Mike Buckley on why, amidst the pandemic, the public should still be kept informed of the looming deadlines over the UK’s future relationship with the EU – and whether it will be deal or ‘no deal’.

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Away from the increasingly grim headlines about the UK’s failure to contain or tackle COVID-19, the Brexit saga continues. It rightly seems a second order concern, but its implications for the UK’s future governance, food standards and human rights are as far-reaching as they ever were. 

Of most pressing concern for those wanting to see a viable relationship between the UK and EU, is the deadline which is now just a month away. By 30 June, the UK must decide whether to accept the EU’s offer of an extension to the transition period, which would allow time for all sides to get to grips with the Coronavirus and then conclude negotiations on the future relationship. 

Sources close to the Government believe there is a preference for a deal over ‘no deal’, for access to the Schengen Information System used hundreds of times a day by British police to help them fight crime, and for a trade agreement that minimises inevitable disruption from leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. But, a deal cannot be taken as being a priority of the Government – to assume this would be ignoring the politics.

Viewed from the Government’s perspective, Brexit has served its purpose admirably. In both the 2017 and 2019 General Elections it allowed them to kill Nigel Farage’s party. The split right-wing vote that cost the Conservatives dearly in the 2015 General Election was reunited. In 2019, they added many former Labour votes – in part – on the basis of their promise to “Get Brexit Done”, even if the promise of more hospitals, nurses and police officers was also part of the draw. They now get to shake-off European regulations that have stopped them cutting standards and rights for decades with little opposition and even less public understanding. 

The Conservatives are unlikely to give up their culture war to get a Brexit deal with the EU. They will take the economic hit, do without crime data and ignore the consequences for Northern Ireland. Uniting the vote on the right and inflaming the culture war is the bedrock of their support – needed all the more now that they are on the ropes following the Government’s response to COVID-19 and public reaction to Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules. 

As a result, the chances of a transition extension are vanishingly small.

Boris Johnson is already a weaker figure as polls attest. The public have noticed the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the care home deaths. They are aware that the UK has the worst outcomes from the virus. The Cummings story has cut through as few political stories do on the basis that his hypocrisy has hit home. 

Imagine in this context Johnson going to his core group of voters and admitting that, instead of getting Brexit done, he is instead signing the UK up to more EU contributions and an extra year of obeying rules without a seat at the table. The long-promised repatriation of sovereignty would have to wait. It may be sensible – but it is a political near impossibility. 

The advisability of an extension should nevertheless be highlighted. It matters that the public know that the option was there for the UK to take, and it will all the more as the real deadline approaches at the end of the year. But, in large part, fighting for an extension is a dead-end. It is easy for the Conservatives to ignore or use as ammunition for their culture war. It would look and smell like a small-scale resurgence of the Brexit wars – wars they have won convincingly at least twice. 

Worse is the fact that focusing on the extension lets the Conservatives off the hook. Even if an extension was won, it would provide a few more months of stability before its inevitable end. The real question is what comes next – deal or ‘no deal’ – and, if a deal, what it would include. On this question the Government’s opponents are largely silent and yet it is the biggest Brexit question of all, far more important than the Withdrawal Agreement over which so much metaphorical blood was shed. 

The public must be provided with some understanding of the difference between the future under a deal or ‘no deal’, and between a good deal and a bad one for trade, the NHS, security and rights. 

The direction of travel is already clear. The Government has admitted it wants to change human rights. Last week, it voted to lower food standards to ease the route to a US trade deal. The deal, if it happens, will not be a good one.

To combat this, pragmatists must put forward a view on what a good deal would be better and why, and ensure that – come December – the public have a benchmark by which to assess the success or failure of the Government. Without this, it will be far too easy for Johnson to conclude the worst possible deal and come back to the same applause he received after agreeing to carve a border within our own country last autumn or get away with re-badging ‘no deal’ as the Australia option.

The public deserves better, as do businesses and citizens on all sides. Pragmatists may have lost every bout of this war but, as we approach the end, they must do all they can at least to mitigate the worst outcomes. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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