Richard North, 23/02/2018  

The fact that, twenty months after the referendum, the cabinet is meeting in secret conclave to decide on the government's Brexit strategy tells its own tale. It speaks of the staggering inadequacy of the political process that it has not been able to deal with this vital policy at an earlier stage, and is unable even to address the component issues in a coherent way.

However, it is not entirely the fault of the eleven inadequates closeted at Chequers that they have been unable, so far, to come to an agreement as to how the UK should approach the vexed question of the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Much rests on the autocratic behaviour of Mrs May in the early part of last year. Fortified by her monumental ignorance, and that of her favoured advisor, Nick Timothy, this has boxed the UK into a corner, leaving us short of options and without the flexibility we need to respond to a complex and deteriorating situation.

In many ways, Mrs May is now confronted with an unsolvable dilemma. The practical, political and legal hurdles, separately and combined, have conspired to create a perfect storm of unsolvability (if that is actually a word) which would defeat a constitutional or political genius and surely prove beyond the ken of our current prime minister, who is self-evidently neither.

The question then must not be what manner of deeds are required to cut a Gordian knot of such dimensions as to make the original look little more than a snag in a running line. If Brexit means Brexit, as a newly-appointed prime minister was keen to assure us, then unsolvable means unsolvable.

We are way past anything that will get Mrs May's "war cabinet" off the hook on which it is impaled. The task now is to put the creature out of its misery as fast and humanely as possible, and to minimise the damage and mess as it thrashes around in its ungainly and violent death-throes.

Politically, this is the embodiment of the age-old joke, occasioned when certain tourists asked for directions to Dublin, only to be told, "I wouldn't start from here". There is no way, from her current political location, that Mrs May can make it to her destination – whatever that might be.

Oddly enough, though, within the germ of the Dublin joke, there could just lie a solution. For, even if you have no idea of where you are, it is still possible to navigate to an intended position and arrive safety, where you intended to be.

This would rely on a technique used by mariners crossing the Atlantic from Europe, before the invention of the sextant made dead reckoning a reliable proposition. Thus, a captain intent on reaching, say, New York, would normally expect to make landfall some distance from is object, and then would have to sail along the coast until he reached the port.

The problem was that, on sighting land in an unexplored and unfamiliar territory, the navigator had no means of knowing which way to turn – north or south – for the final leg of the journey. And to turn the wrong way would take him away from his destination, adding days or even weeks to the trip.

The ingenious solution to this was to avoid steering directly for the destination. Instead, the captain would deliberately introduce an error, steering well south of his destination. Then, when he made landfall, although he would have no idea of his position, he would know to turn starboard and sail up the coast to get to his destination.

In political terms, the concept of introducing a known error might still take one to a destination where one doesn't want to be. But the merit of this stratagem is that it is possible from this new position to find a way to safety.

It strikes me, therefore, that this is what Mrs May must do. From where she currently stands, she has no hope of getting to where she wants to be, but she can possibly reposition herself, with better prospects of making it to safe harbour from there.

Quite possibly, that is exactly what Mrs May is doing, in accepting virtually unchanged the draconian "vassal state" transition proposals on offer from the EU. They take her to a place none of us want to be, but at least they buy her sufficient time for her to broker other solutions to get us out of the mess she has made for herself.

There is the option, of course, that once she has made landfall, Mrs May can simply abandon ship and leave the crew and cargo to its own devices. That would have her taking us through to her "implementation period" – as she insists on calling it – and then either stepping down from the leadership, or calling another general election.

Strangely enough, the weaker her electoral standing, the stronger she actually is. Rebellious Tory backbenchers can be full of fire and fury when their government has a big majority but, when the margin is slender and the opposition looks poised to win the next election, the MPs invariably rediscover the advantages of obedience, and put the party first.

If Mrs May can rely on that dynamic, then she can expect the likes of Mr Mogg and his ERG "officers" to huff and puff. But, when the chips are down, they will not trigger a general election that will hand the keys of No 10 to Mr Corbyn. As they did with the final Maastricht vote, they will cave in and back their leader.

Her game plan, therefore, will not necessarily have to extend to finding a solution to the intractable problems of Brexit, but of riding the coming storm over the transition period, perhaps making enough small concessions to soothe the fevered brows of the Moggites, sufficient for them to claim some sort of a victory.

As for the EU, what we saw in December was the "colleagues" taking fright at the prospect of Mrs May being deposed, thus giving her enough wriggle room to make it look as if she had made progress in the talks. At the time, I argued that the UK had not progressed to phase two but simply to phase one-plus, with the "plus" taking in the transition period.

This is where we still are, with the timetable for agreeing the terms set for the European Council on 22 March. And given that the UK has conceded so many points already, all we need it some carefully crafted dramatics over some last-minute glitches, and we are home and dry.

But that is to reckon without the Irish border problem, for which there are no credible solutions on offer. Yet, what has not properly sunk in is that, if the "vassal state" transition is agreed, that amounts to Armageddon delayed. Cross border trade will continue as before. There will be no queues and no disruption. Brexit, in media terms, will be a non-event.

From then on, all Mrs May has to do is make a starboard turn and sail up the coast. No matter how far off course she is, she will get there eventually.

The greatest danger, however, is that the cabinet puts itself so far out on a limb that – if we continue our maritime analogy – by the time her ship arrives, she and her crew are refused permission to land. And, from the reports emerging from the Chequers conclave, that seems to be precisely what might be about to happen.

Sources close to the Brexiteers lead by foreign secretary Johnson, we are told, are claiming victory, with one saying: "Divergence has won the day". Such is the confusion of terms, though, that former Remainers, led by Chancellor Philip Hammond, are also said to have secured a key objective, getting Mrs May to agree to ask Brussels for mutual recognition on standards for manufactured goods.

As reported, this doesn't make sense, as it is the "ultras" who have been demanding mutual recognition of standards. Nonetheless, it seems that is to be the position Mrs May will ask the Cabinet to adopt next week, which will then form the basis of the trading relationship we are seeking with Brussels.

The Cabinet has fixated on the ability of the UK "to set its own rules and regulations", allowing an "ambitious managed divergence" with the EU over time. The EU will be expected to agree with the UK "common regulatory goals", which have acquired the jargon label of "equivalence of outcomes". 

 Any such provision, though, is a throwback to the early days of the EU when directives set the overall objectives of regulation in each sector, but left Member States the discretion to achieve those objectives in their own ways. In the main, however, this approach has largely been overtaken by more prescriptive, detailed regulation, settling on harmonisation, rather than the approximation of law.

The Commission is not going to be sympathetic to the idea of allowing the UK more flexibility in product regulation than is allowed to Member States. In fact, this is exactly what the EU has said it would not allow – a situation where a state is able to improve its position by leaving the EU, while continuing to benefit from market access.

It is inconceivable that the EU will accept mutual recognition of standards and any attempt by the UK to get this accepted is doomed to failure, as has been made plain in the last few days. Equally, divergence – managed or otherwise – is a non-starter.

If the UK insists on pursuing this line, Mrs May will be writing the suicide note for the Brexit talks and her own political epitaph.

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