Brexit: a victory of ignorance over rationality

Thursday 19 September 2019  

Preceding the speeches of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday – but by not very much – was a piece in the Financial Times purporting to give an insider's view of Monday's Luxembourg meeting between the pair and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Headed, "EU fears Brexit reality has dawned too late for Boris Johnson", with the sub-title, "Officials have become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of a deal with the UK's prime minister", it tells us that: "Boris Johnson's nightmare in Luxembourg was more than just a public embarrassment delivered at the hands of the Grand Duchy's Xavier Bettel".

It was that PR disaster which took the headlines on the day, rather overshadowing the far more important Juncker-Barnier lunch which, according to the FT was something of a "chastening encounter", described as a "penny dropping" moment for the prime minister in office over what it really means to replace the Irish backstop.

The FT's account of the meeting has Johnson being told by his EU counterparts "in no uncertain terms" that the UK's plan to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to stick to common SPS rules was not enough to prevent customs checks on the vast majority of goods that cross the Irish border.

At that point, we are told, a "befuddled Mr Johnson" turned to David Frost and Stephen Barclay – also present at the lunch - and said: "So you're telling me the SPS plan doesn't solve the customs problem?" This, it appears, was part of an abrupt "learning curve" for Johnson in his first face-to-face meeting with Barnier and Juncker since he took office.

An official records Johnson gradually "slumping" in his chair as the reality of the UK's negotiating position and the limited time left to strike an agreement began to dawn. "He wasn't used to hearing it", added the official. But it doesn't stop there. We also get Juncker telling his commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday that the Luxembourg lunch was the first time that "Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the Single Market".

Needless to say, a Number 10 official rejected descriptions of the lunch as "nonsense", but then that is precisely what one would expect. What gives the account the ring of truth, though, is our own experience of Johnson whenever he has spoken on the detail of any matters relating to the Single Market.

Two episodes in particular spring to mind, the first being his facile intervention on banana regulation during the referendum campaign and the second his more recent comments on kippers, delivered during his leadership campaign.

In both instances, Johnson demonstrated his profound ignorance of the regulation of which he was complaining but, on a broader front, he also managed to convey a total lack of appreciation of the role of regulation in the facilitation of trade, and therefore its role in the Single Market which is, after all, a regulatory union.

As regards his complaint about a kipper producer having to despatch mail-order consignments in insulated containers with ice-packs, Johnson dismissed this as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety", despite the measure being introduced to deal with the emerging threat of the low-temperature pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, about which Johnson knows precisely nothing.

Crucially, the producer in question was conforming to Isle of Man hygiene rules which, in turn, were a copy-out of EU rules. But the key point here is that their adoption allowed direct mail-order sales to the UK mainland without the consignments having to be routed via Border Inspection Posts. In effect, the producer only had a business because the Isle of Man had implemented what Johnson so cavalierly dismissed as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety".

But if this is the measure of this facile creature, it is also the measure of a supposed leader who, weeks away from a no-deal Brexit, is only just now coming to terms with the nature of the Single Market.

While some readers take me to task about my critical stance on Johnson, can anyone in this kingdom honestly attest that we are being well-served by having this ignorant buffoon at the helm? Can one have anything other than contempt for a politician who lacks even the most basic understanding of his business?

And that brings us to the Juncker and Barnier speeches in Strasburg yesterday. What was remarkable about both was that, at this late stage, we saw an almost Janet & John-level explanation of the Irish backstop – making it easy to accept that this was the text that the pair delivered to Johnson on Monday.

Going through the motions, Juncker told the European Parliament that he still believed an agreement to be desirable and possible "but it needed the British Prime Minister to make concrete, operational and written proposals on alternative ways to achieve the goals of the backstop". "As long as such proposals are not forthcoming", he said, "I cannot tell you, by looking straight into your eyes, that real progress has been made".

If possible, Barnier was more forthright, referring to the Luxembourg meeting, noting that "the new government of the United Kingdom" had explained the provisions of the backstop it did not like. But, said Barnier:
It's not enough to explain to us why we should remove the backstop. We need legally-enforceable solutions in the withdrawal agreement, to address exactly each problem, to prevent each of the risks that Brexit creates. And it was on these goals that we agreed with Theresa May's government.
He then went on to explain:
Just a concrete example: any living animal, any food that enters Northern Ireland from Great Britain enters not only in Ireland but also on the Polish, Luxembourgish, German or Danish market, mechanically, immediately, and we must exercise a control to protect consumers, preserve food safety, prevent any risk of animal disease. And this is also the interest of the citizens and consumers of Northern Ireland, as well as consumers of the rest of the UK.
At this stage in the game, it should not be necessary for the EU's chief negotiator to be spelling out the basics, but after his exposure to Johnson, one can see why he felt the need to do so. In closing his speech, he also felt the need to reiterate that Brexit issues would not disappear if the UK crashed out without a deal. "We will have to settle them in any event, prior to a future partnership with the United Kingdom", he said.

The "considerable" consequences of Brexit, Barnier concluded, are not theoretical. "They are human and social, financial and budgetary, legal and technical". And, by way of a final barb, he added: "More than three years after the British referendum, it is certainly not about pretending to negotiate".

However, his last words were to break with the press release of the Monday when he talked about "this extraordinary and complex negotiation". The man needs to get his story straight – there is no "negotiation". Even the EU's chief negotiator can't always get it right. But, in his own words, the UK is merely "pretending".

The one thing where there is no pretence, though, is in the extent of Johnson's ignorance. The Independent picks this up, having Labour's Ian Murray observe that: "Reports that Johnson doesn't understand even the basics about cross-border trade and customs are shocking and deeply worrying", adding: "Out-of-his-depth does not even come close to describing how apparently clueless he is".

Yet, typically of the media, the paper is retailing a Johnny-come-lately comment, way behind the curve. It was already clear that Johnson's grasp of reality was slender, right from his "banana" comments in the referendum campaign. But then, the media often has no better idea of the issues than the politicians on which it reports, as we saw when the BBC tried to tackle the subject of regulation.

More seriously, this level of ignorance reflects a rich vein pervading the entire fabric of the Tory party. This is a party where the rejection of knowledge is almost a rite of passage and the mythology of "fwee twade" is nurtured to the exclusion of any understanding of how the EU actually works.

In this context, it is unsurprising that Johnson displays the level of ignorance he does. The Conservative Party is an institution which places little value on technical knowledge, treating those who display any understanding of things such as the European Union with the gravest of suspicion. Its policies are built on layers of "founding myths", support for which demands a conformity of belief, with an intolerance of dissent that has become a classic example of groupthink.

The myth of "restrictive regulation" is so heavily embedded in the Tory psyche that Johnson is actually articulating and reinforcing the party belief system. Acknowledging reality – even if he could get to grips with it - would not win him any friends.

And there I think is one of the great fault lines in British society. We have a political party built on a foundation of snobbery and prestige, the outcome of which is the election of an ignorant buffoon for a leader. The party nurtures and applauds ignorance, rewarding conformity and erecting barriers to prevent the acquisition of knowledge.

The great tragedy of Brexit is that it is confronting a continental system, where there is still at least some residual respect for scholarship. And where the two systems collide, the inevitable consequence is an impasse.

The knowledgeable will not ditch their learning to embrace the myths of the ignorant, while the ignorant lack the intellectual framework to understand what they are told and react to it. In this dialogue of the deaf, we are headed for a no-deal Brexit, the ultimate victory of ignorance over rationality. Its name will be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

And yet, with officials in Brussels concerned that Johnson is wasting their time and playing out talks for as long as possible without presenting proposals – possibly with an eye on an upcoming election - EU leaders have given him an ultimatum: he has until the end of the month to come up with a solid alternative to the backstop or he will get his no-deal whether he likes it or not.

