Even the original timetable for Brexit was ridiculously tight – out by the end of March 2019, and then the future relationship to be concluded 21 months later, by the end of December 2020. Remember that trade negotiations with third countries generally take more than 5 years, sometimes as much as a decade.
If that were not hard enough, May resigning, Johnson replacing her, and the UK General Election, shaved a further 10 months off the schedule – Brexit by 31 January 2020 left just 11 months of negotiation time. And then COVID has knocked off a further 3 months at least.
There would be a way out of this conundrum – to use the option to demand an extension to the Transition Period – and hence set the end of December 2022 as the exit date. But Johnson’s government has refused that option, and public opinion in the UK is very divided on that question – more detail on that here. And officially that extension request has to be submitted by the end of June – next week.
Let us also not forget what happened in December and January when the UK rushed to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration so as to stick to the 31 January exit – there was no clarity on some key issues (about whether export declarations are needed for goods sent from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK for example), and MPs have been arguing over the meaning of what was agreed after it was ratified. Hardly ideal in terms of good quality policymaking.
The Labour Party has however prevaricated when it comes to the discussion about extending the Brexit transition period. Its line is it is essentially for the Conservatives to govern, and for Labour to scrutinise that – rather than for Labour to come up with alternative proposals. Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister (essentially responsible for Brexit), has said “We’re saying they mustn’t rush this and if they are not going to secure a deal, they mustn’t crash out without a deal […] that is getting a good deal and a good deal by the end of this year, and if they’re not in a position to do that they need to come back and explain a timetable.” Good luck trying to work out what that means exactly! More of her words here.
But what should Labour’s Brexit position actually look like for the next few months? Here are a few ideas.
Firstly, although the deadline to request an extension to the transition period is about to pass, buying more time for negotiations is still going to be possible. The UK, we already know, is not going to be ready for full customs controls until at least the middle of 2021, and there are doubts over the viability of the UK’s computer systems. So some sort of partial transition beyond the official transition period is going to be inevitable – if there is a Deal. Labour needs to keep hammering on these points – this is a UK Government failure, and delay – if it is one sided – is going to damage the UK in reputation and economic terms even more than Brexit has until now. The line needs to not be “the UK needs more time“, but that “because the government is incompetent, they cannot stick to the timetable they themselves have set“. Also any rhetoric that a “Good Deal” is possible by the end of the year needs to be banished straight away – any Deal concluded will be rushed, and any Deal concluded will be a damned hard Brexit. All it might be is fractionally better than No Deal. But that does not make it good.
Second, this delay line might then need to be changed to “a little more time is better than No Deal” as things move towards late autumn. The line that Labour has come close to using – that Brexit is done and decided and that everyone needs to move on – must not be used here. The UK economy cannot afford the impact of No Deal Brexit on top of the impact of COVID. So if push comes to shove, “more time” has to win out over “No Deal“. But only when things get very nervous in the autumn.
Third, Labour needs to get its head around the ‘Level Playing Field’ issue and whether there is a deal to be done on whether – in return for the UK diverging on standards – the EU could levy tariffs on UK exports. The outline of how a compromise could look is explained in The Spectator by James Forsyth, and there is more in this FT piece. There are two problems with this. First, the danger of divergence and hence tariffs hangs like a Damocles sword over UK business, and second the Labour Party ought to fear a race to the bottom on food standard and workers’ rights in the UK. Here I think the line “there must absolutely be no tariffs on UK goods exports to the EU” is the strongest one – after all free marketeers are supposed to agree with that as well. And demanding that – in practice – means there is less danger of the erosion of standards. Also ensuring all of this works is going to need a solid enforcement system – meaning the dreaded ECJ issue looms into view for the Tories. Here Labour needs to play on Johnson’s untrustworthiness – no one in their right mind should trust Johnson’s word, so it is no surprise if the EU wants a solid legal framework – and that too is in the interests of UK manufacturers. Labour are the economically competent ones here.
Fourth, Labour needs to sort out what its response is to the Northern Ireland / export declarations issue. This one ought to be simple – any future relationship deal that puts the Belfast Agreement in jeopardy, or imposes anything akin to a border in the Irish Sea should be outright opposed. Labour is supposed to favour the unity of the UK, so this ought to be a simple case to make.
Fifth, Labour should say nothing about the medium to long term. How the UK-EU relationship is supposed to work, medium term, is currently unknown. How parliamentary scrutiny and conflict resolution are to work is not known either. Meanwhile the Labour position – wanting as close a relationship as possible with the EU, but refusing to contemplate rejoining – makes no sense at all. Likewise advocating rejoining also makes no sense. What may or may not be in the Russia Report hangs over all of this too. One could imagine that a Labour Government post 2024 might be able to put UK-EU relations on an even keel, enough to keep both sides happy. Or conversely that a Tory government intent on No Deal whatever the cost leaves the UK-EU relationship even more broken than now, and Labour might need to urgently repair things. But 2024 is a long way off, so the focus has to be on the period between now and the end of the year, not the five year horizon. The Tories would love a long term waffly discussion about a Global Britain – Labour ought to not entertain this at all.