Richard North, 13/02/2018  
 


Rose Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday (13 February this year), is an important day in the Catholic German Rhineland district, where a series of carnivals are held, now famous for their political satire.

Traditionally, the usual rules of polite society are thrown out of the window and in Düsseldorf – as elsewhere – that tradition has been maintained in the form of a crude parody of Mrs May's attempts to manage the Brexit process.

The burghers have sponsored a gruesome float with a papier-mâché sculpture depicting the prime minister having just given birth to a three-eyed monster called Brexit (pictured above).

As political comment, this is not very far from the mark, the misbegotten attempts from Mrs May's government so far representing something so grotesque that only its mother could love it. And, if media reports are any guide (not that they often are, these days), we are in for something a whole lot worse.

This is to come, we are told, in a series of speeches – six in all – the first of which is to be delivered by the buffoon Johnson tomorrow in what is being trailed as an "upbeat message" about Brexit.

This will be followed by Theresa May speaking in Munich about Brexit and security on Saturday. She will not, we are reliably informed, be returning with a piece of paper in her hand, promising peace in our time.

Next week we will be suffering David Davis, who will be talking about what leaving the EU means for business. Then International Trade Secretary Liam Fox will speak about trade and cabinet minister David Lidington will explain what Brexit means for devolution.

Mrs May is then schedules for a finale when she delivers a second speech, titled Road to Brexit: A Future Partnership. Despite the title, she is not seeking to emulate Dorothy Lamour and there will be no Bob Hope or Bing Crosby in sight to give the comedy turn.

Comedy in good measure we will be getting nonetheless, with the buffoon set to lecture us on, amongst other things, regulation in the post-Brexit era. This is the man who betrayed his profound ignorance during the referendum campaign, making an utter fool of himself by claiming the existence of an EU regulation which prohibited shops from selling bananas in bunches of more than two or three bananas.

This fine grasp of the issues is – it would seem – to stand him in good stead on Wednesday when he will express that belief that any move to stay as close as a country such as Norway is to the EU (as in the Efta/EEA option) would tie Britain's hands because signing up to the same regulations would limit the ability to strike new trade deals elsewhere.

Clearly, if it is this profound level of ignorance which is driving the debate – and there is every indication that it is – then there is no hope for us at all. The cretins are in charge and will drag us down to their level of stupidity, simply because they are incapable even of mastering the basics of their trade.

Collectively, the May government is being advised, in the secret civil service analysis of the possible economic impact of Brexit, which the government was forced to release to MPs recently, that "Leaving the European Union could provide the UK with an opportunity to regulate differently across social, environment, energy, consumer and product standards".

And if that really is a serious contribution from the civil service, then the rot has spread even deeper than we feared, as the officials ignore decades of globalisation and the ongoing trend towards harmonisation of regulation at a global level. With or without leaving the EU, there is precious little opportunity to regulate differently if we are to remain part of the multilateral trading system.

Johnson's stupidity, however, is set to perpetuate the continued conflict between the "ultras" and chancellor Philip Hammond. He, with his allies, are taking a contrary view and want to retain close economic ties to the EU. Hammond, we learn, is not part of the "speech bomb" but he is jetting off to Oslo, Stockholm, The Hague, Madrid and then Lisbon next week, to discuss financial services and the effects of Brexit.

One area where there is some degree of agreement, however, lies in the area of the need for a transitional agreement, even if there is no consensus as to what it should look like. Since the EU has already put its cards on the table in this respect, the fact that "Team May" are agreed on the need for something that the prime minister asked for in her Florence speech – and to which the EU subsequently responded – doesn't seem to be a whole lot of progress.

What is emerging though is a sort of modus operandi, where the EU tells us what to do, Mrs May's cabinet goes away and talks about something completely different and then, in the fullness of time, Mrs May decides to do what the EU "suggested" in the first place.

Before we get there on the transitional period, it looks as if we're going to have go though tortuous arguments about whether the UK should be looking for something like a Norwegian or Swiss style "off-the-shelf" agreement during this "implementation period", and whether we should delay applying immigration controls.

Going way back to when I was working on the original draft of Flexcit, one mistake I made was to characterise what we were then calling the "Norway option" as an off-the-shelf" agreement.

However, more and better knowledge of the Efta/EEA option – as we now prefer to call it – has us recognising that the uniquely flexible EEA Agreement is in fact the next best thing to a bespoke agreement, allowing for a tailor-made relationship between the EU and the UK, covering our specific needs.

On the other hand, of course, the Swiss option is, self-evidently a bespoke agreement – crafted after the Swiss Federation walked away from the EEA agreement, taking some 16 years to conclude. This is entirely unique to Switzerland and could hardly serve as a model for a short-term transitional period.

We are thus, once more, seeing the same incoherence from government that we have been witnessing ever since the EU referendum in June 2016. The upper echelons of our political system are no further forward than when the votes were cast, having not even defined the basic issues which they should be considering.

For all that, we are beginning to hear talk of a temporary customs union, which would suggest that Mrs May is preparing the ground for her usual climbdown, allowing her ministers to prattle while she gets on with the job of doing what the EU tells her to do.

Today, though, we are led to believe that we will see a "position paper", setting out proposals for "the freest and most frictionless possible trade in goods between the UK and the EU", although early indications suggest that we are going to see nothing that we haven't already seen.

The first proposal suggests a new customs border with the EU could be introduced without disrupting trade – apparently to be managed by the UK, making it the first customs union in the world to be managed by just one country. The second suggests a new borderless customs partnership could somehow be agreed while the UK also signs external trade deals.

Readers may recall that such ideas have already been rejected by the EU as impractical. They are so disruptive to the principles of the Single Market that they would prejudice its integrity, something that the EU could never tolerate them.

That will leave the UK government with nowhere to go, and no options but to follow the line drafted by Brussels, making this yet another waste of time and effort. We end up with a "loveless child" of a Brexit, to which the UK electorate will have to be gradually introduced and thus given time to come to terms with the likelihood that the end of March next year will see Brexit in name only.

In the meantime, we will have to put up with the burbling Boris, and others, while the prime minister's spokesman tells us that it is "time to set out our approach to that partnership, to inform the upcoming negotiations, and to provide citizens and businesses at home and across Europe with a deeper understanding of our thinking".

I suppose such people believe what they are saying, but I would have thought that the last thing the government wants to do is give anybody a "deeper understanding" of its thinking. Not knowing is bad enough. To have our deepest suspicions confirmed could trigger a crisis the like of which we have never experienced.






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