Brexit: drowning in the soap opera

Tuesday 18 December 2018  

To those who so grandly place themselves above the common herd, and find in Brexit such tedium that they are driven to the state of ineffable boredom, Sam Hooper has the answer – not that higher beings such as the languid Ryan Heath could possibly stir himself to read it.

This notwithstanding, one could be forgiven for throwing one's hands up in exasperation and walking away - at the antics of our political classes and their inexhaustible displays of ignorance.

Even prime minister May was troubled by the antics of Jeremy Corbyn who, yesterday announced his intention to table a motion of no confidence which turned out to be something different from what it appeared to be.

In the context of the alarums and excursions currently obsessing the House, the prospect of a "no confidence" vote has a special significance as it is this device that could bring the whole show down, deposing the current government and bringing on a general election.

And, with Mrs May having announced the new date for the Brexit vote – now set for the week commencing 14 January - it was Corbyn's turn to respond with an expected motion to bring on a no confidence vote. But when he spoke, it was to demand a pre-Christmas vote, leaving us hanging with a number of "will he, won't he?" moments, before declaring that the prime minister had "led the country into a national crisis", and lost the support of her own cabinet.

Of the expected motion, there was no sign. We had to wait for Points of Order, just before six pm. But when he then announced his "no confidence" motion, it did not follow the format required by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 necessary to trigger an election. Instead of declaring "no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government", as is required, he couched the motion in the following terms:
That this House has no confidence in the Prime Minister due to her failure to allow the House of Commons to have a meaningful vote straightaway on the withdrawal agreement and framework for future relationships between the UK and the European Union.
Bizarrely, for a vote to be taken on the motion, there must be a debate. And since Corbyn is not allocating an opposition day, the time needed has to be agreed by government business managers – which isn't going to happen. The little demonstration was a meaningless charade.

Despite that, it is still afforded the front-page treatment by the legacy media, with the Guardian playing out the soap opera for all it is worth. "Labour and the Conservatives", the narrative runs, "were embroiled in a high-stakes row over whether to stage an immediate vote of no confidence in the government after the opposition chose not to table a binding vote on Monday night".

And there we have the classic "biff-bam" confrontation as the paper tells us that: "The opposition accused Downing Street of 'running scared' because it had refused to allow time to debate an alternative, non-binding no-confidence vote in Theresa May as prime minister – while the Tories hit back, saying that Labour had 'bottled it'".

The Telegraph is little different, running a story headed: "Theresa May dares Jeremy Corbyn to call vote of confidence that could bring down Government", having Downing Street sources dismissing Corbyn's action as a "silly political stunt". And, true to form, The Times carries an almost identical headline, as it declares: "Theresa May dares Jeremy Corbyn to call vote of confidence".

A longer headline in the Mail has: "May dares Corbyn: No10 rebuffs Labour leader's calls for a vote of no confidence in HER - slamming his 'silly political games' and demanding he tables 'proper' motion against the government", telling us that, "a cynical Labour attempt to embarrass Theresa May backfired last night".

These games and playground-level exchanges may keep the media happy but it contributes exactly nothing to the debate and takes us no closer to resolving the issue of whether Mrs May's deal should be ratified. If there is room for boredom, it is here, as the politicians prance and posture, never getting close to the concerns of the people who will suffer from their neglect.

Meanwhile, in what passes for the real world, the Department of Transport has tweeted the news that Chris Grayling has signed "a new air services agreement with Switzerland, following agreements with USA & Canada".

It goes on to say that the UK and the European Commission "are clear". Flights, they say, "will continue post-Brexit in ANY scenario. Consumers should continue to book with confidence". There is a reference then made to a letter from Mr Grayling to the aviation industry which states that, "both the UK and the EU have made clear their desire to ensure flights between the UK and EU continue in any scenario".

With that, the Secretary of State  says that he believes "both the UK and the EU have a determination to retain the aviation links which bring such significant economic and cultural benefits for both sides".

This is the substantive part of the letter, which expressed nothing more than a "desire" that flights between the EU and the UK will continue. But this is a long way from the situation where flights "will continue post-Brexit in ANY scenario". Clearly, in a "no deal" scenario, they won't.

Then, checking back to the detail of the Swiss deal, we find this report that tells us that if London and Brussels manage to reach a deal for an orderly Brexit, the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU will continue to apply to Britain through the end of 2020, the statement said.

But, it says, "in the case of a "no-deal" Brexit, those agreements will no longer apply to Swiss-British relations". On the face of it, the Department of Transport tweet is not one on which we should place any reliance.

Nor, it would seem does the aerospace sector have any confidence in the arrangements being made. We are being told that Bombardier and Cobham are among more than 200 UK aerospace manufacturers which have applied to come under the jurisdiction of regulators in other EU countries in preparation for a possible hard Brexit.

In a somewhat simplistic report, the Guardian tells us that aircraft parts from the UK can currently be used across the EU if the country's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), has approved them.

But, if the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 without a transition deal the approvals will no longer be valid, meaning that new parts made by British firms will need third-country approvals like those currently used by non-EU countries, unless they have registered with regulators in EU states.

This is close enough to capture the essence, but we're still lacking the detail of the full extent of safety arrangements which may keep aircraft from EEA states out of UK airports, and prevent UK registered aircraft flying to European destinations. Without the safety issues settled, that would also exclude Swiss destinations.

The contrast between these two news streams could not be more acute. On the one hand, we have the pathetic, childish soap opera dominating the headlines, while, on the other, technical issues - which will have a real impact, on real people's lives - go begging.

As the clock ticks down to Brexit, we desperately need our politicians to focus, and more than ever we need reliable, well-founded information to guide us through the shitstorm that looks set to descend upon us. And all we get is this perennial soap opera as the politicians play their games.

Richard North 18/12/2018 link

Brexit: no lessons learned

Monday 17 December 2018  

There are four possible options for Brexit. Mrs May's deal is the highest profile of them all, but that has been put on hold until after the Christmas break, leaving the media with nothing to play with.

Of the three other options, the unilateral revocation of Article 50 has been given an outing recently, with the full ECJ ruling. But, for the moment, it has no political traction. Its moment may come, but it's not just yet. And, by the same token, the "no deal" Brexit is not consciously on the agenda, despite attempts by The Sunday Telegraph to make it so.

That leaves the fourth option, the favourite of the continuity remainers who have been pushing it as a means of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum. And that, of course, is the so-called "second" referendum, although some would prefer to call it the third referendum, the first dating from 1975.

Had things been different, the media at the moment would be immersed in the Tory party leadership challenge, having already worked up their copy on the runner and riders, ready to assail us with a blow-by-blow account of their doings.

That would have kept the political hacks gainfully employed until well past Christmas but, deprived of that gainful employment, they have been reduced to rooting around for a replacement. And, with the other three Brexit options more or less on hold, this leaves the second/third referendum as the hot favourite to fill the looming empty spaces.

Then, over the weekend, we've had a steady build-up of publicity on this option, with Tony Blair making the running after he had intervened in the public debate by predicting that there could be a majority in parliament for a "final say" referendum.

That gives us two high profile protagonists: Blair in the red corner, and Mrs May in the Blue – just the ingredients the media have needed to run a "biff-bam" confrontation narrative, which they've kept going into this week as the fight apparently spills over into the cabinet.

However, with nothing more to sustain it than an ill-judged intervention by an ex-prime minister, there is probably insufficient traction to keep this story going past the Christmas break. In media terms very few stories survive the cliff-edge of Christmas. The break has the effect of wiping the slate clean.

Oddly enough, thirty years ago to the month, we were embroiled in a political crisis which was to trigger the resignation of a junior health minister and seriously dent the Thatcher government, and that one was of such intensity that it did jump the Christmas break and start all over once the festivities were over.

This was the infamous "Salmonella in Eggs" scare of December 1988, precipitated when Edwina Currie made an unguarded and, as it turns out, wholly unwarranted claim that most egg production was infected with Salmonella.

Events spiralled out of control and, by the New Year, it had merged with the Listeria in Cheese scare, then morphed into a series of food scares which had 1989 as the year of the scare, and a wholesale loss of confidence in the safety of our food.

