Tick, tick




I am put in mind of Captain Hook, who was haunted by a ticking clock. Inside a crocodile, if I remember rightly.

Theresa May said last week that there can’t be a transitional arrangement (she calls it an implementation arrangement) with the EU until the final trading relationship between the EU and UK has been settled.

“The point of the implementation period is to put in place the practical changes necessary to move to the future partnership,” she said in the Commons, “and, in order to have that, you need to know what the future partnership is going to be.”

Well, obviously. If we’re in transit, we must decide where we’re going. If we’re implementing, we must know what we’re implementing.

Yvette Cooper asked Mrs May if she meant that there wouldn’t be a transition deal if no longer-term UK-EU trade deal was agreed by this time next year. (As there would have to be, if we were to have a trade deal by the time we left in March 2019. And as there can’t possibly be: it is only parts of the Government and certain mad people who think a trade deal with the EU can be done within a year from now.)

Mrs May then said, with her invariable talent for obscuring what has just been clarified: “An implementation period is about a period that is adjusting to the future relationship. That’s the basis on which I have put it forward to the European Union and that’s the basis on which we’ll be negotiating an agreement.”

There was consternation. Not at the Prime Minister’s failure to answer a question, which is routine, but at her apparent certainty that we couldn’t negotiate a transitional agreement, which business needs desperately, until we had negotiated a trade agreement, which the Government needs desperately and hasn’t begun to negotiate because it is still stuck in the starting gate.

The public reaction prompted a rethink by the Government. Theresa May had not meant what she said. Or perhaps she had but it was hypothetical. One must always remember that words mean nothing to this government. Its utterances fall apart like the seed-head of a dandelion when the wind blows. Unfortunately, words are all we’ve got with which to hold it to account.

What she had said, before Yvette Cooper asked that inconvenient question, was, “You need to know what the future partnership is going to be.” What does “know” mean?  How do you know you know? Does your future partner also have to know? Does your future partner have to agree? If your future partner does not entirely agree, what then? And so on.

And what did she mean by “settled”? “Settled” could mean hammered out in detail. Or it could have the meaning of “settled on”, as in, “Let’s settle on the Canada option then, since at least most people around the table have heard of it.”

On Monday she appeared to say something unequivocal: “If no final deal has been reached by this time next year, then there would be no transitional deal.” “Reached” here definitely means “hammered out.” And that means no transition.

Michel Barnier then said, contradicting her, that, while a transitional agreement could be possible before March 2019, a future trade deal would have to be negotiated over several years.

That seems clear. What a blessing the Gallic intellect is.

What Barnier didn’t say was what stage the trade negotiations need to have reached for a transitional arrangement to be agreed. Nor have I found this crucial information anywhere else. David Davis says he is confident a transitional agreement will be reached early next year. He did not say what his confidence was based on. Theresa May now says that she expects trade talks and the transition talks to proceed simultaneously; this doesn’t help either, when nobody knows when trade talks will start.

In fact, nobody seems to know anything. Except the cut-off date. 29 March 2019. Tick, tick, tick.

David Davis is bullish about all this. On Wednesday he was talking with relish at a Commons committee hearing about the probability of the talks going to the wire, as though keeping one’s nerve through this process were a heroic military exploit. “The way the Union makes its decisions tends to be at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day, and that is precisely what I would expect to happen…If there is a time limit on negotiation the union stops the clock, it assumes that it’s still at 11.59… sometimes over the course of 24, 36, 72 hours…

“It will be a lot of pressure, very high stress, very exciting for everybody watching.”

If the Secretary for Exiting the European Union thinks it will be exciting for EU nationals in Britain and UK citizens in Europe to be biting their nails into the small hours while they wonder what the fate of their marriages, their children, their jobs and their homes is, and for business leaders to watch helplessly as the ground erodes under their investments while he plays poker with Barnier, he should be thrown out of office.

However, that was not what created outrage. He had been asked, in a Commons committee, about the vote MPs are supposed to be getting on the final deal with the EU. He was effectively saying there wouldn’t be time for it, and it would have to be held later.

At PMQs the Chamber erupted. Stephen Kinnock asked the Prime Minister to explain “how it is possible to have a meaningful vote on something that has already taken place.”

