I had an interesting conversation last night. The premise was to suppose Theresa May was honest. I know that’s hard to believe. The participants shared that problem. But go with it, because what we supposed was that Theresa May was honest enough to admit Brexit really was a mistake. We were all sure she believes that. After all, she said so before the referendum on the issue. The premise is that she has not changed her conviction. What then?
There was only one answer. We were sure that the existing negotiating stance would have to change. Instead of talking no customs union and single market - the leaving of both of which was not explicitly promised by most Leave campaigners - the discussion would simply move to what leaving the EU meant. The only issue would then be how to comply with the referendum with least harm, given what we now know about Ireland, the limited benefits of free trade elsewhere, the costs of disassociating, and so on.
At that point it was fairly obvious that there was only one direction available. If a second referendum was not possible - and I think on balance that was thought to be the case - then the one remaining option was Norway with the Customs Union. Whether others had read Simon Jenkins’ piece on this in the Guardian yesterday or not I do not know: I had not, although I agree with much of it.
The plus is Ireland is solved.
And the UK continues to be the UK.
Those partaking thought this the biggest goal for now: the break up of the Union required a better planned precursor than Brexit, it was felt.
Thereafter the gains were to trade, stability, employment, and ease of return, plus freedom of movement (I admit, key to some in the discussion) and access to EU funding (again, I admit key to others).
What it was not was ‘stability at any cost’ though. It was recognised that Brexit has posed questions on the future of the UK. And for the EU too, if it is wise to listen. And if it left but joined an EFTA style deal the UK might, and should, become a sharply critical friend. There was no point in carrying anything through unless change was the consequence. The idea that the UK could not achieve this if closely associated was dismissed: realpolitik would clearly suggest otherwise in that case.
The mood remained negative: this was a discussion amongst those who, in the main, regretted we ever got here. But then we wondered if this might happen. And the answer was it is likely.
The rate of UK negotiating capitulation makes yesterday’s 58 all out by our cricket team look good. Jacob Rees-Mogg is rarely right. He is ob the fact that so far the EU have taken full control of the negotiation. We strongly suspected that is because UK negotiators really do not believe in their position. Only by edging towards a plausible option - one May might believe in - can they really achieve a result.
Norway plus customs union is that option.
It is the only viable alternative option to asking to rejoin.
We were under no illusion about the risk of political backlash. But that exists wherever we look now. The risk of being credible has to be taken. And this is the only option that withstands that test. And we suspected it is where our negotiations are heading.