Loxit and Brexit

The First Secretary of State refused to indicate how fast – or in what way – the lockdown would be unwound. But he indicated that ministers were still working under the timescale outlined by Boris Johnson back in March when he promised to “turn the tide” in 12 weeks in the battle against Covid-19, which would give the government until mid-June to – as the real Prime Minister put it – “send it packing”.

– Loxit means loxit –

Mr Raab tacitly acknowledged that coronavirus was peaking, warning about the danger of an overly hasty relaxation of lockdown measures prompting a “second” peak and return to the ongoing restrictions. In a bid to reassure the British people that an exit from lockdown (which could succinctly be termed “loxit”) was only a matter of time, he insisted that there was “light at the end of the tunnel”.

All being well, the Government will be able next month to follow its European neighbours in unwinding the coronavirus lockdown. But as it seeks to turn the tide against Covid-19 by June, the Government will also have to decide the ebbs and flows of another process: the still ongoing post-Brexit negotiations.

– No Brextra time, yet? –

While coronavirus is sadly not going away anytime soon, as the prospect of a vaccine remains months away, questions over the UK’s post-Brexit future loom increasingly large.

It’s worth remembering that by July, both sides have to decide if they want to eke out any more time in the transition period – which is set to end this December. The UK has long argued it will not delay this, but the raging pandemic has proven to be such a drain on negotiating efforts and official resources allocated to preparing for life post-Brexit that questions of delay have only grown.

The idea of delay has received its heftiest support yet as the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva waded in. The former EU commissioner warned against making the European economic climate “any tougher” by causing “unprecedented uncertainty”.

This provoked a stiff response from Downing Street, which intriguingly chose to slap down the idea in its bluntest terms yet by telling reporters that the UK would not be asking for an extension and “we will say no” if the EU requests it in turn, effectively ruling out both the ways an extension would have to be put on the table. What’s more, Number 10 turned around the arguments that Covid-19 made an extension more necessary by arguing the pandemic in fact made the case for maintaining “legislative and economic flexibility” by eschewing delay.

David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, echoed this line on Twitter, offering his own explanation for why delay would be so undesirable: “Extending would simply prolong negotiations, create even more uncertainty, leave us liable to pay more to the EU in future, and keep us bound by evolving EU laws at a time when we need to control our own affairs. In short, it is not in the UK’s interest to extend.”

Notably, global worthies such as the IMF head are not the only ones arguing that coronavirus means there should be a delay to Brexit being fully delivered. Some Brexiteers have also begrudgingly advocated it.

Remember that mere days ago, Nick de Bois, Mr Raab’s former chief of staff, said it would be “illogical” and “incomprehensible” to stick with the current plan. Tom Harwood acknowledged that “many” of his fellow Leavers would not see a short extension as long as six months “as the end of the world” and Isabel Oakeshott declared it “inevitable” that the transition would slip past December – “and as a Brexiteer, I am cool with this”.

Government officials seem to be singing similar tunes, as the The Sun picked up on talk in the corridors of power that officials had already admitted defeat in the battle to maintain the deadline as they argued that there was “no way” they would commit to a “long” delay.

So what is going on? Brexiteers will not have lost faith in the Government’s ability to see the UK out of the EU promptly, as many eagerly shared news of Downing Street’s steadfast refusal yesterday. Indeed, the Government could well power through the Covid-induced drain on Whitehall resources and seek to make the most of the limited time to see how much of a deal it can squeeze out of the EU. That would certainly confound most pundits, who have concluded that Downing Street’s recent bravado will be the latest stage in the Number 10 choreography until it bows to pandemic-induced pressure to delay.

If so, while Brexiteers might have been up in arms about any delay before January 31, given the extreme circumstances – and Brexit itself already underway – they would be inherently sympathetic.

FRONT BENCH

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