Richard North, 14/12/2018  
 


A busy day following up Brexit-related issues yesterday had me suddenly stop short around eight in the evening, with the realisation that I hadn't looked at any of the day's legacy media headlines, or followed any of my media news feeds for the whole of day. 

That is undoubtedly a reflection of poor value on offer, the extremely slender contribution to the sum of human knowledge, and the general irrelevance of media coverage. The BBC's main interest of the day, for instance, was to discover when Mrs May would step down as prime minister.

That actually typifies the media here. At licence-payer expense, Laura Kuenssberg – Lord of All She Surveys – goes to Brussels to attend the European Council and, from the front rank of the pig pen, doorsteps Mrs May to ask her to confirm that she's standing down as prime minister before the next general election. The answer then becomes the lead item on the main evening bulletin.

Another illustration of the venality of the breed is BBC Politics which chose to feature an exchange between Liam Halligan and Polly Toynbee, where the former is aggressively demanding that he should no longer be called "insane".

There highlighted is another very good reason why it is pointless following the Brexit "debate" on television. The main interest of the producers is "biff-bam" confrontational politics that create heat and no light. It is the confrontation that is regarded as "good television", rather than the rare occasion when the programme manages to convey useful information.

That is, of course, not to say that the media doesn't have its uses, but if it was doing its job properly this blog could stand down and I could enjoy an entirely undeserved retirement. As it is, it has taken me nearly two weeks to build a model of a C15TA and I'm nowhere near finished.

But from even such a fascinating enterprise, it is worth breaking off to read this piece from the Guardian which informs us that Daniel Hannan's European Parliament group has been told to repay €535,000 in EU funds, wrongly spent on non-qualifying activities.

The Group is the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), formed in 2009 after the Conservatives left the European People's Party. Until December 2017, Hannan was the secretary-general and, under his tutelage, the group spent €250,000 on a three-day event at a luxury beach resort in Miami and €90,000 on a trade "summit" at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala - neither of which events qualified for EU funding.

British Conservatives have sought to distance themselves from ACRE, which has been described by some party insiders as "Daniel Hannan's travel agency", while the European Parliament authorities suggest that Hannan used EU funds for ACRE to support other pet projects, such as his free-trade think tank, the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), as well as Conservatives International.

The European Parliament also objected to €108,985 spent on polling British black and Asian voters ahead of the 2017 general elections. Under EU law, EU funds cannot be used to finance national campaigns. For similar reasons, €122,295 spent on a "UK Trade Partnerships" conference in March 2017 was judged ineligible, because the event was deemed to be promoting the UK's economic interests.

Needless to say, Hannan denies the misuse of funds but his defence was rejected in a closed-door meeting last Monday. The Group now has the option of appealing to the ECJ, although no hearing has been called for.

Interestingly, the Guardian is the only newspaper (so far) to have covered the news. On the face of it, it is an damning indictment of a leading Eurosceptic who played a prominent part in the referendum campaign and himself has been outspoken in exposing "corrupt" MEPs. Recently, he was also warning that "establishment elites" were poised to "steal" Brexit.

There is something of an irony here. Hannan has been around long enough to know the rules and how they operate, which puts him in the major league when it comes to defrauding the EU, upping the ante on his usual form. Yet, in polite company, reference to his peccadillos is regarded as "insulting". One is supposed to keep one's own counsel and not sully the name of the great man.

Arguably, this is yet another example of how the political discourse is being distorted. Thieves prosper and their critics are ostracised – or marginalised.

At another level, Sir Ivan Rogers was speaking again yesterday, this time in Liverpool, offering nine lessons we need to learn from the last few years of Brexit. But what struck me most was his references to the debate in terms of "dishonesty" and "fantasy". Not necessarily in equal measure, these are the two of the main drivers of the Brexit "debate" combined with an extraordinary degree of self-delusion.

Sir Ivan draws attention to the "no deal +" fantasy. This is the one where we refuse to sign the Withdrawal Agreement with the backstop in it, and withhold a good half of the money the Prime Minister promised. In response, the "colleagues" would suddenly realise we were serious and come running for a series of mini deals. These would assure full trading continuity in all key sectors on basically unchanged Single Market and Customs Union terms.

Such is the nature of this delusion that it has Sir Ivan observing: "I don't know what tablets these people are taking, but I must confess I wish I were on them". It will be said of them as it was said of the Bourbons, I think: "they have learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing".

The reality, he tells us, is that if the deal on the table falls apart because we have said "no", there will not be some smooth rapid suite of mini side-deals – from aviation to fisheries, from road haulage to data, from derivatives to customs and veterinary checks, from medicines to financial services, as the EU affably sits down with this Prime Minister or another one.

As to the "people's voters", Sir Ivan agrees a case can be made for a second referendum, given the dismal place we have now ended up, and given possible Parliamentary paralysis. But, he says, they must surely understand the huge further alienation that would engender amongst those who will think that, yet again, their views are being ignored until they conform.

He doesn't mention the ECJ judgement on unilateral revocation but his overall message is clear. The only sensible option we have is the Withdrawal Agreement - there is no other endgame.

That leaves us, as a nation, in the same boat as our prime minister and, from reports coming back from Brussels, she appears to be no further forward in her attempts to put a time limit of the "backstop". That leaves her with a strategy designed to "change the perception" of the backstop so that we stop looking at it "as a trap".

If that is all Mrs May has in her toolkit, she may well have a little difficulty carrying the day when it comes to the vote in parliament. Her only real chance of convincing MPs to accept her deal is if they understand that a "no deal" scenario is to be avoided at all costs.

This itself is a reversal of her own position, where it became an article of faith that no deal would be better than a bad deal. But there is that insidious group which includes Liam Halligan and the likes of John Mills who argue that the impact of a "no deal" would be "completely manageable" and that concerns have been "exaggerated".

This brings us back full circle as I recall that one of the greatest failings of the media is its inability sensibly to address the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. And that was back in October, when Sir Ivan Rogers had just made a speech in Cambridge.

Nothing much, if anything, has changed, with the issues just as badly aired as ever they were, while the noise level from domestic politics has all but drowned out even the semblance of a debate. Small wonder, businesses are in despair, and are diverting "hundreds of millions of pounds in investment" out of the UK as contingency plans are being triggered.

Yet no one, not even government, seems to be prepared to take on the responsibility of setting out to the public, in unequivocal terms, the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. We've done our best on this blog but our reach is limited and we are unable to change the direction of the debate.

What we can do, though, is point out the failings of the system, putting it on the record before the event – then to revisit after disaster strikes. The guilty ones cannot then pretend that no one knew what the problems were. They did – we did.

Even then, where we have a self-absorbed claque which is more interested in papering over the cracks than in dealing with straight talk, it's going to be hard getting a hearing. And if people prefer their delusions to reality, and insist on shutting out uncomfortable truths, then they are beyond any help that mere mortals can bring.






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