David Davis said last week that the Government “could live with” a Brexit transition period of 21 months. This sounds like a concession, but is actually the opposite – at least as far as the Brexit Secretary and other Cabinet Ministers who backed Leaved during the EU referendum are concerned. They never wanted anything other than the shortest possible transition period in the first place – for example, Liam Fox referred to “a few months” last July. Like this site, they believed that a longer period risked seeing Britain stuck in transition beyond the date of the next general election, perhaps indefinitely.
So far, so good – assuming that an agreement is reached at next week’s European Council, or perhaps later, over a withdrawal agreement which in turn opens the door to a transition agreement. But there may be a hornet in the ointment. Today’s Sunday Times claims that Theresa May’s “war Cabinet” briefly saw a report last week which said that our customs systems won’t be ready for transition. As the report puts it, “a study of readiness across a whole range of sectors revealed that not enough work has been done to prepare key organisations, computer systems and staff for the end of the transition phase”.
It is a statement of the obvious that one cannot leave the EU – or end a transition from leaving – if one’s customs and borders and other systems aren’t ready. The Public Accounts Committee said in December that it does not expect “all new or updated IT systems to be ready” for controlling our borders. Furthermore, if such preparations won’t be complete by, say, January 2021, it follows that they won’t be so by April of next year, either. Which would mean that we are not in a position to “just leave” – pick up another story in today’s papers – at that point, let alone now.
It may be that events have moved on since the end of last year, or today’s account is wide of the mark, and that the Government’s preparations are better advanced than reports suggest. But it is at least possible that Ministerial room for No Deal (or to put it more accurately, for a No Deal Deal) is very cramped indeed, which has an alarming knock-on for Theresa May’s negotiating strategy). And that, come the end of any transition period, the Government will have an alarming choice – namely, either to extend transition after all, thus re-raising the possibility of Britain being stuck in it, or seeking to tough out Brexit without the necessary systems being in place.
The first would be seen as a betrayal of the referendum verdict, which would be electorally hazardous; the second could lead to very big problems indeed at ports and airports, which could be electorally disastrous. Either would give rise to conspiracy theories that run and run. Most voters aren’t following the ins and outs of the Brexit negotiations – in so far as they are possible to follow at all – but they would certainly clock queues and disruption. The fuel protests of 2000 are perhaps a parallel. ConservativeHome has nothing to add other than what we and Charlie Elphicke and James Arnell have said again and again: the Government must be ready for Brexit on Day One.