Extracting a White Paper from Theresa May has been like pulling teeth. First, she had to be forced into agreeing to produce her Brexit plan. Then she tried to pass off a speech outside parliament as that plan. Only now – after MPs have already provisionally given the thumbs-up to her Article 50 legislation – has the government published a White Paper. 

But it is thin document. May’s plan to quit both the EU’s single market and its customs union means we are heading for a destructive Brexit. The White Paper offers only a few scraps of comfort that the damage can be limited.

For example, it doesn’t explicitly rule out the possibility that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) might continue for an interim period after we leave. If we accept its jurisdiction, we’ll find it easier to secure a transitional deal that avoids the economy falling off a cliff.

The White Paper also makes clear that any new trade deal with the EU will need a dispute resolution mechanism. It’s good the government is owning up to the need. Some Brexiters might see that as the ECJ-lite. 

The government hasn’t ruled out participating in various agencies such as the European Medicines Agency – and it is looking to work with EU bodies on financial regulation and product standards. This means there could be less of a regulatory cliff-edge for our industry. Again, hard Brexiters might have baulked at this given their aversion to EU rules.

But ideological hatred of the ECJ may put the skids under our nuclear power industry. That’s why the government is pulling out of Euratom, which provides the industry’s legal framework.

What’s more, the White Paper has done nothing to guarantee the rights of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. If the government hadn’t talked about using them as bargaining chips, this issue – along with the status of Brits living across the Channel – could have been resolved months ago.

And while the document talks sensibly about cooperating with the EU on fighting terrorism, foreign policy and science, it doesn’t propose any mechanisms by which this could happen. Post-Brexit, it will be harder not easier to work together on these vital areas.

In other words, the White Paper is too little, too late. 

But MPs can still mitigate the damage by amending the Article 50 legislation next week to ensure that they can properly scrutinise the Brexit process. The key amendment will be to give our parliament the right to vote on any deal before it is put to the European Parliament.

The prime minister is saying that, if she can only secure a bad deal, she’d prefer to leave the EU with no deal. But the UK deserves better than deciding between a bad deal and crashing out with no deal. Proper parliamentary involvement would cut somewhat the risk of us being confronted by such a devil’s choice.

by Hugo Dixon | 02.02.2017

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