Brexit: Theresa May can unite divided Tories behind 'Norway' plan with new law, says ex-Conservative minister

Exclusive: Nick Boles suggests the government could enshrine a legal guarantee that it would leave the EEA exactly three years after Brexit day

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Tuesday 11 September 2018 14:45
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Theresa May can unite her divided party behind a plan to go into temporary Norway-style EU relations after Brexit if she passes a new law guaranteeing a cleaner break from Brussels by 2022, a Tory MP has said.

Ex-minister Nick Boles argued that passing “a small bill” committing ministers to a clean break in three years, could allay Brexiteer concerns about staying more closely aligned to the single market for a stabilising period after March 2019.

Mr Boles proposed taking the UK into a temporary Norway-style relationship as a “plan B” earlier this month, after declaring Ms May’s Chequers proposals had “zero” chance of passing through parliament.

He now believes Brexiteers would be won over to his idea – being outside the EU but temporarily in the single market as a part of the EEA and EFTA – if they were offered a legal guarantee the UK would move to a more distinct position by 2022.

Mr Boles told The Independent: “Some of my colleagues worry that we would never be able to get out of the EEA. But they should have more confidence in their own ability to ensure that this happens.

“In exchange for their support for a Norway-style interim they could insist on a short bill committing the government to leave the EEA after three years and a massive programme of investment in preparations to make us ready for WTO trade in the event that the EU doesn’t offer us a reasonable free trade deal.”

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Mr Boles’s intervention comes after Tory eurosceptics planned, but failed, this week to publish a detailed blueprint for the UK’s future relationship with the EU as an alternative to Ms May’s Chequers plan, which many are vowing to vote down.

A 140-page draft rooted in the idea that the UK should be seeking a Canada-style trade deal was circulated last week among colleagues, but the hard-Brexit backing European Research Group backed away from promoting it.

In exchange for their support for a Norway-style interim they could insist on a short bill committing the government to leave the EEA after three years

Conservative MP Nick Boles

Disagreements among eurosceptics about exactly what kind of Brexit should be sought were said to be behind the failure to go with full publication.

Under the ‘Better Brexit’ plan championed by Mr Boles – who has also said he does not believe Chequers has enough support to pass through the commons – the UK would leave the EU in March as planned and spend three years in the EEA with Norway, during which time it could better negotiate a full trade deal and prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

Most Tory MPs assume that Ms May will step down after March 2019, meaning it could be down to a new prime minister in this instance to negotiate the free trade deal.

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The proposal would also mean that the UK would move into whatever new arrangement kicks in, just before the next election in early 2022, allowing whoever is leading the government to show how they had delivered Brexit, assuming things have gone successfully.

Any mention of a Norway-style option, even temporarily, would have been completely unacceptable to most Brexiteers until recently.

But with Ms May’s Chequers plans under increasing pressure, the failure of anyone else to come up with an alternative, and a no-deal Brexit likely to blocked by parliament, some are showing interest in Mr Boles’s approach.

“It does at least guarantee were out by March 2019. Then we have time to get something better on trade before going to the country,” one told The Independent.

But one remain-backing Tory MP was not so convinced: “It’s good that Nick has joined the debate and is talking about the EEA.

“But I don’t think our friends and partners like Norway, that are there now, are going to be too thrilled if we use it as some halfway house for a while before dropping out, it doesn’t strengthen their position.”

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