40. The Time To Act Is now.

Peter Burke
Chair, Oxford For Europe
25 April 2020

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The Time To Act Is now.

“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law. The Prime Minister has made clear he has no intention of changing this. We remain fully committed to negotiations with the EU. We will not be extending the transition period – we will be recovering economic and political independence at the end of the year, which the British people voted for”

– Government response to petition requesting an extension to the transition period.

“We think the best way of providing certainty to all businesses out there is to let them know that we are not going to keep chopping and changing, that the transition period will end at the end of this year. To carry on negotiations with the EU, along with negotiations with other countries in the world, at least then to provide the certainty… No but we won’t be extending, to answer your question.”

– Grant Shapps, at the coronavirus press briefing, 24 April.

How can any government in today’s climate think that such a response is adequate? Sadly, they are acting true to form.

At a time of the greatest national crisis for centuries, we are saddled with the weakest ever government. It is singularly lacking in experience, common sense and probity. We have only to think of the four key offices of state. We have a Prime Minister whose only Cabinet experience is as the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory (his deputy, Alan Duncan, talks about having to pooper scoop after him wherever he went). In Dominic Raab we have a Foreign Secretary who spent four months in the Cabinet as Brexit secretary and then left in high dudgeon, having achieved nothing. Rishi Sunak is a Chancellor who has never been a Secretary of State for anything – his unique selling point compared to his predecessor was his compliance. In Priti Patel we have a home secretary whose only ministerial experience ended when she was dismissed for not having played by the rules (as of course was Gavin Williamson, now the education secretary). This is mirrored in the entire front bench, all of whom have been selected on the basis of their track record on Brexit, which means of course that they are chosen from among a small segment of an already greatly weakened Conservative Parliamentary party. On the other hand, many of the most experienced former ministers, such as David Liddington, Philip Hammond, Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke, were all purged at the last election and can only watch helplessly from the sidelines.

And then of course there is the proven track record of ministers in obfuscating, contradicting themselves and deliberately misleading the public on matters such as herd immunity, testing, ventilator supply and PPE. They are trying to airbrush away delays and mistakes (Cheltenham?) which have cost many hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. And there is the clear evidence this week that Sir Simon McDonald, permanent undersecretary of the foreign office, was leaned on by ministers to disavow his correct statement that the government failed to participate in the European joint procurement scheme for political reasons. In other words he was forced to lie for his bosses. And now the government has admitted that Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner, who are political appointees and not experts, have been sitting on in and participating in meetings of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies. Does this mean that they are the channel by which SAGE’s discussion reach the ear of the PM? It is certainly without precedent and has been condemned by the opposition and by Sir David King, the previous chair.

Dominic Raab struggling to respond to Keir Starmer in a thinned-out House of Commons

The failings of our current government front bench are there for all to see at the lamentable – and evasive – daily ministerial press briefings, and in the contrast at PMQ’s between the forensic approach of Keir Starmer and the flannel of his opposite numbers in Government. It is also striking to see, in contrast, the professionalism and leadership of people such as Macron, Merkel and Ardern. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that we do not have a leader like Trump, who is prepared in all seriousness to invite his public – to the silent horror of his medical advisors – to consider injecting themselves with antiseptic (now, incapable of admitting he was wrong, he puts it down to “sarcasm“). However, frankly, that is scant comfort indeed. Trump manages to make almost any other politician look good.  And when challenged to distance themselves from his lethal foolishness, UK ministers have failed to do so. Another symptom of the reliance upon the USA which Brexit has forced upon us in this country.

Emmanuel Macron speaking to the FT

Are we surprised? This, after all, is the same team that told us Brexit would be easy and would give us “control over our money, our laws and our borders”. Need I say more?

We now find ourselves at the mercy of such third-rate politicians, and we have to swallow hard when we hear people saying that they are the only government we have, so we must trust and support them.

It is against this background of ignorance that the government is proposing to push ahead with ending the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021. When this date was chosen it allowed for a period of almost two years for negotiation and adjustment. Even then it would have been a tight timescale but the intention was that it would be occupied with intensive negotiations on an adult level on both sides. Instead we find ourselves with an 11 month period of which the first three have already been wasted, and behaviour on the British side which, far from being adult, is petulant and populist. On top of that now comes the coronavirus crisis, which of course has pushed everything else onto the backburner. Not only has it made negotiations about trade deals seem irrelevant and otherworldly, it is also meant that the practicalities of the negotiations have become difficult or impossible. I cannot believe such a complex task can be resolved by Zoom.

Even worse than that, when the possibility of Brexit was first contemplated over a year ago, great show was made of the preparations on the part of government and business for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit. These preparations were of course grossly inadequate but at least there were some. The capacity to make such preparations has now been completely taken away by the coronavirus crisis. On the other hand the downside of a no deal Brexit is greater than ever. After all, if anything it has reminded us of our reliance upon the European neighbours and the fact that control of borders is a fantasy: who ever thought that the virus would stop its progress at Calais? That did not happen in 1347, 1665 or 1918, so why should it happen now?

In such circumstance of course common sense would dictate that the likely outcome is that no deal will have been struck by the deadline, and therefore an extension has to happen. That common sense has not prevailed is due in part to the pigheadedness and indifference to the common good which is so typical of this government. However there are several other factors. One may well be the Prime Minister’s indisposition, if that indeed is what it is, which will be used as a pretext for missing yet another deadline. Another is the calculation that the damage done by coronavirus can be used to mask that due to a no-deal Brexit, and therefore paradoxically that this crisis makes it easier for the government to get away with such an outcome. If cross-channel trade grinds to a juddering halt in January, perhaps nobody will notice because it is already so compromised anyway. Machiavellian or what?

Johnson’s and Cummings’ Mentor?

There may well be some complacency, even among those of us with pro-European leanings. People are thinking ‘it is only April and we have until December to sort things out’. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are constraints at the tail end of the period, because any trade deal which is agreed has got to be ratified and implemented by January 1. Therefore negotiations have to be completed by November. Furthermore, this government does not have until December to request an extension, it has until the end of June. And in order to make such a request possible it has to legislate: the government bound its own hands by introducing an amendment, Section 15A, to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 last year. This amendment would have to be revoked through an act of Parliament, at a time when Parliament has reassembled virtually but has not yet decided how votes can be taken, if at all.

Furthermore a request has to be made for the Joint Committee (which is required to meet within 30 days of a request by either the U.K. or EU side) to examine the issue of an extension, so in effect action would have to be taken by mid to late May. Thus we have at most a few weeks. It is to be hoped that the civil service, who after all are tasked with making all this happen, will persuade ministers that we live in the real world. And certainly they are trying.

Ministers will only act if they feel public opinion is pressing them. And that might still happen. Even at a time when many of us are suffering huge privations and anxieties about the future, we have to understand the importance of this issue. In normal times we would be having another march in the streets of London to highlight it, in the hope more than the expectation that it would be covered adequately by the BBC and other mainstream media. Just now our options are more limited. We do however have the power to lean on our local MPs, write to the papers, sign petitions (see below) and spread the word via social media that this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is certainly a more pressing issue than whether Captain Tom Moore is given a knighthood, something which attracted over 900,000 signatures to a petition. We really should be able to do better.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Oxford For Europe.

Jacinda Ardern

Quotes of the week:

“When Johnson starts trying to distance himself from the incompetence of his own government, as he surely will, Cabinet ministers will find out just how loyal and honest he is. They could save themselves some time by asking his wives”.

– James O’Brien

‘Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’

– Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

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