No one involved in the food industry at that time will ever forget the events, where the unremitting publicity, with continuous front-page headlines, day-after-day got to such a pitch that that we could scarcely bring ourselves to look at the papers any more.

For students of the media – and this was very much a media event – the learning curve was steep: there was no salmonella in eggs crisis: intensive sampling of eggs and the feed which was supposed to have been contaminated, so causing the "epidemic" yielded no results.

A list of high-profile food poisoning outbreaks which had been pulled together to support Mrs Currie's claims – including one in the House of Lords - turned out to be of dubious provenance, made apparently more serious by the falsification of epidemiology figures by a senior public health worker.

In fact, there was an epidemic of a particular strain of Salmonella in poultry, known as Salmonella enteritidis PT4, but the incidence was almost entirely confined to broilers, bringing contamination into homes and restaurants via the meat.

Coincidentally, there had been a new fad sweeping through the nation's fashionable restaurants, bleeding down into normal catering practice. This was nouvelle cuisine, where diners were encouraged to transcend mere consumption of food and partake in a meal experience, where they were treated to a succession of dishes, each characterised by a graduation of subtle flavours and garnishes.

To avoid swamping these culinary creations, chefs had got used to making low-acid mayonnaise, which accompanied most dishes. This had the unfortunate effect of turning a product - which when made to the classic Mrs Beeton formulation had disinfectant properties superior to that of a working solution of Dettol – into a potent medium for the growth of the Salmonellae introduced from contaminated surfaces in the kitchen.

When properly scrutinised, an unusual peak in "egg-associated" outbreaks turned out to be comprised mainly of mayonnaise outbreaks. Once they were taken away, we had a rag-bag of incidents from which little useful could be drawn in terms of identifying contamination sources.

Revisiting those days, much depended on the terminology, as it does today, as between customs unions and cooperation. We found we needed to teach the media (and investigators) the difference between source of contamination (as in contaminated eggs or chicken) – the object that brought the contamination into the kitchen - and the technical vehicle of infection, that which delivered the salmonella to the soon-to-be-sufferer.

Official investigators had fallen into the bad habit of describing vehicles of infection (the food suspected of giving rise to the illness) as the source of the outbreak, the natural (but wholly incorrect) inference being that an egg-based food meant that the eggs themselves were the source of contamination.

Sadly, for most of the media, the technical differences were way beyond the capabilities of most journalists to understand – hence their willingness wrongly to brand eggs as the culprit in so many outbreaks.

Another mystery which the media never mastered was the concept of the incubation period – the time between ingesting the contaminated food and exhibiting signs of illness. Typically, with Salmonella food poisoning, the incubation period is 8-18 hours, and more usually the longer period. It can be several days. Thus, if you suffer this type of food poisoning, it is more likely to be from the meal before last.

But that didn't stop the Observer profiling in a lead story of the period, the "tragic" case of a worker who had consumed a fried egg for his breakfast, lovingly served by his wife, then to be admitted to hospital by lunch-time with symptoms of serious Salmonella food poisoning.

The lacklustre performance of the media, its tendency to leap into the arena on the most slender of evidence, and its almost complete inability to master the technical issues about which it so freely reported, left an indelible mark on those of us who, day-by-day had to deal with the consequences.

The ignorance of the media, and their carelessness with the facts, caused real damage to faultless businesses, distorted the political agenda for months, if not years – which met its catharsis in 1996, when BSE came to a head – and forever changed the politics of food safety (and not entirely for the better).

To that extent, thirty years later, things have not changed. We still have a venal, superficial media, ready to leap to conclusions on the most slender of evidence, and one which seems structurally incapable of learning from its errors or admitting that it was wrong.

I'm surprised, actually, that we haven't seen any retrospectives on Mrs Currie's little adventure, to mark the thirtieth anniversary. It was an extraordinary time and the first in political history where a prime minister was called to the despatch box to answer questions on the safety of the nation's food.

That perhaps points to a more recent characteristic of the media – its loss of institutional memory. We are recalling events of thirty years ago which, to me, are as fresh as if they had happened yesterday. But they occurred before many of the hacks currently at their desks were even born.

Certainly, there were no institutional lessons learned in a media which is just as prone to go rushing after fashionable scares as ever it was, with the same verve compounded by indefatigable ignorance.

If you like, therefore, "Salmonella in eggs" is the mother and father of Brexit, in terms of headline coverage. We see the same mistakes, the same overarching lack of knowledge and the same indifference to the truth. And whatever else, we will never see any change because, in its own eyes, the all-knowing media is simply incapable of error.

Richard North 17/12/2018 link

Brexit: feeding the beast

Sunday 16 December 2018  

When reviewing the media coverage of the European Council meeting just gone, one is treated to narratives such as this from Tony Connelly, RTÉ's Europe editor, which offer extraordinarily detailed blow-by-blow accounts of events.

We have to remind ourselves, therefore, that there is no media presence during the Council meetings. The proceedings are conducted without officials in attendance and, traditionally, such is the level of confidentiality, that interpreters' notes are collected up after each session and burnt. Other than the pre-prepared (and approved) Council conclusions, there are no official records kept of the meetings.

The way business is conducted reflects the origins of the European Council, which were originally intended as informal "fireside chats" between EU Member State leaders, allowing them to discuss policy and the future direction of the Community.

The Council was not part of Monnet's original structure for the EEC – its creation approved only on 14 September 1974, after the UK had joined. Its first meeting was in Paris on 9-10 December 1974, chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, with the UK represented by Harold Wilson and Germany by Helmut Schmidt.

Meetings at that time were very far from the grand ego-fests that we see today, with ranks of shiny limousines escorted by police outriders sweeping up to the front door to discharge their cargo onto the freshly-vacuumed red carpets.

In current practice, the leaders are routed into the building past a fenced-off area, known irreverently in some quarters as the pig-pen. Here reporters (including their television paraphernalia) are corralled and, in terms of contact with the politicians, this is as far as they get, except for carefully managed (and controlled) press conferences.

As the politicians arrive, the reporters call out to those to whom they want to speak, each national corps tending to give preference to their own. The process, officially called "doorstepping", allows the leaders to give "impromptu" briefings to journalists, and for officials during the proceedings to keep the press corps appraised of developments.

In many respects, the procedures constitute the politicians' "revenge" on the media, putting them in their place and reinforcing the already over-inflated egos of the politicians. Corralling them in their pig-pen is a demeaning way of treating the press, and by no means an ideal way of conveying information.

One can see the fixed smile of the media stars such as Laura Kuenssberg (pictured from Cameron days), forced to suffer the indignity of being crammed in with her fellow hacks, although even then she manages to queen it over them, always being found front and centre in pole position, much to the disgust of local correspondents, who never see her between these prestigious events.

Given this set-up, one wonders how even the "stars" such as Tony Connelly manage to record meetings with such fidelity, even to the point where we learn from him that, in one instance, "the EU leaders listened in amazement, and for different reasons", when they were addressed by Mrs May.

However, if they cast a critical eye down any of the narratives, readers will readily discern that they are reconstructed, after the events, entirely from secondary sources.

In the case of Connelly, as with his fellow travellers, we see him using familiar devices, as he places his reliance on sources "familiar with the meeting" or "close to the negotiations". Occasionally, as the distance increases between the events and the source, he will even use sources "briefed on the meeting".

Latterly, amongst certain hacks, we get a hierarchy of sources, and a certain snobbery, where some will only speak to "senior sources", or so it seems. Sometimes, the writers feel the need for safety in numbers, referring to two or even more sources close to negotiations, with occasional support from a small crowd amounting to "several" sources.

To ring the changes, the sources are sometimes identified as "officials", who can also be "close" to meetings, familiar with the discussions or even "briefed on the meeting".

When we drill down into this, bearing in mind that officials are not present in the meetings, we are often not even looking at secondary sources. These may be people who have been told something by politicians who were present at the meetings and witnessed events, in which case before they even get to their source, the information is already second hand.

The higher up the rankings you go, the greater is the distance likely to be from the primary source. Figures such as Theresa May, except during formal press conferences, will not necessarily be speaking directly to reporters. She will attend a "debrief" with her officials after a session, whence a "line" is agreed and a hapless press officer will be delegated to talk to the press.

