Charles Hawtrey died an untimely death. The Carry On actor, famed for playing eccentric and effete characters, was in real life a cantankerous alcoholic so devoted to the pursuit of gay sex that he moved to a naval town to be close to the sailors. When he was advised by doctors that he needed to have both legs amputated if he was going to live, he refused, deciding that he would rather die with his boots on.

The attitude of many Remainers to the news that Britain and the EU are set to strike a deal is reminiscent of the late Mr Hawtrey’s decision. Having spent the last few years refusing to support any deal that they disliked, they are continuing to do so even to the death. Most people would feel that amputation can sometimes be necessary, given the alternatives. 

Meanwhile, most Leavers are currently ringing bells. Judging by past experience, they will be wringing hands later.

How should we be judging the deal?

Ignore pretty much everything that both the British government and the EU have to say about it in the short term

Once the deal has been struck, both sides have an interest in selling it. That means they will talk up the bits that look good to them and spin them accordingly. They will have a mutual interest in glossing over the awkward detail.

We’re told there’s 2,000 pages of this stuff.  That’s not just “lorem ipsum dolor sit amet”. Its content matters. Some of it will matter a lot. I expect the most extreme Leavers will eventually realise this when one of them gets round to reading it.  On past experience, this will take about 9 months.

A trade deal should be for life, not just for Christmas. Like the Northern Irish border, things that everyone kind of assumes are going to be temporary have a habit of being much more durable than many expect, even if they are nonsensical. So the awkward detail is in due course going to matter a lot. Wait for it to emerge.

Don’t just judge it by the final sticking points

Fishing really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s absolutely trivial in terms of the UK economy.  Some chums of ministers have made more money by themselves this year from procurement contracts than the profits of the entire UK fishing fleet. There should be a swear box set up for the next few days for journalists who mention “pelagic” or “demersal”. This aspect is small fry.

The late point that’s come up about seed potatoes is similarly of symbolic interest only (though symbols can matter enormously, especially if they give the impression of an English government indifferent to the interests of Scotland).  The export market is worth only £90 million to the UK, with just one-fifth going to the EU. It really is small potatoes.

The question of level playing field requirements is a bit more meaty.  But the detail on this has been in getting round both sides’ red lines rather than any yawning chasm of principle between the two.  Britain is not in practice going to diverge far from the EU and couldn’t without a lot more disruption even if it wanted to.

Look at the broad outline

Leave the fish to one side and instead take a Birdseye view. The broad contours of this deal have been known for quite a while.  It doesn’t cover services – 80% of the UK’s economy. It covers goods, where the EU’s surplus is highest.  This bare fact looks a net win for the EU (though obviously UK manufacturers will also benefit).

The reduced access is estimated to cost Britain a cumulative 4% of GDP according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The government is selling Britain out at 96 pence in the pound.

Leavers will argue that they will get this back elsewhere. So far the evidence for this is sorely lacking.

Still, much (but not all) of the immediate chaos of no deal will have been averted. By that very low bar, the deal is a success.

The deal has already been a disaster for democratic scrutiny

Vote Leave, Take Back Control, they said. The plan is to rush a 2,000 page document with generational implications for Britain through Parliament in a day.  Boris Johnson has used the rising of Parliament at the end of last week to avoid scrutiny on both his Covid-19 policy and Brexit. Parliament has not been so effectively sidelined since the Bill of Rights. The executive now rules supreme and Britain is rapidly turning into an autocracy tempered by political assassinations.

Nor can the EU luxuriate in glory on this. It looks set to propose to use provisional application of the deal to get this in place for 1 January. The European Parliament would be presented with a fait accompli, something it expressly asked should not be done.  

It may well erupt with fury. What steps they take afterwards will mark an inflexion point in the development of EU democracy. It may well be in the short term that the most exciting consequences of this deal will be for the EU.

Alastair Meeks

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