Richard North, 01/09/2018  

Probably the only programme of any worth made for BBC television was the Magic Roundabout which ran daily from 1965 to 1977.

Cunningly disguised as a children's show, it was broadcast conveniently just before the main evening news so that we could all pretend that we had arrived a little early for the bulletin. The scripts, of course, were cryptic to the point of being incomprehensible – which was part of the charm.

Less so is the current iteration of what is turning out to be a magic roundabout of its own, the Brexit negotiations, Round and round they go, seemingly churning over the same material, with endless press conferences and earnest pundits pouring over the words in an attempt to divine what is going on.

Unfortunately, I count myself amongst those pundits, but one – like many others getting extremely frustrated at the sameness of it all and the very obvious lack of progress.

The latest episode we are confronting is the outcome of six hours of talks between Dominic Raab and Michel Barnier in Brussels, which has Mr Raab declaring that he was "stubbornly optimistic" that a deal was "within our reach".

Michel Barnier, however, is back in the same old groove – the closest approximation to Zebedee we'll ever get without revisiting the original programme. And thus we get a reminder on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"We must have a detailed and legally operational backstop solution in the Withdrawal Agreement", says Zebedee, noting: "Prime Minister Theresa May has committed to this, as have all EU Member States and institutions - I think here of the Parliament".

Offering no concessions whatsoever, he went on to declare that: "It is urgent to work on the text of an operational backstop". And, for that, he says, "I asked Dominic and his team to provide us with the data necessary for the technical work which we need to do now on the nature, location and modality of the controls that will be necessary".

Then came the inevitable punchline: "This backstop is critical to conclude the negotiations, because as I've already said, without a backstop, there is no agreement".

Indeed Zebedee has already said it, many times. And here he is saying it again: without a backstop there will be no agreement. Having said it so many times, though, he did not have to remind us that, without a withdrawal agreement, there is no transition period. When 29 March arrives, we drop out of the EU to confront a sudden death, "no deal" Brexit.

Nevertheless, despite the UK negotiating team having spent the last week not offering a backstop, Mr Raab told reporters, ""I'm much more confident that we can reach a deal in the way we have described". On timing, he said, "we are aiming for the October council. There is a level of leeway but that is what we are aiming for".

And so the roundabout goes round and round. There is absolutely nothing up front that we can confidently take away to say that anything has changed. Nothing has changed. Everything stays the same. Anything else is speculation.

Perforce, that must also apply to the October deadline. For some time, we've been getting heavy hints that this timetable is elastic, but now we're back on the October gig – with nothing to affirm that this is any more realistic than the last time it was promised.

For those who are still interested though – and that seems to be not many in the real world – at least there is a new narrative to play with. As I forecast yesterday, the media can pick up on the reports of the last two days and weave them into a novel framework which gives some relief from repeating the same old stuff, again and again.

This time it is the turn of the Irish Times which has London Editor Denis Staunton buy into the media Kool Aid, writing under the headline: "Britain retreats into insular shell of Brexit gloom".

You can see here why it is necessary to give the non-story of a "breakthrough" some limited credibility, otherwise Staunton could not have got away with writing: "After a fleeting moment of optimism pushed sterling upwards against the dollar on Wednesday and fed speculation about a breakthrough, Brexit on Thursday slid back into its crusty carapace of gloom".

"Wednesday's excitement", he says, "was sparked by Michel Barnier saying he wanted to offer Britain a partnership 'such as has never been with any other third country' and a speech by Emmanuel Macron to French diplomats".

It takes a little while for Staunton to get to the beef, but he does note in passing that "Barnier's statement contained nothing new and included his standard warning that Britain must respect core structures of the EU such as the single market".

As to the Macron story, exclusively revealed by The Times on the basis of anonymous (and unverified) "diplomatic sources", our intrepid Irish Times correspondent dismisses it as a "tease". Hinting at deliberation, he avers that it was "especially cruel" because it chimed with the conviction, clung to fervently throughout much of Whitehall and Westminster, that the EU leaders are gearing up to push Barnier out of the way and take over the negotiations themselves.

At least there is somebody here with their feet on the ground, who is prepared to spell out what other hacks cling to with a fervour that makes you wonder whether they are after redefining the word gullible. Says Staunton:
When that happens, so the fantasy goes, the leaders will abandon the European Commission’s legalistic approach and its veneration of principles like the four freedoms of the single market. Urged on by the carmakers of Germany, the winemakers of France and the Prosecco producers of Italy, the leaders will then strike a "sensible" deal based on May's Chequers proposal. Ireland will be told to get its backstop out of the way while Great Powers are at work on more important matters.
Fitting into this fantasy narrative is the informal European Council at Salzburg this month. Around this has been built another of those fictitious scenarios on the basis of no facts at all, where Mrs May is set to negotiate directly with her counterparts, cutting Barnier out of the action.

In this real world, all that will happen is that the prime minister will make a short statement to the other leaders, as she has at previous European Councils. Then, after she has left, the other 27 will continue to do what they came to Salzburg for. If Brexit is discussed at all, it could well be limited to talks on the margins.

Skipping past the Raab intervention, Staunton then notes that the deadline for the end of negotiations was until recently the October European Council. But, like most of us, he does not think a deal will be done then. That paves the way for another invention – an extra-special "emergency" Council meeting set for November.

As it stands, though, there is nothing on the formal meetings list and nothing is scheduled until 13-14 December. An emergency meeting would be a very special concession and the EU-27 leaders are busy people. They are unlikely to trek all the way to Brussels unless Mrs May is prepared to offer something much more than she has so far.

In the meantime, as Staunton observes, Mrs May can look forward to the return of her MPs to Westminster next week after a hot summer listening to Conservative activists complaining about her Chequers proposal. Back in the Westminster hot house, her whips will be taking the temperature of the parliamentary party.

We can then expect temperatures to rise to fever pitch during the party conference which starts 30 September and ends on 3 October. Fringe meetings are expected to dominate events and the reactions – both within the party and in the media – could have a powerful influence on Mrs May's next moves.

Here, inevitably, there is much speculation but the same calculus that has prevailed since the general election still seems to dominate: there is no single faction within the party which could replace Mrs May. Her position relies not on her own strength but on the weakness of her potential challengers. Yet this could change in an instant if the Brexit deal goes south.

This much is known in Brussels, but which way she will jump is anyone's guess. Whatever else might be said of Mrs May, she has proved to be a survivor. If there are odds to be had, it is on her taking action that will keep the party together and maximise its electoral prospects.

Until then, the magic roundabout will keep spinning and the music will play on. What the tune will be next week, the week after that, and the week following is not for us mere mortals to know.

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