To be fair to the journalists, who have editors to please and mouths to fill, constructing a coherent narrative from such slender sources is a nightmare, especially given the deadlines, which may not conveniently mesh with the Council timetable.

They are helped to an extent by the press conferences, and a continuous flow of officials and helpful leaders from the smaller states, who visit the pig-pen and keep the journos entertained with tidbits. And then there are the constant, unattributed briefings, often via the mobile, the texted "leaks", unsourced e-mails, and the ever-helpful Twitter.

Through the meetings, there is also the constant flow of press releases from national delegations – and interest groups who may have picked up some juicy tips – while the system is refreshed by news agency feeds from the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg, whose reports often provide the unacknowledged basis for headline media stories, accounting for the sameness in the wording and story structures.

And of course, print journalists keep an eye on the televisions and, at the London end, the editorial staffs won't make a move until they have seen the latest Laura Kuenssberg interview, with her privileged access to the prime minister and other high-ranking politicians.

Broadcast media staff, on the other hand, pore over the print editions of the London papers, and keep the live reports from the Guardian and others up on their computer screens, often lifting the same quotes for their own reports.

All of this accounts for the general homogeneity in media reports. This is not a system where independent hacks are diligently tracking down the news, and then corroborating each other. Mostly, they are all drawing from the same well, governed by the herd instinct and seeking refuge in conformity. They work on the basis that no great reputational harm can come to them if they all get it wrong.

Going back to the meetings and the control exercised, the politicians cannot plug all the leaks but do have enough of a grip to be able to control much of the agenda. As we reported yesterday, it is quite possible to play to the gallery, even running stage-managed confrontations in the expectation that the media will run with them and give them considerable prominence.

There is little dispute in the business that European Councils are vast exercises in the theatre of politics, conducted on an international stage. Generally, the media sees what it is given to see, and is kept away from areas where it should not pry. And largely, the media are happy with what they get. They need the theatre as much as the politicians and cooperate in delivering the drama to the intended consumers.

That is not to say that reports from the front line are necessarily wrong, but one must recognise that the information comes from controlled environments, mostly without independent verification.

Given that it is also open to considerable manipulation by masters in the art, it is not unfair to caution that everything that comes out of the system must be treated with a pinch of salt. Furthermore, in what might seem to be counter-intuitive, the greater the degree of consensus there is amongst the hacks, the less likely it is that the truth is being represented.

In the past weeks, we have seen theatre from most of the main capitals in Europe, and especially London, and we're still seeing it as the politicians feed the beast they call the media. Where the fate of the nation is at stake, it is likely that the first casualty will be the truth. Those who look to the legacy media for it are most probably looking in the wrong place.

Richard North 16/12/2018 link

Brexit: playing to the gallery?

Saturday 15 December 2018  

Following the vote of confidence on Mrs May's leadership, and in anticipation of the European Council, held over yesterday and the day before, the "colleagues" had been consistent in asserting that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open to renegotiation.

In recent times, we have had enough experience to realise that, when EU actors make such statements, they tend to mean what they say. No one, therefore, can have been under any illusions that, when Mrs May left the Council, she was going to come away with a renegotiation.

Sure enough, when it comes to the outcome, we see in the European Council (Art. 50) conclusions, the simple and entirely expected paragraph:
The European Council reconfirms its conclusions of 25 November 2018, in which it endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement and approved the Political Declaration. The Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation.
So why did we see as the lead item on the BBC's main evening news that Mrs May had been rebuffed by the EU? There was never any possibility that the conclusions were going to be any different. How can the Guardian justify the headline: "Theresa May's Brexit strategy left brutally exposed by Brussels failure"?

In actuality, Mrs May got from the Council with the only thing she could reasonably have expected – a reaffirmation that the EU leaders were committed to working speedily on a post-Brexit agreement so that the backstop would not have to be triggered.

The European Council further underlined that, if the backstop had to be triggered, it would apply temporarily, until superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided. In that event, the Union would use its "best endeavours" to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop. It would expect the same commitment from the UK, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.

With that, the media should have come away from Brussels with no story, nothing having changed. But that, of course, is not the way our media works. It had invested heavily in the Brexit soap opera, and carried the expense of sending the "stars" to Brussels. There must be a story worthy of their endeavours.

On this blog, we have many times questioned the competence of Mrs May and even remarked on the stupidity of some of her decisions. But it would be hard to sustain an argument that our prime minister was expecting anything from the "colleagues", other than what she got. Even she cannot be so stupid that she expected the EU to roll over and re-open the negotiations.

Thus, one can make a fairly safe guess that - with her staff able to predict with some degree of confidence how the media was going to react – Mrs May was playing to the gallery.

She has been to enough Councils to know that she would be in the goldfish bowl of media scrutiny, where every gesture and every encounter would be analysed to death by ranks of bored hacks, under enormous pressure from their home offices to deliver the headlines written before their stars had even booked their flights for Brussels.

Currently, Mrs May is insisting that, as formal conclusions, the Council statements "have legal status" and therefore should be welcomed. She has also told the hacks that "further clarification" was possible, thereby providing a taster for the next round of the soap opera.

Furthermore, the outcome is "nebulous" enough – the word of the moment – for it to tempt Labour into considering a direct confrontation in parliament before the Christmas break, on the basis that they now believe Mrs May's deal is dead – a view supposedly shared by most of the cabinet.

To the delight of the Westminster hacks, who must be feeling that Christmas has come early, Corbyn has been urged by Sir Keir Starmer and Tom Watson to table a vote of no confidence in the government before Christmas, with Tuesday being the preferred date.

That would be a cruel thing to do to all those over-stressed MPs who are planning to bunk off early, and have already booked their places in the sun. But the opposition is running under the impression that Mrs May's deal is "dead in the water", after the premier has supposedly come back from Brussels empty-handed.

However, even if the chances of getting something up and running two days before the break are probably close to nil, the excited anticipation can keep the hyper-ventilating hacks busy over the weekend – enjoying their equivalent of a visit to Santa's grotto.

If the hacks were looking for rebuffs, though, they might have lifted their gaze from the Article 50 conclusions, and looked at the main document. There, they will have seen a substantial heading on the "Single Market", reminding those who are about to depart that it is "one of the great achievements of the Union which has delivered major benefits to Europeans".

Crucially, the Council is focusing on removing "remaining unjustified barriers, in particular in the field of services", and stressing the need fully to embrace the digital transformation, including Artificial Intelligence, the rise of the data and service economy.

The Council is calling on the Commission to continue its analysis and work in this respect, putting down a marker for its planned "in-depth discussion" next spring, when the development of the Single Market and European digital policy will be examined "in preparation for the next Strategic Agenda".

This rather demonstrates that the world is not going to be standing still just because the UK is going through an orgy of navel-gazing as it trudges laboriously through the Brexit process. My guess is the "colleagues" will not be averse to rubbing a few UK noses is their own rhetoric.

Meanwhile, behind the curve as he so often is these days, Nigel Farage was addressing a "Leave Means Leave" rally in London, telling supporters that they needed to prepare for the possibility of another referendum.

This comes at a time where, in retrospect, we may well be marking the week just gone as the turning point, when Mrs May broke the back of organised resistance. If I am reading this right, she could be about to confound her critics by getting parliamentary approval for her deal in the New Year.

In that case, not since the 2016 referendum has it been less likely that we will be seeing a second referendum, which is just as well as the Eurosceptic movement is even less prepared to fight a contest than it was last time. With no Brexit vision to sustain him (or his diminishing band of followers), Farage is the old war horse, revisiting scenes of victories past in the hope of revitalising dreams of better days.

Speaking of which, I have been watching the media closely for any further references to Mr Hannan's escapades. Despite the inherent newsworthiness of his alleged misbehaviour, however, none of the other national newspapers nor the broadcast media have seen fit to repeat the Guardian's story, or add to it.

It comes to a pretty pass when a high-profile campaigner on "EU corruption" is accused of defrauding taxpayers of around half-a-million pounds through misuse of European Parliament funds, and only one national newspaper reports it, while the BBC and other broadcasters are also silent.

