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20 August 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 4:49pm

“Have cake and eat it“: Voters deserve a better Brexit strategy than an accidentally-snapped note

The Brexit narrative is being told scrap by scrap of paper. 

By Julia Rampen

Political hacks have always been interested in what politicians carry in their briefcases. Any scribbled note caught on a long lens camera is a tantalising glimpse into the reality behind the carefully-organised press briefings or photo shoots.

But 2016 has upped the stakes. Now, the scribbles are read like tea leaves. Is a mention of the single market proof we’re ripping out the economic furniture of the past 40 years? Or is this the writing on the wall for hard Brexit?

The latest focus of attention is a notebook carried under the arm of aide to Mark Field, the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, captured by the photographer Steve Back. It states, in cursive, a series of observations on Brexit. 

“Problematic for EU if we move decisively with no transition. Difficult on Article 50 interpretation – Barnier wants to see what deal looks like first. Got to be done in parallel…” And then the clincher: “We think it’s unlikely we’ll be offered single market.”

And then some more Brexistential questions and phrases. “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.” “Very French negotiating team.” One option – “Canada plus”.

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The government has shot down the note, with the business secretary Greg Clark telling the BBC “it doesn’t reflect any of the conversations I’ve been part of in Downing Street”. 

But while this might be the most outspoken note to make headlines so far, it comes just two weeks after a leaked “Brexit memo” suggesting the government had no plan. This was traced back to an outside consultancy, Deloitte. 

The government has kept almost entirely schtum on Brexit. Nearly six months on from the EU referendum, we still have no official confirmation of how immigration controls will be weighed against access to the single market. We still know very little about how the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be policed. David Davis, the Brexit minister, doesn’t even give a straight answer to his Conservative parliamentary colleagues

Remain voters fear they are going to be ignored in favour of a hard Brexit. Leave voters (and some MPs representing Leave constituencies) fear Brexit will never happen. The fact an entire nation is hanging onto scraps of paper for a clue is damning. 

The government argues that, as a negotiator, it needs to hold its cards close to its chest. On this basis, it is attempting to block parliamentary involvement in triggering Article 50, and has shut out the devolved nations. But the whole principle of voting Leave was – apparently – to return sovereignty to a more accountable, directly-elected body.  Leaving the flow of information open to those who are least discreet, or who deliberately blab, or try to obstruct the whole process, seems a strange way to control the narrative on Brexit.