Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Nick Clegg paradox

When it comes to a grasp of the issues, Nick Clegg is about 90% there. But on this particular matter, 90% might as well be 0%. There are certain key nuances to the EEA which change the entire nature of the debate and because he speaks only from a remain perspective, and because he is on record repeating the many myths about the Norway Option, it makes Nick Clegg the very worst possible defender of it.

Clegg alludes to the fact that freedom of movement is not set in stone but fails to point out that the EEA rulebook is considerably thinner than the EU acquis. He also fails to point out the globalisation aspect and sees the EEA as a backwater rather than a springboard.

And that is a problem if the Lib Dems are setting themselves up as the voice of the obstructionist remainers. It pretty much makes the EEA politically toxic. The option itself is hated among the majority of leavers, not least because they have, hook, line and sinker, bought the remainer narratives about it.

That puts us all in very dangerous territory. It forces the government to double down on seeking any solution but the EEA and consequently has them fumbling around in the dark for something politically palatable when the options are few. What that likely means is further delay and an attempt to bring about some kind of bespoke agreement that is the EEA in all but name.

But at this point we have to remind ourselves that much of this speculation is done without any reference to what the EU might do and what it is prepared to tolerate. When it devotes several years to large and comprehensive trade deals, one would be surprised if the EU is willing to let something like Brexit drag on forever. It could be that the EU bails us out by offering us an ultimatum of EEA or nothing. That is now our best hope.

The necessary point to make is that if we seek a bespoke deal then we are looking at extensive talks where we go well beyond the negotiating period as mandated by Article 50, the consequence of that being that we remain in the EU the whole time, opening up many opportunities for talks to fail and for the whole Brexit enterprise to fall flat. It is in the interests of Brexiteers to take what they can in order to get out then worry about the rest later.

If the EU does not now box us into the EEA, I can see us making a total pigs ear of Brexit. According to the Times, the Brexit department is giving some consideration to the moonshine nonsense of Shanker Singham of the Legatum Institute. Unless there are adults in the room to pour cold water on this wishful thinking of a "prosperity zone" encompassing English speaking nations, along with an unspecified Brexit settlement, we will end up having to hit the pause button half way through and go back to the drawing board for an emergency patch.

However, there is also the distinct possibility that this is a Legatum Institute PR stunt, whereby "the government is considering" means their nonsense report is stacked on a desk with a dozen others. Until Mrs May comes out with a definitive statement on her negotiating position, there is nothing to fix the debate, leaving it wide open to rumour and snake-oil nostrums.

My bet for the moment is that the government is still intent on keeping tight lipped over the single market and there is a strict embargo on any kind of leak to that effect. It really feels to me like the key ministers are no closer to having a clue and even Theresa May is not nearly as informed as she needs to be. They are not up to the job - and we are in really serious trouble if the closest thing we have to informed is Nick Clegg.

That said, I still think we are set for a soft Brexit. Whether Brexiteers like it or not, they have a bitter pill to swallow eventually. We're just waiting for the government to decide what to call it.

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