Richard North, 24/01/2018  

It really is quite remarkable how much space the media are prepared to devote to that odious creature, Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson – more than adequately illustrating how debased contemporary news values have become.

A Foreign Secretary – manifestly inadequate at handling his own portfolio – should not be pontificating about NHS funding. And then to suggest that there should be a £5 billion "dividend" from Brexit after March next year is little short of fatuous.

At this stage, it would appear that the UK government is planning to continue its EU contributions during the 21-month transition period, leaving no savings for redistribution. The Foreign Secretary is chasing after a pot of gold at the end of an imaginary rainbow.

Despite that, The Times is telling us that Johnson "is determined to press the case for a Brexit dividend" and allies are making it clear "that he would not back down".

Yet not even NHS managers support the proposition. Tying NHS funding to Brexit, they say, risks distracting from the need to find a long-term source of extra money for health. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, rejects the idea of short-term fixes and argues for a "clear vision" for future funding.

The only sensible response to Mr Johnson's stance, therefore, is to treat it with derision – yet more evidence of the inability of this man to understand what is happening in the Brexit process. His blathering should be treated with the contempt it entirely deserves, as indeed it was by the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues, when he was "pretty much" humiliated.

Much the same can be said of another senior Tory, Iain Duncan Smith, who is tilting at the CBI complaining that this body is "intent on demanding that the Government ignore the clearly expressed will of the British people".

In Duncan Smith's view, in the referendum campaign all the leaders of the "remain" campaign made it clear that voting to leave would mean we would exit the customs union and the Single Market. And then, he says, the public voted overwhelmingly in the election for parties whose policy was to leave both.

Setting aside the disingenuous nature of the election argument, the issue at large is (certainly as far as we are concerned) not whether we should remain in the Single Market for all time – and we are not at all concerned to stay in the customs union. The point is whether we should stay in the Single Market until such time as we have been able to broker a long-term settlement.

As such, it is perfectly reasonable of the CBI to protect the economic position and the interests of its members until such time as the politicians can get their own acts together and come up with a comprehensive, long-term plan for our relationship with the EU. It is hardly appropriate to complain about the CBI seeking to protect its position in the absence of any firm arrangements for Brexit coming out of Downing Street.

Pointing to even broader problems is another unreconstructed "ultra", Lord Lawson. He has been holding forth about "undemocratic officials" who, he avers, will do everything to stop Brexit because it goes "so fundamentally against the grain". "Bureaucrats", he says, "by their very nature loathe radical change of any kind".

But, he adds, "they equally realise their constitutional duty to accept the leadership of the politicians, of the Government, of the elected Government - that is our constitutional position. And if they get the real lead, then they will follow it".

This is an undisguised snipe at the Prime Minister who is taking fire from all sides about her lack of resolution on Brexit. Described by a colleague as a "belief-free zone", Lawson's comments are another pointer to the fact that she has consistently failed to deliver a credible vision for a post-Brexit UK.

The lack of vision is also noted by the EU negotiators, who have constantly referred to the inability of the UK government to set out precisely (or even in general terms) what it expects from its post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

It is perhaps far too ambitious to expect politicians to focus on the long term and most seem to have a limited grasp even of what the short-term has to offer. A poll of MPs by Ipsos Mori, for instance, found that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Conservative MPs thought that free movement was unacceptable during a transition period.

This is very much the opinion of Rees-Mogg and other "ultra" MPs, who seem to have a limited grasp of the realities. As far as it goes, the "vassal state" transitional offer from the EU (wrongly described as a Norway-style deal) is an indivisible package which links the "four freedoms" to market access. If freedom of movement (one of the four "freedoms") is rejected, then the EU will restrict market access, with dire consequences for the UK economy.

On the other hand, we are seeing 90 percent of Labour MPs rejecting Corbyn's claim that the UK must leave the Single Market after Brexit, although – as we saw from McDonnell - they seem to be thinking in somewhat vague terms of market access, rather than conformity with the Single Market acquis and all that that entails.

Nowhere, it seems, is there any room for reality – the ingress of the real world where there are set parameters and consequences for divergence. In their unreal world, our importunate politicians seem imbued with the idea that they can pick and choose bits from the Brexit bag and assemble their own preferred plans – whence the EU, presumably, will roll over and give them everything they want.

Therein lies the crux of the failure of the UK politico-media nexus to engage sensibly with the Brexit debate. Yet it is what the EU will and will not accept that will determine the shape of the exit settlement and any transitional process. Nothing will happen unless it is agreed by the EU through its own procedures.

As to those procedures, the EU itself is constrained by its own treaty provisions, but decisions taken are also influenced the political imperatives of its member states and, to an extent, by the ambitions of the European Commission and the other institutions.

In terms of how the EU sets negotiating objectives and then responds to the UK, these factors are far more important than the wishes of UK politicians. In fact, it would be fair to say that what our politicians might want are matters of supreme unimportance to EU negotiators.

By contrast, what so many commentators completely fail to understand is that the writ of the EU, its negotiators and institutions, extends only to the provisions of EU treaties and subordinate matters. The EU, as a sole entity, does not have control over the implementation of the EEA Agreement, which is a wholly separate treaty with its own sets of rules.

As a fully paid-up member of the EEA, the UK can invoke its provisions without having to rely on the permission or assent of EU institutions. And, where it comes to variations in the treaties, these are instigated by the EEA Council and Joint Committee - in which the EU is only one voice. Further, should the UK shift from the EU to Efta membership, it can invoke those provisions which are specific to Efta states and beyond the reach of the EU.

In other words, if the UK so desired – and had the wit to do so – it could pursue relationships with the EU via EEA mechanisms without being tied to the Article 50 process. This is something I have mentioned is previous blogposts (for instance this one) and, in my view, the reluctance to use these mechanisms represents one of the most egregious failures of the UK government in the Brexit process.

There, probably, we see in the UK government a reflection of the ignorance of its senior members and its negotiators. There is no evidence whatsoever that they have any appreciation of the role of the EEA institutions and their potential value to the UK. If they do have any awareness, they have kept it remarkably quiet.

From our perspective, however, there is the old saw – you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. We can bring matters to the attention of government but we cannot make it take note of them or act upon them. A government which is determined on procedural or economic suicide is still master in its own house.

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