David Gauke said in Cabinet this week that a managed No Deal “is not on offer from the EU and the responsibility of Cabinet ministers is not to propagate unicorns but to slay them.”  Logicians of a certain bent would have difficulty with this claim, arguing that one cannot slay what does not exist.  While literalists might balk at imagining how Cabinet ministers would go about trying to propagate the beasts.

However, the Justice Secretary was of course falling back on one of Brexit’s favourite metaphors, attributed by some to Sabine Weyand, and taken up enthusiastically by Remain-orientated critics of the Government everywhere.  But when is a unicorn not a unicorn?  Or, to give the question context from Gauke’s own example, when is a managed No Deal not a managed No Deal?

One take would be that a unmanaged No Deal would mean no arrangements at all between Britain and the EU to replace those due to end on March 29.  But it became very clear yesterday that this will not be the case.  The EU plans to allow flights from the UK into and overflying the EU for a year, hauliers to carry freight by road into the EU for nine months without having to apply for permits, and some UK financial services regulations to be recognised as equivalent to the EU’s for one or two years.

It is hard to see these arrangements being removed once they are put in place.  To take one example almost at random – hauliers – one must look consider the context for Ireland, which publishes its own No Deal plans today.  It is reliant on transport via the UK for exports and imports.  The EU will not collectively cut off Ireland’s nose to spite Britain’s face, or the other way round if you prefer.  As Roberto Azevêdo, the WTO’s head, has suggested, trading on basic WTO terms “would not be the end of the world”.

However, as he also said, it “wouldn’t be a walk in the park either”.  To take a striking example – and one capable of launching a thousand tabloid stories – EU pet passports issued to UK owners will no longer be valid.  And never mind animals: what about people?  The rights of British nationals living in the EU will essentially be in the hands of the member hands.  All in all, the EU’s arrangements are designed to protect its own interests.  Why would it act otherwise? The financial services plans, for example, are a basic minimum.

All this none the less looks like a managed No Deal, albeit one of a very rudimentary kind.  And it is well worth bearing in mind that these proposals, plus the UK’s own preparations, might not represent the end state were No Deal actually to happen.  Some Cabinet Ministers want to go further, and bung the EU some money for two years or so after Brexit day to ensure a transition-type period in which No Deal can be better prepared for.

We are dubious.  Two years from March 2018 takes us to the spring of 2020.  There is no political gain from moving the inevitable disruption of No Deal nearer a general election.  The planning pluses would have to be very clear to offset the electoral minuses.  We are bound to hear more of the scheme after the Christmas break.

But this morning, at any rate, we can see what a managed No Deal might look like: a lot better than a trade war, a lot worse than a good deal.  Lo and behold, we have a unicorn made flesh – just in time for Christmas.  Or, as the old saying doesn’t have it, if it looks like a unicorn and whinnies like a unicorn, then it probably isn’t a unicorn at all.