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The leverage for Britain in the art of the No Deal

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According to a report in the Mail on Sunday, a “gang of four” has emerged inside the British Cabinet to get Brexit through without breaking the government and Conservative party apart.

The quartet, said to comprise two Brexiteers, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, and two Remainers, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock, have reportedly formed a “pragmatic” alliance to “get Brexit over the line”.

Apparently, these four ministers will seek to hose down both ultra-Remainers and ultra-Brexiteers who are all likely to object to the final terms of the deal.

What does that tell us? That neither side will get all they want but will have to compromise. And what does that tell us? That Brexit will be betrayed.

Why? Because any “compromise” with the EU means being partly or substantially out or remaining partly or substantially in. But if Brexit is to be honoured, no compromise is possible between being in and out.

Remainers would have little difficulty if the UK were to loosen certain bonds with the EU (if such were ever possible). The converse, however, doesn’t work for Brexiteers. If the UK remains even partly in it will still find itself, at least to some extent, subject to EU laws or regulations. It will still not be in control of its own political, legal and economic destiny.

That’s why the very notion of “soft” Brexit is a sham. So-called “hard” Brexit is not, as routinely presented, a swivel-eyed extremist position. It’s simply what Brexit ineluctably is. It is what the British people actually voted for in the referendum: to leave the European Union. They did not vote to be half-in, half-out.

That’s why the UK negotiating position which Theresa May rammed through the Cabinet at Chequers in July has caused such uproar. As Martin Howe QC wrote in his devastating memorandum, the Chequers proposals would prevent Britain from doing trade deals in its own interests; European Court of Justice rulings would still have supremacy over British domestic courts; and it would lead to a “worst-of-all-worlds ‘black hole’ Brexit” which would leave the UK a “vassal state in the EU’s legal and regulatory tar-pit”.

According to the MoS story, the lynchpin of the Cabinet “pragmatic” quartet is the erstwhile lynchpin of Vote Leave, Michael Gove. It was he who reportedly played a key role in getting his Cabinet colleagues to agree to the Chequers proposals at that fraught and epic meeting.

And that’s because, as he says, he has qualified some of his previous positions as a result of the “parliamentary arithmetic”. “The critical thing”, he says, “is making sure we leave in good order with a deal which safeguards the referendum mandate.”

But the point about Chequers is that it does not safeguard that mandate; it betrays it. It would keep Britain tied to the EU.

Boris Johnson’s claim to reliability is… well, you know; but his argument on this is correct. By tying the UK to the EU and restricting its ability to trade to its advantage but without a seat at the Brussels table even to make its voice heard, Chequers would leave the UK worse off out of the EU than in.

Now Gove is claiming that the UK can always renegotiate Brexit at a later date. Well, in theory, maybe. But anyone like to bet the ranch on a future government EVER being prepared to open up this wound yet again? Or the EU somehow becoming more emollient after the UK has departed and will be posing such a potential threat to the EU’s own economic protection racket?

Quite.

Gove’s claims would seem to be merely a none-too subtle attempt to soften up the British public for a sell-out pragmatic compromise on the basis that this is the best the UK can achieve in current circumstances.

But is that right?

This fight was always going to go to the wire. It was always going to require Britain to hold its nerve right to the bitter end – and then some.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who until now has been exhibiting those higher diplomatic arts known as bullying, threats and humiliation, has been making optimistic noises about a deal being eminently possible. That’s a signal for the British to start counting their spoons.

Barnier is doubtless calculating that the UK’s terror of ending up with “no deal” means he will finally be able to reel in the May government like a salmon exhausted from swimming upstream. All he has to do at present is make encouraging noises and then, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, issue the UK with an ultimatum such as: join the EU customs union or no deal.

Indeed, as I can update this morning (Monday) The Times reports that EU negotiators are now accepting the idea of a “frictionless” border between the UK and the Irish Republic based on “technological solutions to minimise customs checks” on the border.

Rub your eyes, eh. For this is precisely what the Brexiteers have been arguing for months as a solution to the “intractable” and “deal-breaking” Irish border problem, only to be told this was yet another example of swivel-eyed Brexiteer lunacy. Yet suddenly we are being told this solution is being “secretly” drawn up by Barnier’s team. It’s all too likely that, at the last minute, he’ll tell May that because he has leant over backwards to remove this apparently immoveable obstacle of the Irish border, she must swallow a customs union as a return gesture.

What these moves show, however, is the desperation on the EU side. We have already seen car manufacturers and others in various EU member states fretting about the devastating impact on them if no deal with Britain is reached. The point is that, whatever the downside of “no deal” for Britain, it would be worse for the EU because they depend on trade with the UK more than the UK depends on trade with them.

So all May has to do is to say she’s more than prepared to walk away with no deal – and mean it.

Anyone see Theresa May doing that?

Quite.

So as a negotiator at this critical juncture, she is worse than useless and should be sacked. Her replacement by a true Brexiteer is probably the only way to get Barnier to believe that the UK really does mean “no deal” is better than a rotten deal such as Chequers or anything else he might dream up.

And for the EU, by contrast, “no deal” is very much worse than a rotten deal. Which is why the ultimate leverage is in May’s hands, if only she would realise it.

So who might that true Brexiteer be? Well there, of course, lies the rub. There is no ideal candidate. Every one of them has some perceived deficit in either character or experience which is said to rule them out as a prime minister.

But here’s the thing. At this most crucial moment – an opportunity for Britain to regain its independence, national identity and self-belief which may never occur again – there’s only one consideration that matters. The issue is not whether the Conservative party leader would make a good prime minister. The only issue is whether that person will resolutely take Britain out of the EU to become again a self-governing nation.

Because if that doesn’t happen, whoever becomes prime minister will no longer matter. Because the United Kingdom itself will no longer matter. And who cares who leads a vassal state?

The Conservatives are not known ever to put the national interest above their personal greed for power. But unless they ensure that Brexit takes place properly and cleanly, it won’t just be the fury of the public they will be facing but their own political irrelevance, brought about by their own craven ineptitude.

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