It is unfortunate that the word “special”, like “bad”, and “wicked”, has in popular culture come to mean close to the opposite of its original meaning. But never has a turnaround been more aptly demonstrated than at a cosy chat-style panel event to discuss “The Future of the Special Relationship between the UK and the United States” with the countries’ equally special foreign ministers, Dominic Raab and Mike Pompeo.
It will come as a shock to absolutely no one that now, just 24 hours before Britain’s final departure from the European Union, the most recent metamorphosis of Brexit has already started to fall apart.
As Raab and Pompeo ambled on to the stage in London, the government formally published guidelines telling people what to expect from Brexit.
For years – decades, even – the conventional narrative (which is to say, lie) around the European Union was all about regulation, the “red tape” that was “strangling British business”.
And here, of course, just 24 hours before we leave, came the latest advice, from the government’s official spokesperson.
“We have always been very clear that we are leaving the EU’s customs union and single market and that means that businesses will have to prepare for life outside of these,” he said.
“We are leaving the customs union, that means businesses will have to prepare outside of the customs union. It will inevitably mean extra processes are required on EU-UK trade.”
Of course, that phrase “always very clear” it is subject to multiple interpretations. As chance would have it, another thing that is also “very clear” is how EU-UK trade after Brexit would work, as explained by Michael Gove, in his set speech while campaigning for Leave in April 2016, which unfortunately I have to quote here in full:
“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will stay in this zone. The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and the Ukraine would stay part of this free trade area – and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus – is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining Ukip. Agreeing to maintain this continental free trade zone is the simple course and emphatically in everyone’s interests.”
So whether the humble voter, who has power only to express his or her preference via the blunt method of a cross in a box every so often, will feel like, potentially, the thing that’s “always been very clear” has in fact shifted in its meaning absolutely entirely, we have little power to accurately measure.
Whether, in fact, what Mr Gove meant what he spoke about agreeing to “maintain this continental free trade zone” was everything changing overnight, and British lorries queueing up at Dover and Calais to fill in forms they have not had to fill in for forty-odd years – well, there is wriggle room there. And a tiny bit of wiggle room is all Mr Gove has ever needed to satisfy himself (if no one else) that he is not just a straightforward liar.
Anyway, we digress. The “special relationship” is a curious thing. Tony Blair, almost by his own admission (and certainly by Sir John Chilcot’s), took Britain to war in Iraq in order to preserve it, somehow not noticing that its specialness nevertheless survived Harold Wilson declining to do the same in Vietnam.
Currently, the “special relationship” is under threat because Boris Johnson has given the 5G contract to Huawei. Except that here was Mike Pompeo, doing as Trump has done in recent days, and gently clarifying that actually it’s, erm, not really a problem.
The “special relationship” is apparently going to usher in the big beautiful trade deal, even though Brexit has suddenly compelled roughly half the population to think that American chicken and beef are unfit for human consumption. (In the latter case, a very large number of London’s very best steakhouses import US beef, because it is an outstanding product. It seems reasonable to speculate that some Remainers may have eaten in one.)
And now, as Raab and Pompeo had their little chin-wag, we learn that, actually, the trade deal isn’t that big a deal. If it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. This is a sentiment Brexit-loving Tories are whispering to sympathetic journalists under the condition of anonymity, rolling the pitch for the likely climbdown to come. A trade deal with the US will take years; longer than Donald Trump’s presidency, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election.
But nevertheless, here were the two big guys, the alpha males, stating again that a trade deal could be done “by 3 November”. It can’t and it won’t. Here was Mike Pompeo saying that the UK is at “the front of the line” for a trade deal with the US.
“We want to lower every barrier towards the free flow of information, talent, capital – all the things that promote wealth and prosperity,” he said.
The watching world, of course, has an overwhelmingly clear idea of what the current administration wants from trade deals throughout the world. Britain is at the front of the line for a rollercoaster that frankly doesn’t look very safe.
Except that it’s not actually going to be getting on, but it must pretend it’s trying, at least for the time being. All very special indeed.
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