Richard North, 24/05/2018  

Three events yesterday are of interest – some more than others. Firstly, and of least importance is the sanctimonious poseur, Dominic Cunnings, writing a blogpost on the "Brexit shambles", in which he complains about the failure of government to plan for Brexit.

This is the man who consciously rejected the idea of the leave campaign having a plan on the spurious assertion that the "no" campaign (as it was then) "is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal". Because of the complexity, he argued: "There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue".

That was back in June 2015, when I was working with the man, and Owen Paterson, setting up a campaign planning group for the expected referendum. (I answered his points line-by-line and, in particular, argued that an exit plan should be produced independently by the "no" campaign, so that:
… in the event of success and the Government is forced to negotiate our exit, the plan can be used as the yardstick against which its performance can be measured. If it delivers a less advantageous deal than we suggest is possible, we have reason to ask why.
It is typical of this man that he never answered my points – not then or even. For all his bluster, he's actually a coward, never standing up to argue his points. Like the creature of the dark that he truly is, he will go behind your back to wield the assassin's knife.

But, of course, he has now left the "leave" movement without the moral authority that would have come on campaigning on a specific plan, which would have given us the ability to hold the government's feet to the fire. In no small measure, Cummings himself is responsible for the "shambles" of which he complains.

Even back in June 2015, though, he had already decided to take the route of highlighting the money spent on contributions to the EU, suggesting that we could instead be "putting it into the NHS" – a decision which led directly to the £350 million a week lie on the side of the battle bus.

That brings us to the second event, a claim by a far more substantial figure than Cummings – none other than Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs – made to the Treasury select committee.

Thompson has it that the so-called "max fac" customs plan being touted by the lunatic fringe as the sole solution to the Irish question, Brexit and the price of land on Mars (slight exaggeration there), could cost the nation something like £20 billion a year. Rather pointedly, this comes to more that the £350 million a week that we would supposedly save from leaving the EU (£385 million, rounded up).

This is a sum that No.10 argues is "speculation", but it nevertheless points up the inconvenient fact that resumption of border controls once we leave the EU is not a cost-free exercise.

This comes on top of Carney's little escapade the day before yesterday, when he argued that we had lost two percent of GDP since the referendum – equivalent to £40 billion. That represents a loss in tax to the Treasury of about £15 billion – roughly equivalent to £300 million a week.

However much people may chose to dispute any individual set of figures, it must be fairly clear by now that the Cummings fantasy of saving money to give to the NHS ain't going to happen. If anything, the government is going to have serious difficulties maintaining current expenditure levels – particularly if it continues to make such a mess of Brexit.

And, with that, we arrive at the third event - a lecture delivered by Ivan Rogers (pictured) at the University of Glasgow, entitled: "The real post-Brexit options".

This is by far the most important of the events and one that has even attracted the attention of the failing Telegraph which gives its report on the lecture the headline: "Brexiteers' dreams of a golden age are buccaneering blather, says UK's former top EU diplomat".

The lecture itself is very long and best read in its entirety from the link provided. Any summary can hardly do it justice, as illustrated by the Telegraph's "take" in recording that Sir Ivan is calling "for a debate based on a clear-eyed evaluation of pros and cons, 'not on fantasies, or incoherent and muddled thinking'". 

This misses the bluntness of the message where Sir Ivan actually states: "… if we are to avoid miss-selling the British people on our post Brexit options, we need a far more honest debate based on clear, accurate, realistic accounts of the pros and cons of each of the options. Not on fantasies, or incoherent and muddled thinking". 

Never in a million years could the Telegraph even hint that the debate has been less than honest, especially given its own performance, which means there is also no reference to this gem, straight from the master himself on the way the chatterati have become obsessed with the customs union.

Just as we begin to see glimmerings of sense, Rogers says: "It is simply absurd",
… the extent to which the debate about whether to stay in some form of Customs Union with the EU after Brexit has now become, with the Irish border issue, the only apparent subject for discussion. We spent several decades in the Customs Union, with the political class evidently largely failing to understand what it was, how it worked, and what the linkage was to the Single Market. Now, suddenly, on leaving all manner of people who have never previously had a thought about it, opine as if experts on what the consequences of staying in a Customs Union are.
On Norway and Switzerland, the paper focuses Sir Ivan's criticism on Mrs May, stating that she had "erred in ruling out flexible relationships" of the nature provided by these countries. But in fact, the criticism was much more widely cast, as he stated:
People note, with justice, that neither Norway nor Switzerland took the Customs Union route. Though they say much less – or indeed nothing – about why the Norwegians took an EEA route – which as I say, they think the British political debate grossly distorts – or why the Swiss took the route of voluntary complete regulatory alignment across the full range of industrial goods: thus forfeiting sovereignty completely in that – huge – area, as one senior Swiss negotiator put it to me, when I was examining the Swiss option.

Ruling out these options before truly understanding what either meant, or whether variants on them might be viable, was, in my view, simply an act of folly.
Not anywhere does the paper see fit to discuss regulation, or the vexed subject of regulatory alignment, yet Sir Ivan frames the issue beautifully when he says:
The correct way to think of the EU in economic terms is as a “regulatory union”, with the appetite and ability to extend its rules extraterritorially: the so-called Brussels effect. The EU is a superpower in no other respect. But in this critical one, it is. And the idea that, on its own, the UK, can compete with massive regional trading blocs – the EU, the US, China – as a standard setter, on industrial goods to data, is an illusion.
Then, on regulatory alignment, he says:
... beyond tariffs as we have seen, the overwhelming bulk of industrial sectors with any export market interest, want, on standards, to remain convergent on EU ones, and within the EU's regulatory orbit. Indeed, outside both the EU and EEA, they are alarmed at the prospect of being excluded from the key private sector standard setting bodies, which sit outside the EU structures, but only have national members from within the EU and EEA.

This is, quite simply, a loss of control and sovereignty, not a gain. The company CEOs to whom I talk on post Brexit options sometimes wonder which planet Westminster inhabits, as it obsesses about theoretical sovereignty and abandons real sovereignty.
And, to conclude, Sir Ivan offers us a choice:
Domestically, we can have a 21st century thirty years war in which true path Leavers resume the campaign for the hardest possible clean break Brexit and reject any economic deal the EU could ever conceivably sign; and the hard Remainers say that everything bar remaining or reapplying for full membership is an unacceptable loss from the status quo. We can have two different "stab in the back" legends running concurrently. Given that, as the Swiss always correctly observe, no negotiation with the EU ever ends, and there is no permanent, completely stable end state, we could indeed actually have this sterile debate for ever…

But the sooner we realise there are no perfect choices, that there are serious trade-offs between sovereignty and market access interests and that we are best off if we make stone cold sober judgments of where sovereignty at the national level can be real and effective, and where it is purely notional and actually a material loss of control, the better for the UK.
Before he even gets there, though, Rogers has a few words, from which the Telegraph draws its headline, which could be directed personally to Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, noting that there will be winners and losers from any Brexit settlement. "In a post Brexit UK trade policy debate", he says, "we need to think hard, rigorously and honestly about this, and not produce buccaneering blather ".

In all, Rogers uses the word "honesty" (or its variations) eight times in his lecture, highlighting exactly what is missing from the Brexit debate. Like as not, it will stay missing but, yesterday at least, it was given an airing.

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