Theresa May would have to change the habit of a lifetime to break the deadlock, but the Labour leader has hinted a Green Brexit deal might just be possible
Are we finally getting somewhere? Probably not, but then again maybe.
Jeremy Corbyn's letter to Theresa May setting out the terms under which the opposition could support a Brexit deal (a deal that would require so many changes that it would be wrong to keep referring to it as 'May's deal') suggests there might just be a formulation of the Withdrawal Agreement that could command a parliamentary majority.
The Labour leader's plan still contains plenty of flaws and will face fierce opposition from Hard Brexiters and Hard Remainers alike, but it is notably lighter on 'unicorns' than the ERG's transparently self-immolating ploy to seek an EU agreement on the removal of the Irish backstop. Are Corbyn's five tests the basis for the kind of credible cross-party Brexit deal that a political class more interested in the national interest than partisan advancement would have brokered a year ago? Probably not, but then again maybe.
He may not be an instinctive ally of the business community, but Corbyn's plan will have plenty of business leaders - and green business leaders in particular - nodding along in agreement.
As his letter notes, a "permanent and comprehensive UK-wide Customs Union" with the EU is "necessary to deliver the frictionless trade that our businesses, workers, and consumers need, and if the only viable way to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland", is supported by "most businesses and trade unions", and is the best way to "ensure that any backstop would be far less likely to be invoked".
He also stresses a 'no deal' scenario must be avoided at all costs and notes that there is not enough time to finalise the necessary legislation. He may stop short of calling for an extension to Article 50 - if there is one thing that remains absent from Corbyn's Brexit declarations it is straight-talking political courage - but the implication is clear. He is giving himself room to back an extension of Article 50 at the 11th hour if needed (and it almost certainly will be).
And then there is the sweeping promise of "close alignment with the Single Market" and the more specific calls for "shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution", as well as "dynamic alignment on rights and protections so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum", not to mention "clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as the environment, education, and industrial regulation".
Taken as a whole this amounts to a softer Brexit than Corbyn has countenanced in the past, especially when you consider the letter contains scant mention of the State Aid concerns that have previously animated left wing opposition to the EU. As leading Brexit journalist Ian Dunt noted this morning it "looks a lot like Norway plus" and raises the prospect of a Norway-style deal with closer ties through a customs union and looser links through an end to or reform of freedom of movement.
From an environmental and green business perspective there would be plenty to welcome in such a deal. The genuinely green reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy could still be pursued, alongside the arguably green reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy. A Customs Union and genuinely close Single Market alignment would massively reduce the risk of trade barriers and an economic crash, green business supply chains would remain open, cross border energy trading would continue unencumbered. At the same time a "dynamic alignment" on standards would keep the UK firmly in lock step with EU rules on everything from air quality to energy efficiency standards, while holding out the prospect of the UK pursuing more ambitious rules. Remaining part of EU environmental agencies would avoid disruption, reduce administration costs, and let the UK share best practices and take advantage of governance economies of scale.
It all adds up to a deal that minimises the risk of economic disruption, honours the result of the referendum, and delivers the greenest possible Brexit. What's not to like? How long have you got?
First up there is the ever present devil in the detail, who is presumably on day release from the circle of hell where Donald Tusk thinks certain reckless politicos will end up. Corbyn is proposing changes to the forward-looking political statement and a framework for the eventual UK-EU trade deal rather than a re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. As such in order to stop May or her successor reneging on any cross-party agreement, the bulk of the new plan would have to be cemented in primary legislation. The precise wording of that legislation would be of huge importance.
What would "clear arrangements for dispute resolution" actually entail? Does "dynamic alignment on rights and protections" mean the UK cutting and pasting EU rules or does it imply wriggle room that results in regulations that are different from those developed in Brussels but seek to achieve the same outcomes? Corbyn's proposals could result in a Green Brexit or they could simply put a new gloss on existing government proposals that MPs and environmental groups insist lack the necessary green safeguards. Even if you could broker a legislative deal between Labour and the Conservatives, would the EU go for it or would it push back against an approach that still entails some of the cherry-picking it has repeatedly resisted?
Secondly, the plan has all the drawbacks of any soft Brexit plan and a fair few of the flaws found in harder Brexit strategies. The letter implies on-going close co-operation between the UK and EU, including a UK say over future EU trade deals. This could work and it is notable that Norway and other members of the EEA have managed to prosper under similar arrangements. But from a sovereignty perspective the UK would essentially be turning itself into a "rule-taker", effectively obliged to honour EU environmental rules without a formal role in their development.
Meanwhile, the letter ducks the issue of freedom of movement and makes no mention of how May's plan would result in UK services ending up outside the single market, with all the trade barriers that entails. Both issues may be surmountable, but any businesses tempted to celebrate a softer Brexit strategy will also be wary of the fact significant disruption is still in the offing.
The net result is Hard Remainers and Brexiters from across the political spectrum will not be won over. Consequently, even if May changed the habit of a lifetime and pivoted to try and secure a meaningful cross party deal the parliamentary arithmetic would still require some high stakes calculations. Would Labour MPs under pressure from pro-Remain members really vote to enable a Tory Brexit? Does May have the sufficient authority left to convince enough of her MPs to support a deal that would not only retain the backstop but also cut through several of her self-defeating red lines? Can either side trust the other? Even if they can, how can the necessary legislative safeguards be put in place before the UK crashes out of the EU?
It remains a damning indictment of the entire political class that it has come to this, that it has taken two years and the imminent threat of a full blown, history-shaping economic and constitutional crisis for even the vaguest outline of a credible cross-party agreement to emerge. It is hard not to reflect on where the UK would be if May had genuinely sought to work across the aisle in the national interest from the off, rather than spend two years engaged in internal party management. But she didn't and it remains unlikely that she will, even now.
Given May's primary focus remains reforming the Irish backstop and she is today, in auto-parodic 'nothing has changed' fashion, venturing to Brussels without any proposals on how it might be reformed, the promise of talks with Corbyn looks more like political window-dressing than a good faith attempt to deliver a cross party deal. May's unwavering red lines look doomed to stop a Green Brexit - and they may yet deliver either a 'no deal' Brexit or no Brexit at all. It is unclear whether the Prime Minister understands that the flexibility she so loathes may be the only thing that can save her.
But for all that, today marks progress of a sort. It shows that there is a path towards a parliamentary majority for a Green Brexit and it is now up to the Prime Minister as to whether or not she wants to take it. That path is still littered with obstacles and the end destination will anger many Remainers and Leavers alike, but it does now exist.
Is Corbyn's letter a step forward? Definitely maybe.
This post first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's exclusive daily Overnight Briefing, which is available to all subscribers
Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh is director of CAST (Climate change and Social Transformations) at the University of Bath
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