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Brexit: confusion upon confusion

2016-11-23 07:34:13

One accepts that Brexit negotiations present special problems for the Government, so no-one is arguing that the refusal to give a running commentary is unreasonable.

On the other hand we are, in theory at least, a democracy. That requires Government to seek a broad mandate for any action it proposes to take, to which effect it needs to hosting what amount to a national conversation.

Over the past five months, however, the Government has been noticeably absent from that process, opening the way for a torrent of (largely ill-informed) medial commentary, bolstered by politicians and pundits who have been doing little more than parading their ignorance sowing the seeds of confusion.

Now, and not for the first time, we have the Brexit minister himself, David Davis who, according to the Financial Times (and many other media sources), is piling confusion on confusion over whether or not the Government intends to keep us in the Single Market.

In Strasbourg, briefing MEPs, Davis is claimed by Manfred Weber, chairman of the centre-right European People's party, to have said that Britain wanted to stay in the Single Market. Yet Downing Street is still insisting that the Government has not changed its "opaque" position.

Thus, we have a key minister apparently being quite specific about Government intentions, while all we are getting from the centre is the anodyne "trading relationship that allows UK companies to trade both with and within the single market".

The one possible mitigating factor is that Mr Weber may have been confused by Mr Davis's "circumlocution", brought about by an intention to keep Britain's EU negotiating partners guessing on exactly what line the UK will take.

However, Mr Weber has confirmed that he has been told that the British government, as far as the economy is concerned, wants to stay in the Single Market, but he did add: "What we expect are clear proposals. Today in my talk with David Davis, unfortunately I have not heard anything new. I have not received any new information: quite the opposite is true".

To my mind, this "dance of the seven veils" redolent of David Cameron's game-playing over the date of the referendum is now going too far. There is a world of difference between a "running commentary" and outlining the general direction of travel. That, we are entitled to know.

The absurdity of the Government's current stance is that, once Article 50 is invoked, Mrs May is going to have to present the European Council with its broad proposals for an exit settlement, so that it can respond with its "common position". If the Government keeps this up, therefore, the European Council will be told of the UK intentions before we the people know what is intended for us.

There is, of course, the added complication of the Supreme Court appeal, which must constrain the Government until the verdict is published. But, again, this should not stop the government setting out les grandes lignes, allowing us some insight into official thinking.

What is behind this, at the moment, is a lack of confidence that the Government has got a grip of the issues, and is capable of stitching together a coherent exit plan. MPs and other politicians in public have shown little understanding of what is involved, so we have good reason to be concerned that the official position may also be lacking.

The trouble is that, if the Government really doesn't know what it's doing, it will be too late to find out when the formal talks get under way. There is little enough time as it is, and little chance of recovering from a false start.

Nor really is there any sense in the Government being too close-mouthed about its negotiating position. In truth, the options are very limited and, if the "crazies" are kept out of the loop, they boil down to variations on theme of a "transitional deal".

Here, the possibilities get interesting. The Government can either go for the full Efta/EEA option or seek continued participation in the Single Market outside that framework.

If we take Mrs May at face value, though, she is not going for the "Norway option" which leaves the UK looking for a deal which, most probably, will require treaty change the "secession treaty" to which we have referred previously.

Short of a clean break with all the devastating consequences that that would imply it is in fact hard to imagine a situation where such a treaty will not be needed, this requiring agreement from all 28 Member States involved, and then ratification by all of them including the UK.

That this possibility has scarcely been part of the public debate makes one wonder whether Mrs May's advisers have fully taken on board what is needed specifically the ratification process which may take some time and involve the risk of one or more countries refusing to ratify.

Should this option be on the table, then the public needs to be prepared for the possibility that an exit agreement with the EU Member States will not necessarily lead to our immediate departure from the EU. We might find that the UK is still a member in 2020 when Mrs May seeks re-election in the expectation of a second and full term as Prime Minister.

Of course, failure (as it may be seen) to extract us from the EU by then might have a considerable impact on the Conservative's electoral prospects, with completely unpredictable consequences. One cannot see Mrs May being happy about this.

And, perhaps, this is the real reason why we are not being told anything about Mrs May's plans. Faced with the task of making Brexit mean Brexit, it could just be that she simply hasn't yet worked out how to break it to the British public that she might not deliver this side of an election.

Putting this together, it would also tend to explain the near-suicidal determination of the "Tory 60" to engineer a clean break. Doubtless, they know too well the potential risks in not delivering on time, and perhaps have judged that a rapid exit is worth the cost, especially if they judge that the adverse effects will not be felt until after the election.

Buying time, therefore, might seem the least-worst option for Mrs May, keeping us in the dark until she has been able to work out a narrative that will not risk costing her the election. But the longer she delays in revealing her hand, the more likely it is that she will see an erosion of confidence, and the loss of trust that goes with it.

Mrs May's best bet, therefore, might be to commit to the Efta/EEA option and get negotiations with Efta under way as soon as practicable. And if that puts her at war with elements in her own party, she can probably rely on the Labour vote to carry the day.

In this, she might recall Ted Heath, in the all-important vote in the House of Commons on 28 October 1972, to join the EEC, relied on the votes of 69 Labour pro-marketeers to get his majority. Without their support, entry would have been rejected by 36 votes.

How fitting it will be if the votes of pro-EU Labour MPs are instrumental in getting us out.