LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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Tuesday 2 July 2019

Today’s news feed is not about what’s going to happen, rather what is not. Jeremy Hunt continues to receive a large amount of attention – front page of today’s Times – even though he is not going to be prime minister. Also Hunt’s $6bn pledge to farms and fisheries breaks WTO rules so that’s not happening either (see below – more on that later).

The Telegraph’s big splash concerns plans by Boris Johnson to halve the size of the cabinet by merging departments. For instance, the department for work and pensions would be folded into the Treasury, meaning Amber Rudd would cease to have a place at the cabinet table – we would expect her to be removed from government altogether for that matter.

However, the Telegraph has received a backlash since publishing last night. Contrary to the claims made by the paper’s sources, Team Boris will not be slimming down the “blob”, Westminster parlance for the bloated civil service.

“This has not come from us,” a senior member of the Johnson entourage tells Politico. “We are not planning this. It is completely mental.” That said, there’s heavy backing for a major rationalisation of Whitehall. The emphasis of the Telegraph piece is on Boris supporters like Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Liz Truss wanting to cut departments, which again doesn’t suggest it will ever happen.

The contested source from the Johnson camp clarifies that structural changes will only occur after Brexit, which means this is one story that may carry a grain of longer-term significance. Let’s hope it does. The shutting down the of the Department for International Development altogether would be a very wise move.

The other big non-event story is cause for cheer. Yesterday John Bercow refused to allow Dominic Grieve and Margaret Beckett’s no-to-No-Deal amendment. It looked set to fail miserably anyway after receiving short shrift from the opposition. The amendment is intended to hold the government hostage by withholding spending for public services, not the most Labour-friendly move.

Even better, there are wide reports that hardcore Remainers are beginning to come to terms with the fact they have lost. Westmonster have a tidy write-up today of the march towards a better future, quoting a senior Tory MP who fears “we are heading for a cliff edge”.

Could it be that, among all the other things that aren’t happening a deal with the EU at the expense of £39bn could be one of them? Dare to dream.

Back to Jeremy Hunt. His ten-point pitch, covered in yesterday’s Brexit Brunch, has impressed many Tories on the basis that while he may be less gung ho about leaving the EU on WTO terms he’s better prepared. “We should be coming out with detail like this,” a pro-Boris MP tells the Sun.

The BBC has since confused the issue, inviting a trade expert onto Radio 4’s early morning farming programme to explain it’s against WTO rules for government’s to cover the costs of import tariffs (see the tweet at the top).

The trade expert is not wrong, putting a stop to anti-competitive behaviour is the WTO’s founding principle, but massive exceptions have been made for agricultural payments, otherwise the EU’s vital cash for integration vehicle, the Common Agricultural Policy would be illegal. Note, Britain receives a disproportionately low amount of EU farming subsidy so a Hunt-style spending plan would have a lot of wiggle room.

The thrust of Hunt’s pitch is correct. Government can support farming, just not explicitly for the purposes of getting past the EU’s high tariff barriers.

The other important point to make about Hunt’s seemingly superior preparation is so what? As Mayor of London Boris had a crack team of operators who got the job done, those guys will do the job the job for Britain in the event No Deal Brexit.

The best of Hunt’s ideas might get nicked, then again, Team Boris might have better ones. Lest we forget, the Whitehall culling plan that is probably true is also a very good one.

Make it happen Boris.