Sunday, March 29, 2020
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TCW’s Brexit Watch

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ON Tuesday the Telegraph gave us the news that Whitehall has scored yet another victory for Remainerdom and the status quo, Peter Foster and James Crisp reporting that ‘the UK is preparing to seek EU Brexit trade talks extension’ as the coronavirus crisis grows.  

Just a week ago the UK was insisting that the health crisis would not deflect it from keeping to its stated deadline and certainly not seek an extension. The reason for this screeching U-turn is given as the difficulty in conducting talks by video link or Skype or email. This purportedly means that the EU cannot prepare properly. ‘EU sources said hopes of conducting a full negotiation round via videolink had been crushed by the Covid-19 outbreak, which has put large swathes of Europe into effective lockdown and limited the ability of EU diplomats and officials to prepare for the talks.’ 

How very convenient for the EU and their friends in Whitehall.

An army of EU officials working on this right now are utterly expert in the issues needing to be resolved or to be the cause of a fair deal for the UK to be abandoned.  The EU officials, poor things, are saying with their Whitehall counterparts that ‘the sheer speed of developments has forced a rethink on both sides of the Channel. In Brussels, EU diplomats met in person on Friday to discuss changes to a draft text presented by the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, but have now resorted to discussions via email, which are much slower. “We haven’t had time to properly go through our own text,” said a source familiar with EU deliberations. “There were going to be in-depth meetings, but now they are cancelled”.

‘A second EU source said the maximum expectation now was for a teleconference in which both sides formally shared their draft Free Trade Agreement texts before going away to read them. “We both have plenty of homework,” the source added.’

So suddenly the ‘sheer speed of developments has forced a rethink’, and on both sides of the Channel. Indeed and astonishingly, ‘as the coronavirus crisis deepened, senior Whitehall sources also confirmed that civil servants who had been working on Brexit “no deal” preparations were being actively redeployed into virus crisis management’. 

What happened to contain, delay, research and mitigate?

It is not just this that makes it hard to swallow. These civil servants who had been working on a no deal Brexit are almost certainly not equipped medically or administratively to do anything remotely useful in the handling of the coronavirus in the UK. But by now, despite the massive Whitehall block on no deal preparations, they should have done some useful preparatory work on forging new trade links after Brexit.

My guess is that Sir Mark Sedwill has again stopped work on a no- deal Brexit, and we are back to Project Fear yet again. Coronavirus is an unconvincing excuse to end preparations and take the pressure off the EU, the true colleagues of Whitehall. While we might wish that Boris Johnson will not again cave in to this Remainer empire, the chances of his holding his nerve and telling Sir Mark to continue pressing the EU for a very good deal while the UK has the upper hand don’t look good. Whitehall is giving it away. Yet as Roger Bootle explains in the Telegraph, the virus crisis gives the UK a very strong position indeed in regard to Brexit, with the EU in crisis, splitting, and facing the end of the euro. 

He says: ‘The economic effects of coronavirus will felt for a long time to come, but Brexit should still be done within the pre-agreed timescale.’ He addresses the threat of the UK caving in to an extension: ‘There has been a suggestion that one implication of the crisis will be to persuade the UK to ask for an extension to the transition period for leaving the EU. This is possible, but I think it would be completely unnecessary and pretty damaging. 

‘Admittedly, the virus is going to make getting a trade deal done between the UK and the EU in the short timescale allowed even more difficult than it was going to be anyway. But it also makes it more important to get a deal done.

‘Although the extraordinariness of current events would give Boris Johnson some political cover if he were to ask for an extension, nevertheless this would deal quite a blow to his credibility. And compared with the damage done to the economy by the coronavirus, any short-term disruption from a no-deal exit at the end of this year would be pretty small beer.’ 

Johnson is in a strong position, he says, and needs to stand firm. After all, ‘it would be impossible for the critics convincingly to put a number on the cost of the disruption because economic performance is going to be dominated by the drop in output caused by the coronavirus followed by its sharp subsequent recovery.’

And the EU is in a desperate state. Bootle writes that ‘the EU should be seriously worried about the prospect of not having a trade deal, particularly at a time when the virus is likely to have major implications for the eurozone and the Union. The eurozone economy was looking in pretty dire straits before the virus struck . . . now it is bound to fall into recession.’  

He concludes his article by saying how lucky we are to have left the EU which is helpless in terms of financial policy: ‘The European Central Bank cannot operate a closely co-ordinated stimulus with the eurozone’s fiscal authority because there isn’t one. That is the point. If ever you needed a clear demonstration of how flawed the monetary union is, this was surely it.’

There we have the truth of the matter: the UK – if it were bent on securing a good deal from the EU – would not be melting into the Theresa May mode of being ever so nice and offering yet another cave in. A quick deal or no deal is now needed, as Michael St George wrote in these pages on Saturday. 

However a report yesterday in the Express denied the Telegraph Foster and Crisp article of the day before, saying Johnson is refusing to postpone and extend. Paul Withers reports that the UK is not going to ask for an extension despite face-to-face talks being cancelled. He says this latest commitment from the Government came after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was put under pressure from opposition MPs to extend the transition period, and that a Government spokesman had insisted the strict deadline set by Boris Johnson is ‘enshrined in UK law’. 

The Mail, meanwhile, is still reporting that the Prime Minister will extend the transition period, suggesting that the situation is still fluid and that one hell of a battle is going on in Whitehall.

For all the pressure on Johnson to extend, he must know it would be extremely unpopular.

So as to Brexit, is Johnson about to snatch a massive defeat from the almost inevitable jaws of victory? Is he again losing his nerve and choking, not to Barnier but to the Whitehall mandarinate, the real government of the UK?

If he does fall prey to civil servant masters, his fast-falling credibility with the voters who trusted that he is a Leave PM will go for good. As to Whitehall, they seem impregnable and do as they please, ‘post democratic, globalist, technocratic’, to quote a learned friend. And we have to ask whether there is any department of state that is efficient, adaptable, intelligent and loyal to the electorate? 

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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