EU Referendum

Brexit: plunged into the dark


On the very day when I really could have used a written record of the Gove-Marr interview, the BBC decides not to do a transcript. Only very much later in the day did we get to hear of the resignation of "reluctant conscript" David Davis (with Steve Baker and maybe Braveman following him). And, while the impact of that is tremendous, Gove still remains very much in the frame for his comments.

I could, of course, write up my own narrative from the recording of Gove, but certain things are above and beyond the call of duty. Wading through 18 minutes of his interview to write up a transcript is one of them. For the key excerpt, therefore, I'll have to rely on the highly unsatisfactory rendition from the Telegraph. While not offering a verbatim transcript, it at least gets the gist of things.

What we get is Gove telling Marr that the UK was " generous to the EU", with the addition that "we're showing flexibility". Thus said Gove, "If the EU is ungenerous and inflexible, then we may have to contemplate walking away without a deal".

Gove further asserts that: "One of the things that we agreed at Chequers is that we should step up preparations for that outcome", then making what can only be regarded as the quite staggering claim that: "We will be in a position in March 2019, if we don't get the deal we want, to be able to walk away".

Ministers, he said, had agreed on Friday to step up planning in their respective departments. They were now hiring "a significant number of people" to ensure that the UK was prepared to crash out of the bloc.

Taking first things first, I noted on Twitter that there were definitely elements of a cunning plan in Gove's approach. You confront the EU with impossible demands, calling for things that they have already rejected, demand that they show "flexibility" and then have an almighty strop when they don't roll over.

The Defra secretary is a politician who is supposed to be brighter than average – although as a Conservative MP, that sets the bar pretty low. But then, this is the man who, according to friends, had to be stopped from using an ordinary household vacuum cleaner to unblock the toilet in his London flat.

But, if the Chequers statement is his idea of the "flexibility" that should motivate the EU towards a Brexit deal acceptable to the UK, then clearly he is struggling to demonstrate that his IQ is anywhere near approaching three figures.

Where the man gets especially dangerous, though, is in claiming that we will be in a position in March 2019, to be able to walk away if we don't get the deal we want. No one who has the first inkling of what a "no deal" Brexit involves could possibly assert that we could ever be prepared, much less be ready by the coming March, less than nine months away.

I suppose that, if we wanted a historic parallel, we could look at the despatch of the BEF to France in 1939, a force so ill-equipped that tanks were being loaded at the docks fitted with makeshift wooden turrets instead of steel, their most formidable weapons being the service revolvers of the officers riding inside them.

Had our politicians at the time realised how badly equipped and trained their "army" was, one wonders whether they would have been so keen to send it into the fray against the most modern and experienced military machine of the age. Similarly, if our politicians really understood the potential impact of a "no deal" Brexit, would they be so keen to expose us to the peril?

For some little time now, I've been arguing that we should have a coherent report, pointing out what is involved. The cabinet ministers before they attended Chequers on Friday last are said to have been furnished with one, but clearly it has failed to have much effect on Gove. Perhaps he should stick to unblocking toilets with vacuum cleaners.

Nevertheless, from his unregarded ghetto in an obscure corner of the Telegraph, Booker at least is trying his best, this week in yesterday's column writing about the possibility of our lights going out if we leave the EU without a deal.

He starts by observing that when future historians seek to explain "why Britain made such a disastrous shambles of its bid to leave the EU", nothing may surprise them more than to discover how little the British seemed to understand the basic workings of the organisation they wanted to leave.

Few things define better the nature of the EU, Booker writes, than its rigorously rules-based "internal market", which allows its members to enjoy "frictionless" trade with each other. Yet, however often this was pointed out to the British, they seemed incapable of recognising the inevitable consequences of their decision to leave the entire European Economic Area (EEA), to become what is termed a "third country".

Yet another example of this inability to grasp the relevant facts relates to our increasingly precarious energy policy. The more we close down our reliable fossil-fuel-based sources of electricity, to depend instead on unreliable wind and solar energy, the more our ability to keep our lights on relies on importing power from abroad via interconnector cables.

