Matthew d'Ancona: The blind lead the blind on the long and winding Brexit road

Matthew D'Ancona
Getting down to business: the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, second left, and Brexit Secretary David Davis, right, starting talks at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels last month: PA Wire

When challenged on his government’s failure to match expectations, Tony Blair used to speak of a “post-euphoria, pre-delivery phase”. Today, those ministers charged with the delivery of Brexit lurk in a similar limbo, insisting their urgency is undimmed while demanding patience of those who, not unreasonably, would like to know what, precisely, the UK’s departure from the EU will mean.

The Government’s new position papers are the latest reports on Britain’s negotiating strategy, intended both to manage such expectations of clarity and (less explicitly) to sedate the fractious Conservative Party.

In their defence, ministers argue that their objectives have become more detailed in the past six months. Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and its accompanying white paper in January have been followed by the parliamentary debate over Article 50, the Repeal Bill, and now a series of documents on specific aspects of the process.

Yet the first two such papers — on customs arrangements after Britain leaves the EU and the Irish border — do not inspire confidence. They amount to little more than different and more elaborate ways of posing the same old question: how the hell do we do this?

Much has been made of the fact that the Cabinet is now broadly united behind the proposition that the UK will leave the institutions of the EU at the end of March 2019, that there will be a transitional period thereafter, but that this “implementation phase” will be limited to the current Parliament (on the dubious assumption that it lasts until 2022). The joint article in this weekend’s Sunday Telegraph by Philip Hammond and Liam Fox was intended to seal this Cabinet ceasefire in advance of the Prime Minister’s return to work.

Yet this pact reflects a recognition of reality. Painful as it was to those who backed Remain, the referendum result was a vote against freedom of movement and the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice.

Whatever constitutionally nuanced arrangements are theoretically available, there has never been the slightest political chance that Britain would stay in the single market, customs union or other subsidiary parts of the EU. It is no accident that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been so clear on this. No modern populist, of the Left or Right, can afford to say otherwise.

This has two important consequences. First, Britain must be seen to leave the EU, clearly and unambiguously, on March 31, 2019. Second, we must then re-invent the wheel: to enable British business to trade as openly as possible with our former European partners, to facilitate the migration of labour to the UK and to retain the many benefits of pan-European co-operation (notably in law and order, counter-terrorism measures and intelligence sharing).

Hence the core contradiction in the first two transition papers. Carbonated by the fizz of radical change ahead, they still seek as much continuity as possible. The proposals for post-Brexit customs, for instance, combine an insistence that present arrangements must end with a tortuous plan to reproduce them.

The first option proposed is essentially an exercise in damage limitation, euphemistically described as “highly streamlined… streamlining and simplifying requirements, leaving as few additional requirements on EU trade as possible”. Quite how this would be achieved is opaque, beyond the promise of “technology-based solutions” and “innovative facilitations”. At times, the jargon veers close to the sales patter of a marketing presentation.

The second proposal is even more baffling, proposing “innovative approaches that could support UK-EU trade outside of a customs union arrangement, while still removing the need for customs processes at the border”. This would apparently involve “mirroring the EU’s customs approach at its external border” so as to “ensure that all goods entering the EU via the UK have paid the correct EU duties”.

Confused? You should be. When the paper acknowledges that “this is an innovative and untested approach”, one can sense the justified panic of Whitehall officials beneath the surface. The sub-heading “Providing certainty” has a desperate quality to it.

No less enigmatic are today’s plans for a new border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that would involve no physical infrastructure. Welcome as such an arrangement would be, it is hard to imagine how it would be compatible with the UK’s new status outside the EU. At the very least it would depend upon a level of technological sophistication that has defeated successive governments.

Some of the objections already raised by our 27 soon-to-be-former partners are part of the great poker game that lies ahead. But not all. It is quite true that the new border between the UK and the EU cannot be both exclusionary and “frictionless”, any more than we can both fulfil our international financial obligations and tell Europe to “go whistle” over the divorce bill.

Such reservations infuriate Brexiteers, who dismiss them as the cavilling of “Remoaners”. But the time for such fury is long past. The referendum was won and lost last year, and the Government has now, quite properly, embarked upon the process of departure. But questioning the practicality of its proposals is scarcely treasonable, or even an insult to those who voted Leave. Indeed, it is in the interests of those who believed in Brexit last year to scrutinise its implementation with care.

The curse of contemporary politics is the urge to insist that complex problems have simple solutions. The Leave campaign presented Britain’s departure from the EU as a light-switch moment that would transform its prospects.

Yet the reality is not a sudden catharsis but a forest of technicalities from which, at times, it seems we may not emerge. The more ministers say, the clearer it becomes that this is a desperately weak Government, unsure of its own, and the nation’s, trajectory.