According to a report leaked to the Sunday Times last week, government officials are prepping for an ‘Armageddon’ Brexit.
We are supposed to be riven with fear on hearing that food will run out in Scotland, Cornish petrol pumps will run dry, and hospitals will employ Roger Bacon.
I say ‘supposed’ because this was the precise intent of the individual who was briefing the journalist. There was an agenda in play. But what of the facts, which are so often the casualty of Brexit monstering? What is the reality of this apocalypse scenario?
As someone with a little track record on the Brexit subject, who also happens to have written a guide book to the end of the world (yes, really), I can happily advise readers to apply a pinch of salt. And then go into a chip shop and grab all their salt and scatter that too. And then jump into the Dead Sea.
Firstly, we might consider the source. Commenting on the leak, a very senior Brexit Department civil servant at a public event unequivocally panned the material. The highly informed mandarin called it ‘quite an extraordinary piece’. On reviewing all the documents, it turns out that the controversial key word supposedly cited was not used anywhere at all. The narrative was ‘not an accurate description’. Moreover, the source was ‘someone who was actually not close to what we are doing’.
This rather undermines the credibility of the story. But let’s assume there is a paper, which has been spun by an enemy of Brexit within Government.
The second issue then is the material itself. I am afraid on this occasion that sensationalism has trumped good journalism. Planning papers of this nature can often apply principles of what is Most Likely to happen, compared with what is Most Dangerous. In military plans, for example, the latter might involve a peacekeeping spat over, say, a puncture escalating badly into nuclear war. So long as there is at least a marginal element of credibility, it helps planners build flexibility into their work.
The most dangerous scenario with Brexit is precisely that paper bag of apocalyptic soothsaying that George Osborne sought to package through Project Fear. The Treasury team are familiar with the dossier as some of them helped invent it. In this instance, the Most Dangerous scenario is basically that such a pig’s ear is made of the whole negotiations that the default reverts to WTO terms five minutes before we leave.
This, ironically, is a credible possibility only if arch-Remainers themselves manage to derail Brexit talks, though it has to be admitted that they have been doing a reasonable job of that in recent months. The default for not having a negotiated settlement isn’t not to have Brexit: it is to leave all the loose wiring dangling when Brexit happens.
Such a scenario, though, requires more than simply not negotiating any Brexit at all; you also need, on top of that, to break every current default agreement going and to turn ourselves into North Korea. Not even Jeremy Corbyn is advocating that.
The real question is therefore not one of ‘how many zombies’; but which is the most likely No Deal default? Will it be a catastrophe or, to deploy a surprisingly apt Tolkien neologism, eucatastrophe?
The reality of a No Deal scenario used to be a ‘Heavily Mitigated No Deal’ that addresses as much of that loose circuitry as can be connected in time.
The Heavily Mitigated No Deal is also the bare bones of what could have been bolted on to a CETA deal (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement finally made between Canada and the EU) to build CETA+, a prospect which might just about still be achievable if the Cabinet Office get their ducks in a row. But without the Dick Cheney hunting skills in play.
Such a model would have its problems, just as every other approach does. But as the Red Cell’s 200-page Brexit Risk Register audit assessed fifteen months ago, around 80 per cent of those problems ought to be addressable, provided civil servants have the time to sign off on bilaterals with EU counterparts. The fact that there are three hundred working groups tasked to achieve this should not be a surprise, but a mark of encouragement.
But to complicate issues now there is the other default, which is a default only if other things don’t default. This is the section of the working draft that covers Northern Ireland, the ‘backstop’ which carries uncertain elastic implications.
The fact that the Government is still mired in the prospect of shadowing customs union and single market arrangements, however, means it risks ending up with the European Commission’s own set default. That model is predicated upon either breaking up the UK’s own internal customs union and single market, or locking the whole of the UK into the EU’s own.
Both interpretations, for their own reasons, are self-evidently unacceptable; and both correspondingly increase the risk of the Government’s own default being triggered the closer the deadline becomes.
The problem with apocalypses is that when they do come, the vectors tend to be the ones you were least expecting. The blurry existence of the Irish border backstop is of itself the single biggest risk to generating a No Deal Brexit. There is still time to drop it and move on to the task of heavy mitigation. But it must begin now. For as Irish mythology tells us, it is perilous to tarry too long with the Sidhe.