Brexit – no job for dilettantes

“Is this really all we’ve come up with?” shouted the boss as his team stared dejectedly at the sparsely populated flip charts. “If we don’t get some creative ideas soon this will have been a complete waste of time.”

The strategy away day wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. His part of the business was in trouble. He needed some new ideas quickly but his team weren’t coming up with anything. Shouting at them, which usually worked when he wanted to make people work faster, didn’t seem to be making them think any more creatively.

I am reminded of this every time I hear government ministers talking about Brexit. A bit of creativity, innovation and imagination together with some unspecified whizzy technology will mean that the complexities of leaving the EU can be easily dealt with. It can’t be beyond the wit of man, can it? This is just the sort of thing corporate executives say when they really haven’t a clue what to do next.

Rafael Behr wrote an excellent piece on this yesterday. The hard-line leavers in government, he says, don’t want to get into the messy details of leaving the EU and accuse those who attempt to do so of over-complicating things and creating obstacles:

Some Tories have moved on from the question of what needs doing – the referendum answered that with the single word “leave” – and are applying themselves to the problem of how it might be done: how to protect industries that rely on the single market; how to organise the Irish border; how to support agriculture without EU subsidy. Others shrink from that challenge. They find comfort in the saccharine simplicity of restating the original cause. “Hard” Brexit is the place to which some Tories retreat to avoid getting their hands dirty with compromise. If things go wrong, they can blame the pragmatists for sullying the dream.

The prime minister wasted a year indulging that tendency. One May loyalist describes frustration in cabinet committees when trying to get radical Brexit ministers to focus on detail. Every obstacle is belittled as a symptom of weak faith; every workaround is treated as a trap laid by unrepentant Europhiles seeking to abort the whole thing. No assurance by ex-remainers that they have accepted the referendum is trusted. This leads to a vicious cycle: the only people in government prepared to engage with the question of how Brexit might work are those who didn’t vote for it, which reinforces the zealots’ suspicion that the “softies” are closet saboteurs.

Detail is for sissies. How hard can it be?

In Britain we have long been seduced by the cult of the gentleman amateur – the swashbuckling chap who cuts through all the crap, ignores the boring functionaries and just gets things done. His modern equivalent is the disruptive innovator who circumvents the hierarchy, shakes everything up and trashes the industry’s long-held norms and beliefs. That the words Buccanneer and Brexiteer sound similar is no accident.

Boris Johnson, says Rafael Behr, doesn’t like his current job and he’s not very good at it. This, after all, is a man who doesn’t much care for detail. He has boasted about quitting his management consultancy job after a week:

Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious.

I have some sympathy with this. Like many people, I have sometimes felt like chucking my job in after one too many PowerPoint presentations and I don’t like getting to grips with tedious detail either. My natural instinct is to look for the short cut or the new idea that will eliminate the need for mind-numbing processes. I’m one of those ‘surely it can’t be this hard’ types.

The trouble is, though, sometimes it is. What I have learnt over the years is that you often spend so long in the futile search for the disruptive idea, the paradigm shift or the next big thing that, had you devoted that time and energy to working through the messy detail, you would have solved the problem by now. Sometimes you have no choice but to do the boring stuff.

Brexit, I fear, is one of those times. It is riven with eye-wateringly complex detail nested within more eye-wateringly complex detail. There are hundreds of treaties and thousands regulations to be worked through. Thousands of lorries currently go through ports with little or no capacity for customs checks. As the Institute for Government pointed out, the customs point for Dover and the Channel Tunnel only has parking for 82 trucks because most of the trade for these ports is covered by the single market and customs union.

Perhaps one day X-ray machines, robots, airships and drones might be able to do all this but for now this is science fiction. Even if the UK’s new computerised customs system is implemented on time, its design was based on pre-Brexit assumptions. It may not be able to cope with the huge increase in customs declarations.

The further we move away from the EU, the more difficult it will be. The sort of clean-break Brexit advocated by Boris Johnson will require a hell of a lot of detailed work. I’m no expert on the construction of customs infrastructure but I’m guessing that it’s already too late to build enough capacity for 2019. Those who wanted the hardest Brexit were, for the most part, those who were eager for Article 50 to be triggered. If they had stopped to think about it, they should have been the ones arguing for the government to hang fire. A Brexit which sees the UK leaving the single market and customs union and starting out without a single trade deal with anyone, was always going to need far more planning and preparation than can be done within two years.

