Often when the police appeal for information to solve a notorious crime they make the point that circumstances, allegiances, and loyalties change.
It has turned out to be true also for parliamentary support of the ‘Norway’ option: shorthand for continuing and permanent post-Brexit UK membership of the European Economic Association (EEA).
Hardcore Remainers, seeking the softest of Brexits, initially promoted it: for example, Labour Campaign for Single Market.
That changed last autumn when Conservative MP, Nick Boles, founder of the influential Policy Exchange think-tank and a close confidante of Brexiteer but latterly loyal Cabinet apologist for May’s deal, Michael Goves, in an attempt to provide an escape from parliamentary deadlock moved it mainstream.
The twist made was that the UK should rejoin the EEA on Brexit day – but only for three years – and enter a ‘temporary’ customs union with the EU that day also, without a transition period. Its new moniker, Norway for Now, reflected 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, it proposed a temporary holding pen or a marriage of convenience to provide breathing space for a former EU (but now an EEA) member that wanted to put into place a comprehensive replacement bilateral free trade agreement with the same trading bloc that it had just left. This was not the purpose of the EEA.
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 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, could be agreed with the EU.
The ground shifted during November, however. Boles addressed the above flaws, at least in general, if not specific, terms.
The proposed arrangement was made indefinite or even permanent, not temporary and time-limited. It contained an continuing and equivalent CU with the EU that could obviate the need for rules of origin checks on goods passing between the UK and EU. Special status and related derogations capable of reconciling continuing UK participation in a CU with the EU with that of the status of EFTA as a dedicated free-trading bloc outside it was recognised as necessary.
Norway-for-Now morphed into indefinite Norway-Plus (as termed hereafter in this post). Its main selling point was that it could offer the economically least damaging Brexit.
This was 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 required the UK to become an indefinite rule-taker of the EU with only limited say in framing future SM rules, including those impacting upon its financial sector, unless, in the unlikely event, that 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 also continue.
Early in 2019, ait was repackaged – or, at least re-labelled – 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, heralding a return to the commercially led principles of the original common market – in effect, CU – of the European Community (EC) that the UK had joined back in 1973, a decision endorsed by a wide margin in the 1975 referendum. It also conveyed an accompanying antipathy to the progressive political integration of member nation states within an enlarging EU since progressed by Brussels.
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 unused by the May and previous governments.
They also highlighted that the UK could reduce its budget contributions to c50% of the current level. The prospect that ‘sometime in the future’ it could negotiate its own independent trade deals was also held out.
The revamped version still struggled, however, to grab the parliamentary and media limelight. The 29 January mandation by the Commons of the Prime Minister to renegotiate the NI backstop element within the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) suggested the prospects of Norway-plus attracting a majority in this Parliament, never high, would recede further.
The reasons for this are explored further 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. The 117 MP’s who voted no confidence in Mrs May during that momentous week last December are a broad proxy for that HB 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. It is their political pulse that she has have always prided herself on understanding.
It is that rump and increasingly elderly membership that will choose the next Conservative leader. Possible future leadership contenders will need to take account of their HB worldview: pace Savid Javid’s and Jeremy Hunt’s expressed recent ambivalence towards a No deal outcome. This reflects their need, as potential candidates, to triangulate against their grassroots party-pleaser and Brexit opportunist rival, 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 MPs that a second referendum could provide a means to cancel Brexit together.
Soft-Brexit variants, Norway-plus in particular, designed to mitigate its economic damage, were rendered less appealing, even redundant, as a consequence.
Individual examples include, on the Conservative side, Anna Soubry. She, as noted in Sourby’s Norway-plus Approachback in February 2018, had been an early and pioneering proponent of Norway-plus, but during the course of the year changed instead into an ardent ‘People’s vote’ proponent. So 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, perceiving that continuing SM membership lacked a parliamentary majority.
They, too, became 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 vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps encapsulated that tendency when, during the first 14 January Commons debate on the May deal, he declared that he preferred to ‘bet’ on a second referendum to reverse the June 2016 Brexit decision, to secure, in effect, a full glass Remainer victory, not a glass half-full or-empty Norway-plus soft Brexit compromise. Such a ‘worst of both worlds’ compromise was 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).
Some MPs representing Leave-voting constituencies where immigration was touted to have been a major factor, many of which are Labour-held marginals in the North and Midlands, will 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.
Whipping, 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 (Brino) and continuing FOM in particular.
Gravitation of the Agnostics towards May-deal.
The amendment that Yvette Cooper, former Labour Cabinet and shadow Home Secretary, supported by Nick Boles, moved on 29 January, requiring the PM to seek an Article 50 extension, was defeated by 23 (321 to 298) votes. Instructively, despite winning Labour whipped support, it fell because of Labour votes against and abstentions that included no less than eight Corbyn shadow cabinet members.
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’.
It suggests that although the ‘agnostic’ group of MPs, as the No Deal cliff-edge becomes ever-closer, could well grow, such members will tend to 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. That would only delay the day of reckoning, however. 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, leaving a dangerous electoral hostage of fortune for them, would be to provide leeway to MP’s to vote according to preference, lifting party whip.
That might open-up a refreshed window of opportunity for Norway-plus.
To muster a parliamentary majority would presuppose, not only added support from 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 noted above, the numbers of this ‘agnostic middle’ can be expected to rise as the No deal cliff edge approaches ever-closer, but will not necessarily gravitate in favour of Norway-plus.
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. It will continue to be led by Mrs May or a Conservative successor, unless a general election or a change in government subsequent to a successful no confidence vote occurs.
Back around the same circle, then?
Perhaps. The most feasible scenario in which Norway-plus could become the successor arrangement appears to be one where Labour formed a parliamentary majority, following a snap general election precipitated by continuing parliamentary deadlock, and as the government it promised to go back to Brussels to negotiate a deal aligned to its six tests. Some variant of Norway-Plus was what it then could best come back, to be ratified by a second referendum.
In such circumstances, the referenda choice conceivably could be between Norway-plus and Remain, but such a restricted choice would provide a dangerous and uncertain political path to navigate.