The mak­ing of an in­ter­minable cri­sis

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters To The Editor - Es­tab­lished 1855

The Con­ser­va­tive Party is wak­ing up to what many have warned for a long time: the Che­quers com­pro­mise leads log­i­cally to Bri­tain stay­ing in the cus­toms union, even if Num­ber 10 in­sists it won’t be a per­ma­nent ar­range­ment. The Prime Min­is­ter might ar­gue this is nec­es­sary to get the coun­try through with­drawal, and maybe Leave MPS cal­cu­late that once she’s done that, they can boot her out and ne­go­ti­ate a Canada-style trade deal. Nev­er­the­less, what Theresa May is try­ing to sell is a short-term fix that cre­ates long-term prob­lems. It could be the mak­ing of an in­ter­minable cri­sis.

No one voted for half-in, half-out. Not in the ref­er­en­dum and not in the gen­eral elec­tion: both party lead­ers spoke of leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket. What the vot­ers got, how­ever, was a hung Par­lia­ment that made it im­pos­si­ble to cut any deal with the EU that com­pro­mised North­ern Ire­land – the Demo­cratic Union­ists won’t al­low it – and gave groups of Re­main­ers and Leavers the power to lever­age con­ces­sions. Why didn’t Theresa May just ad­mit this and say: “Sorry, but I can’t de­liver what I first promised?” A key po­lit­i­cal skill is be­ing able to adapt to chang­ing cir­cum­stances and bring the peo­ple with you, and yet Mrs May stuck pub­licly to her “red lines” nar­ra­tive while the EU con­tin­ued to call the shots.

Bri­tain has es­sen­tially met the three con­di­tions im­por­tant to Brus­sels: we’ve of­fered them billions of pounds, guar­an­teed cit­i­zen­ship and bent over back­wards to keep the Ir­ish bor­der soft. The one thing we have not set­tled, the thing we re­ally need, is an agreed fu­ture trad­ing re­la­tion­ship, end­ing up in­stead with the like­li­hood of con­tin­ued cus­toms union mem­ber­ship. The dan­gers in­her­ent in this are real. The EU gets to set the rules with­out our say; if we at­tempt to di­verge from the rules, we crash out, ef­fec­tively re­vive the bor­der is­sue and even pre­cip­i­tate a breach in the union. And to say “Let’s leave now but di­verge fully later to re­duce eco­nomic tur­bu­lence” ac­tu­ally leaves a lot to chance. What if the Con­ser­va­tive coali­tion frac­tures and Labour wins the next elec­tion? How would busi­ness fare un­der a mix of Euro­pean rules and Jeremy Cor­byn’s so­cial­ism?

The only per­son who looks ex­cited by all this is Philip Ham­mond, who spoke of a “deal div­i­dend” while at­tend­ing a meet­ing in Bali. The Trea­sury has got what it wants. In the weeks af­ter the 2017 elec­tion, Mr Ham­mond talked about a Brexit in which “many ar­range­ments [stay] very sim­i­lar to how they were the day be­fore we left the Euro­pean Union” with di­ver­gence tak­ing place “over time”. Sym­pa­this­ers would call this sen­si­ble recog­ni­tion of how long it takes to ne­go­ti­ate a trade deal – but how long are we talk­ing, ex­actly, and will the pub­lic be given a timetable? Or at least some sense of the sun­nier pos­si­bil­i­ties ahead? All we hear from the Trea­sury is, frankly, a lot of what we get from Re­main­ers: talk of risk and po­ten­tial eco­nomic dam­age, fram­ing Brexit as a leap in the dark. The Trea­sury, just as much as Labour’s Europhiles, has re­lent­lessly pushed the case for re­main­ing as closely tied to the Euro­pean bloc as pos­si­ble.

The prox­i­mate chal­lenge of Brexit is leav­ing, the greater is­sue is what kind of coun­try we be­come af­ter­wards. The whole point of this process was to re­store sovereignty and cut out Brus­sels from our de­ci­sion-mak­ing. It was also to get rid of petty rules and reg­u­la­tions, to free up the econ­omy, save some cash, and re­di­rect our en­er­gies to­wards global trade with those parts of the world econ­omy that are ac­tu­ally in­no­vat­ing and grow­ing. The Trea­sury’s view is that it’s bet­ter to pre­serve as much of what we have in the present as pos­si­ble, an ap­proach that, in an un­ex­pected way, has re­ceived sup­port from Mrs May’s use of “red line” lan­guage be­cause it has dis­guised the very real com­pro­mises made with the EU.

Bri­tain has ap­proached this whole en­ter­prise not as a mas­ter of its own des­tiny but as a sup­pli­cant, and the con­se­quence might be a Brexit deal that isn’t nearly as clever as some seem to think, which of­fers a very mod­est an­swer to enor­mous prob­lems.

Mrs May is try­ing to sell us a short-term fix that cre­ates long-term prob­lems. No one voted for half-in, half-out

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