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.