Scottish MPs have held talks about a Brexit fallback plan that would see the UK stay in the single market and customs union, while escaping from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
The plan’s author, Conservative MP Nick Boles, said his proposal would solve the Brexit dilemmas face by Scottish Tories, and had also attracted interest from the SNP.
During a day of meetings at Westminster to try to find common ground with opposition parties, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would consider the Boles plan for a “Norway plus” exit from the EU, and acknowledged that any alternative to Theresa May’s deal with Brussels would need support from Tory MPs to pass the Commons.
Boles, the MP for Grantham and Stamford in Lincolnshire and a former skills minister under David Cameron, says he supports the Prime Minister’s draft deal. However, with around 80 of his Conservative colleagues publicly opposing it, the deal is unlikely to pass.
“From my point of view, all we’re trying to do here is deliver Brexit in a way that doesn’t do damage to the Union and doesn’t do damage to our own economy, and I think EEA/Efta is the best possible way of doing that,” Boles told Scotland on Sunday.
“I think it’s potentially a very good plan for the Scottish people, and all parties that represent them,” he added.
Under Norway plus, which EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has previously said is on offer from Brussels, the UK would remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) via membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta), which includes single market members Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Efta members are not members of the EU customs union, but the UK would strike a customs deal separately with Brussels to keep the free flow of goods.
Because the whole of the UK would remain within the single market, as well as EU customs rules there would be no need for the Irish border backstop, and no risk of a trade barrier in the Irish Sea or competitive advantage for Northern Ireland compared with Scotland.
And because accession to Efta is expected to take much less time than negotiating a new security and trade agreement between the UK and EU, there would be no risk of needing to extend the 21-month post-Brexit transition phase.
“This would be a much cleaner, simpler, unquestionably unionist proposal,” said Boles.
His original proposal was dubbed “Norway for now”, and suggested the UK use Efta as a stepping stone towards a more loose Canada-style free trade deal with the EU. However, members of the four-nation bloc rejected temporary membership.
A Norway plus model would be opposed by Brexiteers and breach most of the red lines set by May’s government, but would match the objectives set out by Sturgeon and Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
“I’ve had conversations with some of [Ms Sturgeon’s] MPs down here and I’m very open to have further such conversations,” said Boles. “I’d be delighted to discuss with anyone in the SNP.
“I’ve had discussions with Plaid Cymru MPs, with Labour MPs, with DUP MPs, and crucially with Scottish Conservatives, many of whom were not totally comfortable with the temporary idea in my original formulation.
“For many of them, going into the EEA before the end of the transition, before December 2020 is very attractive. You’d obviously get control of fisheries immediately.”
Several Scottish Tories are understood to be supportive of an Efta fall-back, but one, Gordon MP Colin Clark, said he still wanted a Canada-style trade deal. “Norway would see us continuing to pay around £10bn a year in contributions to the EU, and that’s not where we want to be,” he said.