Brexit: lost to the real world

Monday 26 August 2019  

Despite having only one destination in mind, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is still fighting shy of admitting it. All he can bring himself to do is concede that the prospect of making a deal with the EU before 31 October is "touch and go".

At least this is a climb-down from his previous assertion that the odds of a no-deal outcome were "a million to one" – yet another lie from Johnson to go in the history books to add to the many more he has told.

Where he is still obviously delusional though is in his comments at the G7 summit in Biarritz, where he denies that there would be medicine and food shortages in the event of no-deal, offering the mindless mantra that "we can easily cope".

"What I can tell people and as I said a few weeks ago on the steps of Downing Street", he burbled, "I think we can get through this. This is a great, great country the UK, we can easily cope with a no-deal scenario. And I know that's what people want".

Not content with that, he manged to hold himself hostage to fortune by proclaiming: "Frankly I think it's highly unlikely that there will be food shortages of any kind".

I would have thought it was the very first thing they taught in politician kindergarten was not to make predictions about events over which you have no control – but is seems Johnson never completed the course. Purely through panic buying, there could be major shortages of certain commodities.

If there is then even minor congestion at the ports, and the fuel supply is disrupted, leading to distribution problems, this could easily bleed through into more generalised scarcities, as confidence in the supply chain erodes.

At least, when we last had our backs to the wall, Winston Churchill – the man who Johnson so much likes to emulate – had the sense to offer us nothing but "blood, toil, sweat and tears". And while one doesn't have to fall for the "Blitz spirit" shtick to appreciate the gravity of our current situation, this buffoon is doing precisely the wrong thing with his inane optimism.

According to the prime minister in office, no-deal preparations are being "ramped up", while he maintains the fiction that this is intended "to help secure an agreement". And then comes the "blame game" payoff, with him burbling: "so that if and when we are forced by the obduracy by our European friends to come out on 31 October without a deal that things are as smooth as they can be".

The phrasing here – it would seem – is straight out of the politicians' lexicon of weasel words. Like "as frictionless as possible", the term "as smooth as they can be", short of being taken at face value, can range from "not very" to "extremely rough".

With that, Johnson now believes (or so he says – if that can be taken as an indicator) that everything "depends on our EU friends and partners". He goes on to say that he thinks "in the last few days there has been a dawning realisation in Brussels and other European capital what the shape of the problem is for the UK".

Again, that might just be self-delusion. We're seeing a lot of it about. But, if "our EU friends and partners" are more aware of "what the shape of the problem is for the UK", the same cannot be said for the Oaf's appreciation of the problems attendant on a no-deal Brexit. There, he resides firmly in cloud-cuckoo land, although his head might be in an anatomically impossible position.

This happens to coincide with a report that the Dutch government is in talks with 325 British-based companies considering relocating after Brexit.

Such a development is only to be expected. For companies trading across Europe, it is much easier to service their customers from a base within the EU, while treating the UK as an outlier. Put simply, dealing with 27 nations inside the EU is better done from inside the EU, rather that being "at home" in the UK which is being treated as a third country by those self-same 27 nations.

Furthermore, this is not just happening at the mega-corporation level. It is as easy (for the moment) for the sole trader, or the SME, to relocate, even at the expense of abandoning the UK altogether. That certainly is an easier way of coping with a no-deal scenario than struggling through the uncertainties that confront us – although I doubt that this is what Johnson has in mind.

For an example of the "shape of the problem" facing UK business, we need go not further than a recent report by the UCL, on post Brexit EU-UK data flows, which expresses the view that disruption in this area "would be unprecedented and extremely damaging for business and the UK economy".

Trailed heavily in the Observer, this newspaper's coverage highlights two major problem areas, only one of which is overtly expressed.

The headline issue is that, without the EU making an "adequacy decision" to ease the flow of data – which is not likely to happen before a no-deal Brexit takes effect, if at all in the immediate future – then "the UK would immediately become a third country in EU law, and instant disruption to EU-UK data flows would ensue".

A typical example would be problems for a UK-based hotel company which can currently receive data from EU countries about customers using its hotels on the continent – valuable for commercial reasons, including to target people for promotions.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) cited another potential example, in which a UK conference centre could lose bookings from EU companies that would be in breach of personal data rules after Brexit if they sent attendees' data outside the EU without the right contractual safeguards.

Those and many more issues would have a significant effect on the ability of companies to conduct Europe-wide trade from an EU base – hence the enthusiasm amongst some firms for relocation. And it really doesn't matter what sort of glowing statements about a trade deal with the US from Donald Trump, even at best it is going to take years to rebuild the level of trade lost from EU Member States.

As for the less visible problem concerning EU-UK data flows, the UCL report notes that the question of data flows, so far, has received minimal attention in the Brexit debate, and has barely been discussed at political level in the Brexit negotiations.

Understandably, the European Commission team conducting the Article 50 negotiations has considered it an issue for the future relationship – to be deal with during the transitional period. But, with the emergence of the no-deal threat, there is a crisis in the making, in the here and now.

Therein lies the problem – that the question – like many no-deal consequences, has received minimal attention. Even now, it has taken a report from a "prestige" source to get any attention at all, when any half-way diligent media organ sould have been reporting on this for years, without any prestige prompting.

In the case of this blog, I have reported on this recently but also from early 2017, when Mrs May raised the prospect of a no-deal exit, going through the year with additional pieces as my understanding of this complex issue increased.

When the history of Brexit comes to be told, it should include a strong comment on the failure of the media, from its own resources, to research, analyse and report on the predictable consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Even now, when one looks at the collected "explainer" from the media. So many of them are superficial and derivative, relying in the main on previously published third-party sources.

It is this information vacuum that charlatans such as Johnson survive and even prosper, getting away with the vacuous and palpably dishonest claim that "we can easily cope with a no-deal scenario". We can't – not easily. We will cope, because cope we must – it is not as if we have a choice in the matter.

But, if right from the start, in early 2017, the media had expended the time and resource to exploring the full effects of a no-deal – shorn of the "project fear" elements which so pollute the discourse – one would like to think that events would have panned out differently. With a better knowledge of what exactly no-deal entails, more people might be having serious reservations about treading this path.

At the very least, leaving without a deal would be an informed decision, clear of the rosy-pink glow of optimism being sold to us from the buffoon at Number 10.

Richard North 26/08/2019 link

Brexit: the blame game

Sunday 25 August 2019  

I really don't know how many times it has to be said, but if Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is intent on the UK leaving the EU on 31 October – and he has made it clear that that is his intent often enough - then we will be leaving without a deal.

There are few people who will sensibly dispute that the European Union is a rules-based organisation and, when it comes to agreeing treaties – of which the Withdrawal Agreement is one – there are no short cuts. Procedure must be followed or any subsequent agreement may not be legally valid. It is not only what is agreed that matters. It is also how it is agreed.

Procedure in this is set out in Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and, if that procedure is followed, there simply isn't time even to go through the necessary steps to re-open negotiations, much less come to a formal agreement – which must then be approved by the European Council and ratified by both the European and the Westminster parliaments.

To suggest otherwise - that we are able to go through all the necessary procedural steps to finalise a new treaty – is rather like gazing at an airliner from which the wings have been removed and earnestly discussing loading passengers for its next flight, ignoring the rather minor problem that the aircraft cannot fly.

The rhetoric about reaching a new deal by 31 October, therefore, is just that – a cynical, empty ploy which should not be worth any discussion. If Johnson is to be taken at his word, and he is absolutely firm on his leaving date, then there is no possible outcome other than a no-deal exit.

Certainly, according to a recent Opinium/Observer poll, the majority believes a no-deal on 31 October is now the most likely outcome.

This, though, does not reflect an overwhelming sentiment. Only 37 percent of voters believe there will be a no-deal exit. By contrast, 22 percent think Brexit will be delayed for a general election or another referendum. Only 13 percent buy into the myth that we will leave with a deal on or shortly after 31 October. And only nine percent think Brexit will be delayed indefinitely or cancelled without a referendum.

