May's Brexit plan is falling apart and the press are talking about Easter eggs

May: Brexit position reversed less than a week into Article 50
May: Brexit position reversed less than a week into Article 50
Ian Dunt By

The news today is all about Theresa May's decisive intervention in the debate on chocolate eggs. The press are very het up about how often Cadbury uses the word 'Easter' on the promotional material for an egg hunt. As you'll see below, the word 'Easter' happens to be the largest bit of text in the ads for the event, but it is not in the official name and this is obviously a very serious business indeed.

You can tell how serious it is because the prime minister has personally intervened to call it "absolutely ridiculous". She made this statement while visiting Saudi Arabia, a country which sentences people to death for converting to Christianity and where all public Christian worship is illegal. Nigel Farage also got in on the act, saying it was an example of the need to protect our "Judeo-Christian" culture. Quite what the Jewish faith has to say about a festival celebrating the death and resurrection of a religious figure it does not believe in is another matter. Even Jeremy Corbyn raised himself from his allotments to say he was "upset" because it is a sign of "commercialisation gone a bit too far". 

So you can understand, with all this important news floating about, that we might have missed one or two other minor stories. One of those stories is that Theresa May has given up on a central plank of her Brexit policy less than a week into Article 50.

Not so long ago, back when we were all waiting for her big Brexit speech, the prime minister was warned that she had no chance of sorting out the European divorce settlement, a transitional arrangement and a final trade deal in two years. She ignored those concerns. Brexiters jumped up to insist that Britain and the EU already had equivalence, so it would all be very easy to sort out.

This was always nonsense. Current equivalence is fine, but agreements are made on the basis of trust in each partner's future policy-making and that's why they take an incredibly long time, especially for service-dependant economies.

Regardless, May refused to accept any criticism of the timetable. Everything could be done in two years, she insisted. "I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded," she made clear in her Lancaster House speech.

Of course, 'agreement' is a very woolly phrase. It could mean anything. But given that she was talking about a trade deal, it seemed reasonable to conclude that that was what she was referring to. It was a particularly convincing explanation, given that she then went on to say:

"From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us, will be in our mutual self-interest."

If there's no trade deal, there's nothing to implement. So it again suggests she wanted a trade deal done by this point. Any period after the two-year deadline was therefore about getting things set up, not more negotiation. That much was clear.

As she made the speech, David Davis was laying out the plan in the Commons. He was more cautious, mentioning only a "broad agreement".

But not long afterwards he had firmed up his predictions. Last month, when he appeared before the Brexit committee in parliament, he told Labour's Emma Reynolds that not only could an "overarching free trade agreement" be done in two years, but so could ratification (the section starts about six minutes or so into this video).

Ratification involves the agreement of all member states, including some regional assemblies, like Wallonia in Belgium. It guarantees that the trade deal will be sucked into a vortex of multiple unrelated domestic political battles, say over neoliberalism and investor trade dispute mechanisms. It means that Britain is at the mercy of every lobbying organisation on the continent, as they furiously pressure their governments to secure either better market access or further protections for their industry. This part of the Canadian trade deal alone took about two years and was nearly scuppered. Davis seemed to be suggesting that it could be thrown into the Article 50 mix with no danger to the timetable.

But today the message is rather different. The prime minister has admitted it cannot be done.

EU Council negotiation guidelines published last Friday said that Britain would sign any trade deal as a third party, after it had left the EU, under Article 218 of the EU Treaty. Today, Sky News' Faisal Islam got May to admit that she would have to abide by that timetable rather than her own.

There have been many months of Brexit critics suggesting that the timetable was impossible and that we should explore alternatives before it started. That might take the form of a seven-year transitional EEA agreement to suck the uncertainty out of negotiations, or by going into talks with a transitional deal front-and-centre, so we could neutralise the EU's time advantage. This advice was treated as a Remainer plot to stop Brexit and was consequently ignored.

Now the prime minister has embroiled herself in a negotiation in which we are at a disadvantage in terms of time and negotiating capacity. There will of course be no admission from Brexit MPs about this. They fixate on the one prediction economists got wrong - the surprising resilience of consumer spending - while ignoring everything their side was wrong about, like the fall in sterling, the announcement of a second Scottish independence referendum, the threat of a sudden hard border in Ireland or the crisis over Gibraltar.

This is not point scoring. Unless there is a sober assessment of what is going right and wrong on both sides there can be no realistic negotiating posture. We are condemned to keep making the same mistakes again and again and working ourselves into ever-more disadvantageous positions.

Where does this leave us, now that May has confirmed her capitulation to EU demands? With a very fuzzy timetable. "I'm clear that by the point at which we leave the EU, it's right that everyone will know what the future arrangement, relationship, partnership between us and EU will be," May said today. "That's the sensible thing, it's a pragmatic way to look at it."

In other words: the prime minister is going to spend the whole of the next two years battling about money and the EU citizen residency issue. She will hopefully also find time to negotiate transitional arrangements, although these seem ever-more likely to be a simple 'grandfathering' of existing rights and responsibilities, probably including free movement and European Court of Justice jurisdiction. And then, finally, at the end of it all, she will come back with a sheet of A4 saying the Europeans want tariff-free, frictionless trade and so do we.

That's what the Commons will vote on and what the British public will be expected to base their judgement on when going to the polls in 2020. After all that work, we'll be hardly any further than we are now.

The Brexit government's confidence about the rigid two-year timetable didn't even survive a week's contact with the enemy. Already, they are capitulating to EU demands, as they were warned would happen unless they formulated a more realistic strategy. And yet this is barely considered news. The Easter eggs are more important. The same press-obsession with Brexit which cemented their position now ignores it as it falls apart.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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