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Why has strong and stable Theresa May left Brexit to the three stooges?

Of the Brexit ministers, one will steer us towards disaster, one will try to sell the ship, and a third who you can never quite be sure wasn’t on the iceberg’s side in the first place.

Sometimes, logic can lead us astray. It seems clear that those tasked with delivering Brexit should be those who supported the ludicrous idea in the first place: partly to prevent the emerging stab-in-the-back narrative, but mostly on the venerable philosophical principle of “You broke it, you bought it”. 

This plan, though, has the slight downside that almost everyone who actually understood international trade backed Remain – not out of love for Brussels, but out of simple recognition that the alternative would be agony. The result is that the ministers now delivering Brexit are, by definition, those who haven’t the faintest clue about the magnitude of the task before them.

Consider the big three. Liam Fox has already been thrown out of government once, after blurring the line between personal and professional relationships so severely that the head of the civil service described his judgement as a “security risk”. This, in a less shameless age, would have barred him from high office for ever.

Instead he’s now on tour as international trade secretary, on the grounds, one assumes, that his presence will advertise quite how many principles Britain is willing to flog off in order to sign those trade deals. In between times he’s finding time to motivate British business by calling it fat and lazy, and we can all make our own jokes about that.

The never knowingly under-smugged David Davis does at least have some direct experience of the EU, having been Europe minister from 1994 to 1997. This did not stop him from tweeting, shortly before the referendum, that the priority for a post Brexit-Britain would be to a “UK-German deal”, a statement which remarkably managed to contain more misunderstandings than characters.

Since vexingly being appointed Brexit minister, he’s reported to have cut short meetings with any trade group that expresses concern that life outside the single market might not be all sunlit uplands, and cheerfully told a select committee that his department has made no effort to assess what leaving without a deal would do to British economy. Not content to not know what he’s doing, Davis is actively going to heroic lengths to stay that way.

And then there’s the ambition-lined principle-vacuum currently serving as Britain’s foreign secretary. Worrying enough that Boris Johnson’s decision to back Leave seemingly had less to do with either Britain or Brussels than it did with his leadership ambitions. But what really concerns me is that he came to this conclusion after writing two columns – one for Brexit, one for Brussels – and deciding which argument he found more convincing. Like so many Romans, Boris seems to have mistaken good rhetoric for good government, the world for his cursus honorum. Now he’s charged with formulating Britain’s position regarding Syria, perhaps he’ll discover quite how hard it actually is to govern in 700 word bursts.

We are meant to be reassured, as these men lead us ever closer to the precipice, that at least the prime minister can be relied upon. Unlike her underlings, Theresa May is perceived as solid, dependable, a safe pair of hands. This perception somehow persists, even as she launches public attacks on confectionery firms while declining to dress down party grandees who fancy a spot of war with Spain.

Her election slogan “strong and stable” irritates in part because she repeats it so often that it suggests she’s forgotten the entire rest of the English language – but mostly it’s infuriating because it’s so clearly complete and total nonsense. It was May, after all, who left the most complex diplomatic negotiations that the country has seen in decades in the hands of men like Davis, Fox and Johnson: one who’ll steer us towards disaster, one who’ll try to sell the ship, and a third who you can never quite be sure wasn’t on the iceberg’s side in the first place. Gordon Brown once promised a government of all the talents; Theresa May has given us a government of none of them.

The “strong and stable” message will work, in so far as it’ll likely help her win her majority – but it’s not clear how long it’ll work for. Promising strength and stability may win over swing voters – but when she delivers neither, the buck will stop with her.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.