Theresa May hastened, against howls of derision, to give her minister an escape route, but it was difficult when he had nailed himself so exuberantly into the coffin. The last few days have seen a limping series of explanations. The word “hypothetical” has been thrown around a great deal. It has been pointed out that the scenario Davis depicted cannot happen because six months have to elapse for the deal to be ratified by the 27 member countries before it is signed.  (These days, the fact that something can’t happen does not mean it won’t.)

It is perfectly apparent that the Government doesn’t know what it’s doing. It is incompetent on the most basic level: it can’t get its dates in a row. The trouble is, the calendar is vital to these negotiations. That is something David Davis seems never quite to have got on top of. His negotiating strategy is to keep everything in the air until the last moment, when it will all come together by a magnificent act of intuition or of God. He began by attempting to make discussion of the Irish border dependent on discussion of customs. He now wants to make everything dependent on everything. If it is, then naturally it can only come together at the last moment. Hence his enjoyment of the scenario he painted at the Commons committee hearing.

He has doubtless employed this strategy in many negotiations before. They were business negotiations. He hasn’t grasped the difference. He will also remember that the Good Friday peace agreement was reached in the small hours, that the negotiations with the IRA circled perpetually around demands the granting of which was always dependent on the granting of something else, and that the same is true of the negotiations between Israel and Palestine. There are precedents aplenty. But they are irrelevant.

He hasn’t fully grasped – or he has given the wrong weight to – the fact that, in these negotiations, time itself is a wasting asset. He can’t admit that there is a discrepancy in the power balance and it is not in his favour. He won’t take seriously that a sequence has been stipulated for these talks in which Part A has to be completed satisfactorily before Part B is embarked on, and that this stipulation over-rides the EU’s own “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

If Part A has to be completed first, it is not possible to keep everything in the air until the last minute, is it?

Deny, deny. The Government is now trying to reverse the sequence: progress on Part A will depend on progress in Part B. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the EU agreed to this, because starting trade negotiations would make no difference to the Government’s ability to sort out the money, citizens’ rights or the border. This is because the problems it has with those three issues are problems with its own party, the electorate and (in the case of the border) the nature of reality, not with Brussels. The EU should call the Government’s bluff – and indeed perhaps it is getting ready to do so, with its hints about the “scoping” of trade talks.

Keeping this game going as long as he can is Davis’s only hope. Make everything dependent on everything else. Like that children’s game in which you get in a circle and all sit on the knees of the person behind. The circle stays up for much longer than you’d expect. In the end, of course, it falls down.

Tick, tick.




































Economical with the truth


British governments love secrets, and hang on to them.

Spycatcher is cited with some glee by people who enjoy seeing an overbearing government making a fool of itself. It was a book written by a former M15 officer about the supposed goings-on in that establishment, and was published in Australia in 1987 because it had been banned in Britain. It alleged that MI5 had conspired to undermine the premiership of Harold Wilson, had bugged Commonwealth conferences, had plotted to assassinate President Nasser, and that its former Director General, Roger Hollis, had been a Russian mole.

It was a rather bad book written by a man aggrieved about his pension rights, and the government would have well advised to let it lapse into obscurity. However, the Prime Minister at the time was Margaret Thatcher, in whose nature such a course of action did not lie. A great deal of legal bigwiggery descended on Sydney with the object of suppressing the book. The only thing anyone can remember about the case is an expression used by Sir Robert Armstrong, Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet secretary; in one of his replies he said that he had not lied about the matter in question, he had been “economical with the truth.” The roar of ribald Aussie laughter is still echoing.

The British Government lost the case, and appealed. While the appeal was in progress the book, which all along had been available in Scotland, was published in the USA. The American publishers, Viking Penguin, set up stalls selling copies at airports where flights were departing for the UK.  A lot of copies made the trip and were not stopped at customs.

The Sunday Times started publishing extracts. Other newspapers printed reviews. The Government lost its head and threw injunctions about. Sales had reached two million. By the time the Law Lords ruled that no law had been broken because the book no longer contained any secrets, there were copies in every bookshop in the land. The final humiliation for the Government came in 1991, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it had breached the Human Rights Act by attempting to gag the press.

Peter Wright recouped his pension and died a millionaire.

The Thatcher government was just doing what it knew. Five years earlier, during the Falklands War, an Argentine Exocet missile had struck HMS Sheffield amidships, causing a devastating fire. Twenty sailors died and a further 24 were injured. The disaster was reported in the press, but not in any detail. The report of the Board of Inquiry was suppressed.