How ironic would that be? Just as Johnson really does decide he wants a deal, the prize eludes him – not least because he lacks the wherewithal to deliver.

Richard North 19/09/2019 link

Brexit: a grasp of detail

Wednesday 18 September 2019  

So intense was the interest in yesterday's Supreme Court hearing that, according to the Press Association, the live stream on the court's website was accessed 4.4 million times - with 2.8 million stream requests being logged in the hour before the 1pm break for lunch. Typically, the live streaming service is accessed about 20,000 times a month.

For all that, there will be nothing significant to report until the court actually delivers its judgement, and nothing it can offer takes us any closer to an orderly (or any) Brexit. In a sense, this judicial porn is nothing but yet another distraction from the main event.

Nor are we entirely clear from that other distraction – Monday's abortive press conference where Xavier Bettel "empty lecterned" the johnson in what many regard (for him) as a PR disaster.

Nevertheless, there are those who are keen to spring to the johnson's defence – there are always some – not least the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, who raged at Bettel's "calculated insult".

What I've not seen rehearsed anywhere, though, is the role of the johnson's advance party, who would have scouted the sites for his visit and approved the arrangements – which then would have been given the final approval by the johnson.

Yet, even from the most superficial review of the press conference venue, it was painfully obvious that the site was insecure, with public access only yards away through wrought-iron fencing. It was open to the advance party to veto the site, or ask for better security arrangements, all on the basis of refusing to commit to a press conference at all – thereby avoiding the embarrassment of a last-minute cancellation.

However, given that the mistake was made and the invitation was accepted, a more robust politician would have toughed it out. Had the johnson sought to speak and been drowned out, it could have turned to Bettel and said – to the effect – "I am a guest in your country – is that how you treat your guests?" I can't see Thatcher wimping out – yet that is precisely what the johnson did. Confronted with a well-behaved, if noisy, demonstration, he turned and ran.

Still, though, the johnson is always buttressed by willing ranks of apologists. Why there are so many people prepared to spring to its defence is examined, after a fashion, in this article which explains how a "nasty piece of work" like the johnson manages to defuse animosity and attract so much support.

Although not the most impartial of sources, writer Brendan Humphreys, a political historian and lecturer at the University of Helsinki, notes that, "It is not really surprising that a natural entertainer like Boris Johnson would tickle and cuddle his country, rather than let the cold, wet reality in". But, he adds, "what is disappointing is his country's willingness to be tickled".

That is so often the problem here. Even grown men – who you thought might have acquired a little sense – seem to be defenceless against the "eccentric charms" of this charlatan, and will let their brains dribble out of their backsides rather than exercise their critical faculties.

But if too many English are willing to indulge the "eccentric gentility" that the johnson represents, his charms have less pull on the dastardly "Johnny Foreigners" with whom he has to deal.

Thus, with Junker due to speak at the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, we see Commission spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, repeating a familiar refrain: "We are still waiting for concrete proposals from the UK side", she says. "Both sides have stated that they want to have a deal. A no-deal Brexit is in nobody’s interests so clearly there is the willingness to arrive to a solution".

Andreeva goes on to say that, "I think we have recalled that it's now the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement that are necessary in order to move the discussions forward", conceding nothing to the johnson's "eccentric gentility".

Certainly, the "colleagues" are less than impressed by the pratting about of the UK "negotiating team" who, we are now told, have so far only presented the EU with a draft of the withdrawal agreement with the backstop scrubbed out.

Although this is not news to most of us, we also have it confirmed that the team is refusing to put forward a written proposal to Brussels at this stage "for fear it will be rejected out of hand or publicly rubbished". Instead, they want to wait until almost the last minute before the October Council before presenting a plan to the EU, with just two weeks before Brexit.

Alarmingly, if this really is the strategy, then there is nothing at all to commend it. It is barking mad. There is no possible way the European Council will consider a document of such nature submitted to it. It is not equipped to do so and not legally authorised to conduct detailed negotiations.

Rather, it will pass anything it gets down to the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who will consult the Member States and then deliver his views to the Council, with a formal proposal for action if requested.

The insistence of sticking to procedure is heavily emphasised by Ireland's Simon Coveney, who has admitted that there have been "significant informal contacts" with UK ministers on the shape of a possible new deal. But the Irish government nevertheless insists that it will not negotiate with the British government on Brexit. Negotiations can only take place between the UK and the EU task force led by Michel Barnier, it says.

If the "cunning plan" is anything like that "revealed" by ITV's Robert Peston (again, not news to many of us), Barnier will doubtless be recommending further talks to thrash out the details, as a precursor to rejecting the many unacceptable elements.

What will be on offer, Peston suggests, is a unified single market for agriculture between Northern Ireland and the Republic (with a single set of sanitary and phytosanitary rules), so that cross-border flows of livestock and food are not hindered. There will be customs and limited unintrusive goods standards checks on the island but away from the border itself and no customs union with the EU for either the whole UK or Northern Ireland alone.

Where rules for agriculture or even for other limited markets are set for the whole island by Brussels, the principle of a "Stormont lock" will apply. In the words of Peston's source, this will require that "the people of Northern Ireland must be able to withdraw consent, with all that entails".

Since Brussels has always insisted that any arrangement to keep open the border should not be capable of being terminated unilaterally, this has little chance of being accepted. But there is also the question of how tariffs and quotas will be handled, and there is no mention of VAT.

It really is quite remarkable that one of the more complex cross-border issues is the management of VAT refunds, an issue which creates endless problems and administrative burdens on the Swiss border. Yet this never seems to feature when the problems of the Irish border are raised.

This alone indicates that we're not dealing with serious proposals – and that is before we get to the concept of Northern Ireland having to adopt the entire regulatory ecosystem when it comes to SPS rules.

I tire of having consistently to point out that regulatory alignment is only a starter for ten. Free movement of agri-goods will require adoption and maintenance of the full SPS policy, supervision and enforcement package, and it is hard to see how judicial oversight by the ECJ can be avoided.

Whatever is actually dumped in the European Council's laps on 17 October, though, it is a racing certainty that the johnson will not be walking away in triumph with a new "deal", ready to present it to the Westminster parliament.

And just in case there is any prospect of the European Council momentarily weakening, a critical European Parliament will be on the case, ready to exercise its powers – refusing to ratify if it believes too many concessions have been made.

All in all, on present trajectories, there is not the slightest chance of the johnson getting its deal at the October European Council. At the very least, he will have to ask for more time, so that Barnier can examine the plan and make his recommendations.

Thus, if the idea is that having a plan will circumvent the requirement to apply for a time extension, the johnson is going to be sorely disappointed. Once again, the pronounced inability to grasp the detail will be letting it down.

Richard North 18/09/2019 link

Brexit: the Invisible Hulk

Tuesday 17 September 2019  

"The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets", the johnson told the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

Yet all it took to break the mould was around fifty ex-pats shouting nasty things, like "Bogg off Boris", for the self-declared superhero to run away from a press conference with Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel, giving a tolerable impression of the Invisible Hulk.

However, the entertainment quotient of the prime minister in office of the United Kingdom being humiliated by the prime minister of the second-smallest country in the European Union, should not be allowed to obscure the outcome of the johnson's earlier meeting with Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for a working lunch in Le Bouquet Garni, buried deep in the medieval quarter of Luxembourg City.

After all the weekend hype, a flavour of that meeting comes from a Commission press release issued shortly after the event. Terse almost to the point of frigidity, it is characterised as much by what it didn't say as what it did.

