On Tuesday evening at 11 pm, the chance for the UK to extend the Brexit transition with the EU expired. Britain and the EU must come to some sort of deal before the end of 2020 or what amounts to a no-deal Brexit will happen. What is interesting about this is how much a no-deal situation is still being underplayed by many in the government and other parts of the Westminster bubble. What is even more fascinating is the position of several key remainers on this point.
Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool has been doing media interviews this week, all as part of putting out his stall to become the UK candidate to be the next WTO director-general. The Labour peer says he’s been informally approached by the government to be our choice for the role. This is slightly odd in many respects but I suppose it is possible. Mandelson has the experience for the job and perhaps the government is thinking in terms of realpolitik; that Britain having one of its own countrymen in the top WTO job might be handy given the UK is now looking likely to be trading on WTO terms with the world in six months’ time. It may also hope that Mandelson might sway some Europeans because of his pro-EU history. If so, he may be an unpopular but not bad choice.
Not that Mandelson himself thinks that we’ll be trading on WTO terms, of course. He has stated this week that the UK and the EU will almost certainly come to a deal before the end of the year, when the transition period comes to a close. 'I believe this government, which has not lost all sense of perspective, I think would realise that it does need a deal', he said. 'It can’t deliver a second whammy of that kind to the UK economy.'
This is interesting for two reasons. One, it is the opposite of what the remain camp have been saying for a long while – that Boris and Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster, come what may. Mandelson seems to be saying that it will all come right in the end, utilising the Tory Leave backbencher argument of 'everyone will be sensible when push comes to shove'. The second reason it is interesting is because Mandelson is wrong.
Perhaps one can discount Mandelson’s appraisal of the situation as the words of a man who might be trying to flatter the government because he thinks a job is coming his way. Yet even if this is the case, why would Mandelson think that insisting Britain and the EU will come to a deal before the end of the year is the way to butter up Boris? It seems to me the government wants to make clear that no deal is very much a possibility now. I would have thought Mandelson saying we can live by WTO rules if needs be, particularly as that’s the job he’s angling for, would have been a better line.
If I take Mandelson’s words as his genuine thoughts on the matter, as I said, I think he’s incorrect. And the fact that a prominent remainer of all people is discounting a no-deal Brexit, saying it won’t happen, is revealing. There is a part of the psyche among some remainers that has never believed and still doesn’t believe that leavers are actually serious about Brexit.
So, the thinking goes, when they are presented with the reality of it, they will shy away from actually going through with it. They are so far from understanding the impulses that led to Brexit that they think their opponents must not be sincere on the topic. It’s all part of the 'Boris wrote two articles' line that haunts thinking among those who wished Brexit didn't happen, one that doesn’t take into account the actual political reality that Boris now faces as prime minister.
What seems implicit to me in what Mandelson is trying to convey is that we shouldn’t worry about no deal because the UK government will cave in when it looks like no deal is really going to happen. Either we’ll give the EU a massive amount of what they want to get something signed off or we’ll come up with some fudge that de facto extends the transition period. This couldn't be more wrong: Boris's government is completely serious about pushing ahead with no deal. How could it be any other way? A no-deal Brexit remains far and away the most likely outcome given how far away from each other the UK and the EU positions are, in addition to how tight the time is to try and square these differences. Not for the first time, Peter Mandelson and other prominent remainers are likely to be proven wrong.