After the offer of concessions to the EU in the Prime Minister’s highly generous Florence speech, the country now approaches a key moment in the Brexit negotiations.
The EU must either recognise Britain’s hand of friendship and our willingness to find a positive agreement that both parties can live with – or it can continue to try and extract more, to the point that it becomes a bad deal the Prime Minister must walk away from.
If the EU takes the first course, the negotiations should really not be that difficult – for the UK already has all the laws and regulations in place that other countries require time to adopt.
If, however, the EU takes the latter course and seeks to punish the UK, or string the negotiations out in the hope that we shall pay tens of billions when we have no moral or obligation to do so, it is imperative that the UK government has in place a coherent plan for walking away and leaving the EU without a deal.
When pushed under questioning in Florence, May admitted that in such a case she still believed “no deal is better than a bad deal”. But do all her Cabinet ministers share that view?
George Osborne caused the problem by not allowing any Treasury preparations for a Brexit vote – an act of criminal negligence that threw the government into chaos when the Leave vote came. May then needed time to get her ducks in a row – and some, like our defence posture, are clearly lame.
Hammond wanted a five year transition – but to what? Associate membership? A costly relationship worse than Norway’s with no say?
And why is the Home Office not ready? What is Amber Rudd doing with her time?
In Italy, Theresa May herself admitted that a transition period of “about two years” would be helpful in allowing the Home Office to get its house in order for new immigration procedures.
This prompts the question just what exactly is the UK government doing in preparing for Brexit – and more crucially, what plans are being prepared for the real possibility that a deal is not reached before the end of March 2019?
As part of the UK’s negotiating strategy, we need to be able to back up the rhetoric about walking away from a bad deal with an ability to demonstrate we have plans which show we do not fear such a choice.
Given the past record of scaremongering from the Treasury and the sheer incompetence handling immigration in the past, there should be genuine cause for concern that some departments are neither prepared or taking the issue seriously enough.
Michael Gove of all people, environment secretary and leading figure of Vote Leave, is already giving out confusing signals about cutting a deal over fishing that suggest he has gone native.
Meanwhile, defence secretary Michael Fallon has conceded considerable ground for the sharing of military assets with the EU.
Offering a transition deal ignores the hard fact that a transition to a deal cannot be agreed until the deal is itself established.
This is why so many, myself included, consider much of the talk about transition as a stalling tactic rather a detail of the process.
While the negotiations are taking place, what is required by all those scrutinising the British government – be it the media or the various committees in the Houses of Parliament – is for each and every cabinet minister to reveal just how much work they have done in preparing for the scenarios of leaving with or without a deal, irrespective of a transition.
We need to expose Cabinet ministers to the searing white light of truth by asking what they are doing for Brexit. It is easy so long as the electoral advantage is in supporting Brexit. But the risks for confusion and national self-immolation will set in if support for Brexit is eroded in the face of constant carping and pessimism. And that is when we will see how strong or weak our political leaders are.
This is what Remainers in the establishment and in all parties are relying on. It is also why the EU does not need to make any concessions yet – its negotiators believe that over an extended period we will eat ourselves alive.
If we falter now, the UK will be humiliated, and we face worse membership terms in future than what we previously enjoyed. The City will be first in the firing line.
It makes you appreciate Churchill all the more – when Halifax and others wanted to cut a deal with Hitler during the dark days of 1940, he asked what we were all doing to ensure our country’s future.
Now, we must do the same.