Brexit: democracy porn

Thursday 20 June 2019  

For all the media excitement over the Tory leadership campaign, nothing of the drama is real. This is democracy porn: we are just spectators, forced to watch from the sidelines, with absolutely no influence over events. And it sucks.

The parallel with real-life porn is absolute. We can look, but we can't participate. Direct input is neither wanted nor permitted and our activity is totally sterile. We can get excited and the players prance and gyrate but, in the end, what we think and do does not matter.

What's going on here, therefore, is a travesty. The Oaf Johnson has been the shoo-in from the very start. We have no real idea what his Brexit policy is, and I doubt whether he does. The man is so wrapped up in telling potential supporters what they want to hear that he has probably lost track of what he has promised to whom.

The latest we're getting is that he isn't even firm on the 31 October date, telling fellow candidates that he is open to negotiating another delay with the EU, to give him time to renegotiate his deal.

And, of course, his bluster about settling a new deal by the 31st is just that – bluster. After today's European Council, the next scheduled meeting isn't until 17-18 October, only days before our next rendezvous with the cliff edge. There is not the slightest chance that the EU could conclude new negotiations in the time, even if it wanted. It's plain impossible.

Therefore, if there is to be anything other than a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, there must be another Article 50 time extension, allowing a further period to permit whatever is going to happen to happen. And that can only be very little.

At best, we might expect some cosmetic changes to the political declaration, and some emollient words about the Irish backstop – very little more than what has already been offered to Mrs May, perhaps dressed up in more decorative wrapping paper, with different coloured ribbon.

In short, we are in exactly the non-situation that was predicted when so many of us said that changing the leadership of the Conservative Party - bringing us a new prime minister – wasn't going to achieve anything. And hey! It isn't going to achieve anything.

Meanwhile, all we get are more lies and dissimulation from a practised liar, who can take us for fools because the system allows him to get away with it. Here we have a man who has built his career on lying and cheating. That's exactly what he's doing now, and that's what he will continue to do once he's in office. Our job is to suck it up – and like it.

Of course, we will get all the usual crap about having to adjust to circumstances, but the brutal reality is that liars lie. And Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a liar. All we can expect from him is more lying. That's what he does.

Thus, when The Sun gets worked up about Mr Johnson coming up with a scenario different to that which he has previously publicised, we the spectators can only shrug and move on. Mr Johnson the liar has been caught out in another lie. What else is new.

The reality is that when, as seems likely, the Oaf becomes prime minister, we will have no more idea of what he intends to do about Brexit than we do now. And the chances are that whatever promises he has made about leaving on 31 October will be shelved in favour of whatever expedient suits the moment, when the liar needs to move on.

So, today, we see the final part of the first phase of the instalment of this liar. Come what may, we will end the day with two candidates, one of which will be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Who the other one might be is a matter of complete irrelevance – and indifference. He is only there to make up the numbers but, even if he wasn't, we have no say in what happens to him.

In fact. it is already a foregone conclusion that the liar will take the crown. The soap opera is for the entertainment of the media – and more "democracy porn" to keep us plebs focused on anything but the real issue, that we are about to have imposed on us a man wholly unfit for the office of prime minister, a man who will lie his way through that office, telling us whatever comes to mind.

The odds are, therefore, that we won't be leaving the EU on 31 October. But this will owe nothing to the skills of the new prime minister. Conscious of the fact that Johnson will use any reticence on the part of the EU to blame it for our misfortunes, the European Council will probably allow another extension, just to allow Johnson to make his play.

However, all the indications are that any enthusiasm for the UK returning to the fold is waning so the chances are, though, that this extension will be the last – and the period allowed fairly short.

Possibly, we may be given only a token extension, bringing us to 31 December. And when the Johnson initiative fails, as inevitably it must, the "colleagues" will embrace the start of a UK-free New Year, the first of many more.

The problem Mr Johnson will find is that nothing will have changed since the resignation of Mrs May. The EU is still refusing to entertain a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, while the Westminster parliament is refusing to ratify it. That leaves either the possibility of a no-deal, a revocation or kicking the can down the road with another referendum – EU permitting.

In the real world, Johnson has boxed himself in, just as Mrs May has done before him. For the new prime minister, revocation is not a politically tenable option, and it would be equally difficult for him to go for another referendum. That leaves him to attempt a renegotiation, with the inevitable consequence of a no-deal Brexit when it fails.

If Johnson has fallen for his own propaganda, believing that the EU will reopen negotiations rather than face a no-deal, then he is going to be disappointed. The mood music has changed to such an extent that Member States would prefer to see the UK go, rather than prolong the agony.

As to the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit, the delays have given the Member States and the EU institutions much-needed time to finalise their own preparations, and for businesses to make the necessary adjustments. In the latter case, this includes reducing the reliance on goods and services sourced in the UK. Gradually, UK-based businesses are being cut out of the loop.

But, as long as the media is obsessed with delivering us the daily dose of "democracy porn", there is no real scrutiny of the false claims that the UK is able to make serious preparations for a no-deal Brexit. It is one thing for the EU Member States to reduce their reliance on UK goods and businesses – it is quite a different matter for the UK to replace that lost business.

And this is the reality of the no-deal scenario. Although in the early stages of the debate, we quite rightly focused on delays at the ports, and the effects of increased paperwork and inspection, I have long since been writing about the slow-burn effects, mainly in terms of loss of exports.

Given how much we rely on agreements negotiated between the EU and third countries, it isn't just exports to European destinations that will be affected. We can anticipate considerable loss of trade with non-EU countries.

Many of these losses will not be immediately obvious, and will show up only in the trade statistics, and trailing indicators such as unemployment rates. Some of the data will be ambiguous, which will allow no-deal apologists to gloss over immediate losses and pretend that the good times are still to come.

The greatest danger of all though is that we enter into a state of economic recession that never ends. There is nothing in the text books that says recessions have to be cyclical. We could be looking at a permanent contraction of the UK economy.

Sadly, with a liar at the helm of government, we will never get a frank or open appraisal of our economic situation. The self-delusion which has sustained the "ultra" Brexiteers on the effects of a no-deal Brexit will doubtless continue into the post-Brexit period, so that adverse effects will either be concealed, denied or reinterpreted.

With the UK economy, which is big, diverse and complex, it will be relatively easy to conceal short-term effects and even major perturbations may escape notice for some time.

And where other nations also experience economic stress, it will be easy for the UK government to claim that any downturn in economic indicators is due to influences unrelated to Brexit. We could be deep into an unresolvable crisis before we even realise that something is wrong.

And with all this to come, the only certainty in life these days is that, for every step closer Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson takes to the premiership, the closer we come to economic meltdown. The only things we can expect to change are the lies.

Richard North 20/06/2019 link

Brexit: none of the above

Wednesday 19 June 2019  

Against my better judgement, I attempted to watch the BBC leadership debate. That resolution lasted into the third question whence I concur with the broader judgement – that the programme was "chaotic".

More to the point, not one of the candidates had anything approaching a credible strategy for Brexit, not that such a remarkable thing lies in the realms of the possible. The only option which avoids a Brexit as chaotic as the debate involves parliament ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. And since that is unlikely to happen, no matter who is chosen, we end up on the slippery slope towards a no-deal.

That even turns Rory Stewart into a fool – the one man of the five who seemed to be committed to avoiding a no-deal, believing that parliament would block it. Despite his expensive Etonian education, he has not sussed that this is the default option which is triggered by EU law, over which parliament has no sway.

As for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, he was all over the place, apparently favouring the "Malthouse compromise", arguing for a "standstill", and then suggesting we could rely on "GATT 24" to give us tariff-free trade until a free trade deal was agreed – notwithstanding his commitment to a no-deal Brexit.

This is a man who believes that securing a "better deal" is "eminently feasible", stressing the importance of preparing for a no-deal in order to secure one, and threatening to withhold the £39 billion "divorce bill" to help it on its way.