Totally absent from the release was any reference whatsoever to the term "negotiations". The aim of the "meeting" had been to "take stock" of the ongoing "technical" talks between the EU and the UK and to discuss the next steps.

As for the meat – what little there was - Juncker recalled that it is the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that were compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.

Unsurprisingly, the president underlined "the Commission's continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop". And then came the killer line: "Such proposals have not yet been made".

For the future, we were told, the Commission will remain available to work 24/7 but, far from the October European Council being the great watershed, all we get from Juncker is that it will be "an important milestone in the process". The "process" of what isn't specified, but we do learn in passing that the EU-27 "remain united".

Only in the Downing Street statement was there any reference to a "deal", as in the johnson expressing his "determination to reach a deal with the backstop removed, that UK parliamentarians could support".

Interestingly, the johnson also reiterated that he would not request an extension and would take the UK out of the EU on the 31st October. That much had been correctly signalled over the weekend, although I doubt there was any of the lurid "tongue-lashing".

This release also made no pretence of the meeting being a negotiation. As with the Commission press release, the meeting – described as "constructive" – was characterised as the leaders taking stock of "the ongoing talks" between the UK's team and Taskforce 50.

The leaders, we are told, agreed that "discussions" needed to intensify and that "meetings would soon take place on a daily basis". It was also agreed that "talks" should take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, and "conversations" would continue between Juncker and the johnson.

The absence of any reference to "negotiations" is significant. We are not seeing any negotiations, not in any formal sense from which a deal can emerge. All we have are "talks", "meetings" and "conversations".

From reading between the lines, these are directed at exploring whether the fabled "alternative arrangements" can be agreed, which will replace the Irish backstop. That is the only "deal" to be had, an issue the "colleagues" have already conceded as long as the UK comes up with a credible alternative.

The problem, sources tell the Irish Times, is not the pace of talks but the absence of content and of new proposals from the UK. Officals say they are bewildered by the johnson's repeated insistence that progress is being made.

And there comes the rub, as trenchantly articulated by Xavier Bettel. In his solo press conference – which provokes the Telegraph front-page headline: "Luxembourg laughs in Johnson's face" – Bettel complained that the johnson had not tabled firm proposals for an alternative to the backstop.

"We need more than just words", the Luxembourg prime minister said, going on to say: "I hear a lot, but I don’t read a lot. If they [the UK government] want us to be able to discuss anything, we need it on the written side". The only written text at the moment, Bettel observed, was the existing withdrawal agreement.

For the record, if there was any laughter, as the Telegraph asserts, it could hardly have been in the johnson's face. Rather, it could only have been to the rapidly departing back of the Invisible Hulk as it scuttled off to the UK ambassador's residence for a soft-focus interview with the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

Artfully cut with the events of the day, the interview managed to conceal from BBC viewers the full extent of the Hulk's humiliation, as he engaged with the BBC political editor rather than the nasty continentals.

Declaring that the UK would "exit with no deal on 31 October", if the EU "refused to bend", the johnson was nothing if not elusive when discussing the backstop replacement, claiming that "there's a limit to how much the details benefit from publicity before we've actually done the deal".

Here, it was not so much Quasimodo's "bells" as "the shape". The "shape of it", the "shape it is", was the thing. "The shape of it is all about who decides", the johnson said.

As to the extension (not), the johnson saw "no point whatever in staying on in the EU beyond 31 October". Thus, it declared, "we're going to come out. And actually that is what our friends and partners in the EU would like too. And I think that they've had a bellyful of all this stuff".

Giving an insight into the johnson brain, we learned that the Juncker meeting lacked "a total breakthrough". Nevertheless, the johnson admitted that "a huge amount of work is now going to be done to sort it [a deal] out, but it was "a little bit" more optimistic than it had been at the start of the morning, "but not much, just a little bit".

It was "cautiously optimistic" but not counting his chickens. "It is absolutely vital, it's absolutely vital for people to understand that the UK is ready to come out with no-deal if we have to", it said.

From all this, the "take" of the Independent is that the johnson's proposals are so secret that they are not going to be revealed until the EU and the UK have done the deal. One wonders even if the EU is going to be made aware of them until after they have agreed them – another cunning Baldrick plan to stop the "colleagues" rejecting them.

And if there is a hint of the surreal here, that is precisely because the johnson seems no longer to be dwelling in this world. It talks glibly of "a deal" and of "negotiations" when actually, the former is not on the table and the latter aren't happening. This is a fictional edifice of its own creation.

How the johnson will manage to circumvent the extension requirement of the Benn Act, it doesn't say – even when pressed. But we do know that it has left the EU frustrated. This must be so as the Financial Times says so, with Brussels "surprised by the lack of detail" put forward by the johnson.

And so the game goes on. As it stands, we are still headed for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, although such is the utter fantasy land occupied by the johnson that even this could be bluster. The countdown continues and what happens next is anyone's guess.

Richard North 17/09/2019 link

Brexit: triangulation

Monday 16 September 2019  

Events have footprints. Even if you sometimes have to dig deep to find them, they are always there.

And if the UK is making "a huge amount of progress" in the supposed Brexit negotiations, as the johnson avers, there would be a footprint. It is not possible with such a high profile issue, involving so many people and so many moving parts, for the johnson's claim to be true and for there to be no evidence of it – for there to be no footprint.

By common consent, the essential marker would be a credible proposal for the replacement of the Irish backstop. This would have to be published somewhere, at least in short form, and there might be references to it in UK politicians' speeches. Perhaps there might be acknowledgements from the other side – even from one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats" - that the thing existed, alongside some sort of generally favourable response.

But what we know is that the only thing the johnson can lay his hands on is the fraudulent rendition of the "alternative arrangements" fronted by Greg Hands – but actually produced by "Snake Oil" Singham – which would not pass muster with ten second's scrutiny. It could not form the basis of a serious proposal as it would be laughed out of court by the EU negotiating team.

We also know that, for a considerable period and from multiple sources, there have been complaints that the UK has not submitted any "legally credible and workable" proposals, not least – most recently - from David Sassoli, president elect of the European Parliament, who was speaking in a highly public forum.

We also have outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who is due to meet the johnson on Monday for lunch, and still hopes for sight of some alternative proposals, but fears that "time is running out".

The balance of evidence, therefore, is that the UK has not tabled any substantive proposals. There is no evidence even that any such proposals exist. And there is also an element of negative evidence – the sort of which Sherlock Holmes would approve: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. If there was a proposal in existence and the EU side was misleading the public, the UK team could so easily produce it. It hasn't.

It is then a matter of inescapable logic that, if no proposals have been tabled, there cannot have been any significant negotiations and, regardless of what the johnson might claim, there cannot have been any progress, much less a "huge amount" of progress.

When we also factor in the undisputed fact that the johnson is a serial liar, prone to living in his own fantasy world, we have no cause whatsoever to believe it when it makes contested assertions. It doesn't get the benefit of the doubt – not ever.

Building up the case, with cross referrals and multiple sources, is a process known in the research community as triangulation. No one element is absolutely conclusive but the weight of evidence supports a specific conclusion – in this case that the johnson, once again, is lying.

When we then gain extra detail relating to a proposition, this is not taken in isolation but added to the material we already have. It may support or confound the proposition, but working with it strengthens any conclusions which may be drawn.

And after the frankly absurd media coverage, over the weekend, we now have a relatively sane piece from the Guardian which tells us that "EU officials" have rejected the johnson claim of "huge progress" in Brexit talks.

