Philip Hammond's political suicide means even Brexiteers like me now need to back a second referendum

The truth is that there will be no agreement on the Irish border, not even by 2019, and none therefore on trade, none on the 'divorce bill', none on transition arrangements and, thus, no way of answering the question 'Transition to what?' In such circumstances there is only one choice: hard Brexit and staying in (if Britain's lucky)

Sean O'Grady
Monday 14 August 2017 18:37
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 For those of us who voted Leave but who are rather concerned about the way Brexit is going, this is all turning rather ugly
For those of us who voted Leave but who are rather concerned about the way Brexit is going, this is all turning rather ugly

Obviously there are bigger things in the world right now – World War Three, the arrival of The Big British Family Cooking Showdown, Leicester City disappointingly losing 4-3 to Arsenal – but I’ve just noticed that someone’s kidnapped the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

That's right. Philip Hammond, self-appointed leader of the “reasonable squad” in the Cabinet, friend to British business, reluctant leaver and supposed bulwark against hard Brexit, has been captured. There was a ransom note at the weekend, penned by himself and Liam Fox. It read as follows: “We are both clear that during [the transition] the UK will be outside the single market and outside the customs union and will be a 'third-country' not party to EU treaties.”

So not actually ransom note, seeing as there’s no actual financial way to release him from being handcuffed to Liam Fox; more of a political suicide note. I suppose that just leaves Amber Rudd then.

Don’t be taken in by the talk of “transition”. The transition to hard Brexit will have taken place – instantaneously – when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. The rest is just another tiresome exercise in wishful thinking, such as the notion that somehow, because we’re all grown-ups and the Germans sell lots of cars here and we won the war after all, the EU is obliged to be, well, soft, and offer us more or less what we have now – minus the contributions to the EU budget, minus freedom of movement of labour, minus the European Court, minus those irritating Brussels bureaucrats, minus straight bananas and anything else the British happen to find irksome. Only for a couple of years, true, but quite a soft landing for the British.

Philip Hammond: Transitional deal expected within three years of leaving EU

In the words of the Fox-Hammond Cerberus thing, the UK's borders "must continue to operate smoothly", goods bought on the internet "must still cross borders", and "businesses must still be able to supply their customers across the EU" after Brexit. In the coming days we are also promised some “Position Papers” on British policy towards the EU talks. These will be entitled: “Having Your Cake and Eating It – Trading the UK Way”, “Why Europe Needs Britain More than Britain Needs Europe, Honest. So Do As You’re Told”, “Have You Not Witnessed the Iron Will of the British People?” and “We’ve Got Nukes, You Know”.

It’s worth repeating: the EU is under no obligation to offer the UK any kind of transitional arrangements, sensible as it might be, solely on British terms. It is up for negotiation – and why would they give us a dream deal that the Swedes, Danes, Finns or Dutch (all secret Leave countries, I’m sure) might fancy?

If Tony Blair is right and the Europeans all want to ditch freedom of movement anyway, then we could easily do a deal, or stay in on much better terms – but where are Blair’s mysterious movers and shakers ready to devise a New Europe like he did New Labour? It’s all gone a bit quiet, that.

The EU in fact has a clear negotiating mandate, given to chief talker Michel Barnier, that does acknowledge the possibility of a transitional arrangement, but it is quite tightly drawn, and, contrary to the Fox-Hammond line, requires the UK to agree to the “acquis”. The “acquis” is a piece of Euro-jargon which means the UK would continue to be bound by EU rules, presumably including the big ones on freedom of movement and the European Court of Justice. Here’s how the EU sees it: “Should a time-limited prolongation of Union acquis be considered, this would require existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply. This approach will allow an efficient allocation of the limited time that Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union imposes for the conclusion of the Agreement by avoiding the need to address the same matter several times at different phases of the negotiations.”

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For the avoidance of doubt, the EU also states:

“The Agreement should set a withdrawal date which is at the latest 30 March 2019 at 00:00 (Brussels time), unless the European Council, in agreement with the United Kingdom, unanimously decides to extend this period in accordance with Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union. The United Kingdom will become a third country from the withdrawal date.”

Now, for those of us who voted Leave but who are rather concerned about the way Brexit is going, this is all turning rather ugly. Far from having our cake and eating it, the EU27 seems determined to shove into our face like a custard pie, and then send us the bill for cleaning the mess up. What is becoming increasingly clear is this:

  1. The impetus on both sides of the Channel is towards hard Brexit;
  2.  It will cause economic dislocation, and possibly a slump;
  3.  The only way to make it work is via a “Singapore of Europe” model of a low-tax, low-wage, small state, free-trading enterprise economy;
  4.  The British people are not up for that, being a mix of wet Tories and Corbynites these days;
  5.  They also feel a bit misled about the £350m a week for the NHS and ending migration thing, which is all they thought that was at stake in the referendum;
  6.  Therefore they have to be given a vote on what is about to befall them.

Logistically and logically, the UK-EU talks will not be completed by this time next year; indeed we’ll probably still be playing the three-dimensional chess game of how to keep the free travel and free trading zone with Ireland when the UK is out of the single market and the customs union in March 2019, if not the end of time.

That’s because it doesn’t matter how reasonable or “tough” both sides in the Brexit talks are – they won’t be able to make two plus two equal five. I certainly think it will take more than “goodwill on all sides” and some automatic number plate recognition machines to solve that conundrum. One wonders if the right of the Tory party would be happy to let go of Northern Ireland completely for the sake of hard Brexit. Just a thought.

Tom Peck on Double Take: Parliamentary sketch writers are currently redundant in Brexit Britain

The truth is that there will be no agreement on the Irish border, not even by 2019, and none therefore on trade, none on the “divorce bill”, none on transition arrangements and, thus, no way of answering the question “Transition to what?”

In such circumstances there is only one choice: hard Brexit and staying in (if Britain’s lucky). And for that to be resolved we need another referendum, which would not actually be a “second referendum”, but the first referendum on the actual terms of Brexit as they are agreed (or not agreed).

The people of Britain, as well as of Ireland and the rest of the European Union, deserve it. I wonder if Philip Hammond might extricate himself from the deadly embrace of the International Trade Secretary in time to advocate such a thing?

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