Bluntly, the only man worth listening to was not at the debate. This was Sir Ivan Rogers who, a day earlier, spoke to about 200 finance professionals at the Fishmongers Hall, near London Bridge, delivering a 15-page speech.

Asked to find some "upbeat conclusions", this presented a "formidable challenge", given the "denial, delusion-mongering and deception still rampant across British politics".

Sir Ivan wanted to remain "resolutely optimistic" about our country's long-term prospects, but conceded that it was "currently very poorly led by a political elite, some masquerading as non-elite", which had "great difficulties discerning and telling the truth".

He was "discouraged", he said, "by just how badly Brexit has been handled to date, and currently pessimistic that this is going to get any better any time soon" he was "worried that the longer the sheer lack of seriousness and honesty, the delusion mongering goes on, the more we imperil our long term prospects".

"It is not patriotism", he added, "to keep on failing to confront realities and to make serious choices from the options which exist, rather than carrying on conjuring up ones which don't".

For reasons that we hardly need to revisit, Sir Ivan thinks that a no-deal is now a "probability", and contradicts the blithe assumption from Johnson and his likes that the threat of a no-deal keeps anyone in the EU awake at night. It would thus be unlikely to trigger them to make a fundamentally better offer to the new prime minister than to his predecessor.

On the contrary, he is prepared to wager that the EU will conclude that its best long-term interests are served by staying basically where it is, and that it would be a fatal error for it to produce something appreciably better to a new prime minister than was ever on offer to Mrs May.

Here we then get some interesting observations from Sir Ivan to the effect that a no-deal scenario should hold a few more terrors than it does. Not least of the reasons is that it hands control of the next phase of the Brexit process to the EU-27. It will "take back control" of the precise legal framework of the economic relationship, because it will legislate without consultation with us the economic framework under which we will have to operate.

Says Sir Ivan, "It is just utterly untrue to say, as key Brexiteers continue to, that all non-member countries' trade with the EU is conducted under WTO rules, 'so what we have lost?'"

This, he tells us, "is a woeful and wilful misunderstanding of how developed countries trade with each other". Even those without an FTA with the EU have a plethora of lengthy complex negotiated legal sectoral arrangements which deliver far more access to the EU market than do WTO multilateral commitments.

The very fact that our Trade Secretary is so keen to try and rollover - unchanged - the provisions of existing EU FTAs with third countries suggests he knows the difference between WTO terms and good FTA ones, 

Thus, Sir Ivan concludes, deliberately to walk out of the deepest internal market on the planet without a replacement, looser preferential deal in place is an act of economic lunacy. We need, he says, a preferential deal, even if it is one appreciably looser and hence reduces trade and investment flows from today, because we cannot live with supranational legislation, adjudication and enforcement which EU membership entails.

No-deal, therefore, "is not a destination". It is simply a volatile and uncertain transitional state of purgatory, in which you have forfeited all the leverage to the other side. You start with a blank slate of no preferential arrangements, and live, in the interim – probably for years – on a basis that the EU-27 legislate in their own interests, without you in the room and without consulting you politically.

Thus, much of our debate about "being ready" for a no-deal totally misses the point. It is the others who will largely dictate what we have to be ready for. Yes, says Sir Ivan, no-deal can and will be "managed" or controlled to a degree. And it would be. But by the EU. A so-called "clean Brexit" is just the latest pipe dream.

Sir Ivan admits to spending a lot of time puncturing this prevalent myth of the "no deal nirvana" but then – as do we all – has to deal with the "next hoary old chestnut".

"Well OK", this goes, "it's perhaps not the ultimate destination we need: but for x years under Article 24 of GATT, we would be able to benefit from existing terms – an interim Agreement – which it would be illegal for the EU to disapply, whilst we negotiated a new Canada-style FTA".

This, says Sir Ivan, is "completely untrue". In circumstances where you leave the EU without a deal, there simply IS no interim agreement. That is the whole point. The EU is entirely within its WTO rights to say that it will treat us as a bog-standard third country, without any preferential arrangements, the day after we leave.

And if we refuse to sign a Withdrawal Agreement, there IS no interim deal. The superseding legal arrangements will simply be legislated by the EU-27. Tariffs will automatically be reapplied in the absence of an agreement.

Despite this, we hear endlessly the canard that if we lifted all our tariffs to the EU and others, the EU would be being vindictive and punitive if it failed to reciprocate. But this, as someone once said, is "an inverted pyramid of piffle". The EU could only remove tariffs on a Most Favoured Nation basis, i.e., to all trading partners, whence they would get no reciprocation.

On that basis, Sir Ivan asserts that it is "100 percent certain that they will apply tariffs to UK goods if we go no-deal. He gives us a cast iron guarantee on that.

As a coruscating indictment of the "political class", Sir Ivan notes that this is the reason why Brexiteers sitting in key Ministries responsible for key sectors have belatedly gone completely cold on no-deal. One only hears it from those pandering to a party base who do not realise for example what it does to the UK food and drink industry.

"They only do not realise that, because the political class has not had the guts to tell them", he says. "Because it would reveal that the whole proposition on how to Brexit was not thought through from the outset".

And just think how different last night's debate would have been if this has been admitted by the five candidates. They should be telling us, as did Sir Ivan, that a no-deal is not sustainable. The only route to a loose preferential trade deal lies by agreeing precisely what we are rejecting now, but with a lot more money.

But, as for the second time in three years, we see a new prime minister elected by a small group who thinks it falls to it to determine the "will of the people" – a peculiar view of liberal democracy – Sir Ivan feels we need to dispense with the fantasies and falsehoods.

This is not a solution to our woes, but at least we will then know what we are facing. And since nothing on offer by the five candidates goes anywhere towards solving Brexit, if we were to have a choice, it would be none of the above.

Richard North 19/06/2019 link

Brexit: mutually assured distraction

Tuesday 18 June 2019  

For my Sunday post I did a treatment on the no-deal scenario, an issue which has featured prominently in the ongoing leadership contest.

But, although prominent, in terms of its impact on the debate, the thing we lack is any serious discussion about the consequences, while the "ultras" and their apologists purposefully gloss over the detail, making out that no-deal is a tolerable option for the UK.

A good place to start, though, would be the advice given by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and in particular its recently amended guidance note entitled: "Placing manufactured goods on the EU internal market if there's no Brexit deal".

However, a crucial thing about the entire Brexit debate is that so many of the important details reside in arcane technical repositories of this nature, which are generally meaningless unless you already know what you're looking for, or can place the information in its broader context.

The section to watch in the BEIS guidance comes under the sub-heading "Non-harmonised goods", where we learn of the distinction between harmonised goods – where there are EU regulations setting common standards – and the non-harmonised goods, where there are no formal EU-wide standards.

In this latter event, free circulation of goods under the aegis of the Single Market relies on the "mutual recognition principle", through which means any goods which can be legally sold in the producing country can be freely sold anywhere else in the EU, without having to apply local standards.

We should remind ourselves, however, that this principle was not initially part of Community law and was not part of the original Treaty of Rome. It emerged from a ruling from the much-maligned ECJ, in the now famous Cassis de Dijon case of 1979, cemented in by Case 113/80 of 1981.

And, while people like snake oil salesman Shanker Singham have been pushing this as the answer to all our woes when we leave the EU, anyone who thinks that this is an answer has been cruelly misled.

In fact, those UK businesses which currently rely on mutual recognition are going to be in for a very hard time. Simply put by BEIS, "after the UK leaves the EU the mutual recognition principle will not apply to UK non-harmonised goods placed on the EU internal market".

Thus, companies which currently produce goods in accordance with UK law and can – in theory - export them anywhere in the EU without the need to deal with any other regulatory system, will no longer be able to do so.

