I cannot remember a Conservative Party conference so lacking in inspiration or hope. If there had been no campaigning by party members for the Prime Minister to “#ChuckChequers” and no packed fringe meetings listening to the likes of Owen Paterson, Priti Patel, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg it would not have seemed like a political gathering at all – and have offered little reason to attend.
The heightened expectation surrounding Boris Johnson’s brief appearance to make a fringe speech was tangible and showed what could be possible when you have someone who can entertain and inspire in equal measure. Like all politicians, Johnson has his faults, but making poor speeches is not one of them. He is possibly the last person the Conservative Party has that can have ordinary members queuing up two hours beforehand to gain access for the unticketed event.
Just before he bounced in, another leader-in-waiting, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, had addressed an official session in a main hall that looked less than half-full.
Tuesday’s Johnson surge followed the fringe rallies hosted by Brexit Central and Leave Means Leave that were also oversubscribed. So it came to Wednesday and the closing speech by the Prime Minister. For all it was probably her best-ever speech, it is not enough.
Five days on and it is remembered more for her Dancing Queen entrance than anything she said. Indeed it is what she did not say that made the most telling point. There had been boos at a closed party-only meeting on the Sunday afternoon when Theresa May had mentioned her Chequers Plan. By Wednesday she had decided not to utter the C-word at all. If the Tory leader cannot talk to the party faithful about the core policy that defines what her Government is doing on the biggest issue facing the nation in a generation, then it must be concluded that the leader has lost her authority and must find a way to change without losing face – or be removed. Her Chequers Plan was the elephant in the room and it is a white elephant at that.
The main problem with Chequers is its agreement to a common rule book, which is essentially the EU’s current laws – and any others it cares to come up with, but without our future say in the matter. It is the common rule book that will ensure no free trade deals are possible and how other restrictions to decide our own laws will remain in place.
Now the gossip in the background is that May is looking to find a way to pivot towards a Canada-style trade agreement after European Council President Donald Tusk reminded everyone it is still on the table. To help ease that process, the European Research Group of Conservative backbenchers has signalled it would support ingenious ways of allowing customs and regulatory checks on UK soil, based on the Le Touquet agreement between France and the UK. This is the arrangement whereby customs officials from either country can check passports and vehicles on the other nation’s territory either side of the Eurotunnel to facilitate speedy processing.
This approach, along with other technical solutions already suggested by the European Research Group in a detailed paper published last month, should also form the basis for settling the concerns raised by the Irish Republic and the EU about the Irish border with the UK.
This is important because the Irish border question remains the main stumbling block to any agreement between the UK and the EU – but only because the EU has made it so.
The EU’s offer of a Canada-style deal does not include Northern Ireland, so for May it is unacceptable. She understands she cannot have her country divided by an external jurisdiction setting rules she or her fellow citizens have no control over. But it would also be unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party, who would go further and rather endure no deal at all than be seduced by all manner of bribes or the threat of never returning to Stormont than allow a customs and regulatory arrangement that delivers convergence with the republic.
Solve that impediment so the Canada-style deal can cover the whole of the UK and suddenly a satisfactory agreement is possible that would win favour in Parliament. The EU has already conceded that technical arrangements are possible for trade across the Irish Sea, so the question now shifts to why will the EU not accept that those same technical solutions cannot be used for trade between Northern Ireland and the republic?
While the Le Touquet approach might work in Folkestone and Calais, surely there is time to trial a Le Touquet-plus system during the transition period before a free trade deal is introduced in 2021?
The Dublin government should take the opportunity to embrace the idea, for the dilemma it faces is not its land border with the UK but the fact that its trade with the world predominantly travels via UK ports. Some 450,000 HGVs arrived at Holyhead in Wales alone from the republic in 2016, many of them travelling on to the European continent and via ports such as Rotterdam to reach the rest of the world.
Having a border in the Irish Sea would still mean that for those journeys they would face two customs and regulatory inspections on entering and leaving the UK – so it makes sense to agree an EU free trade deal that makes that journey as frictionless as possible.
We should watch, then, for the Chequers Plan that dare not speak its own name being put to bed by the EU in a humane fashion, thus allowing May to move on. What is required is to ensure it does not come back from the dead in a rebranded but zombie-like fashion or with more concessions added so it is essentially “Chequers-minus”.
Whatever she calls her next offering, May must drop the adoption of a common rule book that keeps us in the single market while she claims we are outside it. She must also embrace the positive and creative solutions coming out of the European Research Group, which by their nature demonstrate their motives are to achieve a good deal acceptable to parliament rather than change who occupies No10.
May has passed up on so many previous opportunities that she cannot afford to pass up on the latest, or she makes the possibility of Johnson replacing her more likely.