Thirty-five years later, the full, unredacted account has just been released (Guardian 15 October). It is a miserable catalogue of inadequate command, warnings ignored and procedures omitted. The anti-air warfare officer was having a cup of coffee in the wardroom when the missile struck; twelve minutes later he was still insisting it had not been a missile. This was partly because the intelligence assessment he had been given was bulky and difficult to read. The radar was being used for another transmission, and a warning from a sister ship that Argentine fighter jets were approaching was not heeded. The firefighting equipment was inadequate. There is a lot more.

No court martial was held. Two officers who had been found guilty of negligence by the Inquiry were “spoken to.” There was fear of “creating the wrong atmosphere in the press and souring the general euphoria,” in the words of the Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. A senior civil servant (Clive Ponting) described it as “too great a catastrophe to be made public.”

The Admiral’s words are perfectly credible to anyone who remembers the public jubilation after the Falklands victory, and knows how indebted to it Mrs Thatcher was for her victory at the subsequent general election. One imagines the conversation around the polished table: nothing could bring the sailors back; publication could always wait. It would compound the grief of the families and do the MoD no good. National security was involved.

National security is always involved when the government wishes to cover something up.  It is the argument that never fails because it cannot be challenged: the would-be challenger lacks the information that would serve to challenge it. That information is secret. The stratagem is neat, but because it is so waterproof and so frequently invoked it commands little respect among the populace. However, that doesn’t matter, because the populace can do nothing about it.

Current circumstances allow Theresa May a new variant of “national security,” but it is essentially the same idea. It is that to divulge any information she doesn’t want to divulge about Brexit would “prejudice the Government’s negotiating strategy”. She has used this ever since becoming Prime Minister. David Davis used it last week when he refused to release the more than 50 studies the Government had commissioned into the effects of Brexit on different sectors of British industry.

That the Government had enquired at all into the effects of Brexit on the economy was news to most of us: it had always affected an insouciant optimism. So it should have been reassuring that the Government had done something. More than 50 seems rather over the top, but it had surely done the sensible thing.

Now it is doing the next sensible thing, and keeping the information to itself.

Is anyone surprised? This is Britain. This is a Government that has always refused to explain its plans for Brexit (it “means Brexit”). And this is a Government, hanging on by a tiny, bought majority, that is entirely preoccupied by internal battles and its own imperilled status. Such a government may, possibly, have a perception of where the interests of the country lie, but it is not going to follow it. Probably it does not have such a perception at all: its thinking is captive to its need to survive. The only thing it is free to do is protect itself.

This is why the studies were commissioned. They weren’t to help us prepare ourselves for the effect of Brexit. They were to help the government prepare for the effects of Brexit on us.

The Government’s nonsense over its negotiating position needs to be called. It is behaving as though predictions of what will happen to the UK economy after Brexit are a military secret, instead of a matter of legitimate concern to many countries. Anyone is free to research the economic facts, and the EU has doubtless done so. And we are not at war. If the Government thinks we are, that is because it is at war – with itself, a sizeable section of the electorate and the bogey-figures it has conjured up in Brussels.

If the studies Mr Davis is trying to suppress belong to anyone, they belong, not to the Government which has commissioned them, but to the people Brexit will affect.

What’s more, our taxes have paid for them.

There are several possible responses to an abuse of power. In some countries they riot in the streets. Here, we usually prefer a legal challenge. Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West and Gibraltar, and Jolyon Maugham, QC, Director of the Good Law Project, who supported Gina Miller in her Article 50 case against the Government, are bringing an action against David Davis to force him to release the papers.

If the Government follows form, it will refuse at every stage. If the court rules against it, it will appeal upwards to the Supreme Court. But this will focus attention on something it will certainly not want attention focused on; it could backfire as spectacularly as the attempt to ban Spycatcher. This is not an obscure and complex issue like the Withdrawal Bill (to which 300 amendments have been tabled, to the Government’s despair). This is something a child can understand: the Government knows what is going to happen to our money, and it isn’t telling us.

It is obvious that the information in the documents point to Brexit’s being an economic disaster. Now, it is true that the OECD has just predicted that it will be an economic disaster and the Government seems to have ridden out the storm; but while it is possible to dismiss the findings of the OECD (“another European think tank”), it is not possible to dismiss findings the Government has itself commissioned. Particularly if it has spent months refusing to publish them.

