Richard North, 08/07/2018  
 


Brussels will say no. If this dog's breakfast is all Mrs May has to offer when she writes her Chequers proposal into the White Paper and sends it to the European Council, the outcome will be a "no deal".

That, of course, has not stopped the vitriol flowing, with over 4,000 comments on the Telegraph. Many are whingeing mightily about betrayal and worse while the ERG storms about the creation of a "worst-of-all worlds 'black hole Brexit' where the UK is stuck permanently as a 'vassal state' in the EU's legal and regulatory tarpit".

There are those, however, who would have it that this represents tactical genius on the part of Mrs May, who has confronted her "Ultras" and forced them to back down. She has, according to this version of reality, taken them part of the way towards a compromise which will eventually see us reaching a negotiated deal with the EU.

Such a scenario would, of course, require that the "Ultras", having been manoeuvred into accepting more than they are comfortable with, are going to concede still more ground.

But, if the UK's commitment to adopt just part of the Single Market acquis is seen by them as a permanent "vassal state", one wonders what how they will react to the additional concessions Mrs May will be forced to make before a deal could be finalised.

How much more "vassal" will they tolerate, one wonders, when at the meeting – according to the Sunday Times, the oaf Johnson declared his leader's plans a "big turd" and said that anyone defending them would be "polishing a turd". For political convenience, he may have backed down on the day and put his name to the three-page statement but the Telegraph is already talking in terms of "furious backlash".

Given this background it is my view that the only realistic conclusion one can draw from Friday's events is that Mrs May went as far as she could go politically, judging that she could go as far as she did without tearing her party apart – and even then she may have misjudged the intensity of the mood.

But whatever the domestic political calculus, in terms of the Brexit negotiations, the outcome represents a massive failure. For Friday's cabinet meeting to have been a success, the prime minister needed to have done two things. Firstly, she needed to come up with a proposal which had a reasonable chance of being accepted by Brussels. Then she had to get her cabinet behind her, to agree that she could make this the UK position.

However, she abandoned the former in order to improve her chances of achieving the latter. And although she has come away with the agreement of her colleagues – which may not even hold – there is no way that Brussels could accept what is to be proposed.

Having taken such a public position, though, it is hard to see how, on a domestic front, she can go any further. She has locked the stable door on herself before she has been able to bolt.

My guess is that Mrs May, far from being the political "genius" that some will aver, has misjudged the situation on all fronts. If we go back to last December, one will recall that there was another crisis looming, with the refusal of the EU to move to discussion of our future relationship until the Irish border question had been resolved.

At the last minute though, the Council relented, motivated – it is said – by concern that refusal to concede some ground to Mrs May would bring her down, delaying proceedings while there was another leadership contest. In the event, Brussels, concerned that a successor might be even worse, offered just enough to allow Mrs May to claim a victory of sorts, and stay in the game.

Based on that experience, one could make the case that Mrs May believes that Brussels – understanding that she has gone as far as she can go – will make similar concessions and accept most of her current proposals. And if that is the case, she has not realised that she us up against the EU's "red lines" from which they cannot and will not budge. The "bloody difficult woman" has reached the end of the road.

As to the immediate reaction from Brussels (and Dublin for that matter), this has been entirely in line with what we expected. There has been no outright condemnation – merely a lukewarm, reserved "wait and see" welcome. Barnier says he will wait for the White Paper, due next week, with negotiations due to resume on 16 July.

We get a similar story from Varadkar, who spoke with Mrs May by telephone yesterday. He "looks forward" to seeing greater detail on her proposals over the coming days and hopes they would be a "helpful input" to the negotiation process.

If I've assessed things correctly, then M. Barnier will play the long game, leaving it to the October Council to be the bearer of bad news. And even then, this does not rule out the EU making unilateral concessions, while it gets its house in order to deal with the UK crashing out of the EU.

Amongst other things, the Commission will have a considerable legislative burden to regularise the position, and to prevent damage to commercial enterprises in Member States, while countries such as France will need the time to get the ports infrastructure in place. The UK could even get some sort of transition period – but entirely to suit the convenience of the EU and its Member States.

Meanwhile, the UK media has almost completely lost it. As a collective, it has never been good at dealing with EU affairs. Confronted with the need to report Brussels stories, it will invariably resort to its normal formula of personality politics and engineer a confrontation between the parties. But since so few Brussels politicians are known to their audiences, the media will invariably seek to "plant a flag" on their stories, giving then a domestic spin.

This tendency has been very much to the fore over the weekend, with all the elements in play. The whole drama has been played out against the backdrop of Conservative Party politics, cabinet personalities have been prominent and the confrontation has the dominant theme. Brussels merges into the background and only the tiniest fraction of media resource has gone into assessing whether Mrs May will bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

What we have to confront is the reality that the media are no longer capable of delivering sensible reportage. Obsessed with domestic party politics, and without the resource or interest to find out what is going on in Brussels and the Member States, they are no longer even bothering to broaden their horizons and tell us what is really going on. As to their analyses, these are superficial beyond measure.

Any properly grounded evaluation of recent events would have to conclude that we have not been brought any closer to achieving a negotiated Brexit. The only sane conclusion to be drawn from the government's statement is that Mrs May has been unable to construct a formula which would satisfy Brussels, while the domestic political situation is such that she could hardly get support for something that would satisfy them.

That puts us in a crisis situation, whence the past sins of the media are catching up with us. Neither print nor broadcast media have made any serious attempt to bring home how extraordinarily damaging a "no deal" Brexit might be. Variously trivialising or understating the issues, and never pulling the strands together, they have allowed the widespread impression to prevail that "no deal" is a tenable option.

Oddly, this is where the legacy of the referendum campaign is now casting a deadly shadow. Where "project fear" sought to dissuade voters from leaving the EU – vastly overstating the case – many of same arguments are valid when applied to a "no deal" Brexit.

But tarnished by their association with the "remain" campaign – and those who are currently exploiting the turmoil in order to reverse the referendum result – the arguments have lost much of their force. The little boy cried "wolf" once too often.

The moral of the "cry wolf" story, though, is that eventually the wolf did come – and no one heeded the boy's genuine cries. The wolf, in the form of a "no deal", is now stalking the land. What the results might be, none of us want to find out. But Mrs May seems determined to give us the experience and, whether deliberate or not, the media seems to be doing their best to help her.

Perhaps only a concerted effort to bring home to people exactly what "no deal" entails might turn the political tide. But I see no sign of that coming. Until the "psychic fever" has broken, sense will struggle to prevail.






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