The previous Wednesday evening, for instance, when only one percent of our power had been coming from wind and none from solar, 60 percent had come from gas and 26 percent from nuclear.

As often happens, to keep our grid functioning, we also have to import 11 percent of our power from France and the Netherlands. And over the next 12 years, according to National Grid, we plan to more than quadruple the current 4 gigawatt (GW) capacity of our interconnectors (to 18.5GW) via new cables from France, Belgium, Norway and Iceland.

These new power supplies will be vitally necessary to keep the grid functioning when it is planned that 68 percent of our generating capacity will derive from weather-dependent wind and solar, which can plummet towards zero at any time. However, the ability to buy power from our neighbours relies on the fact that we are part of the "European Energy Market", which sets the complex rules that allow it to operate.

This is something I wrote about in my blogpost of 3 July, drawing attention to the European Commission's Notice to Stakeholders on cross-border trade in electricity. This makes it clear that, once we become a "third country", the EU could refuse to certify us as continuing participants. Once again, if we had chosen to remain, like Norway and Iceland, in the wider EEA, our dependence on imported electricity would have been assured.

However, neither I nor Booker are the only ones to have written about this. On 11 June, the specialist website Energy Voice ran an article written by Bloomberg, headlined "No Brexit for energy as UK set to draw more power from EU".

The article notes the planned increase in dependence on imported power but then observes that the Brexit process may undermine the economic and logistical case for using interconnectors. To maintain flows after 29 March next year, it says – in a caution later echoed by Booker, the UK must agree to remain part of the EU internal energy market.

That, the Article says, must be written into Britain’s agreement with the EU on Brexit, and that hasn’t happened so far. What happens to electricity if there’s a "no-deal" Brexit, it adds, "would add so much friction to the system that utilities think it's unthinkable".

Much the same is suggested in a long report (128 pages) on the EU energy system for the European Parliament. It is even less concerned than Energy Voice, suggesting that "it is reasonable to expect the UK's and neighbouring countries' transmission system operators to continue their long-lasting cooperation on the basis of their respective regulatory frameworks". This is aided by the fact that the UK is connected only though asynchronous interconnectors, which means they do not fall under the EU regulatory regime.

However, as national regulators are involved in negotiating arrangements for cross-border transmission of electricity, even the European Parliament does not rule out the framework coming under "additional examination" after Brexit.

Its whole case for suggesting continuity of supply, though, rests on all sides continuing to speak with one another, on which basis it argues that, "Brexit does not seem likely to have any noteworthy negative impact on either UK or EU electricity energy security".

On the other hand, it concedes that Brexit is increasing market uncertainty. In the event of a "no deal" scenario, where parties no longer are allowed to communicate directly, disruptions in supply cannot be ruled out. And that is without factoring in any unilateral changes made by the EU to the regulatory system, following Brexit.

Even if the risks of outright disruption are slight, they nevertheless cannot be entirely discounted. Given the way coal-based power stations are being wound down, with the increasing unreliability of our nuclear fleet and the intermittent nature of wind and solar, the loss of power from our interconnectors could be significant.

Thus, concludes Booker, to add to all the other risks we run by deciding to leave our largest single export market, we must contemplate the possibility of our lights going out. Truly may we be about to take a[nother] leap in the dark, one also taken by David Davis, in deciding to resign after telling the prime minister he could not support her Brexit plan.

This, with nearly the entire Brexit ministerial team quitting, has plunged the May administration into the dark – one not caused by the absence of electricity. It is precipitating a crisis the extent of which we know not yet.

And just to add to Mrs May's joy, Simon Coveney, Ireland's foreign minister has warned that Barnier will find it "difficult" to accept her Chequers plan. "The EU has never been keen to facilitate a breaking up of an approach toward the single market in terms of keeping all of the elements of the single market intact and consistent", he says, "so I think Britain will find it difficult to persuade the EU to support the approach they're now proposing".

Coveney adds that Barnier "will be a very, very strong defender of the EU interests here, in terms of protecting the integrity of the single market and the integrity of the EU customs union".  With that, it's almost as it the lights are going out in Downing Street. The light at the end of the tunnel was a train coming the other way.