Yet it is the so-called hard Brexiters who are still maintaining the line that it’s not going to be that difficult and dismissing any suggestion that it might be. As Rafael Behr says:

Reality is coming on hard and fast. May’s true allies in confronting it are the people who warned all along that the impact would hurt. But she has a cabinet packed with people who insist that the collision is avoidable.

You can tell them by the Johnsonian way they twist queries about how it is done into rehashed arguments about why it must be done. And she has a party that prefers a game of hunt-the-saboteur to the boring homework of negotiation.

The time for flowery speeches peppered with classical references and Latin tags is over. This is no job for dilettantes. Those who can’t or won’t get to grips with projections, plans, numbers and tedious detail should go and find themselves something more interesting to do.

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33 Responses to Brexit – no job for dilettantes

  1. David Kent says:

    Maybe time to let the lunatics eat their cake and vomit it……? I remember that works very well with children.
    A Hard exit will also hurt the EU, so they might take us back if we pay full whack and adopt the Euro. We will have no choice but to plead. We will lose our Veto for sure.
    As you say, the alternative is to try to teach the Brexit team better manners. A futile exercise in the short and in the long term.

  2. Thing is though, there was/is an easy (in relative terms) way out that honours the referendum result, takes into consideration the rather large minority that voted to remain and allows for completion in the 2 year time frame.

    Unfortunately our Leader ruled it out when she gave her speech at Lancaster house and re-iterated the position numerous times subsequently.

    Sanity may yet prevail but not with the present incumbent in charge, and time is running out fast.

  3. P Hearn says:

    We could solve the customs issue by – wait for it – not checking any more inbound lorries post-Brexit than we do now.

    Goods coming from the EU will be labelled as such, and we can assume for the foreseeable future that these will be of reasonable quality and acceptable to the UK consumer. In other words, pick out lorries which have set out from non-EU origins and check those, along with a random one or two from the EU. Just like we do now.

    It’s safe to assume that in the short term, the EU won’t be so accommodating/sensible and will want to maximise delays and misery at borders, so we will need to increase the number of lorry spaces at Dover, or possibly further upstream in a bonded lorry park. However, once the EU sees how their hauliers complain that there are zero delays getting into the UK, but interminable ones getting back home, we’ll see how the EU responds to the interests of their remaining members’ trucking companies and industry. And the odd tourist who is brave enough to venture to the UK.

    Ditto the Irish border. The UK should say that we’re not going to check a single lorry, car or pedestrian, neither are we assigning a single customs officer to any of the 300 border crossing points. If the EU wants to put up a border, have at it, but that will be a matter for them and Dublin to resource. The UK will respect the Common Travel Area, an arrangement we had in place long before the EU was dreamt up; if the EU wants to get in the way of it, so be it – they’ll need to let Gerry Adams know.

    Rick’s article mentions the impossibility of avoiding detail, but actually, it’s sometimes the best way. The best solutions are ALWAYS the simplest. Those that are mired in detail have the most points of failure, and in any project, one always has to consider the “no change” option first. That’s what’s advocated here, since change will achieve nothing of practical value.

    In effect, unilateral free trade with the EU would be a near-impossible position for the EU to defend. It can be implemented before you finish reading this sentence, and costs are, by definition, minimal.

    Those concerned about car factories and their supply chains can thus calm down. Nothing will change. The lorries will flow in quickly, and we’ll see how Merkel likes having German-owned UK factories’ output held up at Dover as those Minis head to the Continent.

    If I were Theresa May, (and thank the Lord, I am not), this would be my speech tomorrow in Italy. “Chaps, we’re imposing zero tariffs on you, zero customs checks and we’ll lob a few billion in to tide you over until 2020, so your budget assumptions for the current cycle are met and we can part on a good note. We look forward to working with you in friendly and constructive cooperation across a range of issues in future. In Britain, you have a true friend, trading partner and a staunch ally. Thank you all for coming. Teas and coffees are being served in the foyer”

    p.s. w.r.t. FoM, since we’re an island, passengers by sea and air have to give passport details before they travel. We know who’s coming, (and that includes from Ireland too), so there’s no back door left open. We were never in Schengen (thank goodness), so again, no change.

