Richard North, 08/03/2019  

Twitter is alive with pictures of lorry queues in France, with the latest reports of delays from 6 to 24 hours. Most of the legacy media, however, have moved on - but not all of them.

The Mail is on the case with the headline, "Eurostar travellers are hit by second day of chaos while British lorry drivers are caught in astonishing 15-MILE queue for Calais due to 'Brexit-style' action by French customs officials".

Their sub-headings tell us that "trade unionists" are taking longer than usual to carry out checks at the border, explaining that they want better pay and staff resources in order to deal with Britain leaving. But we also learn that ferry firm DFDS was reporting 60-minute delays on its Dunkirk to Dover route, while Eurostar is in the game, having "rubbished claims" that Brexit will bring disruption akin to that of this week.

In short, as I remarked yesterday, we have no means of knowing whether current conditions will in any way replicate what we might experience on and in the immediate aftermath of Brexit day. The situation can go either way. It is possible that, if the authorities on both sides of the Channel co-ordinate their actions, there need not be any disruption at the ports.

As another harbinger, though, we learn that the Passport Office website crashed yesterday after a warning that millions of holidaymakers could be barred from EU countries by a no-deal Brexit unless they beat today's renewal deadline.

To make matters even more uncertain, in the bigger picture we have speculation upon speculation. Not only are we dealing with the unknown in terms of the likely responses to a no-deal, we don't even know yet what the situation will be on 29 March. If, contrary to expectations, parliament approves the Withdrawal Agreement, we could find Brexit day turning into a non-event as the transition period kicks in.

The one thing that isn't going to fly, it seems, is the idea of "alternative arrangements" replacing the backstop. Thus we have the Telegraph wailing from behind its paywall that negotiations over technological solutions have been almost entirely ignored.

We learn that "99 percent" of the negotiations since early February have been dealing with trying to secure legally binding assurances that the backstop will not become permanent if triggered, and only the remaining one percent has been devoted to the alternative arrangements and the political declaration setting out the terms of the future trade talks.

The European Commission has said that such alternative arrangements could help avoid an Irish border in the future but that the technology is not yet advanced enough. We are thus reminded that a senior EU official famously dismissed technological alternatives to the backstop as "magical thinking", which indeed is precisely what it is, in respect of a solution to the current problems.

With no further developments in Brussels and none expected before the weekend – if even then – the news agenda is wafer thin. Even MPs seem to have tired of their plotting and clearly have nothing new or significant to say. If we didn't know better, we might even say that Brexit has died of boredom.

Things are so desperate that the prime minister is planning to go to Grimsby on a Friday afternoon (today), to deliver a speech, apparently addressed to the "colleagues" in Brussels - a last ditch plea to the European Union to give ground and allow changes to the proposed Brexit deal that would allow her party's MPs to back it.

If one is trying to get a message through to the European Union, Friday is not the best time. Even if Mrs May chose a venue in the centre of the European quarter in Brussels on a Friday, she would have a problem being heard. From Thursday night onwards, the place is deserted – a bit like Grimsby on a normal day.

To those few who are listening, the prime minister will say that the actions of the EU's negotiators will have a material impact on the outcome of the critical vote next week and she is therefore pleading with them for further concessions.

Echoing her stance taken in her Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, she will declare that, "It is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal". We are working with them, she will say, "but the decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote".

Meanwhile, her chief negotiator is expected to be back in Brussels and, if he can actually find anyone apart from the cleaners to talk to, he will be trying to secure something – anything - which will allow the government to say it has gained some kind of alteration to the Withdrawal Agreement.

For those seriously struggling to work out the deeper symbolism of attempting to talk to Brussels from Grimsby, that may turn out to be the least of their problems. Had Mrs May chosen to give her speech from the ferry car park in Ullapool, it is unlikely that the reaction would be any greater.

And, without a positive response, that will have the government putting essentially the same motion to the Commons that lost by 230 votes last time it was presented to MPs. Perhaps Mrs May is banking on a sympathy vote – which could be the real reason why she is going to Grimsby.

If we can more or less discount the chances of a successful vote, that then leaves us to speculate what games the MPs will play afterwards. One source "close to a cabinet minister" (which could include the cleaning lady) believes it will "get very, very nasty", with attempts made to force the government to seek an Article 50 extension, or to tack on a permanent customs union.

And now adding to the noise level is former prime minister Gordon Brown. In the absence of ideas of how to break the stalemate, he has joined a group of business leaders in calling for a one-year extension to Article 50 in order to set up region by region public hearings on which Brexit option is preferred – a move also supported by Sir John Major.

Apart from anything else, the chances of the EU-27 agreeing to this are vanishingly small. But it also begs the question as to whether indeed there are any options, other than to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement or leave without a deal. The nature of the future relationship can only be determined once this hurdle is overcome, so there is little point in consulting about anything else.

The same confusion, however, seems set to spread to the Commons on Tuesday, when there is talk of Mrs May being pressed to commit to a series of "indicative votes". These, supposedly, will indicate whether there are parliamentary majorities to be had for a Brexit outcome other than the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Here, the unicorns are very much in evidence as options being considered include a second referendum, a so-called "managed no-deal" and a softer "Norway-style Brexit" which bears little or no relationship to the Efta/EEA option, much less anything proposed in Flexcit.

What we are confronting once again is the inability of MPs to focus on the issues at hand. Perhaps right at the beginning of the Brexit process, immediately after the referendum, there was scope for discussing various options, and then setting out a negotiation roadmap.

But to leave this process to the last few weeks before we are set to exit the EU, when the EU is waiting for the UK to ratify an agreement which they thought had been settled in December last, is indeed "indicative", but only of the most monumental stupidity, in which the MP collective now seems to specialise.

For all that, there still seems to be that broader failure of the collective to understand that no-deal is the default option and that the most assured way of preventing a no-deal Brexit is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. Thus, one of the possible outcomes of a failed Tuesday vote might be a further vote specifically on whether the Commons wants a no-deal.

Yet, by the time the MPs have finished messing about, there will be only a few days more than two weeks before we are due to drop out of the EU, the process requiring no further intervention of action by the prime minister.

Before that, there is the European Council on 21/22 March, which gives the opportunity for yet another episode of the soap opera, and still more confusion. If – as one might expect – Mrs May decides to hold off further action pending still more talks with the heads of states and governments, there will be only one week to run.

If the prime minister can exploit her undoubted skill in kicking cans down roads, by then she will be almost home free. If it is not within her power to guarantee that parliament ratifies her deal, it is certainly not beyond her capabilities to manoeuvre a no-deal Brexit. And, for all the noise, that remains the direction of travel.

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