Richard North, 11/05/2018  
 



A propos yesterday's piece, the same day also brought Dan Hannan in play again, pushing for his "EFTA-type arrangement, à la Suisse".

That amply illustrates the theme of my article. Only a few weeks ago, Hannan tried it on, arguing that his Swiss option would give us a border-free solution. Yet, despite being ferociously slapped down on Twitter, he comes back again without so much as a blush, making no concessions to reality, and not the slightest acknowledgement of the caning he had taken. 

My response to him this time round was to post on Twitter 80 photographs (captured mainly from Google street view) of Swiss border posts. With a border of just over 1,000 miles, the Swiss have on average about one border post for every ten miles. In the Northern Ireland situation, that would translate to about thirty posts, with matching posts on the Republic side. 

It's unlikely that Hannan will see the photographs – he blocked me on Twitter a long time ago, with hundreds of others, before there had been a single exchange. The man is on "broadcast only" mode and is not in the business of listening to other people's views. 

Even if those pictures are drawn to his attention, it will not make the slightest bit of difference. Hannan has been banging the same drum, on and off, for years. And every time he's knocked down, he comes back, untouched, forever unchanging. There is no debate – not the slightest pretence of a debate. All we get are the same position restated, again and again. 

But there is precious little new or accurate information getting through to fuel a sensible debate. For instance, yesterday also saw the publication of a House of Lords select committee report on "Brexit: food prices and availability". 

In the opening paragraph of the summary, it states: "Being part of the EU customs union has meant food from the EU can be imported with no tariffs or customs barriers". And this is supposedly the top of the information pyramid – carrying all the authority an weight of the upper house. That's the best it can offer – absolute rubbish. 

For all that, the report isn't all bad. There is far too much emphasis on tariffs, but the report does go on to state: "At least as significant as tariffs are the non-tariff barriers that may result from Brexit".

That's halfway there – but their Lordships really haven't understood what they're dealing with. There is no question of "may". Anything short of a continuation of full participation in the Single Market means that we will get caught by the full force of the EU's regulatory barriers. 

But even more chilling than this lumpen incomprehension is a chronicle of almost stunning complacency from government. It "remains confident", says the report, that it can secure an agreement that would allow "frictionless" imports of food from the EU to continue. Compounding this is the ignorance of the report writers, declaring that it is "unclear how that would be possible outside of the customs union".

Perversely, it suggests that agreement "would be likely to require the UK to mirror all EU standards and regulations" – the essence of conformity with the Single Market acquis. But, at least, they have got the point that, if food imports from the EU are subject to the same customs and border checks as non-EU imports, the UK does not have the staff, IT systems or physical infrastructure to meet that increased demand. 

Any resulting delays, the report says, could choke the UK's ports and threaten the availability of some food products for UK consumers. And the government's proposed alternative is to allow EU imports through with no, or very few, checks. This, we are told, raises safety concerns as well as questions over how customs charges would be processed. 

For all that, this is a report running to 41 pages which does not once mention a Border Inspection Post. Nearly two years down the line from the referendum and their Lordships still haven't got the hang of how the EU system on food standards and safety really works. 

But if the peers have no real grasp of the detail, we have in George Eustice, the Defra minister, a man who has elevated ignorance to an art form. He blithely informs the committee that the government hopes to secure a "comprehensive customs agreement", post-Brexit. 

Lodged firmly in a world of fantasy, Eustice believes "it is possible to establish principles around mutual recognition that mean we can understand that, while our regulations may not be identical in certain areas, they are definitely equivalent and therefore, on a risk-based approach to border inspection, there is no need for us to inspect one another’s products as they cross the border".

This really is fantasy – straight out of the Legatum playbook. There is not the slightest chance that the EU will accept mutual recognition. It's a question of regulatory conformity or nothing and, as I have so wearily remarked, that is only the starter for ten.

As regards the bigger picture, things do not seem to be going too well for Mrs May. From diverse sources we are told that she abandoned a meeting of her Brexit "War Cabinet", and with it any chance of agreement – however futile – on the UK's border strategy, reinforcing a sense of paralysis that is pervading the government. 

Mrs May has split her cabinet and tasked what have now become working groups with assessing the respective merits (or otherwise) of the two Northern Ireland customs options. It is being suggested this could be a ploy to allow Mrs May's preferred "Customs Partnership" to die with dignity. But that would then leave the mythical "Max Fac" beast, which ranks alongside the unicorns and will not get the UK past the June European Council. 

From the earlier days, we now seem to be moving into a new phase, dominated by confusion and disagreement. Far from a clear strategy emerging, government policy shows every sign of regressing. 

This shows up in a report from Bloomberg which observes that "only now" are businesses groups being asked by government to map their supply chains to flag the areas of the economy most at risk if Brexit imposes additional trading costs on exporters. 

These are the sort of basics that should have been established right at the beginning, creating the drivers for policy. With just ten months before the UK is set to leave the EU, people are expressing bafflement that it's taken so long for the government to ask for the data. 

And this cuts right across the whole Brexit experience. Those of us who go back that far will remember the flood of advisory material we were getting from government in anticipation of the completion of the Single Market in 1992. And prior to the introduction of the euro, businesses were again saturated with official advice as to how to prepare for the event. 

Here we are now, with changes in the offing of far greater magnitude, at a point where the government should have settled the detail and be in a position to tell businesses (and individuals) what they need to do to be ready for Brexit. 

Instead, we have a government which hasn't even settled the heads of agreement with the EU and is nowhere when it comes working out the detail. And, where it begins to look increasingly uncertain that we will get a transitional period, we could be looking at the cliff edge sooner than anyone anticipated. This has the makings of a catastrophe. 

And far from communicating with business, the government doesn't even seem to be able to deal with parliament. We hear that Mrs May has abandoned plans to complete work on the Brexit withdrawal bill before the Whitsun recess at the end of May. 

This means that the now 14 Lords amendments will not be put to the Commons before 5 June, as the prime minister marshals her forces to stave off the prospect of one or more embarrassing defeats. Thus, even as the time pressure builds, we have the bizarre situation where the Commons nex week will be dealing with bills on haulage permits and council tax reforms, and debating plastic coffee cups – anything but Brexit. 

Mrs May is thus accused of "sinking into quicksand", a description which could apply equally to the political classes and the media. 

For them, as they flounder around the margins, repeatedly demonstrating their inability to deal with the detail, they increasingly resemble panicking beasts struggling to escape the grip of treacherous sands. What certainly doesn't come over, from any quarter, is that idea that any one sector of the establishment is on top of the issues. 

It is in the nature of quicksand, though, that the more you flounder, the quicker you sink. Perhaps the best thing we can wish for Mrs May is a merciful release.






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