Richard North, 15/08/2016  

It was our view, right from the very start, that Theresa May appointed the "three Brexiteers" with the idea that she was setting them up to fail. It's also been no secret that the three didn't get on with each other.

The story in the Telegraph yesterday doesn't really break any new ground when it tells us that Liam Fox and Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson are "locked in feud" over who controls Britain's foreign policy. In truth, it would be a surprise if sweet harmony reigned.

What is new is that the Telegraph says it has evidence of this disharmony, which comes in the form of a "terse letter", effectively demanding that the Foreign Office be broken up. It confirms the existence of a "bitter Whitehall feud" over who controls key parts of Britain's foreign policy.

Johnson is understood to have firmly rejected Dr Fox's demands and "Whitehall sources" claim that the Prime Minister is "unimpressed with this sort of carrying on".

One wonders whether this "tension" is responsible for the unexplained deletion of the recent news story put up by Dr Fox's department. But if Foreign Office and Dr Fox's department of international trade are already at loggerheads, that might also explain the Sunday Times story which is telling us that Brexit "will be delayed until end of 2019", relaying the warning from "ministers" that Whitehall is "not ready for talks".

The sources are unnamed "City sources" which could just as well mean that the Sunday Times is fabricating (or exaggerating) the story. Nevertheless, what we're getting is that Britain could remain in the EU until late 2019, the reason being that, despite great political pressure to stick to an earlier timetable, the new Brexit and international trade departments are not ready to deal with the negotiations.

Also being cited are the French and German elections, with the suggestion that Britain might not invoke article 50 until France has voted next May or even until after the German poll in September.

This makes complete sense, of course, and is brought into focus by the comment of an unnamed "City insider" who has told the Sunday Times: "You can't negotiate when you don't know who you're negotiating with". A Cabinet Minister (unnamed) has also confirmed to The Sunday Times that there were "some challenges" in the French and German electoral timetables.

On the domestic front, however, any perceived delay presents the Prime Minister with considerable problems, as we see from a tweet from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He has his staff write: "Brexit must mean end to free movement, out of single market & taking back our territorial waters. Anything less would be betrayal".

Back to The Sunday Times and we now switch to "another source", also unnamed. This is not even a "senior source", so it could be the tea lady or chauffeur who has had "discussions with two senior ministers". That exchange again tells us something we already knew, that: "They don't have the infrastructure for the people they need to hire. They say they don't even know the right questions to ask when they finally begin bargaining with Europe".

But as an indication of the sort of problems that are afflicting the heart of government, we get "another senior government insider" - unnamed. This one says that there is also uncertainty about preparatory talks with EU leaders. "I'm not sure they are going to be ready", the anonymous source says. "There is an issue about these preliminary talks - no one even seems to know what the substance will be".

Davis and Fox are spending the summer recess setting up their new fiefdoms, but The Sunday Times says Davis has so far recruited less than half the 250 staff he expects to need. They are working in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.

Fox, we are told, is looking to recruit up to 1,000 trade policy experts but currently has fewer than 100. His team is temporarily housed in the business department. Its permanent home "could be anywhere", says yet another insider.

Yet, for all that, the story has all the gravitas of Whitehall gossip. There is no evidence, no documentary corroboration and no one, apparently, is prepared to put their names to the story. Nevertheless, from the direct experience of how long it takes to write up an exit strategy, it stands to reason that ministers and civil servants alike are having difficulty getting their acts together. And if the deleted news story is an indication of their grasp of the issues, we're in dire trouble. 

The only surprising thing is that anyone should be surprised, although The Sunday Times appears to be. In an editorial, it starts off by saying: "How simple and straightforward Brexit seemed just after the referendum. We would trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and Britain would wave goodbye to the European Union two years later".

The thing is that only the profoundly ignorant or the wildly optimistic could ever have been under the impression that leaving the EU was ever going to be "simple and straightforward". To have a major British newspaper suggest that it might have been is worrisome.

And even without the Whitehall "gossip", we've always felt that we have good cause for concern about the lack of preparedness. Furthermore, it seems, the "reckless Brexiteers" are about to get in on the act, throwing a strop because reality is taking its toll. These are the Tory "eurosceptic" backbenchers who, as Booker observed two weeks ago are causing more trouble than they're worth.

Now, The Mail tells us, these troublemakers are planning to launch "at least two cross-party groups to pressure the Prime Minister into announcing a strict timetable for leaving the European Union", apparently having the nerve to complain that Mrs May has "failed to set out a clear 'road map' to the UK's eventual break".

It is interesting that the politicians and the whole London think-tank industry – which devotes its entire time to telling government what it should be doing - has gone AWOL on this, completely devoid of original or realistic ideas.

Nothing at all coming out of the intellectual desert in the capital gives us any confidence that anyone has got a grip on the issues, while the "leaver" community – as fragmented as the "three Brexiteers" - remains all at sea. They are making such a mess of things that, by contrast, even the EU is beginning to look efficient.

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