By that measure, Johnson has not been able to convince anything like an actual majority that he intends to keep his word – understandable given the man's history as a serial liar.

What Opinium does not seem to have been put to its sample is the possibility that Johnson himself might seek a further extension of the Article 50 process, in order to create room for talks at a European Council level. One can quite imagine the man attending the October Council, only then to return with an argument for delay.

However, the mood music doesn't seem to support that scenario. Lead story for The Sunday Times is Johnson putting Britain on an "election footing" by warning Brussels that "he will slash more than £30 billion from the EU divorce bill in the event of a no-deal Brexit".

This supposedly "tough" stance is apparently intended to win over Brexit Party supporters, although one suspects that the only thing that will impress them is our departure on 31 October. All the rest is detail.

The Observer, on the other hand, has Johnson running to the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, to ask whether parliament can be shut down for five weeks from 9 September "in what appears to be a concerted plan to stop MPs forcing a further extension to Brexit, according to leaked government correspondence".

There is, of course, the distinct possibility that this is calculated misdirection on the part of the Johnson team. It doesn't fit in with the scenario that has a vote of no confidence being held, leading to a general election and the dissolution of parliament.

But then, this sort of speculation has been part of the political game forever, and one is quite used to the Sunday papers attempting to set the agenda, only to have their stories debunked within hours of their publication. In this foetid political atmosphere, nothing is real and nothing has substance. A story lasts only for as long as it takes for it to be replaced with another one.

Far more entertaining, in a wearisome sort of way, is the emerging spat between Johnson and Donald Tusk about who will go down in history as "Mr No Deal".

This arises from Tusk's comments when he arrived for the G7 summit in Biarritz, when he accused the prime minister in office of wanting a no-deal Brexit, while suggesting that he should be doing everything he can to prevent going down in history as "Mr No Deal".

In what very quickly degenerated into a childish exchange, we had Johnson hitting back "hard", asserting that it was Tusk who risked being given that title. "As I've made it absolutely clear", Johnson said, "I don't want a no-deal Brexit but I say to our friends in the EU: if they don't want a no-deal Brexit then we've got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty".

In a petulant aside, he then added, "If Donald Tusk doesn't want to go down as 'Mr No Deal Brexit' then I hope that point should be born in mind by him too". It is so good to see such mature politics at play.

But here we go full circle. By insisting on a condition that he must know that the EU cannot accept – on a timescale that cannot be met - Johnson is thereby ensuring that there cannot be meaningful negotiations. Yet he is able to blame the "intransigence" of the EU in not coming to the table.

One can quite see why Tusk might think that Johnson is determined to pursue a no-deal Brexit. He is only coming to the conclusion that any of us might have reached (and, in fact, already have) that there is only that one possible outcome from his current stance.

That, of course, leaves it open that the serial liar is once again lying though his teeth, and has no intention of honouring his 31 October pledge. At the last minute, he will find some excuse or other for not going ahead with it. It has even been put to me that Johnson is quite capable of revoking the Article 50 notification, thus keeping us in the EU – even though it would be electoral suicide.

More likely, it would seem at this stage, is that Johnson is following what he believes to be a "win-win" strategy, in offering the EU his "alternative arrangements", anticipating that the "colleagues" will back off at the very last minute and dump the backstop in favour of his scheme. And, if it doesn't, he comes away looking the "Mr Reasonable", winning the blame game hands down.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible that Johnson has swallowed the Singham Kool Aid, especially as it has been fronted by the idiot Greg Hands, in which case he could actually believe that he has a workable strategy that will actually avoid a no-deal Brexit.

He seems unable to grasp the procedural requirements of the rules-based organisation he is up against, and therefore does not understand that there will be no last-minute "recantation".

This, according to the Independent on Sunday is leading to a bizarre game of double-bluff, where pro-EU Tories are nervous about when they should act to thwart a no-deal Brexit, as they don't want to be blamed for derailing Johnson's efforts to get a deal. Most Tories in the rebel alliance are apparently reluctant to be the obstruction to that by acting prematurely.

One might have thought that "pro-EU Tories" might have enough knowledge of the construct they so love to realise that Johnson's strategy is a non-starter. But they have shown no better understanding of the nature of the EU than their Eurosceptic counterparts.

Where the flaw in what passes for their thinking possibly lies is in the legend that EU deals are most often made at the last minute. And while there may be some truth in that, it applies mostly in internal negotiations within the institutions.

The failure here is to understand that the Article 50 talks are external treaty negotiations that are bound by rigid procedural elements – the very same that led to the lack of flexibility which scuppered the Doha Round of the WTO talks. There is going to be no last-minute reprieve. Johnson is driving us into a cul de sac, from which there is no escape. All we have left is the blame game.

Richard North 25/08/2019 link

Brexit: open thread

Saturday 24 August 2019  

Many times, I have remarked on the madness infecting what passes for the Brexit debate, so much so that the subject defies rational analysis. As far as I am concerned, Brexit has now become a matter of personal survival.

Mrs EU Referendum is dispatched daily to build up the stockpile of toilet rolls, instant coffee, sugar, canned and dried goods and all those items deemed essential to modern life. On top of that, we have invested significant funds in improving domestic security, as no help can be expected from the police or the other forces of law and order in the event that things go belly-up.

This is by no means the first time I have addressed such issues, although I don't do it that frequently. The last time I mentioned that the inevitable response to Brexit must be personal – on the basis of sauve qui peut - was in May last year. And I've hardly laboured the need for stockpiling, even if that is the most sensible response to the continued uncertainty.

Perhaps the most significant change in my provisions is the elimination of candles from our list and the substitution of multiple LED lanterns, permanently on trickle charge from USB couplings. I'd recommended this to Boiling Frog and he followed my advice, just in time for him to be well-prepared for a power cut in the wake of the cooling tower demolition at Didcot. With enough lanterns, there is plenty of light for most normal domestic activities. And they can be recharged from modern cars, which have USB sockets.

Sadly, that seems to be the extent to which rationality can be applied to Brexit. When you end up with a national daily newspaper affording space to the idiot Greg Hands to extol the virtues of his Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC), you know full well that logic has departed the scene.

If anything, that has been the one thing that has come over from Brexit – exposing the fundamental ignorance of our political classes and our media. This has proved so extensive that there seems no possible cure.

We must accept that ignorance is a feature of our political life, which must be factored in to the response to any developments. It is unwise to expect either politicians or the media correctly to analyse or interpret developments, or to provide advice that can be relied upon.

That said, I constantly amaze myself that, night after night, I am able to produce an essay on the theme of Brexit, ranging from 12-1500 words, totalling something like 1.5 million words since the referendum, without a break.

Of late, though, it gets harder and harder and I have increasingly to resort to mind tricks in order to deliver the goods. On a thin news night, as the midnight hour beckons and I have yet to write a word, I tell myself that, just this once, I will compromise and just write one paragraph, resorting to the age-old device of bloggers – the open thread.

But once I have written one paragraph, I tell myself I might as well write another. And with that done, I write another until a complete page is done. And with one page, I reason, I might as well write another and, with two down, I might just as well finish the job and write the third.

Most often, I find myself starting to write without the first idea of my theme, or how the piece is going to end up. And far too often this year, I've seen the sun come up before I've been able to complete my post. I'm looking forward to the longer nights so that I'm not going to bed to the strains of the dawn chorus.

Increasingly, though, a sense of desperation pervades my thinking as the likely outcome of a no-deal Brexit becomes more certain. What is really most startling is that there is any doubt. The path on which Johnson is set inevitably has us leaving on 31 October, and there is no possibility that we face anything other than a no-deal scenario.

What we can't predict is how the detail will pan out. Breaking away from the most comprehensive experiment in political and economic integration is a unique event. And since so many people in authority have little idea of what is entailed in our EU membership, it can be hardly surprising that they have less idea of what might happen when we leave.

