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EU Referendum: the race to the bottom

2016-03-16 03:36:51

As early as June last year, Dominic Cummings had already decided that his emergent Vote Leave campaign wouldn't have an exit plan, no doubt with the approval of wonder boy Matthew Elliott. His reason was that it would become the target of the opposition's attacks.

Predictably, the story has become Vote Leave's lack of a plan, whence we had Boris Johnson come up with the half-baked idea of using the Canadian free trade deal (CETA) as a model. An equally predictable result has been that David Cameron and sundry others have shredded it at every opportunity.

This has led to Johnson, in between behaving like a demented child, having to row back his apology for a plan. This he did yesterday on LBC, limiting his enthusiasm to "elements of the Canada deal I like". As a replacement, the man-child offered a stunningly original alternative. "We should do a British deal ...", he said.

Presented with this wide-open goal from Johnson, David Cameron  had no trouble at all with an appropriate response. Speaking to dock workers in Felixstowe, Suffolk, he said people who advocate the Canadian option were "literally making it up as they go along". And that indeed is what Johnson is doing, having mentioned nothing of this cunning plan prior to last week's speech in Dartford.

But Mr Cameron is now well practiced, after his equally comprehensive demolition job delivered in Vauxhall on 10 March. A Canada-style free trade deal, he confidently asserted: "means you do not have full access for your financial services, you have to pay tariffs on your cars, you don't have full access for your farmers' produce. So it's not a great deal for Britain".

"Canada", the Prime Minister added, "is a country 4,000 miles away from the continent of Europe that does ten percent of its trade with the European Union. We are a country just 20-odd miles from the continent of Europe and we do 50 percent of our trade with the European Union. So a Canada deal is not the right deal for us". It was then, picking up on Johnson's own confusion, he told his audience:
To start with they wanted to be in the single market, then they said let's do a free trade deal, then they said let's do a Canada free trade deal. Today, the leaders of the leave campaign are saying they don't really want a Canada deal at all, that they weren't right about that. They are literally making it up as they go along. They are rolling the dice and they're taking a risk with people's jobs and people's livelihoods.
In practical terms, this means that the Vote Leave campaign is turning out to be a train-wreck, leading Business Insider to make the obvious remark, that "one of the biggest weaknesses with the Leave campaign is that it is struggling to present a consistent vision of what Britain will look like outside of the EU to the public".

Cameron and the "remain" campaign, says Business Insider, are clearly aware of this and see it as a weakness they can exploit. They don't need us to tell them that, and as long Vote Leave and Mr Johnson between them insist on making basic, unforced errors, they can hardly complain if the opposition does exploit this gift so freely given.

Furthermore, in the hands of Vote Leave, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Johnson's unguarded reference to a "British deal" is worthless rhetoric, unless he can put substance to it, which he cannot. When he is goaded by the opposition, he will only make things worse, lacking as he does the slightest idea of what a coherent exit plan looks like.

In a sign of things to come, though, Johnson shows no signs of recognising the depths of his own stupidity. In his LBC interview, he blithely stated: "We've been in the EU for 40 years. We are a massive economy. There's no reason why we shouldn't do a deal very rapidly indeed".

This truly is jaw-dropping stupidity. Recalling only recently the complications over beef tariffs, one could quite easily imagine the "colleagues" taking six months out, just to bicker over the levels of tariff-free beef quotas. By the time we've worked our way through the 912-page tariff list during the exit negotiations, we could be well into the next century.

Despite that, some would argue that a deal could be reached quickly because we already have a high degree of regulatory and system convergence, but that is hardly the point.

It is the multiplicity of the issues at the margins which will take the time, things like dispute settlement procedures, the systems for ensuring continued regulatory convergence, asylum and extradition procedures, overseas aid and foreign affairs. In fact, there is a whole raft of complex issues. Imagine how much time will be needed just to sort out social security and health arrangements for expats, both here and those of our own who are resident abroad.

None of these issues are irresolvable, but they add to the time taken. My bet is one of the big ones the amount of financial compensation we have to pay for leaving the EU will take the most time. But even without that, all our experience indicates that it would be wildly optimistic to expect an ab initio deal to be concluded within five years. There are thus multiple reasons why we can't do a deal "very rapidly indeed".

The problem we have, though, is that Mr Johnson's stupidity is just as prevalent in the other camps. Arron Banks, for Leave.eu, having flirted briefly with Flexcit, retreated at the speed of light when some online ex-Kippers were nasty to him. He then entertained the better deal fallacy before lapsing into silence and running way from the debate.

Meanwhile, Ukip which will be driving the "GO movement" in the competition for lead campaigner designation - is trapped by the intransigence of Lord Dartmouth. Since March 2014, he has been promoting the "bespoke" free trade deal - drawn from the same well of stupidity from which Boris Johnson avails himself. Even now, Dartmouth has not changed his position in the slightest, despite Mr Cameron's intervention.

As far as I understand it, this remains the official Ukip stance, with the fallback of the suicidal WTO option, in the event of our failing to negotiate a deal within the two years initially allowed for by Article 50.

So far, the Johnson stupidity has given Cameron the opportunity to accuse him of "rolling the dice" with people's futures - a charge that is both credible and easy to sustain. This is a massive own goal which we intend to plug with the launch of Leave Alliance tomorrow. But who could possibly have predicted those years ago when we started writing what was to become Flexcit that the main "leave" campaigns would be so intent on suicide, and so determined to hand the game on a plate to the opposition?

The worst of it all is that it is sterilising the debate. With no worked-out plan on offer by the noise-makers, there can be no discussion over the contents - no positive vision to discuss. The media, hard put at best to report intelligently, is running out of material and the leave groups have nothing interesting to say.

We are thus seeing the slow death of the campaign. By June, most people will be so bored by it all that hey will be looking for the torture to end. A golden opportunity to bring the "Europe" issue to life is being lost, the effect of dire decisions made by stupid people, fronted currently by the idiot Johnson.

Never, I suspect, has a political campaign been so badly managed. Never have so many opportunities been squandered. Those responsible should be hanging their heads in shame, except that not one of them seems to have sufficient wit to recognise their own incompetence.

If we do win this referendum, it will be a miracle, relying on the only thing that can possibly save us: the "remains" are about as incompetent as the "leavers", although it is a close-run thing. In this grotesque race to the bottom, it seems that this is all we have to look forward to the death of adult politics.