Richard North, 15/08/2017  

So far, the only thing that has stopped us from completely disowning the government's Brexit policy is the lack of detail. Although we have our dark suspicions, no one can be absolutely sure what its policy is. But, with the imminent publication of a dozen or so "position papers", this looks set to change.

Already, there have been a number of limited leaks, but nothing firm enough to be definitive. What we see, though, does not bode well. It appears the Government is about to commit openly to a series of proposals so devastatingly unrealistic that they don't have any chance of making it alive into the real world.

Already, we see from diverse rumours of the paper on the Irish border question which is going to have the Irish government vehemently opposed to the UK's plans and ready to veto everything in sight unless Mr Davis can come up with something better.

Sometime today, though, we expect to see a proposal for transitional arrangements on customs which, according to the Independent, will seek continued alignment with EU customs rules for an "interim period" after Brexit.

This, the paper has it, is Ministers telling Brussels they want a "temporary customs union", so that "little would change on the ground" in terms of trading with EU Member States. Apparently though, there is "absolutely no detail about how such a miraculous new system will be achieved".

In the first instance, if the Government is perpetuating the confusion between a customs union and the Single Market (something which even the Commission managed to do yesterday), then it will be in real trouble, expecting "frictionless trade" just by eliminating tariffs.

But equally problematical is that, to settle on a post-Brexit customs union with the EU will require a separate treaty. However, since trade is an exclusive EU competence, the deal can be made between the Commission and the UK, but it must be formally agreed by the Council (under QMV) and the European Parliament.

Keeping an agreement just a customs union level, though, will do little to smooth the passage of UK goods into EU Member State territories (or the EEA for that matter), and even then it remains to be seen whether the EU will commit the resources to agreeing a customs union with the UK for a temporary period that may be no longer than two years. And, of course, the UK cannot require the EU to agree. If it says "no", that is the end of the matter.

On the other hand, if a treaty is to go further, covering aspects of the single market, it could end up being a mixed agreement, with all that that entails in terms of unanimity and ratification. Any one country – such as Ireland – could block an agreement, either at signing or ratification stage.

For "frictionless trade", though, any treaty would have to go massively further than a mere customs union, as the Turks are well aware. They have a customs union with the EU and delays at the Kapikule Border Gate are routine and can extend to several days for vehicles waiting to cross.

As to the longer-term arrangements, the Guardian has it that the government is examining two options.

We are either to have a highly streamlined new arrangement "in which the UK would manage a new customs border" but would seek to make any checks minimal; or a new customs partnership, which would see Britain replicate the EU's approach so closely that it would "negate the need for a customs border".

The former, if the EU agreed, would require considerable organisation and expenditure on infrastructure, with the appointment of thousands of additional officials. How far it could progress would be up to the EU to decide, and it is unlikely that customs controls on the EU side would be completely waived. Then, there are the veterinary and other sanitary checks, which need special provision.

As to the second option, this seems to perpetuate the myth that all the UK has to do is maintain regulatory convergence and goods will flow freely. From all appearances, there continues to be this total blindness as to the consequences of the UK leaving the EU and assuming "third country" status.

Then, there is the massive issue of the continuation of the trade deals with other third countries, where the EU's approval will be needed before they can be allowed to continue. Continuity can be sought, but it is by no means automatic.

Predictably, before they have even been published, the position papers are taking a hammering from the opposition. Keir Starmer says they are "incoherent and inadequate proposals designed to gloss over deep and continuing divisions within the cabinet". But then, he would say that, wouldn't he.

Returning to the Irish, Sinn Féin and SDLP describe them as "unworkable" and "back-of-envelope", although we will have to wait until Wednesday before the full horror becomes visible.

Nevertheless, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood is dismissive of some of the expected content of the paper. "Advance leaks indicate that Theresa May's government intends to stubbornly stick by its hard Brexit position of leaving the customs union and the single market, threatening a hard border in Ireland", he says.

"Back of the envelope proposals on "very advanced CCTV cameras" at the border don't even enter into the realm of a serious suggestion or a credible solution", he adds. "It is almost laughable that it took the British government over a year to come up with it. Anyone who knows anything about the Irish border knows it's a non-runner".

Without yet seeing any of the detail, though, one gets the impression that we are, as a nation, on the brink. With nearly fourteen months since the referendum, the government is demonstrating that it has learned perilously little and is as far now from a coherent exit plan as it ever was.

But what is even more disturbing is the apparent inability of government ministers to learn anything, or to understand the hurdles they are up against.

Further, bolstered by their Tory fan boys, and the increasingly bizarre statements from back-bench "Ultras", they are demonstrating a lack of understanding of the nature of the EU, leading them to the belief that their completely impracticable ideas will be accepted by the EU.

Eastwood's dismissal may have very much wider application than just the Irish border issue, marking the entire spectrum of Brexit policy proposals our as a "non-runner". From the brink, where we are now, we are about to see the UK tilt over the edge of that cliff, and plummet to economic chaos.

And yet, these people still think they know what they are doing.

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