Nevertheless, it is possible to make a fairly good estimate of where the headline issues lie, although this seems something beyond the wit of the media and the political classes.

And when self-importance is matched by profound ignorance, you get the likes of Greg Hands sounding off about food and animal checks "away from the border", and if the regimes on plant and animal regulations diverge, "mobile units to carry out sanitary and phytosanitary checks far from the sensitive frontier".

But if, in this event, it is the Mail which is platforming ignorance, it is not on its own. We had The Sun yesterday earnestly claiming that the EU was "brainstorming tweaks to hated Irish backstop to avoid No Deal Brexit after Boris Johnson insists it must be scrapped".

A plan under consideration, we were told, would see the scope of the backstop whittled down and largely confined to covering livestock, plus animal and plant products. Thus, an EU source told The Sun: "That's where Boris is already having success - at least we're thinking at the highest levels about alternatives".

Under this "compromise solution", Northern Ireland would mirror Brussels rules on animal and plant health to allow "seamless" trade in agricultural products. But, in return, Brussels would agree to take a "controlled risk" on all other goods crossing the border from the UK into Ireland.

It took a matter of hours before Twitter demolished this story, but only the wildest of ignorance could have allowed it to be published in the first place. Not in a million years could this be a realistic proposition. However, if we are prey to the ignorati, almost anything goes – except accuracy. To determine what is going on, and to do the research which will keep us on the straight and narrow, is far too much like hard work. Speculation on the basis of fantasy politics, is so much easier.

Nonetheless, an unexpected degree of realism seems to be afflicting the Oaf. Down in Devon yesterday, he told reporters that people "shouldn't get hopes up too soon" about prospects of a Brexit deal. But, considering that he is the one that has been pushing the optimism button, he is the last one to talk.

The perspicacious Guardian, however, has divined that Johnson's comments "suggest he thinks some of the reporting of what he achieved this week has been over-optimistic". He is saying that, while the "mood music" when he visited Berlin and Paris was "very good", [Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron] could see that we want a deal.

According to Johnson, they can see the problems with the backstop and, clearly Angela Merkel thinks that the solutions can be found within 30 days. Actually, Johnson says, what she meant was if you can do it in two years you can certainly do it in 30 days.

For all that, we are still on the no-deal shtick, with the prime minister in office prattling about having "an arrangement that allows the whole UK to come out of the EU and have frictionless trade at the border in Northern Ireland". There are lots of ways that we can make sure that happens, he says, but to persuade our EU friends and partners, who are very, very, very hard over against it, will take some time.

That is where reality departs, of course. And it doesn't matter how many times you repeat the mantras, if Johnson is determined to ditch the backstop, then we are leaving on 31 October without a deal.

If there is a theme for me to write, therefore, it is how nothing changes. The moment the Oaf took office, we were set for a no-deal Brexit. If I could be bothered, I might write about that, except that there is a faint glimmer of dawn on the horizon – unless it's my imagination. I think I will have to rely on making this post an open thread.

Richard North 24/08/2019 link

Brexit: winning the battle, losing the war

Friday 23 August 2019  

Starting in Berlin and moving on to Paris, much of what we've been seeing over the last few days has been theatre. With that, the signal to noise ratio is such that it is hard to discern any useful information from what is filtering though.

An indication of just how cluttered things have got comes from the Guardian, which reckons that, "despite the tough love, Johnson's EU sortie has been a relative success".

The measure of that "success", the paper feels, is that Macron has been left holding the baby, reaffirming that the backstop is an "indispensable guarantee" to preserving the political stability of Ireland and the means of protecting the integrity of the single market.

With that, he is seen as the "spoilsport", closing down any possibility of new negotiations, leaving Johnson ready to set the scene for blaming a no-deal Brexit squarely at the "intransigence" of Brussels (and Paris, and Berlin) – and the "remainer wreckers" in parliament.

Having stressed repeatedly that the UK is determined not to impose border checks in the event of no-deal Brexit, the prime minister in office is sending out a message to Brussels – copying in the rest of the world - with the subtext that "any snarl-ups will be your fault, not ours".

This is made all the more clear by his optimistic burbling, with him telling Macron that with "energy and creativity we can find a way forward" – as if that is all it took.

What is more, Johnson has specifically name-checked Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) report, attributing it to MP Greg Hands, using it to demonstrate that he is putting the "oomph" into pursuing a new agreement. By this means he hopes to rebut in advance the accusation that he is charging headlong towards no-deal.

To date, unfortunately, the media and the political classes have done such a shitty job of critiquing the AAC report that, to the superficially inclined, Johnson's stance might appear to have some merit. And when, as indeed they must, the "colleagues" reject this fatuous scheme, the "intransigence" legend will take on new legs.

Where we go from there really is anyone's guess but, it seems, we are shaping up for a galactic, albeit entirely artificial, battle with only one destination. But, if that really is the only destination, then there is only one battle left to fight – to decide who gets the blame.

Nevertheless, there is every indication that Macron (along with the rest of the "colleagues") is wise to Johnson's game, commenting: "I've always been portrayed as the toughest in the group".

Political commentators are said to be wary of Johnson, suspecting him of wanting to frame France as the bad cop to blame for any no-deal. Yet Macron is determined to avoid taking any blame for what he was yesterday calling the UK's internal democratic crisis over Brexit.

In analytical mode, Macron said he believed the British people's sovereign decision must be carried out, but warned against "democracies suffering lack of efficiency and lack of clarity". One wonders if he has put the same points to the gilets jaunes.

Merkel, in the meantime, has insisted that she had not given the UK a strict 30-day deadline – even if it has been taken as such by Johnson. She says she was illustrating how little time there was to reach a deal prior to 31 October. But since Macron has picked up on the "deadline", the fiction is acquiring its own reality.

That may mean a sudden surge of activity out of Number 10 in mid-September, timed – amongst other things – to distract from the Labour Party conference, which is set for Brighton on 21 September. Should Johnson then decide, formally to submit his "alternative arrangements" to Brussels, that could end up dominating the narrative.

One could hope that, between then and now, the media and opposition politicians (including those in the Conservative Party) might spend some time on a forensic analysis of these arrangements, with a view to debunking them. But since none of them have proved up to the job so far, it would be unwise to raise one's expectations.

A more realistic sign of how some of the media will play it comes from The Sun which is currently telling its readers that "Macron and Merkel's warm words won't mean anything if they can’t get Leo Varadkar off the cliff he’s created for himself".

The paper has decided that the recent statements from the German and French leaders show that there is some "flexibility" on the Continent, so much so that all Johnson has to do is "move quickly to show that alternative arrangements are possible".

The problem, we are told, is not that these are, in fact, not possible. Rather, it is Irish premier Leo Varadkar's "performance over the past three years" that doesn't fill the newspaper with much confidence. "The Irish PM", it says, "hasn't missed an opportunity to tear into his country's biggest trading partner".

Having "failed at every turn to be a constructive partner", it's "his inflexible attitude towards the UK that has made no deal more likely". Adds the paper: "It's blindingly obvious that the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands is well into dead parrot territory. If Varadkar continues to insist that it's the only deal possible, what does he think will happen?"

But, of that, The Sun has no doubt. Leaving the EU "with a clean break", it says, might be "bumpy" but "it's what we voted for".

While The Sun's sister paper, The Times takes a similar view, claiming that Johnson "returned to London buoyed yesterday after President Macron said that a Brexit deal was possible", for a completely different perspective, all you have to do is read the Irish Times. This is telling us that the UK is "on track to price itself out of EU" with a "Canada-minus" deal. It believes that "tariffs [are] the most likely consequence of regulatory divergence from EU".

Actually, they won't be. Regulatory divergence means that UK produce will not be permitted entry to the Single Market. Tariffs won't be an issue, because the goods will never qualify for free circulation within the Union.

