Richard North, 06/02/2019  

At least when he did give a speech – which was actually not very often - you knew what he was getting at. Thus, when Winston Churchill declared that he had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, nobody needed to second-guess him in order to work out what he was saying.

Nearly 80 years later, things seem to have moved on a tad. When our current prime minister gives a speech, we find ourselves having to dig deep into the content to divine exactly what she is trying to say.

In truth, though, this is probably not possible. As she left it in her speech, Mrs May simply spoke of her "determination" to work towards a solution. This meant that "we will find a way to deliver Brexit", but it also had to be a way "that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland", and one "…that commands broad support across the communities in Northern Ireland", and also one "that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament".

And what that boils down to is that she has asked the Home Secretary – he who wants goodwill from the EU - working closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to review relevant issues urgently "to deliver a long term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement".

In terms of detail, the speech text takes us no further forward. And, while she is looking for the "broad support" of communities in Northern Ireland and a majority in Westminster, there are two glaring omissions. Nowhere, specifically, does she call for or expect the agreement of the Irish Republic, and neither does she factor in the approval of the European Union.

This is almost as if Mr Churchill had given his speech in May 1940 and missed out the toil, tears and sweat. But then the omissions would have been obvious – today less so until you try to work out what it is Mrs May is attempting to convey, described as "a near meaningless tumble of words that die the moment they are uttered".

For us mere mortals who have only the text of the speech to go on, that effectively seems to be the end of it. But in questions afterwards (the answers to which are not published), Mrs May went on to say that there was no suggestion that she was planning to abandon the backstop altogether.

According to The Times, when asked about this, she replied: "I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future", adding that: "What parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop".

Even then, that belongs in the land of make believe. Sir Graham Brady's amendment, on which MPs voted, specifically required the Northern Ireland backstop "to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border". There was no suggestion merely of changing the backstop. The idea was to get rid of it.

That much was made clear by Brexit supporters who, according to multiple press reports, "immediately expressed their alarm at some of May's language". "She knows what she promised us", said one ERG source, adding: "Even if she didn't mean what she said, we do".

No sooner was that said than Mrs May's spokesman reached out to insist that the prime minister's words were consistent with previous comments. Furthermore, the plan to look at "alternative arrangements" was consistent with the kind of insurance policy she had referenced in the speech.

So we return to that magical mystery world of Theresa May. Simultaneously, she is writing off the possibility of approvals from the European Union, the Westminster Parliament, the ERG, the DUP, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. And yet, the prime minister is still asserting that she can "deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland".

All that leaves now is for Mrs May go to Brussels on Thursday, when she will explain to Jean-Claude Juncker that there is "no suggestion" that the backstop would be removed. But somehow, she expects that the Commission will open the books and adapt the backstop to meet her requirements.

Variously, we seem to be back in the territory of providing for a unilateral termination or for the preferred option of a time limit. Neither of these in the past have been acceptable to EU negotiators and, if allowed, would defeat the object of having a backstop.

Bizarrely, the DUP's Arlene Foster is accusing Brussels and Dublin of "intransigence", suggesting that this could lead to a no-deal. Any such outcome, of course, would be nothing to do with the DUP.

As to the mythical "alternative arrangements", the working group set up under Stephen Barclay has been busy attending meetings in the Cabinet Office, supported it would seem by Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, who is still peddling his failed dogma on "equivalence".

It is ironic that this charlatan has got his feet so deeply embedded under the table, just as the Charity Commission has issued an official warning under the Charities Act to the IEA, for its publication of Singham's "Plan A" report, and for the handling of the launch, where only those "who held a particular set of views" were invited.

The publication and promotion of the report  was held to be "campaigning and political activity that contravenes legal and regulatory requirements", with the launch event providing "a platform for parliamentarians known to publicly and vocally support a particular outcome from the UK’s exit from the European Union to launch an alternative plan to the current one being pursued by Government".

Singham, of course, is no stranger to Charity Commission intervention, with the Legatum Institute being accused of breaching charity rules when it promoted his work. Yet, the media continue to give him a free pass, often passing him off as a trade expert representing the "independent" IEA.

His particular brand of ignorance has done much to poison the Brexit debate, as he offers hopelessly unwieldy nostrums which could not exist in the real world. And despite any number of detailed critiques, including several on this blog, he soars serenely above it all, untroubled by the need for accuracy, knowledge or even legality.

Interestingly, displaying an arrogance that we've met before, the IEA has effectively rejected the warning, arguing that it "has extremely widespread and worrying implications for the whole of the think-tank and educational charity sector".

Unfortunately, it seems that the implications are not worrying enough to curtail the activities of a think-tank industry which is clearly out of control and has had a malign effect on the Brexit debate. Bodies such as the IEA have lent their "prestige" to charlatans such as Singham, who have gained greater traction for their flawed nostrums than is either safe or sensible.

When think-tanks are simply ill-concealed political lobbyists, often supported by foreign money of rather dubious origin, it is time they were reined in. They have no business even being granted charitable status.

It is thus not only the politicians who are guilty of "a near meaningless tumble of words". As much garbage is trotted out by the likes of Shanker Singham, endorsed by think-tank sponsors and repeated uncritically by the media, then to be endlessly circulated on social media, where it develops a life of its own.

The willingness of so many to regurgitate uncritically the rubbish that is churned out tends to magnify the original damage and is largely defeating the purpose of social media. Rather than a repository of easily accessible knowledge, it is becoming mindless noise, requiring heavy filtration and other defence measures.

But, for all that, even if the rot didn't start at the top, that is certainly where it has reached, with our prime minister delivering supposedly important speeches at a critical juncture in our history, which make no sense at all. If all she is producing is noise, it is hardly surprising that so many others follow in her wake.

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