London Evening Standard/London
Theresa May yesterday faced a deepening Tory civil war as MPs said her latest Northern Ireland talks opened the way for the UK to stay inside the world’s biggest trade bloc.
Conservatives opposed to a cliff-edge Brexit said the prime minister’s policy of “continued regulatory alignment” was the basis for a Norway-style trade deal within the European single market of 500mn customers.
The rift opened as Brexit Secretary David Davis said leaving the EU would result in a “paradigm change” for the economy.
John Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Carlisle, said there was growing cross-party support in parliament for being members of Efta, the European Free Trade Association, which includes Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
“There is a lot of support, including among Brexiteers who backed the idea of an Efta-style solution during the referendum debate,” he said.
“People talk about a Norwegian model, but I think they would soon be talking of the British model. It would take an awful lot of heat away from the Irish border issue.”
Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary who now chairs the Treasury select committee, said: “There cannot be a separate deal for part of the UK, so many of us accept that regulatory alignment is the way forward.”
She hit back at former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who called on Britain to pull the plug on talks with the EU and stage a hard Brexit. “It would be crazy to walk away from the talks now,” she said. But Tory Right-winger Nigel Evans branded the idea a “Hotel California solution — where you can check out but never leave the EU”.
Evans said the idea was being offered by Labour but he believed Britons would not tolerate having to obey the single market rules, which include free movement of workers and an annual payment for membership.
“If the single market and customs union are on the table, we would be unable to control immigration and would have to pay money for the privilege. That is the worst deal you could get and it seems to be Labour policy now,” he said.
Economists say single market membership after Brexit would protect jobs and growth, while allowing free movement across the Irish border. It could be achieved by joining Efta or by applying to join the European Economic Area, which united the EU and Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, yesterday repeated that Labour is prepared to keep membership of the single market and customs union on the table. “We certainly wouldn’t rule it out” he said on the BBC’s Today show. “We’d want to have a conversation.”
Although hard-Brexiteers believe they have a whip-hand over May while she is at No 10, the campaign for a soft Brexit may have a majority in parliament.
A recent study by LSE said Brexit without a trade deal would cost London over £100bn over five years, while staying in the single market would reduce the losses to some £58bn.
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