It is sometimes useful, after a politician has made a statement, to try reversing it – and see if the change makes sense. “We should get ready for January 1 with arrangements that are more like Australia’s,” Boris Johnson said last Friday.
So now imagine that he had said instead that “we should not get ready for January 1″, etc. And you will see at once that the Prime Minister could not conceivably have said anything of the kind before the trade negotiation with the EU has concluded. Because there may be No Deal, after all.
Perhaps we are being too world-weary – perish the thought – but a talks bust-up was always likely. But it does not, repeat not, mean that No Deal (or “an Australia-type deal”, as Ministers put it) is now inevitable, even if Michel Barnier does not come to London for talks this week, which appears to be the case as we write.
Indeed, a flare-up looks suspiciously like part of the diplomatic dance, a piece of choreography, before the last-minute dash to Brussels; the overnight wait for news; the bleary-eyed dawn press conferences, and the claim that we have won the “Canada-style” trade that we wanted, and that Johnson has “played a blinder”.
At any rate, the inevitable Government spin offensive, aimed at pro-Brexit voters, Conservative MPs and members, and (up to a point) other European governments and the EU Commission is rolling as we write. Michael Gove is in the Sunday papers and on today’s political shows, always a sign that a big push is underway.
ConservativeHome’s take on the trade talks has consistently been that settling state aid and fishing ought to be easier than squaring the fiendish challenge of the UK-EU land border on the island of Ireland. And that if both sides of the negotiation want a deal, then a deal there will probably be.
We are in little doubt that such is Boris Johnson’s position. He wants a deal because the fewer obstacles to trading as an independent country, the better. He wants one because he will not wish to grapple with the disruption of No Deal at the same time as he must so do with the problem of Coronavirus, and so much else.
He wants one because not having it wouldn’t be an electoral plus in Scotland. Above all, he wants one because he wants to show the voters he can deliver one – in much the same manner that he cut a deal with Leo Varadkar on the land border in order to deliver the revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
In saying all this, we may be under-estimating the capacity for one or both of the two negotiating sides to miscalculate. Last time round, the UK was negotiating primarily with one other country, Ireland, and the Commission.
This time, several countries, not least France, have an interest in taking an aggressive position on fishing. In crude terms, the Government has been signalling concessions on state aid which if the negotiation were to proceed smoothly would be mirrored by EU concessions on fishing. These haven’t come. Hence Friday’s events.
So No Deal is still possible though not, we stubbornly repeat, probable. But even if it happens, a deal there will almost certainly be, sooner or later. If it does this year, we expect any agreement reached to be light on detail – “thin”, as the jargon has it, enabling both sides of the negotiation to claim victory.
A key test of it will be whether or not it allows the UK room in future to diverge if it wants to. As we’ve said before, Brexit is more like a film, which will develop over time, than a photo, which can’t – a point which will apply whether there’s a deal or not.
For either way, we will be out of transition next year. The Government is horribly overburdened in dealing with Covid-19. But it ought be mulling some quick Brexit wins come the New Year – ways of using what will be new-found freedoms we didn’t have during the implementation period.
For reference, see Anthony Browne’s list of suggestions for this site, including scrapping the tampon tax, banning the export of live animals for slaughter and cutting VAT on domestic electricity. The UK has Brexited, and we must soon start to make the most of it.