Richard North, 02/10/2017  
 


I really do not know how many times it needs to be said before it finally sinks in at the higher reaches of politics, but once again one has to record that the UK will not reach a final agreement on our future relationship with the EU by 29 March 2019.

As Michel Barnier reminded us on 21 September, in the year remaining for negotiations, the parties are expected only to conclude an agreement on the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal, subsequently to define the length and precise conditions of a short transition period and to begin scoping our future relationship, in parallel to the finalisation of the withdrawal agreement.

But, if to begin scoping on our future relationship is all we can realistically achieve in the time available, this has clearly not penetrated the consciousness of Teresa May. Despite being prime minister an in control of the Brexit talks, it would appear that she is still under the impression that we can conclude an agreement by the end of the Article 50 process.

This much became apparent during Mrs May's interview on yesterday's Marr Show when the Prime Minister sought to explain the "implementation period" to Andrew Marr.

"We will leave the European Union in March 2019", she told Marr, "but at that point we will have an agreement as to what the future relationship, the future partnership between us and the European Union will be". That, she said, is "what you might call the end state, where we're going to get to".

Then, she said, "in order to ensure that individuals, people and businesses don't have a sudden cliff edge, that they have time to adjust to that, do practical things like IT system changes and so forth, we will have that two year implementation period".

There is absolutely no ambiguity here. Mrs May is quite certain that we have an agreement on our future relationship by the time we leave the EU, and that this will be the "end state". Thus, all that will be needed, in her term, is over a period of two years gradually to implement the agreed provisions.

Needless to say, this direct contradiction of the EU's chief negotiator completely passed by Andrew Marr. Not for the first time, he missed the point and failed to pick up what amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the Prime Minister.

It is a measure of the inadequacy of this BBC presenter that what he missed is of staggering proportions. Here we are, six months into the formal negotiations, with the talks stalled, and we have the Prime Minister seemingly unable to grasp one of the most basic points arising from them.

Standing back from this, Marr's lack of response tends to obscure the enormity of what Mrs May was revealing. But there can be no disguising. We have a Prime Minister who, on one of the most important political issues of the day – if not the most important – simply doesn't know what she is talking about.

Once again, one must recall that, on 17 January 2017, during her Lancaster House speech, Mrs May spoke of reaching "an agreement about our future partnership by the time the 2-year Article 50 process has concluded", followed by "a phased process of implementation".

When we come to the Florence speech, however – the day after Barnier had talked about scoping – she seemed to change tack, acknowledging that the EU was not "legally able to conclude an agreement with the UK as an external partner while it is itself still part of the European Union".

She also accepted that such an agreement on the future partnership would require the appropriate legal ratification, "which would take time", in which case she proposed a "period of implementation" after the UK leaves the EU.

But there was a subtle change here. Having recognised that the future partnership agreement would not have been concluded, during this version of the implementation period, "access to one another's markets should continue on current terms and Britain also should continue to take part in existing security measures".

In other words, as described, this wasn't an implementation period at all. It was an interim or "stop-gap" arrangement to tide us over until we had concluded an agreement.

Here, changing the meaning of the term amounts to an abuse of the English language, and she introduced further confusion when she talked of how long the period should be. This, she said, would be "determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin that future partnership".

When one dissects this statement, Mrs May is in effect saying that she will have an "implementation period" which will allow time to "prepare and implement the new processes and new systems". This, therefore, is not one period, but two - as illustrated below. There has to be a period to prepare for (i.e., negotiate) the new processes and systems, and then the implementation. 

She thus goes completely wrong in believing that the framework, "for this strictly time-limited period",  can be agreed under Article 50, during which time "the existing structure of EU rules and regulations" would apply. She is blurring the distinction between what are actually two periods. And the "framework" can surely apply only to the negotiation phase.

With her remarks to Marr, therefore, she is back where she started with her Lancaster House speech, implementing her "end state" agreement. Yet, during that period, she tells Marr, "there's no change for people". This is so that they can "adjust against a background of certainty of what the rules are going to be". We will, she say, be "abiding by the framework that we've got".

If you are now thoroughly confused, you are not alone. And at the centre of this confusion is the most confused person of them all – Theresa May. She is all over the place, contradicting herself and failing completely to understand how the trade negotiations have to work.  

As to the Phase One issues, upon which resolution the discussion on the trade negotiations and the "implementation period" depend, Mrs May does not mention them. Neither does Andrew Marr. These are the new "elephant in the room". They are too difficult, so they are ignored - even though there can be no progress until they are resolved.

Booker, in his much-truncated Sunday column picks up on this, noting that no one has yet offered any clue as to how, in practice, issues such as the Irish question could be settled. Instead of detail, we get aspiration and an affirmation of good intentions, taking us down the road to Hell. "I'm working to get a deal, Andrew", May says on the Marr Show, dropping in the first name to establish a rapport with her tormentor.

Getting this deal "is what the whole focus of government is". So, she tells Marr. "Let's put our efforts into that. Let's do everything that we can, not just to get a deal, but to get a deal that works for the UK and I believe that the deal that works for the UK will also work for the EU", she says.

What is ultimately troubling, though, is that Mrs May is "optimistic that we can get that deal", simply on the basis that "the deal that works for the UK will also work for the EU". Never mind the Phase One issues. In Mrs May's book, all we have to do is propose something that "works for us", and the EU will roll over and accept it.

To give him his due, Marr responded by saying: "Can I put it to you that I'm asking you very straightforward questions and you're not answering them". He didn't really get an answer to that question either.

But, answers or not, there are consequences. The only reason May is still in office, many believe, is that no potential successor in the Conservative Party can garner enough support from a terminally split party to replace her. 

But that leads to the "terrifying possibility", which Booker advances at the end of his piece. We are heading for such an unholy mess of Brexit that we could end up being ruled by that lunatic gang in Brighton, who know far less how to save Britain from catastrophe than even our present lot. 

Either way spells disaster. 






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