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26 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

David Davis is setting the British government up for an unwinnable row with the EU27

Today Davis will say the UK will seek the right to sign its own trade deals from the end of March 2019  – when the Article 50 period expires.

By Stephen Bush

The mood in Westminster is dominated by two speeches: one given by Jacob Rees-Mogg last night and one still to come from David Davis this afternoon.

Rees-Mogg says that the British government has been “cowed by the EU” and that a radical rethink is needed. And he’s not entirely wrong: the nature of trade negotiations is that the bigger partner largely sets the terms, and the nature of Article 50 is that the time pressure makes it even harder for the departing nation, which has more to lose than any remaining nation, to ameliorate that fact.

But the British government has done a bad job of explaining to Parliament or the voters what the trade-offs of both the Brexit process and Brexit itself are, and has instead made a virtue of advertising its weakness. Take the latest row over the transition period. The reason for a transition is that it gives businesses, families, universities, civil society, etc. time to adapt to the new EU-UK relationship. That means accepting the status quo because if there were time to negotiate a bespoke interim deal in full there would be time to negotiate a full EU-UK deal so there would be no need for transition.

And if you take the British government at its word, once you ignore the magical thinking, the only way to actually keep Theresa May’s promises, both to British voters, the Irish government and the European Commission is to remain firmly within the regulatory orbit of the EU27. That’s essentially been clear since Lancaster House, if not before.  

But the government continues to encourage flights of fantasy rather than level with its own MPs or voters about what Brexit means. Take David Davis’ big speech today: he will say the British government will seek the right to sign its own trade deals, not from the end of the transition period but from the end of March 2019  – when the Article 50 period expires.

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As Morning Call readers will have noticed, there is not a great deal happening in the government other than negotiating Brexit. That’s partly because of Theresa May’s lack of dynamism, but actually the biggest cause is that the logistical work of Brexit means that the government has little spare capacity to do anything else. So stretched is the UK’s ability to even retain the benefits of existing EU deals with other countries, that the British government is now asking the EU for help in doing so.

So Davis is setting the British government up for a row with the EU27 that it will a) lose and b) of which there are no benefits to victory. The opportunity that May declined when she was politically strong was to lay out what the Brexit process actually meant. She and her government show no sign of doing so now she is weak and the best case scenario is that the repercussions of that are merely confined to the Conservative Party.