BREX FACTOR: Why Boris Johnson’s newest unicorn is so lame

A 'Brexit unicorn' is spotted in the wild. Photograph: Twitter.

A 'Brexit unicorn' is spotted in the wild. Photograph: Twitter. - Credit: Archant

Even the Daily Express were struggling to sell the latest unicorn to be released from the pro-Brexit stable.

Neigh, neigh and thrice neigh! Having witnessed their stable of unicorns (max fac, the backstop to the backstop, the Malthouse Compromise) hobbling one-by-one to the unicorn knacker's yard and thence to the unicorn glue factory, you might have expected Brexiteers to think twice before plonking their collective weight on the back of another fantastic beast.

Yet here into the parade ring comes GATT Article 24, led by PM-elect Boris Johnson, with Iain Duncan Smith polishing its horn and Priti Patel following behind with a large shovel to scoop up its rainbow-coloured droppings.

Seized upon with huge enthusiasm by the increasingly desperate Brexit bunch, GATT Article 24 refers to a subsection of the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, written in 1948. The Three Stooges claim that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, this hitherto obscure clause will allow the UK to continue to deal with the EU without the additional duties and limits on goods which would ordinarily come into play under WTO rules.

"There will be no tariffs and there will be no quotas," Johnson told the Tory leadership debate earlier this month. In a Sunday Telegraph article which remarkably took two of them to write, Patel and Duncan Smith explained the tactics further: "We would agree with the EU to jointly invoke GATT Article 24 to come into force on October 31. This will enable us to continue with zero tariffs and regulatory standstill for the negotiation (of a comprehensive free trade agreement)."

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So no-deal, no problem? As the Brexiteer trade secretary Liam Fox told Andrew Marr last weekend, "It isn't true, that's the problem".

When the fervently pro-Boris, pro-Brexit Daily Express managed to dig up an economist who sounded vaguely enthusiastic about GATT Article 24, its piece was headlined "Boris Johnson RIGHT to say UK can avoid tariffs says expert - with one catch".

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And what was that tiny snag, outlined by Leave supporter David Collins of the City of London University? "Both parties would have to agree to such an arrangement - it cannot be declared unilaterally by one party."

As Yossarian nearly said, "that's some catch, that Catch-24".

Persuading the EU to ride side-saddle on the GATT Article 24 unicorn would be tough enough were it not for other things Johnson says he will do as PM, including withholding some or all of the £39 billion divorce bill and kicking the Irish border can down the road until after Halloween.Though he is willing to do a deal on citizens' rights, these last two ideas directly contradict two of Michel Barnier's three red lines on starting future trade talks: Not possible until Britain has settled its financial obligations and agreed a plan on Ireland.

So we are back to where we began three years ago this week: Boris Johnson insisting the unattainable can be attained because ultimately - and contrary to all the evidence of the past 36 months - the EU will cave in since it needs the UK far more than we need it.

Fox, Bank of England governor Mark Carney, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and attorney general Geoffrey Cox all say he is wrong. But on Tuesday morning the likely former prime minister was still describing his plan as a "hopeful prospect" and claiming "this country should stop being so down about our ability to get this done". This is not a strategy, it is a fantasy.

In February, Theresa May warned the Commons that "the question of GATT 24 is perhaps not as simple as some might have understood it to be." Sadly, her likely successor may be just as simple as we feared he would be.

- Brexit Party MEP-elect Claire Fox has defended her use of Eurostar's business class on her first trip to Brussels, writing: "While outraged Remainers gloated that I was travelling at taxpayers' expense, they might like to know it is the EU who recommends business class for expediency. It is paid for by them apparently because these tickets are easier to change if there are travel problems."

How refreshing to hear a Brexiteer cutting through the noise and standing up for what turns out to be perfectly reasonable EU policy! Let's hope Claire's conversion next sees her tackle some of the drivel peddled by colleagues about "free EU iPads" (more expedient and secure than 751 MEPs turning up with their own laptops and other devices) and "luxury EU chauffeurs" (the service enables car sharing and cuts down on endless taxi expense claims).

There is waste and silliness in any bureaucracy, and the EU is no exception. But targeting simple things which help MEPs do their jobs more easily is not the best place to start.

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