THE BLOG

Tick Tock

20/07/2017 12:43

Mr Bernier's clock moves on.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. In Mr Bernier's room in Brussels, plush with the luxuries due to the leader of the EU's brexit negotiating team, there stands a clock. At least I suppose there does, because he claims to hear it ticking and with each tick the moment of Brexit becomes closer. Tick tock, tick tock. With so little being agreed, the time available for pulling together a deal is becoming ever more inadequate. Tick tock, tick tock. It is the student essay problem all over again. At the beginning there seemed to be quite a lot of time but, you know how it is, distractions got in the way - in the old days it was drink and social life: now it is party politics - but still the clock moves remorselessly towards the deadline and still the page is blank. Tick tock, tick tock. How do we avoid falling off the edge?

One answer, of course, is an extension. Mr Hammond would like four years or so of additional transition period, plenty of time to work through the details and get it right. Liam Fox, on the other hand, thinks that a few months would do the trick. Everyone will have their own theories with the ex-Remainers going for the longer periods and the Brexiteers for the shorter.

The truth, I suspect, is that it doesn't really matter and that, however long the period, the panic in the last month or so will be the same. Many years ago I joined a commercial firm of solicitors in the City of London. In those days, before the advent of laptops which you could take home, meetings often went on all night, and my boss, seeing that I had never been involved in anything of that sort before, gave me some practical advice.

"You know that the deal has to be announced to the stock exchange just before 8am," he said, "so that is the deadline for everything being agreed. In difficult negotiations people are reluctant to give anything away until the last moment so until about 5.30am they will just sit around repeating their opening position. You won't miss anything if you slip off to your office at about 11 and have a good sleep. Then you can rejoin the exhausted negotiators at about 5.30 and they will be in no mood to resist you."

It was good advice and any commercial negotiator will tell you that, regardless of the time available, deals are generally made at the last practical point, particularly when those negotiating could be criticized if they are seen to have gone soft.

Apply this to Brexit. However long the transitions and the timetables, nothing much is likely to be agreed until the last couple of months. Up until then the parties will posture, discuss matters internally, change their positions and generally mess about; in our case that will probably involve changing Prime Minister and possibly having an election. It is only when they realise that if they don't do something urgently the negotiations will fail and that lots of people, from City bigwigs to German car manufacturers, will denounce them for incompetents, that they will really focus at all. At that stage, however long or short the transitional period which is just ending, there will be much the same "late essay" panic and something will be cobbled together.

If you think that is obvious, let's try something harder. Who should succeed Mrs May as leader of the Conservative party? Here there is a division between those who keen on a "soft Brexit " who typically want an ex-Remainer - perhaps Philip Hammond - while the hardline Brexiteers focus on David Davis or Liam Fox. The odd thing is that they have all got it back to front.

Let us suppose that at the end of the negotiations with the EU there will have to be a compromise and that it will involve accepting things which would stick in the throat of a true Brexiteer. For example the sensible course might be to remain members of Euratom or continue to participate in EU regimes, such as that governing intellectual property rights. Worse still from the Brexiteers' standpoint, governance of the shared area may have to be ceded to the hated European Court of Justice, possibly with an English judge tacked on.

If some ex-Remainer, smelling of French aftershave and wearing an Italian suit, were to try to explain that in an Essex pub he would be lucky to escape with his life. If, on the other hand, David Davis, the renowned Brexiteer, doughty warrior of the Leave campaign, were to don his favourite Union Jack waistcoat and explain in the same pub that this was the only course, they would probably see his point. Oddly then it is only a Brexiteer who can achieve a soft and sensible Brexit.

It is an odd world where lengthening timetables does not provide more time and where only your opponents can deliver your agenda. Still, we are going to have to live in it until Brexit day. That in itself must be a good argument for pushing it all through as quickly as we possibly can.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS