Richard North, 06/08/2017  

As our confidence in the handling of Brexit deteriorates by the hour, Politico is telling us that our government is shortly to counter suggestions they are underprepared by releasing a series of position papers.

These papers, it would appear, will "reveal" that the UK wants a smooth route out of the European Union and will seek a "transitional customs agreement" before moving to a new permanent relationship.

This dramatic disclosure, we are told, has been pencilled in for the week of 14 August, then to be followed by a paper outlining the government's long-awaited solution to the Northern Ireland border problem. This is considered to be bound up with its customs relationship with the EU.

London is insisting that the Irish border question is considered alongside future customs arrangements, cutting across the EU's own priorities. It hopes to persuade Barnier that the two cannot be dealt with separately.

Alongside this, up to a dozen papers will form part of what officials describe as a "big push" to counter a perception among the EU27 that the UK is underprepared for Brexit, the first dozen to be published over the next two months, ahead of the European Council meeting in October.

With no real detail being offered, we are to understand that the government is seeking to preserve trading relations, although it is not clear whether the transitional arrangement to be proposed would allow the UK to strike trade deals with third countries outside the EU.

According to Politico, the bulk of the work on the position papers was completed some time ago, but in recent weeks there has been a discernible "pickup of the pace". There is an "awareness" that the UK has to show "seriousness" to the European Council, which has seen the "machine" being cranked up into another gear.

At talks scheduled for later this month, the UK will make a concerted effort to agree on a final package on expats' rights. Officials say that there is a determination to put the issue "to bed as soon as possible". Supposedly, "We will exert some pressure to get that one over the line at the next round".

However, in an almost certain show stopper, it seems that the government is still not prepared to agree a financial settlement. That would seem to render all this inside information somewhat redundant. Until the money question is settled, this ain't going anywhere.

Even that may not be cut and dried. The Telegraph (no paywall) claims that the UK might pay about €40 billion, which is not so very far from the the figure we suggested in April last year. Here, though, it is paid off over three years, rather than the seven years I suggested. Needless to say, a Number 10 official tells the Independent that the figure is "speculative and wrong".

Racking up the pain in other directions is former Commission President Romano Prodi. He has been telling the Observer that Britain will be committing economic suicide unless it is prepared to compromise to reach a comprehensive Brexit deal. He also says that more and more people are suggesting to him in private that a second referendum may be needed.

Prodi believes a "historic compromise" will eventually be reached because the Europe-wide economic consequences of failure had been heavily underestimated. "Maybe I am biased, being an economist", he says, "but it may be that there is still an imprecise [understanding] of the real economic consequences of Brexit". A compromise must be found "to avoid suicide", he says, justifying the "strong language" because of "the damage for the UK” that would come as a result of crashing out of the EU with no deal".

Looking at the EU side, Prodi is calling on Brussels to preserve as much trade with Britain as possible to avert serious economic damage. "It is so clear that it is impossible to dismantle this type of agreement without real damage on both sides", he says. "In this case, the weight of damage is probably heavier on the UK side, but there is damage on both sides".

As an interesting counterpoint to the Politico report, and the Telegraph, his intervention – says the Guardian - comes with no sign that the EU is prepared to cut a deal that would dilute the principle of free movement. Barnier, we are told, is signalling that he may not even sanction the beginning of talks in October unless the UK begins to compromise over finance or the expat issue.

The plot then thickens with Britain's most senior union bosses calling for free movement to remain in place. This is Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, saying: "The government must give European workers the right to remain, or face losing skilled and experienced health and social care staff for ever".

Prentis thinks that any trade deal should be without tariffs and guarantee future free movement of EU labour. He adds: "It must protect employment standards, jobs, and economic growth. It should also provide for well-funded public services safe from any further privatisations".

Adding more noise to the mêlée is Nigel Farage, telling an American audience that he thinks "the great Brexit betrayal has already begun". He says: "I'm hearing British Ministers speaking about fisheries, speaking about financial contributions, speaking about immigration and frankly doing so in a way that is backsliding, is gutless and is weak and I think we're gonna get Brexit but we may finish up in two years' time with Brexit in name only".

That is actually a possibility, not least through the failure of the likes of Farage to frame or endorse a workable exit plan. Wedded to their empty mantras, he and his followers have no ideas of their own, beyond wanting out "yesterday" and at any price.

His noise, though, is no more coherent than the input from Mervyn King - another "former" – this one having served as Bank of England governor. His great contribution to a debate, that is also deteriorating to the point where it's getting surreal, is to argue that more work needed to be done to show the European Union that the UK was serious about walking away if there was no agreement.

"If you are going to have any successful negotiation", he says, "you have got to have a fallback position which the other side understands and believes is credible. So we need to able to say if we can't reach an agreement we will nevertheless leave and we can make it work". Needless to say, he doesn't go so far as to tell us what this fallback position should be. It is simply "a practical thing that the civil service ought to be taking a lead on".

Clearly, he hasn't been reading Andrew Adonis who bemoans the lack of expertise in the very same civil service. Without saying as much, he argues that our people couldn't negotiate their way out of a paper bag – which augers ill for them devising some amazing fallback plan that would overcome the disaster of leaving the EU without a deal.

In this ocean of incoherence, you will find few islands of sense, although this on the Efta/EEA option is worth a read. Otherwise, the only constant is that those who believe there are simple solutions, such as Mr Fysh-out-of water, are the ones who don't have the first idea of what is going on.

Those are the ones that you find trotting out the Legatum briefing notes, telling us that regulatory conformity, mutual recognition and trusted trader schemes are the answer to a maiden's dreams. The higher they pile the jargon, the more it is clear that they lack even the most basic of understanding.

But, if we leave the Express to add its unique brand of incoherence to the rest, with the observation that, "Theresa May 'will not compromise with Brussels' and be pushed into a soft Brexit", we end up with a picture of almost total confusion – just another synonym for the incoherence that is swamping the Brexit debate.

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