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Brexit: heads in the sand

2018-07-20 07:19:59

It was Mrs May's in her Lancaster House speech who declared that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain".

That was on 17 January 2017, almost exactly eighteen months ago. Natural curiosity alone might suggest that one should start exploring precisely what that entailed. Certainly, it set me off on a trail which produced multiple posts all pointing to one inescapable conclusion: "no deal" is not a credible option.

About a year later the European Commission started its series of Notices to Stakeholders, setting out the consequences of the Brexit without a formal, ratified agreement. Largely ignored by UK politicians and media alike, the Commission has now upped the ante with the publication of COM(2018) 556 final - a communication on: "Preparing for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 30 March 2019".

Accompanying the Com is a press release and an annex listing the 68 Notices to Stakeholders so far published, plus a downloadable factsheet which sets out "Seven things businesses in the EU27 need to know in order to prepare for Brexit".

Collectively, this bundle of documentation paints a far more comprehensive picture of a "no deal" scenario than I ever could, but one could only draw the same conclusion that I did. There is no mistaking the severity of those consequences, across a wide spectrum of economic activity.

Yet, for all that, The Times, once known as the paper of record, seems to have ignored the Commission initiative, instead opting for a story headed: "Brexit - civil service chief John Manzoni warns no deal could have 'horrendous consequences'".

This is classic British media, obsessed with "planting the flag" on its reports, using UK sources for its reports rather than relying on anything of foreign origin. It is hardly surprising, as a result, that the population is so ill-informed about the European Union.

As to this Times report, we are told that the UK will be ready to crash out of the EU but there will be "horrendous consequences" if co-operation breaks down completely. We then get Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, stating that while preparatory planning was being put in place for a "no deal" scenario, "not everything will be perfect" if it happens.

Manzoni was sharing his complacency with the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, to which he was giving oral evidence. The UK was doing what it could but it was difficult to determine how "third parties" such as EU member states, their local governments or private companies would act - and whether they would be "spiteful or ignorant" about the consequences.

There were, he added, "some things that really are very complicated in the absence of co-operation" such as data sharing, which is currently covered by EU agreements. And, in Manzoni's view, "These things are all in everybody's interests to get right but, on the other hand, we have to prepare in the event that there are either spiteful or ignorant or whatever activities by third parties".

That would make it "very uncomfortable" and could have "some horrendous consequences" but "that's what we have got to try and do our best to mitigate against". Nevertheless, he indicated that more work was needed before March 2019, saying: "I'm not sitting here today saying it's all going swimmingly well and we are ready, because we are not".

Then, to cement in this stunning level of complacency, we got a comment from Sir Mark Sedwill, the acting cabinet secretary. He though, "That puts it very well - we will be ready but we shouldn't assume it will be smooth, if it's a disruptive outcome".

So that's what we're getting from our supposedly Rolls-Royce civil service: if we are hit by a "no deal" scenario, "not everything will be perfect" and "we shouldn't assume it will be smooth".

Predictably, not a whiff of this or the Commission communication touches the Telegraph which continues to project the myth that the WTO option would be an acceptable outcome, with suggestions that this is actually being planned as a fall-back option if Barnier doesn't accept the White Paper – which, of course, he can't.

But, while the Europhile Independent does cover the Commission communication with its own report, it downplays the consequences. Offering scarcely any detail, it blandly observes that contingency plans are needed to prevent a "complete meltdown" if talks with the UK fail to reach agreement by October, while having senior EU officials warning that the "volatile" political situation in the UK made the outcome of talks hard to predict.

This, though, is positively alarmist by comparison with the piece in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins, who grandly declares: "Don’t worry, a no-deal Brexit won’t be allowed to happen".

"Even if Britain does leave the EU on WTO rules next March, life will still go on largely as normal", he writes. "Nothing will change. Planes will keep flying. Ferries will keep loading. Channel Tunnel officials will wave vehicles through. Orders will go out to keep moving, and await further instructions".

In this, Jenkins is entirely at one with John Redwood, who gaily tweets: " There is no cliff edge. Planes will fly & lorries will move thru ports the day after we leave just as they did the day before. We'll carry on trading, travelling, investing in EU countries as we do in non EU countries".

Several papers, including the Mail as well as the Independent give more coverage to IMF warnings on damage caused by a "no deal", preferring theoretical modelling to real-life detail, while the Mail, which seems to have ignored the Commission com, also runs a piece on an NAO report on the effects of Brexit on transport.

This report, covered by most national dailies, deals with – amongst other things – the lack of agreement on driving license recognition. Oddly, this was one of the first issues I dealt with on this blog, a few days before Mrs May's Lancaster House speech.

In the Mail piece there is also an "explainer". "Anodyne" would be a fair description. For sure, we get: "Customs checks on cross-Channel freight would cause havoc at ports, hitting food supplies and other goods", but on "aeroplanes", we are told: "Fears of planes not being able to fly appear far-fetched – unless the EU is determined to destroy both business and tourism".

Hardly anyone in the politico-media nexus, it seems, is prepared to lay out with any clarity the full extent of the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit, the overall impression being that it is somehow tolerable, with maybe a few problems round the edges.

Perhaps one slight (and temporary) exception this time is the BBC, which reports on the obscure business section of its website that the arrival of the Commission com is "timely". It coincides with a palpable shift in the minds of UK business leaders on the probability of leaving without a negotiated deal. It has gone up - and many UK companies are intensifying and accelerating their contingency plans to mitigate potentially severe disruption.

Nevertheless, the cultivated ignorance which dominates the media allows Mrs May to go to Ireland and utter bellicose statements about not accepting the EU's plans for the border. In Belfast today, she is expected to brand the EU's insistence on regulatory alignment north and south of the border as a "backstop" solution in the event of no deal as "unworkable", repeating her assertion that a border down the Irish Sea is unacceptable to any British prime minister.

By so doing, she is set to lock the Brexit talks into an impasse, the inevitable consequence of which is a chaotic "no deal" exit. And the only way this could be politically sustainable, this side of Brexit, is by playing down or obscuring the effects of such an outcome.

If people really had the first idea of what "no deal" actually meant, in detail, there would be such a storm of protest that no politician could even think of pursuing this line. But as long as they have their heads in the sand and, with the complicity of the media, practice mushroom management on the rest of us, the coming disaster will be on us before the majority realise how damaging it will be.