When Sir Gus O’Donnell was head of the civil service, those who worked under him would have prided themselves in the code that he was supposed to uphold: to be impartial, avoid politics and do their best to make sure the public is not misled. This morning, Sir Gus was involved in what can only be described as a systematic attempt to mislead the public about the EU and the terms in which Britain would leave.
His point: that it would take more than two years to negotiate the terms of UK’s exit, and this deadline could only be prolonged with hard bargaining from hostile partners.
"Obviously at the end of two years anything we haven't negotiated has to be extended by unanimity of a vote excluding us so that's a bit scary."
Yes, ‘scary’ - a word that could have been chosen by the architects of Project Fear. Here he is, later, on the Today Programme.
There’s only one problem with his argument: it’s nonsense. The UK can take all the time it wants to leave the EU. Its rules require us to give two years’ notice, which we do any time we want. Formal negotiations start within the two year period, but the UK talks to all of its European partners all the time: much work can be done before the formal process starts. So if we want six years, then we would give notice after four years. The two-year period is a minimum, which Sir Gus is misrepresenting as a maximum.
It does make you wonder about the quality of the advice he gave to Prime Ministers over the years: whether this is the first time that he made out that the EU has a gun to our head, when it didn't.
But here's the thing: David Cameron has said he will trigger Article 50 as soon as Britain votes “no”. Why would he do that, if he thinks more time is needed? Because it's a threat: and one that, frankly, demeans him. Why trigger the process at once? It's the sort of vengeful thing that Gordon Brown would do, but not Cameron. He's not the type to make this act of sabotage, to get his revenge on the country for voting “no”. But he's not the type to threaten it, either. It's odd, and sad that he feels he has to do so.
If Sir Gus was wanting to clarify the EU rules, he would have made this clear – and perhaps questioned the wisdom of the Prime Minister invoking Article 50 immediately. Why would he do so, given that he believes such a short timetable would harm Britain? Why would he do so, given that no in the “Out” camp wants this to happen?
As a Europhile, I had genuinely – if naively – believed that it was possible to make the case for ‘in’ without resorting to rank dishonesty. And again, perhaps naively, I had thought that a former head of the civil service like Gus O’Donnell would intervene to help improve the public’s understanding of EU rules. To question, rather than reinforce, the false notion that we have a maximum of two years to renegotiate trade deals. I genuinely didn’t think he’d come to confuse, to blow smoke.
Deplorably, Sir Gus said that Article 50 was set by the EU as an act of cruelty: to make things tough for a country that votes to leave. This is a slur on the EU and the architects of Artcle 50. It makes clear that the EU is not a prison, that any country can leave at any time of its choosing – and on any timetable of its choosing. It just asks for two years’ notice. Which, under the circumstances, is quite reasonable.
Every exaggeration, every half-truth, every transparent attempt to mislead weakens the ‘in’ campaign and makes a Brexit vote more likely. It’s all a reminder: the Out campaign may not be capable of winning this referendum but the In campaign is certainly capable of losing it.
PS A few people on Twitter have said that Cameron would have no choice but to invoke Article 50 immediately after a Brexit vote. I'm not aware of a single Brexit campaigner who is calling for that. If anyone else does, please leave details and I'll update the blog.
PPS My thanks to the Labour Party researchers (keen readers of this blog), one of whom has kindly emailed to stay that two MPs, Philip Davies and David Nutall, want Article 50 to be invoked within 28 days. They put it to the Commons in this motion.