The UK Government phoned me last night. They are getting that desperate. The Brexit negotiations are well past being called a “shambles”. It’s a constitutional crisis of a kind that the UK hasn’t seen in decades – perhaps ever. The government is simply not equipped to deal with this kind of thing. Iain M Banks coined a term for this. An “Outside Context” problem. An event where nothing in the subject’s frame of reference or prior experience can possibly lead them to a solution. Banks described this kind of problem as one that civilizations encounter only once and in the same way that a sentence encounters a full stop.
But there is a solution to the Outside Context problem and that’s to expand one’s context. To find someone from outside one’s one cognitive bubble who can see the problem in a different light.
And so the UK Government phoned me. I don’t know if I was first on the list, or last, or anywhere in between. I don’t suppose it really matters.
“Find us a way out”, they said. “What do we need to do to get through this?”
I started by laying out the tangle of promises they had woven for themselves.
Promise 1) They have promised England a “hard Brexit” – which means England should end up outside the Single Market and Customs Union and free to go and make trade deals with the world.
Promise 2) They’ve also promised that there would be no “hard border” between Northern Ireland and Ireland – a promise motivated, perhaps rightly, by a fear of a return to The Troubles and by binding treaties such as the Good Friday Agreement.
Promise 3) They’ve promised the DUP that Northern Ireland will not have a different deal from the rest of the UK – and the minority government means that the DUP would have the ability to bring down the government should they wish to.
It’s obvious that these three promises cannot all be kept. Meeting 1) and 2) means breaking 3). Meeting 1) and 3) means breaking 2). And meeting 2) and 3) means breaking 1) (and this combination wouldn’t be accepted by the EU anyway).
So, I told them, the first part of the solution is to decide which promise has to be broken.
Electoral maths makes it obvious really. A soft Brexit in England risks riots. A hard border in Ireland risks worse. But when was the last time anyone in England really cared about Northern Ireland? If the “worse” that a different deal there meant that in a couple of decades, Ireland reunifies – would England really care?
It turns out that the answer is “not really“.
“But what about the DUP? They’ll bring down the government!”
I agree. It’ll mean another general election. I never said that this would be easy, nor would it mean many of you keeping your jobs. There’s no path through this that means your own personal seat is secure. Accept this.
But are you really worried about an election? How are the polls doing?
You’ll can count the DUP out after this – the best you can hope for there is Sein Fein taking a few of their seats. They won’t make an appearance in London anyway so that’ll mean fewer votes against you.
Wales never really figures much in the overall results. Most of the seats there are pretty safe. Maybe they’ll swing by a couple either way.
Scotland, you’ll lose to the SNP again and that could be an issue but it’s better for you than losing those seats to Labour. The chances of the two parties working together is still as slim as it was when Ed Milliband had a chance to do a deal with them.
And so we come to Labour. Last time round, you were seriously threatened by Corbyn’s “bounce” in the polls but how have they been doing since?
The collapse of UKIP means there’s basically no-where for Labour to pick up more votes – hardcore Remainers will be put off by Labour’s reluctance to stick to a position for more than one interview and hardcore Leavers are probably already with you and likely to stay if you offer them promise 1).
“But what about Scotland, especially if the SNP surge again?”, they said.
What about Scotland?
They’re going to scream “Independence” but that won’t exactly be a change since 2014, will it?
Maybe they’ll stage more “walk outs” in the Commons, but doesn’t that help your majority? Get the votes passed while they’re outside!
Maybe they’ll actually pull that “indyref” trigger and request a Section 30 order.
So what? You can just deny it. What are they going to do? Take it to the courts? That’ll drag things out LONG after Brexit has passed.
Maybe they’ll go for an unofficial referendum? Threaten them with Catalonia. You don’t need to actually send in the troops – that wouldn’t look good – but you can overrule anything they try to push through Holyrood. You probably won’t even need to close it down. Then you can drag THEM through the courts. You could even put the Scotland Office in charge of the court case – then both sets of legal bills will get booked as a Scottish expense in GERS.
What ever you do though, don’t let them run off too soon. You’ll need their whisky and salmon (or, at least, the PGI labels on them) for your trade deals.
So that’s the politics sorted, I continued, now for the hard part.
“The hard part?”, said the panicky voice on the phone.
Well yeah. If you’re coming out of the customs union, you need to get the border controls sorted and you’ve left that a bit late. Has the planning permission gone through for Dover yet?
Not even submitted. Right. Just so I know.
In that case, here’s what you need to do.
First, you need to stock up on essentials. The UK only has a couple of weeks worth of oil and gas stores. That’ll need a bit of a boost. Maybe you shouldn’t have closed that storage site last year.
Food will be the next thing. You’ve heard that proverb about society being three missed meals away from revolution? For Britain, that’s less than a week after imports stop.
The UK currently relies on non-UK sources for about half of its food and the EU for about 30%. Even if we assume that exports can be redirected to domestic use after the EU imports stop, we’re still going to come up somewhat short.
You’re going to need to stock up on money as well. I know we don’t talk about this much but the UK’s foreign reserves are rather lower than one would expect for a country of this size. $165 billion sounds like a fair amount, but that’s only about 11 months worth of our current trade deficit. Or about 4 months worth of total imports. Not much above the low end of IMF recommended levels. I know you’re relying on the fact that the pound is an IMF reserve currency but, well, can we be so sure that’ll remain the case?
And after all of that, you’ll still need to get on with that job of getting the ports in order! They don’t even do the job they’re supposed to do right now. Never mind Max Fac. Bare Min would be nice.
I know all of this sounds like a tough choice – sometimes tough choices have to be made. It’s also no good wishing you had started some of this sooner. You should have. Two years to negotiate Brexit would have been tight even without all the faffing around and internal fighting.
But we are where we are. You’re going to have to start being honest with voters. This is what’s going to have to happen if you want to give them what you’ve repeatedly told them is what they wanted.
If you can’t do it, move over and let someone else do it instead.
Will I do it? God, no! I’m in this job because I’m not daft enough to become a politician.
— Extract from a diary found within the Whitehall Exclusion Zone, June 16th, 2022. Author Unknown.