Published, they will definitely create the wrong atmosphere in the press and sour the general euphoria. They might even bring about the catastrophe of a demand for a second vote. Yet, the more tenaciously the Government hangs on to those findings, the worse things will look if eventually it has to give way. It must know this, but won’t know what to do. No half-way house is possible: it cannot publish excerpts. And when it deigns to tell us, as it has promised it will, which sectors of the economy the documents are about, this will only increase demand for the documents themselves.

It just has to pray that the court rules in its favour.

If the court does, one thing is certain: no-one will see those documents for 35 years.



The hypnotist’s fingers


We are being softened up for a no-deal Brexit.

The rhetoric about leaving without a deal has fluctuated. At first it was a hubris-inflected “See if I care!” with an aura of slammed doors. It was accompanied by talk of offshore tax havens. Sometimes there would be a Michael Howard gunship in the background.

It quietened down as the Government realised it had to pretend to start negotiating even if it had no idea how to do so. But now the topic is back in the news, the tone has become only marginally more civilised, and two white papers on trade policy and customs which declare the Government’s readiness to prepare, among other things, for Brexit without a deal have been published.

On Wednesday (11 October) the Today programme featured an interview with two businessmen, Karan Bilimoria, CEO of Cobra Beer, and Christopher Nieper, CEO of David Nieper, the womenswear company. They were asked what they thought would be the effect on their businesses of “crashing out” of the EU. Mr Bilimoria said it would be very difficult, because the huge and tariff-free market to which he at present exported “seamlessly” would be gone. Mr Nieper said it would make no difference, it might even be an opportunity because the fall in sterling would help him to export even more. Mr Nieper’s view is shared by only 2% of UK businessmen, but the BBC wasn’t going to tell us that.

An eight-page paper by Nick Clegg, International Trade and Brexit, published in September 2016, gives a bleaker view of what would happen under “no deal.”

He lists the effects with which we are now gloomily familiar – immediate tariffs on exports to the EU, bureaucratic customs checks, loss of passporting rights, non-tariff barriers – but also notes:

“It is, for example, hard to see how any significant animal and animal product exports to the continent could continue, given that imports to the EU have to pass through designated Border Inspection Posts, of which there are precisely none on the other side of the Channel… ”

He provides a link (http://leavehq.com/blogview.aspx?blogno=128) to the website of the Leave Alliance, which gives a grimly fascinating insight into exactly what border checks can mean when the paperwork has ceased to be valid: “Your container inspection is typically about £700 and detention costs about £80 a day for the ten days or so it will take to get your results back.  Add the testing fee and you’re paying an extra £2,000 to deliver a container into the EU.”

It won’t work simply to drop our own tariffs to the EU to zero and challenge it to reciprocate. For one thing, says Clegg, the EU couldn’t; WTO rules would compel it to apply the Common External Tariff. For another, if we drop tariffs on EU imports to zero we will be obliged to do the same for every other country in the world, and bang goes our negotiating capital.

Nor is it possible to put in place a simple, “quick and dirty” FTA covering essential sectors and leaving others for future negotiations. “The WTO rules require any FTA to be ‘comprehensive,’ covering ‘substantially all’ the trade between the transacting parties.”

Clegg concludes that an interim trade deal with the EU has to be in place by the time Britain leaves the EU. That will take several years and we haven’t started yet.

That we haven’t started yet is being blamed on the EU. It is accused of being rigid and unimaginative. The reality is that our negotiators cannot negotiate their brief.

The talks are stalled. There has again been no progress this week. M. Barnier is using the word “deadlock” of the financial settlement. Something is stopping the negotiations like the swinging pendulum of a hypnotist. And stopping them at the earliest stage. We are nowhere near getting to the trade talks for which the Government is desperate. Three matters – money, citizens’ rights, the Irish border – have to be dealt with first, and although the first two are tricky they are not impossible. Yet all that happens is a tidying-up around the margins.

It’s as if the real cliff-edge exists, not on the other side of a failed negotiating process, but within the minds of the negotiating team. At a certain point in the thinking, the ground gives way. A chasm appears. It cannot be bridged.

And this, I think, is the truth. The negotiations throw up difficulties of two different kinds. The first kind is a political problem, and it affects the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. The Government does not want to give ground on these issues because, after all its high-sounding talk, it doesn’t want to present a compromise to the British electorate. With intelligence, honesty and political courage, progress could be made. We do owe money. EU citizens here should be given an unconditional guarantee. But the Government is lacking in those three qualities.

