JAMES BALL: Hardliners struggle to get the basics of Brexit right

PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 September 2018

Jacob Rees-Mogg's ERG has failed to offer solutions to the problems of Brexit. Photo: Getty Images

Jacob Rees-Mogg's ERG has failed to offer solutions to the problems of Brexit. Photo: Getty Images

2018 Getty Images

JAMES BALL says the real reason we’ve made so little progress on Brexit is clear: the hardliners central to the process have made very little effort to understand it.

It is perhaps only this week, six months from Brexit, that the reason we’ve made so little progress has become clear.

We’d wondered whether the issue might be Theresa May’s refusal to face reality, spending more time grappling with her own party than EU negotiators – and doubtless, this plays a part.

We’d wondered whether the UK had simply triggered Article 50 so early and with so little preparation that it would be impossible under the best of circumstances to negotiate a sensible deal before its two-year deadline.

We’d even wondered whether the hard Brexiteer wing of the Conservative party had been mustering some secret plan, a bid to remove the prime minister and present a very hard Brexit as a fait accompli – their way or the highway.

Now, even if we’d had inklings already, we have to firmly identify a prime suspect: the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party, right up to its cabinet ministers, still don’t understand the very basics of the process, and have made virtually no attempt to do so.

This might not matter, but for the fact that thanks to May’s total absence of a majority she is heavily reliant on them not just for her own future, but to secure any form of deal. And it has implications which go well beyond just her – but first, let’s tackle why now we should remove any benefit of the doubt from the hard Brexiteer faction.

First, last week marked the decision of the European Research Group – the Jacob Rees-Mogg-led hard Brexit faction of Tory MPs – to finally publish their plans for leaving the EU. Or at least it was supposed to: in the end, what got published amounted to a back-of-a-fag packet effort at solving the Irish border problem, which managed to be roughly conceivable, but a non-starter for most involved.

By the weekend, ERG members were complaining off-the-record to BuzzFeed News that this plan – supposedly the result of months of work and debate – had led to one day of half-hearted headlines, with no follow-up in place, leaving their plans for a potential coup in tatters.

This triumph was followed by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson finally realising that the tentative agreement between the UK and EU on the terms of exit and the backstop, made last December, involved creating a potential special status for Northern Ireland, keeping it in the customs union and (almost) the single market – meaning it would have a border between the rest of the UK. Johnson was furious that this hadn’t been made clear at the time – except it had, in most newspapers (especially this one), in comments by the EU negotiators, and in comments from numerous MPs and others. Nine months on, Johnson has caught up with mainstream coverage, and blown his top.

So much for the ERG and the Conservatives’ would-be king in the wings. What of their intellectual bedrock, the think tanks of who we’ve heard so much?

Last Tuesday marked the launch of a huge effort from the libertarian right’s intellectual wing, an “ideal trade deal” between the US and the UK. This was produced by the Koch-backed Cato Institute, Conservative MEP Dan Hannan’s Initiative for Free Trade, and a collection of other think tanks including the IEA, who have enjoyed unparalleled access to senior pro-Brexit ministers.

The result? A dead-on-arrival wishlist of a document, which would radically open up the UK to US agrifood – chlorinated chicken, hormone beef, and more – as well as subjecting the NHS to international competition from US healthcare companies.

Just as significantly, because of what it wants on standards and recognition, it would drastically curtail the hopes of any kind of reasonable trading deal with the EU, whose standards are often far more stringent than their US counterparts.

The document might be a threat, and something opponents wish to make sure doesn’t become the basis of talks – but realistically, it’s a total non-starter: US president Donald Trump is hardly a free-trader, is embroiled in untangling and renegotiating existing trade deals, and is escalating his trade war with China. Coupled with a likely incoming Democratic House, and the US would be in no position to talk through a deal like this even if it liked it.

Even with the best kind of access and connections, the think tanks couldn’t come up with anything more than a wishlist, a statement of what they would like to see, shorn away from political reality. This is, perhaps, what think tanks should be doing – setting out what they’d like in the long run, and being radical about it, but it’s certainly no blueprint as to what to do next.

And so we have to face the simplest version of reality: there is no secret plan at work, and there is a reason Brexiteer interviews seem so frustrating. No-one thinks they’re dissembling, or lying, or avoiding difficult truths: they have engaged so little with reality that they don’t know what they don’t know.

We have castigated journalism for failing to call out Brexiteers on “lies”, or on their agenda. We should instead wonder whether the answer is simpler: because they’ve never engaged with it, maybe they have no idea what they’re saying is at all impossible.

This is a messy state of affairs and suggests nothing good for the coming months ahead, but it would suggest a new approach for journalism at the very least. Why not at the beginning of any political interview – or ideally, even during the booking conversation, before they’re on air – try five fairly simple and factual questions? Maybe the prospect of on-air embarrassment, if nothing else, might make a few Brexiteers do some homework.

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