Richard North, 24/06/2019  

One can completely understand the legacy media homing in on the personality issues attendant on the Tory leadership contest. These remain in the comfort zones of the hackerati, and relieve them from the responsibility of addressing policy issues – which are quite clearly beyond their capability to deal with.

As good an example of this as any is the Liam Fox interview on the Marr show, where Fox is talking complete gibberish about Jeremy Hunt's plans for Brexit.

All one has to do is recognise a few key, unalterable elements. The first is that EU officials have made it abundantly clear, in terms that are beyond equivocation, that there will be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The second, inexorably linked with the first, is that in the absence of either the parliamentary ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, an agreed extension to the Article 50 period or the unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notification by the UK government, we drop out of the EU on 31 October without a deal.

Thirdly, the "colleagues" have also made it clear that they are not prepared to consider an Article 50 time extension for the purpose of reopening negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. This necessarily follows from their determination not to entertain renegotiation in the first place.

Once one factors in these elements, and treats them as unalterable, the consequence of planning to leave by 31 October – as set out by both leadership candidates – becomes abundantly clear.

Since neither will be seeking to re-present the Withdrawal Agreement to parliament for ratification, neither have indicated an intention to revoke the Article 50 notification or intend to seek a time extension, and since neither will be able to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, it follows as night follows day that we will drop out of the EU on 31 October without a deal – regardless of who is chosen to become the new prime minister.

Yet, despite this, Jeremy Hunt (according to Dr Fox) seems convinced that the "colleagues" will entertain a renegotiation, while Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is dwelling in the outer reaches of Cloud Nine. From his own lips, he talks of disaggregating "the elements of the otherwise defunct Withdrawal Agreement".

Johnson would thus cherry-pick parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, reserving the payment of the £39 billion and then negotiating a Free Trade Agreement "in the implementation period", after we’ve come out on 31 October. Meanwhile, he is relying on GATT Article XXIV to deliver tariff-free trade with the EU.

This situation reminds me of a story my then best friend told me, many years ago just after he had graduated from university and got his first job with a firm which designed and installed air conditioning systems for office blocks.

He had encountered a situation familiar to anyone who has had the unenviable task of planning utilities for a building, where the architects – as they so often do – leave insufficient space for the essential functions.

These were the days when "blueprints" really were blueprints, and my friend found himself in a desperate meeting where, against an impossible deadline, all the designers had been called together to resolve a problem of where to put essential plant in a space that simply wasn't big enough to contain it.

Gazing at the blueprint, my friend told me he had a sudden moment of inspiration. He stabbed his finger on the plan at what appeared to be an unused area, which seemed more than sufficient to accommodate that plant. And, for a moment, he was the hero of the hour, until a kindly and more seasoned colleague pointed out that he had located the plant outside the building, suspended twenty floors above the adjoining street, resting on nothing but thin air.

Apart from that, my friend said later, his was a perfectly reasonable idea which actually solved the problem – an observation that has stayed with me for my entire working life. It doesn't matter how complex any problem might be, if you ignore the constraints, anything is possible. The insoluble ceases to be, and the difficulties simply melt away.

This, it seems, is what our leadership candidates are doing. Hunt, on the one hand, ignores the constraint concerning the renegotiation and assumes that, despite everything that has been said on the matter, he can waft over to Brussels and renegotiate the deal. And if you ignore the fact that the deal is not open to renegotiation, this is a perfectly reasonable stance.

As for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, his determination to ignore the constraints is somewhat more extravagant. For a start, he assumes that elements of the Withdrawal Agreement can be disaggregated. They can't. The Agreement comes as a single, unalterable package – a question of all or nothing.

But Mr Johnson, apart from anything else, wants to take out the financial settlement – which immediately voids the Agreement. And without the Agreement, there is no "implementation period" giving the continuity that the UK needs while our future relationship with the EU is negotiated.

As for Article XXIV, if we were to enjoy the "implementation period", we wouldn't need it, which rather points to a discontinuity in the thought processes of Mr Johnson – something that does not really surprise.

In his discussion with Andrew Marr, however, Dr Fox points out that, if we leave the European Union without a deal, the EU will apply tariffs to the UK. "You can only have exemptions as described", he explains, "if you already have a trade agreement to go to. And clearly if we leave without a deal it's self-evident we don't have that agreement. So Article 24 doesn't hold in that circumstance".

Back in Muppet land, though, Iain Duncan Smith and David Campbell Bannerman have already conceded that point about Article XXIV, stating that:
… if the UK and EU go to the WTO jointly and say that we have agreed to move to a full and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (what we term "SuperCanada" – that is better than the EU-Canada FTA) – that keeps tariffs at zero with no real change to other members, the WTO is happy to allow us a period of time to keep tariffs and quotas at preferential rates.
We can, this pair says, "keep tariffs at zero for as long as the two partners need to negotiate the full works: that comprehensive FTA. Legally this could be up to ten years, but most are two to three years to negotiate".

Yet, back in the real world, there could just be a few slight glitches. In this scenario, the UK has just walked away from the Withdrawal Agreement (and the political declaration that goes with it), thus refusing to pay the financial settlement.

This is at a time when the newly appointed Commission has just started work, with its own pressing priorities. Yet it is supposed that it will drop everything to draw up a proposal under Article 218 for trade negotiations with the UK, and present this to the European Council. The Council will then post-haste issue a mandate for the Commission then to conduct urgent talks with the UK to conclude in principle a free trade agreement.

With this concluded in record time, the Commission must then draw up an interim agreement, with a plan and detailed schedule, which must then be approved by the European Council and the European Parliament, before in turn being approved by the contracting parties of the EU, all so that the UK can trade tariff-free with the EU.

And since the original trade negotiations can't be conducted until the UK has left the EU, somehow all this is supposed to happen after 31 October, yet allow for tariff-free trade without a break.

Even should the EU be inclined to open up negotiations – and that cannot be taken for granted – it would be many months, if not years, before the EU was ready to put an interim plan on the table. As always, the Muppets are living in a parallel universe.

But then, if possible, it gets worse, with the pair asserting that services and standards, "will be a part of the future trade deal but will be along the lines of 'Mutual Recognition' of standards or 'enhanced equivalence', not on a harmonisation or rule-taking basis".

Yet mutual recognition, as I have already pointed out, is not a practical proposition, and neither is "enhanced equivalence". How can anyone possibly think that the EU will tolerate either from the UK, giving it an easier ride than its own Member States, from which it demands full harmonisation where applicable? The idea is absurd.

What we are seeing, therefore, is the political equivalent of suspending plant in thin air, twenty floors above street level. Both candidates are ignoring the constraints, fabricating fantasy solutions that simply cannot be implemented. That the media is not pointing this out tells its own story.

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