More than ever, trying to grapple with the intricacies of Brexit negotiations involves defaulting to the mechanics of old school Kremlinology.
The latest Pravda for selected leakage turns out to be the Telegraph. The reader is informed, or invited to take on trust, that the Brexit Secretary has won a key victory in a ‘fraught internal battle over how to conduct the next stage of Brexit’. The argument, one reads, was over whether or not to send over hundreds of Whitehall specialists to work on the small print. David Davis’s erstwhile chief civil servant, and now alleged Cabinet Office obstacle to getting on with negotiating a deal, had wanted to keep things general and top level. Davis insisted on pushing ahead with the negotiations in detail. It would appear, for now, that the latter has won.
Whatever the spin, the fundamentals appear not to be denied by other sources. So what should we take away from it over the current state of the negotiations?
The big concern clearly remains over ambition. Once again we are seeing ‘free-range Whitehall’, here in the shape of the Cabinet Office mandarins lacking the drive needed to push for a solid deal before the transition deal kicks in. Chunks of the civil service and indeed ministerial offices are clearly lacking the required urgency if they are having to be chivvied not only to ‘come up with Brexit goals’ but even identify the people within their departments to take the lead on them.
The fact that the despatch of the missive was held up for several days, and is even now conceded to be only a partial success (sources are cited as indicating ‘it was not the final word on the matter’) are also significant pointers to a civil service that not only still lacks the drive to make Brexit a success, but is not up to expected professional standards.
In particular, the implication is once again that the core Cabinet Office team are too ready to take European Commission counterparts at face value. One wonders whether they simply worked alongside them too long, and even now an insertion of fresh blood might do some good – though it would have to be found from parts of the private sector that are untainted by past lobbying, subsidy, and the corporate Brusselsocracy. That suggests we need a few more Antipodeans and Canucks imported – it’s all a little too 1930s Chicago Police in there.
Without that ambition, the UK is in deep trouble. The country will end up going into the Brexit transition under Cabinet Office Plan FUBAR, with only a non-binding annex to pencil out what the end deal is. The UK will have surrendered its negotiating club of the EU budget and gained in return a promissory note written in disappearing ink.
Meanwhile, Whitehall will have been surrendering other elements of the armoury, by yielding to stay linked in to areas the EU wants us tied to, particularly in defence and Justice and Home Affairs, where the UK should instead be breaking with old assumptions and pursuing an arm’s length approach. The range of potential ‘political co-operation agreements’ or PCAs are, to channel Ernest Bevin, a Pandora’s Box of Trojan Horses.
There is a flicker of light in this glum tunnel however, because there is a potentially critical win that might yet happen if the Brexit Secretary gets his way.
If there is no comprehensive deal, by starting the detailed workings now, much of the small print across many sectors will nevertheless still have been sorted. That means that the default for not getting a comprehensive agreement will be, say, 75 per cent of a comprehensive agreement – making for what in Whitehall terms is called a ‘Strongly Mitigated No Deal’. Thus the default will not in such an environment mean absolutely no deal; nor for that matter, in the void of any fall back, will there be any justification for begging for a Norwegian-style arrangement, or a ramshackle customs deal.
In such a scenario, it becomes uncontestably the case that such a no deal would be better than a bad deal, because no deal would be a work-around for 75 per cent of a deal.
I rather suspect that in some quarters, the prospect of the UK ending up with better than EEA or Customs Union terms is precisely why there is a reticence to push with this route – indeed, precisely mirroring similar devious reflections within the European Commission itself.
Dr Lee Rotherham is Director of The Red Cell