Richard North, 19/01/2019  
 


After such an event-filled week, it is unsurprising that Friday was an anti-climax. For all the drama that has swamped the broadcast media, the newspapers and the internet, nothing has actually been resolved, so all we saw yesterday was a lot more of things not being resolved, but without the drama.

That which was of any real significance was negative, with the Independent reporting that Theresa May's pledge to reach a cross-party consensus to solve the Brexit crisis "appears to have fizzled out with no further talks planned".

A spokesman for Downing Street then said that the prime minister would instead be meeting with "a large number" of her cabinet, both in small groups and in one-to-one conversations. But there were "no plans" for cabinet members Michael Gove and David Lidington – who have met senior back benchers from other parties – to hold further talks.

Apart from the non-event of the non-talks, there was another non-event – a speech by a former foreign secretary, where nothing of any significance was said. Everything is now on hold for Monday, when Mrs May must deliver her so-called "plan B" to parliament. Then the fun starts all over again as MPs table their amendments – speaker permitting.

Filling the gap between then and now will be a torrent of media speculation, limited only by the constraints of imagination and intellect of the contributing journalists. Generally, this means we must suffer pretty pedestrian fare, with guesses as to whether we are poised for another general election, and similar matters. It is unlikely that we will be treated to any serious analyses of Brexit-related issues.

Problematically, virtually everything worth saying has probably already been said – mostly not by the legacy media. And that leaves an unlikely hero in the figure of the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, to dismiss Mrs May's latest efforts by telling journalists: "I don't see how the current deal can be tweaked", then adding: "She is really expecting Brexit to go ahead on 29 March".

From one version of our prime minister's conversations with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, we get even less. A spokesperson for the European Commission is said to have described Junker as having had "an exchange of information on both sides", with the promise that: "The two agreed to stay in touch". All Tusk would do is resort to Twitter with the cryptic comment that he had discussed with Mrs May "the next steps on the UK side".

Behind the scenes, though, it seems that sweetness and light is not the dominant sentiment. Apparently, Mrs May left European diplomats "in a state of disbelief" after her telephone conversations with EU leaders.

Despite the parliamentary defeat, she seems to have made no changes to her demands. She is calling for either a legally binding time-limit for the Irish backstop, a right for the UK to withdraw unilaterally, or a hard commitment to finalising a trade deal before 2021 to avoid the backstop coming into force. Nothing new is being proposed.

Predictably, the Guardian takes a dim view of all this. But it is devoting its main Brexit story to a warning by "soft-Brexit" cabinet ministers that Mrs May is "appeasing hard-Brexit Tories".

Rather than reaching out across the House of Commons, Mrs May is focusing on updating cabinet ministers about her talks with MPs, which included her allies in the Democratic Unionist party, and ERG members such as Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Steve Baker.

The paper has one cabinet source questioning why the prime minister was prioritising the views of those who had done so much to damage her. "The ERG spent two years conjuring up every violent image they could think of in order to discredit the PM", the source says. "Then they tried to bring her down. And then when that failed, they tossed her carefully crafted Brexit plan in the bin. Remind me why we are inching towards this mob?"

Cabinet ministers who have so far met with Mrs May say they have been "reassured" that she is not seeking a customs union compromise in order to get her deal through parliament. Nor is she prepared to entertain a referendum. But, as to what the next steps are, one said, "we are none the wiser".

Another cabinet source, we are told, says – without apparent irony - that Mrs May was urged not to pursue a route that could see a Tory split. But, the source says, "The only way forward that doesn't split the party is to bring the DUP and the ERG on board".

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that people are "none the wiser". The convoluted mess that hovers around Mrs May, like a cloud of flies over rotting meat, is quite beyond the scope of understanding for us mere humans.

If there is any sense at all to be made of this, it is that we are firmly on the path to an unmitigated no-deal, with the prime minister at the helm. Nothing in any of the reports we have seen suggests that she is making any serious attempts to avoid that outcome.

This, however, is totally at odds with more lurid assertions that we are on the receiving end of an "establishment plot" to rob the people of their Brexit. Oddly enough, Nick Boles is seen as an establishment stooge, with his Norway-style deal being seen as a plot to keep us in the EU.

In that context, the no-deal is seen as the antidote to "remain", polarising the debate by defining it in terms of two extremes – craven surrender or no-deal – and nothing else.

Yet, even that is too straightforward for The Times. It wants to introduce the third element of delaying Brexit if no deal can be reached in the immediate future. But, just to keep us all entertained, it is also having the ERG looking to force Mrs May to prorogue parliament, thereby stopping the Commons from blocking a no-deal Brexit.

At this point, we see the gibberish taking over, leaving Matthew Parris to step in with a cunning plan which would ensure that the Conservative Party never governed again, except as part of a coalition.

It is just as well, I suppose, that we have a saviour at hand, in the form of Keir Starmer who has popped up out of nowhere to call for an "open and frank debate" to break the Commons deadlock. After all, MPs must be feeling extremely neglected, having been deprived of any opportunities to discuss Brexit in the House.

Then, as, icing on the cake, we learn that the pound rallied by 1.3 percent against the euro as business confidence grew that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided. One is not sure what currency traders know that we don't, but if they are convinced we're out of the woods, they must have a special line to the Almighty.

The business community aside, anyone looking in depth at the state of play of Brexit, they can only come away with a scene of utter confusion. And for some, that has to make it the EU's fault. When they have spent a lifetime blaming everything on the EU, it is difficult to get out of the groove.






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