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Michael Gove’s Brexit fantasy is leading us down a perilous path

Michael Gove's wardrobe malfunction - Credit: Martin Rowson

Did you hear the door slam on Britain’s post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU27 after Boris Johnson declared them broken off last Friday night? No, neither did deaf old me. But nor did BBC One’s News at Ten which opted to lead its bulletin on Whitehall’s parallel standoff with Covid-hit Manchester, also going badly for Number 10’s evaporating authority.

Most newspapers next morning were almost as deaf to slammed doors. So were those Brussels bureaucrats who spotted an unpolished British shoe preventing it closing. Despite chief negotiator Lord Frost telling Michel Barnier not to bother to catch Monday’s pre-dawn Eurostar, that shoe turned out to be Michel Gove’s. The negotiating door was “ajar”, the Cabinet Office fixer confirmed on Sunday sofa TV. A no-deal outcome would “not be a picnic,’’ he explained. And Gove should know.

The minister who makes Dr Pangloss, Voltaire’s blithe optimist (“everything for the best”), sound like a manic depressive repeated this shtick again to MPs on Monday afternoon. By this time the picnic had become “some turbulence” and only the stupidest backbench loyalists were not sounding queasy. Lo and behold, Gove (“I am not blasé or blithe”) produced a rabbit. It transpired that Frostie had been on the phone to Barney while Govey prevaricated – and talks were back on again. Almost. Except that Number 10 promptly said they weren’t. Tuesday’s papers appeared to overrule Number 10’s interpretation.

It all reminded me of that long-forgotten schoolboy joke. “When is a door not a door?” “When it’s a jar.” So break open the Prosecco and give these guys a Bafta, someone. Only a dwindling minority of voters still bother with diplomacy during the football season and had been witnessing an established ritual. Familiar to students of the EU elite’s 13th hour negotiating technique it is a Victorian melodrama in which Boris the Bluffer repeatedly attempts to resist its stern demands while quietly compromising his own virtue.

For slow learners British ministers were simultaneously trying to “do a Brussels” by toughing up Manchester mayor Andy Burnham. They struggled over the size of the support scheme Whitehall would provide to struggling Mancunian businesses and their staff in return for a Tier Three lockdown over 2.8 million people. Wales had just joined Liverpool down the Tier Three pathway. Constitutional unionist that he is, Gordon Brown had backed Keir Starmer’s call for a national circuit breaker and more financial support.

Former health secretary Burnham – he once dealt with a pandemic we’ve luckily forgotten – is a tougher, more experienced politician than Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, and has Manchester behind his stance, Tory MPs included. So Jenrick came up with a brilliant idea from the Dominic Cummings macho playbook. After a chaotic negotiation again broke down he gave the press (not Burnham) a late night deadline requiring Manchester to concede by noon next day, barely 12 hours later.

Just like a Brexit deadline that one came and went while haggling continued over cash and other northern leaders joined in. We’ll accept Tier Three if you show us the disputed infection data and enough cash to prevent “a catastrophe of poverty and deprivation,” said Andy Preston, independent mayor of Middlesbrough. Jenrick’s own constituency town of Newark (pop 27,000) was awarded a £25 million slice of his department’s towns fund – about the same as originally on offer to Manchester, said someone else.

Though he sees himself as chairman, not CEO, ex-mayor Johnson himself eventually spoke by phone to mayor Burnham (that’s bad news for Jenrick’s career prospects) and imposed Tier Three unilaterally when the two sides were just £5m apart. Local targeting is good, but so is consent. Brussels, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, now Manchester, UK ministers aren’t much good at negotiating, are they? Boris told Burnham his door remains open. Is that the same door?

I could still be persuaded to applaud Number 10’s attempt to resist the EU’s terms if I thought the Johnsonians were seriously engaged, capable of sustaining the endgame they envisage and their Kentish lorry parks (sorry, “inland border facilities”) were ready to deal with the consequences of failure and a shortage of truckers’ Portaloos. Persistent miscalculation and mixed messaging over pandemic strategy is eerily unsettling.

