While we wait for the ‘will it, won’t it’ Cabinet to get the final details of the draft agreement still being hammered out in Brussels – the latest being that Wednesday night is the latest possible date to convene a November summit at EU level – I continue to be astonished by the admission of Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, last week that he ‘hadn’t quite understood‘ the importance of the Dover-Calais route for the trade of goods between the UK and Continental Europe. Not only the words of the admission, but also the style of it – Raab shows himself quite clearly to be a man scrabbling about in the dark for the words to describe something that he thinks may be Really Quite Important – is frankly astounding regardless of any consideration of his job as a minister.
It clearly ought to come as no surprise that the most important trade route is actually the shortest – and it takes neither professorial expertise in particle physics to work that out nor even a rudimentary understanding of the importance both to manufacturing companies and food freshness and quality of just-in-time deliveries. But the issue is really one of the extent to which Raab – another committed Brexiteer – has got to grips with his brief. Whatever the political involvement of ministers in the discussions – and I suspect it’s not a lot since the civil service sherpas will be doing most of the spadework – had he really missed his own Prime Minister asking people not to be alarmed about government plans for food and medicines stockpiling? (Don’t panic! Don’t panic!)? Simply failed to spot the import of the physical practicalities of trade links in his own post-lunch/graveyard slot appearance before the Exiting the EU Select Committee when he spoke about stockpiling? Simply missed out on the controversy about turning the M26 into a lorry park? Not in the office that day when his own Department published its technical notices? Or had he simply bought into John Redwood’s (extraordinary) explanation that it would be alright on the night since everything could come through Rotterdam to avoid those pesky French (of course, it can’t since Rotterdam is also in the single market).
It is a cause for worry when the minister with political responsibility and accountability for the state of negotiations is apparently so out of sorts with a geographical map. As well as for the effectiveness of that ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament when MPs will have increasingly little time to digest the content of the withdrawal agreement – clearly part of the government’s strategy to persuade parliament to back a deal (any deal) rather than engage in the chaos of withdrawal with none.
The discussions on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland continue to confound everyone (here’s a clue: it can’t be done while keeping both the 10 DUP MPs (hard Brexiteers in their own right – remember that covertly-funded Metro ad?) and the 50 or so extremists in the ERG happy about the terms of the withdrawal – even if the text of the agreement is now ‘almost ready‘ (this might or might not indicate that is is now more than 95% done). Andrea Leadsom was entirely wrong to talk at the weekend about the need to ‘hold our nerve‘ – this is not a case of taking a negotiation to the brink since this is not a normal negotiation: there are red lines, and implications of red lines, that can point only to one end – and that is a deal that Theresa May cannot sell to her own base. These are not problems of the EU’s making – they are entirely domestic in origin and stem completely from UK government failure to recognise the flaws in its own strategy. Ultimately, this point of reckoning has been coming ever since Theresa May chose to ally with the DUP to save her political skin.
The response to a Brexit deal that cannot pass through parliament – presuming that all Labour MPs hold their nerve on this – has to be a general election. This will have evident consequences for the due date of withdrawal. Keeping the UK at least aligned to the customs union and the EU single market (NB: I would absolutely prefer to remain in the EU) is the only way of preventing extremist Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a deregulated economy based on competition and with clear consequences for public services (much less, in a much-shrunken state with much greater financial implications for the individual) and the NHS (conceded completely to the market) – to say nothing of workers’ rights being swept away. Whatever the confusion over what people did vote for back in 2016, I’d be pretty sure this was not it.
Meanwhile, was it not a complete surprise that the UK was so noticeably absent from the Paris commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice? More than sixty heads of state and government – and, wearing shirt no. 12, er, David Lidington. The choice to make a biblical reading at Westminster Abbey rather than attend the commemoration in Paris sent a very clear, and absolutely shameful, signal. Nevertheless, in reminding everyone that a post-Brexit UK would really rather stay at home it was, instead, a strong pointer to what a travesty ‘Global Britain’ actually is.
Truly, this has been a government of all the talents.