PM in a bind because can’t do a deal and can’t crash out

by Hugo Dixon | 01.10.2019

The Prime Minister’s latest cockamamie idea for avoiding border controls in Ireland is a 20-mile wide customs zone. No wonder he’s already backtracking.

The ideas set out in a “non-paper” were leaked to Ireland’s RTE yesterday – and then briefed to the Telegraph, FT and others. This morning Boris Johnson told BBC Breakfast that these were not the “proposals that we are actually going to be tabling. They are talking about some stuff that went in previously.” 

But he also admitted to the BBC’s Today Programme that his actual proposals – which would go in shortly – would involve customs “checks somewhere”. Since these may bear some relation to the ideas in the “non-paper”, it’s worth understanding what’s so wrong with them – and why they have already been rejected by Ireland’s foreign minister as a “non-starter”.

One dimensional problem becomes two

The Prime Minister is prepared for Northern Ireland to follow the EU’s rules on “agrifoods”. But he wants the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, to leave the EU’s customs union.  This means some way has to be found to check that any manufactured goods which cross into the Republic of Ireland conform to EU standards and tariffs. 

The normal way to do this would be to have checks at the frontier. But these could become a target for Republican terrorists who don’t want to divide the island of Ireland. That’s why the government’s non-paper talks about a string of customs clearance centres 5-10 miles back from the border, on each side of it. The goods would then be monitored in real-time as they crossed the 10-20 mile zone via “GPS data or tracking devices”. That’s presumably to stop people putting things that hadn’t been cleared in the customs centres into the back of lorries.

In other words, in order to avoid checks at the frontier, the government has proposed monitoring an entire 20-mile wide zone. It has turned a one-dimensional problem (policing a line) into a two-dimensional one (monitoring an area).

Extra two years “vassalage”

The FT has picked up another interesting feature in the non-paper. Because so much new-fangled technology would be required, the government proposed a “transition” period lasting until end-2022. This is two years longer than the transition period Theresa May negotiated.

Johnson liked to lambast May for turning us into a “vassal state”, where we would follow EU rules without a say on them. But his own government’s proposal would have us staying in the EU’s customs union and single market for an extra two years.

The Prime Minister also likes to say that we would pay an extra £1 billion for every month that we stay in the EU. This is misleading because it doesn’t take account of the fact that around half of the money we send the EU comes back to the UK to be spent on poor regions, farmers, science and so forth – or is counted towards our aid budget. 

On the other hand, the government’s proposal for an extra two years transition is likely to lead to a higher bill. This is because after we have left the EU, we would be unlikely to enjoy the £4 billion a year “rebate”, a discount Margaret Thatcher famously negotiated. So we’d end up not just with vassalage but an expensive one.

Vicious cycle

Johnson is desperate for a deal. But he faces a sort of vicious spiral. 
He is most unlikely to get something that both the EU and MPs will agree. But he doesn’t want to compromise with the EU only to find that MPs reject it – as that means Nigel Farage and hardline Brexiters in his own party will attack him for betraying their cause without him even getting a deal over the line. As a result, he will be unwilling to make the compromises necessary to win over the EU – which, in turn, will make it even less likely that he can get a deal.

The Prime Minister is likely to calculate that he would do better in a subsequent election if he has hung tough in negotiations and failed. He might plan to go to the country promising a “no-deal” Brexit – hoping that Farage’s Brexit Party would support rather than attack him.

The fly in the ointment is that he would have to ask the EU to delay Brexit by three months under a law passed by MPs last month. And that would mean he would have to go back on his word to be “dead in a ditch” rather than delay Brexit.

Cabinet divisions

The Cabinet is divided three ways over what to do, according to Buzzfeed. One group wants Johnson to stick to his commitment to quit the EU on October 31. But his chances of wriggling out of the new law look slim, provided the “rebel alliance” is disciplined in its response. I examine some of their options here.

Another camp wants the Prime Minister to just comply with the law. But Johnson doesn’t seem in the mood to do that. 

Finally, a third group thinks the Prime Minister should resist the law until the Supreme Court compels him to obey. The idea is that, because he had tried really hard, he would still scoop up the bulk of Brexiters in a subsequent election – and win.

If Johnson goes down the latter route, there’s a simple way to foil his plans: deny him the election he craves. The rebel alliance should instead insist on first holding a referendum to decide whether to stay in the EU. It would be far better to clear this up rather than muddling it up with the decision about who should run the country.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently saying he wants an election as soon as extra time is in the bag. Hopefully, he will see the wisdom of delaying one until after a referendum.

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Edited by James Earley

Categories: UK Politics

One Response to “PM in a bind because can’t do a deal and can’t crash out”

  • Why call an election before we decide what flavour we want our brexit to be? To call an election before a new referendum will put so many options on the table it will be impossible to understand what they are let alone choose and vote intelligently.

    If it is Corbyn who is forcing this idea on us he should be taken aside and given a sharp talking to.

    It is so very clear that a new referendum with the option to withdraw A50 included with various other options (hard, Medium and soft) and also to drop with no deal.

    If the public is helped to understand the consequences of the various avenues then they will be able to make an informed decision about their future.

    Strict policing of the news media must take place to curb the actions of Murdoch and his ilk. Formage should be put in chains and stuffed in a dark dungeon for the duration of this information process.

    Authorities must be on high alert to expose skulduggery before it damages the information process.