Richard North, 26/11/2019  

Yesterday, in another of his lectures – this one in Glasgow University – Sir Ivan Rogers argued that, for all the talk about "getting Brexit done", Johnson was "basically replicating the strategy errors of 2016 and 2017 which brought his predecessor down".

In the coming trade negotiations – far more complex than those which brought us the withdrawal agreement – there are "very big elephant traps" and Johnson "is currently digging them deeper". Having set himself such a tight deadline, he will be desperate to declare his victory, giving the EU considerable leverage which they will exploit to extract major concessions from the UK.

For all that, Rogers also struggles to see Johnson as prime minister of a new government wishing to extend. And it is not primarily that this "would involve a screeching U-turn from what he is promising the public and Party now".

Rather, it is most unlikely that, just three months after the potential start of negotiations – which are not expected to begin until the end of March - Johnson will already have reached the conclusion by June that the following six months will not suffice.

The new prime minister will also know that the moment he extends, he will be straight into a new budgetary negotiation about the UK's contribution over the one or two years of an extension. This might involve eating lots of words.

He further knows that the Right, which will have been strengthened inside his Party if he has won the election, will decry an extension as an intolerable prolongation of vassalage.

But, underlying this whole speech is the assumption that Johnson will have boxed himself in, making a series of negotiating errors which will allow the EU fully to exploit UK desperation to get something over the new line.

Yet, for all that, there is a scenario where Johnson will allow this to happen as a deliberate act of policy. He might know that a "quick and dirty" deal, with precious little substance beyond zero tariffs and quotas flies in the face of economic reality, because the vast majority of the barriers to trade which we need to keep dismantled are the non-tariff ones.

He might also know that, because of the major disparity in the balance of trade in goods in favour of the EU, and despite the obvious fact that a tariffs and quotas only deal – which does not permit any significant trade in services - is obviously more in, say, French and German interests than our own.

But, as the Tory Right is so keen to point out, trade is not an issue for governments. It is an exchange between a willing buyer and a willing seller and occurs when the announced price is mutually agreeable to both. In the simplistic dogma of the Right, trade prospers best when governments back away and allow market forces untrammelled freedom to work.

What one must accept of Johnson is that, while he is ignorant – and profoundly so on matters of trade – he is not stupid. Neither is he devoid of political agendas, and places the "dynamic free market" at the heart of his ideology.

To this man, the EU is a dirigiste, inflexible construct, producing "protectionist" and "intrusive" regulations which do nothing but hamper trade. In his eyes, they have no merit at all, acting as a drag on the UK's role as the "intellectual, technical, artistic and cultural powerhouse of Europe". Thus, he says, "If we can get Brexit done, and get it done right, there is a huge tide of investment waiting to come".

Therefore, what Ivan Rogers dismisses as "diplomatic amateurism dressed up domestically as boldness and decisiveness", leading to an eventual failure in the coming round of negotiations – may in fact may be a considered strategy where trade with the EU is to be allowed to wither on the vine.

As such, the UK is hardly disadvantaged by an uneven trade agreement, where much of the advantage lies with the EU, if there is little trade between the parties. And, as Johnson's manifesto makes it clear, his interests lie with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan – and even India. He has no plans to foster trade contact with the EU and is merely going through the motions.

Rogers himself acknowledges that the publicly avowed Johnson intention is "to be much more distant from the EU", and "to adopt a model on both goods and services which is substantially more divergent from EU rules and standards". In other words, he does not want the so-called "high alignment" model.

That is, after all, says Rogers, the whole basis of the appeal his redraft of the Political Declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement had to the Conservative Right that Mrs May's deal did not. May's version, in their view, kept us too closely aligned with EU regulation – a position that was "wholly unacceptable".

Johnson's stance, therefore, "liberates us to diverge much more radically" which, for many, was the whole point of exiting. Rogers thinks (almost certainly rightly) that they believe that the main benefits of Brexit are the greater capacity to deregulate, even if they don't wish to say that during an election campaign, which currently seems to be about both main parties making lavish promises to spend money we haven't got.

Rogers thus surmises that the deregulatory model does not have any real appeal to the great British public but he also argues that "deregulatory purpose is now central – from food hygiene to financial services, from environmental to social regulation to state aids – to the EU perception of what Brexit is all about".

If that much has percolated into the psyche of Brussels, this says Rogers, "is a further reason why the next phase will be more difficult, not less". But it can also be taken as evidence that a new Johnson government is indifferent to the idea of forging a comprehensive trade deal with the EU.

As I said, Johnson may be ignorant but he is not stupid, and he doesn't need Ivan Rogers – or anyone else for that matter - to tell him that the deregulation rhetoric is not going to smooth a path to a meeting of minds. The more Johnson seeks to diverge from EU regulatory norms, the more difficult the negotiations will become – yet it is in precisely that direction he is taking us.

Rogers observes, for instance, that there is just NO (his capitals) escape from balls-achingly technical and lengthy negotiations on rules of origin (which take up 150 pages of the EU-Canada agreement) – and much else besides – if you deliberately leave your erstwhile trade bloc.

He thus makes the stunningly obvious point that "there will be no new comprehensive trade deal without such provisions". He fears that the reality of Free Trade Agreements, and the really hard grind of removing cross border barriers to trade – especially the non-tariff ones which are economically much the most important, but politically, much the least talked about – is simply not the same as free trade sloganising.

Yet, all we are getting from Johnson is sloganising. Of the 61 references to Brexit in the 64-page Conservative Party Manifesto, 33 (more than half) referred to getting Brexit done. Nine references were to "after Brexit" while six were to "post" Brexit scenarios – essentially articulating the same thing. Three references were to delivering Brexit, while five were to the "opportunities" or "benefits" of Brexit.

Thus, if Johnson is not making the slightest attempt to meet the EU half way, we have to conclude that he has no interest in what they have to offer. For his part, Rogers warns the EU "to think more clearly and strategically about its future relations with the UK, because things "can get a lot worse". But it begins to look pretty obvious that, if that is the case, it is because Johnson wants it to be so.

And there, Rogers makes his own special plea. Our leaders, he says, "need to be honest" about where they are going, "unless they are intent on continuing to tell people – wrongly – that we can escape supranational adjudication and enforcement, and end free movement of people, and still enjoy all the current benefits of access to the single market".

If their post-Brexit model is a plethora of bilateral free trade deals struck by a Britain with its own autonomous trade policy, Rogers then observes, it seems to be extraordinarily perverse to be making the case as to why preferential deals are absolutely essential for the UK with every major market, except easily its largest one: the EU.

And therein lies yet another clue. There seems to be a determination at large to distance ourselves from the EU – for good or bad. And, while this is not an openly declared agenda, it would explain why Johnson has absolutely no intention of extending the transition period past December 2020.

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