Monday 14 October 2019

Ivan Yates: 'Don't panic yet: Bercow will be adult in the room'

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. Photo: PA
Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. Photo: PA
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

One of my favourite BBC television programmes was 'Call My Bluff'. Its quintessentially English characters like Frank Muir (with trademark elegant dickie bow) and Arthur Marshall duelled with host Robert Robinson to explain the meaning of the rarest of words. With total plausibility, they postulated fanciful definitions - until their bluff was called. Brexit resembles a never-ending high-stakes version of the show, repurposed for the 21st century.

It can end only with someone exposing the Brexiteers' bluff.

The fantasy at the hollow core of the Brexit proposition is that the UK can expect to secure bilateral free-trade agreements across the world more favourable than EU terms.

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But as a third country outside the EU regulations, Britain won't find a fast-track to better or even equitable trade conditions. Asia or the US will seek to leverage the UK's weakness as it slips the EU leash as a rule taker.

A total separation of goods from services is impossible, given today's globalised, complex, just-in-time manufacturing and sub-supply chains. UK service industries will have to locate branches in the EU, which will impose extra layers of costs in heavily regulated areas. Financial services regulations like MiFiD II and consumer data protection compliance through GDPR will remain unavoidable, maintaining compliance obligations on British firms.

Tragically for British business and jobs, it will only be after any withdrawal agreement and political declaration that the ultimate cold, harsh reality of an escape from the Eurosphere bites.

The zone is the richest and most densely concentrated economic region in the world, exiting it will result in sustained economic decline.

The UK faces weakened relationships that won't strengthen its sovereignty.

Surely the one thing the British public has learned since the June 2016 referendum is that Brexit is not a binary choice between Leave and Remain.

Leave comprises a deeply complex series of options, including 'Norway' (remaining a member of the single market); 'Norway Plus' (both in single market and customs union) and the 'Canada' model of free trade. Each variation has an annual budget contribution and freedom of movement/migration consequences. None of these choices were explained, let alone deciphered among the 17.4 million voters.

As the clock ticks down to the Article 50 departure time of 11pm on March 29, the core alternative outcomes are now apparent.

As former bookmaker, based on the Westminster MP arithmetic, I'd compile an odds market on the key net results:

The deadline date to be extended up to July 1 is 4/7, for it to remain as is 11/8.

On the Brexit outcome - any form of agreed UK/EU deal is 4/7, a second referendum is 5/1, a crash-out no deal is 7/1.

I'm still adamant that the starkest no deal is the least likely endgame, simply because, out of 632 MPs, there are around 500 MPs (both on opposition and government benches) who'll vote it down.

Jeremy Corbyn has a valid point in insisting that a no-deal exit should be taken off the table. It would save the unnecessary expenditure of £4.8bn on British preparations and hundreds of millions of euro on EU member state contingency plans, which may prove futilely redundant.

Direst consequences across transport, energy, manufacturing and health sectors remain unimaginably impossible to implement.

Next Tuesday, when parliament votes on amendments tabled to May's obdurate adherence to Plan A (disguised as a Plan B), it will become starkly obvious that the hardline Brexiteer preference for crashing out maxes out at around 130 MPs. Alternatives from Nick Boles, Yvette Cooper's and former AG Dominic Grieve will expose the premature celebrations of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and David Davis in the thumping thwarting of the negotiated withdrawal agreement to have been a pyrrhic temporary victory.

As the pressure grows on all sides in London, Brussels and Dublin to reach a revised deal, the Irish backstop will come into sharpest focus. Already a proposal has emerged, to time-limit it to five years, from the Polish foreign minister.

Apparently, the genesis of this insurance clause was originally conceived by Ireland's permanent Brussels representative, Ambassador Declan Kelleher. He prompted Michel Barnier to accept that, irrespective of whatever ultimate trade or customs relationship emerged between the UK and EU, it would be prudent to have a fail-safe mechanism to cover the 500km land frontier between both parties.

In fairness to both the Irish and EU negotiators, the British prime minister unambiguously agreed in December 2017 to the backstop, despite trenchant DUP opposition.

Theresa May subsequently sought to resist these Paragraph 49 terms. Since the humiliating 230-MP defeat, her focus has been to overcome Tory and DUP opposition to the backstop - rather than reach out to opposition MPs for a softer Brexit, through permanent customs union membership.

The optimal solution, staring everyone in the face, is to treat Northern Ireland the same as the rest of the UK.

It was Mrs May herself who procured this UK-wide amendment to the original backstop. This overcomes the DUP core problem. Amending the Good Friday Agreement is patently a non-runner, with that kite-­flying immediately dismissed by Downing Street.

The reality of the backstop is that it was always envisaged as temporary. It was always predicated on the proviso of "unless and until" lasting trade terms were put in place.

In any event, for Ireland Inc creating a regulatory and/or trade border in the Irish Sea is nothing short of disastrous, because our east-west trade is eight times more important than north-south commerce and 80pc of all our exported goods go either to or through the UK land bridge.

Any Border infrastructure will become a target for resurgent paramilitary violence.

Any Brexit is likely to oppose some form of technical, regulatory variance between Ireland and the UK - as there is already currency and some administrative differences.

Ireland's, Britain's and the EU's collective interest in the short-term is to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Human nature and political instinct tells me politicians always find ways to act in their voters' best interests. As the stakes rise, and feet are put to the fire, I sense the adult in the room will prove to be Commons Speaker John Bercow.

He'll ultimately facilitate the procurement, through free votes, of the Brexit centre of gravity from Westminster arithmetic.

Don't panic - just yet.

Irish Independent

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