Lesley Riddoch: Norway Plus is not an option for the UK's Brexit

Amber Rudd and her colleagues are deluding themselves with their Brexit plan B, writes Lesley Riddoch

Monday, 10th December 2018, 10:35 am
Updated Monday, 10th December 2018, 10:55 am

Scots stand today, surveying the collapse of British governance, like folk on lifeboats watching the mighty Titanic start to slip beneath the waves.

Most of us do not vote Conservative and never will. Most of us voted to Remain in the EU in 2016. And now most of us would opt for independence in the EU if a self-harming Brexit goes ahead. And no matter which withdrawal deal is advocated by desperate members of both main political parties south of the Border, each one is more damaging than simply staying in the EU.

That includes Amber Rudd’s crazy, last gasp advocacy of “Norway-plus” as a Brexit option, if or really when Theresa May’s dead duck is finally allowed to waddle off the stage.

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Amber Rudd supports a 'Norway-plus' approach. Pic: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Of course, on the face of it, Norway-plus looks inviting.

The UK was one of the founding members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960. Britain left to join the EEC in 1973, so EFTA membership could be portrayed as a return to the fold we should never have left. Rejoining EFTA would let the UK remain inside the European single market by also gaining eligibility to join the European Economic Area (EEA) and that would guarantee genuinely frictionless trade.

Britain would leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the common agricultural and fisheries policies and be free of the drive towards “ever closer union” from the end of 2020. And the “plus” bit – remaining in a temporary customs union – would allow goods to join services enjoying business as (almost) normal instead of the impending chaos of a no-deal Brexit.

But the price is high, especially for a party which consciously decided to follow the irresponsible and malicious path of blaming Brussels, EU nationals and immigrants for the Dickensian levels of poverty, inequality, starvation, collapse of public services and general hopelessness created by their own policies in Britain. There is therefore no way the Tories can sell a Norway-plus deal which accepts freedom of movement and “rule-taking” from Brussels while paying 75-85 per cent of full membership fees to feverishly Brexit-ready English voters.

Of course, there’s another tiny problem with the Norway-plus option.

Norway will block it.

Last week, Heidi Nordby Lunde, Conservative MP and president of Norway’s European Movement, kicked British membership of the EFTA roundly into touch, telling Channel 4: “I’m sceptic to letting the UK into the EFTA family because it’s kind of like having an abusive partner spiking the drinks and inviting them to the Christmas party.”

When asked if she felt that the potential of Britain joining the EFTA would upset the balance in that group, she added: “I think you would mess it all up for us, the way you have messed it up for yourselves.”

This kind of reality check has so far been completely missing from Britain’s pie-in-the-sky Brexit debate and is all the more significant because Norwegians are usually the world’s most diplomatic people – the product of compromise and consensus that comes from almost a century using PR in elections.

But Lunde summed up Britain’s Norway-plus problems succinctly: “The Norway deal has four issues that I don’t think UK politicians want. First of all, we accept migration internally in the EU, we also accept rulings by the European Court of Justice, we accept the rules and regulations that we get from the EU. Also, being in the EFTA bloc, we can’t make our own free trade agreements without having Liechtenstein and Iceland with us.”

Interestingly, none of these obstacles for “red line” Britain would create an insuperable barrier to an independent Scotland which wanted to pursue the EFTA/EEA route if EFTA members and Scots decided that was preferable to full EU membership.

But after this one short interview on Friday, Norway-plus stood roundly demolished as an option for Britain. Yet, unbelievably, the very next day, flying in the face of all that had just been said, Rudd became the first Cabinet minister to publicly back the Norway-plus model if May’s Brexit deal is defeated in the Commons tomorrow.

Even more incredibly, Rudd’s desperate advocacy of this non-viable Norway deal propelled the Work and Pensions Secretary back up the pollsters’ rankings in the race to become the next Tory leader. Mind you, since the attempt to keep legal advice from MPs also shunted Attorney General Geoffrey Cox into the running, why should anyone be surprised? Despite defeat in the Commons, Tory MPs and London-based political commentators were apparently moved and impressed by the gravelly, authoritative quality of his voice. These are the depths to which “leadership” in British politics has sunk.

In short, a proposal that was comprehensively trashed only 24 hours earlier by a Norwegian Conservative politician has earned the deluded or deliberately obfuscating Rudd an even greater chance of taking over when May has gone.

If folk believe this bourach can still be described as governance, they must be part of the minority – according to weekend surveys of Scottish public opinion – that still prefers Brexit in the UK to Scottish independence in Europe.

You don’t have to be a card-carrying Christian for a verse of Matthew to come to mind: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them.”

Well, now all Scots know how the Conservative Party and the British Government choose to operate. They are always focused on the short term, always seeking one-off deals instead of long-term relationships, always feathering their own nests – recent European investments by leading Brexiteers haven’t escaped public attention – and always suspicious or careless of neighbours’ interests. It’ll be a very long time before the Irish forget Priti Patel’s appalling suggestion that the prospect of food shortages should be used to scare Irish people into submission over the backstop.

Of course, Scots are not immune from Brexit or its ill effects.

But looked at from the perspective of those boarding the lifeboat north of the Border today, there’s only one question left as Britain embarks on its final act of jaw-dropping self-harm.

Must we really go there too?