It is becoming clearer by the day that the Government is not ready for Brexit. On Friday a report from the Northern Ireland Affairs select committee said there was “no evidence” that technology would be ready to manage the Irish border after Brexit.
That means that, when the UK leaves the European single market and customs union in December 2020, at the end of the post-Brexit transition period, there will have to be hard border controls.
And on Sunday, another select committee, the one shadowing the work of the Department for Exiting the European Union, is expected to urge the Government to seek a delay in our departure from the EU. A report agreed by a majority of the committee is understood to express doubt that the withdrawal agreement can be negotiated in time for the planned departure date of 29 March next year.
In both cases, the independence of some MPs is striking. The Northern Ireland committee report has been signed by all its members, including Leave-supporting Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party MPs.
The Brexit committee has been sharply divided, by contrast, with five Conservatives, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, publishing a dissenting minority report insisting that Britain must leave the EU next March come what may.
Three of their colleagues, however, sided with the majority. Conservative MPs Stephen Crabb, Jeremy Lefroy and Richard Graham are believed to have signed up to the committee’s demand for flexibility over the Brexit timetable. The majority report is thought to urge keeping open the option of delaying Brexit, and also of extending the transition period from the 21 months likely to be agreed next week.
Both these committees are to be congratulated for holding the Government to account as the Brexit process unfolds. When The Independent demanded rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, these reports, crossing party lines, were the kind of thing we had in mind.
These two reports identify two of the weakest links in Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. The sheer complexity of Brexit means that there simply is not enough time to negotiate the terms of our future trading relationship. The Government admitted that by seeking a transition period (Ms May still insists on calling it an “implementation” period) after Brexit in which little will change.
But even that is unlikely to be enough. The Prime Minister seems to take a typical politician’s view: we will leave the EU and then sort out the problems later. The MPs are right to point out the folly of such an approach.
Just as their colleagues on the Northern Ireland committee are right to remind the Government of the insoluble contradiction of its policy on the Irish border. On that, Ms May seems simply to hope that turning a blind eye to small traders and calling a hard border a soft one for big business will muddle her through.
Such irresponsibility risks the collapse of negotiations and a no-deal Brexit. MPs are quite right to put pressure on the Prime Minister to avoid such a disastrous outcome.