Richard North, 10/12/2016  

The great challenge of the EU, for students of current affairs and political history, is that there is such a great deal to learn, of such enormous complexity. It would be a brave man – or a liar – who said he knew all there was to know about the EU.

Similarly for politicians involved in the Brexit process there is a huge challenge as they are confronted with the extraordinary detail that they must master in order to assess properly the options and make the right decision. And for many, who start off from a very low level of knowledge, the learning curve must be precipitous if they are going to get up to speed in a reasonable length of time.

What is worrying though, when it comes to our "Brexit Secretary", David Davis, is the accumulating evidence which suggests that, far from being steep, his personal learning curve has flatlined – and at a level that would leave him struggling to handle a fifth-form quiz.

The latest indications of this come from a brace of Financial Times articles, retailing details of a memorandum on the Secretary of State's views conveyed to a private meeting with the City of London Corporation last month – but which have only just come to light.

In the first of the two articles, headed: "David Davis rebuffed City hopes for Brexit transition deal", we have the man saying that he was "not really interested" in a transitional deal to cushion Britain from the effects of Brexit and that he would consider one only in order to "be kind" to the EU.

As to the text of memorandum, this is published in the second article, where detail on a wide range of issues is offered. These include what the FT says are Mr Davis's candid opinions, where he dismisses what he calls "groundless whingeing" from the City, suggests that Britain has the upper hand in talks and argues that bankers will find Frankfurt "unattractive".

Mr Davis, it also seems, thinks that, if the EU pushes for a "punishing settlement", Britain would switch to a tougher "alternative strategy", looking to fight for business with "lower tax, softer regulation and other strong business incentives".

Fortunately, one recalls a little time back Theresa May saying that the only statements that we could take as representing a definitive statement of Government policy were those originating from her office, in which case we can take this lack of interest in a transitional deal on the part of David Davis as just a manifestation of his personal opinion.

Nonetheless, it is distinctly worrying that Davis is expressing this apparent hostility to the idea, despite accepting that Britain's "sudden" departure could compromise the EU's financial stability. The Secretary of State says he would be "more in favour" if the EU asked Britain for a transition. "I will be kind", he adds.

Of equal interest are Davis's views on "access" to the Single Market. In light of the position on immigration and the EU's inflexible approach to the "four freedoms", he thinks it is unlikely that the UK will achieve access. Instead, he believes that if a trade deal such as CETA could be agreed, it would be unlikely to pose a significant problem as "most advantages" would be gained.

On the other hand, he is emphatic that the UK will "take back control of its borders", in the national interest, and speculates that "a bespoke solution of permits and points style system" could be used to determine entry to the UK.

Thus, despite the wide-ranging discussions on the near-impossibility of securing a free trade agreement within the two-year Article 50 period – and the limited scope of such an agreement – Mr Davis is locked in a time warp that has him hankering after his solution.

Conceptually, therefore, the Secretary of State, has not moved on one iota from the original, pre-referendum discussions on Brexit. Right from the very start, we have had the three broad possibilities: the unilateral "WTO option", the bilateral "CETA-type" free trade agreement and the multilateral "Efta/EEA option".

Of the three possibilities, at least Mr Davis seems to be ruling out the "WTO option", but the idea of a free trade agreement remains hopelessly unrealistic. And even if we could agree a deal in the time, the Government would then have to explain how we would deal with the substantially reduced access to the markets of EU Member States.

One would have though that, by now, with the entire resources of the department of Brexit, their Secretary of State could come up with something more imaginative – and less damaging to the economy.

In our concerns about Mr Davis, however, it seems we're not alone. According to the Financial Times, one senior EU official involved in Brexit preparations (anonymous, of course) has expressed astonishment at the idea that Davis expects the EU to be playing the role of demandeur on transition, calling it "deluded".

This official is somewhat less than complimentary, observing: "There is a denial of reality in London". Yet another official – one who has met Mr Davis – says: "I'm fed up with British politicians. They have no clue".

And possibly he too is not alone. Mrs May's official spokeswoman refused to discuss the contents of the memorandum, but said that it represented "one interpretation of the discussion". We can only hope that there are other interpretations.

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