But listen in on events at Conservative Party conference and you wouldn't know itby Alex Dean / October 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Theresa May and David Davis have provided a case study of grotesque uselessness” in their approach to Brexit.
This comment, made exclusively to Prospect, comes from Vote Leave mastermind Dominic Cummings. The government is frequently accused of bungling negotiations with Europe, but rarely in such strong terms—and almost never by such a senior Brexit insider. That it comes during conference season only worsens the blow.
The comments are sure to rile an already under-siege administration—and there were plenty more of them from the former Vote Leave Director. The impression I was left with was that Britain may well crash out of Europe with no deal—whatever the PM’s plans for a smooth transition. “It was crazy to trigger Article 50 without preparations first and even more crazy to sit around and still not prepare,” Cummings said. “If there’s no deal there will be significant problems that were completely avoidable.”
His intervention could hardly be more urgent: six months have passed since A50 was triggered but Britain and Europe have reached agreements on almost nothing. The PM’s Florence speech was a step in the right direction—but the EU was quick to counter that massive policy gaps still remain. The government, currently in all out war, looks unlikely to close them anytime soon, and while former Brexit minister David Jones says preparations are underway for a “no deal” outcome, it is difficult to feel reassured when the government will not publish them. So what exactly happens if Britain does fall over the cliff edge? Chaos—or would we manage to muddle through?
At a “Leave means Leave” fringe event at Tory conference in Manchester, in front of a banner which read “No deal is better than a bad deal,” MP for North Shropshire and prominent Brexiteer Owen Paterson was relaxed about the prospect—and offered some advice to the PM. “If the European Union is still messing around by Christmas,” he said, Britain should “give notice, on 1st January, that we will be moving to WTO rules.”
Paterson isn’t alone in his optimism: the room, filled with Tory activists, united in applause at his remark. But chat to the experts and the response is rather different. “A ‘no deal’ outcome—trading on World Trade Organisation terms—would lead to economic chaos because the United Kingdom would adopt, overnight, ‘third-country status’ in the eyes of the European Union,” said Paul Daly, Derek Bowett Fellow in Law at Queen’s College, Cambridge. What would that mean in practice? “Planes would not take off, nuclear fuel would not be imported and haulage traffic to the Continent would grind to a halt.” An unprecedented diplomatic screw-up, then.
“Theresa May and David Davis have provided a case study of grotesque uselessness”
The point about aircraft reminded me of a recent comment to the same effect by the man who drafted A50, John Kerr. He told me that “flights in and out of continental Europe [will] stop unless we negotiate some replacement for the regime we’re members of.”
The government’s Repeal Bill—which will soon go to its committee stage—is designed to transpose all EU law into UK law. Wouldn’t the legal convergence prevent a disaster even if we do crash out? “It does not matter a jot that, by enacting the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the United Kingdom would remain fully convergent with EU law: Belgian customs officials, French financiers, Italian importers, German air traffic control and Spanish exporters will not recognise the United Kingdom as part of the European Union trading system.” The reason? “They will not have the legal authority to do so.”
The Withdrawal Bill will make sure that there is no legal vacuum domestically, but in the absence of a deal with the EU, this is not good enough. “The United Kingdom’s current trading arrangements will fall into a void,” Daly told me.
One argument has been that boosting trade with the US would help Britain recover from the economic blow of no deal. This common Brexiteer refrain has taken a hit over recent days, with the US slapping hefty tariffs on aircraft maker Bombardier in Northern Ireland, leading to accusations of a “trade war.” May, having staked everything on tying up a deal with Trump, has said she is “bitterly disappointed.”
Former US Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Europe and Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Fund Peter Chase warned against the strategy. Asked whether trade with Trump’s US could make up for a no deal Brexit he said “No, it cannot… There’s a reason that the UK has as much trade with the EU as it does: it’s a huge economy right on your doorstep.” He continued: “Canada gets a trade relationship with the EU and yes, Canada-EU trade will increase, but the US will always dominate Canada’s trade landscape.” The lesson was that simple facts of geography cannot be ignored.
“You have a treaty relationship, you ended the treaty relationship, and no one owes you anything”
More worrying still was Chase’s next comment. “I guarantee you that the US companies that have invested 580bn dollars into the UK did not do so to serve the English market. They did so because they saw the UK as a platform into the EU. And the sort of relationships that exist are going to be disrupted.” This is a new way of seeing the problem: it sounds an awful lot like US trade would not only not compensate, it could actually fall as a result of a no deal Brexit.
What next? There is a “significant” chance Britain crashes out with no deal, Chase said. “The UK will have to demonstrate that it’s a good enough partner.” He continued: “I cannot stress enough—and it’s not because I’m a pro-EU sorta guy, it’s just simply the [reality] of this—you have a treaty relationship, you ended the treaty relationship, and no one owes you anything. Do you see what I mean?”
There is some hope. According to Chase, “Japan manages. Canada has managed. We manage. Brazil manages to have a good robust economic relationship with the EU without any trading agreement.” And perhaps all the worry is for nothing anyway—maybe Britain and the EU will strike an excellent free trade deal within the time available. Speaking at another fringe event in Manchester, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom boomed: “It’ll take eight to ten years to strike an FTA? Nonsense!”
But further comments from Cummings left me feeling pessimistic. Referring back to May and Davis, he said “School children will shake their heads in disbelief that such characters could have had leading roles in government.” In the event of a total Brexit disaster, there could even be an investigation into why it occurred—and civil servants are scurrying to shift the blame. “Officials are already sending emails for the inevitable inquiry,” Cummings said—”and the history books.”
The government should have been going into this conference with a real grasp of the Brexit detail. Instead the whole place reeks of complacency.