Richard North, 11/09/2018  

Noted on the blog comments yesterday, before I got to it, we have yet another example of the media and the markets getting it wrong. Led (or typified) by Reuters, we see reports that the euro and sterling rose against the dollar on Monday "after the EU's top negotiator said an agreement for Britain to leave the economic bloc might be reached in the coming weeks".

The Times is amongst those that runs the story, telling us that the pound surged to a five-week high after Michel Barnier said that a deal was "possible" within six to eight weeks. And then we have the Independent headlining: "Michel Barnier says Brexit deal still 'realistic' as deadline looms".

But there is an enormous difference between how the story is being presented and what Mr Barnier actually said. Speaking at the Bled Strategic Forum conference in Slovenia, he told his audience that, "If we are realistic, I want to reach an agreement on the first stage of the negotiation, which is the Brexit treaty, within six or eight weeks".

Barnier added: "The treaty is clear, we have two years to reach an agreement before they leave... in March 2019", going on to say, "That means that taking into account the time necessary for the ratification process in the House of Commons on one side, the European Parliament and the Council on the other side, we need, we must reach an agreement before the beginning of November. I think it is possible".

The crucial qualifier, of course, is that "If we are realistic", in a process where realism has been in short supply. Barnier is saying nothing of any great significance and certainly nothing that could give rise to any great optimism. It is thus more of a sign of the times that the markets are so jittery, reacting to rumours and these half-baked reports.

However, as time drains away into the sands with no clear sign that the government has a grip on events, the rumour mill is in full spate, mostly based on assumptions of what may (or may not) happen at the upcoming informal European Council at Salzburg next week.

Reports are focusing on suggestions that the European Council will be asked to consider a revision to Barnier's negotiating guidelines, aimed at making it easier for Mrs May to present a compromise to her party and parliament.

On this, it is difficult to see how it could be managed. Some reports seem to be suggesting that the Council at Salzburg could issue ad hoc instructions to Barnier, for him to go away and continue negotiations with a revised mandate.

On the face of it, this would appear to be somewhat unrealistic – the system simply doesn't work that way. All that can happen is that the Council will "invite" the Commission to prepare a draft setting out proposed revisions. These first go to the General Affairs Council and then to a full European Council meeting, where they must be formally approved.

On that basis, revised guidelines could not be in force until after the October Council. Until then, effectively, the negotiations would be on hold, especially if there are substantial changes to be made. Only once the approval is confirmed will they be able to resume. If there is then to be a special European Council in November to resolve the deal, time for talks under the new mandate will be perilously short.

Unsurprisingly, according to the Guardian, both EU and UK sources are saying that the likelihood at this stage of such a formal move has been overblown. The ever-willing coterie of anonymous "senior diplomats" representing the member states in the negotiations, are saying that while there would be warm words at Salzburg, "there were no plans as yet to offer up a new set of guidelines to Barnier, or for them to be discussed by the leaders".

Nevertheless, one commentator in particular has been suggesting that the Heads of States and Governments will not only produce a new mandate, but become directly involved in the talks, making the final deal a European Council "product".

As I have written earlier on this, though, it is difficult to see how this could come about while conforming with the treaty requirements of Article 218. It also goes against the spirit of the Article which is so arranged that the deal is not approved by those involved in the front-line negotiations, giving an element of separation.

And irrespective of the strength of the rumours and the number of times they are repeated, we do not need anonymous sources – senior, or otherwise – to know that Brexit is not formally on the Salzburg agenda, which means that it is not scheduled for discussion. And, even if it is discussed at some time, it is extremely rare for formal decisions to be taken at an informal European Council.

There is, however, some logic in suggesting that those involved in the negotiations on the European Union side will be concerned at the politicking going on in the UK and the prospect – even if it is remote – of Mr Johnson making a bid to become prime minister.

It follows, therefore, that they will be favourably disposed towards giving Mrs May such assistance as they can, to strengthen her position. What this can amount to remains to be seen but the indications are that any change in approach by Mr Barnier will be more in terms of tone than of substance.

None of this in any way helps deal with the crucial sticking point of the Irish border, and the "backstop", or that the central elements of the Chequers plans cannot be accepted by the EU. No amount of "warm words" will make the difference.

In the meantime, we are getting mixed messages on the domestic political scene, with uncertainty mounting as to Johnson's precise intentions – whether or not he intends to make a leadership bid.

One scenario being offered is that he has "no plans to launch an immediate leadership bid" but "will continue to 'throw rocks' at Theresa May's Chequers plan in the weeks running up to Tory conference", but with a "tub-thumping" Brexit speech to be delivered to a fringe event the day before Mrs May speaks.

News of these machinations comes at a time when Jacob Rees-Mogg's European Research Group (ERG) has decided to delay producing its own plan, amid reports that a draft contained ideas for a "star wars" anti-missile defence shield and the establishment of an expeditionary force for the protection of the Falklands.

This opens Johnson and the "ultras" generally to the "all mouth and no trousers" charge – particularly apposite in the case of Johnson. They are full of it when it comes to knocking down Mrs May's plan, but have no constructive ideas of their own.

This, of course, has been the position right from the start, when in 2015, Cummings actively decided not to adopt an exit plan, on the basis that rival factions in the Eurosceptic movement could never coalesce around a single plan.

This is very much at odds with the received wisdom that the "Brexiteers" didn't have a plan. In Flexcit, there was a plan, known and acknowledged by the key players but rejected by both Vote Leave and – even after Arron Banks had initially agreed to adopt it.

The idea that there was a plan, which the major groups rejected, is very different from the narrative that there never was a plan. Flexcit, after successive updates, still exists and offers a far more realistic solution than the ERG could produce, especially if Sanker "Snake Oil" Singham is involved in the latter, with the absurd suggestions he is prone to make.

That the media now runs with a new version of its narrative, that the "brexiteers" have somehow seen the light and are ready to produce a plan, runs counter to the reality – that the "ultras" are no closer to producing a coherent plan than they ever were. And without their own plan, they have expended their energies on denigrating the only worked-up plan which had the slightest chance of working – with the active complicity of the legacy media.

In parallel, Rees-Mogg and his allies are still talking up the "no deal" scenario as a realistic proposition, resorting to more and more absurd claims to justify their untenable position, seasoned with transparent dishonesty on an industrial scale.

What the EU negotiators must make of this is anybody's guess and it is not even certain that a clear picture will emerge after the Tory conference. But if this nation and its media are taking figures such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg seriously, then they must be wondering whether it is even possible to cut through the noise and conclude any deal at all.

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