The one paper from which we can virtually guarantee silence is The Sunday Tielegraph which, in common with its daily sister, now has a thief for its star columnist, who gets a free pass from the establishment.

I was talking to Booker the other day – the man whose slot in the ST was taken by Hannan. He has a far longer political memory than mine, and I asked him whether this deterioration in public morals was new, or whether it had always been thus. There is often a tendency to think that the current troughs are the worst of the worst.

In Booker's view, this is new to political memory. Prestige figures – and those favoured by the political establishments – enjoy an extraordinary immunity from any consequences of deeds, the nature of which even in the recent past would have seen them shamed and driven from public life.

When the degraded media has merged with the entertainment industry, to become indistinguishable from it – with politics not far behind – one can only retreat to the boundaries and watch in sadness as decadence increasingly becomes the norm.

Richard North 15/12/2018 link

Brexit: beyond mortal help

Friday 14 December 2018  

A busy day following up Brexit-related issues yesterday had me suddenly stop short around eight in the evening, with the realisation that I hadn't looked at any of the day's legacy media headlines, or followed any of my media news feeds for the whole of day. 

That is undoubtedly a reflection of poor value on offer, the extremely slender contribution to the sum of human knowledge, and the general irrelevance of media coverage. The BBC's main interest of the day, for instance, was to discover when Mrs May would step down as prime minister.

That actually typifies the media here. At licence-payer expense, Laura Kuenssberg – Lord of All She Surveys – goes to Brussels to attend the European Council and, from the front rank of the pig pen, doorsteps Mrs May to ask her to confirm that she's standing down as prime minister before the next general election. The answer then becomes the lead item on the main evening bulletin.

Another illustration of the venality of the breed is BBC Politics which chose to feature an exchange between Liam Halligan and Polly Toynbee, where the former is aggressively demanding that he should no longer be called "insane".

There highlighted is another very good reason why it is pointless following the Brexit "debate" on television. The main interest of the producers is "biff-bam" confrontational politics that create heat and no light. It is the confrontation that is regarded as "good television", rather than the rare occasion when the programme manages to convey useful information.

That is, of course, not to say that the media doesn't have its uses, but if it was doing its job properly this blog could stand down and I could enjoy an entirely undeserved retirement. As it is, it has taken me nearly two weeks to build a model of a C15TA and I'm nowhere near finished.

But from even such a fascinating enterprise, it is worth breaking off to read this piece from the Guardian which informs us that Daniel Hannan's European Parliament group has been told to repay €535,000 in EU funds, wrongly spent on non-qualifying activities.

The Group is the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), formed in 2009 after the Conservatives left the European People's Party. Until December 2017, Hannan was the secretary-general and, under his tutelage, the group spent €250,000 on a three-day event at a luxury beach resort in Miami and €90,000 on a trade "summit" at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala - neither of which events qualified for EU funding.

British Conservatives have sought to distance themselves from ACRE, which has been described by some party insiders as "Daniel Hannan's travel agency", while the European Parliament authorities suggest that Hannan used EU funds for ACRE to support other pet projects, such as his free-trade think tank, the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), as well as Conservatives International.

The European Parliament also objected to €108,985 spent on polling British black and Asian voters ahead of the 2017 general elections. Under EU law, EU funds cannot be used to finance national campaigns. For similar reasons, €122,295 spent on a "UK Trade Partnerships" conference in March 2017 was judged ineligible, because the event was deemed to be promoting the UK's economic interests.

Needless to say, Hannan denies the misuse of funds but his defence was rejected in a closed-door meeting last Monday. The Group now has the option of appealing to the ECJ, although no hearing has been called for.

Interestingly, the Guardian is the only newspaper (so far) to have covered the news. On the face of it, it is an damning indictment of a leading Eurosceptic who played a prominent part in the referendum campaign and himself has been outspoken in exposing "corrupt" MEPs. Recently, he was also warning that "establishment elites" were poised to "steal" Brexit.

There is something of an irony here. Hannan has been around long enough to know the rules and how they operate, which puts him in the major league when it comes to defrauding the EU, upping the ante on his usual form. Yet, in polite company, reference to his peccadillos is regarded as "insulting". One is supposed to keep one's own counsel and not sully the name of the great man.

Arguably, this is yet another example of how the political discourse is being distorted. Thieves prosper and their critics are ostracised – or marginalised.

At another level, Sir Ivan Rogers was speaking again yesterday, this time in Liverpool, offering nine lessons we need to learn from the last few years of Brexit. But what struck me most was his references to the debate in terms of "dishonesty" and "fantasy". Not necessarily in equal measure, these are the two of the main drivers of the Brexit "debate" combined with an extraordinary degree of self-delusion.

Sir Ivan draws attention to the "no deal +" fantasy. This is the one where we refuse to sign the Withdrawal Agreement with the backstop in it, and withhold a good half of the money the Prime Minister promised. In response, the "colleagues" would suddenly realise we were serious and come running for a series of mini deals. These would assure full trading continuity in all key sectors on basically unchanged Single Market and Customs Union terms.

Such is the nature of this delusion that it has Sir Ivan observing: "I don't know what tablets these people are taking, but I must confess I wish I were on them". It will be said of them as it was said of the Bourbons, I think: "they have learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing".

The reality, he tells us, is that if the deal on the table falls apart because we have said "no", there will not be some smooth rapid suite of mini side-deals – from aviation to fisheries, from road haulage to data, from derivatives to customs and veterinary checks, from medicines to financial services, as the EU affably sits down with this Prime Minister or another one.

As to the "people's voters", Sir Ivan agrees a case can be made for a second referendum, given the dismal place we have now ended up, and given possible Parliamentary paralysis. But, he says, they must surely understand the huge further alienation that would engender amongst those who will think that, yet again, their views are being ignored until they conform.

He doesn't mention the ECJ judgement on unilateral revocation but his overall message is clear. The only sensible option we have is the Withdrawal Agreement - there is no other endgame.

That leaves us, as a nation, in the same boat as our prime minister and, from reports coming back from Brussels, she appears to be no further forward in her attempts to put a time limit of the "backstop". That leaves her with a strategy designed to "change the perception" of the backstop so that we stop looking at it "as a trap".

If that is all Mrs May has in her toolkit, she may well have a little difficulty carrying the day when it comes to the vote in parliament. Her only real chance of convincing MPs to accept her deal is if they understand that a "no deal" scenario is to be avoided at all costs.

This itself is a reversal of her own position, where it became an article of faith that no deal would be better than a bad deal. But there is that insidious group which includes Liam Halligan and the likes of John Mills who argue that the impact of a "no deal" would be "completely manageable" and that concerns have been "exaggerated".

This brings us back full circle as I recall that one of the greatest failings of the media is its inability sensibly to address the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. And that was back in October, when Sir Ivan Rogers had just made a speech in Cambridge.

Nothing much, if anything, has changed, with the issues just as badly aired as ever they were, while the noise level from domestic politics has all but drowned out even the semblance of a debate. Small wonder, businesses are in despair, and are diverting "hundreds of millions of pounds in investment" out of the UK as contingency plans are being triggered.

Yet no one, not even government, seems to be prepared to take on the responsibility of setting out to the public, in unequivocal terms, the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. We've done our best on this blog but our reach is limited and we are unable to change the direction of the debate.

What we can do, though, is point out the failings of the system, putting it on the record before the event – then to revisit after disaster strikes. The guilty ones cannot then pretend that no one knew what the problems were. They did – we did.

Even then, where we have a self-absorbed claque which is more interested in papering over the cracks than in dealing with straight talk, it's going to be hard getting a hearing. And if people prefer their delusions to reality, and insist on shutting out uncomfortable truths, then they are beyond any help that mere mortals can bring.

Richard North 14/12/2018 link

Brexit: a rival to Lazarus

Thursday 13 December 2018  

Yesterday morning, the "ultras" were pretty chipper, certain that there was going to be a vote of confidence and that they were going to win it, kicking Theresa May out of office. And some of the potential candidates were already lining up with their pitches.

But it was not to be. The evening saw Mrs May emerge with a majority, 200 votes to 117, in favour of her staying confounding the predictions and leaving the "ultras" without their moment of glory. Now, they're too late. From her own party, the prime minister is safe from further challenge for a year. By then it will be all over.

