Richard North, 25/06/2017  

In a truncated piece (it was originally meant to be longer until the management intervened), Booker writes this week on the Brexit talks which "have proven to be a shambles from the off".

Exactly a year after the referendum, he says, our Brexit talks have finally groaned into action, prefaced at the insistence of the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier by discussion of the three issues which he had ruled must be resolved before there can be any talks on a trade deal.

On the first, the post-Brexit status of EU and UK citizens, despite our being told that this is going well, much still remains to be argued over, such as the role of the European Court of Justice. The second issue is the so-called "divorce bill" we have to pay for our share in all those ongoing financial commitments under the EU budget we have already signed up to as members.

This, Booker was estimating here last summer, is likely to end up at £30-40?billion. But the final figure cannot be calculated until the end of the EU’s current Multiannual Financial Framework period in 2020.

The third issue, the Northern Irish border, cannot be resolved until we have agreed the nature of our future trading arrangements with the EU. So by a Catch-22, we can't discuss trade until we've agreed about Northern Ireland, which we can't discuss until we've agreed about trade. What a shambles, he says, it is all already becoming.

That's all we get from Booker this week but it's a good topic hook on which to base a discussion on how we got to this parlous state. Anything of this nature is bound to be complex. There could never be a simple explanation of why the government has made such a mess. Incompetence alone could never be enough. There has to be more – much, much more.

What I don't think we can do is look at the current events in isolation. As much to do with why things have gone wrong (if you accept they have) is the way the Eurosceptic movement has developed and how it has influenced the Conservative Party.

Arguably, what has contributed to the shaping the current government's handling of Brexit are its perceptions (and the distortions) of what it believes the European Union to be. I don't for the life of me imagine the Mrs May and her ministers are negotiating with the EU as it exists. Rather, they are basing their actions on the cardboard cut-out pastiche of what they believe the European Union to be.

Another major contribution is the lack of preparedness, where neither this government nor its predecessor have been able to craft a credible Brexit plan, all in the context of the failure of the "information nexus" to come up with acceptable alternatives.

I remarked the other day on how, in the beginning, work on this had been relatively easy as there were generally only three recognised options. But now, barely a day goes by without some self-important luminary of body coming up with a new idea or variation of something that has already been floated – each less plausible (or more troublesome) than the last.

Those of a conspiratorial bent might even begin to suspect that this process on the part of the "remainers" is deliberate. As the complications multiply, ordinary people lose patience and, confronted with the perils of a "botched Brexit" will be willing to accept something that sounds as if it takes us out of the EU, but doesn't really.

Right up front, when we were warning that Brexit was going to be complicated, our purpose was not to suggest that it couldn't be done – of which some accused us – but to identify the problems early so that we could overcome them. I have long held that the first (and most important) step in problem-solving is to define clearly the nature of the problem. We look to raise problems in order to explore ways of dealing with them.

With that, I aver that, had the UK government held off its Article 50 notification until we had secured a commitment from the Efta states that it would accept our rejoining them, and then worked on a schedule of amendments to the EEA Agreement – to be presented to the EEA Joint Committee – we would be well on our way to securing a Brexit within the constraints of the two-year Article 50 process.

In that sense, while I've always been up-front in arguing that Brexit is difficult, I've never said it was impossible – unlike Mrs May's comprehensive free trade agreement, which resides in the land of the fayries.

As a result (and I'm not afraid to make the link), we are seeing an emboldened commentariat argue that Brexit should be reversed. With honeyed words coming out of Brussels suggesting that penalty-free reversal is possible, it may be only a matter of time before it lodges on the political agenda.

It is here that my loathing of Vote Leave cannot be suppressed. The arrogant fools who hijacked the long-standing campaign thought that they were just dealing with the mechanics of winning a referendum, seeing that as the objective rather than just a step in the right direction.

Winning, as is now becoming painfully evident, was necessary but not sufficient. Without a clear (and realistic) idea of what we wanted from Brexit, there was always a risk that we'd be all over the place in the event of a victory. There is now danger (and always has been) that we fall at the final hurdle and never actually get to leave the EU.

If there is a better word, then I'd like to see it. But it has always struck me as the ultimate in stupidity for the "Ultras" to reject the Efta/EEA option as not leaving the EU, when probably the only realistic way of ensuring that we make a clean break is to follow that path.

But where we go now is anybody's guess. With the May administration in turmoil and the prime minister's unerring clumsiness, we cannot rule out the prospect of an autumn general election and the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It would then be difficult to argue that his Brexit team was any more incompetent than May's team, given that we have absolutely no confidence in the current team avoiding a Brexit disaster.

Much of this does has to stem from the initial incompetence of the official leave campaign, the cowardice of Arron Banks in not supporting an effective exit plan and, of course, the inept behaviour of Nigel Farage whose use-by date must have expired a decade ago.

The issue we now have to address is whether the situation is recoverable. And while I do believe that there are stratagems that we could adopt, which could deliver a favourable outcome, I do not believe there is either the competence or the political will within the May administration that could deliver.

Nor is there any confidence in a political system which is basically deaf to ordinary citizens and which consistently shows itself unable to respond to anything originating outside its own bubble. If it had had the ability to respond, then it might not be in the mess in which we find it.

The answer to the Booker conundrum, therefore – as to why Brexit talks are in such a shambles – may be simpler than we thought. It all boils down to a failure to communicate, the inability of the government and the political classes to listen and learn. But if the diagnosis is simple, the solutions are anything but.

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