Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's newspapers

1. This is no smoking gun, nor Iranian bomb (Guardian)

Nothing in the published "intelligence documents" shows that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, says Norman Dombey.

2. After dealing with US health care, no wonder Barack Obama needs a doctor (Daily Telegraph)

The gruelling, eight-month health-care debate typified how lopsided and minority-dominated the US Senate has become. Alex Spillius outlines its problems of representation and filibustering.

3. Why market sentiment has no credibility (Financial Times)

Robert Skidelsky says that governments must call the bankers' bluff. The same markets that made the taxpayers' bank bailouts necessary are now demanding fiscal consolidation in return for their continued support for governments.

4. From "Yes, we can" to "No, we can't" (Independent)

Adrian Hamilton reflects on Obama's first year in power -- a year that opened with unbridled enthusiasm and hope -- and says that the US president has been constrained by the recession and by domestic considerations.

5. Bank charges criminalise us for being human (Times)

It's not fair to be penalised for going slightly over your overdraft limit, says Melanie Reid. The system is built to catch us out and the fines are disproportionately large.

6. The perfect gift? How about an end to loneliness -- and not just at Christmas (Guardian)

Jonathan Freedland on loneliness, a social enterprise for lifting people out of it and the challenging lessons public services could learn from it.

7. The many are being sacrificed for the few (Independent)

Les Ebdon offers an initial reaction to the news of Lord Mandelson's planned cuts of £130m from university funding in 2010-2011, and says that they were avoidable.

8. Balkan odyssey (Times)

Serbia's application to join the EU offers hope of overcoming a dark recent history, says the Times leading article.

9. Who will be next year's most hated? (Daily Telegraph)

Bankers and politicians have made a start, but there's plenty of loathing left, says Tracy Corrigan. Who's next in line -- lawyers? Accountants?

10. To keep on the move, we'll have to spend more (Times)

How do other countries cope with two foot of snow when two inches brings us to a halt, asks Stephen Joseph? They invest in concrete and steel. Here, rising demand is met with spending cuts.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.