Richard North, 15/12/2018  

Following the vote of confidence on Mrs May's leadership, and in anticipation of the European Council, held over yesterday and the day before, the "colleagues" had been consistent in asserting that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open to renegotiation.

In recent times, we have had enough experience to realise that, when EU actors make such statements, they tend to mean what they say. No one, therefore, can have been under any illusions that, when Mrs May left the Council, she was going to come away with a renegotiation.

Sure enough, when it comes to the outcome, we see in the European Council (Art. 50) conclusions, the simple and entirely expected paragraph:
The European Council reconfirms its conclusions of 25 November 2018, in which it endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement and approved the Political Declaration. The Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation.
So why did we see as the lead item on the BBC's main evening news that Mrs May had been rebuffed by the EU? There was never any possibility that the conclusions were going to be any different. How can the Guardian justify the headline: "Theresa May's Brexit strategy left brutally exposed by Brussels failure"?

In actuality, Mrs May got from the Council with the only thing she could reasonably have expected – a reaffirmation that the EU leaders were committed to working speedily on a post-Brexit agreement so that the backstop would not have to be triggered.

The European Council further underlined that, if the backstop had to be triggered, it would apply temporarily, until superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided. In that event, the Union would use its "best endeavours" to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop. It would expect the same commitment from the UK, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.

With that, the media should have come away from Brussels with no story, nothing having changed. But that, of course, is not the way our media works. It had invested heavily in the Brexit soap opera, and carried the expense of sending the "stars" to Brussels. There must be a story worthy of their endeavours.

On this blog, we have many times questioned the competence of Mrs May and even remarked on the stupidity of some of her decisions. But it would be hard to sustain an argument that our prime minister was expecting anything from the "colleagues", other than what she got. Even she cannot be so stupid that she expected the EU to roll over and re-open the negotiations.

Thus, one can make a fairly safe guess that - with her staff able to predict with some degree of confidence how the media was going to react – Mrs May was playing to the gallery.

She has been to enough Councils to know that she would be in the goldfish bowl of media scrutiny, where every gesture and every encounter would be analysed to death by ranks of bored hacks, under enormous pressure from their home offices to deliver the headlines written before their stars had even booked their flights for Brussels.

Currently, Mrs May is insisting that, as formal conclusions, the Council statements "have legal status" and therefore should be welcomed. She has also told the hacks that "further clarification" was possible, thereby providing a taster for the next round of the soap opera.

Furthermore, the outcome is "nebulous" enough – the word of the moment – for it to tempt Labour into considering a direct confrontation in parliament before the Christmas break, on the basis that they now believe Mrs May's deal is dead – a view supposedly shared by most of the cabinet.

To the delight of the Westminster hacks, who must be feeling that Christmas has come early, Corbyn has been urged by Sir Keir Starmer and Tom Watson to table a vote of no confidence in the government before Christmas, with Tuesday being the preferred date.

That would be a cruel thing to do to all those over-stressed MPs who are planning to bunk off early, and have already booked their places in the sun. But the opposition is running under the impression that Mrs May's deal is "dead in the water", after the premier has supposedly come back from Brussels empty-handed.

However, even if the chances of getting something up and running two days before the break are probably close to nil, the excited anticipation can keep the hyper-ventilating hacks busy over the weekend – enjoying their equivalent of a visit to Santa's grotto.

If the hacks were looking for rebuffs, though, they might have lifted their gaze from the Article 50 conclusions, and looked at the main document. There, they will have seen a substantial heading on the "Single Market", reminding those who are about to depart that it is "one of the great achievements of the Union which has delivered major benefits to Europeans".

Crucially, the Council is focusing on removing "remaining unjustified barriers, in particular in the field of services", and stressing the need fully to embrace the digital transformation, including Artificial Intelligence, the rise of the data and service economy.

The Council is calling on the Commission to continue its analysis and work in this respect, putting down a marker for its planned "in-depth discussion" next spring, when the development of the Single Market and European digital policy will be examined "in preparation for the next Strategic Agenda".

This rather demonstrates that the world is not going to be standing still just because the UK is going through an orgy of navel-gazing as it trudges laboriously through the Brexit process. My guess is the "colleagues" will not be averse to rubbing a few UK noses is their own rhetoric.

Meanwhile, behind the curve as he so often is these days, Nigel Farage was addressing a "Leave Means Leave" rally in London, telling supporters that they needed to prepare for the possibility of another referendum.

This comes at a time where, in retrospect, we may well be marking the week just gone as the turning point, when Mrs May broke the back of organised resistance. If I am reading this right, she could be about to confound her critics by getting parliamentary approval for her deal in the New Year.

In that case, not since the 2016 referendum has it been less likely that we will be seeing a second referendum, which is just as well as the Eurosceptic movement is even less prepared to fight a contest than it was last time. With no Brexit vision to sustain him (or his diminishing band of followers), Farage is the old war horse, revisiting scenes of victories past in the hope of revitalising dreams of better days.

Speaking of which, I have been watching the media closely for any further references to Mr Hannan's escapades. Despite the inherent newsworthiness of his alleged misbehaviour, however, none of the other national newspapers nor the broadcast media have seen fit to repeat the Guardian's story, or add to it.

It comes to a pretty pass when a high-profile campaigner on "EU corruption" is accused of defrauding taxpayers of around half-a-million pounds through misuse of European Parliament funds, and only one national newspaper reports it, while the BBC and other broadcasters are also silent.

The one paper from which we can virtually guarantee silence is The Sunday Tielegraph which, in common with its daily sister, now has a thief for its star columnist, who gets a free pass from the establishment.

I was talking to Booker the other day – the man whose slot in the ST was taken by Hannan. He has a far longer political memory than mine, and I asked him whether this deterioration in public morals was new, or whether it had always been thus. There is often a tendency to think that the current troughs are the worst of the worst.

In Booker's view, this is new to political memory. Prestige figures – and those favoured by the political establishments – enjoy an extraordinary immunity from any consequences of deeds, the nature of which even in the recent past would have seen them shamed and driven from public life.

When the degraded media has merged with the entertainment industry, to become indistinguishable from it – with politics not far behind – one can only retreat to the boundaries and watch in sadness as decadence increasingly becomes the norm.

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