Nevertheless, the paper claims that Johnson's advisers have told EU officials that the UK will be seeking a Canada-style free-trade deal, out of the customs union and the single market, and without being bound by "level playing field" rules.

The EU's response, we are told, will probably demand closer UK alignment to its rules than with any other major trade partner. And if the UK can't accept this, then we should expect to see the EU offer only limited market access – probably including tariffs on some goods, as a way of increasing the EU’s leverage against UK regulatory undercutting. The reckoning, it says, "could be brutal".

This, though, is written by Paul McGrade, who worked at the UK Foreign Office, the European Commission and the UK Cabinet Office as an adviser on EU treaty negotiations. One can quite see how HMG so often got into trouble, if this is representative of the quality of advice it has been getting.

It is a pity that the paper, instead of hosting such issue-illiterate material, couldn't expend some of its energies on debunking Johnson's alternative arrangements.

Few people seem properly to understand quite what the implications of dropping out of "regulatory alignment" and dumping the regulatory ecosystem might be. But if the Irish Times is hosting comment that puts as the penalty increased tariffs, then we have much further to go than I thought.

Nevertheless, whether being priced out by the imposition of tariffs or excluded because of regulatory non-conformity, the net effect is the same, whence Irish businesses are asked whether they are ready to take advantage.

If only that thought was pursued in the corridors of Whitehall. Away from the febrile imaginings of the "Yellowhammer" dossier, this alludes to the real effect of a no-deal Brexit - the progressive (and even slow-motion) collapse of the UK's trade to EU Member States.

Thus, while Johnson may be set to win the battle of blame, he is set to lose the war and the country's economy goes steadily down the pan.

Richard North 23/08/2019 link

Brexit: fantasy politics

Thursday 22 August 2019  

Laid out unequivocally in the European Council (Art. 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations is one of the core principles which set the tone for the talks.

Any agreement, the guidelines say, "must ensure a level playing field, notably in terms of competition and state aid, and in this regard encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practices".

In short, that means that the UK will not be allowed to negotiate an agreement which puts it in a better position after Brexit than it would have had as a full EU member, and neither can it be allowed to have greater influence over EU affairs than it had previously.

When it comes to the Single Market, these guidelines readily translate into certain unalterable requirements which would, in effect, amount to the EU's own "red lines".

Specifically, a dominant feature of the Single Market is the body of harmonised regulatory standards, and it is an absolute requirement that Member States should conform fully with those standards. Not only that – except under the most exceptional circumstances – traders wishing to export goods to EU Member States must also conform fully with those same standards.

This is the very basis of the Single Market, where huge effort is devoted to ensuring conformity, and any divergence from set standards is rigorously discouraged.

Yet, in his letter to Donald Tusk this week, the man occupying the post of prime minister blithely stated that he was seeking to ditch the backstop, with its commitment to "full alignment" with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, said Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Instead, Johnson has been making reference to "alternative arrangements", which he re-emphasised in Berlin yesterday, saying: "We do think there are alternative arrangements that could readily be used to address the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border and you'll have heard them before, whether it is trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing. All that type of solution and more besides is what we will be wanting to discuss".

Doubtless, he has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission and his ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

And sure enough, no sooner has Mrs Merkel told the prime minister in office that she would be prepared to listen to his proposals for an alternative to the backstop – ostensibly giving him 30 days to come forward with a "practical and workable" scheme – up pops the egregious Singham in the Telegraph.

With a level of hubris which is probably only exceeded by the second Cummings, he blithely declares that the EU leaders "have got it wrong" and that there are plenty of solutions to the Irish border problem.

Then, in an extraordinary statement – even for him – Singham asserts that "it is now recognised that there will be regulatory divergence", going on to say that: "If there is any alignment to be had, it will be alignment of goals. If our aims are aligned and the regulations put in place objectively achieve them then differences in regulation should not prevent mutual recognition".

Of course, it is very far from being recognised that there will be regulatory divergence. This is wishful thinking to a very advanced degree. The essential feature of the backstop is regulatory alignment and the EU has not moved one iota from this principle.

Furthermore, if you stand back from this and consider what is being proposed, Singham is expecting the EU Member States (and the rest of the world) to conform with the Single Market's harmonised standards, while uniquely allowing the UK to set its own standards. It should then enjoy "frictionless" access to the Market which, to everyone else, is conditional on regulatory alignment.

Not only does this give the UK an unfair competitive advantage, it also puts us in a far better position than we enjoyed as an EU member. Inside the EU, we were bound to comply with EU law. Outside, Singham expects us to enjoy all the benefits of the Single Market without having to trouble ourselves with conformity with its most fundamental precept.

And should the EU actually allow such a situation, not only would it be in breach of its own principles, it would be driving a cart and horse through EU rules, and in particular the requirement to apply the same rules to all its trading partners.

Thus, should the EU allow the UK to work on the basis of mutual recognition, it would be under enormous pressure to open that concession to all its other partners. The Single Market, as we know it, would cease to exist.

Clearly, there is not the slightest chance that the EU is going to accept Singham's idiot proposal and it is to the eternal shame of the Telegraph that they give space to such a lamentable absence of realism.

Nor indeed does it stop there. Where currently the UK enjoys the benefit if mutual recognition, where there are no harmonised standards, that provision ceases on Brexit – deal or no deal. Mutual recognition of standards applies only to fully-fledged participants in the Single Market.

While variously estimated as accounting for as much as a fifth of our trade in goods with EU Member States, I cannot recall seeing any serious discussion in the media or by politicians about this loss, yet there can be little dispute that it will represent a severe body-blow to the UK.

The inability to address such points does, of course, reflect poorly on both media and politicians but there seems to be no limit to the degree to which the likes of Singham are given undisputed platforms to perpetrate his disinformation.

Despite his assertions being demonstrably false, Singham is still allowed to claim that the challenge of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, as well as the requirements for veterinary checks at Border Inspection Posts, " could be solved by moving facilities away from the border and utilising mobile units wherever possible to carry out checks".

Not anyone, it seems, in either a select committee or on the editorial staff of a national newspaper – nor even in critical trade groups – is capable of looking up the relevant EU law to show that these claims are entirely fabricated. And, as long as your lies are bold enough, the Telegraph will print them.

But where this fantasy takes us is anyone's guess. If Johnson is relying on Singham's "alternative arrangements", then he is going to come a cropper. A scheme based on lies and misinterpretations is not a sound basis for public policy, but it appears that Johnson doesn't have the wit to realise this.

Nor does he seem to understand that Merkel is not talking about reopening the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. All that is on offer is another massage of the political declaration, which can hardly deliver more than we have already seen with the Strasbourg Agreement. Johnson is not going to get the backstop removed.

If there was even the slightest doubt about that, today he meets Macron over lunch in Paris, where officials warn that a no-deal Brexit is now regarded as "the most likely outcome", while Macron is taking pains to emphasise that a renegotiation at this point "is not an option".

Scrapping the backstop, he says, is "impossible", presenting the EU an unacceptable choice between protecting its internal market by reintroducing border controls at the Irish border, or preserving peace on the island.

A French official puts the issue nicely in context, saying that: "If the UK considers that having a backstop is absolutely excluded, that is its right, but in that case it limits the possibility of reaching an agreement". And it was supposed to be the British who were masters of understatement.

Macron, though, is even more forthright, pointing to a "British democratic crisis" over Brexit. "The British were asked to choose, in perhaps a simplistic way, without the government telling them how it would be done" he says.

"Many lied about how it would be done, and democracy couldn't find a majority to apply what people decided. It's unheard of, but that's what we're living. We have to help the British deal with this internal democratic crisis, but we mustn't be hostage to it nor export it".

It comes to something when we have a French president lecturing us on a "democratic crisis", but before Brexit is over, I guess we'll be seeing a lot stranger things. Fantasy politics are fast becoming the new norm.

