Politicians have to stop practising creative ambiguity around Brexit sometime – and sooner rather than later

The most divided government in decades, and the most childish ever, will soon have an opportunity to thrash out Britain's destiny around the Cabinet table. It's still hard to feel optimistic

Monday 11 December 2017 18:51
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A man imitating Boris Johnson plays in a skit with a puppet of Theresa May outside EU headquarters in Brussels last week
A man imitating Boris Johnson plays in a skit with a puppet of Theresa May outside EU headquarters in Brussels last week

Brexit, as should be clear by now, is full of contradictions, and the latest twists in this gruesome soap opera only serve to enhance that unenviable reputation. An underpowered UK negotiating team selected on political grounds from a divided minority Government dependent on a hot-tempered Unionist party on one side, negotiating on a vast range of intractable problems with a notoriously bureaucratic and semi-hostile EU Commission, itself balancing the (selfish) interests of 27 diverse separate member states – well, how could things possibly go wrong?

Within days of the publication of the text of the “breakthrough” agreement, ministers are contacting each other about its meaning, and sometimes, as Jeremy Corbyn observed during the Prime Minister’s statement, contradicting themselves (though the Labour leader and his team are no strangers to the world of creative ambiguity).

Thus we find that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union offered the opinion that the UK’s divorce bill, confirmed at anything from £35m to £39m, will not be handed over in the event that there is no deal on trade. That remains in stark contrast to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said that such sums could indeed have to be paid as part of the UK honouring its international financial obligations, something for which the Treasury doesn’t share Mr Davis’s breezy disregard.

Of course that didn’t stop Mr Davis contradicting himself about the very status of the breakthrough agreement on Friday. Or, in the graphic words of his very own Day 2 clarification: “I said this was a statement of intent, which was much more than just legally enforceable … Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement, but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless, invisible border with Ireland.” Try turning that into an EU directive.

That is hardly the limit of the Cabinet’s disagreements. The Defra Secretary, Michael Gove, says he wants to see the UK out of the Common Fisheries Policy – not a trivial matter – in March 2019; the Prime Minister’s agreement implies it will be subject to the two-year transition period.

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, in an informal alliance of the sensible tendency with the Chancellor, believes a no-deal option is unthinkable; Mr Davis and others are happy to think aloud about that very scenario, though admitting they’d rather not.

Meantime the Chancellor, with typical wit, has reportedly nicknamed the new Defence Secretary “Private Pike” and the pair had to be prised apart by the Prime Minister’s aides during a “toe to toe” barney in a Commons corridor. Stupid boys.

The most divided government in decades, and the most childish ever, will soon have an opportunity to thrash out Britain's destiny around the cabinet table. A fly on the wall might find it hard to keep up with though, if their past record is anything to go by. There are just about as many “visions” or nightmares and chimeras being canvassed as there are members of the Cabinet itself. More than a few of them have more than one eye on their leadership prospects, indulging in the most contrived and unlikely alliances in order to secure some marginal advantage for themselves in a contest the timing of which could measure in weeks or years.

Across the Channel, the EU Commission will brief the remaining 27 member states of the EU about what the UK-EU agreement means so far as they are concerned. It is as certain as the wine list arriving promptly at Mr Juncker’s dinner table that it will be significantly different to the way the British have been spinning it. Both sides are too invested in the document to watch it slide into ridicule and disarray, but the contradictions will be apparent. The arguments about the Irish border, the divorce bill, the transition period and even EU and UK citizens’ rights are far from over.

What might we expect at the end of all this? The dismal answer is that even if the British Cabinet came up with some sharply defined picture of the post-Brexit future, achieving it is hardly a matter for them alone. As we have discovered all too often in recent months, the UK’s destiny lies at least as much in the hands of Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier, and the 27 governments behind them, as it does in those of the British Government.

The fact that the whole Brexit process could be seriously and embarrassingly stalled after interventions by the Irish Prime Minister and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party demonstrates just how far away Theresa May is from “leading” Britain anywhere, strong and stable or not.

In the next few days, as in the past 18 months or so, and indeed much further back in history, we will be treated once again to a variation on a familiar theme – the “deep and special partnership” recipe – the British preference for a “cake and eat it” deal from the EU – all the trade and economic advantages but with few disadvantages (beyond, possibly, paying some cash into the EU budget) and certainly not the bother of freedom of movement of labour. The British will, again, simultaneously wish to enjoy the benefits of the EU and ignore the more irksome obligations of membership. The British have been asking for this, on and off, ever since the first application went in in 1961, and the answer has always come back from across the Channel just the same: “Non”. No creative ambiguity there.

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