Richard North, 04/03/2019  

It was in July 2017 that Liam Fox triumphantly pronounced that the EU trade deal after Brexit should be the "easiest in history" to get.

At the same time, Fox also denied that the government was making contingency plans for the UK crashing out of the EU without a trade deal. "We don't want to have no deal. It is much better that we have a deal than no deal", he told the BBC, adding: "We can of course survive with no deal. And we have to go into a negotiation with those on the other side knowing that’s what we think".

Demonstrating that there was no limit to the stupidity of the man, he also ruled out the UK continuing to be a member of the Single Market or customs union, claiming this was legally impossible if the UK left the EU. This was despite the example of Norway which is not in the EU or customs union but is in the Single Market.

"You cannot leave the European Union and be in the single market or the customs union, they are EU legal entities", he said. "That's the legal definition – if you are out of the European Union, you are not in the Single Market or the customs union".

Now, over thirty months later, he has clearly learned nothing. Despite the UK having recently celebrated a continuity deal with the US over conformity assessment, covering up to £12.8 billion-worth of trade, this idiot was talking to Andrew Mar yesterday about our US trade "being done on WTO terms".

Not for nothing did Sir Ivan Rogers complain of British politicians and the "endemic problem" of their "lack of understanding" of EU issues. But here, we also have a secretary of state for international trade who understands little of international trade.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we saw Booker writing in his weekend column under the headline, "I knew Brexit would be a shambles, but I never could have predicted this mess".

Once people such as Liam Fox were on the team, I suppose we should have known that we were in for a torrid time, but it was two years ago when Booker first began warning in his column that Brexit was likely to end in a shambles. But it's fair to say even those few of us who have been trying to explain the unrecognised realities of our situation since long before the referendum could not have predicted quite what a catastrophic mess we would end up with.

Although it was greeted with euphoria in some quarters, the fateful turning point was Theresa May's notorious Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017. Then contrary to any indication she had given previously, she announced that she wanted to remove us completely not just from the the EU but the Single Market as well.

That we were to become in EU terms a "third country" made a whole lot of consequences inevitable. But, by ripping us out of the incredibly complex system that had so tightly integrated our economy with the rest of the EU, we were not only putting at risk a large part of our currently "frictionless" export trade with the EU itself, which provides an eighth of our national income.

By taking Mrs May's stance, we were also risking much of our trade with other countries across the world, which is currently conducted under trade deals negotiated between those countries and the EU. We were choosing among much else to make inevitable a "hard border" in Ireland and potentially to disrupt the vital "Channel Link" between Dover and the continent.

To the full implications of all this, until recently our politicians have remained almost wholly oblivious. Initially, they were beguiled by predictions that striking a deal with the EU would take no longer than "five minutes", that other countries would be rushing to sign deals to make up any income lost from our trade with the EU and that we could confidently survive a no-deal exit by somehow relying just on those mythical WTO rules.

Only at the last minute have we begun to wake up to some of these harsh realities, with our entire political class rushing around like headless chickens – presumably chlorine-free.

Now, says Booker, we are faced with a choice between Mrs May's "bad deal", which would leave us much worse off than now, or a "no deal” that would be the ultimate catastrophe. He concludes that the real tragedy is that, through our failure to recognise the reality of what we were up against, we have brought this entirely and quite unnecessarily on ourselves.

One could hardly believe, therefore, that he was writing in the same newspaper as Daniel Hannan who argues that Mrs May's deal "represents a devastating failure of British statecraft".

But, while I would not disagree with his premise, what Hannan does is urge MPs to vote against it, even though – as part of the noisy claque of Eurosceptics – he has never been able to come up with a credible alternative.

Having swallowed the ERG Kool Aid on the consequences of a no-deal exit, he turns the English language on its head calling it a "no-deal settlement", with "contours" that include "stand-still agreements or other technical arrangements on aviation, financial services, the Irish energy grid, road haulage and so on".

This is very much the standard ERG response, making out that a series of unilateral contingency measures taken by the European Commission, entirely to protect its own interests and those of its Member States, somehow constitutes a "settlement".

Hannan then somewhat contradicts himself by asserting that a no-deal constitutes "leaving without the EU's permission". Parliament, he says, is having a nervous breakdown and its "terror" has never looked more misplaced.

We are in a position, therefore, where the Brexit debate is not only distorted by the staggering ignorance of its main players, but also by a continuous thread of dishonesty, in particular as certaibn players attempt to downplay the consequences of a no-deal in order to justify blocking the Withdrawal Agreement ratification.

Not content with that, there is that other strand of dishonesty – bordering on delusion, where MPs still believe (or expect) that the EU is somehow going to reopen negotiations on the backstop, despite being told endless times that this isn't going to happen.

Yet, even that deceit is running aground as Mrs May's representative on earth, attorney general Geoffrey Cox, has finally abandoned the fruitless attempts to negotiate a time-limit and a unilateral exit clause for the backstop.

Cox is now said to be focusing on what is termed an "enhanced arbitration mechanism" that supposedly allows the UK or the EU to provide formal notice that the backstop should come to an end, employing an arbitration panel which operates outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Even if the EU was to accept this – which seems highly unlikely – his new stance means that the UK government has abandoned any attempt to modify the backstop in accordance with the ERG's demands. If their "three point plan" is to be taken seriously, Mrs May has effectively decided that she can no longer go through even the motions of enlisting their support.

The prime minister's latest ploy is to dosh out £1.6 billion of taxpayers' money to the "Stronger Towns Fund", mainly helping areas with strong "leaver" support in Labour-held areas. This has immediately been seen as a "bribe" to Labour MPs, in the hope that they will make up for the opposition of the ERG members.

It has always been a possibility that Mrs May would have to rely on cross-party support to get her deal through parliament, and this now looks to be a key part of her strategy. Clearly, there is no pleasing the ERG members so the only thing left to her is to call their bluff – and make up their numbers from the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

For the next week, though, we can expect nothing more than a continuation of the current shambles, as the media rings the changes between devious plots to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved, and speculation on the nature and extent of any delay. One cannot repeat too often how much relief will come when this is all over.

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