Post Brexit, UK companies will have to ensure that their goods not only comply with UK law, but also with the separate regulatory systems of the countries to which they export. This can only increase costs and can make export to some markets uneconomic.

Optimistically, BEIS suggests that they will have to meet the requirements of the first EU country to which they are exported but, in practice, they will have to conform with the rules of the Member States in which they are sold.

The products most affected are items such as childcare articles, clothing, textile and footwear, furniture, jewellery, sports accessories and firearms. But mutual recognition also applies to EU-regulated products, where elements are not covered by specific measures. Examples are foodstuffs (and especially manufactured foods) and food supplements, food contact materials, fertilising and construction products.

What makes this a big issue is the scale of the trade involved. The Commission estimates that non-harmonised sectors represent around 20 percent of the total value of market sales of manufacturing sectors (€1,158 billion out of €5,690 billion). Furthermore, around 87 percent of the enterprises operating within the sectors are micro enterprises (i.e. with less than 9 employees). Around 11 percent are small and medium enterprises (i.e., with a number of employees between 50 and 250).

In cash terms, for the period 2008–15, the average annual value of intra EU exports of non (or partially) harmonised products has been equal to €335 billion, which represents 18 percent of the value of intra-EU exports.

Unfortunately, the Commission does not break down the figures by nation, but if we assume that the UK roughly parallels the rest of the EU, then Brexit puts at risk something like 18 percent of our exports of manufactured goods to EU Member States, affecting a high proportion of micro enterprises and SMEs.

Clearly, Brexit will not automatically cut off this trade, but it will make life much more difficult for UK traders. And things can only get worse. The Commission has long acknowledged that the mutual recognition system does not work as well as it might. Traditionally, the EU has relied on a 2008 regulation but, to improve matters, this will shortly be replaced by Regulation (EU) 2019/515, which takes effect from 19 April 2020.

This new regulation aims substantially to improve the functioning of the mutual recognition system. Of special interest is an innovative appeals process which allows individual enterprises to sidestep refusals of national authorities to recognise their products.

Once the UK leaves the EU (if it ever does), we will be totally outside that system and unable to benefit from any of the measures aimed at facilitating intra-EU trade. That this places us at a competitive disadvantage scarcely requires saying, but we should also note that the scale of the disadvantage will increase with time, as the new regulation bites.

The worst of it is that, even should we subsequently agree a free trade agreement with the EU, there is no guarantee that the mutual recognition principle will be applied universally – or at all.

When I wrote a piece in October 2016 on mutual recognition of standards, I pointed out that even the EU-Canada Agreement only allowed for cooperation in this area on a case-by-case basis. There was no question of any blanket application of the principle.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is just one small element of our trading relationship put at risk by a no-deal Brexit. Had we sought to remain with the EEA, it would have been retained, incorporated into the Agreement by virtue of Annex II Part II (page 214), following EEA Joint Committee Decision No 126/2012 - with the exception of food and animal products. It is one of the many things the government has thrown away in rejecting the Efta/EEA option.

Sadly, this does not prevent the likes of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson making crass assumptions about gliding through a no-deal Brexit without suffering serious consequences.

There are those, for instance, who suggest that preparation for a no-deal can somehow reduce the impact, but how does any amount of preparation reduce the impact of being excluded from the mutual recognition system? The fact is that many companies which have built businesses which utilise the principle will find trade that much harder.

And while mutual recognition is only one of the many facets of the EU trading system where we will be locked out, the way the detail is glossed over tends to obscure the handicaps we face. Not for nothing does one have to urge attention to detail, while it obviously suits vacuous politicians (and the media) to avoid detail for the same reason.

Distracting people from the detail will only go so far. This "mutually assured distraction" will succeed only until we are confronted by the practical consequences. Then the serious questions will be asked – and there won't be any easy answers.

Richard North 18/06/2019 link

Brexit: total disconnect

Monday 17 June 2019  

Sajid Javid is the working class son of a bus driver who has made it to home secretary but, if he ever had the common touch, he's lost a lot of it on his way. That much was painfully evident from an account of the Channel 4 leadership debate, where the Guardian's Rowena Mason signs off on the "winners and losers".

The "best line" from Javid, she says, came when there arose the question of proroguing parliament in order to stop it, supposedly, blocking a no-deal. He suggested that only a "dictator" would want to prorogue parliament. "You don't deliver democracy by trashing democracy", he said, "We are not selecting a dictator of our democracy. We are selecting a prime minister of our democracy".

The irony quite obviously escapes Javid – that far has he departed from his roots. He is embroiled in an exercise which is the very antithesis of democracy. He even uses the word "selection" for this process, whereby a small number of people decide who is to lead our government and where the people at large don't have a say in the matter.

Here we have a man who thinks that denying parliament a role in the Brexit process would be "trashing democracy" but he's at ease with imposing a prime minister on the nation and denying the electorate any part in the process.

And that's my last comment on the "debate". I didn't actually watch it, taking the feed from the Guardian. Having to look at five Tory politicians for that long is more than should be asked of any human. Compulsory viewing constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, we can be entertained by a report which puts Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson on the back foot when it comes to the payment of the £39 billion "divorce bill".

Existing government legal advice, it would appear, is that linking the bill with payments to the progress of any trade talks – Johnson's latest "cunning plan" - would be illegal.

Johnson has said that the EU needed to understand "that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward". Yet, directly from attorney-general Geoffrey Cox comes the warning that, even in a no-deal scenario, the government would have an obligation to pay some funds to the EU, although the precise extent of those obligations could be disputed, but it would run into "billions".

Already French president Emmanuel Macron has reacted adversely to this "plan", arguing that refusing to pay would be the equivalent of defaulting on sovereign debt and risk the UK facing a credit rating downgrade.

That has since been denied by a number of rating agencies although it is acknowledged that failure to make payments could still have "serious implications".

Of greater effect would be the loss of the transition period concomitant with a no-deal scenario. That in itself could possibly drop us by two notches from our current double-A status.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that the EU would not be prepared to entertain discussions on the future relationship with the UK unless London commits to making good on its obligations. Lawyers also warn that it could end up in a damaging clash in the international courts.

Despite all this, it transpires that, in November 2018, the idiot Dominic Raab, then acting as Brexit secretary, argued that a clause should be inserted into the Withdrawal Agreement Bill linking the payment of the £39 billion bill to a successful outcome of trade talks.

It seems to have been at that time – according to "informed sources" – that Mr Cox rejected the idea as illegal since it offended the basic principle that ministers must act within the rule of law, especially as the UK has long conceded it will have some debts to pay to the EU.

It seems that the attorney-general is relying on Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties, which stipulates that signatories to international treaties must not "defeat the object and purpose of a treaty prior to its entry into force".

The Telegraph argues that this legal advice - which has not been published - threatens to open up a rift between Cox and Johnson if the latter enters Downing Street and tries to make good on his promise on withholding the payments – another of those ironic developments, given that Cox has backed Johnson for the premiership.

For all that, and even though Muppets such as Jeremy Hunt are arguing for a renegotiation, it seems that the "colleagues" are not even paying attention. Later this week, they are holding the final European Council before the summer break and Brexit is not even on the agenda.

The main concerns of the Member State leaders are the nominations for the EU institutions, including the president of the European Commission, and the multiannual financial framework, where the budget for 2021-2027 will be discussed. Climate change is also high on the agenda.

After the main Council, there is to be a separate Euro Summit where the leaders will discuss the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union. And I presume they know what they will be talking about when they discuss "the design, modalities of implementation and timing of a budgetary instrument for convergence and competitiveness for the euro-area".

As well as progress on the strengthening of the banking union, treaty change is on this particular agenda, with the "colleagues" looking at changes to the treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism. This points to the EU looking forward to life without the UK. If there are to be any talks on Brexit, they will be on the margins, with no formal conclusions published.

