Hurry up please it’s time


Theresa May panics easily. A tide has started to run against Brexit. It has to be stopped.

The date on which the UK leaves the European Union will be “enshrined” in law, according to an amendment the Prime Minister proposed ten days ago. It is to be 11 pm on 29 March 2019. The shrine is a bit off kilter because everyone assumed it would be midnight, but it can’t be because it has to be midnight in Brussels as well, and on 29 March Britain will still be on GMT. This neatly encapsulates the power relationship between Britain and the EU, but in the Commons nobody cared about that except Frank Field, who made a valiant attempt to bring back unicorns by suggesting we postpone the time of departure by an hour, by which time it would be the next day, but only in Europe.

The Commons took no notice: it had the entire EU Withdrawal Bill to chew its way through. Nevertheless, the PM’s unexpected bit of law-making caused a furious Tory rebellion. Harsh words were spoken: “Utterly foolish” – Kenneth Clarke; “pointless” – Tom Tugendhat; “incoherent and thoroughly stupid” – former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Grieve announced his intention of voting against the Government whatever was done to him. Goodness knows what he thought might be done to him, but the Daily Telegraph was in a nasty mood, plastering the photographs of Tory rebels across its front page as if inviting readers to get up a posse.

The obvious fear, shared across parties, is that the amendment could force the country out of the EU before it is ready to leave. It tied the Government’s hands, said numerous speakers; it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre; it might “come back to haunt us.”  That it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre was of course the point. Keir Starmer was right to call it “a desperate gimmick.” It has a whiff of the suicide bomb about it. But May perhaps does not see that. Who knows what she sees?

Starmer pointed out that it could stand in the way of an orderly transition. Others connected it with another of May’s bright ideas, that the final deal, having been voted on by Parliament, should also be enshrined in statute. They said this offer would be made meaningless by fixing the date of the UK’s departure, because there would probably not be enough time to pass the legislation before the date elapsed.

The matter of the parliamentary vote on the deal is sunk in as deep a morass of confusion as anything else to do with Brexit, which is saying a great deal. The confusion became heated when David Davis a few weeks ago informed a Parliamentary select committee that, because the EU negotiations might go to the wire, there might not be time for Parliament to vote on the deal, and had to be contradicted first by the Prime Minister and then by his own department before he had the sense to contradict himself and thereby restore the illusion that this is a democracy. The question was not satisfactorily laid to rest, and Wednesday’s stormy debate resurrected it. Nor has anyone explained how negotiations could “go to the wire” on 29 March 2019 when they are supposed to be concluded by next October.

The Prime Minister’s proposal to put the final deal which Parliament had accepted into law was an attempt to reassure the country that there would be a vote, and that it would be “meaningful” in that it would be taken before Britain left.

However, it would not be meaningful in any other sense, because it would give MPs only the choice of accepting whatever terms the Government had negotiated or leaving the EU without a deal. This is what the Government has always intended, ever since, under pressure, it deigned to allow a parliamentary vote at all. Anna Soubry described this “concession” (yes, that is what the Government is calling it) as “insulting.”

Roughly half the Commons seems disinclined to worship at the shrine. The Government has been warned it must rewrite the date amendment or face defeat in a Commons vote in December.

This unlooked-for defiance has set the Government running in dazed circles. One source said that a “possible solution was for the Government to fix the date but make it clear it would try to extend Article 50 if an act of parliament approving the withdrawal agreement was not passed in time for that date” (Guardian 17 November).

In which case, what is meant by “fixing the date”?

David Davis dropped shrouded hints that the Government might abandon its amendment. The Government denied it was thinking of any such thing. It said, in the tones we have come to know and love, “What this amendment does is provide certainty over our position that we are leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.”

Just before it issued this statement, a source in Whitehall divulged that the Government was “trying to think of a way of watering down its amendment without taking out its reference to 11 pm on 29 March 2019” (Guardian, 17 November. My italics).

Fortunately, sanity still rules in the EU. The 27 have sought a legal opinion from the European Commission on the possible extension of the two years allowed for talks under Article 50. The 27 do not envision a lengthy extension: one diplomat explained, “This extension would only be if we are near striking a deal and need a few extra weeks or months” (Guardian, 17 November.)

Another thing the EU is doing is preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

The drumbeat in Westminster for no deal has been growing louder in the past weeks. May continues to say it is not what she wants, while seeming clueless about how to prevent it. To get a Brexit deal, she has to do the second stage of talks. To do the second stage of talks, she has to get through the first stage. To get through the first stage, she has to resolve the budget contribution, citizens’ rights and the border.

The budget, as I write, is being discussed at an urgent meeting of the Cabinet; more must be offered (more is owed!), but an increase in the contribution will be politically explosive. An agreement on citizens’ rights may be within sight; nothing of the kind is in sight on the Irish border, a conundrum May cannot resolve because she has blocked herself in by refusing to stay in the single market or customs union. The Taoiseach has threatened to block progress to second-stage talks unless Britain commits itself in writing  (don’t they trust us?) to no hard border and a continuation of the Common Travel Area.

It doesn’t look possible without a radical shift in thinking at the top. This is why, despite a mounting chorus of alarm from business and the direst warnings of what will happen, we are heading, it seems inexorably, for a no-deal Brexit.

Will it really be so bad? Yes, it will be an absolute disaster. I will talk about this in another post; meanwhile there’s a manageable summary on the BBC website by Chris Morris, 14 October. Even the BBC thinks it’s not a terribly good idea. Who could possibly want this near-doomsday scenario?

Well, some people do and they have their reasons. They don’t talk about most of them, but they will point with satisfaction to the House of Lords judgement in March that, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, it will probably have no legal obligation to pay into the budget. The judgement adds that not paying would “antagonise the rest of the EU and further sour relations. Legal action … could not be ruled out.” But I can’t see no-dealers being bothered by a spot of French colère.

These are the people pulling May’s strings, and the amendment seeking to fix the date of Brexit is intended to reassure them. In spite of her constant reiteration that there can be no monkeying about with Article 50, Theresa May isn’t so sure. She is said to have taken legal advice on whether Brexit can be revoked; she is not telling anyone what answer came back. There is for her an unnerving possibility that negotiations might stretch out, the EU might prove inconveniently accommodating over the date and Brexit may vanish in the tangled grass. Fixing the date both removes that danger – it’s a guillotine – and puts enormous pressure on those innocent souls who are still striving to make negotiations work.

May’s puppeteers don’t want a good deal, they want no deal, and they presumably welcome the increasing evidence that a good deal can’t be negotiated. Closing off a genuinely free vote solves half their problem; fixing the date solves the other half because it provides cover. They don’t want time. Time will make the Government’s failure more apparent. It is not really a failure, of course: it’s a betrayal.

And afterwards, when there are a million pieces to be picked up, the Government can disclaim responsibility. It was constrained by the law, which the House of Commons voted for.

This monstrous trap is quite simply dealt with.

If there is no alternative to “no deal”, then the alternative to no deal is no Brexit.






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 ( 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.