These officials – anonymous as always – are involved in talks with the johnson's envoy, David Frost, and – we are told - have dismissed the upbeat account. "No, in fact people are a bit dismayed", says one EU source, describing the mood after the latest talks.

This source goes on to say that: "I am not even going to call them negotiations – the last session on Friday did start touching on content – that's actually quite a step forward … but we still should have been there a long time ago and [an end result] is still quite far away".

Looking at the broader context, today's meeting with Juncker comes 26 days after the johnson met Angela Merkel in Berlin and declared he had 30 days to persuade the EU there was a viable alternative to the backstop. That meeting in Berlin, followed by others with EU leaders in Paris and Biarritz, had apparently "raised hopes that the prime minister was serious about a deal".

According to the Guardian though, optimism in Brussels rapidly dissipated after the johnson prorogued parliament and stepped up his no-deal rhetoric, while failing to put any proposals on paper. There we have it again: a reference to any formal proposals. Thus, says a senior EU official, a spate of recent reports from London analysts that a deal is becoming more likely is "completely wrong".

Nor has the johnson's latest flight of rhetorical fancy done him any good. His reference to the Incredible Hulk, with the assertion that the UK would break out of its "manacles" on 31 October, seems to have further fuelled EU scepticism about the prime minister in office's sincerity.

At least the EU side seem no longer taken aback by the johnson's inanity. Dismissing its language as "not very surprising", the EU source says: "It all makes it look like it’s a bit of a joke. We are talking about something extremely serious. The consequences of no deal will be extremely serious and it looks like this is being treated as a game in which you are the hero sort of story rather than [dealing] with real lives".

As to today's meeting, the Guardian notes that which we already knew: the outgoing commission president is not involved in day-to-day Brexit talks, but intervenes only at crisis points. And although Michel Barnier will also be present, there is no way this meeting can constitute a formal negotiating round. As I have pointed out, the EU simply doesn't do business that way.

The best hope of EU officials is that the meeting will "create momentum towards an agreement", but nothing of itself can be concluded between the parties.

Specifically, while David Frost has outlined some ideas for an all-Ireland regulatory regime for food and agriculture - which Downing Street thinks would go a long way to replacing the backstop - Brussels is not impressed. It thinks the ideas fall far short of what is required to protect European markets from dangerous goods, fraud or unfair competition.

Yet this sort of detail is not thrashed out by principals. And the idea that the johnson (or even Juncker) would have a handle on that level of detail is in any event absurd. Only headline issues are going to be discussed today.

And given the rhetoric we've been getting over the weekend, with talk of the johnson set to deliver a "tongue-lashing" to Juncker, gearing up for "a fiery showdown", the stage does not seem to be set for a meeting of minds. Even if the actual tone of the meeting is very different, Commission officials are still capable of reading the newspapers and drawing their own conclusions.

Furthermore, on top of all that, with time running short to resolve highly technical issues that touch on sensitive political questions, the EU – we are told - is also uncertain whether the johnson can get a Commons majority for a deal.

The johnson government has a "credibility problem" over whether it could get a revised agreement passed in the Commons, one EU diplomat says. "What kind of mandate" does he have?

Inevitably, though, the "credibility problem" extends far beyond this matter. With the johnson having established its reputation as a serial liar, nothing it says can be trusted; nothing can be relied upon. Even, or especially, its spaffing in the Telegraph lacks conviction as it burbles about its "passionate belief" that a deal can be finalised on 17 October.

Nevertheless, we will see great quantities of such "spin" from today's meeting, but we can also triangulate what we get. And that warns us to expect nothing very much.

Richard North 16/09/2019 link

Brexit: the darkness descends

Sunday 15 September 2019  

According to the Financial Times, the johnson has "decisively shifted" away from the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May's withdrawal agreement.

The paper seems to be relying for its information on "Number 10 officials" who are telling it that the johnson team has drawn up detailed plans under which a deal would be secured at the October European Council.

The johnson, we are then told, is planning to force this new deal through parliament in just ten days - including holding late-night and weekend sittings. And this, in a somewhat circular argument, is taken as a further sign of Downing Street's determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU.

Padding out these remarkable assertions, the FT calls in aid "officials in Dublin and Brussels" – anonymous, of course – who claim that there are "signs of movement" from the johnson as it searches for a compromise on the Irish backstop.

Even though we learn that both sides "remain far apart", some of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats" come to the rescue, telling us that talks last Friday in Brussels between the Commission and UK negotiators "had been more productive than previous meetings".

An EU diplomatic note says that the UK seems willing to revert to some of Mrs May's arrangements on preventing animal health checks at the Irish border. But this same note says the UK is even "considering" keeping Northern Ireland aligned with future EU rule changes – something which has been comprehensively rubbished over the last few days.

Gradually, then, the FT "scoop" unravels. Diplomats are cautioning that "important points remained unresolved", and sorting the animal health checks "would be only part of the solution for avoiding a hard Irish border".

Not only that, we see the same complaint rehearsed, of which we have heard so much of late: the UK has yet to make written proposals. This leaves EU officials "worried" about the lack of time left to secure any new agreement before 31 October.

All of this, inevitably, renders the FT more than a little insubstantial. The paper can do little more than hang its Will o' Wisp story with the johnson meeting in Luxembourg tomorrow, allowing an inference that this is all part of the progress towards a deal.

For the rest, this castle of conjecture is used as a base for an elaborate plan crafted by Nikki da Costa, the johnson's head of legislative affairs. She, apparently, has told colleagues that, if a deal emerges from the next European Council, it could be passed into law before 31 October.

But that, of course, rests on the surmise that a deal will emerge – which is very far from a given. In fact, taking everything that we have learned over the past weeks, we are no closer to a deal than we have ever been.

Needless to say, the slender basis of the FT report does not deter The Sun from indulging in its coprophagic tendencies. It copies out the substance of the FT claims with not the slightest attempt at critical appraisal.

On an entirely different planet, though, is the Sunday Mirror which has the johnson set to deliver a "tongue-lashing" to Juncker on Monday, telling him: "Don't you dare offer me a Brexit extension". Gearing up for "a fiery showdown", it plans to warn the Commission president that it will reject it out of hand if he does.

We will doubtless be pleased to learn that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will be on hand to hold the johnson's coat "when things get heated". It plans to say "in uncompromising terms" that it intends to defy parliament's demand to reject no-deal and extend our EU membership by three months. It will then tell Juncker: "Forget MPs' Surrender Act. I don't want, won't negotiate and won't accept another delay".

With that, we are told, the johnson is to set the EU a deadline of the October European Council to strike an agreement. If that deadline is not met, we will leave without a deal on 31 October. This fictional account, however, is nothing compared with the Mail on Sunday, which delves into comic-book territory for its front page report (pictured).

It has the johnson likening himself with the Incredible Hulk. It tells us that if negotiations break down, it will ignore the Commons vote ordering him to delay the UK's departure, adding: "The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets".

One wonders if it is possible to get any lower in terms of rhetoric, especially when it comes with a heavy dose of self-delusion as the johnson claims that "a huge amount of progress is being made" on the supposed negotiations.

To back that up, we are led to believe that "No 10 strategists" have devised a "secret plan" – so secret that it is known only to the johnson and three key advisers - which they claim will allow them to ignore the Benn Act without breaking the law. Baldrick, no doubt, was heavily involved in formulating this "cunning plan" before it was passed over to the Incredible Hulk for execution.

From here, it's beginning to look as if the madness that has infected the political classes has now spread to the media which – if one is to take the examples cited – has abandoned any pretence of adult reporting and commentary. Instead, we are getting a diet of fictional dribble. Mostly, there is not the slightest attempt to stand up the stories published with simple little things like evidence.