    • “In effect, unilateral free trade with the EU would be a near-impossible position for the EU to defend”

      They could defend it very easily using the same WTO rules many on the Brexiteer Tory right seem very much in favour of, such as the common external tariff for third countries.

      • P Hearn says:

        Of course they can go WTO, but the 15%+ fall in Sterling/Euro takes care of any duties on our exports (10% on cars, approx 3% on most other things) so they’ve achieved nothing in terms of a protectionist tariff barrier.

        I’m personally very happy for WTO, and that’s still a viable solution. However, there’s a simpler option which is to treat them as friends and be magnanimous.

        Even better, since it will cost us nothing and take zero time and effort to implement. We currently get no tariffs on EU imports, and that wouldn’t change.

        The EU would look less than friendly on the world stage in return, which may be what they want to be if they truly hate the UK in the way some suggest. It matters not.

        You can’t hurt your opponent if your weapons bounce off. The EU will be firing economic blanks at us, and politically will look utterly stupid in trying.

        In the meantime, we can point to our zero-tariff deal with the rest of the world, and that can only help to speed along future trade deals.

        • You’re asking the EU to tear up it’s own rules, applied to all other third countries just to satisfy the UK.. It really isn’t going to happen and it’s not “punishment” but just an application of the rules based system that is both the Single Market and WTO.

          This Minford-esque unilateral free trade argument may well happen if the idiots take over the Tory government (assuming they haven’t already), but it will have predictable results for what’s left of UK industry. Although I’m sure some will do very well out of it (clue, the same people pushing for it to happen).

          And I don’t think the rest of the world will be looking at the EU, who will be applying the same rules they apply to every other third country, as somehow being the pantomime villain in this, rather they will be rubbing their hands at the UK’s new “unilateral free trade” free for all.

          • P Hearn says:

            Not asking them to tear up anything. We will be a third country to them and vice versa.

            If they want to impose tariffs on us, then they can. Where did I say they couldn’t do that? I merely mentioned that the large fall in Sterling v Euro would likely negate any such moves from a purely protectionist stance.

            The answer to the blog post was that there’s a very simple way to get over this customs concern and give industry some certainty on tariffs and supply chain at the same time. It requires no effort. No cost. It’s already in place.

            If you don’t think that’s a neat solution, then fine – let’s have your suggestion that is better, is already in place and has zero cost.

            Your move.

          • @P Hearn
            “If they want to impose tariffs on us, then they can. Where did I say they couldn’t do that?”

            Oh dear, The EU will not ‘impose’ tariffs, if we leave without a deal, they will be set by WTO rules at the same rate as all other third countries, it’s one of the things that will automatically happen once we leave and, in the absence of any sort of negotiated arrangement, drop out and become said third country. Not that tariffs are the chief obstacle to trade as I’m sure you know.

            And as far as the ‘simple’ solution is concerned, see my comment above, I’m pretty sure you understand which option I’m talking about and while it is not zero cost (nothing is) it is already in place if we choose to take it.

    • David says:

      Far too simple and straightforward . Clearly a dilettante .

    • Colin Caine says:

      As a WTO member, it will be illegal for the UK to impose less favourable trading conditions on the rest of the world than on the EU.
      Breaking WTO rules opens us up to very expensive tribunals. And if we leave the WTO, nobody will trade with us favourably because they won’t want to have tribunals.

  4. Dipper says:

    The clear red flashing light that this article is going of the rails is the phrase”Rafael Behr wrote an excellent piece on this “. If you ever find yourself writing this, stop.

    Consultant and technocrats are not neutral impartial people. They have an agenda, and the agenda is “look how complicated and difficult your life is. You need me to manage all these complex and difficult details. and you need to pay me a lot of money.” It is in their interests to say how fiendishly difficult leaving the EU is, how many years this is going to take, how many consultants will be needed, and how these clever people have to paid a lot of money.

