The Conservative Party is as united over Europe as it has ever been this morning: the bad news for Theresa May is that they are united in opposition to the prospect of an extension in the transition period.
Iain Duncan Smith told Newsnight that extending the transition period is crazy as the United Kingdom “has not got anything back in return” and would cost billions in extra cash handed over to the European Union during an extended transition. The Telegraph reports that David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland and a Remainer, that he will quit the Cabinet if transition is extended.
On the face of it, it’s hard not to feel that the Conservative Party has become almost totally unmoored from reality. As I said yesterday: the average trade deal takes 28 months to negotiate. The transition period – when the meat of that trade deal will be negotiated and ratified by the United Kingdom and all remaining 27 member states of the European Union – is just 21 months. And don’t forget that the EU-UK trade deal is the first of its kind in the world: the only free trade agreement yet designed to take two trading partners further apart rather than bring them together. Both sides are negotiating without a map.
Pro-Brexit Tory MPs believe that the EU is a creaking bureaucracy that can’t sign off trade deals to save its life – but now they think the EU and UK will complete a trade accord in record time. Pro-Remain Conservatives think that the British government approach has exposed our inability to manage a trade negotiation – yet they, too, think that 21 months will be anything like enough time.
Duncan Smith talks of the extended transition as a concession to the European Union – but the reality is that extending the transition is a boost to the United Kingdom, which will still in all likelihood have a hung parliament and a badly split governing party negotiating Brexit in 2020 and will have need of the extra time.
But Tory MPs are right to feel suspicious of Theresa May. The reason why they feel that she is deceiving them over Brexit is simple: she is. She spoke at her press conference yesterday about extending the “implementation period”, when in fact nothing will be implemented in that period. She has always talked of it as a concession to the EU, when in fact it is even more important to the UK than the EU27. She has never been candid about trade negotiations in general let alone this one. She has fed, rather than deflated a series of Conservative delusions about Brexit. The best case scenario is that the consequences of that are only confined to the Tory party.