Theresa May’s “bold new offer”, made to MPs on 21 May, on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a collection of re-heated commitments, contradictions and promises that can’t be kept.
The Prime Minister talked today of ten commitments, of which only three or four are in any sense “new”. This short briefing sets out some of the problems with these proposals, and why they fall far short of the incompatible demands of MPs on both sides of the House of Commons.
1. “The government will seek to conclude alternative arrangements to replace the backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used.”
- The EU has repeatedly and comprehensively rejected the view that technological solutions could replace a border in the near-future.
- The Government’s two long-term customs proposals (‘Max Fac’ and a ‘customs partnership’) were rejected by the EU and would in any case take many years to come close to being ready. HMRC’s Jon Thompson has said the ‘Max Fac’ option, supposedly the preferred option in Government, would take at least five years before being ready, and would then cost businesses £20 billion a year.
- By reviving the notion that a solution to the Irish border, that obviates the need for the Backstop, could be find by December 2020, the Prime Minister is ignoring the facts and pandering to hardliners in her party.
2. “A commitment that, should the backstop come into force, the government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland.”
- It is not clear how this commitment will be enforced or how it would bind a future government.
- What is clear is that the promise has been made with the intention of persuading the DUP to vote for the deal. But the DUP have repeatedly made clear that they will not vote for a deal that contains the Backstop. The party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds has said today“the fundamental flaws of the of the draft withdrawal agreement treaty itself remain unchanged.”
3. “The negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs.”
- The Government say the WAB will incorporate the Snell/Nandy amendment which would supposedly allow parliament to “set the negotiating mandate for the future relationship”, and give MPs a vote on any future UK-EU trade deal.
- But this would not be binding on the Prime Minster or her successor. Anything in domestic legislation can be overturned with a simple majority in the House.
- Boris Johnson and the other frontrunners for the Conservative Party leadership have already written to Theresa May saying “No leader can bind his or her successor, so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory.”
- Furthermore, allowing the House of Commons a say over “setting the negotiating mandate”, as requested by the Snell/Nandy amendment, is no guarantee that that is what the new prime minister would actually seeks to negotiate, nor what they would actually come back with.
4. “A new workers’ rights bill that guarantees workers’ rights will be no less favourable than in the EU.”
- We have not yet seen the Government’s latest proposal on workers’ rights, but the Government set out a new offer on workers' rights in in new draft clauses to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) published on 6 March 2019.
- Those clauses would merely oblige ministers to make a statement before the second reading of a new Bill stating that the new Bill will not remove any pre-exit workers' right. But if they can't do that, they must simply make a statement saying the Government wishes to proceed with the Bill anyway.
- As for implementing new EU workers' rights, all the Government has committed to is that when the EU introduces a new measure, the government-of-the-day should make a statement on what it intends to do. Parliament would be able to express a view, but it would not be in any way binding on the government.
5. “There will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU.”
- This is a meaningless statement as the political declaration on the future relationship specifically calls for a level playing field, including in the area of environmental protection.
- We have not yet seen the Government’s latest proposal on the environment, but it would not be binding on the Prime Minister’s successor. Anything in domestic legislation can be overturned with a simple majority in the House.
6. “The UK will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible while outside the single market and ending free movement.”
- This is not a new offer at all. The existing political declaration on the future relationship already calls for “a trading relationship on goods that is as close as possible, with a view to facilitating the ease of legitimate trade… The economic partnership should ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”.
- But that does not mean that it will be delivered at the end of the negotiations over the future relationship, whoever leads those negotiations. It is a merely aspirational statement.
7. “We will keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains”.
- If all the UK is doing is seeking to align with EU rules on goods and agri-food products then all that will happen is the UK having to point-blank accept all EU rules in these areas without having a say over them.
- This offer by the Prime Minister is not new either. The political declaration on the future relationship states that both sides “will put in place provisions to promote regulatory approaches that… promote avoidance of unnecessary barriers to trade in good” including in the area of phytosanitary rules.
- Again, it is a purely aspirational statement of intent. And in it is in no way binding on the Prime Minister’s successor.
8. “The government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock.”
- The Prime Minister promised that, if the WAB is passed, MPs will be able to vote on different customs proposals.
- But in the Q&A following her speech, the PM accepted and acknowledged that the alternative to the Government’s proposed customs arrangement would be a temporary customs union through until the next general election. This falls far short of what the Labour Party was demanding – namely, a permanent customs union.
- In any case, it is not clear that such a vote would be binding. In the Q&A the Prime Minister refused to make a commitment to follow through on the outcome of such a vote.
9. “There will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum.”
- This is a new offer, but it is not a significant one. Such a vote would not be binding on the Government, as the Prime Minister appeared to confirm in the Q&A.
- It is also a largely superfluous commitment, because by voting through the WAB, MPs would then be able to table People’s Vote amendments.
- And her effort to persuade MPs who support a People’s Vote that they need to back her deal or lose the chance to give the public the final say, was contradicted when she said that failure to agree her deal would increase the chances of a referendum. Given that Parliament would seek to block no deal, the choice, she said, would likely be between a General Election and a People’s Vote.
10. “There will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect this new deal.”
- The political declaration itself is not legally binding, so this is a fairly worthless commitment.
- If Parliament adopts the Withdrawal Agreement Bill it will be ratifying an international treaty that includes the Backstop. Any part of the Bill that says the Backstop should be renegotiated would be in effect meaningless. The EU have repeatedly said the Withdrawal Agreement is not open to renegotiation and the Government have agreed, so this surely means they accept this point.