EU Referendum

Brexit: the wheels on the bus


She's at it again, only this time writing for the Mail on Sunday. And there, our revered prime minister is telling us that this can be a year when the UK turns a corner. We can "draw on our enduring strengths to build a better future for our country". 

In every task we face, she says, from growing an economy that provides opportunity for everyone, and sustaining the first-class public services we all rely on, to keeping everyone in our country safe, "we can be inspired by those strengths".

This, of course, applies especially "to the most pressing matter facing us": Brexit. When MPs cast their vote on our withdrawal from the EU, Mrs May says, "they will determine the future course our country will take".

She refers to "a democratic process" that began when the Conservative Party won an overall majority in a General Election with a manifesto commitment to hold an in-or-out vote. It continued through a keenly fought referendum, and now, she says, it will culminate in the representatives of the people having their final say.

When they do so, the prime minister declares, MPs must ask themselves three things. For the first, is whether the deal she has negotiated delivers the result of the EU referendum by taking us out of the EU and restoring sovereign control over our borders, laws and money.

Secondly, they have to ask themselves whether it protects the jobs constituents rely on to put food on the table for their families and the security co-operation that keeps each one of us safe. Thirdly, she wants them to ask whether it provides "the certainty that citizens and businesses have every right to expect from those who govern and represent them".

Mrs May says she believes her deal does all of those things. The big problem, though is that, excluding her own circle of close supporters who would agree with her out of loyalty, she could be the only person in the country who does.

Certainly, the number of MPs who believe all three points to apply must be vanishingly small. Were she more candid, she might try asking MPs to support her deal, even despite it doing none of the things she claims for it. Should she do so, she will only be allowing them to plod down the same path she has taken.

After all, the real reason why Mrs May agreed the deal she has is because she has closed down the more agreeable options with her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Now she has to take what she can get, because the alternatives are even worse. And if MPs are to vote for her deal, it is because the price of not doing so is a no-deal Brexit, the worst of all possible options bar re-joining the EU.

But if Mrs May is playing games, so are the MPs – except that there are many different groups with their own favoured variations. One group, according to The Sunday Times, wants to add amendments to the Finance Bill which will have the effect of "starving the government of cash" if it goes for a no-deal without the specific authorisation of parliament.

This is a group of select committee leaders, headed by Yvette Cooper, but it includes former Tory ministers Nicky Morgan, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles. They plan to block Treasury powers that could be used for emergency interventions in the event of no-deal, "unless parliament has explicitly voted for no deal or unless the government has requested an extension of article 50".

There is then another group, backing an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. This would stop the Treasury raising any income tax or corporation tax unless parliament approved a Brexit deal.

Yet, with all these twists and turns, and others I can't even be bothered to detail, we'll be absolutely no further forward. All Mrs May has to do is something which, in the past, she has proved to be a past master in doing – kicking the can down the road. After less than three months, when we reach 29 March, the time runs out and we crash out of the EU automatically.

However, the prime minister doubtless has her own plans. Her team is drawing up plans to strengthen support for her deal by asking the ECJ to rule on whether the Northern Ireland backstop is "temporary". If she can get a form of words that makes it look as if it can be brought to an end, this many be enough to pull a winning majority into her camp, and get the withdrawal agreement approved.

Such is the noise level though that the situation remains as murky as ever. Trying to predict an outcome hasn't got any easier and there is nothing immediately on the horizon which suggests that we are moving towards a resolution.

The only clear strain that is emerging is the "ultra" determination to play down the consequences of a no-deal, with the likes of Peter Lilley re-issuing his propaganda in another pamphlet, this one headed 30 truths about leaving on WTO terms.

Lilley would have it that there will be no delays at the border, neither for imported goods nor for exports to EU Member States. And in the latter area he argues that France is actively determined to prevent delays at Calais for fear of losing trade to Belgian and Dutch ports.

We have, of course, seen all this before – not least in summary form in yesterday's Telegraph. But one has to give it to the man - he is nothing if not persistent in pursuing his line, repeating it to the point of tedium no matter how many times it is debunked.

With Mrs May's counter-propaganda yet to get into its swing, however, Lilley and his colleagues are getting a series of free hits, even if they are largely preaching to the converted. But in countering it, we are not helped by what the French themselves call a certain serenity about the consequences of Brexit.

There is some of the same make-believe that we are seeing in the UK, tied up in the belief that the UK will still need to import even after Brexit, so things will work out. The concern has been more about whether the Dutch and Belgians will capture some of the business currently going to France.

Gradually, though, the French media and politicians are getting the point. In a recent article in the French Three Regions press, we saw the headline "France lacks veterinarians to carry out border health checks at the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union".

This had been "revealed" by none other than Minister of Agriculture Didier Guillaume, who also gave some unwelcome information to the Brexit special commission of the National Assembly, chaired by the MP of Hauts-de-Seine Jean-Louis Bourlanges. "Today", he said, " 40 full-time equivalent positions are budgeted for 2019", then admitting that he did not think this was enough.

Furthermore, he said, "there is no infrastructure dedicated to the veterinary and phytosanitary inspection service at Calais, Dieppe, Caen-Ouistreham, Cherbourg, Saint Malo or Roscoff". The Minister also warned that the existing control infrastructures at Dunkirk, Le Havre and Brest would have to be expanded.

As to preparation, the Ministry was only conducting an "internal investigation" to " prepare " a Brexit scenario for these nine entry points, in the event of there being a no-deal. But the investigation had only covered an "assessment" of the temporary infrastructure that will need to be put in place by 30 March.

When asked to quantify the needs of the nine sites in the longer term, the Minister "remained evasive", telling "worried MPs" that in the Hauts-de-France region alone, there were three million lorries entering France from the UK, with 3.5 million overall - of which 100,000 would have to be checked. Yet, he said, "We are not sure how many resources will be needed, and I have no way of estimating how many".

The one thing he had worked out though was that controls took between 15 to 45 minutes per consignment. Work was underway with the three regions concerned, Hauts-de-France, Normandy and Brittany and with the managers of ports and the Channel Tunnel, to prepare the ground. But 80 percent of products of animal or vegetable origin shipped from the UK went through either Calais or Dunkirk. This was where the focus would be.

Once again, therefore, we are getting intimations of a serious lack of preparedness on the part of the French authorities, who have now left it so late that neither infrastructure nor personnel will be ready for a no-deal Brexit at the end of March.

Needless to say, this completely contradicts much of what the likes of Lilley has to say, but then if the noble Lord is on the case, who are these French persons to say any different? The only thing is that his little red bus is beginning to look a little ragged – and the wheels on the bus may not be going round.