28 days to go to the end of the Brexit transition period. Things are getting edgy. The press is full of rumours of progress towards a Deal (or not). I’ve been trying to get my head around what is happening, and this post is a sort of rough sketch of those thoughts. It’s likely incomplete, but I am pretty sure no one knows all the answers here – not even the people in the negotiation room.
Now, as for the past few weeks, to a great extent it depends on what’s going on in Johnson’s head as to whether there will be a Deal or not. How far the EU side can go is pretty well known. How far the UK can go much less. At the time of writing it looks like it really could go either way – I lean more towards No Deal, but others I know and respect think the opposite. No one following this from outside the negotiation rooms is certain of the outcome.
So then to what might or might not happen…
First, the timetable
The best chance of a Deal emerging and being agreed in principle by both sides is between now (Thursday 3 December) and lunchtime Monday 7 December. Coveney has said as much. There are two reasons for this: first, it would allow ratification of a Deal to proceed just about normally – it will likely need an extra sitting of the European Parliament between Christmas and New Year, and some extra Commons and Lords sitting days, but it’s just about doable. Stretch the timetable any further and you’re into the realms of provisional application, or even some sector specific emergency legislation. The second issue is the two legislative proposals UK side that are in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon – the Internal Market Bill (and whether the Commons insists on re-adding the offending clauses the Lords removed), and the Finance Bill that is an even stronger provocation. The UK could dodge these problems by refusing to fight the Lords, and removing parts of the Finance Bill before the first reading… but not doing either will damage trust between both sides even further. At the moment Rees-Mogg is not backing down.
Second, if there is No Deal, how does this happen?
There are essentially two ways No Deal can happen – either through an outright and acknowledged failure / a breakdown of talks, or through procedure dictating that No Deal is the only option because time has run out (explored more in this post a few weeks ago). The latter strikes me as much more likely, because neither side wants to look like it is the one pulling the plug on talks, as both sides fear being the one to be blamed for a failure. If one side were to down talks it strikes me as more likely the UK will do so – Johnson having a tantrum about fishing rights and refusing to focus is possible although the odds are rather against. A sort of drift to No Deal, with both sides steadily stepping up their No Deal preparations, while negotiators keep on talking, is the most plausible route. Labour is not going to force Johnson to choose. The public debate is not going to force Johnson to choose. Avoiding a decision is easier than taking one. So slipping towards No Deal strikes me as all plausible.
Third, what is No Deal going to mean, and how long will it last?
Here there are essentially three models: short and calm No Deal, long and reasonably calm No Deal, and chaotic No Deal.
Short and calm No Deal can be reached if both sides have carried on talking, and have been doing so in good faith, but that time has run out or a ratification problem has cropped up leading to a short period where there is No Deal between the UK and the EU in January. Both sides appeal for calm, both sides reassure the other that the problems are eminently solvable, and all can be worked out. This one is unlikely, but not impossible – there is still some trust between both sides in the negotiations, although the Internal Market Bill and Finance Bill in the Commons next week will weaken this further.
Long and reasonably calm No Deal is when both sides realise that the differences cannot be breached, and plan accordingly, but that the practical problems that No Deal causes are somehow largely overcome – truck queues, breakdown of supply chains, headaches in Northern Ireland are all just about manageable. The UK Government could just about get away with this, claiming that all the hysteria had been overstated, and Britain begins to adjust to the pain of tariffs, the administrative headaches, and the impact on its worldwide reputation. There has been some debate as to whether the UK would return to the negotiation table in a matter of weeks or months after a No Deal, but to do so would be to swallow some pride – and if the practical issues seem manageable I cannot see a Johnson government pursuing this route. If No Deal, the likelihood of it being long and reasonably calm: medium.
And then there is chaotic No Deal. The UK population has been reasonably stoic throughout Brexit so far, but if problems really hit – some core products suffer shortages because Dover-Calais has choked up, Kent has turned into a de facto truck park, and some industries – Nissan in Sunderland for example – have decided to close their doors, does panic at some point break out? Either runs on supermarkets, or political panic about the consequences of No Deal? Then Britain may have no choice but to return to the negotiation table – but in a notably weaker position than they are now, prior to the deadline. Chaotic No Deal could last anything from a few weeks to a few months, but the practical mess it would cause would ultimately force both sides back to the table. If No Deal, then chances it is chaotic and UK has to return to the table: medium.