This may mark a switch which Wolfgang Münchau thinks he detects. European leaders, he writes, have hitherto been divided between those who want the UK to reverse Brexit and those who want the UK to get on with it. But now he's suggesting that the tide is turning towards the latter.

He also argues that a three-way choice, between deal, no-deal and no Brexit, is too complicated for a political system to cope with. Thus, he wants the EU to help reduce the spread to a binary choice, as between deal and no-deal. This they could do by ruling out the prospect of another Article 50 extension.

But this is from a man who is willing to give Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement a chance of posthumous success, even though there does not seem to be much chance of parliament accepting it.

Then, as far as it goes, there is very little expectation that parliament will deliver anything. A survey by BritainThinks tells us that Britain is a more polarised and pessimistic nation than it has been for decades, a country torn apart by social class, geography and Brexit.

In focus groups hosted in London and Leicester to gauge the national mood, "worried" and "uncertain" were the most repeated keywords used by respondents to describe how they felt about the future – something that could have been picked up just from reading this blog.

The last word, though, must go to one Remain voter from Leicester, who now believes that the only way to uphold any sense of national pride would be to leave the EU. "The people we elected think we're too stupid to understand what’s going on, there's condescension and no respect for us", he said. "The British took democracy to other countries, but we can't even abide by it or believe in it ourselves".

And there is another sign of that disconnect. Across the board, it's beginning to look pretty total.

Richard North 17/06/2019 link

Brexit: no-deal, big deal

Sunday 16 June 2019  

A few days ago, the European Commission published a report on the state of play "on preparations of contingency measures for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union".

As regards the UK's position, the Commission tells us it has consistently stressed that contingency measures can only mitigate the most significant disruptions of a withdrawal without an agreement.

Refusing to speculate on the possible economic implications of different scenarios, the Commission nevertheless asserts that the UK's withdrawal without an agreement, trading on WTO terms, "would have a serious negative economic impact" and that this impact "would be proportionally much greater" in the UK than in the EU-27 Member States.

To back its assertion, the Commission relies on a number of "external studies" that include both trade and non-trade channels, which suggest a short-term reduction in UK GDP.

One of those is the IMF World Economic Outlook for 2019, which estimates a reduction between 3.7 and 4.9 percent, while the Bank of England (November 2018) estimates a reduction of between 4.75 and 7.75 percent over five years. By contrast, the IMF estimates the average short-term impact on the EU-27 Member States as well below one percent.

As to the long-term impact, the "external studies" on which the Commission relies suggest a long-term negative impact of around 3 to 8 percent on UK GDP. The IMF (2019) estimates almost 3 percent; and the UK Government (2018) 7.7 percent. As regards the average long-term impact on the EU-27, the IMF (2019) estimate is well below one percent, in line with most other studies.

Over term, most of these studies have taken their share of criticism and the "ultras" have been quick to dismiss them as part of "project fear".

And that dynamic is still very much in play with Liam Halligan sounding off in the Telegraph, as he so often does, this time arguing that "Boris Johnson must go through with Brexit no-deal threat".

As one might expect from this source, we get the usual mix of complacency, half-truths and dissimulation, the game being to make out that no-deal is no big deal at all.

Writes Halligan, under WTO rules, UK-EU trade continues, something which he says is "a statement of the obvious" but on "in the current climate of fear" needs restating. And here we go again as he trots out the same dire propaganda, asserting that: "the US and China annually sell hundreds of billions of pounds of exports to the EU from outside 'the club' – the UK can do the same".

Yet, back in April 2015 I was writing about the skein of agreements which bound trade relations between China and the EU, from which the UK benefits. And a year later, I was doing the same for the United States.

At the time, I worked out that China had multiple agreements with the EU - 65 over term, including 13 bilateral agreements, ranging from trade and economic co-operation to customs co-operation. The United States, on the other hand, had 38 "trade deals" with the EU, of which at least 20 were bilateral.

Nor are arrangements confined to formal treaties. Much of the work is carried out through departmental Memoranda of Understanding, such as the 2012 MoU signed between the International Trade Administration of the United States Department of Commerce and the European Commission's Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry.

This set up bilateral cooperation on Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises which paved the way for the more detailed 2015 Cooperation Agreement on SMEs.

The point I made at the time in respect of the US – which applied with equal force to countries such as China – was that the EU managed its trade relations through a variety of instruments, some formal and many informal, binding parties in intricate networks of deals.

Furthermore, each network has its own bureaucracy, so that the 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation with China works through 60 "high level and senior officials dialogues", while the US works with the EU through the Transatlantic Council, described as the "primary plenary forum for economic dialogue between the United States and the European Union".

All of this passes by the likes of Halligan though, who asserts that "Britain already conducts most of its trade outside the EU, largely under WTO rules". He then claims that "such trade is growing and generates a surplus", whereas "Our EU trade, in contrast, despite the single market, is falling and generates a deficit".

For all that, these tiresome assertions are simply lies. The UK, as a fully paid-up member of the EU takes full advantage of the network of agreements between the EU and third countries. By far the greater part of our third country trade is conducted under the EU umbrella, cover which we lose when we leave the EU.

But not only do we have to put up with Halligan's lies, we're also dealing with a man who knows next to nothing about trade. "Under WTO rules", he claims, "we charge relatively low reciprocal tariffs – generating billions for Britain given our EU deficit". He then goes on to say that "such funds could support UK exporters facing higher EU tariffs".

Little does he realise that using tariff income to support specific enterprises would be in breach of WTO rules, contradicting the national treatment provisions of Article III of the GATT Agreement. Any income from tariffs must be paid into the general fund and must not be hypothecated or used in any way which gives an advantage to national businesses.

Another canard raised by Halligan is that the no-deal Brexit also means withholding much of the £39 billion "divorce bill", allowing us to spend the money at home instead. But one can see that lasting only for as long as it takes Brussels to withhold further talks on trade, making any negotiations conditional on us paying the financial settlement.

And, like so many of his ilk, the man is asserting that "deal have been struck … so hauliers will have licences and planes will fly", missing out that these are unilateral contingency measures implemented by the European Commission, made entirely in the interests of its member states.

No doubt, fears have been "exaggerated", but that does not support an argument that there is nothing to fear. Border checks will be carried out on UK produce which, with the application of customs formalities and VAT rules, will substantially slow down trade and add to costs.

Since exports to the EU amount roughly to £274 billion, in goods and services, this is not a volume we can afford to mess with and, when we add the £350 billion or so in imports, this makes for a significant portion of our economy.

Furthermore, it is not only exports which generate economic activity. Every imported car, for instance, requires servicing, while the marketing, sale and financing of the vehicles creates British jobs and income for British businesses. Interruptions in imports can be just as damaging as delays to exports.

Then there is the question of services, where there will be no special access for the UK. Currently, the UK's single largest service export to the EU was "other business services", valued at £31.0 billion, representing 28 percent of the total service exports. These include legal, accounting, advertising, research and development, architectural, engineering and other professional and technical services. Little of this will survive a no-deal Brexit.

In other words, no matter how the "ultras" want to spin it, a no-deal Brexit is a big deal, and not one we can afford to treat lightly. We can do without the propaganda, but could use a lot more honesty, even if that's something we've never seen before in the debate.

Richard North 16/06/2019 link

Brexit: Moore equals less

Saturday 15 June 2019  

This week amounted to watching the live abortion of that time-worn cliché that the Conservative parliamentary party is "the most sophisticated electorate in the world", writes Marina Hyde. "Do me a favour", she adds: "They've just spaffed 114 first-round votes on a subclinical narcissist whose chief qualification for the gig is knowing the ancient Greek for raghead".

Yesterday, that self-same Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson graced us with his presence on the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme, and succeeded in demonstrating beyond peradventure that his ideas for Brexit are barking mad.