    Some of the regulatory stuff is difficult but we already participate in industries that have international regulations that are above whatever the EU does, and the EU is demonstrating with euro derivatives clearing that it is using regulation to drive its own fortress EU agenda. And as anyone who has worked in industry knows there are ways of doing regulation that can tailor the job to the available resource, so we can do self-regulation for many things with an inspection of the organisations own processes and documentation. And lets not forget, EU food regulations gave us beef that was in fact horse. So if the food regulations cannot even guarantee the species then I think it is reasonable to be sceptical about the whole regulatory framework.

    The regulation argument is just another weapon Remainers and the EU use to punish the UK for leaving. The government should be preparing to leave, and preparing for a hard exit on WTO rules (which includes making sure we can do the customs bit), as only by demonstrating that we are ready for that outcome will we be able to negotiate a sensible mutually beneficial deal with the EU.

  5. salientwork says:

    I gather from a reliable source there are only five lorry inspection bays at the Port of Dover and the “white cliffs” prevent major expansion. An upstream secure customs site at, say, Ebbsfleet, might help but can’t see it happening by Mar 19. So for Dover at least letting them roll through as now is I’m guessing the only feasible option. I think Hammond knows this: many of his cabinet colleagues have not digested the harsh reality. As you so rightly spell out above. Excellent piece by the way.

    • Blissex says:

      «many of his cabinet colleagues have not digested the harsh reality»

      I suspect that some don’ but most could not care less: the only reality that matters to them is electoral reality, City bonuses, and that means house prices and managing the blame game, not actual outcomes; for most Conservative ministers and MPs brexit is a fact that happened in the past, and all that matters now is domestic politics. There are still almost 5 years to the 2022 elections and a lot can happen in the meantime…
      Someone spent time at a party of Conservative supporters, and the story is that they could not care less about “reality”: https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/09/brexit-talks-stall-making-hard-brexit-even-more-likely.html

      Any business that is planning on a transition period rather than “brexit means brexit” is making a very risky bet.

  6. Blissex says:

    I suspect that our blogger is still a naie optimist: the Conservatives will claim that every problem will be solved with a stroke of a pen with outsourcing contracts and PFI. The relentless magic of the private markets will deliver everything on time for the lowest possible price, and if there is any problem it will be because of the traitorous EU. 🙂

    As to the Florence speech, the chances that it will contain a “bold vision” of asking for a 2-3 year extension of the A50 notice period, in name or in fact, are pretty small: the “brexit means brexit” group can sink the government and trigger new elections on a “betrayal of brexit” campaign, and nobody in the Conservative party, least of all T May, wants that.
    As NN Taleb wrote well, the intransigent minority usually wins. https://medium.com/incerto/the-most-intolerant-wins-the-dictatorship-of-the-small-minority-3f1f83ce4e15

  7. gastro george says:

    Not sure whether to laugh or cry at the hard Brexiteers “open our doors” policy. Because the EU will not respond to this in kind, as they have repeated explained. The emphasis on tariffs is indicative of a lack of understanding. Customs borders are about regulation, and the EU are not about to let us export, for example, chlorine-washed chicken, or any other dross to them. So if you seriously want a hard Brexit, then you should have started pouring concrete and recruiting customs staff a year ago.

  8. Blissex says:

    T May’s Florence speech is done, and when asked “Is no deal still better than a bad deal?
    she replied “Yes”.

    That’s the only thing that matters of her speech. It will be at this point certainly “no deal”. Her new fantasy “have your cake and eat it” proposed deal for a 2 year period in which the UK will be outside the EU but also actually inside for all practical purposes, is pure domestic, blame-shifting, propaganda: she must know that the only option that can be agreed in 2 year is an article 50 extension of full membership, because that can be done by a vote of the EU prime ministers (and it must be unanimous). Any other transition deal is impossible because both it requires a new treaty, ratified by all member states, and a negotiation between EU and UK as a member state, which is forbidden by the EU treaties that the UK has signed.

    • Dipper says:

      It is not the job of the UK negotiators to do the EU’s negotiation for them. “Cake and eat it” is a perfectly reasonable starting point. It is up to the EU to come back with their proposals.

      My trust is that at the moment the arguments are about preparing for failure; so it is clear in the UK that there is no magic solution that allows us to prepare for exit in a reasonable way, that the UK went out of its way to be reasonable, and that walking out is the only feasible option. European leaders being particularly helpful at the moment by insisting they still have legal jurisdiction over their citizens in the UK.

