A modest proposal




Goodness knows what it took, but it’s done. The Labour Party has made up its mind.

Up to a point. It still hasn’t said what kind of Brexit it wants. Presumably that is still being argued about. What it proposes is that any deal should only come into force after an interim period of up to four years. All parties now accept the need for such a period, although four years is too long for the Tories. But the important part of the Labour proposal is that during this transition things will carry on just as they are now. The UK will stay in the single market. It will stay in the customs union.

Common sense has triumphed. Two cheers for Keir Starmer, who got the policy through shadow cabinet. One cheer for Corbyn, for letting it through.

Does this sound grudging? Common sense appears to be a wonderful achievement only in the most dismal of contexts, but Labour’s performance for the past 18 months in relation to Brexit has been worse than dismal, it has been a betrayal of the electorate. If the party has now started to rise to the challenge, this is the bare minimum that is required. The great merit of it is that the first step it has taken is in the right direction. It might, Heaven help us, have been the wrong one.

Interestingly, it finds itself in step with Guy Verhofstadt, who said this week that he foresaw a transition period that would be “a prolongation of the existing situation, of the status quo.” However, the Brexit co-ordinator of the European Parliament wasn’t commenting on the Labour announcement, he was commenting on the snail’s pace at which the British negotiating position is advancing.

A transition period is a buffer, and if what is threatened comes to pass we shall be profoundly grateful for it. It grants more time before the axe falls – on businesses, EU citizens, the European Arrest Warrant and everything else that’s under the blade. It grants more time for the country to come to its senses.  However, its granting is not guaranteed. Twenty-seven member states have to say “yes” to an interim period for the UK while it sorts out its marbles. A few weeks ago this looked a near-certainty, but if Government ministers going on using words like “blackmail,” perhaps it will not be so certain. The third round of talks has not gone well.

Moreover, it’s not so simple. We can’t just say, “We would like another two years (or three, or four) please, while we transition out of the EU”, without getting the instant reply, “Transition to what?” Yes, we can probably postpone going through the departure gate, but we can’t postpone choosing our destination. Until we choose our destination, we can’t negotiate the postponement. The transition period doesn’t solve any of our most pressing problems, which are to do with the difficulty – for the Government, the impossibility – of making decisions; it just promises an easier path to implementing those decisions, once taken.

Hence the suggestions, from Starmer and others, that the Labour Party might seek to remain in the single market and customs union after the transition period is over. The suggestion is sensible, would make it much easier to negotiate a transition, and if the UK adopted it there would be far worse places we could be. The trouble with it is that, on the one hand, it would drive hard-Brexiters into a frenzy and might lead to the horrifying spectre of a Tory party led by the undead Jacob Rees-Mogg, while on the other it wouldn’t cut anybody’s mustard: it would leave us subject to the ECJ or a close imitation of it, liable to pay into the EU budget and, crucially, lacking a seat at the discussions which decide EU policy.

All these things have been true from the start, because Brexit is essentially a trade-off. The Labour Party’s announcement accepts this reality, and very welcome it is, because the Tories have always refused to grasp that Brexit is anything but a cake. Thus a small, well-defined patch of clarity has appeared in an area of dense fog. Naturally it is being fought tooth and nail by the forces of fog. “Brexit betrayal!” screamed the Express on Monday, when one would have hoped the cognitively-impaired were with everyone else at the beach.

Among Remainer MPs it spells hope, of course. At last an alternative to the Government’s suicide bid has declared itself. There is a side to be on. There is a lobby to go through. This translates into leverage. There is a spring in Anna Soubry’s step.

And it’s just in time, because the show in Brussels is not a cheering spectacle.  David Davis has raised his sights but not his game; he doesn’t really have one, which is what Michel Barnier has been subtly telling him. Davis’s department has produced a clutch of policy papers covering issues that include the Irish border, the customs union, nuclear safety, data security and the ECJ. Davis is very proud of them, but he seems proudest of their number. He has got it right, for once: their number is the most impressive thing about them.

All the Brexit papers the Government has issued so far are curiously alike. They offer pockets of earnest detail inside shrouds of pious aspiration. They set forth irreconcilable aims and, instead of explaining how these can be mutually accommodated, simply ignore the contradiction. They are strong on insistence, weighty with unnecessary background and totally lacking in argument. This is what EU officials mean when they say the British documents are vague and have no substance. But they have to be like that: the Government is still trying to construct a fantasy land that will pacify its right wing while not alienating business, finance and industry, which tend to see through fantasies. And now it has to flatter Europe as well, at least on paper. It cannot resolve the conundrum it has set itself, but it has to say something. The result is many pages of empty verbiage and the compulsive repetition of formulaic phrases such as “deep and special”, “seamless and frictionless,” like prayers which might save the soul. These inane doublings run through the documents like a vein of fool’s gold.

David Davis is out of his depth. It is the most fundamental of all this Government’s problems that it cannot recruit a first-class intellect to deal with a set of issues that require a first-class intellect: it cannot because its cause is shabby and shallow and no mind of the necessary calibre would have anything to do with it. The EU, by contrast, can take its pick from the sharpest brains of a continent renowned for producing them. Someone should have thought of this before.

So there is the hapless but defiant (“Who Dares Wins”) Mr Davis, dimly aware that the depths are beyond him, the detail escapes him, and he controls nothing… what will a military man do? Evade. Distract. Force the enemy to fight on as broad a front as possible.  He demands not only that the discussion at once include trade talks, but that it move on swiftly to include everything else as well. For good measure, he demands flexibility. This does not mean flexibility in its usual sense; it is another way of asking the EU to drop its requirement that the past be settled before the future is discussed. He has been given his answer many times.

M. Barnier could have observed that if Mr Davis is not able to talk about the three things he is asked to talk about – citizens’ rights, the Irish border, the bill – there is no likelihood he will be capable of talking about anything else, but he did not. He simply said UK positions on the separation issues were necessary in order for “sufficient progress” to be made and that “we need UK papers that are clear.”

Indeed. We do. Jean-Claude Juncker also finds the UK documents unclear. He has read all of them carefully, and he finds every one unsatisfactory. It must strike him as particularly unsatisfactory is that the most urgent one, the paper on the EU bill, is not there. Mr Davis has not produced it.

This is being called negotiation.

It is becoming clearer that the Government’s true Brexit strategy is bluff. Davis is the man for that, he has the personality and the front, but the question remains, what is the point?  Since every other end but economic disaster is better served by the negotiations it refuses seriously to engage in, it looks likely that its aim is merely to survive to the next election – and, with luck, beyond. Its first hurdle, in that case, is not the 3rd, 4th or 5th round of talks, but the Conservative Party Conference.

In the light of that, the Labour Party’s modest proposal appears a triumph of statesmanship.