At least our mandarins have managed to ‘take back control’

Denis MacShane
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Westminister Street Signs
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As a long-time Brexit watcher, I feel there is serious change in the air. At long last Britain is taking back control.

Or more accurately, the British state is taking back control from the politicians.

The proposals being put forward are complex and internally contradictory, but are miles away from the Brexit campaign as defined by Nigel Farage and hardline anti-EU politicians like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, or Gisella Stuart.

Indeed, Gove, whose intellectual honesty is in permanent conflict with his ideological ambitions, has trashed Liam Fox’s proposal that chickens washed in chlorine and hormone stuffed beef should be imported from Donald Trump’s America.

One day Johnson says the EU can “Go Whistle” on the idea that the UK owes any money as part of a Brexit divorce settlement, and the next day Whitehall proposes a sensible way of dealing with the Brexit settlement by echeloning payments over a number of years.

Separately, Philip Hammond and Fox publish a dramatic paper saying the UK will be leaving the Customs Union. The next day, David Davis, says the UK will stay in the Customs Union provided it is slightly tweaked.

In Whitehall’s proposals for Northern Ireland the government is saying that any European can arrive in Dublin, drive into the UK without let or hindrance and then cross to the mainland.

The proposals on how to handle the passage of goods that may come from less economically developed countries into Belfast and then go down to Dublin for re-export tariff free to the continent raise plenty of questions, but the tone of Whitehall is far, far removed from the demagogy against Europe that we heard in the Brexit plebiscite campaign last year.

But it is clear the politicians are not in the driving seat. UKIP got just 1.8 per cent in the June election and Farage is like Banquo at Macbeth’s feast – a ghost from the past and no longer a political player.

Labour has also decided to play itself out of the Brexit game with excruciatingly embarrassing performances by its shadow ministers whenever they are asked about the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Instead of irrelevant politicians, serious state officials are taking decisions and making the running.

One can see in the Home Office briefing that there will be no immigration controls on Europeans post-Brexit. EU citizens can visit and stay in Britain without a visa. This will come as some relief to the 2m ex-pat Brits in Spain, France and elsewhere, as whatever restrictions London placed on Europeans would have been met with reciprocal action affecting British citizens living in Europe.

The proposals still seem to imply a huge new bureaucracy in which every bar that wants to hire a waiter, care-home that needs help, or small farmer that wants labour to pull leeks out of freezing Lincolnshire soil, has to navigate Home Office jobsworths.

But at least it is internal management of immigration, such as the Swiss put in place after their parliament binned the 2014 referendum banning EU immigration.

The City, of course, is waiting anxiously to see if some sensible compromise proposals can emerge on the access of City firms to the EU Single Market so as to keep the 350,000 EU financial service “passports’’ that have allowed the City to become the Wall Street of Europe since Mrs Thatcher abolished national vetoes to create the Single Market in the 1980s.

If Theresa May had gone high in her Alpine waking holiday she would have known there is nothing more scary – or thrilling – than being roped up on crampons to advance up a narrow icy ledge, or edge over a snow bridge with a yawning crevasse below.

Now that the British state is taking back control of Brexit from the political loud-mouths one can sense the same cautious, crabbed movement to safer ground.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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