With the UK under pressure to extend the transition period, a delay of anything longer than the negotiating time already lost would ignite suspicions that yet another establishment Remainer plot to prevent any kind of meaningful Brexit was underway, argues Patrick O'Flynn

IT WAS always going to take one heck of a story to knock coverage of the UK's decoupling from the EU off the top of the news agenda. Coronavirus has done that in spades.

But in those small sections of newspapers still reserved for other stories and low down in TV news bulletins another issue is bubbling away that is, in itself, connected to the outbreak: Should the UK ask for the permitted extension to the transitional period in which it continues to be bound by the rules of EU membership?

The period is due to expire on New Year's Eve and the Conservative administration was elected on manifesto promise not to extend it. As Brexit spokesman for the pro-Leave Social Democratic Party (learn more about us at SDP.org. uk), that reflects my instincts and inclination too.

Massive damage was caused to public faith in our political system by the four-year establishment bid to stop Brexit from happening. The logjam was finally broken by December's election result. After so many broken promises, the disillusionment and cynicism that this Tory government would engender by breaking another one could prove considerable.

It was always going to be the case that January 1, 2021 would not necessarily be the first day of a final "end state" in UK/EU relations. More tweaks and improvements can clearly be made by mutual agreement after that date. So as long as something serviceable and sensible can be agreed to cover the main areas involved, including international trade, then why plunge Britain into more Brexit-related angst? Also, what could possibly justify continuing huge net UK payments into the EU budget that extending the transition would necessitate?

Given that arch-remainer Keir Starmer now leads the opposition and heads-up a shadow cabinet which is comprised entirely of ardent pro-Remainers, the potential for the tug-of-war that so diminished politics between 2016 and 2020 to start up again is clearly there.

On the other hand, we should not be afraid to weigh-up the counter-arguments, still less to close our minds to the possibility of their existence. Coronavirus is by some margin the biggest negative occurrence to afflict Britain and Europe in my lifetime (I'm 54). It genuinely is absorbing massive amounts of governmental "bandwidth" here and across the Channel.

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Key players are being stricken with it. The Prime Minister is seriously ill. Michel Barnier has gone through a nasty bout of it. Michael Gove is now in isolation. This is more than a usually disruptive occurrence that could be categorised under Harold Macmillan's general heading of "events". To argue that in these circumstances an extension should be considered can not automatically be dismissed as clutching at straws by Remainers.

Some proper leavers, such as the Tory former MP Nick de Bois, have been punting the idea that an extension is now inevitable, saying that the time limit for negotiating our new relationship was already very tight and is now frankly impossible.

My own strong preference is still to depart transition on December 31, perhaps now on the basis of something we could call "No Deal+". Ideally that would encompass a time-limited extension of current trading arrangements granted by the EU without requiring further UK budget contributions or formal UK adherence to EU rules. If the EU will not grant this to one of its biggest customers in the aftermath of a huge economic shock then something less good for both parties – but still better than plain WTO rules – could be agreed. I repeat, this would be outside the restrictive terms of the existing transition, which would be over.

However, I think that for Boris Johnson alone ? given the amount of goodwill and Brexit credibility he has in the bank ? a very short extension of the transition would be accepted by most Leave voters. If the Prime Minister judged it necessary and advantageous to the UK then a delay no longer than the amount of negotiating time already lost to coronavirus when it is announced (ie no more than three months) would be forgivable in these extraordinary circumstances.

Anything longer than that would ignite suspicions that yet another establishment Remainer attempt to prevent any kind of meaningful Brexit occurring was underway. Even a three-month delay would be used by opposition parties to try and create a toe-hold for such an effort. But it would not be long enough for them to succeed given the basic facts of political life: the size of the Tory majority; the recent mandate delivered for completion of Brexit; the political dependence of the Tories upon Leave supporters etc.

The SDP supported Brexit for two principle reasons. First, we believe that the nation state is the uppermost level at which political decision-making can be meaningfully democratic and accountable to voters. We believe that the nation state is by far the best entity for convening the social solidarity upon which so much of civilised life depends. In fact, this is being shown yet again by the EU's abysmal performance during the coronavirus crisis in comparison to the heroic efforts of national governments to protect their citizens.

Secondly, there is the basic democratic fact that in June 2016 the most British people ever to vote for anything voted to leave the EU. In the general election of 2017, more than 80 per cent of the voting public voted for pro-Leave manifestos. The European election of 2019 was won by a pop-up operation called "The Brexit Party" and the 2019 general election produced a thumping majority for Boris Johnson's pathway out of the EU.

Our strong preference is for more Brexit knees-ups on New Year's Eve (provided the social distancing regime allows such celebrations). But we are ready to listen to a reasoned case for a very short extension should the man who led the Leave campaign four years ago decide to make one. Such a judgment does not have to be made until June. In the meantime let's all do our best to show coronavirus the door.

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