Is the government bluffing, or mad?

It's not clear if the government's argument about how it can get a deal is a pose or a sincerely-held delusion. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The government has a plan: if it can make it clear to the European Commission and the 27 other member states that there is no prospect that Article 50 will extended or revoked by Parliament, then the European Commission will realise that the British government is serious about a no deal Brexit and will rewrite the Brexit deal accordingly.  The details of the government’s approach have been leaked to Sky’s Sam Coates.

Is the theory right? Well, there are a number of holes in it. The biggest problem is that the main reason for the rest of the European Union not to take the government’s threat of no deal seriously isn’t anything parliament has done but what our government has not done and continues not to do.

To be prepared for a no deal Brexit on 31 October, the United Kingdom would need to significantly increase its infrastructure at ports, bring a large number of laws onto the statute book, and expand the size of the civil service (or, at the least, reassign large parts of it). The government has done precious little any of these things.

Then there’s the added problem that the thing the government is seeking through its brinkmanship doesn’t exist – you can have a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea or the whole of the United Kingdom within the customs and regulatory orbit of the European Union. Those are the available choices via a negotiated Brexit. Even the government’s own confidential stock-take of the “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border conclude that the proposals largely do not work. The ones that do, such as those for agri-food, are ones that have definitively chosen to locate the border in a specific place.

So what should we make of the government’s expressed position? There are two interpretations: the first is that the government is simply engaging in political positioning in order to facilitate an election in which the message is that a great deal is only a Conservative landslide away. If that victory can be secured, then the government could negotiate a loose, Canada-style relationship with the European Union with a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. The British government will need to thicken the regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom if it wants to secure a meaningful US-UK trade deal because the UK will need to open up its agri-food markets up to the US.

The second interpretation, and the more worrying, is that the government really believes what it is selling, and is heading towards a no-deal exit that it is inadequately prepared for.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Free trial CSS