Was Government messaging wrong, or just rubbish?

It is reasonable to presume that Brandon Lewis’s response to the ‘Urgent Question’ from Sir Bob Neill in the House of Commons was pre-prepared. It used a very specific phraseology, and an example of something done before was even on hand. It may not be a good example, but it was there and hardly an off-the-cuff recollection.

A planted question is a common means for governments to gain an opportunity to make a pre-prepared response. It is hard to believe this particular government would cue-up Sir Bob, viewed as an arch pro-EU lawyer, to ask a question on the EU. That the minister’s response was on hand does, however, raise a number of questions, not least “why”?

For now, let us leave aside the international legal dimension.

The difficulties for the Government on the attached Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement lie in the internal contradictions of that document. On the one hand it proports to hold Northern Ireland within the EU Single Market, while at the same time assuring Northern Ireland is a fully functioning part of the UK single market and specifically within the Customs territory of a now ‘independent’ United Kingdom outside the EU. It is like fitting a large square peg into a small but ever deepening and problematic round hole.

The EU however would regard ‘Customs’ as a part of the Single Market framework, just as VAT is also within that frame. That presents the UK with the challenge of not having a customs border (of which VAT is a part) within its territory, when the EU regards that as very much in existence as an outworking of the Protocol. The two cannot exist in tandem.

The report in the SUN newspaper that the EU was using the Protocol to add pressure in negotiations should come as no surprise. What is a surprise is that the Government didn’t simply nip this in the bud by pointing out that if the EU were to threaten food supplies to Northern Ireland then that would clearly create ‘societal disruption’; an action that would trigger a clause negating the Protocol.

The Government should be more worried that the implicit threat to food supplies by the EU should be made at all, and more so that it is realistically possible as a consequence of EU unilateral action!

The Protocol relating to Northern Ireland within the Withdrawal Agreement will be a constant thorn in the relationship between the EU and UK. It will be a means of creating constant tension that will require ‘resolution’, and – make no mistake – one that will be intended to be entirely to the detriment of the UK. It is a further example of the bad faith in which the EU has entered negotiations with the sole intention of punishing and then binding the UK as subservient to EU direction of travel and legal frameworks.  Bad faith would be enough to negate the Protocol, but only if called out.

Nationalist Ireland seems to see little problem in demanding a real customs border in the Irish Sea when having demanded none on land (not agreed in the Protocol, because of societal disruption and a whole lot besides). Unionist and business concerns and the not inconsiderable barriers that may arise in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (of which the EU threat to food is perhaps an extreme example), together with costs to business, consumers, and the overall economy of Northern Ireland – seem to be afforded scant attention.

In trying to ‘fix’ the contradictions within the Withdrawal Agreement and attendant Protocol through legislation the UK Government will inevitably upset people. That being the case, the choice of timing sucks. Had the Government waited to mid-October and been able to declare talks at an end, the necessity of changes would have been apparent to all. Alternatively, a comprehensive trade agreement mid-October would have negated the need for change (if it is accepted that the EU is a reliable partner).

Once again – and an all too frequent occurrence – the UK Government’s sequencing and framing of a necessary message has been dreadful.

In these political times when emotional investment in a message lasts long past the realities of the situation, this Government seems to have dug deeper into a hole that is a creature of its own haste to breach a present impasse without considering future consequences.

The phrase used by Brandon Lewis will be repeated, frequently, and beyond its original context – it is a gift to the opposition. Worse, it has created consternation with the party of government in respect of the rule of law – what else is the Conservative Party if it is not the party of ‘Law’ (and Order).

Even if the actual Internal Market Bill presents issues that are considerably less than preceded its release, such is the level of emotional investment that has been allowed to develop, the opposition will prove difficult to be persuaded of anything other than the worst interpretation with respect to its content.

At a time when it needs goodwill and a fair (trade) wind, this cack-handed approach to messaging has created problems for the Government that distract from the essential task of re-imagining the UK as an independent global player on trade and so much more. The Government cannot continue to lose credibility because of poor communications and seemingly disjointed policy co-ordination.

Whatever the intention or planning of Brandon Lewis’s pre-prepared statement, it was ill-judged and unnecessary. Whatever the process by which it landed in his papers for the House of Commons, that process needs to be urgently reappraised and corrective action taken.

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