AS WITH everything else these days, the positions being taken by both sides on the Internal Market Bill, which will be generating all sorts of hyperbole in Westminster this week, are polarised and verging on the hysterical – and they’ll probably get even worse.

It’s a bit like when the British Government wanted to prorogue parliament, if you can remember all the way back to this time last year. In case you can’t, that was a perfectly ordinary procedural move, with plenty of precedent, that actually only lost Westminster a few hours of debate (if you backed it), or an outrage against democracy that threatened the foundations of the rule of law and heralded the beginnings of authoritarianism (if you didn’t).

The courts ruled that it was in order, and then that it wasn’t. Most people had difficulty working out what it was about, even – no, especially – those firmly on one side or the other. In the end, it was what some of us had suspected all along – the UK Government was pulling a fast one, but the mechanisms and rhetoric deployed against them were overwrought, and in the end none of it made much difference.

Those who disapprove of the Tory Government are similarly convinced that the possibility that it might break international law “in a very specific and limited way” is a ruat caelum moment that will lead to anarchy and, never mind the contradiction, fascism as well. Those who back it insist it’s minor housekeeping that isn’t really breaking the law, the EU breaks its own laws whenever it feels like it, and our law is better than theirs anyway, so shove off, Barnier.

Polling suggests as much: two third of those who those who call themselves Remain voters think breaching the Withdrawal Agreement would be unacceptable, while a majority of Leave voters think it’s justified. The reality – like the prorogation row – is that the Government has shown itself to be cavalier about rules. How much that worries you is probably determined by whether you approve of them, and by whether you share their “art of the possible” approach.

If this is a bit of sabre-rattling to get a deal, in the end we may forget about it as we have civilisation’s foundational crisis of last year’s couple of missing legislative days. While both the Government and the EU say they really want a deal, that could nonetheless be true.

They have that in common with most of us. Those (like the ERG) who would actively prefer no deal are as monomaniacal and prone to overstatement as the likes of Dominic Grieve or Gina Miller but, like those determined to stop Brexit at any cost, a pretty small constituency.

What is in danger of getting drowned out in this kind of brouhaha, however, is what the Government is actually trying to get. We can ignore the fantasists who think that Boris Johnson is Mussolini, and Benedominict Cummingberbatch some sort of Beria figure, and concentrate on the realistic possibilities.

One, obviously, is that it’s a bluff or hardball to get a deal, or a better deal. A less likely one is that the Government actually wants no deal, or has calculated that it might be better than any deal likely to be forthcoming. Another respectable argument might be that they have no idea what they’re doing.

Yet there are indications that they do, and it’s bad. The sticking point is apparently not the integrity of the UK’s internal market, or Northern Ireland, or even fisheries and agriculture, but the Government’s determination to be free of the EU’s rules on state aid. And that opens up a prospect even more alarming than the disruption that would follow failure to secure some sort of deal.

It’s also one that’s the opposite of what it was argued would be the benefits of Brexit: more free trade, with a wider range of countries, and the removal of the legislation, bureaucracy and state control with which the EU was riddled. One of the unequivocally good aspects of the EU was where it insisted on opening up markets, and prevented unfair domestic subsidies. Its failures were in areas, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, where it undermined markets; its successes were measures, such as insisting on open tenders and privatisation of state monopolies, that brought customers cheaper and better goods and services.

Leaving the EU was supposed to bring us more of that, from as many other countries as possible. It is reasonable to argue that, after Brexit, we should not be subject to EU legislation in perpetuity. But it would be disastrous, as well as profoundly unconservative and anti-market, if the Government wants to escape those regulations in order to erect a more restrictive regime.

Think of the row over passports. The free-market, anti-EU objection to passports being printed in France isn’t that we should have them printed in the UK; it’s that we should be free to have them printed in, for example, Singapore, or anywhere else that offers the best value for money.

The vision of a buccaneering, free-market, post-Brexit Britain which should be advanced, was advanced by most of those in the Leave campaign, and ought to be the priority of any Conservative government worth the name, is the reverse of the caricature of Leavers as protectionist, made-in-Britain, Little Englanders. The high points of British prosperity were the periods when trade was most open; the domestic enterprises that drove, for example, the material gains of the Industrial Revolution, were conducted without state subsidies.

Mr Johnson has a worrying fondness for grand projects, and Mr Cummings – who is, of course, proud of not being a conservative – has an alarming enthusiasm for hosing down tech enterprises with public cash. Those are precisely the sort of impulses that marked the worst aspects of the EU.

The election was supposed to avoid a government that went in for huge spending and public ownership; the referendum was supposed to free us from a superstate that imposed restrictions. There may be reasons to forego a trade deal, but to do so to bring back state aid and government interference in business would be infinitely more damaging than that loss.

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