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Artillery Row

No Brexit transition extension – bluff or brinkmanship?

This is a good time to bury bad news, so why the shortage of shovels?

Is the British government going to ask for an extension to the Brexit transition period? The UK has left the EU, but continues to be in the single market and the customs union and subject to European rules until 31 December. That date is written into law, and it would require Parliament to vote to amend it if Boris Johnson concluded that a postponement into 2021 was required.

Does the coronavirus crisis provide a good reason to seek that extension? Rare is the day when we are denied one or more press releases issued in the name of Ed Davey, or from a range of other pro-EU advocates, “calling upon” the prime minister to prioritise fighting coronavirus above fighting Brussels. For those in whose breast the European cause can never cease to beat, every deferral of the date of execution gives rise to new possibilities that providence may yet intervene.

But there is a much wider, and less ideological, constituency of opinion that has also concluded that with the governments on both sides of the English Channel prioritising their life and death responses to the coronavirus crisis, it is not practical to conclude a detailed replacement trade deal this year. How can a comprehensive agreement between the world’s sixth largest economy and the world’s largest trading bloc possibly now be concluded on time? With other dragons to slay, can’t we give Brexit a rest?

Whenever Boris Johnson has been asked at PMQs about seeking an extension, he has provided no verbal get out clause. The date is fixed in law, he repeats, and will not be changed. But assumptions, like events, are shifting fast. Last year, he previously claimed that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay the original 31 October date for the UK’s departure from the EU. He duly moved that date to 31 January.

The ERG’s veterans might not like it, but even if a few of them went so far as to oppose it, the prime minister would still have the numbers in Parliament to carry a transition period extension. He can do it, if he wants to do it. Or if he needs to do it.

Coronavirus provides both the rationale for extension and the PR diversionary tactic. To paraphrase Jo Moore, the spin doctor now more usefully employed as a primary school teacher – this is a good time to bury bad news. So why is the government not taking this opportunity to announce the delay, whilst the u-turn would not be the dominant news story?

This morning, whilst fielding a barrage of questions about the prime minister’s health, the failure of the antibody tests to be usable and whether mask-wearing would soon be recommended, Downing Street’s spokesperson remained resolutely unambiguous on the question of seeking to prolong the transition. 31 December was set in law and would not be changed, he made clear. The negotiations have not been paused. Both sides are still meeting (remotely) and are busy studying and clarifying each other’s texts. Today, for instance, the UK’s lead negotiator David Frost is exchanging views with Clara Martinez Alberola, the deputy head of the EU’s task force.

What are we to make of this? Is this performance still a contact sport, or just two tired boxers moving doggedly around the ring without landing blows as they countdown to the reprieve of the bell?

If the British position is to secure nothing beyond the most basic of trade deals (a tariff-free agreement with some equivalence and mutual recognition provisions), then there is method in continuing to the current tight deadline. Brussels may agree, if only to get the annoying issue out of the way whilst Europe mourns its dead and tries to save the living.

politically, the moment to admit time is running out is within the next fortnight.

Such a minimal deal is, however, far removed from the EU’s negotiating aims. Only if Brussels truly believes it will get nowhere in binding the UK to “level playing field” regulatory conformity might it conclude a minimal deal is better than no deal. But it would have to be sure that the British position really  was not more nuanced than minimal deal or no deal. And given the complicated nature of the Northern Ireland provisions, the British position inevitably is considerably more complicated.

The steadfastness with which Downing Street is sticking to its line that there will be no extension has more than a whiff of brinkmanship about it. One view is that if there needs to be an extension then why concede it now? Why not wait until the last moment when it is clear Brussels will not play ball? That could be as late as the autumn, with the necessary legislation to extend being introduced as soon as parliament reconvenes after its summer hibernation.

Yet, politically, the moment to admit time is running out is within the next fortnight. On 21 April, parliament is due to return from its recess (albeit in a reduced, and increasingly virtual, form), so the legislation could be introduced soon. There would be little time for Tory diehards to organise and even if they did, they would fall short. The u-turn can be better slipped through in April, than in the autumn.

Either Downing Street is sounding so emphatic now with the cynical aim of catching its diehards off guard in a fortnight, or it really is playing a very long game of brinksmanship. And if the latter, when will Michel Barnier realise it?

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