Where these reports are seeking to deal with topical events, though, The Sunday Times wallows in Cameron retrospectives, preferring the easy bait of an ex-prime minister's memoirs to the labour of actually delivering hard news on what may be a pivotal week in the progress of Brexit – once the Hulk has finished ripping Brussels apart.

Even the Observer succumbs to this temptation, offering us as its lead headline, a quote from ex-PM David Cameron: "Johnson is a liar who only backed Leave to help his career". As before, Cameron also digs into Michael Gove, calling him a "foam-flecked Faragist" whose one quality was "disloyalty".

I must say, I cannot remember when I last saw a serving prime minister described as a "liar" on the front page of a Sunday newspaper – if at all – much less being called that by one of his predecessors. And rarely has one seen a former prime minister be so acerbic about former colleagues.

That the johnson is a liar is so much part of the political territory though, that it passes without challenge – such a pretty pass has our politics come to. But between the lies of our prime minister in office and the fantasy renditions of the media, we are entering a new realm of madness where reality has gone on an extended holiday.

Amongst other things, this coverage confirms that politics is a nasty place, populated by small-minded, self-interested people who seem to have little concern for the greater good. Perhaps it was always like that, and the stress of Brexit has made it more visible, although I would venture that we are breaking new ground – or plumbing new depths.

Whatever the actuality, we are being blindsided by a partisan media which has long given up retailing objective news, and by politicians who seem to have lost any touch with reality. And here we have the ultimate contradiction: in an era of information, the darkness is descending.

Richard North 15/09/2019 link

Brexit: agendas galore

Saturday 14 September 2019  

Throughout the years of our troubled relationship with the European Union, there has been no shortage of narratives describing the many negotiations in which we've been engaged, from the first accession talks to the high-octane intergovernmental conferences that led to the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties.

If you know where to look for them, there are also details to be had of the conduct of the various WTO rounds, and of the accession talks which brought new members into the EU.

With our accumulated knowledge, it is possible to get sense of how the Union conducts itself in negotiations. And, while it is fair to say that Article 50 negotiations have unique elements, they are still bound by Treaty law – specifically Article 218 (TFEU) which dictates how they must work.

Putting all that together, one can be pretty certain Brexit is not going to be settled over a "working lunch" on Monday in Luxembourg between the johnson and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with Michel Barnier in attendance. This is simply not the way the EU does business.

Essentially, if the principals meet – as with the johnson and Juncker – it is always to cement the final details of a deal that have already been settled by the "sherpas". It is never the case that the principals sit down to thrash out a deal de nuevo. They are there to seal the deal.

Certainly, Juncker does not seem to be expecting much, having indicated that he is "pessimistic" about the chances of finding an alternative to the Irish backstop. He also warns the johnson that a no-deal would cause "chaos", describing Brexit as the "climax of a continental tragedy".

Neither is Leo Varadkar in any way convinced that the EU and the UK are on the verge of a breakthrough, the Irish premier observing that the gap between the two sides was "very wide".

In the context where numerous EU sources have been saying that there have been no credible proposals from the UK, it is unsurprising to find Varadkar affirming the EU's willingness to explore alternative arrangements, but suggesting that what the EU is seeing "falls very far short of what we need".

Thus, as Deutsche Welle rightly remarks, these doubts put a dampener on the johnson's latest comments that it is "cautiously optimistic" about reaching a deal.

The prime minister in office elaborates, to say, "We are working incredibly hard to get a deal", adding that, "there is the rough shape of a deal to be done". He maintains that he will not be deterred by "shenanigans" at Westminster, and is still intent on taking the UK out of the EU by the 31 October deadline.

Once again, though, this just looks to be the usual bluster from a man who is losing credibility by the day – not that he had much to start with. Perhaps wisely, therefore, even the johnson's own office failed to support him, with Number 10 sources playing down hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying there was still a "long way to go".

Doubtless, that must have reflected the DUP's response to yesterday's report in The Times where the paper claimed that the DUP might be willing to allow Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

This scheme looks more than a little fraught, as its current iteration seems to provide for the devolved legislature having a veto on future EU rules applying in the region. According to Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, this would give Northern Ireland a veto over how the single market operates, which is unlikely to be accepted by Brussels.

In the final analysis, though, the argument looks largely academic. Putting it to bed was DUP leader Arlene Foster, who rejected any idea of an arrangement which involved creating a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. She insisted that the UK must leave the EU "as one nation", dismissing the report in a tweet saying: "anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories".

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that the story "goes against all of what has been said in recent days" and dismissed it as "bad journalism".

Speaking of anonymous sources, the Guardian was keen to quote the tweet of a Telegraph journalist, quoting one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats", this one saying that "Unless Boris Johnson has a magic rabbit in his hat, I have no idea what they will talk about. His problem is he can't show his fellow leaders a majority for whatever he is going to ask".

In like vein, the anonymous source continued: "We don't know what he is going to offer us. If we are serious about getting this done, this is our last play. Is the EU willing to waste its last play on a half assed plan?"

Less anonymous are comments by David Cameron about former colleagues Johnson and Michael Gove, whom he accused of "leaving the truth at home" during Brexit and of behaving "appallingly" during the EU referendum campaign.

In a publicity interview to promote his memoirs due out next week, he is particularly sour about Gove, whom he calls "mendacious" and even refers to him as a "wanker". As for the johnson, he breaks from the convention that former prime ministers do not criticise their successors, saying that he lied during the referendum campaign, refusing to say he trusts him as premier.

This is all par for the course, and adds to the general sourness over Brexit which ostensibly seems to be going nowhere.

The one sign of movement is perhaps not one the johnson might want to see, coming from newly appointed trade commissioner Phil Hogan. He predicts that the EU will give Britain a Brexit extension next month if London requests it, claiming Britain may soon have a prime minister who will scrap Britain's plans to leave.

Here, there is a hint of where the "colleagues" eventually see their salvation – given substance by Matthew Parris in his Saturday column, where he calls for "moderate" leavers and remainers to coalesce around another referendum.

That would certainly bring all the recent strains together, where we have seen a straightforward withdrawal blocked, now leading to an enforced extension with the promise of a general election following which the victor commits to a new referendum, presumably giving remain the victory it so much desires.

If this represents the writing on the wall, then one can see in the johnson strategy – such that it is – a determination to frustrate these blocking moves, signalling an ideological fight to the death. This has gone beyond normal politics, with the two sides deeply entrenched over an issue of immediate practical importance, where neither side can afford to give way.

The reality, though, is that there are not so much two sides but three. In the UK, we have the warring "remain" and "leave" tribes, but the "Brussels tribe" must be regarded separately, with its own distinct agenda. Hogan aside, it might be Brussels – under the influence of the EU Members States – which eventually pulls the plug.

Given the sentiment in Germany, the eventual motivation could simply be a desire to move on. There must be a limit to the amount of time and attention the Europeans can give to Brexit and if, as we might see, the French are comfortable with the management of the practical aspects of a no-deal Brexit (pictured), there is nothing to stop the EU casting the UK adrift.

When the johnson goes to Luxembourg on Monday, therefore, it may find it is dealing with an agenda it doesn't control and, while it may eventually deliver an outcome which it seeks, the overall consequences may not be to its liking. It may also ensure that its tenure in the office as prime minister ends abruptly at the next election.

But then, one might observe that, greater love has no man…

Richard North 14/09/2019 link

Brexit: the tribal divide

Friday 13 September 2019  

It's almost as if Brexit was now being handled by disparate tribes, each residing on different planets, with absolutely no communication between any of them.

