Friday, 21 July 2017

Sailing up Brexit creek to disaster

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for the UK's chief Brexit negotiator David Davis.

There he was in Brussels (if but briefly), face to face with his steely-eyed EU counterpart Michel Barnier, and all he could hear in his head were the voices of his Cabinet colleagues.

'Be tough.' (International trade secretary Liam Fox). 'Be flexible.' (Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond) 'Tell 'em to go whistle.' (Foreign secretary Boris Johnson) 'Make sure we get a soft landing.' (Home secretary Amber Rudd)

And that's just what they're saying in public. God only knows what they're saying in private.

Imagine you're a car salesman and a couple come in to buy a new car. They want a good deal, of course, so they try to negotiate. Partner A: 'We want a deal that's fair to both sides.' Partner B: 'No, we don't. We're perfectly prepared to walk away with no deal at all if we don't get what we want.'

They squabble. They bicker. They call each other names. I don't know about you, but if I were that salesman, I'd leave them to it and find something else to do. Which is exactly what the EU will be tempted to until and unless Mrs May's bunch of squabblers get their act together.

This is what happens when prime ministers lose their authority, because the four senior ministers I cited above all think they have a real chance of taking over when Mrs M finally throws in the towel.

So, of course, does David Davis, who is in effect running the Brexit negotiations -- which he says make landing on the moon look simple -- while simultaneously trying to position himself for a successful leadership bid.

It is a recipe for disaster. And the only hope of resolving it is that during their summer break, enough Conservative MPs will come to accept that they need to find themselves a new leader pronto.

Some of the older ones might even recall Sir Geoffrey Howe's speech when he resigned from Margaret Thatcher's government in 1990. He complained bitterly about her attitude towards the EU, which he said was like 'sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.'

In David Davis's case, it's not so much that his team captain has handed him a broken bat, but instead has provided him with a whole selection of bats, of varying shapes and sizes, none of which seem to be any good. What's more, she's forgotten to tell him what the rules of the game are.

No wonder M Barnier is complaining of a 'lack of clarity' in the UK's bargaining position. How can there possibly be clarity as long as the government is so deeply split and the prime minister has lost all authority?

I can't honestly think of a single way in which the UK's negotiating position could be worse. The country is divided, the government is divided, and the opposition is divided. Even if, against all the odds, David Davis is able to negotiate a deal before March 2019 (the two-year time limit from when the UK formally informed Brussels that it intends to leave), the chances of it winning the support of the Commons are vanishingly small.

So here's a thought. When a computer blows a gasket, you can often reset it to a date that takes it back to before the problem occurred. There ought to be a similar System Restore facility in Westminster, so that we could just turn back the clock to the day before the Brexit referendum and do it all again.

When the UK's former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned last January, complaining that  'serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall', I translated his parting remarks as meaning 'We're up the creek without a paddle.'

Six months later, we seem to be even further up the creek -- and still without a paddle. It'll soon be time to grab hold of the life jackets.


Anonymous said...

It's not really splitting hairs to note that in fact all substantive negotiation must be finished well in advance of March 2019. The deals need to be put in the form of legal documents and presented, and approved, by each of the remaining member states (plus a few extra regions). There is every likelihood that there will be some grandstanding and wheeling and dealing before approval is given. I guess the EU is aiming to finish the main negotiations by Autumn 2018: just 14 months away, or 12 months if you don't count summer holidays.

Anonymous said...

"There ought to be a similar System Restore facility in Westminster, so that we could just turn back the clock to the day before the Brexit referendum and do it all again."

I had another idea: I'd wake up some morning, hopefully soon, and realise that it was all just one terrible, horrible, dream. But then I thought "So - when I wake up who will be our Prime Minister and who will be their cabinet members?" And after a while I found myself wanting to go to sleep for a long, long time.

Anonymous said...

There is another critical factor - that the UK cannot sign any deals outside the EU while within it

This is a double-whammy:

(1) The EU knows this, so they can be hard-nosed if they wish about the Brexit deal

(2) Other states know this, so they could withdraw any promised deal at zero notice. Can you think of a hard-nosed businessman running the world's biggest economy, who just might capitalise on the situation without any remorse ?

I'm no businessman, but this was obvious to me before the referendum. We're governed by a bunch of amateurs

Matt said...

There are dozens of EU regulators that govern important aspects of everyone's day to day lives, from safety of medicines, to nuclear power, to repairing and refuelling passenger aircraft. All these regulators are governed by the ECJ, it has been decreed that we must leave all them and replace all their functions and all their qualified staff, in 20 months. What could possibly go wrong?