CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Speed up (Times)

Lord Adonis's plans for a new high-speed rail network have been a long time coming, says the Times leader, and the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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2. Rail: high-speed vision (Daily Telegraph)

Telegraph View agrees that, despite our indebtedness, this will show that Britain has not lost the ambition exemplified by such a national project.

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3. High-speed rail is the right investment for Britain's future (Independent)

It's a full hat-trick -- the Independent's leading article is also in favour of high-speed rail, arguing that to see the economic and social benefits, we need only look at our European neighbours.

4. The British election that both sides deserve to lose (Financial Times)

The electorate has to choose between a government about which it knows far too much and an opposition about which it knows far too little. Neither side is convincing, writes Martin Wolf.

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5. The bankers lied. And Darling, a mere puppet on their string, knows it (Guardian)

Britain has paid a horrendous price for allowing the City to dictate credit policy, says Simon Jenkins. If the banking bailout was worth it, we should see the account. If not, someone should pay. Yet there is no inquiry, no questioning, only silence.

6. Generals must keep their noses out of politics (Times)

Vernon Bogdanor asks whether our armed forces are becoming politicised. Heads of the armed forces have made some outspoken criticisms of government -- but they cannot escape their share of the blame if soldiers do not have the right equipment.

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7. Palestinians should now declare their independence (Independent)

Johann Hari says that the Palestinians should make a unilateral declaration of independence, and we -- the watching billions -- must pressure our governments to make it a reality.

8. It's defeatist nonsense to talk of a crisis of left-wing thinking (Guardian)

The New Statesman senior editor, Mehdi Hasan, argues that progressives have been vindicated. The public is far ahead, and to the left, of government on the reforms that we need.

9. Turkey needs more from Atatürk's heirs (Financial Times)

Turkey lacks an effective opposition, says David Gardner. It desperately needs a regrouping of secular, liberal and social-democratic forces into an electable political party.

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10. A Democrat disgrace (Guardian)

Michael Tomasky discusses Barack Obama's health-care reform. It is stomach-churning, but because it is election year, some congressmen will sabotage the health bill to keep their seats.

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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.