On this side of the divide, we have the leader of the Johnson tribe – a serial liar – who is earnestly trying to convince everyone that he didn't lie to the Queen, even though three of Scotland's most senior judges are convinced he did.

Elsewhere, representing the planet Brussels, we have the new president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, warning that there could be no Brexit agreement without a Northern Ireland backstop and then complaining that no new proposals had been received from the UK, at least nothing that is legally credible and workable.

But his really entertaining intervention came on his comments about a possible extension. There we have the Westminster tribe desperately trying to make the leader of the Johnson tribe go begging for one, only to have Sassoli say he can't have one anyway, except in "overriding circumstances" such as a general election – which the Westminster swamp-dwellers have twice refused.

The forthright Sassoli grandly declares that all the European institutions are at one in their support for a common position, although he reminds us that, when it comes to an agreement, the European Parliament will have the last word.

Picking up on the scheme already rejected by the leader of the Johnson tribe, he says that the EU is willing to go back to the original proposal of having a Northern Ireland-only backstop, but that is the limit of any concessions. If there is a no-deal departure, that will be entirely the responsibility of the UK. But there can't be an agreement without a backstop, he says. "There won’t be one".

This is, of course, where we see not only different planets but divergent orbits. As far as we are aware, the Johnson tribe is still committed to eliminating the "undemocratic" backstop, despite not having an alternative to keep the Brussels tribe happy.

Backing up Sassoli is Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of a moon called Luxembourg which orbits Brussels. He says there is no reason at the moment for EU-27 to grant another Brexit extension to the UK. But he does concede that, when there are concrete reasons, the Brussels tribe will discuss whether we will give a new mandate or a new extension. At present, though, everything is up in the air.

Top dog Michel Barnier thinks the Brexit situation "remains serious and uncertain".

The Johnson tribe leader had decided the UK would leave the EU by 31 October 2019 at the latest. And to confound his tribal elders, he wanted to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement by demanding the withdrawal of the Irish backstop, as well as serious amendments to the political declaration – all the time saying that he was ready for an exit without agreement if his "requests" were not accepted.

Barnier also notes that the Westminster swamp-dwellers have rejected such a scenario and have passed a law the object of which is that, if the Johnson doesn't return by 19 October, at the latest, with an EU agreement, then he will be obliged to request an extension of the negotiation period until 31 January 2020 – which others in the Brussels tribe seem reluctant to give him.

Unfortunately, Barnier is unable to say objectively whether contacts with the government of Johnson tribe will be able to reach an agreement by mid-October. The EU is ready to work constructively with the Johnson government, and to consider "all concrete and legally operational proposals that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement".

All he can be certain of is that the European Council will meet on 17 and 18 October. This, he says, will be the moment when the European Union will have to "take note of the situation" - assuming that the parties haven't found an agreement. At the moment, though, Barnier has "no reason to be optimistic".

The Times, however, reports that there might be a solution in the offing. The DUP, it appears, is expressing a willingness for Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

To suggest that this would serve as a substitute for the backstop, though, might be a little optimistic. There is the whole raft of Single Market legislation to consider, to say nothing of the flanking measures such as employment and environmental standards, as well as the vexed question of VAT. But, never mind, hope springs paternal in Brexit la-la land.

At some time though, the music is going to have to stop, whence the EU tribe will have to make some hard decisions. At the moment, its official stance is that there can be no re-negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop. That prohibition lasts until 31 October, whence there is room for a further extension for the specific purpose of allowing limited talks – possibly after a general election.

Nevertheless, Barnier is not ruling out a no-deal, reminding colleagues of their duty to prepare for it. But even in a no-deal scenario, he says, the fundamental issues and priorities raised by Brexit, and which are settled in the withdrawal agreement, will still have to be resolved.

That brings home something which the Johnson tribal leader really doesn't seem to have taken on board. With his mantra of getting Brexit "done", and getting it "over the line", he hasn't realised that all the issues that were addressed in the Withdrawal Agreement will be waiting for him if we drop out of the EU without a deal.

Furthermore, it is painfully clear that the EU is not going to entertain negotiations on a free trade agreement until outstanding issues have been settled. The 31 October "deadline" therefore, is something of a chimera. If we do drop out, it will mark simply a change in the status of negotiations, leaving the UK in a weakened position as it will lack leverage.

Still, though, the Johnson labours under the illusion that the threat of a no-deal does give his tribe some leverage. Barnier rather scornfully dismisses this, remarking, "as if this would make us change our principles". If it happens, the no-deal exit will be watched by the "colleagues" with a mixture of pity and concern, but mainly pity – as they observe a once-proud nation making a bloody fool of itself.

Here, the Westminster swamp-dwellers are intensifying the noise-level on the no-deal outcome, some of them arguing that they need to see the end of the prorogation so they can get back into the debating chamber and blather about Operation Yellowhammer.

The irony of them getting excited about a no-deal just now clearly escapes them. It was in January 2017 that Mrs May was talking about a no-deal being better than a bad deal, and that surely was the time to start discussing the implications of that scenario. Had there been an intelligent debate at the time, with a better appreciation of the consequences, history could well have been different.

As it is, the swamp-dwellers are missing the point – as they so often do. Locked into their visions of food and medicines shortages, and queues at the Channel ports, they still haven't cottoned on to the main impact of a no-deal Brexit – the collapse of exports to EU/EEA member states.

Still we're getting Muppets such as Liam Halligan talking down the effects, and still retailing the tired old claim that we already trade with the rest of the world under WTO rules. Everything in Halligan's foetid little world is "project fear" and there is no down-side to a no-deal Brexit.

Yet, in a post-Brexit environment, the immediate downturn in export sales is more than sufficient to trigger a technical recession which, unlike previous events, will not be cyclical. Export substitution is likely to be slow and uncertain so losses could well represent a permanent loss of capacity. None of this is a necessary consequence of Brexit, which always had the potential of the Efta/EEA option. But, as Jeremy Warner points out, all we've managed to do over the last three years is destroy the middle ground. It's now either a "clean break" Brexit, or remain.

For this, the diverse players should be truly damned. The inability of the political classes to handle Brexit is one of the great stains on our recent history, and one which will take us generations to expunge. And the worst is probably yet to come.

Richard North 13/09/2019 link

Brexit: a conflict of outcomes

Thursday 12 September 2019  

One should recall that, before the shock ruling of the Scottish Inner House on the prime minister's advice to HM the Queen on the prorogation of parliament, the Lord Ordinary had already dismissed the petition.

This was Lord Doherty, who had ruled on 4 September that the advice given in relation to the prorogation decision was a matter involving "high policy and political judgement". This, he said, "is political territory and decision-making which cannot be measured against legal standards, but only by political judgements. Accountability for the advice is to Parliament and, ultimately, the electorate, and not to the courts".

The ruling was not dissimilar to that of the English High Court where the panel headed by the Lord Chief Justice similarly decided on a "line of separation" set by the courts, as to whether the issue was one of "high policy" or "political" or both.

In the circumstances and on the facts of the present case, the three judges ruled that "the decision was political", adding an intriguing rider that purpose of the power of prorogation was not confined to preparations for the Queen's Speech. It could even "extend to obtaining a political advantage".

Furthermore, they ruled, even if the prorogation in the present case had to be justified as being to enable preparations for the Queen's Speech, the decision how much time to spend and what decisions to take for such preparations was not something the court could judge by any measurable standard.

