The second advantage of transition is that it could offer a simple solution to vexed and seeming insoluble question of the Irish border.
If both sides agreed to maintain transition until a long-term solution could be implemented to negate the need for border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there would be no need for the EU’s famous backstop. Transition would become the backstop. The whole of the UK would remain within the EU’s single market and a customs union, and life would look very much like it does now — in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But if that is the case for transition, then the problems with it are equally compelling.
For a start it would mean that the UK would not really have left the EU for many years to come. Extended transition would result in the UK continuing to pay money into the EU’s central budget at similar levels to that which we do at present. We would also have to accept freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Not only that: while we would have the obligations of EU membership, we would not have any say in making the rules that resulted in those obligations.
One of the arguments made by those who were in favour of the present transition period was that its limited length meant that Britain would have been round the table and agreed to any new rules and regulations that came into effect before December 2020. Were transition to be extended, that would no longer be the case.
Then there is the question of when it would end. If we were locked in transition unless and until both sides were happy with the new deal, it would reduce the UK’s negotiating hand in what will be difficult trade talks ahead. Even if it was technically a time-limited extension, we could end up facing multiple cliff edges over the years to come with a trade deal still not ready — and the only option for a UK government being asked for more time.
That would be doubly true if it were to become the mechanism to ensure no hard border in Northern Ireland.
For these reasons it is very hard to see how, even if such a deal could be negotiated, it could possibly command majority support in the House of Commons.
True Brexiteers would hate it — even more than they hate Chequers. MPs in seats that voted leave would find it very hard to support, while even Remainers would be far more likely to call for a second referendum rather this fudge.
So does that mean the idea is dead?
Not necessarily. It means that it certainly can’t be the solution to the backstop. But the potential to extend transition — rather than an agreement to do so — could be included in the withdrawal agreement. As long as there is no commitment, a majority might be prepared to support keeping the option on the table.
Then, as December 2020 approaches and no trade deal is in sight, logic might then dictate an extension of the devil we (would then) know rather than another cliff edge.