Given the way the events have played out, a cynic might even suggest that Mrs May set this up herself. Delaying the vote was stage one, provoking the "ultras" into making their move. And who is to say that Mrs May herself didn't put her own letter in – or get some of the faithful to help out – just to make certain there were enough to get the ball rolling.

With or without Mrs May's help, phase two is over. It has cost the prime minister a pledge that it is not her "intention" to lead the party at the next election, but that was a minor concession that can always be overturned if needs must. Intentions can always change. As the song goes, she's just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, she will doubtless say, please don't let me be misunderstood.

In return, the ERG have shot their bolt. The best two former Brexit secretaries, Dominic Raab and David Davis could come up with was an opaque re-write of the Irish Protocol, bearing the grandiose title A Better Deal, cobbled together by Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham and friends, loosely endorsed by the DUP's Arlene Foster.

But if that was the best they had to offer, it was not nearly enough. The indigestible prose was never going to capture the hearts and minds of the lobby hacks, and even the wonks would have to work really hard to get a glimmer of insight into Mr Singham's fading genius.

His star, of course, is not the only one on the wane. As the result of the vote of confidence came through, it was clear that Mr "Oaf" Johnson's leadership ambitions are over. Despite claims that he is the most likely candidate to succeed Mrs May ahead of the next general election, that is entirely unconvincing.

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. In the twelve months before another challenge can be mounted, we will be out of the EU (after a fashion), heavily into the transition period. Johnson's unique selling point will be long gone.

None of the others are going to get a look in either. This is the palace coup that failed – organised by a bunch of political second-raters who have been outsmarted by the vicar's daughter so comprehensively that they didn't even see her coming.

Nor is the game-play over. There's stage three to come today, when Mrs May jets off to Brussels. Donald Tusk has been very accommodating. He has arranged a special session of the Brexit Council for the EU-27 but is giving the prime minister the opportunity "at the end of the afternoon session" to deliver her "assessment". The "colleagues" will then "discuss the matter and adopt relevant conclusions".

We'll have to wait to see whether Mrs May brings back a piece of paper to wave at the crowd, but one assumes she will have something to keep the media busy over the weekend. She might even give Andrew Marr a try-out on Sunday.

By tradition, after attending a European Council, the prime minister reports to the House on the following Monday. That gives Mrs May the floor on 17 December, where she can set out her "achievements" in the certain knowledge that the ERG will lack the credibility to challenge her from the back benches.

As to its leader, Mr Rees-Mogg, he has nowhere to go, but back to his constituency. His brief rain is over – his capacity to rain on Mrs May's parade is seriously curtailed. Yet, even now, he lacks the self-awareness to realise that, as far as he is concerned, it is "game over".

Mr Mogg will, of course, not be alone in making his lonely trip back to his constituency. Parliament closes down for its Christmas break on 20 December, and does not reconvene until 7 January – nearly three weeks of radio silence for the Muppet Show.

Instead of grandstanding for YouTube and the adoring audience of the Westminster claque, the MPs will have the uncomfortable experience of re-acquainting themselves with real people – voters, party members, and constituency officials. Many are less than impressed with the pantomime and are far more sympathetic to Mrs May than the media circus might suggest.

According to a recent poll, she still has the support of the majority of the nation, with 40 percent of electors backing her, against 34 percent who wanted her to go.

It probably is not a coincidence that the leadership vote has been brought to a head just before Christmas. We might call the holiday another deliberative phase. We can't give it a number yet – there may be others tucked in by the time we get there.

Anyhow, by the time the MPs get back from their break, they will be a more subdued lot. And, no doubt, businesses and others will have been working hard to point up the dire consequences of a "no deal" Brexit – both publicly and through contacts at constituency level. With the ERG effectively silenced, reality may well start to focus minds.

By mid-January, therefore, the scene will be set for the deferred vote to be re-instated. And if Mrs May does win it, there is every likelihood that it will be a close-run thing. But it no longer looks impossible, as it was doing last week. Even in political terms, that week has been a long time.

For those who maybe think that recent events are mere fortuitous coincidence, favouring the former home secretary, others might argue that this is a return to form that has been singularly lacking since she embarked on the Brexit process.

But, as a smooth operator on the international stage, there is little to compare with the way Mrs May handled the introduction of gay marriage into the UK in what was described by Booker in 2013 as a "brilliant political coup" – to this day scarcely recognised for what it was.

Needless to say, Mrs May has a long way to go before she makes her version of Brexit happen, if at all, but there is not a single high profile political commentator in this country who predicted that Mrs May would be the one to be enjoying a relaxing Christmas in less than a fortnight.

Against all expectations of a week ago, she has come away with 63 percent of the vote of the parliamentary party. No one will need any reminding that the EU referendum was won on 52 percent. And if a third of the party voted against her, the victory she delivered is sufficient unto the day.

And even if the chatterati see her as "damaged" by the scale of the rebellion. Some have even suggested that she is the worst prime minister since Lord North (which doesn't say a lot for Corbyn as leader of the opposition).

The truth is, though, that she has staged a miraculous recovery that puts Lazarus to shame. She is still there, in Downing Street. Others - notably Mr Johnson – are not. And now, they never will be. If she never achieves anything else, to have kept the oaf out of office is an achievement indeed. But the greater prize is yet to come. It will be Mrs May who will be leading us out of the EU.

Richard North 13/12/2018 link

Brexit: party games

Wednesday 12 December 2018  

We're back playing games again, not that we've ever stopped. But today might be the day when Mrs May's numbers are up, all 48 of them. It was supposed to have happened a while back but the rebellion fizzled out. Now it is back on the agenda again – or not, depending on whether the Party really wants to rid itself of Mrs May.

We are led to believe that this "miracle" is brought to us by Owen Paterson who has signed the final letter. Amongst, his complaints, he has May repeatedly saying "no deal is better than a bad deal", even though it is clear her objective was to secure a deal at any cost.

One senior Brexiteer claims that Mr Paterson lining up with the rebels was a "big moment" after the mutiny embarrassingly failed to gain traction before. "We have had some false starts, but this looks like the green light", he said.

Now it's down to Sir Graham Brady to give Mrs May the official word, which he is expected to do after PMQs. If this happens, we're on a well-trodden path to a leadership contest, but the destination is far from certain. We could end up with a new leader but the outcome could be a strengthened leader, immune from further challenge for a year.

Mrs May can stay in office if she even gets a majority of one, but – as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost – she needs a resounding victory, otherwise it will be virtually impossible for her to survive. There could be a vote as early as next week and if Mrs May loses, that will leave the way open for a full-blown leadership contest during the Christmas holidays – just what we really need to keep us entertained.

I suppose if there was going to be a time for this, the Christmas period is the least worst. Most of the country will be shut down, as indeed will Brussels, so there will be little political momentum lost. And, of course, if Mrs May wins, she could be back with renewed vigour, ready to see off all comers.

However, if this is the least-worst time, we still need it like a hole in the head. At very best, a leadership contest is a distraction. At worst, we could end up with an unreconstructed "ultra" knuckle-dragger, although the "no deal" outcome remains a possibility whatever happens.

For the moment though, we can kiss goodbye to rationality as sheer politics take over and the issues are consigned to the back seat. Just when we needed people absolutely focused, the Westminster bubble is set to take time out, and indulge itself.

Half of me wants to shut up shop right now and do what even some of my most intensely political friends are doing – hunkering down and waiting until it is all over. There is no sense to be had until this is over, and not a lot to be had anyway if the wrong people emerge.

But, for the life of me, I cannot think of any of the potential candidates as people I would choose for the post of prime minister. If pressed, all I could do is produce a ranking of those whom I would like least, although the person at the bottom of my list would come as no surprise.

With the European Council at the end of the week, though, this development can only weaken Mrs May's stature and add massively to the uncertainty. Small wonder, therefore, that Brussels is warning member states to step up no deal preparations.

These developments come just as "haulage bosses are upping the ante on the effects of a "no deal" scenario on goods movements through Dover and Calais. Rod McKenzie, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association (RHA), asserts that Government plans for customs checks at Dover are "so impractical" it would take eight hours to clear an average lorry carrying food and goods from Calais.

