The government’s hardball Brexit negotiating strategy is increasingly resembling that of a toddler screaming that it doesn't want to go to bed, as the Financial Times and the Telegraph report that the divorce bill has been agreed at something between £40 billion and £50 billion. That’s the price of fulfilling the weird Hornblower fantasies of people like Liam Fox and Peter Bone. Awesome.
LBC's James O'Brien put it as well as anyone, tweeting: "We’re paying tens of billions of pounds to leave the world’s largest free trade area while surrendering all of our ability to define its rights & regulations. All so that we can hopefully start negotiating an inferior arrangement with the world’s largest free trade area."
So how did we get here? In July, in the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed the comments of Philip Hollobone – a Eurosceptic Tory MP – who said the EU could "go whistle" if it wanted a multi-billion pound divorce settlement over Brexit. The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, replied that time was running out for the UK to get a deal at all. "I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking," he said.
In August, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the figure would be £36 billion, adding that sources had dismissed talk of a £50 billion settlement as "too high". The government took some stick from delusional backbench Tories who didn’t want to pay a penny. "I think £36 billion is much too much – we have no legal obligation to pay anything. Accepting the premise that you have to pay to leave the club is fundamentally wrong," said Agatha Christie bit player and arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.
In her Florence speech in September, Theresa May offered £18 billion. The EU wanted £50 billion. May’s lowballing seemed to be an opening gambit before settling somewhere in the middle – perhaps that £36 billion figure.
And today we learn there has been an agreement in principle between London and Brussels on the EU's demand for a £53 billion settlement, with the final figure being ambiguously left at between £40 billion and £50 billion – at least double May’s initial offer. The agreement merely settles Britain’s past liabilities – we’re paying the tab for our EU membership and it doesn’t guarantee us anything in terms of a trade deal.
In a reverse ferret that would be more surprising coming from a less obvious opportunist, Boris Johnson has hailed the move as progress, saying, "Now’s the time to get the ship off the rocks." This may be the first time a government minister has admitted to anything being "on the rocks" in the first place.
The less shrill Brexiteers are pointing out that this is money that we would be paying if we stayed in the EU anyway, so everyone should stop hyping it as a huge sum. The difference, however, is that we would then be getting something for that money. Nigel Farage is taking the opposite tack, massively hyping the bill in order to blast it as a "complete sell out".
Iain Duncan Smith has demanded that the figure is tied to a trade deal: "It is also absolutely hinged on a free trade arrangement. If there is no trade deal, then my view – and I would think the whole of the party’s view – would be we don’t owe them any money at all," he told the BBC today. But as we keep discovering, his view and the view of the party – or the government – is just an opinion that Brussels may or may not bother to take into account.
Brexiteer MP Peter Bone unwittingly hit the nail on the head on Sky News, saying, "If we had that money, then wouldn’t it be better spent on our health service or other public services, or perhaps some of it on defence?" Yeah, it’s almost like this whole Brexit malarkey is an expensive waste of time???
I want, I want. I want to leave the world’s largest trading block quickly and with no obligations or repercussions whatsoever. I’m simply appalled that Brussels don’t care what I think, something nobody could ever have predicted. Wah wah wah. Shut up.