Richard North, 27/01/2019  

To the general disdain of many of his online readers, Booker today reviews the speech given last week by Sir Ivan Rogers to a packed audience at University College London.

Under the title, "The government is guilty of 'a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership'", Booker remarks that this "significant speech" was "scarcely noticed", even though delivered by the man who in January 2017 resigned as our ambassador to the EU after warning of the "muddled and ill-informed thinking" behind the way the Government had chosen to approach Brexit.

What was so significant about the speech was, in Booker's view, the way Sir Ivan painted such a devastating picture of why he sees our national debate over Brexit as having been all along "bedevilled by fantasies and delusions".

Sir Ivan, writes Booker, would have hoped by now that these might have been "dissipated in the face of reality". But they are "still being propagated on all sides", a state of affairs that then leads to some trenchant commentary.

Demolishing one of those delusions after another, nothing better reflected the trenchancy of his verdict than the language with which it was peppered: "bizarre", "fatuous", "piffle", "patently absurd", "demagogic rhetoric" and "vacuous pomposity".

As we appear to be sliding towards the "cataclysm" of a no-deal exit, the performance of the Government and our entire political class, says Sir Ivan, has amounted to "a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership".

The first fatal mistake, as he saw it, was the deliberate decision of the official Leave campaign in 2016 not to suggest any specific plan for how best to leave. This subsequently allowed all the different competing factions to claim that their own delusional strategy was what the country had voted for.

By coincidence, or not, this is picked up by the Observer's Nick Cohen who writes a piece headlined: "Brexiters never had a real exit plan. No wonder they avoided the issue".

His sub-heading goes on to say that, "The harsh truth about leaving the EU was obvious five years ago. But the right covered it up", which leads him into his theme that "the secret history of modern Britain is made in obscure corners between men and women taken seriously by no one but themselves".

I'm not quite sure what he means by this jibe about "men and women taken seriously by no one but themselves", but the obscure "corner" that Cohen takes as his starting point for his "secret history" is the winter of 2013/14 when the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) offered a €100,000 prize to whoever could devise a means of leaving the European Union.

It was then that he asserts that this was the moment when it ought to have been clear that "Britain" could only leave the EU, "if it is willing to pay an extortionate price". But the IEA's judges, led by Nigel Lawson and Gisela Stuart, refused to acknowledge this "harsh truth". They were followed by the Leave campaigns of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings and, finally, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who even now cannot speak plainly.

As if to anticipate their failings, the winning entry of the IEA's Brexit competition came from a minor functionary in the British embassy in Manila by the name of Iain Mansfield. He, says Cohen, "brushed away the difficulties of leaving the EU and offered us our first helping of unicorn cake". Britain, Mansfield declared, could enjoy the free movement of capital and goods in the single market, he announced, but stop the free movement of labour.

To Cohen, that "triumph" marked an ominous moment. Until 2013, even right wing politicians accepted that they could not have the best of all possible worlds. Britain was tied into an integrated European economy. No government could wrench it away in a couple of years. Britain would have to stay in the customs union, as Liam Fox had said in 2012.

The two-year reference, though, is neglecting a rather important development – the Lisbon Treaty which only came into force in 2009. It was that which brought in Article 50 and its two-year negotiating period – something which, even in 2013 we were still coming to terms with. Some, in a series of heated discussions, argued that Article 50 was a "trap" and we should ignore it altogether.

Cohen, though – like Sir Ivan – picks up on Flexcit, the plan suddenly getting more media attention in the last week than it has had for the last two years. He describes a certain Richard North, the advocate of Flexcit, as "the most significant thinker in the Brexit movement", and has me warning that a sudden departure would wreck people's lives.

I really didn't put it quite that way, although I suppose a certain amount of artistic licence could allow for that. I certainly did argue that the process of forty-plus years of political and economic integration could not be reversed in so short a period as two years.

Thus, paraphrasing Flexcit, Britain would have to be like Norway and stay in the single market, "at least in the medium term", as it dedicated many years, maybe more than a decade, to flexible negotiations about a future arrangement.

Rationally, says Cohen, "a flexible approach made sense". But by the winter of 2013 the market for rational politics was faltering. I am cited as describing how Lawson and his fellow judges excluded from the shortlist entries that said the only way to leave the EU was to follow the Norwegian example.

At that point, Cohen gets a little confused as he asserts that, until that point, I had had regular meetings with Arron Banks, Owen Patterson (sic) and Cummings. Of course, that didn't happen until later. Cummings contacted me in May 2015, asking for a meeting in London to discuss the referendum.

He told me that he didn't always agree with me on politics and communications, but my "knowledge of the issues is obviously incomparable, on our side anyway!". His immediate impression was that "most of the SW1 crowd" seemed to have learned approximately nothing over the intervening decade since victory on the euro, and thus he wanted to discuss tactics. He said he had printed out the latest version of Flexcit and planned to study it.

We actually met on 18 May in the King Charles I pub near Kings Cross. In arranging the meeting, Cummings told me not to worry about being late. He would have Flexcit to keep him occupied. And, true to his word, when he arrived at the pub, he had a heavily annotated copy in his bag.