Richard North 22/08/2019 link

Brexit: ours is but to do or [panic] buy

Wednesday 21 August 2019  

The BBC seems to have joined Project Fear big time, running a story revealed unto the sainted Faisal Islam about how a no-deal Brexit is going to run us out of fuel and we're all going to die – or something like that.

This was something touched upon in the "Yellowhammer" dossier, where it was reported that tariffs applied to UK refined petroleum products would make their export to EU Member States uncompetitive.

Industry, the dossier says, had plans to mitigate the impact on refinery margins and profitability, but UK government policy to set petrol import tariffs at zero percent inadvertently undermines these plans.

This, we are told, will lead to big financial losses and the closure of two refineries (which are converted to import terminals) with about 2,000 direct job losses. It is then hypothesised that resulting strike action at refineries would lead to disruptions to fuel availability for 1-2 weeks in the regions they directly supply.

I have a little difficulty with this as the EU provides us with its Market Access Database which lists the tariffs for thousands of product codes. And, as far as I can make out, refined petroleum gets the code 27090010, which gives us a zero tariff.

The BBC knows different, of course, and it is reporting that the current EU tariff on fuel imports from third countries is 4.7 percent, which will be applied to our exports to Ireland and other EU Member States, once we have left with a no-deal Brexit.

On the other hand, since the UK government has decided to apply a zero tariff on our imports, that means the UK market will be open to a flood of cheaper imports from Russia and other major exporters, while we lose out on exports to the EU states, which become "uneconomical".

The theory is that the resultant closure of UK refineries would lead to a long-term increase in consumer prices. Somehow, though, this has been elided into the general rhetoric on fuel shortages, which are supposed to arise in the first instance from congestion around the Channel ports, which disrupt the distribution of supplies.

When we add hypothesised strike action, this obviously makes the situation worse and, should that ever happen, it's pretty certain that panic buying will kick in and there will be empty tanks at the garages, long queues and rationing.

To beef up their story, the BBC has "seen" some of the contingency plans for local authorities. And, although Aberdeen City Council lists as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel affecting waste disposal, school transportation etc", the state broadcaster still manages to work in its name alongside suggestions that "fuel supply could be an issue".

The thing is that, typically, the national transport fleet averages half-empty (or half-full) tanks so, if collectively, the bulk of owner/operators decide to keep their tanks full, that in itself is enough to trigger a shortage at the pumps, even without any downturn in production.

With that, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the tariff issue is being overstated. Petrol is subject to massive duties plus VAT. This is charged on the duty-inclusive price, so we have a situation where customers are paying tax on a tax.

In Ireland, for instance, some 60 percent of the pump price goes to the government in duty and VAT, making a 4.7 percent tariff rather small beer.

One also suspects that Ireland, with established supply arrangements, could compensate for any tariffs by reducing slightly the duty payable, so that the net effect would be revenue-neutral, with no increase in the pump price either.

Altogether, therefore, it would look as if Aberdeen City Council has got it right, listing as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel". And so far, only the BBC has been running the shortage story big – as lead item on the main evening TV news.

The rest of the media seems to be holding off, although the likes of Sky News is making the most of the "Yellowhammer" story.

Three days into that story, since the Sunday Times broke it over the weekend, we're getting a taste of how the media will be playing Brexit as we get closer to the 31 October deadline. Throughout the decades, the media has never needed an excuse to run headline stories on scares, and has never been troubled by minor things such as facts.

I think my favourite was at the height of the 1988-9 Salmonella and eggs scare, when the Observer gave its front-page lead to the graphic tale of a man who had eaten a fried egg for his breakfast, and was being hospitalised with salmonella food poisoning by lunch-time.

Given that the typical incubation period of Salmonellosis is 18 hours, and less than eight hours is unheard of, a period of just over four hours rates as extremely improbable – and demonstrably so. But that didn't stop the Observer running with the story.

Over the next couple of months, I rather suspect that we are going to see an increasing flow of Brexit-related scare stories, rising to a flood as the day of our departure draws closer. This will not be Project Fear, as such, but the natural tendency of the media to exploit bad news for its own commercial purposes.

In terms of supplies – whether food, medicines or fuel – such stories can very easily trigger panic buying, turning predictions into self-fulfilling prophesies. Largely random and unpredictable, these could frustrate planners' attempts to maintain the flow of key products.

And this is not helped by the lack of certainty as to the outcome of the Brexit process. Although I have little doubt that we are facing a no-deal exit on 31 October – especially after the response of Donald Tusk to Johnson's letter – at this late stage the possibility of a last-minute deal cannot be ruled out, even if that is extremely unlikely.

If, as some suspect, Johnson is indulging in a devious blame-shifting strategy, where he wants to pin the responsibility firmly on the EU – thus clearing the way for a general election – then we can expect the uncertainty to continue to the last minute. It will be necessary to maintain the charade of "talks" right up to the eleventh hour, to give the impression that serious attempts are being made to reach an orderly settlement.

Where the European Commission is relying on a form of words - as it did in yesterday's response to Johnson – to the effect that it stands "ready to work constructively with the UK and within our mandate", hope will forever spring eternal that something can be fixed – right up to the moment when it can't.

And when Angela Merkel is also talking in terms of the EU being "ready to find a solution to the backstop issue" – although she is confining the prospect of any talks to the political declaration – this would appear to leave the door open in a way that can be exploited by Johnson and his advisers.

All of this creates a febrile atmosphere, where rumour and misinformation can thrive, and where the media – as with the BBC and its petrol story – can build on slender threads to start multiple scares running.

The lack of information then feeds on itself, intensifying the uncertainty and making it very difficult for non-government actors to do any serious planning without incurring what may turn out to be unnecessary expense.

Unable to take considered action, we are all reduced to the role of spectators where, in terms of action we have little available to us but to respond to the ebb and flow of [often baseless] media scares. It might be said that the only things now open to us are to do or [panic] buy.

Richard North 21/08/2019 link

Brexit: a suicide note from Number 10

Tuesday 20 August 2019  

Yesterday, the man occupying the post of prime minister sent a letter to the president of the European Council, with copies to each of the 27 heads of states and governments, plus a further copy to the president of the European Commission.

The content was nothing new – simply Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson reiterating the points previously made. He condemns the backstop as "anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state" and then proposes that it should be replaced with a commitment to put in place alternative arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

He also deigns to "recognise" that there will need to be "a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period". And, out of the goodness of his heart, he tells Donald Tusk that "we" (presumably, the UK government) "are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitment might help", consistent with the principles set out in his letter.

So transparent is this ploy that, within hours, the Guardian was writing that the initiative "appears intended to portray Johnson as willing to negotiate with Brussels, even though he is making a demand for the abolition of the backstop that they have repeatedly rebuffed".

By last night "Brussels sources" were once again ruling out any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. "There was a two and a half year negotiating process in which the EU compromised, including on the question of the backstop", someone described as "a well-informed source" was telling the Guardian.
The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change. A legally operable backstop to avoid a hard border remains central to the withdrawal agreement for the EU27.
And, as the momentum built up, others joined the fray, stating that the letter was a "clear attempt" to kill off any prospect of renegotiating the Brexit deal, which leaves no "room for compromise".

Another of those wondrously anonymous EU diplomats said Johnson had failed to put forward any "realistic alternatives", adding that "hope and imagination" would not prevent a hard border. By calling for the backstop to be abolished in its entirety, Johnson was effectively ruling out any prospect of the EU offering any concessions.

Earlier in the day, however, Johnson had been insisting that he was "confident" the EU would buckle and give into his Brexit demands, agreeing to renegotiate the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Said Johnson, it was "fine" that Brussels was currently opposed to changing the Withdrawal Agreement as he outlined his belief that the EU will drop its "reluctance" to shift its stance when it comes to the crunch.

