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Into the long grass, on Cold Comfort Farm

by Bill Emmott | 28.07.2017

As thoughts turn to languid August days, it is usually salutary — if sobering — to remind oneself that come September it will nearly be Christmas. Much the same dampener needs to be poured on any mid-summer feelings that the emerging cabinet consensus of a Brexit transition period lasting until 2022 might mean more time and opportunity to argue that Brexit should be softened or reversed. Cold reality will return alarmingly soon.

The argument for optimism relies on the idea that by kicking issues such as immigration and European Court of Justice oversight of commerce into the long grass of 2019 and beyond pro-EU voices such as Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond have given themselves a greater chance of changing minds in the Conservative Party and the public.

Such minds could indeed still be changed. But it will take much bigger political manoeuvres than just transition periods for that to happen. Here are six reasons why the political compass is still pointing to a hard Brexit:

  1. The big potential political benefit of the three-year “off-the-shelf” transition period that Philip Hammond has said that he is seeking is that it could defuse the explosive issue of Britain’s divorce bill. A large part of those financial liabilities consists of British contributions to EU budgetary programmes over that three-year period. So if those costs can be relabelled as simply transitional costs, the wrath of the Mail and the Express may be more easily managed — getting the government to an exit deal sooner and more smoothly.
  1. The one cabinet minister whose name has not so far been said in media reports to have signed up for transition periods and implementation phases is Boris Johnson. This could be because he has been travelling in far away time zones. But another explanation would be that he fancies his chances to win a Tory leadership contest this Autumn, and still thinks that aligning himself with “no deal is better than a bad deal” will be popular with the party membership who will make the final choice. This is the party membership, remember, that according to a recent poll rated Jacob Rees-Mogg as their second favourite potential leader.
  1. A longer transition period certainly feels more like the “smart” Brexit ministers have sometimes talked of, since it provides both firms and government departments more time to prepare and adjust. Avoiding the cliff-edge makes sense, but that also avoids the alternative metaphor: the idea that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind.
  1. Labour’s stance has, if anything, hardened since the party’s ambiguous election manifesto, if recent statements by Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow trade minister, Barry Gardiner, are anything to go by. As long as that anti-single market positioning stays in place, there will be little parliamentary pressure on the government to budge. Keir Starmer’s voice in Labour’s policy-making circle so far seems about as strong as that of attorney-general Jeff Sessions in the Trump White House.
  1. If a general election is successfully avoided for as long as 2022, then so will be any clarity about Britain’s future course. That is the ultimate political objective of agreeing on a transition period, ie to buy time during which to discredit Labour and win that election. But if successful that will also defer any full-scale debate or electoral test of what kind of Britain voters want, and would avoid ministers having to defend their Brexit policies before the electorate until it is too late.
  1. Any Remainers who believe that the EU27 might simply allow, let alone welcome, a change of Britain’s mind about leaving the Union should ask themselves why our European partners would take the risk of allowing us back absent a general election or referendum that provided a sense of clarity and security about Britain’s intentions. We have caused enough trouble already. President Macron can safely be relied upon to forget the fact that he once said Britain would be welcome to change its mind. He is already sounding more like General de Gaulle every day.

The point is that the battle to avoid a destructive Brexit still needs to be fought. It needs to be fought this Autumn at all the party conferences, and it needs to be fought in and among the public, all over the country. Until that battle is fought and won, Britain will remain in Cold Comfort Farm.

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Edited by Sam Ashworth-Hayes