Not least, he believes it is "perfectly realistic" to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the EU, dispensing with the backstop – this, despite multiple, unequivocal reaffirmations from any number of senior EU officials and Member State leaders that it is not possible.

Not only that, the wunderkind asserts that the new negotiations can be concluded by 31 October and, although he continues with his stance that we have to leave by then, he added that it would be the wrong move "at this stage" to signal he will delay Brexit beyond that date.

The Mirror not unreasonably sees this as raising doubts over whether he'll keep his word, especially as he refused to promise he'll resign if he does delay Brexit past Halloween.

Here, there is some synergy with Lord Ashcroft's latest report which outlines the results of his focus groups of wavering Tory voters talking about the leadership race. The section that leaps out retails a "consistent theme" that people were interested first and foremost in the candidates' apparent character and competence. They had simply given up listening to policies or plans, whether on Brexit or anything else.

The rationale for this was summed up in a series of quotes. One respondent said of the candidates, "They'll say one thing to your face and then get in the car and say 'ha, they bought that one, didn't they'". Another said, "Whenever I read about them, the underlying thing that I just can't seem to get past is that they'll do whatever it takes just to be leader and then change their mind". Then a third added, "I've heard it and heard it and heard it and now I’m exhausted with listening to all their twaddle".

Elsewhere in his report, Lord Ashcroft notes specific views expressed about Mr Johnson: "He's a compulsive liar"; "a cheater"; "I don't trust him"; "He's great at telling people what they want to hear, Boris, so he’ll just go wherever": "I don’t think he's normal at all, I think he's very peculiar"; "a devious individual and he's doing everything to attract attention to himself"; "He's incredibly personable but he doesn't care about genuine people, I don't think".

Putting these elements together, I recall my own piece written in November 2017 which I entitled "why are these lying bastards lying to us?". I'd taken my theme from Jeremy Paxman's famous working principle.

And there it is – the assumption that politicians are lying to us now comes so naturally that there is scarcely any merit in assessing what they say or promise prior to an event. They are going to lie anyway, hence the comment from one of Lord Ashcroft's respondents: "They'll say one thing to your face...", etc.

This applies in spades to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the "compulsive liar", about which the only certainty is that he will lie through his back teeth if there is any advantage to be gained from it.

Another to note this characteristic is Suzanne Moore - not my most favourite commentator. But she joins the growing throng to write that we are "getting a new prime minister, not one we have elected: a known liar and cheat, devoid of principles beyond self-advancement, a walking id, a moral void".

But if people have given up listening to policies or plans, because they know that politicians will lie anyway, Ms Moore has her own "take" as to why the Tories favour this "compulsive liar".

According to Ms Moore, this is not about the candidates' "apparent character and competence". Rather, as set out in her headline, Johnson's "charm" is just the arrogance of "those born to rule", revealing a fatal flaw in the English psyche. The Tory leadership contest, she writes, "shows we'll keep running back to the posh boys, no matter how much they use and abuse us".

When I saw this, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd been reading the blog. Only recently I'd been writing about my long-time feeling that, in this country, there is "an unwholesome deference to authority figures and the upper classes". This, I asserted, "suggests we've never really got over being a feudal society", where "we fawn over 'posh' accents and men in well-cut suits".

Moore takes this further. She likens the relationship between the voters and our politicians with an abusive relationship where, despite the humiliation the victim keeps coming back for more. But this relationship she calls "the new feudalism".

This is now the new offer, she writes. "Not only is it not democracy", she adds. "It is not even leadership, but a performance of it". And in this world, political language, as George Orwell said, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

Moore sees "pure wind" as the definition of the Tory leadership spectacle. None of it is solid, she says, arguing that the "abusive relationship could stop" and "the electorate should be walking away". However, like many of us, she asks: "But where to?" That, she says, is the real question.

Coincidentally, another Moore picks up the thread – the ever-pompous Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, pointing out that the Tory survival instinct "has finally kicked in" with the realisation – in his view – that "only Boris can deliver Brexit".

This confirms, as if it was needed, that the Tories are putting party before country, but it also illustrates the short-sighted assessment of Johnson's contribution whose management of a no-deal scenario – if it comes to that – will almost certainly ensure the collapse of his government and ensure the Conservatives remain out of office for a generation.

But then Charles Moore thinks that Dominic Raab – the Brexit secretary who didn't realise how important Dover was - "is a man of high intelligence". He also thinks Johnson is the only man who "can do the job", getting the UK out of the EU, neglecting to remind us that, had parliament ratified the Withdrawal Agreement, we would by now have departed.

Nothing matters in the Tory camp any more, it seems, other than whether their new leader has the ability to win a general election. And if a "compulsive liar" says he is their man, they are prepared to take him at his word. This is what modern-day politics has come down to.

And now, in the ultimate perversion in a contest which already stretches the bounds of tolerance beyond breaking point, there is talk of a "secret plan" to ensure that only Johnson's name is presented to the party membership for the leadership vote.

Ostensibly designed to prevent "four weeks of damaging Tory bloodletting", this gets more and more Soviet as time goes on, where voters are allowed to vote for only one candidate. And the fact that truncating the contest reduces Johnson's exposure to hostile media is, of course, neither here nor there.

Not least, that would avoid Johnson having to be grilled by members over 16 hustings events in every region of the UK over a four week period starting in Birmingham next Saturday, 22 June - events where the lead candidate is extremely vulnerable.

Right to the end, "cheater" Johnson is doing his best to rig the contest in his favour, especially as he is still struggling to avoid having to partake in Channel 4's TV debate.

Perhaps, though, he and his supporters are beginning to detect the sort of negative vibes articulated by Matthew Parris in the latest of his columns, this time under the headline "For Tory members, Johnson is not a done deal".

"If you're selling tickets to a Boris Johnson in Downing Street, a certain hesitation furrows the Tory brow", he writes, then concluding that "a convinced, energetic, eloquent but intellectually serious campaign among the Tory grassroots next month could yet unseat the favourite".

"Unbeatable among his cowardly and preferment-seeking parliamentary colleagues", Parris says, "he remains beatable among the real grown-ups: the national membership of the Conservative Party". No wonder Johnson wants only his name to go forward. This is the sort of cheating that comes naturally to the man.

Richard North 15/06/2019 link

Brexit: bored

Friday 14 June 2019  

Now would be a good time to remind ourselves how awful Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson really is. But we've already been there, pace Max Hastings and his 2012 article headed: "Boris Johnson: brilliant, warm, funny – and totally unfit to be PM".

Nothing has changed since then, but nothing is going to. We're currently engulfed in a psychic epidemic and people have stopped thinking. The fever must work its way through the system and until it has broken there is no hope of any rationality.

Yet, despite the first round results, where Mr Johnson is showing a solid lead with 114 votes - while Jeremy Hunt is trailing in a distant second place with a mere 43 votes – it ain't quite over yet. According to the Guardian, his rivals are in talks about joining forces to mount a "stop Boris" coalition.

Theoretically, it is possible that saner voices will prevail as Johnson still doesn't have half the MPs behind him, but he already has enough votes to make the final cut. This guarantees that his name is put in front of the membership – unless some of his current supporters drop out. And the received wisdom is that the members will go for their boy.

The push-back, therefore, is probably a forlorn hope but I suspect the Guardian will doubtless keep trying right up to the time that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his ghastly entourage moves into Number 10.

Possibly, the only thing that will stop this is if Johnson himself puts his foot in it, which is on the cards – hence his minders' concern to keep him out of the spotlight, even to the extent of avoiding television debates with other candidates.

His refusal so far to agree is creating a degree of adverse publicity and may backfire on him. His advisors have to calculate whether the downside of keeping Johnson gaffe-free is greater than allowing him into a position of vulnerability, where he can blow his entire campaign in a few ill-considered minutes.