Yet this was not a moment for Thursday’s EU summit leaders to feel too smug. They too had miscalculated. Friday’s communiqué had dropped – at Emmanuel Macron’s insistence ? – the conciliatory passage about intensifying talks, a micro-concession to London. Instead they plonked the onus wholly on Britain to give ground on fishing and state-aid level playing field terms in the vital four weeks ahead.

That allowed Boris the table tennis buff to flick the ball back over the net with his equally shallow defiance on Friday night TV. Selfish Johnny Foreigner hadn’t devoted enough time to the talks, hadn’t expanded their range or included the legal texts, hadn’t intensified them either. Is it possible that the EU27 have other worries on their minds, that looming one trillion euro budget deficit (8.9% of GDP) to fight the pandemic, perhaps? The lake of red ink is ten times last year’s size. Ours is as bad.

But both troupes of socially-distanced actors were edging a bit closer. It serves to remind us all how risky such brinkmanship is when the Barnier clock is finally ticking in real time (just 10 weeks to go before Nigel Farage’s next “Freedom Day”) and such inadequate statesmen steer their countries’ destiny in challenging times. Listening to council leaders from the north west – as we have all done this week – suggests that many show greater clarity of thought and purpose than most of Johnson’s vassal cabinet, assembled only because it is Brexit-compliant. Given the Gove-Sunak-led resistance to a no-deal outcome, it is no longer even that. Who’d have guessed!

At this stage in another gloomy survey of the week, this column likes to pause for a coffee and cheery pep talk. The bad guys and idiots don’t win every round. In distant New Zealand, wholesome Jacinda Ardern has been rewarded for her calmly competent handling of Covid-19 with an outright majority, rare in Kiwi politics. Some of Greece’s Golden Dawn fascists were finally jailed last week amid signs that the European far right is splintering.

Donald Trump shows no sign of reversing his own ugly and disastrous campaign trajectory – so that even Boris now sees the need for overtures to Biden.

But don’t go near the bookies to bet on the US election result. Just let Dettol Don pack his bags and leave. Europe’s nasties haven’t gone away either. And – potentially more ominous – a global attitude study among five million Millennials – conducted by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge – finds that those in their 20s and 30s have much less faith in democratic institutions than their elders had at the same age. Disaffection is especially high in the Anglo-Saxon countries, Australia among them.

It’s not hard to see why when two pre-boomer granddads are contesting the White House and few boomer leaders much impress the young, scared for their mental health, their future careers and for the planet. Ardern is just 40, smart-but-unlovable Emmanuel Macron almost 43 and David Attenborough is 94. At 17, young Greta Thunberg isn’t yet old enough to vote. So there seems to be a gaping generational gap in the middle. What happened? Marketised societies, those which elevate money and unmediated individualism at the expense of competent governance and community, would have much to answer for if media oligarchs were inclined to ask the questions and social media were not an engine of discord.

But we are where we are and must make the best of it. So no pep talk should overlook the fact that there were also cheerier signs of progress in Gove’s statement despite offstage thespian flourishes from Number 10 trolls. In his separate parallel talks in the EU withdrawal joint committee on implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, he told MPs that both sides are improving mutual understanding on agri-business, on the troubled Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and citizens’ rights, where four million EU citizens have now got confirmation of their UK status. If true, that must be a great relief all round.

A specialist committee is working on ‘Gibraltar and the sovereign base issue’ – which must mean Cyprus. Whatever that means, I missed any MP or newspaper picking it up. Instead Kettering’s Brexit champion, Philip Hollobone asked whether the Navy is ready to defend Kettering’s fish from “illegal plunder” (apparently it is) and John Redwood reported seeing “popular and excellent fresh food in our supermarkets with the Union flag on the packaging.” He hoped there would be more.

That doesn’t sound very Global Britain, John, it sounds more Little Britain. But I suspect it merely shows that the Wokingham Vulcan is not a regular shopper: supermarkets are full of British apples in October. Theresa May was less persuaded by Gove’s bland assurances on police and security cooperation. “Utter rubbish,” she cried which is very un-Theresa.