The second kind of difficulty is a logical problem and it concerns the Irish border. This the Government cannot solve because it is insoluble. A border will come into existence, de facto, when the UK leaves the EU, but it has to be at the same time invisible and immaterial for the purposes of keeping the peace in Ireland, and visible and material for the purposes of keeping the EU’s customs union inviolate.  Any solution will be a fudge of one kind or another; since it is a fudge it will, under pressure, fall apart (which in the circumstances is highly dangerous); and for all these reasons the proposal won’t get past the EU anyway.

Together, these difficulties compose a Himalayan range of which the negotiations are still pottering around the foothills.

The Government’s main tactic for dealing with the impasse, apart from sending out a snowstorm of official papers which do not grapple with any of the difficult points, is to blame the EU for everything. It calls on it to be “flexible,” by which it means the EU should abandon the negotiating position that has been agreed between 27 member states for their common survival. Following Theresa May’s damp squib of a speech in Florence, it declares that the ball is now in the EU’s court.

It has one other tactic. It has tried to meld the Irish border issue with its customs union proposals, perhaps hoping to bamboozle the EU into talking about customs when the EU has said it won’t, or at least to muddy the question of whether the border has been sorted out or not. The EU has refused to play. Rightly: if it allows the UK to blur the lines on this, the UK will do it again, and the talks will descend into a fog in which everything becomes something else.

Fortunately, this makes it possible to blame the EU again.

So the team representing the national interest sits in Brussels angry, checkmated (self-checkmated) and effectively twiddles its thumbs. Time passes. Nothing terrible has happened yet. Something will turn up to save it. Perhaps, it thinks, walking out without a deal will save it.

And it will: it will save both its skin and its face. That is why no deal is becoming increasingly inevitable. But there is a vertiginous price to pay for no deal. It is not just trade that will go over the edge: everything will, starting with the lives of more than four million people who will find themselves, overnight, plunged into chaos because they have woken up in the wrong country.

That may not matter too much to some Brexiters, but, when the cost becomes apparent, it will destroy the Conservative Party.

That matters.

What could break the paralysis?

The only thing that can unlock the Irish problem is for the UK to stay in the customs union, but the Government is pledged not to do that. Or it could keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and move the border to somewhere in the Irish Sea. The DUP won’t allow it to do that.

The pendulum swings.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister gave an extraordinary interview on LBC radio which in any other circumstances would have signalled the immediate demise of the politician who gave it. Asked three times by Iain Dale whether, if there were a second vote, she would vote for Remain or Leave, she started by saying she didn’t answer hypothetical questions and, after much prevarication, evasion and hesitancy, stammered out, “Iain, I could sit here and I could say I’d still vote Remain or I’d vote Leave just to give you an answer to that question.

“I’m being open and honest with you.

“What I did last time around was I looked at everything and came to a judgement and I’d do exactly the same this time around. But we’re not having another referendum, and that’s absolutely crucial.”

She then said twice more, clearly seeking refuge in the statement, that we were not having another referendum.

Throughout this stumbling but dogged refusal to endorse her own policy, she looked terrified.

She is still Prime Minister, and the transcript of the interview has vanished from the website of the Guardian, which published it in full.

This unreal stasis cannot last. The pressure of the real world is growing. The hypnotist’s fingers will click, the patient will wake up. The house will fall down.


What’s it worth?


In the past three weeks, Theresa May has made two major speeches, of which the first failed of its intended effect and the second was a disaster. Boris has drawn provocative red lines in places that were not his business, and made an ass of himself in places which were. The Cabinet has skidded from one crisis to another and is trying to avoid unintentional suicide. The European Parliament has voted that not enough progress has been made in the Brexit negotiations for talks to proceed to the next stage, which renders largely pointless the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence.  Official figures showed the UK at the bottom of the G7 growth table; productivity has fallen for two consecutive months. And The Lancet has published a nine-page paper on the effect Brexit will have on the NHS.

The most important of these is the last.

Of all the facets of British life that Brexit will affect, the NHS is unique. It arouses not just passion, but unanimity. On immigration the nation is divided; on sovereignty there is room for endless argument. There is no room for argument about the NHS. It has to be protected. Even people who in their hearts would like to dismantle it dare not say so. During the referendum campaign an emotional voter told the BBC she would “literally go mad” if Boris Johnson’s £350 million per week for the NHS did not materialise. Her husband needed complex medication. I do not know what her mental state is now.

