Minggu, 13 Desember 2020

‘It’s all real now:’ Down to the wire after five years - The Australian

Boris Johnson returned from a key EU meeting last week to say: ‘I kept throwing pennies in the well and no sounds came back.’ Picture: AFP
Boris Johnson returned from a key EU meeting last week to say: ‘I kept throwing pennies in the well and no sounds came back.’ Picture: AFP

It is perhaps fitting that it ends with the same two men without whom it would never have begun.

In February 2016, Michael Gove went for dinner at Boris Johnson’s house to decide whether to back Brexit. Throughout the referendum campaign they fought together, a trade deal with the EU was a given. Four months later, they emerged, blinking with shock, to address the press as Vote Leave triumphed.

Did either of them suspect that more than four years later they would be looking at each other across the cabinet table in 10 Downing Street, as they did on Friday, holding a crisis meeting on the UK’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

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The British Prime Minister and Gove, the cabinet office minister in charge of no-deal planning, summoned civil service director-generals from across Whitehall to “stress test” contingency plans. “It was a stock take,” a senior official said. “Have we got everything? Is everything that we can do being done. They’ve been doing war games, table-top exercises.”

The meeting reached stark conclusions. “Everyone concluded that it’s all-systems-go for no-deal,” said one source. “And whether there is no deal or not we are expecting some disruption.”

One of those who has sat in similar gatherings said: “It’s all very real now. A few months ago we were having theoretical discussions about the movements of scallops. Now we’re wondering how to fly medicines in.”

Michael Gove. Picture: Getty Images
Michael Gove. Picture: Getty Images

A further table-top war game, outlining the worst case scenarios, is due to take place this week, dubbed Capstone. Last month Gove led an exercise to plan for the Royal Navy to intercept and board French fishing boats in the Channel.

Senior Tories say that, as a former journalist, Gove’s no-deal planning has been governed by a list of horror headlines that he drew up detailing the most politically damaging stories that could unfold. “One of his biggest worries is a new Battle of Trafalgar in the Channel with clashes between French and English fishing fleets and the navy and French fishermen,” said one friend.

A week ago ministers held talks with leading food suppliers, including the big supermarkets, and told them to prepare for no-deal. The food industry bosses warned that the government should brace for shortages of vegetables — grown in north Africa and sent to the UK via Spain and France — lasting three months.

Gove has chaired 200 of the XO — “exit operations” — planning committees and spent £4bn of public money. Key to preparedness is a “decision matrix” playbook where Gove has secured pre-approval from other ministers for every course of action that might be needed, saving vital time when problems strike.

Colleagues say Gove is under huge personal stress, but some say he has brought this on himself. “He’s been empire building, which means all this stuff is his responsibility,” said one cabinet source. “We know what happens to ­empires. They fall.”

That Gove and Johnson are in this position is a result of a “disastrous” dinner between the Prime Minister and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels last week.

EU officials have said that in a 50-minute pre-dinner meeting, ­attended only by the two principals plus David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator, and Stephanie Riso, von der Leyen’s French political fixer, the Prime Minister went in “with all guns blazing, urging her to sideline Michel Barnier”, the EU’s French negotiator, calling him “unimaginative” and an “obstacle” to a deal. In this version of events, Johnson also made a joke about how the British and Germans both know “how difficult the French can be”. Von der Leyen made clear that Barnier had all 27 member states behind him.

As British officials tell it, the frustrations in the dinner that followed, were theirs. Johnson, they say, proposed “several” ways of ­resolving the impasse over the “level playing field”, in which the EU wants Britain to keep adhering to its rules and was met with blank expressions.

When the Prime Minister ­returned to the residence of the British ambassador to the EU, a “frustrated” Johnson drank red wine while Frost clutched a glass of whisky.

Johnson explained what happened: “I kept throwing pennies in the well and no sounds came back.”

“He felt like he had gone there and had genuinely tried to come up with some suggestions and they had just nodded away,” a senior British official said. “There was no engagement. It was a total disaster, frustrating and dispiriting.”

Trucks wait to enter the port of Dover on the south coast of England before boarding a ferry to Europe. Picture: AFP
Trucks wait to enter the port of Dover on the south coast of England before boarding a ferry to Europe. Picture: AFP

Johnson had been coaxed to Brussels in a phone call with “VDL”, as the commission president is known, in Whitehall on Monday. “From a negotiation point of view this process is dead,” Johnson told her. “We need to apply the political defibrillator.”

He wanted to speak to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the leaders of Germany and France and the key powerbrokers. On Monday, and again on Wednesday, he was told that Britain must negotiate with the commission alone.

The main stumbling block to a deal is an EU legal text, presented the previous Thursday, which says that if Brussels changes its regulations in future and Britain refuses to follow suit, the EU can slap “lightning tariffs” on the UK.

In talks between Frost and Barnier and again on Wednesday evening, the British team pressed for a “pay for freedom” proposal, where the UK effectively follows the broad direction of EU regulation but with an escape route. In their vision, if the UK wanted to ­diverge, the two sides would agree a quick “review mechanism” to set tariffs that each would impose on the other.

Crucially, the UK wants retaliation confined to the area in dispute and tariffs imposed only where the EU can show that Britain diverging has done them real harm. Britain also wants a system where it has a right to ignore the EU’s “regulatory floor” more broadly if Brussels takes punitive action that is not justified.

Shoppers and pedestrians in London’s Regent Street over the weekend. Picture: AFP
Shoppers and pedestrians in London’s Regent Street over the weekend. Picture: AFP

Diplomats say Macron is telling fellow leaders: “Keep pushing and the British will fold.” More importantly Merkel is said to personally distrust a Prime minister she sees as a political libertine who will set up a European version of Singapore on the EU’s doorstep to take business from Berlin and Frankfurt.

One cabinet minister accused Macron of playing “bullshit power politics” but observed: “Boris is from Mars and Merkel is from Venus.” But the minister warned that the EU is making a “big mistake” by not finding a way of ­accommodating the UK. “They are in danger of failing their own citizens: the French fishermen and Irish farmers and all the rest, for ideological reasons.”

Most ministers are expecting a call on Monday AEDT to say that there is no point going on with the talks. The prognosis is not good. “We are totally stuck,” a Downing Street source said. Whitehall officials say the chance of a deal is now “just 20 per cent”.

If that happens Johnson is set to take personal charge of the preparations, chairing a “super XO” committee. Gove will deputise. As the architects of Brexit they know they will be judged on the results.


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2020-12-13 11:36:00Z

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