Richard North, 12/07/2020  

Michael Gove is the man who, famously, tried to use an ordinary household vacuum cleaner to unblock a toilet. And, from the look of it, his grasp of reality doesn't seem to have improved, as he takes the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner to unblock our borders.

The point this rather strange man doesn't seem to realise is that, in this real world of which he is quite obviously so unfamiliar, borders have two sides. When people or goods cross a border, and thereby leave a territory, that usually means that they are poised to enter another, different territory.

It is a matter of fairly straightforward logic, therefore, that a border crossing tends to be a two-part process. Furthermore, no single country will have total control of the process. The transition experience as a whole will depend on how the systems on both sides of the border inter-relate and how or whether the border authorities cooperate.

Thus, when we have Mr Gove writing little homilies in The Sunday Telegraph, telling us that he intends to spend £705 million of our money "to make sure our borders are ready for full independence", it's a fairly reasonable assumption that the man doesn't really have a hang of this border crossing thingy.

Specifically, the man is telling us that the government is "investing in new infrastructure, more jobs and better technology to help goods move smoothly, make our country more secure and our citizens safer".

The money, he says, "will ensure that Great Britain’s new borders will be ready when the UK takes back control on 1 January 2021, and will also lay the foundations for us to build the world's most effective border by 2025".

Standing back a wee bit from this, for a start, we need a double-take on his assertion that he is investing in "more jobs". These are going to be customs officials and the like, "useless mouths" whose functions were largely abolished for trade with Europe once the Single Market was up and running.

I may have missed something here, but why does hiring extra officials, thereby imposing an ongoing cost on the taxpayer, actually constitute an investment? Why, indeed, is hiring more "useless mouths" a good thing?

The next question which springs to mind is just as perplexing. How does imposing extra infrastructure, officials and processes actually "help goods move smoothly"? How can the movement be smooth if the goods are subject to all manner of procedures from which, previously, they were exempt?

Then, of course, when we have a two-part process, with the other part dependent on the authorities on the other side of the border, how can any amount of investment this side of the border ensure the smooth flow of goods? What is the advantage, for instance, in expediting flows across our border in an outwards direction, if goods are then substantially delayed once they get to the other side?

Such are the ponderables that I don't begin to see how it is appropriate to boast of "full independence", when that very thing is neither possible nor desirable. Nor is the UK going to "take back control", because (at best) we only have control over half the process.

Our state, therefore, is not one of independence, but interdependence, and I see no harm in having the authorities on each side of a border being mutually dependent. That simply reflects the actual situation.

As to whether a state of "full independence" makes our country more secure and our citizens safer, I rather doubt it. In modern border management practice, most controls are risk-based, intrinsically reliant on intelligence to enable the assessments to be made. And much of that intelligence has to come from the other side of the line.

On that basis, "full independence" is a guaranteed way of ensuring that you cannot exert effective control over borders. In short, the only way you get to have a smooth, efficient system, which maximises protection is where you have the maximum of cooperation (i.e., interdependence) from all parties.

But then, Gove is not confining his babbling to just this area. He's telling us that the deal the prime minister struck last year, and which the country backed in the general election, "ensured we left the EU in January and means we can look forward with confidence to the end of the transition period on 31 December".

The deal that Johnson struck, though, was the Withdrawal Agreement. That has created its own problems which have not been resolved, but the important point here is that we have no deal, as yet, to take us past the end of the transition period and define our future relationship.

Given that there has been very little progress in the negotiations, and the indications are that we're looking at a no-deal TransEnd, I would dearly love to know the grounds on which we can "look forward with confidence". The scenario, as I see it, is one that invites gloom and despondency.

As for his guff on immigration and a points-based system, this has to be the biggest con trick on the planet. The points system is not a control measure, per se. It simply defines the skills bases of the people who do come here.

As we saw with the Australian system – on which ours is supposedly based – unless you have an overarching entry quota, the country still stands to be swamped with unwanted immigrants. The government must set an annual figure for net immigration, and stick to it – otherwise we don't have a policy in any meaningful sense of the word.

Sadly, though, neither Mr Gove nor any of his colleagues are prepared to put their name to a number, and if we see immigration numbers continue to rise, my guess will be that a lot of people will be asking why we had Brexit – especially as asylum seekers will be unaffected by the government's policy proposals.

Then there is the small issue of trade deals. Here it is rather remarkable that Gove should be talking up the new opportunities with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and other growing Pacific economies, as well as deeper ties with North America and the developing world – yet he doesn't mention one of the world's largest consumer markets sitting right on our doorstep.

In this context, and rather strangely, Gove initially talks about adjusting to life "outside the EU Customs Union". But that is the least of our problems. It is being outside the Single Market which is going to be the biggest challenge. Yet when he refers to being outside the Single Market, this is not presented as being problematical.

And if that isn't bad enough, elsewhere we are getting some gibbering about clawing back parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, and especially the "burdensome EU customs mechanisms" at "a border in the Irish Sea".

This is, of course, the deal prime minister Johnson signed up to – without the cover of the backstop. It now has the status of an international treaty and is no longer open to negotiation.

Yet the Muppets in the ERG and their supporters are urging Johnson to replace the Withdrawal Agreement with a "sovereignty compliant" agreement, as if it is in the gift of the prime minister to do so. It takes two to tango, and if the EU does not consent to changes, then we're stuck with what we've got.

The Muppets still don't seem to understand, though, that the EU is not going to allow a back door into the Single Market via the Irish border. Thus, there were only ever two choices – checkpoints on the land border, or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Still, we can always play with Sunak's freeports, another dubious idea from the Tory creche. One of these days, they might let grown-ups near their policies, but I guess they need to bankrupt the economy first.

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