The Lancet’s paper, “How will Brexit affect health and health services in the UK?” (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0141-6736(17)31926-8), surveys the risk to health-related issues in the UK of three scenarios: soft Brexit, hard Brexit and failed Brexit (no deal).  Its bleak conclusion is that each scenario poses substantial threats, that failed Brexit would be the riskiest outcome, and that the greatest threat facing the NHS will come from the impact of Brexit on the national economy.

Starting with the recruitment problem, it says it will be very difficult for the UK to be self-sufficient in the NHS or social care workforce in the foreseeable future. “Over 6,000 people from non-UK EU countries work in the NHS and 90,000 work in adult social care. One in ten doctors in the UK is a European graduate…” Moreover, “EU membership greatly enhances the attractiveness of the UK as a place to build a career in research and clinical roles.”

Or it did. The authors go on to discuss the ways in which Brexit would make the UK less attractive to these workers by undermining their legal entitlements.  Already in March, the Guardian  reported a 92% drop in the number of EU nationals registering as nurses in England, which the Royal College of Nursing blamed on the Government’s failure to provide them with any security about their future.

About 190,000 people who receive British pensions live in the EU and depend for health care on reciprocal UK/EU arrangements. The authors note that “the post-Brexit deal could continue this system and the UK Government appears to want to do so, although how this system can be reconciled with leaving the future jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is unclear…The summary of negotiating positions on citizens’ rights shows no agreement on this crucial issue.”

It is indeed crucial, although the British Government did not at first think so and did not include it in plans for the talks. It also represents a bargain for the taxpayer: the UK pays about £650 million per year for care provided to British people in EU countries (about £500 million is for pensioners) and receives about £50 million for the care provided to EU-insured nationals in the UK. The amount paid by the UK is less than 0.5% of the total NHS budget and is “good value for money, because the average cost of treating pensioners elsewhere in the EU under these arrangements is about half the cost of similar treatment within the UK.”

Does Boris know this, one wonders?

The fall in sterling is already making imported medicines more expensive. “Events that affect the UK economy are likely to have a substantial impact on NHS finances,” the report notes. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that NHS costs will increase by £7.5 billion a year. It adds that “The overwhelming consensus of economic forecasts… is that Brexit will have a substantial long-term negative impact on the UK economy.”

As part of Brexit, we are leaving the European Medicines Agency, which had its offices at Canary Wharf, and which authorises and standardises medicines across the EU. This seamless system makes it possible to bring new medical products to the market more quickly and cheaply than would otherwise be possible. “In Switzerland and Canada, which have separate approval systems, medicines typically reach the market six months later than in the UK.” Perhaps we could pay to continue participating in it, but we will lose any power to influence it. (And how many other things will we have to pay to participate in, and why don’t we just stay where we are?)

The UK has its own Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which at present is incorporated in the EMA. It will need to be beefed up, the report says, but “this process will be challenging, as the agency derives a substantial proportion of its income from the EU… and…it is likely to face difficulties in attracting specialised staff from other parts of Europe.” (My italics.)


Furthermore, “A failed Brexit” (which would throw us on to WTO trade rules) “would cause immediate disruptions to importing health products whose trade is not governed by WTO rules. There is a major threat to the availability of radioisotopes for diagnosis and for cancer therapy, which the UK imports mainly from the Netherlands.”

Moving on to public health, the report casts a caustic eye on the UK government’s record on air quality. In 2015, only two London boroughs met EU standards for nitrogen dioxide concentrations. It’s not too good on water quality, either, although, prodded by the EU, it has improved. “This trend suggests that, in the absence of EU legislation, UK environmental standards could slip further.” There is a risk that the UK could become a prime target for the tobacco industry post Brexit, “as is the case in Switzerland.”

Did we know that the UK lags behind comparable economies in investing in research and development? The report tells us so. “It is a net beneficiary of EU research funding, attracting substantially more funds than it contributes to the common pool, and the loss of this funding would have severe consequences.” (My italics).

Why has it been left to a paper in a medical journal to say things that should have been on every billboard in the referendum campaign?

Whatever the form of Brexit, “vast areas of EU legislation will need to be adopted and adapted into national law and then potentially revised; the harder the Brexit, the greater the volume of legislation needed.” This task, say the authors, “risks overwhelming parliament and the civil service,” and they have grave concerns about the lack of scrutiny that is likely to result.

