Richard North, 13/12/2016  

Philip Hammond MP was in front of the Treasury Committee yesterday, but not specifically dealing with Brexit. His headline topic was the Autumn Statement, about which most questions were directed. But he was also quizzed on Brexit, getting the media excited about his comments on transitional periods.

It was only on Saturday, however, when - courtesy the Financial Times - we reported that Brexit Secretary David Davis had "rebuffed" the City's hopes of a transitional deal. But now we have the Chancellor telling us that he favours a transitional deal between the UK and the European Union to "smooth the path to Brexit".

A "period of adjustment" after we leave, says Hammond, would give a "smoother transition" to withdrawal. Furthermore, he asserts, "thoughtful politicians" were now swinging behind an interim trade deal to cushion Brexit. Businesses and officials both in the UK and Europe both feel that a transition period would be "generally helpful".

Mr Hammond doesn't reveal how long he thinks a transitional period should last, although he acknowledges some businesses want two years or more. "I would expect this would be one of the areas, one of the process issues that we would want to discuss early on in the negotiations", he says.

According to the Wall Street Journal, these remarks represent "one of the clearest signals" to date that British officials are angling for a transitional deal as part of the overall strategy. But then we have The Sun pointing out the contradiction arising from Davis's comments. This makes one wonder precisely who is in charge, and who has Mrs May's ear.

In the Independent we then see Hammond cast as having "publicly challenged" Cabinet colleagues to delay completing Brexit, warning of the "risks to financial stability". The reference to "thoughtful politicians" is seen by the paper as a coded attack on supporters of a "hard Brexit" – in particular Liam Fox.

Thus are the legacy media able to indulge in their favourite pastime, narrating the "splits" between senior cabinet ministers – not too difficult to do when there is disagreement so publicly aired. But the media are getting themselves confused – as always - over the customs union, supposedly laying bare the "the huge bureaucratic costs of leaving the union".

The cue for this was Hammond warning of a "five-fold increase in customs inspections if goods had to be checked in the same way as imports from non-EU countries". That would require "quite significant physical infrastructure", with many more staff, better training and new IT systems, Hammond said.

With the Chancellor warning that this "could certainly add hundreds of millions of pounds to the operation of the customs service", this is taken by the idiot media as a facet of withdrawal from the customs union.

In fact, Hammond did not use the term "customs union" at all, referring only to "customs arrangements". But there seems not a single journalist in the country who knows the difference between a customs union and customs cooperation. The misinformation on the "customs union" is entirely of the media's making, more evidence of its inability to report Brexit issues coherently.

Meanwhile, we are told – in an unsourced assertion from "Brussels" – that transitional payments to retain access to the Single Market could cost around £4 billion a year. This is yet another indication that withdrawal is not going to be cost free, although there is no detail that can be followed through.

Lacking clear direction from Mrs May's office, though, any amount of drivel is trickling out of the ether, the latest entertainment for London-based Toryboys being the argument that the UK must be fully prepared to walk away with nothing to have any credibility in the negotiations to come.

This child-like appreciation of complex negotiations almost defies belief. This is a strategy that might serve a potential purchaser of a carpet in a Middle East souk, where a choice of vendors makes this a risk-free option. In the coming Brexit negotiations, however, failure is simply not an option. Both sides have to work together closely on areas of mutual interest after we have formally left. A confrontational, "take-it-or-leave-it" approach is simply not a sensible way of conducting these negotiations.

Sadly, the combined effect of overpowering ignorance and the teenage level of the debate is destroying any semblance of rationality. It has descended to such a level that, by comparison, even Lib-Dem leader Tim Farron is beginning to make sense. It really is that bad.

Farron is saying that these "mixed messages" are a sign of the confusion and division at the heart of this Conservative Brexit government. He argues that, "the Prime Minister must take back control of her own Cabinet and make it clear whether Hammond was speaking on behalf of the government or not".

The trouble is that, unless we can improve on the juvenile standard of debate that we are currently suffering, crucial issues will not be explored. Hammond speaks glibly of a transitional period, but he is offering no clarity on the nature of the end game he wishes to see.

And with the Brexit zealots arguing for a "clean break", this means that the debate is stalled over the issue of whether or not there should be a transitional period. In fact, the debate should be about what should be happening after the transitional period is over.

Here, it is pointless relying on the empty mantra of a "free trade deal", as nothing we can negotiate will afford the same degree of market access as we gain from participation in the Single Market. Vague talk of transitional periods is simply delaying the day when we must have serious discussions on this issue.

As it stands, though, we cannot progress until Mrs May takes charge. There is a limit to how much of this we can be expected to take. Government must speak with one voice.

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