May's white paper a 'bad deal for Britain', claim Tory Brexiters

Dan Sabbagh and Lisa O'Carroll
Theresa May’s long-awaited Brexit white paper has been heaped with scorn by Tory Brexiters. Photograph: APA-PictureDesk GmbH/Rex/Shutterstock

Theresa May’s EU negotiating strategy came under sustained criticism from Brexiters following the publication of the long-awaited white paper, with the leader of the hardline European Research Group declaring he could not vote for it if it formed the basis of the final deal with Brussels.

Jacob Rees Mogg said May’s plans to strike an association agreement, matching EU rules on goods and collecting some external customs tariffs, was “a bad deal for Britain” and “would not be something I would vote for nor is it what the British people voted for”.

The warning that he and other members of the European Research Group could join with Labour and other parties to vote down a proposed final deal came as MPs debated the white paper in the House of Commons amid a string of misgivings from Tory Brexiters.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, said: “Having voted to leave, I voted to leave, not to half leave.” David Jones, a former Brexit minister, complained that there remained a role for the European court of justice in interpreting EU rules in disputes once the UK leaves.

The long-awaited white paper, the buildup to which has already prompted the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, also received a cautious response from the EU, which said it needed to consider the plans – but there was a boost for May with an upbeat assessment by Ireland’s foreign minister.

The 100-page document, entitled the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, also suggested what the migration policy might look like after free movement ends, with businesses able to to move “their talented people” from the UK to the EU – and vice versa – after Brexit.

EU citizens would not require a visa to work temporarily in the UK or to visit on holiday if those rights were reciprocated. There would be special arrangements for students and young people to study at each other’s universities, and the UK hoped to strike a deal to ensure Britons who had retired on the continent would be able to “benefit from their pension entitlements”.

But it was measures on customs and trade that continued to upset Brexiters, several of whom believe that the government should have embarked on an alternative strategy of pursuing a Canada-style free trade deal drawn up by David Davis but ditched by No 10 last week. Comparing the two, Rees Mogg said: “It is a pale imitation of the paper prepared by David Davis.”

A leak of the draft of the “alternative white paper” that had been drafted by Davis had avoided the idea of an explicit recognition of EU standards on food and goods, instead making a looser commitment to “keep UK regulatory standards for good as high as the EU’s” according a draft leaked to the ConservativeHome website. Such an approach is deemed to be closer to the Canadian free-trade deal because it would not involve signing up to standards set by the 27 country bloc.

As had been expected, the official document set out proposals for the UK to agree to a common rulebook of standards for food and goods after Brexit, and a “facilitated customs arrangement” in which the UK would collect both UK and EU tariffs for goods entering Britain.

The publication of the white paper was also accompanied by chaotic scenes at the House of Commons when it became apparent that printed copies of the document were not immediately available to MPs as Dominic Raab, the new Brexit secretary, got up to introduce it.

A clearly unhappy Raab apologised for the late arrival of the white paper, caused because nobody had authorised Commons officials to release it, and prompting the John Bercow, the Speaker, to take the unusual step of suspending Commons proceedings for five minutes so copies could be obtained.

After the hiatus, Raab told MPs: “I’m confident that a deal is within reach, given the success of the prime minister and her negotiating team.” He later said: “Now is the time for the EU to respond in kind.” He said he expected to meet the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, next week.

In response, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, began: “Can I gently say this: he’s not got off to a very good start. The utter shambles of the last 20 minutes that led to the suspension of the house during a statement is clear evidence of why the government is in such a mess.”

Starmer also condemned the white paper as both unworkable and unlikely to survive opposition from Tory MPs. “Across business communities, among trade unions and, I genuinely believe, across this house, there is growing unity that the UK should remain economically close to the EU,” Starmer said. “And that means negotiating a comprehensive customs union with the EU27, and a single market deal with the right balance of obligations tailored to the UK.”

Barnier said he would analyse May’s proposals with EU member states and the European parliament “in light of guidelines” drawn up by EU leaders – a heavy hint of the conflict to come in Brexit negotiations. European council guidelines state that the UK cannot “cherry pick” its favourite parts of the EU rulebook.

Brussels officials fear the UK proposal for a single market in goods is a form of special treatment that could undermine the entire EU project, by encouraging other countries to seek opt-outs from basic union law. “If we allow this flexibility on the single market, the whole building might crumble,” said one EU diplomat.

However, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, struck a notably optimistic note, saying that the white paper could solve the Irish border problem: “It’s easy to focus on the problems and the barriers and the negatives, I’m focussing this week on the step forward. A week ago we didn’t have a clear statement that the British government wanted a future relationship that didn’t require border infrastructure, we now have that statement.”