Richard North, 31/10/2019  
 


If Johnson was to be believed – to say nothing of £100 million-worth of government publicity - we would have been leaving the European Union at eleven this evening. Yet one cannot exactly say that the prime minister in office lied to us – even if he is an inveterate liar. It was simply a rash promise that was always going to be difficult to deliver.

By way of a consolation prize, we are to get a general election on 12 December, with the (implied) promise that we get to leave on 31 January if enough Tory MPs get elected to give their prime minister a working majority.

However, it seems that I'm very far from the only one to develop a rather cynical view of this coming election. The Irish Times seems to share much the same sentiments. "The British electorate", it says, "faces a huge choice":
Ideally, the main political parties would spell out the consequences of Brexit, along with their plans to proceed and what these would mean. More likely, the campaign will lapse into shallow sloganeering about getting Brexit done, or a jobs-friendly Brexit, or whatever.
And ain't that the truth. This is supposedly a "Brexit election", but already we can see where the land lies. In yesterday's PMQ exchanges between Corbyn and Johnson, the rhetoric quickly turned to NHS issues, with the leader of the opposition complaining that the US had called for "full market access" to our NHS which, he said, "would mean prices of some of our most important medicines increasing by up to sevenfold".

Immediately after PMQs, Corbyn then visited Crawley Hospital in West Sussex, to launch his election campaign, making himself available to for media shots with nurses and other NHS staff. Today, according to the Mirror, he takes aim at what he describes as "a corrupt system" run by those with vested interests – the tax dodgers, bad bosses and big polluters, all of whom are holding the country back.

Labour strategists, we are told, believe that once Corbyn gets out on the campaign trail, it will be clear that he, not the Tory prime minister, is the anti-establishment candidate for change.

The message is unmissable – Brexit is to be side-lined with the agenda turned to the schools 'n' hospitals and all the dog whistle issues that make up standard election fare.

Yet, if this was really a Brexit election, we would have politicians and media alike focusing first on the detail of Johnson's deal and then on the all-critical "future relationship" negotiations that will take place if the WAB is eventually agreed.

Of course, if Corbyn holds true to his word and actually gets into No 10, then his ambition is to renegotiate the deal, in which case he has to confront in the current extension decision the same exclusion that was in the previous version couched in exactly the same terms: "This extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement". The only difference is that last time, it was in Recital 13. This time, it is to be found in Recital 12.

Given that the EU's own restriction seems to be about as solid as Johnson's promises, Corbyn shouldn't have too much difficulty in convincing the electorate that, if the rule can be breached once, he can reasonably expect a repeat. Even Tusk's warning that this extension could be the last can be taken with a pinch of salt. If prime minister Corbyn says he needs more time, then it is unlikely that the European Council will turn him down.

Where Corbyn is particularly weak, though, is his stance on negotiating a deal and then either campaigning against it in a referendum or adopting a neutral position. Apart from the fact that this will need still more time, it hardly seems credible that the "colleagues" would entertain tortuous new negotiations only to see the outcome destined for the junk heap for lack of support.

Johnson's weakness, on the other hand – assuming we gloss over the infelicities of his withdrawal agreement – is his gung-ho approach to the future relationship. As it stands, he is still committed to reaching an agreement by the end of December 2020, enabling us to quit the transition arrangements with a comprehensive free trade agreement.

But what was already a suicidally short negotiating period before the current extension is now three months shorter, eroded by the additional extension. Any trade negotiations with the EU cannot start until we have formally left the EU.

During the campaign, therefore, attempts should be made to pin down Johnson, to establish from him that, if we move to the transitional period after 31 January, he will swallow his pride and seek by July a full extension to the transition period, to bring it to an end on the last day of 2022.

Even then, Johnson should be quizzed on how he can be expected to settle a comprehensive free trade agreement in less than three years when the nearest equivalent, the EU-Canada agreement, took eight years to conclude.

Such questions could at least make for the foundations of a decent debate, and bring issues out into the open that badly need to be aired. Before we all go to the polls, we should have a clear statement from Corbyn on how he expects to renegotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the EU, with an explanation of why the EU should bother to negotiate if he intends either to junk any new agreement or let it wither away for lack of a champion. Similarly, from Johnson, we should expect any sort of trade deal with the EU on the timetable he is proposing, and how in any case he can deliver anything usable inside three years.

These, though, are only the basic issues. A discerning electorate and a responsible media should be asking for much more of its campaigners. For instance, as well as dissing the politicians, the Irish Times went on to assert that:
The basic dishonesty of Brexit – the myth that it can somehow lead to a more prosperous future – has never been squarely addressed. The Conservative party appears to be driven by a core group of ideological Brexiteers, while Labour has tied itself in knots over Brexit.
This is a powerful point and it does need addressing. For all the doom and gloom about the costs of Brexit, in Flexcit, we set out scenarios in phase five, under the heading of "Global Trading", an eight-point programme which if implemented would amount to a revolution in the way we manage our international trading relations.

Two examples illustrate some of the thinking. In the first, we are conscious that the sector which is showing the fastest global growth is transnational organised crime.

Yet, there is ample evidence that some types of trade deal facilitate criminal activities, to the extent that any gains from the trade initiatives are neutralised by the costs to the economy of the criminal enterprises which take advantage of them. By taking the simple, yet important, step of integrating trade policy and policies on dealing with international crime, we could at least reduce the harmful effects of such crime.

For a second example, we see the need to rely less on free trade agreement, which are often vastly over-rated, concentrating instead on brokering global deals aimed at reducing technical barriers to trade – such as UNECE's "Regulation Zero" for the automotive industry.

In theory, this election campaign could be the opportunity to open up an adult debate on international trade – something that we have not had in the three years-plus since the EU referendum. There is every reason why Brexit, in the longer term, could be a highly profitable venture for the UK, if we approach it in an imaginative and constructive way.

If we don't get that debate now, we probably never will. But that chances of it happening, as the Irish Times so clearly indicates, is probably next to nil. And this is why the next six weeks are set to be filled with unremitting tedium. This need not be the case, and should not be. But, with the calibre of our politicians and media, we can expect little else.






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