Tuesday, 10 October 2017

By accident or design, a 'no deal' Brexit is getting closer

Theresa May’s commons statement on Brexit progress was a strange, confused and confusing mixture indicative of the strange, confused and confusing situation we are now in. On the one hand it showed some glimmers of realism about how in any ‘transition period’ ECJ jurisdiction would continue. That immediately attracted the ire of the Brexit Jacobins, such as the ubiquitous Rees-Mogg. Interestingly, there are signs that the Brexiters in the cabinet – Gove, especially – are more relaxed about this, reflecting, I suppose, the distinction between those who have the luxury of not having to take any responsibility and those who do. On the other hand, there was a much harder sense that May is preparing for a ‘no deal’ or 'Kamikaze' Brexit, and in that, of course, she has the unqualified support of the Ultras.

Why should ‘no deal’ even be being spoken of at this point? The answer seems to be a realization that the EU is unlikely to agree that sufficient progress has been made on phase 1 issues in order to progress to trade talks, and raising ‘no deal’ is perhaps designed to put pressure on the EU – or more accurately the individual member states – to give ground on this (and, by the way, even if they do UK ideas of what the future trade relationship would look like are unrealistic).

That in itself is absurd. The reason there has been no progress on phase 1 is almost entirely because the UK has failed to come up with anything remotely realistic on the issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement or the Irish border. And the reason for that, as ever, is because the Brexit Ultras won’t countenance anything realistic on the first two of these, whilst there is no obvious solution to the third of them. Moreover, progress has been made slow by the lack of British preparation prior to triggering Article 50, the time wasted by the election and by Tory infighting, the confused departmental structure created to handle Brexit, and the low-energy approach of David Davis to the negotiations.

What May is proposing to the EU probably leaves them with no option other than to decline it – at which point they will be accused of collapsing the talks and, possibly, giving a pretext for a UK walkout. If this is indeed about negotiating tactics then it is taking a massive gamble since it would, at the least, precipitate an immediate further collapse of sterling. In the longer run, using such tactics risks the possibility of a ‘no deal’ by accident – the political equivalent of nuclear brinksmanship going wrong. If that happens then the consequences will, of course, be economically and socially catastrophic – as outlined in an alarming, but by no means alarmist, post by pro-Brexit blogger Pete North.

Even accepting that Brexit is going to happen, there is absolutely no reason why it needs to be pursued in this way. I don’t just mean that a soft (single market) Brexit would avoid what is happening now. I mean that even a hard Brexit does not need to be pursued in this fantastically reckless and incompetent way. Having made its ill-advised choice, the government could fairly easily deal with citizens’ rights by not fixating on an ECJ role, and with the financial issues which are not, in the overall scheme of the costs of Brexit (and certainly the costs of a no deal Brexit) so great. And on Ireland they could at least develop some meaningful proposals, unlike the latest absurdity. Above all, there is absolutely no reason why they need to be in such a hurry. Given the complexities involved, there’s no reason in principle why the UK could not seek a much longer transition period and/or an extension of the Article 50 period. Whilst neither could be guaranteed, a more pragmatic and conciliatory stance from the UK could have made them achievable.

But for the ultras, if not for the government, the ‘no deal’ scenario is not something to be raised as a negotiating ploy – no matter how absurd and, had things been approached differently, unnecessary – it is the desired outcome. This is abundantly clear from the statements of many of them, including a contemptible piece by Bernard Jenkin, every sentence of which was a distortion of the truth, when it was not an outright lie. The overall message was clear – Brexit should be easy, and is only being prevented from being so by the vindictiveness of the EU and the machinations of remainers, in which conspiracy the Treasury and the CBI were included.

What Jenkin and his allies plainly want is for the talks to collapse and for a no deal Brexit to occur. Whether this is because they hope this will be a platform for a complete re-design of the UK along hard Right lines, or just because they are so viscerally bent of shape by their hatred of the EU is hard to tell. At all events, the government is now hostage to them, meaning that any halfway economically pragmatic approach to Brexit is politically impossible, and anything which is politically possible is economically untenable. So we are getting closer to ‘no deal’ even if, as David Allen Green argues, it is not inevitable.

It’s possible that this will change – a collapse of the talks would, as Jolyon Maugham suggests, throw into sharp relief just what a calamity ‘no deal’ would be, and might precipitate some parliamentary regrouping around sanity. But it is equally likely in such a scenario that a narrative of ‘EU punishment’ is whipped up, driving us headlong to the reality of ‘no deal’. If that comes about, those of us who can would be well-advised to make plans to emigrate, whilst those who can’t should stock up on tinned goods and install some good, strong locks.

It should never be forgotten that nothing remotely like the situation we are in – let alone that which might shortly unfold – is what was promised to those who voted to leave the EU. They were repeatedly told that leaving would be quick, easy and wholly positive. Every reptilian Brexit politician who piously invokes ‘the will of the people’ to justify this emerging national tragedy should be reminded of that.

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