The first British defeat over Brexit happened in moments

In the end, there was no talk of cars. During the referendum campaign, David Davis had written that a "UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a deal on everything else". He was a leading proponent of the idea that Britain's consumer market, especially for German cars and, only slightly more absurdly, Italian prosecco, would force the Europeans to beg us for a generous Brexit deal.

It did not stop after the referendum. Speaking months after he became Brexit secretary, Davis told the Commons that one of the things he'd discovered was that "in many areas - not just in the City and not just as regards cars - the balance of negotiating advantage is incredibly heavily stacked our way".

Months later, Davis was telling Peston on Sunday that the EU demand we would sequence talks was "wholly illogical". It would therefore be the "row of the summer".



British summers are famously short and yesterday was a particularly warm day, so perhaps Davis was technically correct. By the afternoon of the first day of negotiations, he had capitulated. Talks would be sequenced as the EU wanted, rather than held in parallel as the UK wanted.

Speaking afterwards, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was asked if he had made any concessions to the UK in return. No, he implied. The UK was the one which had decided to leave the EU. Each side had to "assume our responsibility and the consequences of our decisions".

How long was it until Britain capitulated on the first item in the Brexit menu? Five minutes? An hour? Two? How quickly did all those months of Davis' self-satisfied confidence unravel? For nearly a year now Brexit supporters have had a completely isolated domestic debate about what they want, with a grossly inflated sense of entitlement and their ability to satisfy it. It survived barely moments of contact with reality.

Davis wasn't beaten in a game of strategy. Barnier did not dazzle him with sophisticated arguments. He capitulated because of the power dynamic.

What would have happened if Britain had refused to sequence the talks? Nothing. The talks would stall. There would be no progress towards the discussion of future trade arrangements. And that is more to Britain's detriment than the EU's, as the outcome of yesterday's talks showed.

Once upon a time, Davis pretended this would be OK. He told the Commons foreign affairs committee late last year that a no-deal outcome "is not helpful for them in comparison with us". In other words, the power dynamics of the negotiation were in Britain's favour.

This is false. The EU will be damaged by a no-deal outcome, but it does not need to create a regulatory infastructure or an entire customs system, as we do.

The true scale of the British challenge will be clearer tomorrow when the Queen's Speech is unveiled, showing the scale of legislation required to implement Brexit. First, there will be the great repeal bill, one of the largest and most dangerous pieces of legislation a British government has ever introduced, copying-and-pasting all of EU law onto the British statute book and then using a dazzling array of ministerial powers to somehow try and fix it so it it makes sense. There will also be perhaps a dozen other bills, certainly including one on immigration and others perhaps on issues like customs, agriculture and data protection - all of them intensely controversial and subject to defeat in the Commons. Meanwhile, Liam Fox is - if we've any luck at all - desperately trying to get all exporters to the EU and UK to accept our trading schedules at the WTO, so that we do not suffer a series of trade disputes there.

Britain is making a new country, almost from scratch. There has been nothing like this except for when small states gain independence. It needs time. But worse than that, it needs agreement.

What kind of customs checks do we need in Ireland? We don't know until we have agreed it. What kind of immigration system will we have for EU citizens? We don't know until we have agreed it. What kind of regulators do we need to set up - with all the legal work, hiring, training, system-building and renting of buildings that entails? We don't know until we have agreed it. Which agreements with other countries do we need to independently replicate in order for passengers to still board planes or access products? We don't know until we have agreed it.

This is core to the dynamic of Brexit. It's what gives the EU power over the UK. It's nothing new. Anyone who had looked into it knew this from the start. Sir Ivan Rogers made these warnings months ago, only to be prised out of his role as EU envoy. Iain Duncan Smith rubbished him on TV, effectively questioning which side he was on. Peter Lilley accused him of "sour grapes". Dominic Raab said his "heart hasn't really been in Brexit".

Only the true believers were allowed to speak. And now here we are.

Yesterday's capitulation means we have accepted the EU timetable. That means we can only discuss the future trading arrangements with the EU when they decide there has been enough progress on EU citizen's rights, the budget contribution and a hard border in Ireland. They expect this to be in October. But again: they decide. They are in control. The central power dynamic of the negotiations means we are more likely to capitulate.

After that, talk will turn to transitional arrangements so we can avoid the cliff-edge. The EU will likely demand that the UK abides by full EU rules, including the jurisdiction of the ECJ and full free movement, during this period. Again, we are likely to capitulate.

The key dynamic will not change. No-deal is disaster. Britain will do anything to avoid it. The closer to the cliff-edge we get, the more power Europe has. And the preparation for a new arrangement can only properly start once the talks have finalised what it is.

The dynamic is entirely in Europe's favour. It always has been, but the warnings were ignored. And now here we are.

Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

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.

 

 

 

Does Labour have a third way on Brexit?

