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Analysis

May threatens no deal, but has no plan

by Luke Lythgoe | 10.10.2017

Theresa May’s announcement yesterday that she was preparing for “no deal” in the Brexit talks was interpreted in the papers as a warning shot to a contemptuous Brussels. The government’s customs white paper suggests her threat is a paper tiger.

At least the two-and-a-half page “contingency scenario” recognises the problems of crashing out with no deal. Traders will have to be registered and make customs declarations, while their goods will be checked. Imports will face customs duty and VAT. Export declarations will be needed, as will licences in some cases. In short, a morass of new bureaucracy will gum up trade.

But not to worry. The government is “actively considering” ways to mitigate the impact. What’s more, it is “committed to developing” solutions and will be “seeking the views of businesses and other stakeholders”.

May’s refusal to answer MPs’ questions on how much money has been set aside for this contingency scenario suggests she doesn’t have a plan. Perhaps ministers hope other people will find solutions. For this government, promising a period of consultation has become a euphemism for delaying thorny Brexit decisions.

The white paper also tries to address fears that lorries will be snared up at congested ports. It promises to “ensure trade flows through the ports as seamlessly as possible”. Its main solution is that traders will notify consignments to customs before they reach the ports.

The paper’s plans are described as a “stepping stone to the technology-based solution”. This seems a clear admission that the government’s blue-sky idea about using cutting-edge technology will not be ready by March 2019.

And what about Northern Ireland, which is a fiendishly hard problem to solve even if we get a deal? The paper welcomes the “clear commitment” from the EU to “work on ‘flexible and imaginative’ solutions” to avoid a hard border. The government blithely expects this commitment to hold if talks break down, saying “all sides must aim for an agreed, reciprocal solution”.

These are not plans. This is wishful thinking without substance.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon