Richard North, 20/03/2017  

If a man is known by the company he keeps, and the same applies to political movements, then we have a real problem, manifest in having John Major and Tony Blair in the same weekend supporting the "soft Brexit" agenda. This is not good news.

It is even worse when they are ostensibly talking sense, as with Blair who told Andrew Marr yesterday:
…one of the things I’ve done in the last few months is talked to a range of people and if it's permissible still to talk to experts, a range of experts particularly on the trade issue, I didn't understand how complicated this is going to be. If they're going to try and deliver exactly the same benefits as we have now in the single market and customs union, this is an endeavour of unparalleled complexity and what people explain to me is that normally in trade negotiations you're talking about how you liberalise trade, right. This is about how you de-liberalise over 40 years of complex trading arrangements.
Then we have John Major who offers this unarguable if unpalatable observation:
The 48 percent who voted Remain have as big a stake in our future as the 52 percent who voted Leave: they, and especially parliamentarians, have a right – indeed a duty – to express their views. No one can, or should, be silenced. That being so, it is time for the minority of "Ultra Brexiteers" – those who believe in a complete break from Europe – to stop shouting down anyone with an opposing view. It is not only unattractive but profoundly undemocratic and totally un-British. What is most striking is that, amid all the noise they make, they comprehensively fail to address any argument put to them.
Either of these quotes could be ignored if it was not for the behaviour of these "Ultra Brexiteers" or "Ultras", pursuing their "clean break" from the EU, to replace it with their free-wheeling, free-trading, low-tax, low-regulation, privatised vision of government.

The thing is, when people voted to leave the EU, that's what they voted for. But there is an element on the Tory right which takes Brexit as a license to pursue its own political agenda. And one just has to view the newspaper comment threads to see John Major's description of the "unattractive … profoundly undemocratic and totally un-British" suppression of dissenting views. A new intolerance is abroad, making politics a very ugly place.

But having Blair and Major "on-side" doesn't help. It serves only to polarise and already dangerously polarised debate and gives the "Ultras" their rationale. If we are known by our friends, we are also known (and defined) by our enemies.

Blair, for instance, talks about the "tragedy" of Brexit, thereby cementing in the supposition that those who argue for a sensible, measured approach to leaving the EU are tarred with the "remainer" brush. By this means, Johnny-come-latelys, fresh on the Brexit bandwagon, have the unmitigated gall to call Booker a "remainer".

Week after week on the comments on his column, we see the same litany of unpleasantness, effectively disputing his right to question any aspect of the management of Brexit. Uniquely, it seems, this area of public policy is off-limits. To question the Government's handling of one of the most important political events since the war is taken is taken as opposition to our leaving.

Such is the surreal nature of these developments that old enemies take on the mantle of "friend", so I end up watching Pascal Lamy and nodding with approval at the things he says (or, at least, some of them). "There is no easy negotiation – by definition", he says. "Otherwise it would not be a negotiation".

Dismissing the idea of the "colleagues" punishing the UK for leaving as "total crap" – said so quickly that it hardly registered with people in the room, he warned that the negotiations were "inevitably going to be hard". Yet, when we warn of the same, without needing the likes of Lamy or anyone else to tell us, we attract approbation for former allies which used to be reserved for the most unremitting europhiles.

It comes to a pretty pass, therefore, when the most intelligent review of the Lamy speech comes from Larry Elliott in the Guardian, with the Telegraph having become the repository of half-wits and zealots. It has become the Ultras' gazette, making Jonathan Freedland look sane.

Elliott describes the "battle-scarred" Lamy as having no illusions about the difficulties of the negotiations, recalling his "nice metaphor" for the likely complexity of the talks: separating an egg from an omelette.

Lamy categorises the issues facing the negotiators into three groups: things that will be simple; things that will be more complex; and things that will be really complex. And some of the things that appear to be the most simple will, in the event prove to be the most complex and the most difficult to resolve. And, as Lamy says, "complexity in negotiations means time".

This, however, has become an area where everybody is the "expert". People who have spent their entire careers not talking about the EU are now, in their own eyes, the great authorities on all things Brexit, with no problem so difficult that it cannot be easily solved with that magic ingredient, "political will".

We also get the barrack-room lawyers (some of them in government services) who latch on to a fragment of the argument and expand it out of all proportion, with the zeal of a Messiah paving the way to a new paradise.

This we see in some aimless chatter about a Plan B, where an interim arrangement can be conjured out of thin air, to overcome the grip of an impossible timescale.

Gradually, it is dawning, that the two years allocated is nowhere near sufficient to reach a conclusion, so we have Lamy talking about a "continuation clause" in the agreement, to be referred to more diplomatically as a "transitional agreement" in front of the British.

The clue though, is in Lamy's term, suggesting that, if we cannot make the break in two years, then we have to continue with the current arrangements (ten years is suggested), until a final deal is settled. And that is almost certainly going to require some oversight by the ECJ, while putting us in the position of having to accept everything thrown at us for those ten years, with the proverbial "no say" in the formulation of new rules.

Paradoxically, probably the only way absolutely to ensure a clean break from the EU is the Efta/EEA route – the very option that the Ultras have refused to take.

And then, from a position of the most profound ignorance, born of the new intolerance which would put the Puritans to shame when it comes to the treatment of "heresy", they would have us adopt the WTO option as a rational alternative to a negotiated settlement.

Then brings us full circle for, in the lexicon of the Ultras, to warn of the dangers of this route is secretly to support staying in the EU – alongside our "allies" John Major and Tony Blair. The WTO option is the new religion, and anyone opposed is a "heretic". The fact that all the wrong people oppose it simply proves the point.

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