For the Brexiteers the most important aspect of the transitional deal was not extending Article 50, argues ANDREW ADONIS who warns we are now facing a Tory Brexit by a thousand cuts.
So is Brexit a case of ‘for things to remain the same, everything must change’?
That is the view of the fatalists and cynics after this week’s Monday capitulation, when David Davis, with best Cheshire Cat smile, agreed to pretty well all Michel Barnier’s red lines on the deal for the transition period until the end of 2020 – and in effect agreed to capitulate over a slower timescale where he didn’t concede outright.
Most significantly of all, given the synthetic arguments of recent weeks about ‘no border down the Irish Sea,’ Theresa May not only conceded complete regulatory alignment between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but agreed fully-fledged European law would apply during the transition if the Irish government wasn’t content that this commitment was being observed. The wrath of Rees-Mogg was a joy to behold – with all kinds of dark threats. And my particularly batty friend, transport secretary Chris Grayling, smuggling out an announcement that the border staff at Dover won’t be carrying out any border controls at the port after next March so not to impede the flow of trucks, with the possibility of food shortages at Waitrose.
So those traffic queues tailing back to the M25 aren’t going to happen either.
But don’t be beguiled. It was always a mirage that anything would change in the transition period. The practical reason is the sheer impossibility of creating the physical and IT systems necessary for any new trading or immigration regimes within 12 months. It doesn’t matter what Grayling wanted, it simply wasn’t possible to do anything but the status quo.
And there is a political factor – the importance for the Brexiteers of getting us out of the EU with no extension of the Article 50 negotiating period which would have been necessary if quick agreement hadn’t been reached. The cabinet Brexiteers are desperate to avoid any slip betwix cup and lip, so anything goes for the Goves and Johnsons in terms of the transition, and the real battle starts thereafter. Gove said as much when agreeing to a continuation of the Common Fisheries Policy.
But because, once we are out of the EU, everything is possible, that is when the Brexiteers will really get going. Then they will have time on their side, because there will be limitless opportunities to revise, then further revise, the inherited EU system. The cleverer ones never envisaged a bing-bang deregulatory burning-of-the-books, but rather Brexit by a thousand cuts, regulation by regulation. And the first and most important of those moves is extracting the UK from the EU institutions.
Just as the EU has been created in Britain over the last 45 years by some 20,000 pieces of European legislation, so the Brexiteers’ dreamworld of ‘Thatcherism in one country’ – which is the central ideological purpose of Brexit for the Tory right – will be achieved by the same process in reverse but over a far shorter period.
In this vision they are probably right, for this reason. Which party usually wins elections in Westminster? Yes, you guessed, the English Nationalist Party, aka the Conservatives. Only Tony Blair has won a convincing majority against the Tories in the entire 45 years of our EU membership. It will be successive Tory governments who will take the decisions. So still be very afraid. Brexit was always going to be a war, not a single battle.
When Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’, maybe he had a point about Sicily. When dealing with backwaters from which people can and do escape all the time to bring about their own personal change, those who remain are in a strong position to stifle change. But the whole point about the success of modern Britain – in the EU – is that we all want to stay. Including, alas, the Brexiteers who want things to change most.