And with that, nothing has changed since the very start, when it has been an article of faith amongst the hard core leavers that the EU will give in at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, as long as we threaten a no-deal and stand firm, intimating that we are fully prepared to deal with the consequences.

That, of course, is the other half of the crass stupidity emanating from Number 10 with Johnson burbling about preparations for a no-deal, saying: "I'm not pretending that there won't be bumps on the road […] but if everybody puts their minds to it, I have absolutely no doubt that we can get ready" – even though the leader of the CBI said it was impossible for companies to be fully prepared for the disruption that would happen if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.

The essence of his stupidity, though, is expressed in Johnson's letter, where he re-affirms that the UK is "unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter" of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

One assumes that this necessarily means the maintenance of a "soft" border. Although we don't see Johnson make specific reference to this, he does say that his government "will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland", stating that "we would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect", hoping that "the EU would do likewise".

Unfortunately, what he then says has the effect of making this impossible, by declaring:
Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.
The point he then acknowledges is that the "backstop is inconsistent with this ambition", misinterpreting its requirement in asserting that it required "continued membership of the customs union" and the application of "many single market rules in Northern Ireland".

A careful reading of the protocol, however, will not reveal any specific requirement from Northern Ireland to stay in the EU's customs union. Rather, it requires "full alignment with those rules of the Union's … customs union", which is actually a different thing.

By shadowing the EU's schedules of tariffs agreed with the WTO – which we already intend to do – and by committing (by way of a political declaration) to conforming with the EU's common external tariff, we would be able to maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the customs union, without formal membership of the customs union.

Nevertheless, Johnson's letter declares that we cannot "continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to 'full alignment' with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, says Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Yet again, reference to the offending paragraph of the Joint Report shows the commitment, in the absence of agreed solutions, "to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union" – which is not the same as membership.

But at the heart of the problem here is Johnson wanting to reserve the right for UK standards to "diverge from those of the EU". It is that, in his view, which makes the Withdrawal Agreement, and the embedded Protocol untenable, notwithstanding that the ability to secure "frictionless" trade demands full regulatory alignment.

Undoubtedly, in making reference to "alternative arrangements", Johnson has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

If that is what he has in mind, then his initiative is doomed, illustrated by an air of unreality as Johnson blathers, "Now of course our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position".

There is simply no prospect of the EU moving away from an absolute requirement for regulatory alignment, not least because any deviation from that principle would prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. Concessions would create precedents, and require similar treatment to be afforded to all the EU's other trading partners.

The net effect of Johnson's letter, therefore, is to set in stone a determination to force the EU into setting up a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

There can be no other outcome and it is thoroughly disingenuous for him to "hope" that the EU will be able to avoid "infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border". There is absolutely no way the EU can allow an unguarded back door into the Single Market.

It is, therefore, completely unsurprising that Johnson should have spent almost an hour on a phone call to the Irish premier, Leo Varadkar, only for the conversation to end in stalemate. A joint statement was released, acknowledging no progress over the issue of the backstop.

The prime minister in office has agreed to go to Dublin for talks with Varadkar in early September but, before that – this week - he is to see Merkel (in Berlin for dinner on Wednesday), before moving to have lunch with Macron in Paris on Thursday, ending up at the close of the week with a meeting of world leaders at the G7 summit.

Predictably, Downing Street sources are saying that they are not expecting any end to the deadlock this week, and nor should they. There will be no end to it. Johnson has just written the suicide note for the UK, ensuring that no-deal is our only destination on 31 October.

Richard North 20/08/2019 link

Brexit: crying wolf?

Monday 19 August 2019  

The Sunday Times's leakage of the government's "Yellowhammer" dossier certainly seems to have set the cat amongst the pigeons – which perhaps was the intention.

Predictably, the media are piling in, which is hardly surprising given a slow news day at the fag end of the silly season. There's hardly an outfit in the country (or world, even) which could pass up on such a juicy story.

Equally predictable was the response of No 10, which is apparently "furious" at the leak, although they would convey that view, come what may. In all probability though, that fury is genuine – it has that feel about it. The Johnson administration didn't want this.

The Guardian has Downing Street putting the timing down to a determination of a hostile former minister to spike the trips the prime minister in office intends to make in the coming week to see the two "M"s, Merkel and Macron.

However, the timing is probably a coincidence, as the leak probably pre-dates the public announcements of Johnson's visits and anyone with inside knowledge would doubtless not bother trying to sabotage them. Seeing Merkel and Macron was exactly what Mrs May did and it was a complete waste of time.

If Johnson has a purpose at all, it must be purely cosmetic, as no one serious could believe that even these two pre-eminent heads of state can achieve anything on Brexit outside the formal context of the European Council.

As for dealing with the fallout of the leak, the brunt of the rebuttal effort was borne yesterday by Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit preparations, who has been insisting that the dossier was an "old document" that did not reflect significant steps taken by Johnson’s administration over the last four weeks. He also argues that the dossier shows "the worst-case scenario".

This, from a reading of the document, is actually a given, with Gove promising that "very significant steps" had been taken in the last three weeks to accelerate Brexit planning. And together with the action taken by Continental authorities, it is hard to dispute that measures have been taken to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit.

Nevertheless, the leak has been a godsend for the considerable constituency who want to believe the worst, and soonest. There are no nuances here. Those who want to see Brexit fail will take anything they can get and make the most of it.

One of those is the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake. Despite its obvious flaws, he describes the dossier as "credible", claiming that it "lays bare the scale of the risks we are facing with a no-deal Brexit in almost every area". In his view, the risks "are completely insane for this country to be taking and we have to explore every avenue to avoid them".

One of the projected outcomes of the "Yellowhammer" dossier is a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Although HMG intends to activate the "no new checks with limited exceptions", the dossier argues that this model "is likely to prove unsustainable because of economic, legal and biosecurity risks".

With the UK becoming a third [non-EU] country, the automatic application of EU tariffs and regulatory requirements for goods entering Ireland will severely disrupt trade. The expectation is that some businesses will stop trading or relocate to avoid either paying tariffs that will make them uncompetitive or trading illegally.

Others will continue to trade but will experience higher costs that may be passed on to consumers. The agri-food sector will be hardest hit, given its reliance on complicated cross-border supply chains and the high tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.

In terms of detail, "Yellowhammer" suggests that disruption to key sectors and job losses are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockades. Price and other differentials are likely to lead to the growth of the illegitimate economy.

This, we are told, will be particularly severe in border communities where criminal and dissident groups already operate with greater freedom. Given the tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, there will be pressure to agree new arrangements to supersede the Day 1 model within days or weeks.

This brings Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney into the fray, tweeting that Dublin had "always been clear" a hard border in Ireland "must be avoided". On the other hand, Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, accused Johnson of treating the Northern Ireland peace process as a "commodity" in Brexit negotiations. She said Ireland as a whole had been voicing concerns about a no-deal Brexit for months.

Scottish MPs weren't silent either. SNP's Stephen Gethins pitched in to say that the dossier laid bare the "sheer havoc Scotland and the UK are hurtling towards". And back home, Lib-Dem MP Tom Brake said it showed the effects of a no-deal Brexit should be taken more seriously. "The government", he says, "has simply, I think, pretended that this wasn't an issue", arguing that the dossier revealed "the truth" that no-deal would "have wartime implications, in peacetime, all of them self-inflicted".

This brings in the US dimension where Brake is saying that ministers are in "a real pickle" since the "the US has said that if that border is jeopardised, we're not going to get a trade deal with them". This alludes to US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi who said on Wednesday that a US-UK trade deal would not get through Congress if Brexit undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) also reacted with alarm to the idea of fuel shortages in particular, saying these possibilities had not been conveyed to them by the government.

"This", a spokeswoman says, "is the first time the industry is learning of any threat to fuel supplies – a particularly worrying situation, as this would affect the movement of goods across the country, not just to and from Europe, and could put jobs at risk throughout the sector which keeps Britain trading".