That, of course, should tell his potential supporters something – a potential prime minister who has to be kept out of the public eye in case he makes a fatal mistake which keeps him from reaching his goal. And how do we keep him out of the public eye when (if) he is prime minister?

For the moment though, we will have to wait for the next ballot of MPs. This will be on Tuesday, with further rounds on Wednesday and possibly Thursday, until only two candidates are left. But it is a sign of the nervousness of Johnson's supporters that they are trying to pressure what they are calling "vanity" candidates to drop out, in order to cut the contest short.

Obviously, the shorter the time, the less chance there is for Johnson to make a terminal gaffe. But if it is a bit of a stretch to expect him to keep on the straight and narrow until 22 July, when the members' vote result is in, how long do they expect him to remain gaffe-free if he actually gets into Number 10?

That said, I'm already bored sick with the soap opera. I would sooner be debating Brexit except that, as already pointed out, there's not much point. Rather than taking back control, we're largely in the hands of the "colleagues" and a no-deal scenario is going to make us dependent on the goodwill of Member States and the EU institutions.

But, if there is no intention (or ability) to reactivate the Withdrawal Agreement – and there is no intention to mount another referendum or revoke the Article 50 notification, then the direction of travel leads us inexorably to a no-deal Brexit. Parliamentary shenanigans and brave talk about blocking a no-deal is of no avail. All Johnson has to do is sit on his hands – or fail to secure talks and a linked extension – and we're automatically out of the EU.

After all this time, it still hasn't really dawned on the MP collective – or the generality of the leadership candidates – that a no-deal exit is the default position. Johnson – or anyone else for that matter – doesn't have to "force through" a no-deal. They just have to do nothing and let events take their course.

A showman such as Johnson might dress it up a little, or even stage a heroic failure. Playing to the gallery, it would be very easy to set up a round of shuttle diplomacy, with the "gallant" new prime minister dashing through the European capitals with his very own proposal to break the impasse.

When the initiative fails, as indeed it would have to, he could then attribute the failure to the obduracy of the EU, and invoke the Dunkirk spirit. Anyone stupid enough to vote for Johnson would probably be stupid enough to be taken in by that pitch. Dumping the blame on the EU would have obvious tactical advantages.

But, if the only real outcome of the leadership race is a no-deal Brexit, one might perhaps question whether it even makes any difference who actually wins. In effect, we will not be looking for someone with great negotiating skills – it takes no skill at all to allow a default position to kick in.

What will be at a premium is management skills under crisis conditions, managing the consequences of us leaving without a formal agreement in place. And it is here that Johnson can be expected to be uniquely unqualified, other than to intensify the problems and make a glorious mess even messier.

The thing is, though, that the one thing virtually everyone can agree upon about Johnson is, as Peter Oborne puts it, that he is not to be trusted. Oborne himself argues that Johnson has "a great brain" – of which there is little evidence – but the real issue is that, whatever Johnson might claim as a Brexit strategy cannot be relied upon.

Such is his star quality, says Oborne, that he commands blind devotion among many voters, including even old-fashioned Labour types who are otherwise contemptuous of politicians. But, he adds, "Mr Johnson is distrusted and even detested. Big questions still surround him, and they weren't dispelled in the course of yesterday's press conference".

Already, we see the man veering between embracing the no-deal as the optimum scenario, to reluctantly accepting it in the event of a failure to renegotiate. But now we're even seeing him stealing the clothes of his rival Michael Gove, suggesting that he "may delay Brexit by a few weeks" if he becomes prime minister.

This drives a cart and horse through his declaration that we must leave on 31 October, come what may, asserting that "if we kick the can we kick the bucket". But, when we're dealing with a serial liar, another lie is par for the course. The only time one can ever be certain what Johnson will do is after he has done it. And even then, it may be an accident.

Necessarily, any extension will depend on the approval of the European Council and, at this stage, we cannot know whether an application for more time would be favourably treated, especially as the new Commission will not be in place when an application comes in. Arguably, with Johnson in place, the Council might be even less likely to approve than it might otherwise be.

The worst of it all, however, is that in the madness of this current climate, such calculations are irrelevant. If the Tory party membership remains besotted with Johnson, and is thinking selfishly about electoral survival, then it is a matter of inevitability that we end up with him as prime minister.

The only thing one really wonders about is whether we will see any less resort to the claim that European Commission officials are unelected. With an unelected prime minister – and one who is by any measure unfit for office – the UK will somehow have lost any moral authority to cast aspersions about democracy.

Richard North 14/06/2019 link

Brexit: the Boris fence

Thursday 13 June 2019  

Three weeks is a long time in politics but it's even longer when one is having to deal with a real life "Boris" on one's own territory.

But, where ultrasonic deterrents and other measures have failed, it's come down to brute force. Forget Mexico, the great fence of Bradford is now in place and, with luck, Boris is history. Would that the other one was so easy – I'll keep you posted.

As for the other one, he's been doing its stuff in London with the formal launch of his leadership campaign, where there's been no fence to keep him out. I'd volunteer, except that I'm too busy with my own version of Boris.

At such times though, it is hard to find solace from what is an emerging crisis – even if it isn't being treated universally as such. Bluntly, though, the prospect of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson becoming prime minister of this nation is a crisis in anyone's language.

Taking what entertainment there is to be had from the situation, one thing of note to emerge is the predictable but nonetheless extreme divergence in the media coverage. Two glorious examples serve this cause, one from the Telegraph and the other from the Guardian.

In the blue corner is Allison Pearson, under the headline, "Tories would be mad not to choose Boris for leader – no one else comes close". And, in the red, is John Crace with, "Boris Johnson is every bit as dull and evasive as his minders hoped".

In reading Allison Pearson one must take a certain amount of care. This is a woman in love. She doesn't write – she gushes, right down to her dismissal of the "multiple charges against Boris - dreadful reputation, cavalier with detail".

That was all we got from BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg during the questions at the end. Kuenssberg was, apparently "speaking with clear distaste on behalf of the Chattering Classes", but not all was lost, by any means.

"Just in time, the playful Boris millions know and love emerged from solemn statesmen mode to gently rib the sanctimonious Ms Kuenssberg. Out of 'that great minestrone of observations', he told her encouragingly, he had picked up 'one crouton, that I have been inconsistent'". And according to Pearson:
It was funny, yet, at the same time, it could not have been more serious. Boris was signalling that he won't modify either his language, or his behaviour, to please a politically correct, censorious liberal minority. He will express, in language most people understand, the ideas they hold dear. The metropolitan elite will damn him as a "populist", which is another word for a persuader and a winner. We like winners.
You could actually wonder, though, whether John Crace was in the same room, commenting about the same person, as his version of events is so different. He writes of a "crumpled, ashen Johnson" speaking in what "wasn't so much a leadership launch as a jobs fair for the not very talented". Far from being the "persuader" and the "winner", we got a completely different picture.

Crace has it that Johnson was acting on clear instructions from his minders: "Keep it dull, keep it vague and get the hell out of the room as fast as possible". They hadn't, he wrote, gone to the trouble of keeping their man away from the media for weeks on end, only for him to blow it on his first outing.

The last thing they wanted, says Crace, was for Boris Johnson to be the real Boris Johnson. "His serial dishonesty, his total untrustworthiness and sheer incompetence were best kept under wraps, at least until after he became the prime minister. What was required for his campaign launch was a hollowed-out Boris. Someone who could near enough pass himself off as credible". And thus did the "jobs fair" proceed:
"Piffle, poffle, wiffle, waffle", Johnson mumbled, tugging on a sweaty strand of hair. His minders purred. This was every bit as boring and low key as they had hoped. Most of the audience were dozing off long before their man had finished his first sentence, and even Boris was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Backstage, someone turned the heating up another couple of notches. Just to maintain the torpor.
Yet this, according to the besotted Pearson was Johnson "evoking a powerful yet simple idea of one nation where a thriving free market enables 'superb public services', where bankers support nurses and the South links hands with its friends in the North".