This figure comes from a rather elastic view of a "consignment", with the suggestion that one lorry could carry up to 8,000 consignments, each of which would need a separate customs declaration form, each of which would take ten minutes to fill in. That would take 170 people eight hours to process, we are told.

Even if you took the average trailer which has 400 consignments per delivery, that would take nine people eight hours to process, says Richard Burnett, RHA chief executive.

Generally, however, a consignment is taken to be one batch dispatched from the same person to a single recipient (consignee). There can be many different product types in one consignment. Thus, the idea that the hauliers will be burdened to that extent is somewhat over-egged.

Much of the report is incoherent anyway, with the news that there would be temporary border inspection posts (BIPs) for food controls in place for April and recruitment had begun for the first batch of 250 customs officials. Yet, it is veterinary officials who will be carrying out the work, not customs officials.

In the event of the withdrawal agreement being ratified, the BIPs won't be needed anyway, while the "no deal" scenario means that no foodstuff of animal origin can be exported to the EU for the foreseeable future – which again means that BIPs won't be needed.

All we can reliably deduce is that there are going to be problems and delays, something which we knew already. And those who wish to deny that, are going to deny it, come what may, branding it "project fear".

With such an erosion of accuracy in reporting, facts now are a tradable commodity, and you bring to the table those which best suit your case. Thus we had the charlatan Dominic Lawson yesterday blethering about the "Norway option", asserting that a Norwegian government official had written that during the past 20 years, his government had incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA agreement.

Last time I checked, though, of the 21,178 EU laws currently in force, only 5,779 had been incorporated into the EEA Agreement and were in force. That, incidentally, amounted to 27 percent of EU law.

Entertainingly, Lawson addresses the authors of "Norway plus", declaring that he "won't accuse them of lying, only of asserting the opposite of the truth", while Nick Boles accuses Lawson of producing "another ill-informed hatchet job". No mention is made of Boles's gofer, who gets his facts so egregiously wrong.

Even if we could get the players to focus on the facts, therefore, it would be to no avail. Not only would they get them wrong; they would accuse their opposite sides of making the mistakes. If we could afford to walk away and say "a pox on all your parties", we would do so.

As long as they are playing their games, though, they are doing no one any favours, making the next few weeks a turgid exercise in applied tedium. We will be glad when it's over.

Richard North 12/12/2018 link

Brexit: who will blink first?

Tuesday 11 December 2018  

One wonders how MPs can expect any respect if they can't even show good manners in the House, and allow the prime minister to deliver her statements. But it took several (overdue) interventions to quell the rowdy crowd, the noise level from which made it very difficult to concentrate on what Mrs May was saying yesterday, when she spoke on Brexit.

The MPs just don't get it. The House of Commons is a place of work, not a kindergarten. And whatever one might think of Mrs May personally, she is still the prime minister – the leader of our government.

When she is delivering a statement to the House of the importance of yesterday's effort, she is not just speaking to MPs. She is speaking to the nation. As such, she deserves to be heard with courtesy and decorum. More to the point, since we have paid for the whole shebang, we are entitled to hear what is being said, without raucous interruptions.

Through the years, on Twitter and elsewhere, we get MPs up on their high horses, demanding "respect" from us mere plebs, the vile serfs who pay their wages and over-generous expenses. Yet they can't even accord respect to their own, the leader of our government, when she needs to address the nation.

And, even though one needs to say such things – even while great affairs of state hang in the balance - that does not mean that any of these buffoons will take the slightest bit of notice. The Westminster village, and the claque of political correspondents who service it might even think this behaviour is acceptable (and even commendable), but the outside world looking in has different views.

For decades now, we have seen the increasingly noisy and disrespectful posturing during prime ministers questions, and although no end of people have expressed their concerns about the spectacle and what it represents, these have had no impact at all. Our political masters are a law unto themselves, latterly illustrated by Lloyd Russell-Moyle seizing the mace, provoking even our lethargic Speaker into action.

For these many reasons, the very thing that MPs so often demand, they do not have – our respect. And if they do care to ignore us, they can. But nothing lasts forever. There is always a price to pay, and when the bill comes due to the noisy cretins polluting the Commons, there will be neither sympathy nor aid from this quarter. Nor, I suspect, will there be sanctuary from many others.

As to the prime minister's message, we need to turn to Hansard for that - the bleating media are not reliable sources. To capture the unfiltered nuances, we need to go to the primary source – the prime minister herself.

That today's vote has been "deferred" is, of course, now a matter of record. But it is a delay, even if no replacement date has been announced. If the government took no further action, that would mean we would drift towards 29 March and a "no deal" Brexit. For all its posturing and noise, there is little parliament could do about that. If Mrs May chose to treat the MPs with the contempt they so obviously deserve, she has the means to do so. One almost wishes she would deliver the rebuff.

Despite all that, the Speaker considers that the prime minister is being "deeply discourteous" to the House in halting the debate. This from a man who has so egregiously failed to maintain order in his own domain that the prime minister could scarcely be heard. When, one supposes, did he last look in a mirror?

Nevertheless, the game plan has changed. Mrs May is fully aware – having spoken to some of the "colleagues" over the weekend – that the EU is not prepared to reopen negotiations. If there was any doubt, this has been confirmed by a Commission spokeswoman since the prime minister's statement. And, unlike the UK government, the Commission tends to stick to its word on such matters – mainly because it has no option.

Thus, the purpose of her announcement, apart from letting MPs know that they won't be needed today, was to enable Mrs May "to go and discuss with other European leaders, the Council and the Commission" the "further reassurances that the House requires on the issues that Members are concerned about, notably whether or not the backstop, should it ever be used, can be brought to an end".

Quite what this is likely to achieve, one can only imagine. It is difficult to see any circumstances where rebel MPs will be satisfied with mere "reassurances", with no fundamental changes to the withdrawal agreement. The best she can hope for is a vague political declaration – some words on a piece of paper that she can wave at the crowds.

Even then, we do not know precisely when Mrs May will be visiting Brussels, although today she is planning to meet her Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte. On the other hand, Donald Tusk has announced that he will convene a special meeting of the EU-27 leaders (the so-called Article 50 Council) on Thursday. Mrs May is not invited to such meetings, but she is due in Brussels then for the scheduled full European Council meeting.

In making the announcement, Tusk reaffirms that the EU "will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop". But, he says, "we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification". That may or may not be helpful. Rather ominously, though, he adds that: "As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario".

Nor is Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, being particularly helpful. "I have no difficulty with statements that clarify what's in the withdrawal agreement", he says. "But no statement of clarification can contradict what's in it".

Through all the uncertainly, though, the one thing that does shine through is Mrs May's determination to take us out of the EU. Despite the full ECJ ruling yesterday on the unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notification (with the judgement here), she shows no sign of taking advantage of this.

"Nobody should think that revoking article 50 is a short-term solution or short-term extension of article 50", she says. "Revoking article 50 would mean going back on the vote of the referendum and staying in the European Union". By contrast, the prime minister genuinely feels "absolutely" that it is important for the Commons "to deliver on the vote that took place in 2016".

As regards a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, Mrs May tells MPs that they need to "be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a House we should be striving to bring it back together".

Tackling Caroline Lucas on this, she asked her whether she honestly thought that "if we were to have a further referendum and it came out with a different result, people would not then say that we should have a third referendum to find out exactly what the result was".

And if we had a second referendum with the same result, Mrs May also wondered whether Lucas would still be asking for a third referendum. "This Parliament gave people the choice and the people decided", she declared. "They voted; we should deliver on it".

But, showing how slender a grip she has on the options available, she asserts that, if MPs "want to remain part of the single market and the customs union", this "would require free movement, rule taking across the economy and ongoing financial contributions - none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum".

When you get to this level of intellectual inflexibility, you might as well be talking to a wall. The prime minister's grasp of the Efta/EEA option would shame a bright teenager but, since she is the bed-blocker currently in No. 10, her ignorance trumps mere knowledge.

For all that, she is right in telling MPs that, "if you want to leave without a deal, be up front that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden".

The real crunch, though, was in Mrs May's follow-up assertion that she did not believe that any of the options apart from leaving, commanded a majority in this House. And, she added, "for as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases".