Jeremy Corbyn published an article in the Mirror this weekend outlining Labour's Brexit policy ahead of the start of talks. Taken at face value it is garbled nonsense, but dig a little deeper and there are hints of something interesting in there.

There's a lot of wishful thinking with Labour Brexit positions. Their contributions are written in such strange code that you can arrive at various interpretations about what they mean. When things get desperate, it's tempting to project your hopes onto them.

They want you to do that. These little Labour position statements are incredibly flirty. First they offer assurances to Labour Leave voters - in this case saying the Brexit issue is "settled" - and then they start smiling seductively at Remainers and whispering sweet nothings into their ear.

Usually they are just that: sweet nothings. Corbyn has done impressive work convincing many EU supporters he's on side by constantly saying he'd seek 'tariff-free access to the single market', despite this being a much lower bar than what even the Conservatives are offering.

He's also quite shameless at passing off his own decisions as those forced on him by others. In the Mirror article, for instance, he repeats a line he always says when talking about Brexit: "Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end." This is a lie. Leaving the EU doesn't mean free movement will end. Leaving the single market does that and you do not have to leave the single market just because you're leaving the EU. He is choosing to do so. But saying it in this way allows Corbyn to reassure Labour Leave voters concerned about immigration while pretending to his young metropolitan support base that his hands are tied on the issue. You might call it good politics - or the same drabby self-serving political cynicism Corbyn claims to represent a break from. Your call.

Up until now, that defined Corbyn's approach. He wanted out of the single market at all costs. This wasn't due to free movement. Corbyn, to his credit, had no issue with that at all, as he made clear in his conference speech after the referendum. His opposition is based on the perception that its rules on state aid preclude a domestic nationalisation programme.

Corbyn was silently supported in this by the right of the Labour party and those with northern constituencies, who didn't feel they could defend free movement on the doorstep. But there was another group of Labour MPs - exemplified by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer - who wanted to try to negotiate reform of free movement in the single market and then only leave if we failed.

That's been the Labour status quo for some time, with those two groups having a back-stage tug of war over policy. During the election, for instance, Starmer's speech outlined his camp's position, while the manifesto outlined Corbyn's. But the Mirror article contains some interesting new wrinkles on this dynamic.

Corbyn talks about establishing a "new relationship" with the single market. What would this relationship look like? Well first of all it would be led by priorities, not outcomes. Jobs and living standards would be the chief determinant of what happens. The "exact mechanism for achieving that is less important than ensuring jobs", Corbyn says. He also promises "no new non-tariff burdens". This is a much higher benchmark than simple 'tariff-free access'. It is almost impossible to imagine how you'd leave the single market with no new non-tariff burdens.

So what's going on here? Is this a clever attempt to stay in the single market without saying so - by setting conditions for exit which they know will never be fulfilled? Has Corbyn had a change of heart?

Or perhaps it's the opposite. Corbyn knows Remainers have nowhere else to go. He can bank them with his sweet nothings, offering constant hope which is always just tantalisingly out of reach while pursuing a hard Brexit policy in reality.

Or maybe, to use a phrase he'd particularly detest, there is a third way.

Last week, Rebecca Long-Bailey - shadow business secretary and close ally of John McDonnell - said something very interesting. First she got rid of talk about single market membership, calling it a "moot point". That's disingenuous, but whatever. They're clearly not willing to go there. Then she said Labour would pursue "impediment-free access" to the single market (code for no new non-tariff barriers) and that the price of this might be that "there will have to be some element of free movement".

That's telling. Remember again Corbyn's conference speech just after the referendum, in which it was clear he had no issue with free movement but would anyway chose to leave the single market. That fits well with Long-Bailey's comments.

What would this mean in reality? It allows Labour to leave the single market but then unilaterally offer something akin to free movement - this time as a decision of the British government rather than a rule of membership from Brussels. Maybe we would allow all EU citizens to come for as long as they like, or only those with a job offer in the UK, or those who could demonstrate the means to support themselves - which is anyway not so far from current European case law. On free movement, everything would change and everything would basically stay the same.

These kinds of big offers would be used to leverage more robust reductions in tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It wouldn't eradicate them altogether, but it allows for a considerably more flexible approach than May has. And to Corbyn's credit, it reflects a team which would prioritise jobs and living standards over immigration. It is also not a million miles away from Starmer's view, which would seek similar reforms inside the single market.

It wouldn't be perfect by any means. The economic effects of leaving the single market would still be hugely damaging, especially to financial services, IT and telecommunications and transport. Those industries would be damaged, hurting jobs and reducing revenue to the Treasury, thereby making it harder to deliver the kind of generous welfare state Corbyn presumably wants. It doesn't even begin to grapple with the real issues, like how we would replicate financial services regulation in a way that allows a close relationship while not turning ourselves into underlings. But it is better than the government position and better than Corbyn's previous position.

