Yesterday was a significant day for those who follow the minutiae of Brexit, for those of us who try to ascertain what is actually going despite the cloud of obfuscation and media distortion.
For months the answer to what Brexit means has been “Brexit means Brexit“, and when Theresa May has been asked for a way forward she has blithely responded that she will not give a blow by blow account of negotiations.
But yesterday that changed.
The question now is “What does a Brexit plan look like?” because Labour has managed to engineer something more concrete from the government. In return for agreeing to support the government’s Brexit timetable (that might be blown off track by events anyway, and Labour’s support for that was never in much doubt), Labour has managed to get a commitment to a Brexit plan from the government. The wording of Labour’s opposition motion is:
“to commit to publishing the government’s plan for leaving the EU before article 50 is invoked”
So what does that mean? How could the government actually produce such a plan? What form would it take?
To try to work this out I have consulted pretty widely among former work colleagues of mine who are experts on UK Parliamentary procedure but who, for professional reasons, I cannot quote directly here. No one I have spoken to thinks the government could get away with anything less than a Command Paper, and that a Written Ministerial Statement or a paper deposited in the House of Commons library would be insufficient in this case.
What then is a Command Paper? The National Archives has an excellent explanation of that here. Within the list of what a Command Paper can be is a White Paper, termed as a major policy proposal – this Brexit plan is not something that is up for consultation (a Green Paper). White Papers keep the House of Commons happy in that the paper is deposited there first, then debated, and before wider public debate happens.
But what then goes into a White Paper? Are there any rules as to format or length or degree of detail required? This being the UK, where such things are never stipulated, means that there are not as far as I can tell. It will be the government’s call. There are two precedents, of sorts – the 1971 White Paper that pre-dated the UK’s entry into the then EEC was 48 pages in length (scan of it here). The 2013 Scotland’s Future White Paper that laid out how an independent Scotland would work was a 650-page tome (PDF here). Considering the complexity of the EU today is much greater than the EEC was in the 1970s, it strikes me as only reasonable to assume that a plan to leave today ought to be at least as detailed as the plan to enter was back then. However the government has to muster up this document within a couple of months if the Article 50 trigger by late March 2017 is to be respected.
But then if the government can essentially choose what to include, what should it include, and how should it approach the issue?
It strikes me that the government has three options. First option: it keeps the plan very vague, and angers Keir Starmer (whose idea this was in the first place) and further worries anyone already fearful that Brexit means the government is jumping off the Article 50 cliff without a proper plan. Alternatively it could go for the ‘have cake and eat it’ option, where it proposes something along the lines of what British MPs say they want, namely restricting freedom of movement but preserving membership of the Single Market – that will be rejected out of hand by the EU. Lastly, the plan could actually try to lay out how the Brexit negotiations will work, and what the government wants to do, with a degree of pragmatism and good sense – but doing that will make the Brexiteer back benchers and the tabloid press furious. There are no easy options here, and Barnier and the EU, and Starmer and the rump of Lib Dems in the House of Commons, need to be prepared for all of them.
Starmer has already had a go at outlining his demands for a plan, namely whether it answers if the UK aims to remain within the Customs Union and the EU Single Market, how much information the Brexit Select Committee will get, how much information the Office for Budget Responsibility will receive, how involved the devolved administrations will be, and – more vague – that the plan ought to “have enough detail to build genuine consensus”.
I’d add a few more criteria, although there are undoubtedly many more. In my view the plan ought to at least outline:
- Whether the Article 50 notification is reversible by the UK alone (i.e. the notification could be withdrawn)
- What the plan is in the case no agreement can be reached with the EU within the two year period foreseen by Article 50
- How the UK government wishes to sequence the negotiations – through some sort of interim deal (or not), and roughly what should be achieved at each stage
- How the UK’s foreign and defence policy commitments in Europe will be impacted by Brexit
- How the government would like to see Brits living in the rest of the EU treated
- How the UK will deal with budgetary commitments already made to the EU (inc. on staff salaries), and what long term projects (like Erasmus for example) that it aims to fulfil even after Brexit
- Whether the UK foresees a sector based approach for Single Market Access, or whether one system for all sectors will be proposed
- What the UK would like to see from the EU to assist the UK getting its own WTO schedules after Brexit
So let’s start with that, and see where it gets us. There is an opportunity that, finally, this argument about a plan might bring some of the inherent problems with any Brexit variant into sharper relief, and bring down UK politicians’ dogmatic rhetoric to a more practical and pragmatic level.
So, from now on, when you hear the words “Brexit plan“, ask “What should be in that plan?“Jon