I don’t know much – or should that be anything – about government public relations. However over many years I have seen press officers for ministers trying to avoid situations that would reflect badly on the person they are charged to look after. On that basis it is impossible to work out how anyone in that position could have allowed the next Brexit end date to be fixed for Hallowe’en.
The headlines in the papers said a lot about this choice of date. This all just added to the embarrassment of the prime minister having to ask again for a delay. For Theresa May this was humiliation beyond finding at the meeting that she and Angela Merkel had the same dress sense for the occasion. The new end date also coincides with a public holiday in Brussels, when people there will be heading off for the long weekend.
Humiliation for the UK was made all the worse when the EU’s chief negotiator Donald Tusk’s message was ‘please do not waste this time’. This brought back memories of urging children to see something as a second chance to get it right, and not to waste the opportunity.
Delay was always going to be the outcome. Despite that warning not to waste this opportunity to reach a decision MPs at Westminster are heading off for their Easter holidays. I have never understood why MPs need to operate on the basis of school term holidays while the rest of the world keeps business going. It is tempting to conclude that this is because they often behave like children. Whatever the reason, while the nation faces a crisis of historic proportions, the running battles over Brexit will be put aside while they enjoy their holidays.
This is a situation you really could not make up. Whatever happens in politics it is hard now not to see parallels to Brexit. Headlines this week that the government had plans to make divorce easier produced a wry smile. It has been trying now for almost three years to get an easy divorce from the EU and that is proving impossible. The finances have been agreed and there is no hope of reconciliation – but both sides are like a warring couple that cannot let go.
As she sat and waited for European leaders to decide how long the Brexit delay would be Mrs May must have been questioning why she ever picked up the poisoned chalice of Brexit. As the leaders enjoyed good food and wine and discussed the fate of the UK, she must have had a sense that this could be the future – trying desperately to find new friends while everyone else is fixed up. Using the divorce analogy this is akin to finding yourself a single when everyone else is a couple.
This gives parliament time to come up with a solution. Negatively it is a case of the can being kicked down the road, with a fair chance that come October the UK will be seeking another delay. For farmers it means more confusion. We could still be EU members at the end of the CAP financial year in October; on the positive side we will still have full access to the EU single market as a member state. Businesses will be able to take advantage of trade deals negotiated over years by the EU. Since these are better than anything the UK is likely to negotiate in the short term that should be good for food businesses, particularly when Brexit uncertainty is keeping down the value of sterling. Those gains are however temporary and the big questions remain around support, the single market and trade relationships outside the EU.
The real test of whether Brexit has worked will be whether farmers look to the EU 27 with some envy. This is not just about support, regulations or the loss of the power that comes from being part of the European farm lobby. It is about an attitude of mind in government towards food and farming. This week the EU confirmed that it would ban vegan or vegetarian products from using livestock related terms, such as soy or almond milk and veggie burgers and sausages. This is a small step in a big battle – but they key question is whether a post-Brexit, entirely urban focussed, UK government would do the same. I fear the answer to that question is no.