In reaching these conclusions, the judges were particularly keen to preserve the separation of powers, reflecting the different constitutional areas of responsibility of the courts, the Executive and Parliament, and thus concluded that the claim – this one lodged by the egregious Gina Miller, must fail.

In their view, therefore, the decision of the prime minister to advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament was not justiciable in Her Majesty’s courts.

When yesterday the Scottish Inner House reached a completely contrary view, it is not an exaggeration to say that this came as something of a surprise. There were, apparently, gasps of shock in the court as the Lord President, Lord Carloway – heading a panel of three judges – read out its judgement.

Conceding that advice to HM the Queen on the exercise of the royal prerogative of prorogating Parliament was not reviewable on the normal grounds of judicial review, they nevertheless decided to impose an innovative qualification of their own.

If the purpose of the prorogation was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny of the executive - a central pillar of the good governance principle enshrined in the constitution – then the advice would not only be judiciable but also, in their view, unlawful.

And if the impact of this was not enough, what followed from the ruling was the assertion that, despite Johnson's consistent claim that the sole purpose of the prorogation was to end the session and thereby bring forward a Queen's Speech, opening a new session, this was not true.

"The circumstances in which the advice was proffered and the content of the documents produced by the respondent", the judges said, demonstrated that stymying parliament "was the true reason for the prorogation". Once again, Johnson had been caught out lying.

With two out of three courts finding in favour of Johnson, however, the matter is now to go to the Supreme Court, the hearing(s) taking place next week leading to a decision expected by 23 September. Whatever the finding of this court, however, the Scottish Inner Court has done serious damage to the prime minister in office.

On the panel, Lord Brodie considered that, while the petition raised a question that "was unlikely to have been justiciable", this particular prorogation was intended to frustrate parliament and therefore could legitimately be established as unlawful.

But what came next was particularly damning. This, said Brodie, "was an egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behaviour of public authorities".

It was, he added, "to be inferred that the principal reasons for the prorogation were to prevent or impede parliament holding the executive to account and legislating with regard to Brexit, and to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no deal Brexit without further parliamentary interference".

Yet, for all that, it is far from certain that the judgement will damage Johnson's core constituency. Parliament is hardly the most popular institution in the land and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business minister, claims that voters were "beginning to question the partiality of the judges" and accusing them of "interfering in politics".

This comes from a report in the Telegraph and you would expect this newspaper to protect their boy. But, as it stands, two out of three courts agree that this is not a matter for the judiciary.

It is perhaps indicative that the Scottish judicial review was raised by 79 petitioners, 78 of whom are parliamentarians at Westminster, most of them opposition MPs. But there is something unedifying about MPs running to the courts to settle a dispute between themselves and the executive. Even if they win, they diminish themselves by having to turn to a third party to fight their battles.

The Guardian, in its running thread, relies heavily on Lord Sumption, a former supreme court judge, who had spoken to the BBC's World at One during the day. He thought the Scottish judges were "pushing the boundaries out", a clear inference that he was witnessing judicial activism. His own view was that the prorogation was "a political issue, not a legal one", and that the case could only be resolved politically.

Should the Supreme Court agree, it will do much to wind back the outrage that has accompanied this prorogation although, after its intervention on Miller's Article 50 case, one cannot assume that it will resist the temptation to interfere. To predict an outcome would be rash.

Needless to say, sundry MPs are demanding that parliament should be recalled, with Labour and the SNP leading the charge. But the Scottish court gave no order to that effect and, pending the Supreme Court judgement, the only person with the constitutional authority to get the MPs back in their places is the Queen, by way of formal proclamation.

If the Supreme Court finds that the prorogation is void, then presumably the Queen's intervention will not be needed. MPs can go back to Westminster as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, as if they hadn't already had enough excitement for the day, the chatterati are getting worked up about the "Yellowhammer" document that was released by the government late yesterday evening. Since the contents have already been comprehensively leaked, the disclosure tells us nothing new, of a report that has been vastly over-egged.

And with that, it has to be said that nothing of yesterday's events have brought Brexit any closer. If there was anything relevant, it was an intervention by France's minister for Europe, Amélie de Montchalin, who accuses the UK of breaking "the spirit" of negotiations with the EU by trying to strike "mini-deals" with individual EU member states.

"We see that in the bilateral meetings the British try to get with their opposite numbers that they are trying to organise a managed no deal", she told a news conference after meeting the 26 ambassadors to France of the EU's members, with the British ambassador excluded.

"And what the British want is to ensure that the different relationships that they have with each EU member state are recreated before the moment of separation, thanks to these mini deals", she says. "It is completely contrary to the spirit in which we’ve been negotiating. When [Stephen] Barclay [the UK Brexit secretary] or others try this in France, we say: 'We hear you. Go and talk to Michel Barnier to see what can be done at the European level'".

For her peroration, de Montchalin warned that a no-deal was now "highly possible", adding that a Brexit extension request by the UK would not be accepted under "current conditions". If nothing changes, she explained, "we have always said time alone is not a sufficient reason [for another extension]. We cannot commit today, because we have no concrete scenarios yet".

Johnson may yet get what he wants, without even trying.

Richard North 12/09/2019 link

Brexit: a period of silence

Wednesday 11 September 2019  

If I ever had any marginal reservations about the wisdom of proroguing parliament, they were entirely dispelled by the loutish behaviour of the MPs yesterday morning as Black Rod arrived to initiate the prorogation ceremony.

And even if it was a minority of the MPs misbehaving, the House of Commons these days has the remarkable ability to embrace the lowest common denominator, living down to our worst expectations. That we are rid of it for five weeks is no loss – the only regret is that it could not be longer.

But Mrs May's resignation honours list brought in by the prorogation has also served as another nail in the coffin for our respect for the political classes. This is "them" taking the piss, with Mrs May awarding CBEs to former joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – the classic example of failure and ignorance being rewarded. It is hardly surprising that our politics are so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the Brexit rumour-mill churns on, generating endless noise and very little in the way of coherent information. The latest we were dealing with was the trial balloon on the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop – an idea no sooner floated than denied by Downing Street.

Not content with the ritual denial, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP's chief whip also put the boot in, telling the BBC's World at One that the idea was "simply a non-runner", and in any event "it would contravene the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement". It's a bit rich the DUP calling in aid the GFA, but there you go – any port in a storm.

However, after talks with the DUP in Downing Street, the Telegraph resuscitates the theme, claiming that Johnson is indeed considering plans for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. He wants an all-Ireland zone for checks on most goods crossing between the north and south of the island as part of a deal that would, in theory, remove the need for a Northern Irish backstop.

It seems also that Phil Hogan, Ireland's newly-appointed EU commissioner, taking over the trade portfolio, is on the case. He's been talking to RTE, claiming that there is "movement" happening on both sides of the Brexit negotiations.

One wonders whether he's received the memo excluding the use of the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement, because he too is talking of a return to the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

In Hogan's playbook: "There are constitutional issues that are already in the Withdrawal Agreement that might have to be improved upon" if a request is for this. "Of course", he says, "we can look at it", even if the Withdrawal Agreement would not be changed in "a major way".

Of course "we" - as in the EU negotiators – can't look into it, and nor can the Withdrawal Agreement be changed in any way at all, major or minor, unless the European Council is prepared to agree to a change in Michel Barnier's mandate and then lifts its own prohibition on renewing the negotiations.

To be (slightly) fair to Hogan, though, he does say that that the EU "has said all along that it's prepared to look at additional text and additional ideas in the political declaration, but also have been very strongly saying that the Withdrawal Agreement that has been agreed remains as it is".

