Richard North, 30/07/2017  

Matthew Parris is no stranger to incompetence, or at least writing about it. Last December, he complained that: "The British disease is now rank ineptitude", writing that, "whatever the trade or profession it seems to be considered bad form to root out the stupid and the incompetent".

I noted at the time that he did not include journalists in his list, but neither did he include politicians. Now he's remedied the omission , in part, by focusing on the latter group, although he's not going for them all. His target is his own party, the Conservatives, whom he argues, are "criminally incompetent".

By this he means the Conservative government. The Tories, he says, are turning Brexit into a humiliating shambles. They called a referendum when they didn't have to, they accepted the result, they willed Brexit, they promised Brexit, and now they're comprehensively failing to organise it.

You can't blame the voters, says Parris. They quite reasonably assumed that the Tories would never have offered a referendum if they hadn't thought leaving Europe could be arranged. The fingerprints for this crime of mismanagement are Tory fingerprints.

In my view, there is a great deal of merit in that argument. My complaints of how badly Brexit is being managed are often met on Twitter by those who say that I share the responsibility for having campaigned to get us out of the EU.

The referendum fight, though, was one thing. There was nothing pre-ordained that said that the actual process of withdrawal had to be a mess. We published Flexcit, offering a template which demonstrated, if nothing else, that an orderly process was eminently practicable.

But thirteen months since the referendum, says Parris, and the Conservatives still can't decide even the broadest outline of the terms on which we hope to leave. The difference between a soft and a hard exit is greater than the difference between staying in and a soft exit, yet the prime minister is still insisting that government policy is for a hard exit, while the chancellor (in her absence) says the opposite.

Nobody really knows what the foreign secretary thinks and Parris doubts he knows himself. The Brexit secretary, meanwhile, "seems to be trying to play it by ear, but with no guidance as to the melody at all".

As for the trade secretary, he seems recently to have reconciled himself to three (or, if the chancellor is to be believed, as many as four) further years without any job at all. Some ministers say we'll be taking back control of immigration when we leave in 2019, others that we will not.

Then, almost everybody has started to talk of a "transitional" period after leaving, without any hint of a consensus on what we would be transitioning to.

You have to smile, just a little, when Parris then observes that: "it now appears they and their leader started the countdown to Britain's expulsion without even the vaguest plan for what we'd be aiming to achieve, let alone realistically likely to achieve".

Perhaps, though, smiling is not the most appropriate response – jaw-dropping incredulity might be better. After all this time, has this famed, perspicacious columnist only just realised this? Can that really be the case?

Worse still, says the man, they pulled the trigger knowing very well that "Brexit" still meant different things to different members of the party and its government, and there was no reason to hope that divergent aims were ever likely to converge.

However, we now come to the punchline. Parris calls this "criminal" – and we could hardly disagree, not with that nor his following comment. It is "irresponsible to the point of culpable recklessness towards their country’s future", he says. "The Conservative Party just thought they'd give it a whirl and all but one of them voted for the adventure".

For the rest, one should leave Parris to his not-so-private grief. His concern has been noted and he now joins the rest of us in understanding the gravity of the situation.

Interestingly from a different quarter altogether, in space, time and political affiliation, is Stephen Kinnock. He writes in the Financial Times under a headline which, if it came from the Tories, would have us cheering to the rafters.

The headline gives the game away. "Britain", it says, "can use EEA as comfortable waiting room before Brexit". Picking up the threads of the "transition" theme, Kinnock argues that the simplest option is for Britain to transition into the EEA.

It is, he says, a well-established and well-understood arrangement that offers the clarity and stability that the British economy needs in these turbulent times. Crucially, it adds, the EEA allows its members to reform freedom of movement. The government could invoke Article 112(1) of the EEA agreement, which allows for the unilateral establishment of a quota-based immigration system structured around regional and sectoral criteria.

The EEA, says Kinnock, is also not subject to the European Court of Justice, instead it adheres to rulings of the EEA Joint Committee and the EFTA Surveillance Authority and Court, which regulate the internal market and have a more flexible approach to national interpretations of the rules for the single market than the ECJ.

All of that, means, says Kinnock, EEA membership "must be seen as a well-established and relatively comfortable waiting room in which we can sit for as long as it takes the government and its counterparts to negotiate a long-term deal".

He concludes that the country is crying out for clarity and certainty on Brexit and the message from the general election was clear: people want a bridge, not a cliff edge. We should, he says, be building a coalition of common sense to secure an EEA-based transition deal that will carry the UK safely to the other side.

And that is where we were four years ago, embarking on the great adventure of writing Flexcit. In the manner of Parris, I could aver that the Tories displayed the same criminal incompetence in rejecting it - having been given multiple opportunities to adopt it, from the IEA in 2014, to Vote Leave and then the new government under Theresa May.

If Kinnock can see the way out, then it really can't be that difficult. Even Tories should be able to work it out. But then, it isn't only the lack of knowledge, the lack of direction, and the failure of leadership. It is the insufferable arrogance, combined with the stupidity of the breed. It is this, as much as anything, which stops them making the right choices.

That combination is insurmountable. As we observed quite recently, as a nation it seems we can survive anything – except Tory incompetence. But at least, Mr Parris has woken up to the peril. Things can only get better.

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