Not wading but drowning. (Photo: Getty)
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If David Cameron can't bully the broadcasters, how's his EU renegotiation going to work out?

David Cameron has muffed his strategy as far as the debates are concerned. Even if he gets away with it, it's a bad sign if he ends up having to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU.

If David Cameron is returned to Downing Street this May, his jubilation will be short lived. As Ed Miliband's head rolls and Labour becomes a circular firing squad of recriminations, a nagging internal voice will be ruining the Tory leader's moment: “Hey Dave, how's that EU renegotiation going?” He'll try and push it aside, but the voice will get louder and louder: “Lovely day to repatriate some powers from Brussels, wouldn't y'say?” Worse, this voice will be less persistent and more polite than his backbenchers and previously friendly media allies.

If he has any self-awareness, Cameron should be beginning to question whether he's the right man for the job. One thing the TV debate furore has taught us is that Cameron's negotiating skills are pretty limited. If he can't influence Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, what hope has he got persuading 27 other EU members to make terms noticeably more favourable to Britain by 2017?

The TV broadcasters were supposed to be a pushover. Bound by strict election impartiality laws, all that was required was for the Tories to make some positive but non-committal noises, play down the clock, shrug and say “we tried.” They just needed to avoid anything too provocative, like, oh, I don't know... writing an antagonistic open letter blaming their addressee for “a deeply unsatisfactory process”, while simultaneously ducking meetings. And they absolutely shouldn't send a insufferably chummy Grant Shapps on TV to repeat the inplausible accusation over and over again while heroically ignoring the interviewers' logical counter-points. 

Bullying the Beeb should be a cake-walk when you're holding a giant novelty cheque over its collective head, yet Cameron's team has somehow managed to be so obnoxious and inept that even they've summoned enough courage to bite the hand that feeds. Well, nibbled it. They're considering empty chairing the PM, but giving him his own one-man show for balance - a bit like slapping someone in the face, then driving them to A&E and demanding 24 hour care. But hey, maybe they'll surprise everyone and dress the Prime Minister's podium up as a giant pram, with a series of toys scattered around it. This not-so-subtle symbolism would neatly back up what the polls say everyone's thinking.

Even if the debates don't happen thanks to a legal logjam, Cameron has overplayed his hand. He'll be blamed, and seen as cowardly, calculating, conniving and a pick of other choice 'C' words. This sorry spectacle doesn't bode well for Europe. It seems our Prime Minister has just the one negotiating gear: 'agree to my terms, or I'm not playing'.

If he can't intimidate four broadcasters - one of whom is so timid that it's contemplating giving him An Evening with David Cameron as a peace offering - how on Earth is he going to get his way with 27 highly skilled politicians? Despite the higher stakes, his tactics have been eerily similar to date: complain loudly to alienate the people you need to ingratiate yourself too, and then threaten to leave if you don't get your way. Cameron won great respect from a supportively jingoistic press for using his EU veto in 2011, but far less column inches were devoted to the subsequent U turn when Europe collectively decided to ignore Brave Dave and push on regardless.

How does Cameron think this petulance plays out with the people he ultimately wants on his side? Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to Britain once told The Guardian, “The 'my way or the highway' strategy that Margaret Thatcher pioneered is certainly getting on a lot of Germans' nerves, because they feel Cameron is constantly setting ultimatums rather than trying seek compromises”. Cameron's unique take on the diplomatic charm offensive seems to hinge overwhelmingly on the offence part.

Sir John Major – much lampooned for being weak on Europe by his party – understood that Britain couldn't just demand to get everything its own way. He managed to achieve a couple of major concessions with the Mastricht Treaty, even though – as Andrew Rawnsley points out - none of our European partners wanted to give way. While Major built bridges, Cameron seems determined to jump up and down on them until they crumble.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, and Cameron is a stronger negotiator than I thought, but all the signs point to someone who never lost at Risk, because he used his 'veto' to pack up the board and go home. Ironically, his stubbornness with the broadcasters might make it moot: an empty chair in front of 22 million Britain's could remind them why they don't want him practicing his petulant poker face in Brussels.

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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.