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Brexit: Some Inconvenient Facts that the Tories need to face

June 22nd, 2019

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep” – Saul Bellow

There are illusions aplenty amongst Tory MPs about how Brexit is going to be achieved by the current candidates for leader, Boris chief among them. Perhaps – like Baldrick – he has a cunning plan. One can but hope. It seems almost indecently rude to spoil these illusions with something as vulgar as facts. But here goes, anyway.

1. There is only one Withdrawal Agreement agreed with the EU which is consistent with both the EU’s own red lines and those of the British government, at least as they currently stand. Under that agreement there will be a transitional period. Without it there is no transition.

2. The EU has stated – and made it a legal condition of the extension of Article 50 to 31 October – that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.

3. The EU has also stated that it is not going to abandon the backstop contained in the WA. Ireland is a member of the EU. Britain is currently seeking to become an ex-member. The EU is not going to place the interests of the latter over those of the former, no matter how much this might offend Britain’s amour propre or sense of superiority over a country it has often treated with condescension or contempt.

4. Unionist politicians consider the maintenance of the link with Great Britain more important than anything else. It is their raison d’être. Any different treatment of Northern Ireland implying that it is not somehow as British as the rest of Britain will get a “Never, Never, Never” response.

5. Different British red lines could result in a different Withdrawal Agreement. What those different red lines might be – and their implications, whether for the relationship with the EU or for UK domestic politics – have not so far been discussed by Tory leadership candidates. There is still a little time. Whether there is a will is quite another question.

6. Any different Withdrawal Agreement will need the agreement of the EU and need to be consistent with its red lines.

7. If a new Withdrawal Agreement is to be negotiated and agreed and approved by Parliament, this will take time. It will almost certainly take more time than is available between now and the expiry of the Article 50 deadline given the summer holidays, the Parliamentary recess, the disbanding of the EU’s negotiating team and the fact that the EU is currently in the process of changing its key personnel, who will not be in place until after the deadline has expired.

8. Therefore, for a new Withdrawal Agreement to be agreed and approved by Parliament, an extension of Article 50 will be required. As implied by the remarks of Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, the EU will almost certainly want to have some substantive and credible evidence that (a) there has been a change in the British government’s negotiating position; and (b) it can get the required Parliamentary approval for whatever is agreed. The EU has already spent some considerable time negotiating Cameron’s deal (rejected) and the Withdrawal Agreement (rejected three times). For Britain to rock up to Brussels saying “Let’s have another go. Third time lucky, eh!” is unlikely either to impress or be effective.

9. An extension beyond Halloween is not consistent with the promises made by either Johnson or Hunt, assuming that they have been saying the same things in private to all their supporters as they have in public. Quite why Trick or Treat day has been fetishised by the Tories to the extent it has (despite having been imposed on Britain by those frightful Eurocrats) is a matter best left to whoever provides therapy to Tory MPs these days. The important fact is that it has been. In Continental Europe, the following two days are All Saints and All Souls.  From April Fools to the Day of the Dead. Someone in Brussels had a dark sense of humour when the date was chosen.

10. If the date is key, then the only option for the Tories is to take Britain out of the EU on that date without any sort of deal.

11. Whether Parliament will seek to stop this or be successful in doing so is unknowable. There is a lot of sound and fury from some MPs. Whether it will signify anything who can say.

12. An election may change the Parliamentary arithmetic. Or it may not. The last PM who tried to get a large majority to strengthen their hand found that that elections are, polls notwithstanding, easier to call than to win. The polls are much less favourable for the Tories now. What an election certainly won’t do is create any more time.

13. The EU is assuming that Boris Johnson will be Prime Minister, a relatively safe assumption. It is also assuming that he will change his policy once he becomes PM, that promises or statements made during a campaign will be ignored or finessed away once he is in power. This may be a dangerous assumption to make.

14. Others here have a faint hope that Johnson’s very untrustworthiness means that he can be trusted to break his promises and avoid a No Deal exit. It is a curious and slender peg on which to hang one’s hopes.

15. It is unlikely that the country will be ready for No Deal or for what could happen thereafter. See, for instance, this report in relation to medicines.

16. A No Deal exit means a complete break overnight. With no transitional arrangements. There is no such thing as a managed No Deal since the Withdrawal Agreement is the way in which Britain’s exit was going to be managed. On 31 October Britain will be a member of the EU. On 1 November it will be a third country. “Just like that!” as Tommy Cooper might have said. As a comparison, when Britain joined in 1973, there was a 7-year transitional period.

17. The consequences of such an abrupt rupture – on Britain’s economy, its trading relationships, its society, the parties advocating it, those opposing it, its relations with the EU, its relations with other countries – are unclear and potentially far-reaching. They could well overwhelm the administration and make it harder for it to deal with all the many other tasks which a government has to handle.
18. The EU has made it clear that it will do whatever will be necessary to protect its interests following a No Deal exit by Britain. Such actions may also benefit Britain – but by happenstance only. The EU will not feel obliged to do anything to assist Britain to live more easily with the consequences of its choices unless this is also in the EU’s interests. It is quite likely that this will be presented here as the EU “punishing” Britain or being vengeful. The anger which EU countries will feel at having been put in such a position will be ignored.

It was Harold Macmillan who famously said that governments could be blown off course by “Events, dear boy, events”. Too true. Most governments have sought to avoid such events or, at least, be in a position to steer a steady course through them. The Tories now seem intent on creating a veritable tsunami of events – with Britain at their centre – with little more than a wing, a prayer and (most likely) under the guidance of an unprincipled leader with the ability to make jokes. If nothing else, it is an unusual position for a soi-disant conservative party to take.

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