CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Cameron's Tories point to isolation (Financial Times)

If the Tories win the election, they will find themselves oddly isolated from mainstream conservatism in both the US and Europe, writes Gideon Rachman. David Cameron's decision to distance his party from the US has left it without any coherent focus for its foreign policy.

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2. Gordon Brown must now tell the voters why they deserve more of him (Daily Telegraph)

It is not enough for Brown to offer a demolition of the opposition's economic policies, writes Mary Riddell; he needs to create a sense of optimism. He should begin by promising not to raise VAT.

3. Thirteen years on, New Labour has come full circle (Times)

Like the Conservatives in 1997, Labour has decided to pursue a strategy of fear, not hope, writes Rachel Sylvester. It is the Tories whose theme will be "Things can only get better".

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4. Hacks and the Yard? We're still asking (Guardian)

Scotland Yard has gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress evidence of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, says Nick Davies. But despite the Yard's attempt to mislead the public and the press, the questions will not go away.

5. Obama's 21st-century world order (Independent)

Barack Obama's instinct in devising foreign policy reflects an unusual ability to see the other side's point of view, writes Mary Dejevsky. By abolishing talk of the "axis of evil" and appealing directly to Iranians, he has made it harder to demonise the US.

6. South Africa will survive the killing of a neofascist -- like in 1994 (Guardian)

The murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche will not be the spark for a race war, writes Gillian Slovo. His Afrikaner Resistance Movement suffered an irreparable defeat at the time of the 1994 election.

7. An amazing Afrikaner -- wrong about everything (Times)

Elsewhere, Hugo Rifkind says that Terre'Blanche may have exploited the language of a segregationist, but he was actually something far worse -- a racial supremacist.

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8. Israel knows apartheid has no future (Financial Times)

After decades of illegally occupying Palestinian land, Israeli leaders are finally acknowledging reality, writes Mustafa Barghouthi.

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9. I wish I'd had the NI policy to call on as a Tory candidate (Independent)

The former Tory MP Michael Brown says that although the party's pledge to reverse Labour's planned National Insurance increase may be dodgy economics, it is also smart politics. The Tories have armed their candidates with the ammunition they will need on the doorstep.

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10. The election for change (Times)

In a special full-length editorial, the Times sets out the changes it wants to see in Britain over the next five years.

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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.