Cameron's EU veto: "conspiracy or cock up?"

The PM is confident because his stance is popular. But some MPs are querying whether the whole thing

The House of Commons was on predictably raucous form for the Prime Minister's statement on last week's European summit. It isn't always a forum in which the best arguments win. Often they are trumped by the most bravura performance, the readiest wit or the exuberance of the backbenches.

On this occasion, the seriousness of the issue just about managed to cut through the roiling theatrics. Cameron pitched his statement soberly, clearly mindful of being seen to revel in the anti-Brussels triumphalism that was bubbling away behind him. He didn't need to worry about sparing Nick Clegg's blushes though. The Deputy Prime Minister wasn't there. Cameron's message was simple enough: the deal on offer wasn't good for Britain, so he didn't sign.

That claim was dismantled by Ed Miliband. Nothing had been vetoed that cannot proceed anyway, no safeguards were secured and all that was achieved was Britain's marginalisation. It wasn't a barnstorming performance, but it had the solid virtue of describing the truth.

The message was reinforced by needle-sharp questions from two former foreign secretaries, David Miliband and Jack Straw, probing the Prime Minister on the detail of what exactly it is that was under threat before last Thursday, and how exactly the threat has now been averted. Cameron couldn't answer.

Outside parliament, though, It doesn't really matter much. The Prime Minister's strongest line was also his most predictable one: would Miliband have signed or not? "You can't lead if you can't decide". It was a neat barb, crafted to reinforce No. 10's central strategic line of attack against the Labour leader -- that he is not a credible alternative PM.

Ultimately, Cameron is confident because his stance is popular. He is casting himself as the PM who finally said "no" to Brussels and, according to opinion polls, it is working.

That domestic political advantage (which has the added benefit of averting a rebellion on his backbenches and diminishing the threat of a Ukip upset in next week's Feltham by-election) has led a number of Labour MPs to query whether Cameron might have planned the whole thing. The theory doing the rounds is that he deliberately tabled impossible demands in Brussels to engineer a veto.

Just before the statement, I spoke to one shadow minister who put the question pretty bluntly. "Is it conspiracy or is it cock up?"

If it is the former, the Lib Dems will have been most royally stitched-up. Perhaps suspicion along those lines is what kept Clegg out of the chamber.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.