Through her rose-tinted filter, "his words took flight". Hope. Conservatives haven't had hope for a very long time. Honestly, they would be mad not to choose Boris. No one else comes close, she gushed: "Can he start tomorrow, please?"

And, with the Telegraph pulling out all the stops to support its man, it even ropes in serial failure Nick Timothy to excuse his "serial dishonesty, his total untrustworthiness and sheer incompetence".

"Imperfect he may be", writes Timothy, "but he has a record as a winning campaigner, twice in London and once, against all the odds, in the Brexit referendum". And while his enemies might hate him for it, "Boris knows how to play the game and win. And that is why he must be the Tories' man".

So, in Timothy's book, it is perfectly alright for this man to be accused of "serial dishonesty, total untrustworthiness and sheer incompetence" – these charges are not denied. Johnson, however, "knows how to play the game and win". And, for that, all is forgiven.

Interestingly, that actually says it all. Our political classes have so lost touch with their moral base that even a degenerate such as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson can qualify for the highest political office in the land as long as he is a winner. Such is the utter decadence of the Westminster bubble.

But from these widely differing views, all we are getting is media-speak, reflecting its obsession with personality politics. It is hard to glean from the coverage that Johnson is already backtracking from his commitment to leave the EU on 31 October without a deal.

Instead, he now seems to be waffling, speaking in terms of keeping a no-deal scenario "on the table" so that he can go back to Brussels and renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. He doesn't want a no-deal Brexit but, by preparing for one, he can tell Brussels he's serious.

At the same time, he has privately assured "senior Brexiteers" that he will leave open the option of suspending parliament to force through a no-deal exit, should it come to that – thereby demonstrating a determination to be all things to all men (and women).

Recalling that this is a man who is also saying that he will withhold the £39 billion Brexit "divorce bill", there is not a shred of coherence in anything he has to offer – which is why he is promising to provide the clarity of vision needed to deliver the result of the EU referendum. This is just another lie to add to the rest of them.

It seems now another age when Mrs May gained the extension to 31 October and Donald Tusk urged us not to waste the time we had been given. The parliamentary Conservative Party responded by engineering Mrs May's resignation and piling into a leadership contest where, if possible, the Brexit issues have become even more obscured.

As Pete remarks, this makes further Brexit debate largely futile. The bubble is not in the business of resolving this issue and is largely incapable even of addressing it. All we can really do is build a fence round it and try to keep Boris doing his business on it.

Richard North 13/06/2019 link

Brexit: a mistake the nation cannot afford

Wednesday 12 June 2019  

A few days ago, we had Matthew Parris describe the "turd-giver" as:
… a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist's ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory.
Now, we have another columnist from a major national newspaper, this one Rafael Behr, taking a pop at the former foreign secretary. He describes the "Boris" persona, the "carefully careless hair and linguistic prestidigitation", as:
… a vaudevillian trick that Johnson plays on British politics, manipulating debate away from his lying incompetence, idleness, philandering self-obsession and intellectual vacuity.
Stand back from this a moment. There are some of my readers who take offence at my current description of the "Oaf", perhaps forgetting how he acquired that description – and why. But this is a small thing when you have another columnist pitching in in such uncompromising terms, accusing the lead candidate for the office of prime minister of "lying incompetence, idleness, philandering self-obsession and intellectual vacuity".

Yet, like Matthew Parris, Rafael Behr makes his charges without the slightest fear of a libel suit, creating an extraordinary situation. Just to repeat, Mr Johnson is the lead candidate for the office of prime minister. That such a public figure can be described in the manner we have seen, and by two leading columnists, is quite unprecedented.

And the worst of it is that one would be hard put to deny any of the charges. In fact, I would be the first to endorse them and Johnson certainly could not deny them. What is way beyond anything close to acceptable, therefore, is that this man, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is even a candidate in the Tory leadership contest.

Now think about this. If this man is elected by the Tory party to the leadership, and thereby becomes the prime minister, look at what we will be getting. Collating the views of his two (most recent) critics, we have a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal, a cruel betrayer of women, an idle man who is a philanderer, an incompetent, self-obsessed and intellectually vacuous. And is this truly the man we want as prime minister?

But then we have to ask ourselves how on earth this great nation of ours got itself into this situation. How does our collective political and media (with notable exceptions) establishment allow itself to be railroaded by this dreadful man? How is he allowed to debase our politics, and turn our country into a laughing stock?

And then there's his politics. The obsession with the no-deal scenario is both dangerous and ill-advised. This blog, reluctantly, has supported the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May, as the least-worst option and the fastest, most assured way of leaving the EU. Had parliament supported this agreement, we would by now be legally out of the EU.

But the failure of Mrs May's agreement is in no small measure due to Mr Johnson's political colleagues, on whom he currently relies. He is as much part of the ongoing mess as the rest of his colleagues and needs to own it, but that is something he'll never do.

The thing here is that we are in a ghastly situation. There is no happy outcome from a scenario where the choice for Brexit is between a demented no-deal fantasy, the possibility of a revocation, the off-chance of another referendum, and little likelihood of a pre-departure negotiated settlement. And putting the incompetent, self-obsessed Johnson in the middle of all this is pouring the proverbial high-octane fuel into the classic smouldering fire.

Thus, we could certainly do without the dissimulation perpetrated by the Telegraph, which has it that Johnson is the only leadership candidate capable of beating both Corbyn and the Brexit Party, winning a "crushing 140-seat majority" at the next general election.

Talking up hypothetical poll scenarios is one thing, but can anyone imagine how the nation will react after six months or more of a Johnson premiership, when he has taken us through the trauma of a no-deal Brexit and displayed his usual incompetence in dealing with the aftermath? In such circumstances, the man would have difficulty convincing the nation that he should hold down a job as a toilet attendant.

But the very fact that this newspaper is pushing this line is just another indication of the degeneracy of our society and of the way a major national newspaper has turned into tabloid trash.

Even if Johnson was the electoral equivalent of the Messiah, his unfitness for office should mean something. The fact that he has the support of the Telegraph should make no difference, other than accelerate the deserved decline in the newspaper's readership.

There is, however, more to this than just another free round of publicity. It cannot be a coincidence that this fortuitous coverage comes on the same day that Johnson plans to launch his official campaign, whence he plans to warn that any further delay in Brexit will spell (electoral) disaster for the Conservatives.

What he will not say though is that if he is elected as Tory leader, thence to become prime minister, this will also spell disaster – and not just for the Conservatives. The whole nation will suffer.

Not only will we have his incompetence and infidelity to deal with, we will have in a prime minister the person with whom the EU and its Member States would least like to do business.

Not only do the "colleagues" continue to stress that they will not entertain a renegotiation, they have also made it clear that they will have nothing to do with Johnson's ploy of turning a no-deal exit into a negotiation opportunity.

In any event, according to the former French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, "The idea of Boris Johnson in the European council is probably quite abhorrent to some EU leaders". An EU source suggests: "Boris is known in foreign policy circles, certainly not respected. He's also seen as part of a wider Trump world and no one wants that".

In the UK, Rory Stewart is the only leadership contender who is getting close. Speaking to an audience of 600 members of the public, at his own launch yesterday, he asked: " Do you really feel that this is the person that you want engaging in the detail of the future of your health and education system? Is this the person you want writing the instruction to the nuclear submarines? Is this the man that you want embodying your nation and guiding you through the most difficult choice we’ve faced for 50 years?"

Even then, this is tame stuff, leaving the UK on the brink of an existential crisis that is growing by the day. Not only are we entering into one of the most uncertain times in our recent history, where the economic and political future of the nation is at stake, we are also on the brink of having imposed upon us a lying, cheating incompetent politician as leader, who quite clearly is not up to the job.

