An unseemly leak out of a six-person dinner that included UK prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has shaken more insider accounts loose. They give a chilling picture of a dispirited Government, trudging reluctantly towards a future the ministers (save the deluded opportunists like Boris Johnson) know they will regret. The reality that the UK lacks the time and the operational capacity to manage a Brexit, even if that had been a good idea in the first place, has finally sunk in.
The dinner leak, a nasy bit of work given that May had been promised secrecy, wound up, as a similarly detailed account of the last May-Juncker et al dinner had, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This report, written from Jean-Claude Juncker’s perspective and widely assumed to be the handiwork of his chief of staff, Martin Selymer, was seen as so potentially damaging to May that Angela Merkel was outraged. It wasn’t just that May was depicted as desperate, effectively begging her EU counterparts to get her out of her political fix. It was also that the story presented as emotionally and physically exhausted, “despondent and discouraged.”
A short but important piece by Rachel Sylvester at The Times provides more vignettes of the rising desperation and paralysis among officials involved with Brexit. I can’t recall reading anything remotely like this:
Those who have seen Mrs May privately in recent weeks describe her as stricken and stunned. On one occasion she sat in silence for almost ten minutes while the visitor she had invited to see her waited for her to lead the conversation. He left the meeting deciding she no longer wanted to be prime minister.
Across Whitehall, ministers are holding their red boxes with one hand, and their noses with the other, as they see the biggest change of their lifetime unfolding on their watch, even though this is a revolution they do not believe in. No wonder the government seems so anxious and uncomfortable. “We are trapped in a box,” admits one minister. “Parliament feels frozen by the referendum but people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver. They can only have Brexit if they’re prepared to suffer the pain.” It is an extraordinary situation. In the past, ministers have resigned from the government in principle over much less. This is not so much a constitutional mess as an ethical one, with ambiguity on all sides.
She cuts Corbyn no slack, pointing out that he has railed against the EU as a capitalist oppressor, yet is now trying to hold the future at bay via a transition.
David Davis apparently lacks the intelligence to recognize the absurdities that he espouses, and so is not yet as ground down as May is. He was savaged this week for telling Parliament that it would not be able to vote on a Brexit deal (charitably assuming there is one) and forced to retreat. From the Telegraph:
David Davis is under mounting pressure after he was forced into a climbdown for saying that Parliament may be denied a vote on a final trade deal before Brexit…
An hour later Theresa May contradicted Mr Davis at Prime Minister’s Questions, telling MPs she was “confident” they would get a vote before Britain left the EU…
One Tory minister told The Telegraph that Mr Davis has ” mentally checked out” and “doesn’t seem to care” amid claims that he could stand down after delivering Brexit in 2019.
The wee problem is that Davis is correct. A vote on Brexit is a mere courtesy. Parliament gave the Government unqualified authority to trigger Article 50 and voted down an amendment that would have required approval of a final Brexit deal.1As has been made crystal clear, the UK is out of the EU, Brexit deal or no Brexit deal, Parliamentary vote or not, in March 2019 unless the EU is nice enough to work out a transition deal.
The UK is so incapable of doing that that Michel Barnier has made clear his side is going to sort that out. This approach again cuts the cards in the EU’s favor. An old saying in negotiations is “He who controls the documents controls the deal.” Whatever the EU’s proposal for a transition deal is, that becomes the template from which the UK will try to negotiate better terms. Good luck with that.
However, the Parliamentary approval contretemps appears to have diverted attention from vastly more alarming parts of Davis’ testimony. Key sections of a must-read post by Ian Dunt (hat tip Richard Smith):
A substantial section of the British political class, from journalists to think tank bosses to politicians, seems to feel a frisson of manly excitement at the prospect of no-deal…
It soon became clear that when the Brexit secretary says no-deal, he actually means that there would be no trade deal. This would indeed be catastrophic for Britain, cutting it off from its largest trading partner. But it’s only half the story.
With no agreement in place, Britain would also lose the ability to manage nuclear materials or aviation in the manner it does now, along with countless other legal and regulatory relationships which currently operate under the umbrella of EU membership. This scenario, though, was “so improbable it’s off the scale”, the Brexit secretary said. This means that when Davis says ‘no-deal’, he actually means ‘a deal’, just one that excludes the future trading relationship…
The Brexit secretary insisted there were “contingency plans” for what to do with customs…
We can only hope he’s right. A recent Institute for Government report found civil servants had a “patchy” understanding of the customs process and needed to be massively levelled up in a huge cross-departmental project if they were going to be able to deal with the ramification of leaving the EU.
