Richard North, 07/12/2017  

This is just the sort of fracas the legacy media love: an environment stiff with personalities, replete with conflict and intrigue, dirty-dealing, bad faith, claim and counter-claim.

It is also the point when sensible analysts pack their bags and go home, waiting for the noise level to subside. There is little of value which can be discerned when a media frenzy takes hold and so many different voices are cluttering the terrain.

The central point – widely ignored by all – is that Mrs May's cover story (based on the adoption of "regulatory alignment") has been well and truly blown. Thus, by any rational measure, she has nowhere to go with the talks in Brussels as she will not be able to offer anything which meets the EU's requirements.

However, one senses that the "colleagues" are anxious to have the talks run on into phase two, primarily because a failure of the negotiations right now would fatally weaken the UK prime minister to the point where she could be deposed. And the current sentiment in Brussels is, "better the devil you know". Bad as she is, her replacement could be inestimably worse.

For the rest, yesterday was the day when the entire world woke to the conclusion that has been troubling us for many months – that them up there simply don't know what they're doing. Any illusion of competence, either from May or David Davis, has been well and truly shattered.

Bluntly, though, I don't know why anyone should be at all surprised. That Davis's boast of having prepared zillions of impact analyses turned out to be so much hot air is entirely in character. We observed back in September that there was something of the Walter Mitty in the man, and that his word was not to be relied upon. The only good thing we can say about him is that he is consistent.

As for Mrs May, her truculent performance at PMQs more than adequately illustrated her lack of grasp of the issues, as she was tasked about how she would bring about a solution to the Irish question.

"That is the whole point of the second phase of the negotiations", she said, "because we aim to deliver this as part of our overall trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we can only talk about that when we get into phase two".

The point, of course – as the "colleagues" have been at pains to point out - is that solution to the Irish border must be unique, and cannot be rolled into the general trade agreement. It is Mrs May's failure to understand this (together with almost every Conservative still capable of breathing – hard enough though that might be for some) that has been partially responsible for the mess she is in.

That notwithstanding, Michel Barnier has been told that the UK government is working on another text which they hope to submit to Brussels, in lieu of the last one. Barnier, for his part, has given Mrs May until Friday to craft a plausible fudge, failing which there will be no December approval to move to phase two.

As a sign that the "colleagues" are really rooting for the stricken May, though, we hear Leo Varadkar airily dismiss the looming deadline, remarking that, if the issue fails to make the cut and it isn't possible to move to phase two next week, "well then we can pick it up in the new year".

Although the first formal European Council of the new year is not until March, there is talk of an emergency session in either January or February, allowing Mrs May to cobble something together over the Christmas break, when hostilities are traditionally at their lowest ebb.

For all the talk of Brussels being "difficult", therefore, all the signs are that the key players on the EU scene are bending over backwards to help. Had they wished to pile on the pressure, they could have stuck to last Monday's deadline and then pencilled in March for the next review, leaving Mrs May to the tender embrace of her "Ultras" and the Corbynista – not that the latter should trouble her much.

For want of any stated explanation for this sudden outcrop of European solidarity, one can only surmise that, if the talks had dramatically failed this week, by the time March can along, there would be a different prime minister sitting in the UK slot in Brussels. Since this could range from such persons as the odious Rees-Mogg to Jeremy Corbyn (asked by the Queen to form a government), one can understand why the "colleagues" want to hedge their bets.

But that alone isn't going to solve any problems, and it isn't even going to buy time. Even a January review would only leave nine months for substantive talks – assuming that the EU still wants six months to ratify an agreement. However, given the EU's new-found "caring, sharing" demeanour, M. Barnier could perhaps be instructed to revert to the device of stopping the clock.

For all that, though, charity and the EU rarely go hand in hand without there being a price. Even if M. Barnier is being overtly considerate, that doesn't change the fundamentals. Particularly on Ireland, if there is to be an invisible land border, and the UK is not prepared to adopt the full rigour of the Single Market acquis and all that goes with it, then there will have to be a "wet" border.

Here, the expectation is of a border in the Irish Sea, with controls on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But, if that is not to be, then the Irish Republic will be in the frame. To prevent the land border being a "back door" into the Single Market, the other Member States will have to apply controls on goods exported from Ireland to the rest of the EU.

Since this hasn't been mentioned recently – out in the open, at any rate – one wonders if Varadkar is fully aware of what could be in store for him. Essentially, he will have to make the choice of dumping the UK and setting up a hard border to check goods coming over from Northern Ireland, or the EU will dump Ireland, setting up border controls on its exports.

Leo Varadkar, therefore, has more at stake in this game than any other player, and given that Ireland has for some time been seeking to reduce its economic reliance on the UK, the chances are that, forced to make a choice, he will "opt for Europe" rather than throw in his lot with a newly independent UK.

The bizarre thing about all this, though, is that barely anyone is seeing the situation with any clarity. We get, for instance, Bombardier saying that it would oppose any move that would effectively shift customs controls to the middle of the Irish Sea. It gives as its reason the fact that it does relatively little trade with the Republic and most of its imported components come from the UK.

However, given the need for it to gain EU approval for its design and manufacturing operations before it can export to EU Member States, it may find that closer ties with the EU are in fact more important than easy trading links with the UK.

It is here, of course, that Mr Davis's non-existent impact assessments would have come in useful, but it is also the case that either the parliamentary select committee system, the media, or even academia, could have worked out for themselves what various exit options entail.

After all, if a pensioner sitting in his daughter's former bedroom in a converted mill on the outskirts of unfashionable Bradford can work it out using a steam-powered personal computer, then I'm sure that these better-resourced outfits should have no problems.

But that brings us back to where we started. These outfits no longer exist to make sense of the world and report what they see (and understand). Primarily, they are noisemakers. And currently, they are in their element.

But when the noise abates, the issues will still be there. And so will we, listening for the signals that are currently being drowned out.

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