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Monday 24 June 2019

Yesterday, we celebrated the three-year anniversary of our historic vote to leave the EU, although there’s not much to celebrate. Our relationship with the failing bloc has not changed one iota.

An unsolicited reminder of that depressing fact is the presence of Jeremy Hunt in the Tory leadership run-off, a Remainer with absolutely nothing on his CV to indicate he can do right by the British people and succeed where Theresa May failed so abysmally. Very ironic then that in a Times op-ed Hunt argues he’s the man for the job over Boris Johnson on the grounds of “legitimacy”, or rather a dubious definition of it.

“A new prime minister needs the legitimacy of having made his arguments publicly and having them subjected to scrutiny. Only then can you walk through the front door of No 10 with your head held high instead of slinking through the back door, which is what Boris appears to want.”

We get it, Boris is being a bore by not (yet) pledging to duel against his opponent on live television – judging by how catastrophic last week’s BBC debate was, we can hardly blame him.

If the former mayor of London – nearer to executive office than any role Hunt has occupied – were up against a pro-Brexit contender of any a calibre, Dominic Raab or Jacob Rees-Mogg say, a TV battle would be worthwhile, sadly that is far from the case.

During last Tuesday’s BBC broadcast, Boris struck a disappointingly vague line on Britain’s exit date, saying a departure by October 31st was “eminently feasible” so, in many ways, it can be construed as a good thing that his lieutenants being sent out into the field on his behalf are not being vague. In recent weeks, one such officer, Priti Patel has burnished her already stellar conservative credentials by calling for the party to return to its roots and dismiss Cameroon liberalism.

Patel was on Talk Radio this morning fighting Boris’s corner and promising he would not reboot Theresa May’s deal as he seeks to guide Britain out of the EU in a timely manner. Better to hear it from the man himself, but Patel is putting her reputation on the line in backing Boris so vociferously.

Once she gets a role in Cabinet, Patel will hold Johnson to account, an important counterweight to the liberal Remainers, which could well include Hunt, that will inevitably stick around. Boris received the backing of a conspicuous number of pro-EU MPs during the first phase of the leadership election. And while the man himself hasn’t put his name to avoiding an even more prolonged withdrawal on air, he has in writing.

“We are going to focus all our efforts on honouring that single great promise – and we are going to come out of the EU on October 31,” he declares in his Telegraph column today.

“We can, we must and we will. And when we do there will be a moment of release and of opportunity. When we come out, we will finally end that sense of doubt and indecision that has plagued our politics – and let’s not kid ourselves: the failure to leave the EU has not eased the tensions over the issue. It has made them far worse.”

Boris goes onto repeat his “we can, we must and we will” phrase in the next paragraph. Expect to hear it over the coming weeks. We sincerely hope so.

It is also vital to bear in mind that a speedy departure from the EU is not a Leaver priority for the sake of it, businesses want it too.  Drawing this process out longer will only lead to worse economic outcomes.

“For the last three years, the debate has been: is it a hard Brexit, is it a soft Brexit; if it’s a soft Brexit what does it look like? If it’s a hard Brexit; is it a hard Brexit with a deal, or no deal. So all the focus has been on the destination. And what’s happened on the ground is being determined by the journey,” said US economist Mohamed Aly El-Erian when quizzed on the economic significance of delaying EU withdrawal interminably on the Today programme this morning.

“The major issue is not just hard vs soft, it’s slow vs fast. We are on a slow Brexit and that has paralyzed all sorts of things in the United Kingdom. The big question is whether we break this slow Brexit, otherwise, it’s gonna be slow Brexit that’s gonna be the determinant of where we end up rather than a political decision, and I mean determinant in terms of economic outcomes.”

In other words, a long, drawn-out and punishing Brexit, with no signs of progress will cause stagnation that Remain politicians will exploit to argue for a close relationship with the EU.

But despite all of that, including Patel’s assurances, the fear of May’s deal being rejigged only slightly and ploughed through Parliament lingers.

Westmonster report this morning that the Alternative Arrangements Commission, headed by MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, among others, has published a report insisting an invisible, but controlled border in Ireland is feasible. The backstop can be broken.

The technological arrangements can be “implemented within two to three years. It is the Commission’s intention to draft a Protocol which could be submitted for consideration by the EU, to be added to the Withdrawal Agreement,” the report states.

Sounds good, but it will give the next prime minister cover to give May’s dreadful withdrawal deal another try. Just as importantly, the report does not address the fundamental question. It has long been known that the technology is out there to find a way of managing the border in Ireland without infrastructure lining the frontier, the real question is a political one. Will the EU allow the backstop to be replaced with a new state of the art system without Britain first withdrawing from the EU on WTO terms and calling the shots?

Probably not.

Quote of the day: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Liz Truss on Brussels’ insistence a standstill agreement under Article XXIV of the GATT is not possible. Indeed, they would.