.
The ground shifted during November, however. Boles addressed the above flaws, at least in general, if not specific, terms, recognizing that the arrangement would need to be indefinite or even permanent, rather than temporary and time-limited; to include a continuing and equivalent CU with the EU, obviating the need for rules of origin checks on goods passing between the UK and EU; and to encompass special status and related derogations capable of reconciling continuing UK participation in a CU with the EU to the status of EFTA as a dedicated free-trading bloc outside it.
Norway-for-Now morphed into indefinite Norway-Plus (as defined thereafter in this post). Its main selling point was that it could offer the economically least damaging Brexit, a product of its retention of the four freedoms of the single market (SM): free movement of capital, people, goods, and services between the member states.
The other side of that same coin meant that the UK would become an indefinite rule-taker of the EU, possessing limited say in framing future SM rules, including those impacting upon its financial sector, unless special additional provisions could be negotiated during the reinstated transition period. Nor could the UK progress and implement an independent trade or migration policy. Substantial budget contributions to Brussels would continue.
Early in 2019, an attempt was made to repackage – or, at least re-label – it as Common Market 2.0 in a pamphlet jointly authored by the Conservative MP for the Essex town of Harlow, Robert Halfon – often portrayed as the parliamentary champion of ‘white van’ Conservatism – and, Lucy Powell, centrist and staunch Remainer Labour MP for Manchester Central, a northern 2016 Remain-voting redoubt. No doubt this confluence of political backgrounds was chosen to court support from both Leave and Remain supporting MP’s from both main parties, especially those representing Leave-voting constituencies.
Its title was also emblematic. It heralded a return to the commercially-led principles of the original common market – in effect, CU – of the European Community (EC) that the UK joined back in 1973, the continuing membership of which was endorsed by a wide margin in the 1975 referendum on that basis, with an accompanying antipathy to the notion of the progressive political integration of member nation states within an enlarging EU.
The authors made efforts to explain how UK membership of the EEA could possibly provide mechanisms to control free movement from the EU in certain defined circumstances, additional to the actual implementation of powers that are (were) available to the UK as an EU and SM member, such as requiring migrants to obtain work within a stipulated period, but which were unused by the May and previous governments.
The pamphlet also highlighted that the UK could reduce its budget contributions to c50% of the current level, while holding out the prospect sometime in the future to negotiate its own independent trade deals.
The revamped version struggled still, however, to grab the parliamentary and media limelight. Following the 28 January votes of the Commons to mandate the Prime Minister to renegotiate the NI backstop element within the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) the prospects of Norway-plus attracting a majority in this Parliament, never high, has receded even further, for the reasons considered under the headings below.
Opposition of Hard-Brexiteer (HB) Tories
The parliamentary HB bloc is broadly coterminous with the European Reform Group (ERG) faction within the Conservative party. It is possible to take The 117 MP’s who voted no confidence in Mrs May during that momentous week last December as a broad proxy for that tendency. It will not vote for the softest of Brexits.
And it is difficult to see how Mrs May, given how completely and tightly that she has chained herself to the mast of ending free movement, her reddest of red lines, could stay on as Prime Minister (PM) to preside over Norway-plus.
Besides, it has become quite clear that her over-riding priority is to prevent an epochal shattering of the Tory party, not minimising the economic damage of Brexit: the main advantage of Norway-plus. Supporting it would serve as a red rag to the HB parliamentary faction on the Conservative benches, and alienate the majority of Conservative party members who support a No deal exit, whose political pulse she has have always prided herself on understanding.
It is that rump and increasingly elderly membership that will elect the next Conservative leader. Possible future contenders need to take account of their HB worldview: pace Savid Javed’s and Jeremy Hunt’s expressed recent ambivalence towards a No deal outcome, reflecting their need, as potential candidates, to triangulate against the grassroots party-pleaser and Brexit opportunist, Boris Johnson.
In such a context, they are likely to calculate that it is not in their personal political career interest to tilt towards Norway-plus.
Fragmentation of Soft Brexit support into opposing factions
The weakness and incoherence of the government’s Phase 2 negotiating strategy and then its subsequent and related inability to garner anything even approaching a parliamentary majority for the deal it negotiated with Brussels (the May Deal), induced confidence among a growing number of Remainer-inclined Conservative and Labour MP’s that a second referendum could provide a means to cancel Brexit together, thus rendering soft-Brexit variants, Norway-plus in particular, designed to mitigate its economic damage, less appealing, even redundant.
Individual examples include, on the Conservative side, Anna Soubry, who, as noted in Soubry’s Norway-plus approach back in February 2018, had been an early and pioneering proponent of Norway-plus, metamorphosed during the course of the year into an ardent ‘People’s vote’ proponent instead, as did some prominent Conservative Remainer rebels, such as Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General, and Sarah Wollaston, chair of the powerful Common’s Liaison Committee.
