Richard North, 02/12/2018  

There was a time once when Ukip played an important part in the process of what became Brexit. But once the party had been abandoned by Farage in the wake of the referendum, as the former leader pursued his own career, it was eventually taken over by Gerard Batten – and only had one place to go.

And now, if we're to take the word of The Sunday Telegraph, the party has all but arrived. Not only has Batten appointed Tommy Robinson as his personal advisor, it appears that there is another extremely suspect member of his retinue.

This is Daniel Thomas, 29, who appears to have been heavily involved in the organisation of a "Brexit Betrayal" march and rally to be held in London next weekend. Yet this is a man who has a conviction for attempted kidnap, and has served a jail sentence for the offence.

At the rally, Robinson is expected to speak, which – with the more general links to Ukip – means that no self-respecting "leaver" will go near the event. It will thus reach only a tiny fraction of attendance claimed by the recent "People's Vote" march.

This is one of many ways in which Ukip is letting down the Eurosceptic movement – not that a successful march would have been any help to the cause, given its "leave now" obsession. The physical collapse merely reflects the intellectual deterioration of the party. It is a long, long time since it had anything coherent to offer.

It is all very well, therefore, for Farage then to whinge to the national executive council, urging it to pass a motion of no confidence in Batten's leadership. But not only did Farage desert the party, leaving it open to a take-over, his failure to bring forward suitable successors has left the leadership vacuum which Batten is now filling.

Furthermore, it was Farage who progressively weakened the NEC, with successive changes to the party constitution, leaving it ill-equipped to bring an errant leader to book. Now a toothless cypher, it is effectively a bystander at the death throes of an organisation that once had the mighty Conservative Party running scared.

Another organisation to take a dive this weekend is the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Its star spokesman, Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham is already on the back foot, complaining of being "deeply frustrated" because the prime minister was ignoring his proposals, and now his parent organisation has had to suffer the ultimate humiliation.

It has been forced by the Charity Commission to remove Singham's work from its website and to cease promoting it. This was the infamous "Plan A+", subtitled "Creating a prosperous post-exit UK", an error-strewn 150-pages published in September that constituted Singham's bid for fame and fortune as author of the plan that took the UK out of the EU.

Now, as it stands, Flexcit is still there, unchallenged, while the only place you can get the con artist's oeuvre in the public domain is on the Wayback Machine.

Slapping down the IEA, the Charity Commission decided that the contents were "not sufficiently balanced and neutral as required of an educational charity under charity law". It also found that the IEA "had been undertaking political activity not in line with the charity's purposes".

Ignoring the complaints from Neil Record, chairman of the IEA board of trustees, David Holdsworth, the Commission's deputy chief executive, said: "Charitable think-tanks are first and foremost charities and need to behave as such. It is disappointing that the trustees of some charitable think-tanks appear not to fully understand their duties".

Somebody else getting that sinking feeling this weekend must be no less than Theresa May. When (or if) she reads The Sunday Times, she will find it publishing leaked details of attorney-general Geoffrey Cox's legal advice on the draft withdrawal agreement, which the government has been so reluctant to release.

To nobody's great surprise, the advice contains "a stark passage" that makes clear the UK could end up locked in the "backstop". In a letter to cabinet ministers last month Cox thus declared: "The protocol would endure indefinitely". The only way we could escape it he says, is to sign a new trade deal, which could take years. But he also warned that the UK could remain trapped if those talks collapsed.

This is more or less what I wrote the day after publication of the draft agreement, pointing out that it was most unlikely that the UK could agree a free trade area which would deliver frictionless trade across the Irish border. "As the agreement stands", I wrote, "it is possible to see a scenario where the UK is locked in perpetuity into a customs union with the EU".

A week later, it is nice to have the attorney-general confirm what we managed to work out within hours of publication of the draft. But the details, we are told, "will enrage Eurosceptics and are likely to harden opposition to the deal". Unsurprisingly, a cabinet source says: "The legal advice is very bad, which is why they don't want anyone to see it".

With only nine days to save her "historic" Brexit deal, with 100 or more Tory MPs apparently determined to sabotage it, Mrs May most certainly should have gone to the Brexiteer's equivalent of Specsavers – the Efta/EEA option.

Booker returns to that theme in his column today – which the paper hasn't yet published, despite a full house of all its other columnists. When the Sunday Telegraph gets round to putting it online, readers will find it saying that after 20 months of negotiations Theresa May can only now ask Parliament to make a seemingly impossible choice.

That choice is either to support a deal largely dictated by the EU – the nature of which the Sunday Times has just confirmed, or to leave with "no deal". The first is so poor that even the Treasury can only present it as an economic disaster. But the second, the Treasury computer model guesses, would be an even worse disaster.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that in all the resulting confusion, we last week saw a strange little cross-party alliance, including Tory and Labour MPs, Northern Ireland's Arlene Foster and various others, forlornly reviving as a "Plan B".

Unlike Mr Singham's now invisible "Plan A+", this is "Norway Plus", their version of a Norway option which, in its original form, retained access to the single market, with us re-joining Efta and thus remaining in the wider EEA.

While the MPs supporting the bastardised version which has them wanting to take us into an entirely unnecessary customs union, there are those of us who, after prolonged study, have been urging a proper "Norway option" since well before the referendum as the only rational solution to most of the problems now becoming so obvious.

But what is so striking is that none of these belated converts to the idea, let alone those who have been only too quick to ridicule it, have been able fully to grasp what this could have brought us.

In particular, as Efta members, it would, surprisingly, have given us more influence over shaping EU trade rules than we had previously, despite the unending mantra spewing from both politicians and media that arrangement turns us into a "rule taker".

Scarcely any MP has managed to get to grips with Article 112 of the EEA Agreement, under which we would have been free to exercise selective control over immigration from the EU.

And not one politician or journalist has mentioned the additional bilateral agreements (Norway has around 50 of them) with the EU that we would need, to cover such issues as aviation and VAT. Only with these and substantial amendments to the EEA Agreement could we secure virtually "frictionless" access to by far our largest export market, and solve the Irish border problem.

Properly understood and explained, all this could have united the nation as by far the least damaging option available. But because Mrs May was too much under the spell of her Brexiteers, this was what she rejected in her Lancaster House speech; although it was part of the reason why Sir Ivan Rogers, our much more clued-up ambassador to the EU resigned just before that speech, warning darkly of "muddled and ill-informed thinking" at the top.

And that is why Mrs May is stumbling doggedly on towards the utter chaos we see today, threatening to land us with by far the gravest economic political and social crisis our country has faced since World War Two. The tragedy is that this was only too easily avoidable.

That this could even lead us to civil disturbance was the theme of yesterday's post (and a Twitter thread), which had what Pete calls "FBPEtards" spitting with rage and accusing us both of inciting violence - and getting Pete banned on Twitter for a week.

Not a single complaint was heard, however, when the Guardian aired the same concerns. The sinking feeling thus spreads as we confront the growing antagonism and faux outrage from people with demonstrably limited reading skills. There feels to be no end of what seems to be a bottomless pit.

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