Gove, however, received some considerable support from the government of Gibraltar.

"Yellowhammer" says that, because of the imposition of checks at its border with Spain (and the knock-on effect of delays from the UK to the EU), Gibraltar will see disruption to the supply of goods (including food and medicines) and to shipments of waste, plus delays of four-plus hours for at least a few months in the movement of frontier workers, residents and tourists across the border.

It also suggests that prolonged border delays over the longer term are likely to harm Gibraltar's economy, noting that - as on the UK mainland - cross-border services and data flow will be disrupted.

Yet, a dusty response from the government of Gibraltar states that the reports in the Sunday Times as they applied to Gibraltar were "out of date and were based on planning for worst case scenarios which the Government of Gibraltar has already dealt with".

According to this statement, the government of Gibraltar has been working closely with the UK on Yellowhammer "for many months". They have already commissioned all necessary works at the port in Gibraltar in order to have even further contingency capacity in maritime traffic.

Thus does the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, say "We do not want a no-deal Brexit. We think it is bad for Gibraltar. We are, nonetheless, now ready for it. The matters raised in the outdated Yellow Hammer leak have already been responsibly addressed in detail".

Now, while Johnson, himself is blaming former ministers, his administration is being urged to bring forward the planned no-deal campaign in order to counter what is now being termed as "scaremongering".

In that context, ministers are described as being "forced onto the backfoot" by "Yellowhammer" , an additional indication that there is a sabotage effort in progress. But, with the fight-back in progress, the leak may now be seen as rather counterproductive.

The thing is that we may well be facing considerable disruption, but not on the timescale and of the nature suggested by "Yellowhammer". The leakers may have been crying "wolf" which, as we all know, doesn't end well.

Richard North 19/08/2019 link

Brexit: predictions set to panic?

Sunday 18 August 2019  

When at the very beginning of August, Sky News published details of a leaked government document on the potential impact of Brexit, I wrote at the time that I was not very impressed by some of the predictions, which seemed way off the mark.

Now, The Sunday Times is having a go, releasing more details of what it says is the government's classified "Yellowhammer" report. This, in a relatively short document sets out the government's no-deal Brexit planning assumptions.

Apparently compiled this month by the Cabinet Office, we are told, offers a "rare glimpse into the covert planning being carried out by the government to avert a catastrophic collapse in the nation's infrastructure", with the leak laying bare "the gaps in contingency planning".

The document, marked "official-sensitive", states that the government expects the return of a hard border in Ireland as current plans to avoid widespread checks will prove "unsustainable". This, it says, "may spark protests, road blockages and 'direct action'".

It also expects that logjams caused by months of border delays could "affect fuel distribution", potentially disrupting the fuel supply in London and the southeast of England, while up to 85 percent of lorries using the main Channel crossings "may not be ready" for French customs and could face delays of up to 2½ days.

Significant disruption at ports is expected, likely to last up to three months before the flow of traffic "improves" to 50-70 percent of the current rate. The petrol import tariffs, which the government has set at zero, will "inadvertently" lead to the closure of two oil refineries, 2,000 job losses, widespread strike action and disruptions to fuel availability, while there will be passenger delays at EU airports, St Pancras, Eurotunnel and Dover.

As to medical supplies, these will "be vulnerable to severe extended delays" as three-quarters of the UK's medicines enter the country via the main Channel crossings. Furthermore, the availability of fresh food will be reduced and prices will rise. This could hit "vulnerable groups".

The government also expects potential clashes between UK and European Economic Area fishing vessels amid predictions that 282 ships will sail in British waters illegally on Brexit day. And, back home, there may be protests across the UK, which may "require significant amounts of police resource[s]".

Then, rising costs will hit social care, with "smaller providers impacted within 2-3 months and larger providers 4-6 months after exit", while Gibraltar will face delays of more than four hours at the border with Spain "for at least a few months", which are likely to "adversely impact" its economy.

With these things and much more, however, one wonders why Johnson and his government are so keen to pursue a no-deal. The situation without a deal looks to be a distinctly poor proposition.

Looking in detail at one aspect of the planning scenario, it is assumed that, in respect of the Channel ports, France will impose EU mandatory controls on UK goods on day one, having built the infrastructure and IT systems to manage and process customs declarations and to support a risk-based control regime.

It is then anticipated that 50-85 percent of HGVs travelling via the short straits may not be ready for French customs, which could reduce the flow of HGVs to 40-60 percent of current levels within one day.

Furthermore, the worst disruption to the short Channel crossings might last three months before flow rates rise to about 50-70 percent of current flow rates (as more traders get prepared), although disruption could continue much longer. In the event of serious disruption, however, it is anticipated that the French might act to improve the flow.

Nevertheless, it is expected that disruption to Channel flow would cause significant queues in Kent and delays to HGVs attempting to use the routes to travel to France. In a reasonable worst-case scenario, we are told, HGVs could face a maximum delay of 1½-2½ days before being able to cross the border. HGVs caught up in congestion in the UK will be unable to return to the EU to collect another load and some logistics firms may decide to avoid the route.

We then learn that "analysis to date" has suggested a low risk of significant sustained queues at ports outside Kent that have high volumes of EU traffic. But we are assured that the Border Delivery Group will continue to work directly with stakeholders at those ports to support planning readiness.

From the way this evaluation is couched, it appears to be a fuller version of what we were seeing in a presentation slide in early August, with great similarity in the outcome. However, it is also very clear that we are being schooled to look at a worse-case scenario, the nature of which the planners are seeking to avoid.

Lacking here are any details of the mitigation measures that have been and are being implemented on both sides of the Channel. And, on that basis, one might expect that the authors of the "Yellowhammer" report are setting out a scenario that they do not (or no longer) expect to happen.

Much of what we've been told in recent weeks goes toward ensuring that, whatever customs, etc., measures are imposed on the border, every effort will be made to ensure that the traffic continues to flow, and that queues (on either side of the Channel) are avoided.

The scenario posited also neglects to allow for action taken by shippers and carriers in the first few days and weeks, voluntarily to hold back goods until the situation is clearer, and the clearance procedures are better understood. Should that happen, with the implementation of mitigation measures, there is no reason to believe that there will be significant congestion on the Channel route – certainly in the first few weeks.

One wonders, therefore, what the motivation might be of the person or persons who have leaked the report. One possibility is that they are trying to fuel enhanced concern about the effects of a no-deal, in the hope that MPs focus harder on trying to avoid crashing out without a deal.

On the other hand, we could be looking at an elaborate double bluff, in anticipation that Johnson's supporters will dismiss the planning assumptions and the scenario projections as "Project Fear", and discount them. When they fail to materialise in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, this will be taken as confirmation, leaving the way free for Johnson to hold his election without losing the support of his target voters.

Those who have a pessimistic bent, and the many hard-line remainers who oppose Brexit, will readily believe any worst case scenario that is fed to them. Many leavers. on the other hand, are imbued with a blind optimism which will allow them to reject such scenarios. They simply will not believe them.

As a result, the release of uncomfortable predictions will have little effect on the current level of Johnson's support. But if they then turn out to have been exaggerated – even in the short-term – this could play to Johnson's advantage.

In some respects, though – as we saw in early August – one might also suspect that the civil servants engaged in compiling predictions do not have a very good grip of the situation.

In the section on "food and water", for instance, they tell us that certain types of fresh food supply will decrease. Critical elements of the food supply chain (such as ingredients, chemicals and packaging), they also say, may be in short supply.

Yet, they tell us, in combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK. They will simply "reduce availability and choice and increase the price", an effect which will be felt greatest by "vulnerable groups".

Then, however, they effectively contradict themselves. The UK growing season will have come to an end, they say, so the agri-food supply chain will be under increased pressure for food retailers. Government will not be able to fully anticipate all effects on the agri-food supply chain and there is a risk that panic buying will disrupt food supplies.

