David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Let me make the case for the UK leaving the implementation period at the end of the year without concluding a free trade deal with the EU. And I don’t just mean that, as a fall-back position, it is an outcome that the Government could live with. I want to make the case for why, at one level, that this is the outcome the UK Government should actively seek.
For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t believe that a No Deal outcome is remotely in the national interest – what with the potential chaos at the ports and the factory closures and general economic malaise and so on. As those who follow these things closely will be aware, I have been somewhat unenthusiastic about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit, an attitude that has not necessarily been to the advantage of my political career.
However, from the political perspective of the Government, there is a rather persuasive argument for ensuring the talks blow up. And the sooner the better.
The challenge for the Government is that there is, and has always been, a trade-off between access to EU markets and regulatory autonomy. If you want preferential access to markets, there will need to be a degree of consistency in regulations. The greater the preferential access, the greater the required level of consistency.
The clear position of the Government is that ‘the point of Brexit’ is ‘to recover our political and economic independence in full’ (to quote David Frost’s recent speech). Signing up to EU rules or extending the current Implementation Period (whereby we continue to comply with EU rules) runs contrary to ‘the point of Brexit’.
There are two relevant consequences of this position. The first is that, in terms of getting preferential access to EU markets, the best one can hope for is an unambitious, thin free trade agreement. Such an agreement will be better economically than a departure on WTO terms but not that much better. Another way of putting it is that the economic downside of failing to get a deal is not that much because we have already accepted a great deal of pain as it is.
The second consequence is that if ‘recovering our political and economic independence in full’ is, to use David Frost’s word, ‘fundamental’ to Brexit then it is very hard to find a compromise. Any deviation from such a position opens up a political vulnerability. The political pain of compromise gets greater every time someone in Number 10 makes the fundamentalist case.
There is a further difficulty with reaching a deal. Any deal that Boris Johnson gets is one that he will sell with gusto. It will be a fabulous deal, the best possible deal, a triumph. This has its advantages but it also means that the Prime Minister will have ownership of the consequences of the deal. If it turns out to be less than a triumph, there is no one else he can blame. The buck will stop with him.
So getting a deal is likely to have a significant political cost (cries of betrayal from Nigel Farage etc) and limited economic upside. A deal would reduce disruption in early 2021 but there is a case for getting the economic pain out the way early in the Parliament.
Of course, when I say that there will be economic pain, I am going along with the consensus view of economists that putting up trade barriers with one’s most important trade partner is a bad thing. The Government thinks the concerns are overstated. David Frost has argued that openness to trade is not as important for driving productivity as most economists believe. Andrew Neil told MakeUK that the days of ‘complex, cross-border supply chains are coming to an end’ and the Government believes that the future of manufacturing is ‘3D printers’. Trade openness doesn’t matter very much after all.
Without getting too much into these arguments, they are hard to reconcile with the ‘Global Britain’ narrative that Brexit will be a great success because we can reduce trade barriers with the rest of the world. In any event, if you are the Government, the political price to be paid for getting a deal might not be worth it. If it has reached that conclusion, what would it do?
First, make sure that it is the EU that gets the blame with the British public. Accuse the EU of introducing new demands or placing demands on the UK that are wholly unprecedented, even if these claims are not strictly true. Or, in the former case, even loosely true. There will be lots of people willing to believe that the EU is at fault – just keep repeating the argument, however brazenly untrue. There are people inside No 10 who know how to do this sort of thing very well.
Second, reassure the British public that no deal will be alright. Rebrand ‘no deal’, perhaps with reference to a prosperous and familiar country that we like. Australia will do.
Third, provoke the EU to be intransigent. The best way to do that is to undermine the EU’s trust in our good intentions.
We are currently telling the EU that we have an interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed in October, which appears to be wholly at variance with the interpretation made by everyone else as to the need to check goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Someone in Government also appears to have briefed that the Attorney General and Northern Ireland Secretary had been sacked and replaced by people willing to do what they are told on this point.
If we cannot be trusted to stand by agreements reached four months ago, we won’t be trusted to comply with vague assertions not to lower our social or environmental protections in the decades ahead. Attempting to renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol will increase the EU’s determination to insist on the Level Playing Field provisions in a legally watertight way.
Everything the Government has done – including the negotiating mandate set out this week – is consistent with causing the talks to collapse. That leaves the question of timing.
The most coherent position would be to bring this to a head as soon as possible. If you are an optimist, this will reveal to the EU that this is a Government that will tough it out and they will crumble. Those German car manufacturers will finally ride to our rescue. If you are a pessimist, at least this gives businesses time to prepare for the exciting, new opportunities of leaving on WTO terms.
As a strategy, critics would be justified in describing it as reckless, evasive of responsibility, cynical and dishonest. But politically, on the evidence of the last few years, it would probably work. I fear the Government must be tempted.