Richard North, 17/07/2017  

I suppose the MinBrex spinmeisters must have been a little ticked off this weekend. Having got Jeremey Heywood to tell us how everything is wonderfully under control, the perfidious media – in the form of the Observer - completely ignore him and opt for Gus O'Donnell, a former cabinet secretary, to convey the message on Brexit.

This former head of the civil service – eschewing the current propaganda line – is telling us that squabbles, unrealistic expectations and overburdened administration means UK is in for a "rough ride", with Mrs May facing the prospect of crashing out of the European Union.

O'Donnell is actually given space for his own authored piece which is headed: "Brexit is a massive venture. There's no way these changes will happen smoothly". This, of course, is not only something we could have said. It is  exactly what we have been saying with increasing intensity ever since Mrs May took the disastrous step in January of deciding to walk away from the Single Market.

Needless to say, O'Donnell doesn't bring anything new to the table. His is an opinion piece and that is basically what we get. But when you're the great and the good, you can get away with doing that. You don't have to sully your brain with irritating little things like evidence or supporting material.

However, it is helpful to have that opinion, especially when the man says, "we need to start being honest about the complexity of the challenge". Presumably, he is addressing his own kind, because we (as in and friends) have been saying this for years, long before it became fashionable to do so.

O'Donnell does remind us, though, that we keep being told by [some of] our politicians that Brexit can be delivered easily. To that, he retorts: "This isn't correct". Believe me, he adds, "we are embarking on a massive venture. There is no way all these changes will happen smoothly and absolutely no chance that all the details will be hammered out in 20 months".

This is so obvious that one could wonder why it is even necessary to state it, except that, as recently as Tuesday, we had David Davis declaring that, "It will be quite tough to get customs in the right place in two years but it's doable with a bit of money".

According to this deluded man, the only delays in the system are the Continental customs authorities. This is why he thinks "a transition period [is needed]". And, on this at least, O'Donnell agrees, but he then adds that, "the time needed does not diminish by pretending that this phase is just about 'implementing' agreed policies as they will not all be agreed".

Here, then, we're getting a little streak of realism. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst the Muppets to treat the transition period as a "magic bullet", something we can just slot into place to tide us over while all the awkward little details are agreed.

This ain't so and, as we have repeatedly said, outside the framework of the Efta/EEA option, a transitional agreement will need changes to the EU treaties, requiring a full-blown secession treaty.

When I start hearing the likes of David Davis – or any of the great and the good for that matter – talking seriously about a secession treaty and what that actually involves, I will begin to accept that these people might be getting a grip of the situation. But, as it stands, bland assurances that everything is under control simply lack credibility.

Sadly, rationality and sensible analysis are taking a back seat. The argument has divided on ideological grounds. Thus, it is the likes of the Observer which are giving Gus O'Donnell an airing, while the Telegraph and the "ultra" supporters increasingly dwell in the land of the fayries.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Hammond – an earlier adopter of the transitional period idea (and only about three years behind us) – is being joined by Liam Fox, who is buying into the idea of a time-limited period.

None of these people give any indication, though, that they have the first idea of what is involved in securing a transitional agreement. Yet, in the work we undertook to complete Flexcit, we concluded that a full-blown agreement in the Article 50 two-year period was never a realistic proposition.

To that effect, an interim or transitional agreement was the only viable option, but then it was never going to be easy – or quick. Even using the off-the-shelf EEA option, we wanted to delay invoking Article 50 for as long as possible, to give us time to sort out the preliminaries, still making it a tight squeeze to get things done in time.

On that basis, aside from the housekeeping issues and the High Politics, most everything could be vectored through the EEA Joint Committee, without the time-consuming procedural constraints of the Article 50 negotiations. And remaining in the EEA significantly reduced the burden of issues to be agreed. Therefore, I have no confidence in the government's ability to secure even a transitional agreement within the next 20 months.

At least, though, the Financial Times is beginning to look at some of the specifics. And while not approaching them in anything like the detail we have done, their journalists, Chris Giles and Alex Barker, have come to much the same conclusions, citing industry as warning of "massive disruption" and plunge in output if talks collapse.

As it happens, I had a long talk with Mr Giles about this piece and he is kind enough to quote me at the end. I make the point about the economic effect of a crash-out being generally understated as only the effects on exports tend to be counted. However, there is also a significant effect arising from the disruption of imports.

Then there are such things as the pertubation multiplier, about which you will find references only in this blog – despite the damage it might cause.

For the first time also, outside this blog and the Booker column, we see in the Financial Times, reference to the Border Inspection Post problem, with yet another article warning that the UK "must accept its post-Brexit status as a third country".

This again is something on which this blog has led the way, alongside our support for Single Market retention, which was recently noted by journalist William Davison, in a long and interesting piece of his own.

On the other side of the turf, though, we have Simon Wolfson, Next boss and prominent Vote Leave donor, doing a catch-up. He has woken up to the strange absence in the government of a "clear vision on Brexit", observing that the vote, of itself, does not guarantee failure or success of the enterprise. This, we might have suggested before the referendum yet we still get the likes of Iain Martin, in all their pompous splendour, telling the world that no one listens to the Norths because we are so "unpleasant". This is from a man who, unlike Chris Giles and William Davison, has never spoken to me personally on Brexit and, as far as I am aware, has never publicly cited any of our work.

These people will steal our ideas when it suits them, most often – as Pete notes, misrepresenting it because they don't understand it. But when former adversaries such as Oliver Norgrove are coming on board, the Iain Martins of this world are themselves looking shallow and isolated.

Effectively, we also have Gus O'Donnell on board – at least in spirit. Should he need any substance to support his claims, we have done the work and published the reports which back them up. This is a far cry from the opinionated and error-strewn Telegraph which has become an embarrassment, one of its columnist still not understanding the Turkish customs union with the EU.

This is paper that would die of shame, if it had any. But along with its "ultra" friends and government minister, it is content to occupy the swamp of its own ignorance. Alongside that, we seem to have a government which itself is "tearing itself apart", unable to agree as to the line to take.

Disorganised, riven with collective delusions and misinformed by its media allies, it is unlikely that the Government can make any progress on Brexit. But, when chaos does supervene, we will at least know where to come looking.

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few