An issue here is that panic buying does not merely "disrupt" food supplies. It strips supermarket shelves bare, more certainly than if a plague of locusts had descended on the land. And the scenario we are being presented with is one set to trigger precisely the panic buying that could do this.

That also applies to fuel supplies where we are told that traffic disruption caused by border delays could affect fuel distribution in the local area, particularly if traffic queues in Kent block the Dartford crossing. This would disrupt fuel supply in London and the southeast and, we are advised, "customer behaviour could lead to shortages in other parts of the country".

Not only that, we are being told that supply chains for medicines and medical products rely heavily on the short straits, which makes them particularly vulnerable to severe delays: three-quarters of medicines come via the short straits – another trigger for panic buying.

To see panic buying of both food and fuel, and medicines as well, would have a devastating and immediate effect on the economy and create a crisis atmosphere in the country at large. This would possibly ruin any chance Johnson might have of winning a snap election in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

Perhaps this is the real motivation – or perhaps not. In these febrile times, anything goes and the more we learn the less we know.

Richard North 18/08/2019 link

Brexit: a loss of respect

Saturday 17 August 2019  

I do so hate it when Guardian columnists seem to be making the most sense out of the increasingly surreal Brexit soap opera, but after Rafael Behr yesterday, we have Marina Hyde today with much the same message.

For Hyde's piece, the headline says nearly all: "'National Unity': the fantasy flick that will never make it out of development", with a sub-heading putting the verbal boot in: "Everyone has a pitch – but whether it's Caroline Lucas’s all-female reboot or Jo Swinson's Ken Clarke vehicle, they're duds".

With that, I can't even bring myself to write about or analyse the comings and goings of our increasingly irrelevant bunch of MPs. We're headed pell-mell for a no-deal Brexit and none of these Muppets seem to be able to put together a package which will both protect the nation from unnecessary damage and respect the result of the referendum.

Of course it's actually too late. Mrs May blew it up-front by not committing to stay in the Single Market (which should have meant Efta/EEA) and then, after she had salvaged what little she could from the wreckage of her own policy, parliament screwed the pooch by not ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.

Dire though the Agreement was, it was the best of a bad job, brought to us by an incompetent prime minister, surrounded by incompetent (and largely gutless) Cabinet colleagues. But then, I suppose, to have expected competence from parliament, when it functions as the ministerial gene pool, is asking too much. Paddling in those shallow waters would scarcely wet the soles of a journeyman's boots.

Not any of them who voted against the Agreement seems to have understood that voting against the deal doesn't stop Brexit. It gets you Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and a one-way ticket to a no-deal on 31 October. Funny that, but there you go. Voting against the deal gets you no-deal. And they still haven't really worked that one out.

Another thing the MPs don't seem to have worked out is that they are no longer a sovereign legislature. Parliament gave that up when it allowed us in 1972 to join the EEC and has lost more of its power with every passing treaty, right up to the Lisbon Treaty which came into force in 2009.

Although some of them occasionally mouth the words, they haven't really sussed the fact that, if EU law is supreme, their laws ain't any more. And when they ratified the Lisbon Treaty, they allowed into force Article 50 which set the default criteria for a departing nation to leave the EU.

Thus, while they continue to prattle about taking a no-deal "off the table", or otherwise blocking it, they clearly haven't come to terms with the fact that they blew their best chance when they blocked the ratification of the deal. Now, apart from deposing the man occupying the post of prime minister – which they're not going to do – they've run out of options.

Short of a witch riding into the House of Commons on a broomstick and waving her magic wand, Johnson is going to let the clock run down and we'll be out on 31 October with no-deal. And since Harriet Harman didn't complete her witch-school diploma (perhaps Kings Cross was closed again), the MPs are fresh out of luck.

Yet another thing they're not getting is that Johnson wants and needs a vote of no confidence. That's his best and surest route to a general election, and puts him in the driving seat to recommend a post-Brexit contest, which he is sure to win if he gets the timing right.

The very last thing he wants to do is to be stuck with a minuscule majority, having to ride out the storm when his no-deal Brexit finally goes belly-up. That will leave him to face a general election that he cannot possibly win. If Corbyn – or the people around him - had any tactical acumen, he would make sure he loses any vote of no confidence (without making it too obvious), leaving Johnson to hold the baby.

Matthew Parris writes that this week's "half-hearted intervention" by Corbyn suggests "he's happy to watch Britain crash out of the EU", but perhaps the opposition leader has at last understood that his best bet for long-term office as prime minister rests on keeping Johnson in-place for as long as possible.

Looking at the broader picture though, one is minded of a number of recent news stories asserting that criminals are no longer afraid of the police. But, when scruffy, loutish constables hit the streets – where the dustbin men are better-dressed – it is not so much fear that is the issue, but lack of respect.

And when ordinary, law-abiding citizens find that the main outcome of any contact with the police is either a shed-load of grief or a severely depleted wallet (arising, for instance, from predatory speed camera fines), and when they are needed, they are as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard, they are in danger of losing public support just when they need it most.

The point of making this point is that public bodies, including (or especially) parliament, rely on the respect of the people they supposedly serve in order to function in an effective manner. Yet, in the Marina Hyde piece, we see her referring to politicians indulging in "weapons-grade wankery".

This may only be a straw in the wind, but such disrespect – amusing though it is – also illustrates that parliament perhaps has a bigger problem than it cares to acknowledge. And when MPs complain of thousands of abusive e-mails, tweets and other communications, this seems to be an institution which is suffering exactly the same problem that the police are confronting.

There are those who will make a direct link between the increase in violent offences against the police and the erosion of respect, in which case MPs need to be asking themselves whether their rougher handling is a symptom of the same thing. And, given that, how long will it be before MPs are needing police protection in order to go out canvassing during election campaigns?

Never in my long career, which has kept me close to Westminster politicians for many decades, have I known such a mood abroad. And three years ago, Pete would not have dreamt of writing this piece which asserts that the [political] "system has failed", with him concluding that:
If MPs had been sincere about wanting to avoid a no deal Brexit they'd have voted for the withdrawal agreement, but every time I catch an MP wailing about no deal, it's usually the ones who voted it down all three times. They've had every opportunity to organise and shape the process but since 2016 their whole runtime has been devoted to nullifying my vote. That situation is far more serious than a no deal Brexit. This is now a constitutional matter and we have to put these people back in their place - whatever the cost.
Interestingly, yesterday saw the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, where British soldiers slaughtered and maimed peaceful protesters gathered to demand political reform. The efforts of those protesters paved the way for the Chartists who were responsible, directly and indirectly, for the universal suffrage – and in whose footsteps The Harrogate Agenda follows.

But even with that, democracy in this country has always been work in progress, and while the direction of travel for the last two centuries has been encouraging, of late we seem to be regressing. Not only do we have an unelected prime minister, we have a cabal in parliament plotting to replace him, again without an election, to frustrate the democratic outcome of the 2016 referendum. And neither the prime minister in office nor his putative replacement(s) have any popular mandate for what they propose to do. Says Pete on this:
This we cannot afford any longer. We need the decision making back where we can see it and we need to re-engage the public. We need the public in charge because our politics is incapable of delivering. Of course there will be those who fight tooth and nail to avoid having to take up this responsibility, who don't want their self-indulgence and privilege disturbed - usually the liberal middle classes, but they're the ones who did this to us in the first place so we don't owe them anything.
The one thing we certainly don't owe this motley lot is respect. Over the last three years, our ruling elites – in government and in parliament – have forfeited both the respect and the trust of the population at large.

To be honest, I don't see them getting it back. Without realising it, they've crossed the Rubicon, headed for a destination from which there is no return. Some commentators would even suggest that this opens the way for a repeat of Peterloo, but the élites need to ponder over whether, this time, they might be the target.

Once respect is lost, what follows is not easy to control, if indeed control is possible.

Richard North 17/08/2019 link

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