I had very close contact with Cummings right up to mid-September, when I met him and Owen Paterson in a London restaurant to discuss the coming campaign. We parted on the best of terms but, as I told Cohen, "something then happened". I don't know precisely what it was. Cummings went dark on me. Subsequently, I was "no platformed" by Vote Leave and was excluded from any role in the campaign. Says Cohen:
You don't need to be a detective to work out why the darkness fell. How could the Brexit campaign inspire nationalist passions, how could Fox, Lawson, Johnson, Farage and Banks inspire even themselves, if they were to say that the only rational way to leave the EU was to carry on paying money, accepting freedom of movement and receiving laws that Britain had no say in making, while an orderly retreat was organised? Who would vote for that? What would be the point of leaving at all?
He continued:
Better to take the road to Narnia and promise everything while committing to nothing. After the prize was awarded to a political fantasy, Cummings gave fair warning of what was coming next. Writing in 2015, he admitted that the campaign would offer no exit plan: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or any Brexit in between. "There is much to be gained from swerving the whole issue", he explained. Opponents of the EU "have been divided for years". In any case, "the sheer complexity of leaving would involve endless questions of detail that cannot be answered".
That was the crunch. In what I've called an example of craven political cowardice, Cummings "swerved" round the contentious issue of an exit plan and focused the campaign on the Red Bus and its money message.

An honourable man, and an honourable political movement, says Cohen, would have found these excellent reasons to think again. Not Cummings and not the Brexit movement. Intellectually, their Brexit was an empty idea. But electorally, allowing millions to believe that the impossible was possible was perfect post-rational politics.

Thus Vote Leave went into the referendum campaign without a plan and, while Arron Banks briefly entertained backing Flexcit, he too ran away from the idea of fronting a plan. Apart from our Leave Alliance, the campaign was intellectually destitute.

Says Cohen, it is easy to portray Cummings, Johnson and Farage as grand villains. Indeed, he adds, "if we crash out with no deal, we will be hard pressed to find so much misery brought to so many by so few". But "the Cameron government, every MP who voted for the referendum, the supposedly ferocious interviewers at the BBC and hard-nosed journalists in the press let them get away with it. None insisted that the voters be told what form of Brexit they were voting for".

There we have an interesting moment of candour. An exit plan wasn't offered as a matter of deliberate policy by [some of] Brexit's supporters, and as a consequence of unforgivable negligence by politicians and journalists.

Cohen hopes we can now see "the consequences of obscure arguments in political backwaters". Supporters of a "people's vote" are met with the superficially plausible objection: "But we've already had a referendum".

Supporters of May’s deal and the "Norway option" face the objection that the Leave campaign never told them that we would have to accept EU rules once we left. Finally, for the supporters of a hard Brexit and the millions who risk their futures by believing them, "crashing out and crying 'to hell with it' are the logical consequences of the illogical retreat from reason they began in 2013".

There again, as I also told Cohen, we had that battle ten years earlier, in 2003 when some of us pushed Farage to form a study group to produce an "exit and survival plan" for when we left the EU. As I recorded, Farage would have none of it and engineered my removal as Ukip's senior staffer. The IEA's failure, therefore, ended not the first but the second attempt to get an effective plan in place; Cummings's rejection ended the third attempt and Arron Banks's cowardice brought the fourth attempt to an end.

And here we are again, rehearsing the same issues. Sir Ivan also saw the significance, as has Booker in reviewing his speech. This is not something that is going to go away.

But, for Sir Ivan – with Booker picking up the narrative – the second fatal step was to allow the Brexiteers to hijack the Government’s own strategy, by slamming the door on the only practical approach that would have allowed us to leave the EU entirely while retaining full access to that single market.

There has been "nothing more vicious in UK politics", said Sir Ivan, than those relentlessly misleading attacks on the "so-called Norway option", which could have avoided any damage to our trade (and solved the Irish border problem) while achieving all that many Leavers voted for.

Instead we have had one fantasy proposal after another, each more unworkable than the last, from Theresa May’s "backstop" Withdrawal Agreement to the make-believe for which Sir Ivan reserves his most withering scorn: that we could somehow just rely on those "mythological" WTO rules, which, as he explained at length, would be the most disastrous outcome of all.

Sir Ivan ended his talk on what seemed to be his realisation that he had only been writing the epitaph on an almighty national tragedy, the catastrophic consequences of which we have scarcely yet begun to imagine. But those consequences rest on "obscure arguments in political backwaters" which run back to 2003, with the invisible battle finally lost in 2015.

Cohen concludes that, for good or ill, you can guarantee that the arguments that affect us most are the ones that never make it on to evening news. In the case of Brexit Britain, that could not be more true. That 12-year struggle sought to shape the entire campaign, and its failure led directly to where we are today.

And while few people even realise that this epic battle was even fought, it is a battle that will have to be re-fought before we are finally clear of the EU, with a lasting, stable relationship.

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