But he then spoils it by referring to the "caveat" of wanting to go back to the Northern Ireland-only backstop…
… which gives security to the island of Ireland, [provides for] the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, gives frictionless trade and no hard border, equally it would give Mr Johnson… an independent trade opportunity to do trade deals around the world.
No such caveat exists in the European Council decision, which rather puts Hogan out on a limb, albeit that it seems more than a little redundant anyway. Clarifying the issue somewhat, the UK government with the support of the DUP is actually rejecting the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. The arrangements under discussion seem only to apply to the movements of livestock, adding to the checks already carried out when animals enter the province from Great Britain.

For all that, something seems to be afoot, with Barnier reported to be staying on in his role as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator. Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming Commission President commends him for "an outstanding job" and says she would hold talks with him on prolonging his current position beyond 31 October.

That might just suggest that the Commission is anticipating an extension, and is preparing for a new round of talks once the block is lifted and, one presumes, on the assumption that a general election will pave the way for a meeting of minds. Overall, von der Leyen is quite helpful, saying that "Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it is the beginning of the future relationship". Someone, at least, has got the plot.

Returning to Hogan, he too has had his penn'orth, warning that if there is a hard Brexit at the end of October, it would not be the same as a "clean break Brexit". "The UK political system seems to be under the misplaced notion that actually if you crash out of the European Union you have dealt with all the issues", he says, stating that: "In fact the work only starts again, like… citizen's rights, in relation to payments to the EU, in relation to the GFA and the island of Ireland issues. The issues remain".

Hogan also warns that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it could take up to eight months before negotiations on a future trading relationship could begin. "We [would] have to get a mandate then as a Commission from the member states of the European Union to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement", he says. "That could take some time. It could take six to eight months before all member states have come to a conclusion about the mandate".

One still hopes that there is a slender chance that this can be avoided, more so since a cross-party group of MPs, including Stephen Kinnock, has formally launched a campaign to win support in the Commons for Brexit via a managed deal.

Kinnock rejects the idea of reproducing a carbon copy of May's three times-rejected plan. Instead, he wants to model a deal on the results of failed cross-party talks between May’s government and Labour, but with a consensual focus, aiming to bring a deal Johnson could negotiate with the EU and then get through the Commons.

Whether this initiative can succeed is very much open to doubt, especially as Labour continue to fudge their Brexit plans. The latest instalment has Corbyn pledging a referendum at the general election, offering a credible leave and remain option.

As is the way of things Labour, this was more or less immediately contradicted by Labour deputy Tom Watson, who wants a referendum before his party agrees to a general election. It really is remarkable how Labour are able to make such a mess of this.

With fluff on the left, and fluff on the "right" from Johnson, maybe it isn't just a period of silence we want from parliament. We could do with one of those American football things where they call "time out" and everybody stops for tea – or something.

Certainly, after weeks of the most intensive media coverage on any one political issue in living memory (apart from, maybe, the Cuban missile crisis), we are none the wiser, either as to where we are going, or what the intentions are of the two main political parties. A period of silence would not make us more informed, but at least it might give us some rest.

Richard North 11/09/2019 link

Brexit: yellow bellies

Tuesday 10 September 2019  

With what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson calls the "surrender bill" passing into law yesterday, his office issued a terse statement: "The prime minister is very clear that he will take this country out of the EU on 31 October, no ifs or buts. He will not sanction any more pointless delays".

It's impossible to say whether this is just mindless bravado but, despite the ambiguous comments of Leo Varadkar during his meeting with the Oaf in Dublin – to the effect that a deal was still possible – there is absolutely no chance of the EU acceding to the central demand of removing the backstop.

Once again we saw the Irish premier complain that the UK has no "realistic plan" for replacing the backstop. "No backstop is no-deal", he warned Johnson.

However, we seem to be getting a variation on a theme, with Johnson hinting that he might be prepared to revert to a Northern Ireland-only backstop. This is a move that would necessitate the "wet border" in the Irish Sea, previously vetoed by the DUP but now possibly feasible as the DUP no longer holds its grip on the Tories.

But this could be Johnson thrashing around as usual. Nothing formal has been produced, as confirmed by yet another source – this one Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch minister for trade. She accuses the Johnson administration of failing to table alternatives to the Irish backstop and warns of the EU's "waning patience", given the impact on European businesses of the continued uncertainty.

According to the Guardian, the lack of such proposals and the attempt by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, over the weekend to lay the blame for a lack of progress on the European Commission has confirmed to many in Brussels that Amber Rudd, was right about the prime minister's lack of seriousness in sealing a deal.

Yet another clue as to Johnson's lack of commitment to a deal comes via The Times which reports that the "Europe unit" which had led negotiations for a Brexit deal with Brussels under Theresa May has been disbanded by her successor.

At the height of negotiations over the original withdrawal agreement there were more than 50 civil servants working in the Europe unit under Olly Robbins, May's chief negotiator.

Now Mr Robbins and most of his former staff are all thought to have been redeployed to other government departments, while Robbins is shortly to join the private sector. His successor, David Frost, has been left with a core team of only four political and civil service advisers working directly for him in Downing Street.

An insider claims that there is no team at all in the Cabinet Office working on a potential deal and that the Europe Unit's offices have been converted into meeting rooms.

Quite how Johnson thinks he's going to get us out of the EU on 31 October, therefore, remains something of a mystery. If he can't broker a new deal – and the evidence is that he isn't even trying – and parliament won't let him leave without a deal, he does seem rather short of options.

At least he has the comfort of seeing the much-detested Speaker Bercow announce his forthcoming resignation and, with the prorogation taking effect at the close of business, the prime minister in office will no longer be troubled by the mewling of parliament for five weeks or so.

The latter is perhaps just as well as the soon-to-be-rested MP collective has left a couple of poison pills to keep him entertained – a demand for information on the Yellowhammer report and the proroguing decision, and the second refusal to permit a general election.

Amid mass abstentions, 293 MPs voted for Johnson's motion, while 46 voted against (pictured). This left the soon to be departing Speaker to declare that the majority did not satisfy the requirements of the fixed term parliaments act. The event provoked a sour comment from Johnson: "Once again, the opposition think they know better", he said, as he raged against "yellow belly" Corbyn.

One presumes that, when the MPs return, they will then be disposed to support a motion for an election, probably via a vote of no confidence from Jeremy Corbyn. And it is on the grounds that the European Council will probably grant an extension, in the hope that an election will somehow break the logjam and produce a result.

The great fear, though, is that an election will resolve nothing. Although the polls currently put the Tories ahead, a delayed election with Johnson having conceded an extension leaving the UK still in the EU puts Labour in the lead with the prospect of a hung parliament and a Lib-Lab coalition.

Under those circumstances, we could then possibly see another referendum which – as Pete points out would probably resolve nothing as well. Even if the remainers won a majority, the leave supporters would be no more inclined to accept the result than did the "people's vote" fraternity .

In no scenario imaginable, writes Pete, does the genie go back in the bottle. We are looking at years of political instability, violent protest, fragile governments and a divided, fragmenting nation. Remaining brings no closure and is not a remotely sustainable answer to the current dilemma.

The question though is what it will take to bring this developing nightmare to a close. We would like to think that the MP collective could come back after their break, energised and full of enthusiasm for the Norway option. EFTA4UK needs some money to write to MPs and peers, reminding them of the option and, if we achieve nothing else over the next five weeks, re-opening the debate would be a major step forward.

At least there is some element of rationality to work with as YouGov reports that 52 percent of respondents believe that leaving the EU without a deal would not represent a "clean break" and there would still be a lot of issues surrounding Brexit to sort out.

From the look of it, we have something to work with.

Richard North 10/09/2019 link

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