"The vast majority of us", she declared, "accept the result of the referendum and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge. If we will the ends, we must also will the means".

Yet, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak, and none more so than Mrs May's. Finally, while still not really understanding why, she is having to confront the impossible position she created for herself in her Lancaster House speech.

Having listened to endless amounts of bad advice, she has closed off the one avenue that could have delivered her salvation – the Efta/EEA option. She is left with nothing but some empty theatricals to buy her time from a shrinking pot. She can only kick the can so far down the road before she runs out of road and has to stand her ground.

Meanwhile, the Westminster journos are having a field day. All the pre-prepared mantras are being trotted out, unquestioned and unchallenged. Now is not the time for exploring issues (not that it ever has been), when there are party politics to play and cheap points to score.

For the next few weeks, well into Christmas, the hacks can focus on what really matters (to them) – how long Mrs May will survive as prime minister and whether we will get a general election in the New Year.

Whether Mrs May's deal survives, though, nobody can even guess. But if it's her deal or no deal, she still has the whip hand. Apart from the brain-dead "ultras" and the increasingly pathetic Ukip rump, the message that a "no deal" Brexit is bad news has generally sunk in. And the person standing between a deal and disaster is Mrs May.

I just wonder how many loud-mouthed MPs are going to take it to the wire and beyond, when the reward for caving in is the status quo, i.e., the interim period, for a couple of years, compared with the certain disaster of a "no deal" Brexit. Who do we think will blink first?

Richard North 11/12/2018 link

Brexit: flagstones breaking beneath our feet

Monday 10 December 2018  

If we can discern anything with clarity from the noise that dominates the Brexit environment, the one thing that stands out is that the idea of a "Norway-style" plan B is dead in the water.

In all probability, it always was dead. The main window of opportunity was shortly after the referendum, before the environment had been polluted with rival plans. Then, below-the-radar approaches could have been made to Efta states and careful soundings made as to what would be needed for a successful UK re-entry.

However, with both sides – remainers and leavers – having dismissed the Efta/EEA option prior to the referendum, there was never going to be a point in the early aftermath when the political classes could switch tracks and embrace something they had already rejected. They may have looked through the window but, just as quickly, they slammed it shut.

The next possibility arrived with the "coronation" of Mrs May as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister. With her talk of market access, it looked for a while as if she accepted the need to stay within the Single Market, which inevitably meant embracing the EEA option.

When that hope was demolished by Mrs May herself in her Lancaster House speech, that ruled out any formal government approaches to the Efta states, and when the official line emerged, about an EU exit automatically including leaving the EEA, it was effectively game over.

The only thing that kept hope alive was the certain knowledge that the UK still needed access to the markets of the EU Member States. And, as Mrs May thrashed around trying to find a way out of the trap she had set herself in Lancaster House, the Efta/EEA option increasingly looked to be the only rational option.

Thus, when Nick Boles popped out of nowhere with his "Norway for Now" idea, there were those who said we should be pleased. It put the "Norway option" back on the table and had people talking about it once more, we were told.

Yet, in sporting circles, anyone will know that the best way of throwing a match is to field a weak team against champions. You don't have to set out to lose, but the chances of winning are slight.

In this case, we didn't get to select the team, but it was still second-rate: its game plan was based on "parking" the UK in Efta for a few years while we sorted out a better deal for ourselves (if there was one to be had). There was unlikely to be a more calculated way of offending Efta states and thereby closing off any opportunity to pursue the "Norway option" proper.

Although prominent players in "Norway option" advocacy, Leave Alliance had not been consulted about Boles's initiative, or even informed after the event. But, when we reacted with less than unalloyed enthusiasm, we were treated as if it was us who were letting the side down. When we sought to explain why the plan was so badly flawed, we were told to have faith – Nick was about to produce something better.

Nick indeed did produce a revised plan. But he achieved something that we would not have thought possible – it was worse in many respects than the original, adding a "plus" which turned out to be an unnecessary customs union, toxifying the whole concept. But, said Nick, it was a good "compromise", whence he studiously ignored any criticism and concentrated his efforts on telling everyone who would listen what a good plan it was.

Now he has joined forces, very publicly, with Stephen Kinnock, even attempting in The Times to sell the merits of an "emergency brake", which Kinnock knows full well is a misdescription.

Although it has gained brief notoriety in the House, the lack of coherence of the plan comes over clearly, not least by its omissions. Boles believes this to be a "quick fix" – one of applying an off-the-shelf solution amounting to little more than a cut and paste job.

But what is so striking is that neither side, whether for or against, can mount coherent arguments to back their opposing stances. The antagonists amount to blind men in a padded room, lashing out at each other, occasionally landing a blow but more by accident than design.

Striking against the plan, we've already seen the People's Vote, with their report on Why 'Norway Plus' Won't Work. And a defence is now mounted by Andrew Yalland, in an article on the Reaction website.

Interestingly, Mr Yalland dates the genesis of the EEA Agreement from 1991, when – he says – the then Commission President, Jacques Delors, decided there was a need for a new, non-EU treaty "enabling non-EU European states to participate in the EU’s economic pillar without having to have membership of the political pillar".

This is a fiction. In fact, when Delors did intervene, it was in response to an already active initiative by the Efta states. And this came earlier than Yalland would allow, on 17 January 1989 when he laid out his ideas for what he called a "European village". This was a place where "understanding would reign" and "where economic and cultural activities would develop in mutual trust".

"If I were asked to depict that village today", Delors continued in his speech, "I would see in it a house called the 'European Community'. We are its sole architects; we are the keepers of its keys; but we are prepared to open its doors to talk with our neighbours".

The importance of this can hardly be overstated, positioning what became the EEA as an example of the willingness of the then European Community to open up its Single Market to Efta members.

But Yalland, having got this date wrong, compounds the error by telling us that Efta members "became signatories to the European Economic Area Agreement" in 1994. The Agreement was signed in 1992 and came into force on that later date.

In effect, this supporter of Mr Boles's plan would have the EEA Agreement negotiated in the impossibly short period of a single year (1991-92) when the more prosaic truth is that Delors in 1989 was responding to an Efta initiative. And this dated back to 13 May 1977 in Vienna.

The formal start of the process which eventually led to the creation of the EEA can be taken to be the Luxembourg Declaration of 1984, which announced an intent to "broaden and deepen" cooperation between the EC and Efta, with the aim of creating a dynamic European Economic Space (EES). The change from EES to EEA came at the end of October 1990, but the change of name was regarded as a "purely linguistic matter" (see footnote 11, p.10).

The significance of the dates highlighted is two-fold. Firstly, the sheer longevity of the period during which the EEA came to fruition illustrates how long it can take to develop and then negotiate complex trade agreements, even between relatively close partners with a long tradition of mutual cooperation.

The second "take-home" point is that, in his Reaction article, the hubristic Yalland purports to offer us a "history lesson". But, when it comes to easily verifiable historical facts, he gets the details wrong. (The history has been admirably recorded in a European Parliament Research Paper completed in 1993, with a shorter overview in my Monograph.)

Details are important, not least because – in this case – they indicate that the UK's path to the EEA as an Efta state might take very much longer than is generally acknowledged. But, as an added bonus, getting the details right in an article confers authority on the author, and builds trust.

Yet, sadly, according to Professor George Yarrow, to demand "perfection" (i.e., the absence of error) is "unwise". After all, he says, 70 percent will get you a first class degree.

This points to a crucial element of the overall Brexit debate – although by no means confined to this issue. In government and politics, in the media and academia, there no longer seems to be a premium on accuracy. Any old tosh will do if it fills the spot, to the extent that a senior academic can dismiss a demand for accuracy in "open book" research as "unwise".

When it comes to the EU, though – and related organisations such as the EEA, the "actors" are prisoners of their history. I've long held that you can never understand the EU, and institutional behaviour, unless you have a good grasp of its history – and not just the hagiography served up on the Commission website.

This is why so many lawyers – to say nothing of politicians – make a pig's ear of evaluating EU politics. Some of them might think they know the procedures, and the details of the treaties – but few of them have troubled to understand the historical background in which they are framed. And that means getting the detail right.

