I almost felt sorry for the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, yesterday as he tried to spell out the consequences if there is no deal with the EU before departure day. He was given an impossible brief: meet the needs of his boss by explaining why â€˜no-dealâ€™ is so bad that her so-called â€˜planâ€™ looks good in comparison without undermining her persistent claim that â€˜no dealâ€™ is better than a bad deal, whilst at the same time satisfying the more rabid Brexiteersâ€™ desire for the government to say that â€˜no dealâ€™ really isnâ€™t a problem at all. He was never going to achieve both and in the end he achieved neither. And at the same time as he was busy attempting the impossible by both scaring and reassuring people at the same time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was busy writing a letter explaining just how significant the potential economic impact was going to be. It was not exactly a good day at the office for Raab, but my temptation to sympathise is tempered by the fact that his plight is, ultimately, self-inflicted â€“ no-one forced him to take the job.
His contingency plans themselves are notable for not matching the label on the tin, to misuse a phrase. The theory was that they would help people to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but thatâ€™s exactly what they donâ€™t do. As imagined by the UK Government, the â€˜worst-caseâ€™ is simply one where the UK Government continues to behave as though the UK was still a member of the EU, following the same rules and processes laid down by the EU27, and assumes that the EU27 will do the same and effectively treat the UK as a continuing member in all but name. But that isnâ€™t really the worst case at all, is it? Because the EU could simply decide not to treat the UK in the same way at all and treat us instead as an external third party â€“ and thatâ€™s a scenario which the governmentâ€™s plans donâ€™t even seem to consider.
There is, of course, a question as to whether that would be a reasonable response by the EU27, and whether theyâ€™d actually go that far. If the UK tries to insist that it will follow all the rules but exempt itself from the authority of the bodies enforcing those rules â€“ such as the European Court of Justice â€“ then it does seem quite credible to me that the EU would take a hard-line stance, in which case the plans announced yesterday by the government would be wholly inadequate to deal with the actuality. If, on the other hand, the UK were prepared to agree to continue to accept the authority of the relevant bodies for the time being, then the EU27 would almost certainly be prepared to take a more reasonable stance to allow more detailed negotiations to continue over a longer period.
Hereâ€™s the rub, though. In the first place, such an agreement would be highly unlikely to get the support of the Brexiteers, and in the second, it would require a formal agreement with the EU. In short, the governmentâ€™s plans arenâ€™t for a â€˜no dealâ€™ scenario at all; they are for a scenario in which there is a short term and limited deal. But that short term and limited deal is no more certain than the wider deal towards which the government has supposedly been working, because the UK Governmentâ€™s own red lines rule out the likely content.
I donâ€™t know how much time and effort went into the plans which the unfortunate Raab announced yesterday, but they simply donâ€™t deal with the situation in which the UK might find itself, they donâ€™t work even as a PR exercise, and they satisfy none of the potential audiences. Sooner or later, the Brexiteers need to start being honest and accept that, if their prime demand is that the UK should become a third-party country with relation to the EU, then there should be no surprise if the EU grants that wish and treats the UK as a third party. Spelling out the consequences of that demand is not about some sort of â€˜Project Fearâ€™, itâ€™s about facing up to, and preparing for, the reality. To date, theyâ€™ve barely started on that.