Richard North, 07/08/2017  

And so it goes on with tedious predictability. The Sunday Telegraph or some other self-important version of the legacy media runs a front-page story "revealing" … whatever. Hours later, a No 10 spokesperson denies the story, which is then run in a number of newspapers, even while some papers are still reporting the original story.

The result, of course, is that we're no further forward then when we started. The only fleeting outcome is that the media have managed to fill their allotted space for another day, ready for the start of another cycle of claim and denial.

Meanwhile, as older leave "martyrs" are accused by the 74-year-old Vince Cable of "shafting" the young, the NHS faces ruin as it runs out of immigrant nurses and doctors, the City is looking at "slow suffocation", celebrities are planning to back mass anti-Brexit rallies, the port of Holyhead is counting down the days to chaos and Northern Ireland is wondering whether its border will be diamond hard or merely iron hard.

In other words, just another day in the crazy world of the post-referendum nightmare which we are living through, where Groundhog day combines with the Muppet show to give us a ride to nowhere while the eternal Brussels clock counts down to oblivion.

But, short of the Government opening the books and telling us exactly what it has in mind – assuming it even knows itself – then it cannot be any different. We are all out of the loop, awaiting the pleasure of our political overlords who, if they are so minded, will eventually deign to acquaint us with their intentions.

The greater reality is, most probably, that the dwarfs temporarily at the helm of the great ship of state don't have the first idea of their destination or the direction of travel. Even if they did, there isn't time to get there before that Brussels clock self-destructs (whereupon it is no longer eternal, one presumes). 

That's the only coherent thing we can deduce from the turmoil of the fourteen months since the referendum. Having not had a plan from the very start, the government is now faced with a task way beyond its capability. In the beginning, had the people currently involved known what they were doing, and immediately set about executing the only effective plan available, we might have stood a chance. But they left it too late.

If there was something to hide, apart from their own incompetence, one might accuse ministers of creating a smokescreen. But the only thing they need to hide is the biggest secret of them all – that there is nothing to hide. In the resultant political vacuum, all they have to do is let the media play and they will serve up all the confusion needed, which is precisely what seems to be happening.

The most difficult thing to do at this stage, though, is to admit that the current confused state does stem from a political vacuum. There is always the tendency to look for the underlying logic in any situation and, when it is not immediately apparent, to invent it.

In normal politics, though, the drivers of events are usually apparent. There is no such thing as leak-proofing so, whatever plans government might have, someone will know of them and the information will find its way into the public domain.

But if we're looking for leaks on Brexit, the one consistent thing that comes out, from multiple sources, is that ministers don't know what they are doing. We ought to listen to that refrain, especially as any intelligent analysis of government performance to date would tend to confirm it. To see any sense in the current government stance is to indulge in wishful thinking.

One also needs to inject an element of caution into the continental scene. Generally, the supposition is that politicians outside the UK (even those in Ireland) are better informed than our sad crew. That may be true at a comparative level, but when working from such a low base, that does not necessarily imply that the political classes from abroad are well informed.

Even amongst EU commissioners there tends to be some confusion as to the period in which the UK will still be liable for payments, and the nature of those payments.

Unless something has drastically changed, I believe I'm correct in asserting that the RAL cannot be calculated until the end of the current MFF period and only then can a firm UK liability be calculated.

But the financial settlement based on RAL is very different from long-term programme costs, including subscription to the EU's agencies. We are going to have to decide whether we still want to finance Galileo and whether we stay with the European Defence Agency (which is managing the A-400M programme) – to say nothing of participation in the European chemicals and medicines agencies.

The very inability of our government to grip the financial issues tells us all we need to know. Amongst the Muppet tendency – the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg - there seems to be a belief that international relations are a cost-free exercise which can be neglected without penalty.

Yet, administration of activities carried out by nations in pursuing cooperation will have a distinct cost while, as between Canada and the US, trade transaction costs remain in the range of two to 15 percent of trade transaction value. That top level, imposed on UK trade with the EU, would far exceed the costs of annual UK contributions to the EU budget.

What that suggests is that it is possible to make a sound economic case for continued payments to the EU. This could be expressed in terms of cost-savings, protecting existing investments (such as Galileo), and the normal costs of doing business – where costs are borne by all developed nations in pursing relations with their neighbours.

The point here, though, is that the case has not been made. While it was entirely predictable that the UK would have to meet some separation costs, there has not been the slightest effort to justify continued payments, or pave the way for what will become an essential component of the Article 50 settlement. In fact, we've seen the opposite, with bellicose rhetoric from ministers, denying any liability.

Yet the EU negotiators have made the financial settlement a key part of the settlement, and that underlines its importance to them. There can be no room for doubt that no settlement is possible until an agreement is reached. That the UK government is doing so little to make this possible provides ample evidence that it is not taking the negotiations seriously.

Further evidence, if it was needed, comes with the endless talk of "cabinet splits". Where collective responsibility is the defining characteristic of cabinet government, what else is one supposed to infer from the inability of ministers to agree amongst themselves as to where we are going. What other issues of this importance are allowed to spill over into public disagreement?

If one now takes this a stage further and looks for explanations as to why these negotiations are not being taken seriously, incompetence does not fit easily as providing a complete answer. Maybe the real reason is that the government expects so little of them that it is not prepared to put the effort and political capital in to them, to make sure they succeed.

If that is the answer, it would mean that the government has already given up – but even then it seems to be making no plans to deal with failure. Generally, as a government, the one thing that seems to be missing most is government. As the coherent entity, it seems to have gone AWOL.

Maybe that is what really lies at the heart of the burgeoning train wreck that is Brexit. Rather than a failure of Brexit, per se, we could be looking at just one symptom of a broader failure of government. It shows up more because it is more important, and where it has to deal with the "colleagues", it is more difficult to conceal the failures.

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