Richard North, 23/06/2021  

This is the fifth anniversary of the day we went to the polls and set in train the events which were to take us out of the European Union.

Sadly, though, that anniversary gives us little cause for cheer. The intervening years have been littered by incompetence across the board, from politicians to officials and trade representatives, leaving the public confused and generally unenthusiastic about the process.

A recent YouGov poll on the issue asked respondents whether they think Brexit has gone well or badly since the EU transition period ended, yielding unhappy results.

Of those in the positive category, only six percent think Brexit has gone "very well", with 23 percent prepared to concede that it has gone "fairly well". Some 28 percent are sitting on the fence, answering that Brexit has gone neither well nor badly; 20 percent mark the process as having gone "fairly badly", and 23 percent think it has gone "very badly".

What are particularly interesting here are the extremes: six percent "very well", as against 23 percent "very badly". But even if we contrast the sum of the positive and negative views, (29 vs 43 percent), we get a net -14 percent satisfaction rating.

That does not, of course, measure people's views whether leaving the EU was good or bad. Most people's views, it seems, are unchanged on that from the time of the referendum. But when it comes to the execution of the process, there is a clear vote of no confidence.

It can come as no surprise, though, that this is the case. From even before the referendum, the process has been mismanaged, with multiple missed opportunities to prepare for our departure, culminating in Vote Leave's refusal to endorse an exit plan, under the tutelage of its campaign director, Dominic Cummings.

This is the man who decided to "swerve" round the issue on the basis that any plan would be too contentious, thus missing the point of decades of campaigning. The objective was to get us out of the EU, not just to win the referendum meaning that, at best, Cummings left the job half done.

Ironically, this is the same man who complained that the government didn't have a Covid plan, yet he was quite content to embark on one of the most significant political changes of the century without any real idea of what might happen if he won the referendum.

Cummings, as I recall, once accused me of not understanding politics – which doesn't sound so convincing from a failed political advisor who is largely responsible for setting us down the path of a botched Brexit which is attracting consistent votes of no-confidence.

The only consolation he might have is that he might have is that he has had considerable help in delivering the botch that is Brexit, not least from the recently ennobled David Frost, who was responsible for the day-to-day negotiations which brought us the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA.

Coincidentally – one assumes – he was giving evidence on Brexit to the foreign affairs committee yesterday, telling MPs that "Brexiters" did not expect UK's relationship with EU to be as difficult now as it is. People who campaigned for leave, he says, would have been "surprised" to be told the relationship with the EU would be as "relatively difficult as it is now".

Despite evidently lacking even a scintilla of self-awareness, this must be the only man on the planet with so much direct experience of the Brexit process and so little understanding of it. Given the extraordinary behaviour of the UK negotiating team and the politicians behind them, it's actually more surprising that anyone in the EU at a political level is still talking to us.

Being somewhat busy at the moment, finishing the index for The Great Deception, I haven't had time to watch the video of Frost parading his stupidity in front of the MPs, but fortunately I don't have to as John Crace was there for us.

His headline suggests that the MPs "might have got more Brexit sense out of Frosty the Snowman", which is undoubtedly correct as getting any sense at all out of Frost would have been an achievement not far distant from extracting blood out of a stone.

The one thing Frost has been able to do, though – according to Crace – is better informed us as to why the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol have started to unravel badly. That's because, Crace writes, "every time he speaks, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator, David Frost, doesn’t seem to be quite as bright as he would like us all to believe".

It definitely does seem that Frost is one of those people who should adopt the Trappist code, with a lifelong vow of silence – simply on the basis that it is better to keep your mouth shut and keep people guessing as to whether you are as stupid as you look, or open your mouth and confirm it.

One has to concede, though, that total silence is not the most effective tool for a man who supposedly earns his living from negotiating, although, it seems, it might have been the better of the two options.

In Crace's view, by opening his mouth and actually speaking, Frost's did his best to prove why he wasn't really up to the job. The thrust of what he had to say was that it had been obvious from the start the UK had only been pretending to apply EU law in Northern Ireland as a matter of political convenience.

It was, therefore, entirely the fault of the EU that the EU had deliberately misinterpret this as if we were signing an international treaty in good faith. We had imagined that the EU would look on the protocol as mere window dressing and would take a pragmatic view of us ignoring the rules.

It should, Frost continued, have been obvious we had no intention of sticking to the letter of the law,. not least because Johnson was the UK prime minister and if there was one thing on which you could rely on with him was that he never kept his promises and would seek to bend the regulations.

Thus, Frost and his negotiating team had been totally taken aback to discover that the EU were treating Johnson as a man of his word and were expecting the UK to keep to the terms of the protocol. It was all a bit bumpy right now, Frost conceded, but no one could possibly have imagined that events would pan out as they had.

Hyperbole aside, Frost did say that the "chilling effect" on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was "quite strong", and he did assert that "nobody could know that until they started implementing the protocol" – something that only an inveterate liar or a complete ignoramus could suggest.

We can also rely on committee member Tom Tugendhat. He disputed Frost's claims that nobody predicted the impact of the protocol on trade, pointing out that the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium flagged this up. Furthermore, Gavin Barwell, Theresa May's chief of staff, has said this was why May rejected a Johnson-style an arrangement.

This, it appears, led to some furious back-pedalling on the part of Frost, who conceded that he didn't mean that no one had predicted the outcome. Simply, Johnson had failed to predict it. They had needed a deal to get Brexit over the line and the Northern Ireland protocol had looked the best bet as something that both sides could comfortably ignore.

That left the ennobled one, in the words of Crace, to repeat how astonished he was that the EU had been so intransigent in their refusal to finesse the rules to the UK's advantage, doubling down on Brexiters having been given no warning over the complexities of Northern Ireland.

Had there been any attempt by the UK to stay in the Single Market – making the whole of the UK and Ireland a common regulatory area - there would have been few problems. but this seems to have escaped Frost, as did the simply notion that, if you want to transition goods from a third country into the EU's single market, then there will be a few hurdles to surmount.

The worst of it is that the deed is none – we have Johnson's maladroit protocol, and there is no sign that he is about to backtrack and seek a more rational solution. One can only hope that, by the time we get to the tenth anniversary of the referendum Johnson will have been long gone, and sense will have prevailed.

But, while the former is likely, the latter is improbable. A system that can throw up Frost as a chief negotiator is broken beyond repair.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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