On the Labour side, prominent soft-Brexiteers, previously sympathetic to permanent EEA membership, such as Chuka Umunna – a founder member of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market grouping, became more and more lukewarm in support as they perceived that continuing SM membership lacked a parliamentary majority. They, too, have become leading lights of the People’s Vote campaign, encouraging colleagues, such as Mike Gapes, to dismiss ‘Norway-plus ‘as a ship that has already sailed’.
Ben Bradshaw, another Labour Campaign for Single market founder member, and much more vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps encapsulated that tendency, when during the first 14 January Commons debate on the May deal, declared that, in effect, he preferred to ‘bet’ on a second referendum to reverse the June 2016 Brexit decision, so to secure, in effect, a full glass Remainer victory, rejecting a glass half-full or-empty Norway-plus soft Brexit compromise. Such a ‘worst of both worlds’ compromise has been dismissed as ‘pointless’ by ex-PM, Tony Blair, a view echoed by many other ‘People’s vote’ champions.
Labour opposition to continuing freedom of movement (FOM).
MPs representing Leave-voting constituencies where immigration is perceived to have been a major factor, many of which are Labour-held marginals in the North and Midlands, are inclined to oppose an option retaining, to all intents and purposes, FOM.
For related reasons, the Labour front bench can be expected to resist whipping its own MP’s to support Norway-plus as the ‘something’ that Parliament will need to prevent No deal, extension or no extension to Article 50.
To do so, not only could alienate much of the party’s hardcore Remainer membership base, wedded as they have become to the perceived lifeboat escape from Brexit that a ‘People’s vote’ potentially offers, but could enable the PM to partially unite her party behind her by painting Labour as the party that supports a Brexit-in-Name-Only (BINO) and continuing FOM in particular.
Gravitation of the Agnostics towards May-deal.
Instructively, one of the failed amendments voted on the 28 January, moved by Yvette Cooper, former Labour Cabinet and shadow Home Secretary, and supported by Nick Boles, that, if passed, would have required the PM to seek an Article 50 extension, was defeated by 23 (321 to 298) votes, despite having Labour whipped support, largely because of Labour votes against and abstentions that included no less than eight Corbyn shadow cabinet members.
In contrast, 17 Conservatives supported the amendment and three abstained, including the erstwhile and hitherto indefatigable, Norway-plus supporter, Nicky Morgan. She pivoted to support the Brady amendment, while promoting the so-called Malthouse Compromise.
This very much suggests that the ‘agnostic’ group of MPs, as the No Deal cliff-edge becomes ever-closer, are more likely to both grow in numbers and gravitate towards a May-deal variant in preference to Norway-plus.
Perhaps later: When?
Here and now, Parliament will need to agree to ‘something’ by early March, if an economically and socially disastrous No Deal exit is to be avoided.
That ‘something’ could be nothing more than to ask the EU to extend Article 50 into the summer, but that would only delay the day of reckoning. It is, for that reason, unlikely to be granted by Brussels without conditions that might well include a timetable for Parliament to resolve on an agreed option.
In that event both Front benches might well conclude that the best way to avoid No deal, whether disorderly or partially managed, without splitting their parties, and leaving a dangerous electoral hostage of fortune for them, would be to provide leeway to MP’s to vote, according to preference, rather than party whip. That might open-up a refreshed window of opportunity for Norway-plus.
Yet to be chosen would require it to muster a parliamentary majority from not only Remainers – many of whom are wedded to a second referendum, but also from the MPs across both parties, who – above all and anything else – desire to see Brexit delivered without further unnecessary and prolonged ado and damage. As was noted above, the numbers of this ‘agnostic middle’ can be expected to rise as the No deal cliff edge approaches ever-closer.
But, besides, Norway-plus cannot realistically be taken back to Brussels for re-negotiation, if it is simply the product of an unwhipped vote that will not or cannot be sustainably supported and progressed by the executive. This will continue to be led by Mrs May or a Conservative successor, in the absence of a general election or a change in government subsequent to a successful no confidence vote.
Back around the same circle, then? The most feasible scenario in which Norway-plus could become the successor arrangement appears where Labour was able to form a parliamentary majority, following a snap general election precipitated by continuing parliamentary deadlock, where it promised to go back to Brussels to negotiate a deal aligned to its six tests, to be ratified by a second referendum, and some variant of Norway-Plus was what it then could come back with. In such circumstances, the referenda choice conceivably could be between it Norway-plus and Remain, but such a restricted choice would be a dangerous and uncertain political path to navigate.