By the same token, only if you understand the history of the EEA – going right back to 1977 and before – can you fully appreciate how it came to be and what, even to this day, drives it. That knowledge will also tell you that the EEA is the perfect home for the UK as an Efta state – and illustrate with devastating precision the opportunity we are missing.

Giving the last word to Booker, though (column not on-line, again!), he in turn cites the words of Winston Churchill, spoken to the House of Commons in March 1938.

"I have watched this famous island descending, incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf", Churchill said. "It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning. But after a bit the carpet ends. A little further on there are only flagstones, and a little further on still, these break beneath your feet".

"Certainly in recent days", Booker concludes, "we have more than ever felt those flagstones breaking beneath our feet. Only the dark gulf remains". This is more true than we could even begin to imagine.

Richard North 10/12/2018 link

Brexit: making waves

Sunday 9 December 2018  

When it comes to Mrs May and Brexit, I've already done all the variations on the theme of a prime minister trapped between "a rock and a hard place" on this blog, which rather rules out using the theme again. But it is nevertheless fair to say that she is trapped.

On the one hand, she is driven by her determination to see the withdrawal agreement ratified and, on the other, she is paralysed by her refusal to look at any alternatives.

In that context, there is the possibility of another referendum being touted and then there is that infamous "Plan B" which apparently has the support of an undisclosed number of MPs, the essence of which is one or other of the editions of Nick Boles's "Norway Plus".

At a pinch, we could see the referendum giving Mrs May an escape route. Assuming that the ECJ does rule that the Article 50 notification can be revoked unilaterally, the expected refusal by parliament to ratify the agreement could lead to the prime minister asking the European Council to extend the two year period to give enough time for the vote.

If one assumes that the referendum could give a straight choice of "leave" or "remain", Mrs May might assure the Council that, if the nation votes for "remain", she will revoke the Article 50 notification. In the event of a "leave" win, the prime minister would have to do nothing. We would automatically drop out of the EU when the extended Article 50 period expired.

As to "Norway Plus", although it is being touted as an alternative, it was never a runner – even if it wasn't the dog's dinner that Mr Boles has created. For it to be contemplated, the EU would have to reopen the negotiations – something (Mr Prodi aside) it has repeatedly said it will not do.

Boles's answer to that is for parliament to support the withdrawal agreement and for us then to negotiate the implementation of his plan during the interim period. But I don't see parliament buying that. There are simply no assurances that Mrs May could give that would guarantee that happening.

Then, of course, there is that minor problem of it being a crap plan, so lacking in coherence that it could not possibly be put into action. And any properly structured Efta/EEA option would most certainly take more than three years to negotiate, assuming that the Efta states would allow us to rejoin Efta in the first place.

However, from recent events, and the behaviour of some of the advocates of a "Norway-style" option, it seems increasingly unlikely that all four Efta states would unanimously agree to allow the UK to enter into their ranks. That would leave us with an uncertain situation over which Mrs May had no control.

One could not rule out the possibility, though, that a refusal might be engineered. I am sure that, if Mrs May asked nicely to be refused, the Norwegian prime minister would happily oblige by stating that the UK was not ready to rejoin Efta – or some such diplomatic rebuff.

Personally, if it is going to go anywhere, I feel that the negotiating environment has been so polluted that, if it is to progress, the EEA concept has to be lifted from its Efta/EU home and transplanted into a wider arena. Yet, for the moment, that is premature and far too ambitious a leap for the parties even to consider. It could be that the amateur thrashing of the likes of Nick Boles have closed off this route for the foreseeable future.

With "Norway" ruled out, if Mrs May resists the pressure to call a new referendum after a "no" vote, that leaves her the task of trying to change parliament's mind and reverse its initial refusal. A further failure could lead us down the path of a general election, at which point sensible analysts give up trying to predict a path. There are still too many variables.

Nevertheless, that does leave the "do nothing" option, where Mrs May sits on her hands – or simply goes through the motions without any commitment to the success of any of her actions. Parliament may huff and puff, but it can't force her to succeed. If they instruct her to go to Brussels and reopen negotiations, or to extend the Article, she only has to come back with the message: "Mr Juncker, he say no". What is parliament to do then? Invade Belgium?

Ostensibly, an across-the-board rejection from Brussels would leave the MPs with but one option – to ratify the agreement. If they do not, on 29 March 2019 we drop out of the EU. The ball is in parliament's court.

That makes one wonder whether, despite all the talk of Mrs May's vulnerabilities, she actually has the whip hand. If she stands back and lets the "Ultras" have their own way, and we drop into a full-frontal "no deal" scenario as a result, she only has to smile sweetly and say "I told you so".

The "Ultras" are mad enough to go for the "no deal" bait, with David Davis still burbling on about dumping EU trade and seizing "the opportunities Brexit presents for us to be a truly Global Britain".

When the Channel ports are blocked, the flights are grounded and the pound crashes, the likes of Davis will have to eat their words. All the MPs who blocked Mrs May's deal can then explain to their constituents why they have brought the country to the brink of ruin.

This will not only apply to individual MPs. If Mr Corbyn's Labour Party has been instrumental in forcing the country into a damaging "no deal" scenario, this could weaken its chances of success at the next general election. In fact, an emboldened Mrs May, having successfully brokered emergency negotiations with Brussels to keep the show on the road, might look forward to another term of office.

In the meantime, it looks as if we might be about to see a little more theatre, with The Sunday Times claiming that Mrs May is about to emulate Margaret Thatcher by travelling to Brussels to demand a better Brexit deal "in a last-ditch attempt to save her government from collapse".

I'm not sure that was ever Mrs Thatcher's role but we are led to believe that ministers and aides have convinced the prime minister that she needs "a handbag moment" with the EU if she is to have any chance of persuading her own MPs to support her.

We are now supposed to expect Mrs May to announce on Monday that that she will launch "a final throw of the diplomatic dice" with a dash to Brussels to ask the "colleagues" if they will concede a time limit or a unilateral exit provision to the "backstop".

Even though any prospect of delay has been rejected by No.10, the ST has revived speculation that Tuesday's vote might be postponed, to give time for further negotiations or even a referendum.

In a further variation of the referendum theme, we might be looking at the "leave/remain" poll, followed by a second question as to whether we prefer May's deal or no deal.

Whether the combined questions would pass the Electoral Commission's intelligibility test (see Section 104) remains to be seen. But, to my recollection, there has never been a multi-question referendum and designing the questions so as to avoid any confusion is not going to be easy.

It could be the case, for instance, that voters would prefer Mrs May's deal to crashing out, but would prefer to remain rather than face the "no deal" scenario. How does one then stop a straight "leave/remain" question being tainted by sentiment bleeding over from the first question. And then, how would voting be affected if the order of the questions was changed? What precisely would the referendum be measuring?

All that, though, pre-supposes that the EU would extend the Article 50 timescale, which simply cannot be assured. It takes just one Member State to refuse and we're back to square one.

Whether the ST story even survives the day without being rebutted by No.10 is anybody's guess. Unaware of the ST "scoop", The Sunday Telegraph has an official saying they were "100 percent" certain that the Tuesday vote will be held on time, while the Independent was reporting at 1am this morning a Downing Street "denial" that there will be any delay.

True or not, the story gives the Sunday broadcasters something to be going on with, breaking out of an agenda that is getting tediously repetitive – if only for the morning. And, once again, The Sunday Times gets to set the news agenda for the day, which is all that really matters.

One can, though, never discount the power of well-crafted theatre. An essentially venal media, wedded to trivia, is quite capable of running with a "last minute dash" soap opera. And the image of our "plucky prime minister" bearding the "Euro-bullies" in their lair in Brussels could have a powerful effect on voting intentions in Westminster.

The same dynamic could even be enough to bounce the Commission into offering headline "concessions" of such opacity that no one will have worked out that they are meaningless before the Tuesday vote. A media that can sell Mr Cameron's phantom veto to the public shouldn't have much of a problem selling a May victory as she steps off her RAF transport, making waves.

Perhaps that is all it does need – a little bit of drama, a sheet of paper, and history is made. What possibly can go wrong?

Richard North 09/12/2018 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few