They are talking about the Withdrawal (or Repeal) Bill. Health is only one small part of the huge body of legislation involved. And health is something to which the Government seems to have given little consideration. It excluded the Department of Health from the negotiating process.

What hope in that case that, staggering under a mountain of directives and regulations about workers’ rights, safety of shipping, anti-competitive practices, farming, waste disposal and countless other matters, MPs will be able to give their minds to the importing of isotopes?

For the NHS workforce and EU/UK citizens who find themselves in the wrong place when Brexit strikes, “the impacts will be… potentially devastating,” the report believes. “However, the largest impact on the health system is likely to come from Brexit’s impact on the wider economy, on the ability of the state to function, and thus on the ability of the UK to finance the health service.

“Given the apparent lack of capacity of the government to rise to this challenge, we argue that the wider health community within the UK must work together to address these issues.” (My italics.)

Those last two sentences are extraordinary. When was something like this last said in a professional journal by scientists? It amounts to saying that the Government is not capable of protecting society from a grave harm and that the people must take charge.

The rest of the world seems to know this. Confidence in the UK economy is dropping like a stone. Inanimate objects know it: letters drop off the set behind the Prime Minister as, coughing convulsively, she attempts to “reset” her premiership. The psyche of our leading politicians knows it – hence the increasing inappropriateness of Boris Johnson’s antics, the Edwardian pastiche of contender-in-waiting-for-the-crown Jacob Rees-Mogg, and that self-immolating cough.

All of them point in the same direction: the sun is setting on the UK.

It doesn’t have to.

In Catalonia the people are in the streets. They know what they want and what it is worth to them.

What is the NHS worth to us?







A time-consuming cul-de-sac and a topic that will be covered elsewhere

There could have been a debate – a real debate, ending in a real vote – about the single market at the Labour Party conference. There wasn’t.

Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday was riding high. It had been an exuberant gathering. “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” the delegates hymned. Relaxed, smiling broadly, he delivered a 75-minute speech which held the audience rapt: this must turn Theresa May green. He had found himself.

The price of this was what had happened the previous Sunday, when an email was circulated to delegates. It came from Momentum. It suggested four topics they should choose for the members’ debate. Each debate would be followed by a vote which would influence party policy. The four topics Momentum suggested were social care, the NHS, housing and rail. These were all, said the email, “crucial issues that the public care about.”

The public also care about Brexit, and motions had been received from 27 constituency parties, most of which argued for staying permanently in the single market. More than thirty MPs, plus MEPs, Labour peers and others had written to the leadership on the same subject. Between 70 and 80 per cent of Labour MPs are said to be Remainers, and roughly two-thirds of the membership.

Brexit, said Momentum coldly in its email, was “a potentially time-consuming cul-de-sac, and a topic that will be covered elsewhere.” What it meant by this was that a debate on Brexit had been tabled for Monday morning. But it was a debate that carried no vote. The delegates weren’t told that.

The delegates obediently chose the four issues they were told to choose, sidelining Brexit, which had been on the original list; but they resented being strong-armed and accused the leadership of “swerving one of the most important issues for a generation.” The NEC re-thought. It issued a one-and-a-half-page statement on Sunday evening setting out the party’s position on Brexit and saying that there would be a vote. However, it wouldn’t be the vote the delegates wanted.

The debate was held, and a vote was taken – on whether to support existing Party policy. At present this is to stay in the customs union and the single market until the end of the transition period, with a fudge about what happens next. The delegates, deprived of a chance to vote for an alternative, voted to support it.

There’s something particularly distasteful about this bit of bullying. The most despicable aspect of the Tories’ handling of Brexit is the way they put party before country. Here, in open view, was the Labour party doing the same thing.

The forced display of unity promptly fractured in recriminations, but the leader had been “saved embarrassment,” and that was what mattered. Jeremy Corbyn has gone from being the party’s major problem to being its most precious asset. Nothing must be allowed to dim the lustre. And in the end it didn’t. He stayed out of the Momentum row and the speech he gave on Wednesday was a masterclass in how to talk to an audience. In the course of it, he devoted about ten minutes to Brexit.

Those ten minutes had been worked on hard. Almost until the end, the tone was sure, the language was true:

“There is no bigger test in politics than Brexit now, an incredibly important and complex process, that cannot be reduced to repeating fairy stories from the side of a bus or waiting 15 months to state the obvious.”

The Brexiteers are an easy target. But he hit them hard: “…hopelessly inept… more interested in posturing for personal advantage than in getting the best deal for our country… Never has the national interest been so ill-served on such a vital matter.”