      • gastro george says:

        The indelible mark of a hard Brexiter is the inability to see the viewpoint of the EU.

        • gastro george says:

          Or to believe that the viewpoint is valid.

          • David says:

            or the remainer of the leaver it would seem

          • gastro george says:

            Oh the viewpoint of the hard Brexiter is perfectly valid – it just leads to precisely what they want – no deal and a hard Brexit. Their belief in the ideas of Minford is entirely misplaced, though.

          • Dipper says:

            The idiots guide to remaining in the EU.
            – Pretend you can have your cake and eat it – i.e. main a sovereign nation in a Federal union.
            – Find you cannot and are forced to hand over all the key parts of government to the European Commission.
            – Continued lack of control over borders means population reaches 80 million by mid century.
            – Find you cannot afford to build the infrastructure as you are now the primary location for low wage jobs in EU and have huge social bills you cannot afford.
            – Social chaos ensues as the UK is no longer in charge of sorting out its own problems
            – Wish you had listened to Leavers but as it is now too late there is nothing you can do.

        • Dipper says:

          The indelible mark of a Remainer is the inability to see the EU for what it really is – a Federal express leading inexorably to the destruction of the UK as a nation state. This is why Leavers just want out ASAP. We are happy to do a deal with the EU, but the EU has no appetite for a deal that does not recognise their right to determine national law and national policy of the UK.

      • The idiots guide to the Brexiteer strategy for leaving the EU: –

        – Win referendum to leave EU
        – Petition EU to leave
        – State you want to keep all nice things (frictionless trade, free movement of capital etc)
        – State you do not want any of those nasty things (free movement of labour, ECJ jurisdiction etc)
        – Tell the EU It’s up to them to find a “creative way” to give us what we want
        – Fall of cliff
        – Blame EU for being intransigent when ensuing economic calamity occurs

        • David says:

          Seems to me that’s almost exactly not what the leavers here are saying.
          But then I voted to remain in the EU.
          A lot more reasoning and a little less facetious prediction would go a long way to a debate instead of the classroom banter this constantly descends into.
          But if it makes you feel better go right ahead.

          • But it is exactly what T May, her hard Brexit believing colleagues in cabinet and the right leaning parts of the fourth estate are saying. Facetiousness is all we have left, reason has been jettisoned.

            If we are still negotiating in January 2018 I will be pleasantly surprised.

  9. gastro george says:

    For our hard Brexiter friends obsessing about sovereignty and control, I’ll just repeat a rather appropriate tweet that I just saw:

    In the real global economy every trade deal or treaty involves a “loss of sovereignty”.

    Which brings us back to, for example, chlorine-washed chicken. The UK, once out of the EU, can adopt any regulations it likes internally. If we do that, and want to export chicken to the EU, do you think that would be allowed without any customs checks? If there is a dispute, then how would this be arbitrated? Do you think that, if the UK insists on full sovereignty and control, the EU would sign a trade deal with us?

    • Dipper says:

      gg – thanks for Remainersplaining the bit about sovereignty and control and trade deals making compromises. Everyone understands that. You’ll be telling us about the £350m per week next and how that isn’t the full sum once we’ve taken off the rebate and the money the EU spends in the UK.

      Lots of countries operate independently in a world of trade agreements, international bodies and standards. What the EU is doing with the UK is quite different; it is using shadow EU regulations and bodies as a political tool to exert complete political control over nations.

      • gastro george says:

        “Lots of countries operate independently in a world of trade agreements, international bodies and standards.”

        You see, that’s just not true. If the UK exports to the EU, those exports must comply with EU standards, or standards defined by a mutual trade agreement.

        • Dipper says:

          Obviously. If we export to Burkina Faso we have to meet the standards of Burkina Faso. Lots of different countries have requirements about what you can and cannot export to them. And lots of industries manage to meet these standards. There are different voltages and different electrical plugs round the world, but we manage.

          The EU has shown with, for example, euro derivatives clearing, that they are looking to use regulations and standards not to improve the quality of what gets sold or done in the EU but as political tools to force nations to agree to their demands.

  10. Pingback: Labour's understandable Brexit confusion - Daily Economic Buzz

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