PMQs today proved that the Government has no idea how to even begin negotiating Brexit

Emily Thornberry said to Damian Green that it seemed the Government was actually ‘making Brexit up as it goes along’ – and in a week when Boris Johnson got embarrassingly slapped down by an EU negotiator, it’s hard not to agree with her

Holly Baxter
Wednesday 12 July 2017 15:01 BST
Emily Thornberry takes down Tory frontbench in PMQs

There is a deal, there isn’t a deal, we’re not publishing the details of a possible deal, a cliff-edge Brexit deal won’t work for Britain, we need time for the possibility of a transitional deal, there might be a deal but if it’s a punishment deal then no deal – listening to Emily Thornberry and Damian Green discussing Brexit during Prime Minister’s Questions today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the word “deal” had recently lost all objective meaning.

Damian Green, standing in for Theresa May while she attended a Horse Guards Parade for the king and queen of Spain (because that’s the kind of country we live in), insisted on a number of occasions that everything to do with the negotiations was just fine. That might have been more convincing if Boris Johnson hadn’t this week announced that he is prepared to tell Brussels to “go whistle” if those awful EU bureaucrats think Britain is going to pay them “extortionate” fees to Brexit, and then been promptly slapped down by EU negotiator Michel Barnier who simply replied: “I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking.”

And the clock is ticking. Time is not on our side, and everyone in the EU knows it: as our economics expert Hamish McRae has written before, time is now so tight when you factor in the weeks wasted on a general election (plus campaigning), the summer recess of our own Parliament plus those of other European governments, Theresa May’s back-and-forth with the DUP and the endless Tory “deal or no deal” grandstanding that serves only to get EU backs up, the idea we’ll end up with a custom-made exit deal for Britain isn’t just unlikely; it’s absurd. Instead, we’ll have to “buy off the shelf”, most likely having to commit ourselves to the same deal as Switzerland or Norway, at least temporarily. It seems 2019 isn’t going to end up quite the barn-storming year of liberating independence Nigel Farage dreamed of; we’ll probably end up leaving Europe with a whimper rather than a bang.

Labour’s fear that we’ll crash out of the EU with no deal is “probably overstated”, Green said today, which suggests the Tories are moving away from adherence to Theresa May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” line. Back before the general election, I sat down with a confident Conservative MP who told me that that line was central to their manifesto and that the Prime Minister was right to state it strongly. Needless to say, it went down like a cup of cold sick with the actual electorate, and it seems the Tories are now changing their strategy.

Michel Barnier encourages the UK to make haste in the Brexit negotiations

Confusingly, Green also told Thornberry that she should bear in mind the UK could be offered a “punishment deal” by the EU, and that in that scenario, Britain shouldn’t accept it. He implied instead that “walking away” might be a viable option if Europe isn’t willing to play ball in the way the three Brexiteers want them to.

In a right-wing alternate reality, where the EU comes crawling back after being put in time out and begs for another chance with Britain, threatening “no deal” might have some actual clout. But in reality, the EU has nowhere near as much to lose as us if we go down the hard Brexit route. It may very well be in their interests to let us crash out entirely, with all the financial upheaval that will inevitably cause. That way Angela Merkel et al can certainly point to the plunging pound and the political uproar caused by the consequences of Brexit and say to their own citizens: “Do you really want to be like them? If Britain said jump off a cliff-edge Brexit, would you do it?”

Despite all of this, it is worth clinging to the fact that Green only made a passing allusion to the possibility of not getting a deal at all, as compared to the chest-beating proclamations made by a lot of his fellow MPs only a few months ago. “No deal is better than a bad deal” has been consigned to the same scrap-heap “strong and stable” now festers in: it’s clear enough that that sort of talk is decidedly not “the will of the people”.

The problem is that when you hear Theresa May or her stand-in speak, the specifics about a Brexit deal or the terms of the negotiations are so paltry as to be laughable. When Emily Thornberry questioned whether the Government is “making it up as it goes along”, Green had little to say except that negotiations have started. But as today’s PMQs showed, most people’s primary concern nowadays isn’t necessarily a “no deal” situation – it’s the idea that the Government has no idea how to approach deal-making in the first place.

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