He warned of the danger of a “powerful faction” of Tories creating a tax haven on the shores of Europe, destroying jobs and public services. Then he got down to business:

… “That is why Labour has made clear that Britain should stay within the basic terms of the single market and customs union for a limited transition period.”

Millions waited.

“But beyond that transition, our task is a different one.”

Suddenly we could have been listening to the Maybot: “It is to unite everyone in our country around a progressive vision of what Britain could be…”

i.e., there is no vision.

“Labour is the only party that can bring together those who voted leave and those who backed remain…”

No party can do that.

“A Labour Brexit that puts jobs first… one that guarantees access to the single market -”

That’s the fudge. What does “access” mean? And how do you secure it?

“…and establishes a new cooperative relationship with the EU.” Oh, do stop.

He hauled the boat off the rocks just before it sank. “How Britain leaves the European Union is too important to be left to the Conservatives.”

The repainting of zebra crossings is too important to be left to the Conservatives.

What emerges from this is Corbyn’s utter lack of interest in Brexit. He believes it has to happen because “the people voted for it,” but what it means, where it’s come from, where it might go – these don’t even cross his mind. As for the EU itself, it is less than a spectre in his speech. I find even Boris Johnson’s fervid demonisation of the European Union preferable to this bloodless impassivity.

The European Union leaves Corbyn cold because he doesn’t understand it and he thinks it would stand in the way of his socialist dream for Britain.

The only politician who has the power to stop Brexit therefore won’t lift a finger to do so. We have been here before – since, in fact, the dispiriting days of the referendum campaign. Last year, however, there was a strong chance he would be dislodged; that chance has now gone. Indeed, apart from Brexit, most Labour voters would fight tooth and nail to keep him where he is, after that extraordinary manifesto.

And because of the manifesto, and because he has suddenly developed the charisma of a winner, it’s probable that many of the Labour delegates who wanted a vote on the single market nevertheless appreciate Momentum’s logic. No Labour party member wants to damage the party’s chances of winning the next election, and disunity doesn’t win elections. They think they can put a fence around Brexit and carry on as usual. But that is a mistake.

It is not possible to say “apart from Brexit.” Brexit dwarfs everything with its implications and ramifications, its threatened bonfire of rights and its expansion of executive power. It will touch everything. There is no “apart” from Brexit.

This means that if the Labour Party comes to power, and it has allowed Brexit to take place, it will have to build its socialist utopia on the basis Brexit has created. And it will find it cannot.

Why not? “There won’t be enough money,” said Alastair Campbell bluntly last week to Owen Jones.

What would be required for the construction of the kind of society Corbyn envisages? National utilities run for the benefit of the consumers, not the boardroom; public services reinvigorated and properly funded; sufficient and affordable housing? An NHS free of its shackles at last?

Noble aims, every one. They all require money. Lots of it.

If we crash out of the EU without an agreement, which is the most likely scenario, two sorts of people will do well out of it: the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the likes of the Mafia.

People like Jacob Rees-Mogg are averse to paying tax. The Mafia don’t pay tax at all. With luck, there might be enough in the coffers to fund the police, the Border Force and our contribution to NATO.

If by some miracle we do manage an “orderly Brexit” into Corbyn’s “progressive vision of Britain,” we will still be lumbered with the costs of Brexit. These will include paying the numerous subsidies the EU used to pay, stumping up for access to this and that indispensable European institution like Euratom, funding the creation of substitutes for EU institutions that Britain has cut itself off from and can’t do without, like the ECJ, and, of course, loss of earnings owing to the flight of businesses abroad, which means loss of tax base. This is the sunlit upland Corbyn will inherit.

Hasn’t anyone told Jeremy he can only have one of the two things he wants?

He must ditch his Islington Brexit. Most of his MPs are Remainers. They must have the courage of the Lib Dems’ convictions, rather than Theresa May’s, and campaign for a second vote on the EU “when” – as Vince Cable says – “the facts are known.” This is perfectly democratic, which is a lot more than can be said for the Government’s Henry VIII hocus-pocus, and it is perfectly rational, which is more than can be said for what is going on in Brussels.

It will leave him to deal with the EU when he wants to change the economic basis of Britain, which will be a great deal easier than dealing with no money.

And, next time, it won’t require the sinister manoeuvres of Momentum to get it through Conference.