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13 September 2018

Why is Dominic Raab talking up a no-deal Brexit?

The Brexit Secretary is speaking to two audiences: Tory backbenchers and the EU.

By Patrick Maguire

Dominic Raab has spent this morning throwing red meat to his own backbenches – and throwing down the gauntlet to Brussels. In a series of punchy media interventions, the Brexit Secretary said he would step up planning for a no-deal scenario and repeated his warning that Britain’s £39bn divorce bill is conditional on an agreement with the EU.

The cabinet will meet to discuss no-deal planning for three hours this morning, with a new tranche of papers outlining just how ministers would maintain normality in that event due this afternoon. The most consumer-friendly, a deal with telecoms firms that will prevent the imposition of mobile phone roaming charges for British travellers in Europe, was announced last night.

Continuing the offensive this morning, Raab writes in the Telegraph that the UK “will manage the challenges of no-deal – so we make a success of Brexit”. He says critics of a no-deal scenario – which include many of his own ministerial colleagues – as “scaremongering for political ends”.

Then, in a turn on the Today programme, he attacked business, as Conservative Leavers are wont to do. Speaking after John Lewis blamed poor profits on uncertainty around Brexit, he said: “All I’m just gently saying is that it is rather easy for a business to blame Brexit and the politicians rather than to take responsibility for their own situation.”

What is the Brexit Secretary playing at? His pugnacity is intended for two audiences. The first are restive Eurosceptics on his own benches, who have long wanted ministers to cut out their perceived genuflection to Brussels and instead take the fight to them. For them the government’s problem is as much attitude as it is ideology. With tempers running high over the latter (in the form of the Chequers deal), talking up no-deal as a viable prospect and demonstrating preparedness for it is a bid to reclaim some goodwill.

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The second is the EU, from whom Raab wants to induce compromise and a deal that Theresa May will be able to get through parliament. Here the means throws up a contradiction in the ends. Geeing up fundamentalist backbenchers and wringing compromises out of an EU in order to get a deal that looks something like Chequers are arguably mutually exclusive aims. Michel Barnier is sounding more emollient of late but the fundamental choice remains the same: a deal like Canada’s, or a deal like Norway’s.

While Raab has made his life – and Theresa May’s – a bit easier in the short term, taking this approach now promises more pain for the government in the future. Consider the reaction of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP who resigned from his vice-chairmanship of the Tories over Chequers. He tweeted: “Good to see DexEU Sec taking preparedess seriously and ensuring that we can make WTO terms #Brexit work for Britain.” What happens when it becomes clear that ministers have no intention of doing so? With dozens of MPs to Bradley’s right, it won’t be pretty.