As Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly claimed during the Conservative leadership campaign, to set a deadline of 31 October for leaving the EU is foolish. Why tie yourself to that date if a deal with EU negotiators seemed close to being sealed?
But if you have fallen for that argument, it seems no less puzzling why you would want to set a deadline of 30 September instead – as Hunt has done this morning. That is the date, he has announced, that he will decide whether a deal is achievable or not. If it is, he is prepared to carry on negotiating with the EU indefinitely. If it isn’t, then he will commit to a no-deal Brexit a month and a day later.
His announcement will, of course, be listened to eagerly in Brussels, where 30 September will have been underlined in red. That is the day, they tell themselves, that we will smother Jeremy Hunt with goodwill. Then, on 1 October, we can turn all nasty and stubborn again, because we can be sure that Hunt will have to carry on negotiating, as his deadline for leaving the EU without a deal has expired.
It would not have been a bad idea for Hunt to have set himself a private deadline for deciding whether or not a deal was possible. But in telling the world he has disarmed himself. And why has he chosen 30 September anyway – unless he was deliberately picking the date on which Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich conference in 1938, waving his famous bit of paper?
One month’s notice for a no-deal Brexit is neither one thing nor the other. It doesn’t allow sufficient time for government and businesses to make definite preparations (although, hopefully, such preparations are already at a reasonably advanced stage). But then neither does it have any shock value. If he left the decision until a couple of days beforehand, Hunt would at least have had the advantage of being able to play brinkmanship – the EU might be persuaded to agree to something to which it otherwise would be reluctant to support, such as a time-limit on the backstop.
The truth is, neither candidate has yet convinced on their plans for Brexit. Boris Johnson last week made the bizarre claim that a no-deal Brexit was a ‘million to one’ chance. As has been pointed out, the bookies – who live or die by their ability to assess the chances of various events – currently have no deal at around 2/1. There is little sign yet that we will arrive on 31 October in any different position than we arrived on 31 March – with a government flapping around and begging the EU for another extension.