That's if it's true, of course. This is really nothing more than educated guesswork - a strange new political tradition of trying to work out what the hell Labour's position is on Brexit. It shouldn't be this way. They should be straight with the British people on what they are trying to achieve on one of the biggest political questions of their lifetime. But failing that, at least there is some evidence of proper thinking, a greater degree of flexibility and a more sensible set of priorities than we're seeing from the government team.

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

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.

Brexit talks start on Monday and we have no idea what we're doing

So they have confirmed it. Britain will start talks with the EU on Monday. We are now about to go into the most challenging negotiations since the Second World War with no government, no overall aim, no plan to achieve it, no functioning department to deliver it, no confidence at home or abroad with which to pass it, no trade expert capacity to negotiate it, and no time to manage it.

This is beyond even the bleakest warnings of Remainers in the days after the vote. We must now face the very real possibility of an unmitigated disaster with very severe damage to our quality of life and a painful spectacle of humiliation on the international stage.

Start at the lowest level. The Brexit department itself is experiencing high volumes of top-level churn. Ministers David Jones and George Bridges are out, the latter apparently due to disagreements with Downing Street on its obsession with centralised control. Brexit secretary David Davis is losing staff all over the place. His special adviser James Chapman has quit, while his parliamentary private secretary Stewart Jackson just lost his seat in May's hara kiri election.

The departmental structure around them is also shifting, with Remainer Damian Green taking over effectively as deputy prime minister in the Cabinet Office, which was linking the work being done in the Brexit department with Liam Fox's Department for International Trade and the Foreign Office under Boris Johnson. Gavin Barwell, another Remainer, has taken over as chief of staff to May, triggering spasms of paranoia on right wing blogs. He is already neck-deep in controversy over whether he failed to act over warnings of fire safety in tower blocks following the Grenfell blaze. This tripartite structure, with big swinging egos at the top, has achieved nothing so far except for wasting time. There is little reason to believe it will suddenly start working now.

We still do not have enough trade specialists in order to match the EU's huge negotiating team. Not only that, but their team are blooded, having conducted tough trade talks over years. Ours appears to be stitched together by freelancing Kiwis and Canadians, some management consultants, and a few scrubbed-up civil servants. The senior figures who wrote in to the civil service seeing if they could help never got a reply. It was the height of Brexiter arrogance back then. All were ignored except for the true believers. And now here we are.

Who on earth are the negotiating team representing anyway? There is no government back home. We're not expecting to have had the Tory-DUP deal signed off by Monday. But even if we had, it is not clear that it could win any Commons votes on Brexit. It faces a hardcore group of pro-Brexit MPs on the right of the parliamentary party, alongside the crazed old-testament hard Brexit supporting DUP. On the left, there is an increasingly bullish set of moderate Tories alongside a cocky Scottish Conservative group of 13 MPs who want soft Brexit.

But who cares about delivering votes back in Westminster when it is unclear that the government has any idea what it is even trying to achieve? In the hours after the polls closed, Davis said that the public was voting on whether it supported the plan to leave the single market and customs union. When the public did not give him that mandate he took to the BBC airwaves the following Monday and insisted it would remain unchanged anyway. Then by lunchtime he was telling Sky that his door was always open to ideas from Labour. The next day, Michael Gove - despised by the prime minister but now back in government due to her full-spectrum executive impotence - was also welcoming Labour to come have a chat and propose some ideas.

Either they had both suddenly rediscovered their democratic spirit after spending a year pretending 52% of voters amounted to the 'will of the people', or they were looking for ways to share the blame. But there are no signs of any cross-party Brexit committee being formed, nor that the Labour leadership wishes to help the Tories avoid a catastrophe of their own making. Or that Labour would even have a plan if it did decide to get involved. It has shown little signs of one so far.

May herself is damaged goods of the sort which can never be repaired. Her humiliation is too specific and too great. She will never have any authority around that Brussels negotiating table, nor back home in Westminster. Brussels doesn't have confidence that she can deliver on the promises she makes in Europe or even that she is likely to still be prime minister by the next time they have a meeting. What an unspeakable shambles these people are.

And that clock just keeps on ticking down to March 31st 2019 - the product of a prime minister so arrogant, dim-witted and disreputable that she would trigger Article 50 and then hold an election after the countdown had begun.

The fact we are going for those talks is completely insane and embarrassing. What will it take for the Brexiters to recognise their folly?

Any team with even a smidgen of respect for the national interest would immediately seek to extend Article 50 on the basis of the election result. The value to Britain of extending the deadline increases the later it takes place, so by refusing to petition for an extension now we are simply handing Brussels more leverage for later in the talks. But, of course, doing that involves a modicum of humility and therefore cannot be entertained.

Reason dictates that it must happen anyway. The fact they have not tried to do so shows that the Brexiters remain in a state of self-induced mania and that their ideological obsessions trump their supposed commitment to Great Britain.

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

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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