Dunt gave a high-level recap of a problem that we were early to flag as disastrous. The Customs Office has a massive systems upgrade due to be completed a mere two months before Brexit. Given the history of large IT projects, it is almost certain not to be done on time, even before taking into account reports that it looks wobbly. Even if this revamp comes off swimmingly, it will be able to handle less than half the volume of post-Brexit Customs declarations.
As Dunt continued:
But this is only half the story of being able to deliver on a no-deal threat…it presents the UK government with an unsolvable logical puzzle: You don’t know what you need to do until it’s too late to do it. If there is a trade deal on tariffs but not country-of-origin, that entails one arrangement. If there are special measures on agricultural products, that is another. If there is some sort of deal on single market access, that’s another. There are countless options. And the only way to know which one you need is to complete the talks. But if you wait until you complete the talks, you can’t prepare for a no-deal outcome…
And once no-deal was activated, what happens then? Davis was asked today about the 57 impact assessments into the effect of Brexit which the government is trying to keep secret…
Because the government is so intent on keeping these reports secret, this was one of the most accidentally informative things Davis could have said. After all, his views on the pointlessness of assessing future trade sit rather uncomfortably with the fact he actually commissioned those reports….
Take those three points together: In just over an hour, Davis conceded that leaving without a whole range of technical agreements was “off the scale” improbable. He had no answer for the logical conundrum of customs planning. And he hinted that the government’s own research into what it would entail is extremely bleak.
As smart as Dunt is, he used this to reach what I see as the wrong conclusion: that “no-deal” even it means only no trade deal, is a bluff and therefore wont’happen.
But in fact, even though it is playing out over months and years, Brexit is a tightly coupled system. The hard 2019 deadline and the lack of any way to stop it, and the extraordinary complexity of achieving any deal, be it an exit or a transition agreement (no one is discussing the only viable option, a standstill) means there will be no deal. It would be impossible absent war-level mobilization on the UK side, and nothing even remotely like that is happening. And that’s before you get to all the other impediments: the hollowed-out, unprofessional Foreign Office, the lack of serious engagement with the issues on the UK side, the self-inflicted wound of the snap election, the legacy of ill will created by the UK towards the EU badly distorting domestic dynamics and not inclining the EU to cut the UK any breaks…the list goes on.
Despite the apparent luxury of time, the Brexit process is moving forward, automatically, with no mechanism for halting the process. It is a slow-motion version of a meltdown of a nuclear core.
And May’s haunted look makes perfect sense. She is in the same position as one of the generals, whether French or German, who led an army against Russia too close to the winter and was trapped by having gone too far into enemy territory to retreat but not far enough in time to win. The distance, the terrain, the lack of adequate clothing, the inability to live off the land, in both those forays turned what was expected to be a glorious victory into a disastrous defeat. Even the soldiers who made it back were reduced to autonomotons, so depleted that mustering the energy to put one foot in front of the other in the debilitating cold was a form of heroism.Those who had enough strength left to think ahead knew even if they made it home, that their country had suffered a humiliating, devastating defeat on their watch and nothing would be the same.
1 With the benefit of hindsight, giving the Government unqualified latitude to proceed with Brexit was an even bigger mistake than the row above suggests. It is conceivable that requiring Parliamentary approval could have been used as a back door way to get Brexit negotiating leverage. Here is the opening text of Article 50:
1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention.
The legal argument would be that the notification that the Government provided was constitutionally defective, in that the withdrawal could be effective only upon Parliament giving approval of the final deal. Lambert suggested that this would set up a situation analogous to what in programming is called a race condition:
A race condition or race hazard is the behavior of an electronic, software, or other system where the output is dependent on the sequence or timing of other uncontrollable events. It becomes a bug when events do not happen in the order the programmer intended. The term originates with the idea of two signals racing each other to influence the output first.
Had this occurred, opponents of Brexit could have lodged a case with the ECJ demanding an injunction, arguing that the UK should never have submitted this defective Brexit notice and the EU should not have accepted it. This would almost certainly not stop Brexit but would have thrown a massive procedural spanner into the works. If the Government were prepared to continue to work on Brexit planning (big if) this would buy them more time to get their house in order. And while UK businesses would not like uncertainty, they might also hold off longer on making decisions to move operations out of the UK, which could reduce the damage.