The emerging Labour-Tory compromise on Brexit is all a mirage

The Guardian – Government lies on Brexit are always found out – and it will be the same in cross-party talks.

The powers that be in Brussels are far from dewy-eyed innocents. There is an acceptance of the need at times for the deployment of half-truths or some finessing of the actualité to get stuff done. But a standout lesson of the Brexit negotiations for EU officials and diplomats intimately involved is the British government’s almost obsessive inclination to deceive. The charge sheet against Theresa May’s perfidious Albion is a long one. The emptiness of the promise of frictionless trade outside the single market or customs union is hard to beat or indeed the mantra that a no-deal Brexit would be better than a bad deal. But the government always gets found out – and it will surely be the same of Downing Street’s attempts to beguile Labour in the cross-party talks.

The suggested compromise emerging over the weekend is that Labour and the Conservative government will agree to writing into the political declaration on the future relationship – the 26-page document that accompanies the 585-page withdrawal agreement – a commitment to negotiate a customs union with the EU covering goods that would last until 2022. That is the date when the next general election is due to fall under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. There would be no independent trade policy in goods up to then.

The Conservatives under a new leader might promise an arrangement that offers all the barrier-removing benefits of the current customs union but with the boon of global Britain being able to replicate the buccaneering pioneer spirit of old by regaining the ability to strike trade deals. Under the “dual tariff” proposal made in September 2018, and dismissed as “insane” by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, the UK would control its own tariffs but collect and pass on higher EU tariffs to Brussels for goods en route through the UK to the continent.

Labour might offer the prospect of a permanent customs union with what it describes as a “close relationship with the single market” without accepting free movement of people. Putting aside the flaws in both of those proposals – insane and unnegotiable – it is hoped that this compromise would convince just enough MPs of either party to hold their noses and vote for the deal. The problem is that it is all a mirage. Every day that the UK remains a member state is another day gone in which Whitehall could negotiate the future relationship while benefiting from its place in the single market and customs union as part of a 21-month transition period.

There is much to negotiate with the EU. The deadline of 31 December 2020 will not give enough time. The withdrawal agreement foresees this problem. It offers an extension of the transition of up to two years to the end of 2022 – one the British government is likely to need to exploit to its fullest. The offer to Labour of a temporary customs union to 2022 is therefore irrelevant. For the Conservative backbenchers, meanwhile, the compromise does not offer freedom for the British government to do its own thing after 2022.

The Irish backstop, involving the UK and the EU sharing a customs territory and Northern Ireland in effect staying in the single market, will kick in if there is no alternative arrangement for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Home Office has suggested that at best a technological solution for the border would not be operational until 2030. Even for those credulous enough to believe there was a real prospect of Labour “bailing” out the government, as the shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, has described it, the apparent landing zone takes the political debate no further on from where it started.

Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

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