To extend or not to extend. That is the question which soon will have to be settled. The Coronavirus crisis goes on and on to its indefinite horizon. But very soon, barely a month, Boris Johnson will have to take a big decision.
Does he tell the business world, and the wider political community, that he is prepared to heap crisis upon crisis, by pulling the plug on negotiations with 27 governments in the rest of Europe, now that we have quit the EU?
It is a matter of international law that by 31 June, Britain must decide whether to ask for an extension for the Brexit talks to allow any hope of a deal being agreed. So far there has been close to zero progress. The shutdown of face-2-face negotiating sessions has not helped.
The UK has not involved senior ministers. The diplomat who leads for Britain, David Frost, is an intelligent, and in person very nice, diplomat who was Ambassador to Denmark. He is clever and diligent but this international treaty needs to be led by senior political ministers. All previous UK deals with Europe, to forge various Treaties, had senior ministers and even the prime minister leading from the front.
Johnson has had other things on his mind. The virus, his brush with death, his new baby son. But in the end, nothing will happen unless he wills it. Many loyal pro-Brexit Tory commentators like Harry Cole and Iain Martin have urged caution in going for a crash out No Deal, which is inevitable given the non-progress, unless Johnson requests more time.
Now David Cameron’s former speech writer, Clare Foges, has weighed in in The Times, writing: “Before the virus hit, a no-deal exit would have been deeply unwise. Today it would be unhinged. The WTO predicts that world trade could fall by up to 32 per cent this year. Several countries have started blocking the export of goods considered vital in the fight against coronavirus, and as they seek to recover, this nationalist instinct may well persist.
“Global recovery will take years, during which time negotiating a free-trade deal with the UK will not be foremost on many agendas. A no-deal Brexit wouldn’t be stepping into the sunlit uplands of a thriving global economy but something closer to a wasteland.”
Ms Foges is correct. Labour shadow ministers and MPs should talk to the businesses in their portfolio areas or constituencies, local Chambers of Commerce, and regional CBI councils, to urge them to politely talk to Tory MPs to get an extension before it’s too late.
85 per cent of our fresh vegetables and fruit, and two thirds of our pig meat, like bacon and sausages, arrive in lorries via Channel ports into Dover. To apply a 22 per cent WTO tariff on all food imports and to have the normal regulatory checks on each lorry would see queues going back to the Belgian border and empty food shelves in our super-markets.
We are a one-man led nation. Everything depends on what is in Johnson’s head. Professor Tim Bale, one of our smartest political analysts, has number crunched MPs and thinks there is a majority for an extension if Johnson asks for it. Labour should make it clear it will support an extension in the national interest, rather than make the economic costs of Covid19 crisis far worse.
Now the prime minister will have to show if he can face down the League of Brexit Loyalists or whether, in truth, he is their prisoner.
By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)
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