In my long life and extensive political experience, I have never known a situation like this. Even at the very worst, I have always felt we were tolerably well-governed, at least sufficient for me to accept the legitimacy of those who had assumed the high office of prime minister. Even the last holder of the office passed that test.

But if we end up with a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal, a cruel betrayer of women, an idle man who is a philanderer, an incompetent, self-obsessed and intellectually vacuous, all deals are off. This will precipitate an extraordinary crisis in our nation: we will have an imposter in Number 10, a man who has no right to be there, and one who should not be there – under any circumstances.

Sadly, the nation has no say in this. We are in the hands of Tory MPs and a limited band of Tory party members. Theirs is not an easy task as none of the candidates with a vague chance of getting elected inspire any confidence.

But, unfavourable as the rest of the field may be, and whatever the coming problems might be, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is not the solution. His election to leader would be the most devastating political miscalculation the party ever made. This is a mistake the nation cannot afford.

Richard North 12/06/2019 link

Brexit: the charade begins

Tuesday 11 June 2019  

When in June 2007 Tony Blair resigned as prime minister, one particular politician was mightily offended by his replacement in Number 10, and the way he was appointed. He wrote:
It's the arrogance. It's the contempt. That’s what gets me. It's Gordon Brown's apparent belief that he can just trample on the democratic will of the British people. It's at moments like this that I think the political world has gone mad, and I am alone in detecting the gigantic fraud.

Everybody seems to have forgotten that the last general election was only two years ago, in 2005. A man called Tony Blair presented himself for re-election, and his face was to be seen – even if less prominently than in the past – on manifestos, leaflets, television screens and billboards. We rather gathered from the Labour prospectus that said Blair was going to be Prime Minister. Indeed, Tony sought a new mandate from the British electorate with the explicit promise that he would serve a full term.

The British public sucked its teeth, squinted at him closely, sighed and, with extreme reluctance, decided to elect him prime minister for another five years. Let me repeat that. They voted for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to serve as their leader. They were at no stage invited to vote on whether Gordon Brown should be PM.
There are no prizes for guessing that the author of this piece was the "turd-giver" who today put his name forward with nine others as candidates for the prime minister of the United Kingdom in a contest which is an affront to the very concept of democracy.

Of course, even when he wrote his piece back in 2007, Johnson got it wrong. We did not in 2005 elect Blair as our prime minister. The peoples of the UK do not get to elect the heads of their government. We are only allowed to vote for our MPs, and it is the ruling party which then decides who will lead the government.

But during a general election, there is at least some tenuous connection between the post holder and the "will of the people", especially as general elections in past decades have increasingly taken on the tenor of presidential campaigns, run from the centre and dominated by personality politics.

Once a prime minister in office resigns, however, even that tenuous link is broken and the authoritarian nature of the British state re-asserts itself. Us plebs have no power to decide the leader of our own government. We are merely spectators in an obscene spectacle, in this case with the run-off candidates chosen by a tiny bunch of MPs, and the final choice made by around 160,000 Conservative Party members.

Small wonder the "turd-giver" complained about the "arrogance" and the "contempt". But, twelve years later, he should now add hypocrisy to the many other sins that make him uniquely unfit for office as prime minister, albeit that no other candidate inspires any confidence.

To be fair, the current contest is no more or less obscene than was the methodology used to award Gordon Brown the crown, but the sheer scale of the number of candidates announced today serves to underline the fact that the Commons is the gene pool for prime ministers and other members of the government.

Here, the ultimate failure of the system in this country becomes clear, in that there is no serious separation of powers. As long as members of the government are drawn from the legislature, there can be no proper distinction between roles, and parliament will never be an effective scrutiny body.

As to the ten candidates who have put themselves up for election, apart from Rory Stewart, none of them have unequivocally – or at all – committed to the Withdrawal Agreement, which means that nine of them don't have an answer to Brexit. With Stewart having very little chance of success, the choice is essentially between different levels of train wreck.

Especially inane are the "turd-givers" ideas, as articulated by Iain Duncan Smith, who tells us:
Boris has also made it clear that he believes that we should offer a trade deal and, while that is being negotiated, we should seek an implementation agreement with the EU under which we will both go to the WTO and invoke Article 24, which allows us to continue tariff free trade until the final deal is agreed. We can work urgently on our proposals for alternative customs arrangements to replace the backstop at the Northern Irish border prior to our departure.
So, to get this straight, the "turd-giver" would have us walk away from the EU on 31 October with no deal, whence he would immediately seek a deal with the EU, with cover for a temporary deal agreed between the two parties under the aegis of Article 24, to tide us over until a final agreement.

Then, before we actually leave with a no-deal, we will propose to – and presumably agree with – the EU "alternative customs arrangements", which would replace the backstop which would otherwise have to take effect the moment we left.

One would dearly like to take Johnson and the other cretins around him and lock them in a windowless room, letting them out only once they could answer the question: "which part of no-deal don't you understand?".

Consistently, we are getting from multiple candidates the belief that a no-deal Brexit is simply a precursor to another round of negotiations. This is accompanied by the expectation that the EU stands ready to agree any number of "mini-deals" and interim arrangements to protect our position while our new prime minister gets round to deciding which bit of the EU trading system he wishes to cherry-pick.

This advanced, institutional stupidity is now getting so pronounced, that even the Financial Times has noticed. This is where this "crude and belligerent" writer is way ahead of the field but it is nevertheless interesting to see other writers coming belatedly to some of the same conclusions.

Thus does Simon Kuper offer "Eight reasons Tory MPs keep getting it wrong", arguing (rightly) that, when it comes to Brexit, poor cognition is the curse of Britain’s governing class. "Anyone watching the contest to become British prime minister has to wonder about the cognitive skills of many Conservative candidates", he writes, then asking: "are these people stupid?".

The answer, of course, is "yes", certainly as it applies to most of them although, as always, it's complicated. Kuper, for instance, thinks many Tories are cynics faking it, publicly backing no-deal, knowing it would be a disaster, but are counting on the rest of parliament to stop it. They just want to sound hard, because they live in fear of deselection by their hard-Brexiter local parties.

Further, he says, there is no political advantage in grasping reality if your voters don't. In other words, if your voters are thick, there is nothing to gain by telling them they are wrong.

Under the title "Widmerpoolism", Kuper also writes of the "blind will to power", where power goes to the people most committed to getting it, not to those most qualified to exercise it.

Other factors cited are the inability to admit past error, where MPs who have got it wrong publicly are very reluctant to correct themselves. Then there is the tendency, where your "genuine beliefs contradict reality" for MPs simply to deny reality. This is very much what seems to be happening where the no-dealers are simply pretending that no-deal means a post-departure deal.

In any event, says Kuper, denying reality proves your fanaticism to other fanatics, the effects of peer group pressure where, by holding firm against reality, proponents signalled their loyalty to the group.

Then we have laziness, in the British gentleman-dilettante tradition, where many Conservative politicians leave "boring detail" to civil servants. But there's more to it than that. Prestige being such, snobby Tories believe detail is for the little people. To understand the detail signals that you are part of the lower orders.

And finally, we do have stupidity and ignorance. Some people sound stupid or ignorant, says Kuper, because they are stupid or ignorant. That could explain the Tory MP Nadine Dorries's complaint that May’s deal would leave the UK without MEPs after Brexit; or MP Andrew Bridgen's belief that "English" people are entitled to ask for an Irish passport (that Ireland is a forgotten British possession probably played a role too).

Kuper cites the classic essay "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity", where the late Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla warned: "A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit". This he explains by saying: "Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus society as a whole is impoverished".

On that basis, Kuper would prefer that the next prime minister is merely a bandit. Unfortunately, given the current line-up, there is every possibility that we end up with both.

Richard North 11/06/2019 link

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