No-one appeared to know that the Flemish regional government in Belgium has been digging out the Fisheries Privilege Charter granted by Charles II in 1662 to protect its access to UK coastal waters if no fishing compromise is reached to protect its 40 million euros a year industry and 2,500 jobs. Paris is delving even further back. Did someone say Boris had “got Brexit done”?

All of which, notwithstanding incremental movements, shows that progress by stealth may yet avert the worst kind of smash on January 1.

That’s just as well, isn’t it. When Gove talks of an “Australia-style deal” in the absence of a “Canada-style deal” he misleads on both, whereas Johnson is probably merely ignorant of the details. Tom Bower’s new biography – The Gambler – repeatedly shows the mayor-turned-PM to be under-briefed and uncurious throughout his career, while perversely defending his hero from “Boris Haters”.

From aviation and road haulage to professional qualifications and energy markets, Britain has been asking far more than Canada, a much smaller and more distant EU trading partner. As for Australia, a few weeks ago vapid columnists started writing that Britain has so much in common with the ‘Lucky Country’. Both are islands, English-speaking and democratic, and similar guff. In reality Oz’s economy thrives on extractive industries – coal and rich mineral deposits – and is heavily dependent on China which is cracking the sovereign whip.

No wonder that Canberra is trying to improve its trade ties with the EU. Australia’s current arrangements are really a euphemism for a no-deal outcome based on WTO rules – an Afghan-style deal if you like. Or – as Gove’s Labour shadow, Rachel Reeves, put it – “a Narnia deal”. If you’ve forgotten CS Lewis’s Christian allegory, the kids go through the back wall of a wardrobe and enter a magic world where Aslan the noble Lion – not ignoble Boris – is World King.

British business is not keen to go through the back of Gove’s wardrobe. Financier-turned-minister Lord Theodore Agnew enraged real businessmen and industrial sectors by accusing them of having “a head in sand approach” towards post-transition adjustments. As if they hadn’t dealt with two false start dates since 2016, a global pandemic and – now – an ever-moving post-transition map of uncertain scope and intensity. “Is your business ready?” adverts are no substitute for properly staffed and equipped customs facilities at ports on both sides or reliable advice from Whitehall.

When Johnson and Gove staged a “perfunctory” Tuesday call with the CBI and Co Gove likened the transition end to a disruptive house move “to a bigger and better house” – well worth it. Boris called it “a big opportunity”. They left angry and dismayed.

Since a government survey found that 43% of businesses still expect an extension of the transition – it won’t happen this time, chaps – and only 24% think they are ready, ministerial messaging seems to have been no more effective on Brexit transition than on Covid-19. In both crises a supposedly ‘libertarian’ government hordes the power and the data at the centre. How many of the 50,000 customs agents needed to process the extra paperwork that an “independent sovereign country” will need to trade are going to be in post on time? They don’t say and we fear the worst.

Needless to add, the major financial institutions – 10% of the economy against 0.1% for fishing – have been largely left to their own devices, but have the money and brains to adapt. They have been setting up the necessary subsidiaries in those EU states and sectors where they need to trade, exporting jobs and capital in the process. Experts on both sides know the City will remain indispensable to EU financial markets for a long time. Crippled by 10% tariffs and ‘rules of origin’ restrictions, the British car industry is not well placed. Small and mid-sized hauliers in towns and cities all over Britain are bewildered and distressed.

Yet their representative bodies have detected in recent weeks attempts by ministers to shift the blame for ‘unpreparedness’ onto them. This may come as a surprise to voters whose days are spent filling lorries with goods for export and import and keeping them and often-perishable cargoes safely on the road. It does not surprise those whose job it is to study government and know how populist leaders operate. Blame Andy Burnham; blame Dr Anthony Fauci, Mr President; blame struggling haulage firms. But never blame Boris.

Blame where it matters creeps closer all the same. This week the Daily Mail did a four-page audit of the wider cost of Covid-19 in terms of jobs and businesses lost, non-Covid death and sickness rates too. The Conservative Home website urged ministers – as it has done since March – to “widen the national conversation” about Covid by setting up an economic SAGE and counting the excess mortality rate that captures the cancer cost (etc) of NHS disruption too. What a good idea. Let’s widen the conversation for Brexit too.

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