Richard North, 09/03/2019  
 


In what passes for news, the Telegraph is breathlessly announcing that Theresa May's hopes of a last-minute Brexit breakthrough appear doomed after a "total breakdown of trust" between London and Brussels.

Apparently, the famous "last ditch plea" speech, from the depths of Friday afternoon Grimsby has "backfired spectacularly", with Brussels accusing our beloved prime minister of playing a "blame game".

Michel Barnier - who the Telegraph helpfully tells us is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, just in case you've been asleep for the past two years and didn't know – has responded to the speech with the unprecedented round of tweeting which sort of suggests that he is a tad teed off.

This is augmented by those ever-helpful "sources in Brussels" – who can't actually be in Brussels because Brussels closes down for the weekend, starting on Thursday evening. But they say that Mr Barnier's patience with the UK negotiators had worn out, and that Mrs May "has never been able to demonstrate a stable majority for any of her decisions".

In between all this somewhere is an amount of detail, which includes having Northern Ireland doing the business with the EU, while the rest of the UK goes its own way and we set up a "wet" border with the province – an option that Mrs May has already rejected in somewhat forthright terms.

Yet, for all that, Mrs May is due to speak to EU leaders by telephone over the weekend and a European Commission spokesman said "intensive work" was going on between London and Brussels, which suggests that some parts of Brussels might have to be temporarily repopulated before the end of the weekend.

But, if the Telegraph believes this is "going backwards", the Guardian takes a more violent view of events, calling this a "slap in the face". Brussels apparently reached out to Grimsby, to have Barnier set Mrs May "on course for Brexit defeat".

You can see how tense things have become when the paper actually quotes "UK sources", to tell us that there is nothing in Barnier's offer that could change MPs' minds. "It will not be enough to persuade Geoffrey Cox to revise his legal advice about the indefinite nature of the backstop – there is no reason for optimism", one official "close to the negotiations" says.

The thing is, there never was any reason for optimism before Mrs May's speech. It went exactly as forecast with no surprises, other than being delivered in what looked like the store room of her host, the offshore wind turbine installer Ørsted, a firm that "takes tangible action to create a world that runs entirely on green energy".

It seemed hardly the ideal place for such an important speech and it could have been filmed in any number of light industrial premises along the North Circular Road. There was no need to drag the unfortunate journalists all the way to Grimsby for such an uninspiring backdrop.

The lack of inspiration, however, did not stop the prime minister creating a cliché-rich environment of her own, ideal for broadcast news soundbites. This included a direct challenge to MPs. If they rejected the deal on Tuesday, Mrs May said, "nothing would be certain".

That generated the first of many headline-grabbing soundbites, as the prime minister said: "It would be a moment of crisis". MPs would immediately be faced with another choice, which could mean we leave the EU with no deal on 29 March, or we delay Brexit and carry on arguing about it. It could mean a second Brexit referendum or it could even mean "we might never leave the EU at all".

That last soundbite at least got a headline from Sky News, which is always game for the cheap shot.

It tells us that Mrs May's stark warning, was "designed to persuade dissenting Brexit-supporting MPs to fall into line". However, it has obviously failed to convince Jeremy Corbyn – not that anyone thought it would. He said it was a "sign of desperation".

Sky's rival news broadcaster, the BBC, contents itself with the anodyne: "One more push needed to get deal through, says May", offering the prime minister's own punchline, "Let's get it done".

Not to be outdone on the competition for the most boring headline, ITV News raced into the fray with, "May suffers fresh setback in Brexit deal negotiations", although this broadcaster doesn't seem to have got the memo about the game being over. Mrs May’s hopes of a Brexit breakthrough are merely "hanging in the balance", after what only "appeared" to be a rebuff from the EU.

Such is the ephemeral nature of political speeches, though – especially when they are trailed heavily the day before – that little of the content has survived to make today's headlines. Barnier's response is making the weather, even if some think his swift response is motivated by a determination to deflect the blame for the failure of Brexit.

If it really is the case that the "blame game" is to the fore, then it would suggest – more reliably than can legions of anonymous sources – that the EU is giving up on the prospect of Westminster ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. But then, if Mrs May is also playing this game, that says that she is giving up as well. In that case, on Tuesday, we will merely see her going through the motions.

With so few expectations of success, the emphasis may well turn to the post-vote manoeuvres in the Commons, with Brussels fading into the background. We might also expect a ramping up in the media of no-deal horror stories as the clock ticks down to zero.

The BBC has piled in with a story about chemicals, under the headline: "No-deal Brexit threat to 'billions of pounds' of chemicals". This is only 26 months after we carried the story.

Nevertheless, it takes the rare genius of the BBC to write an analytical piece about the effect of EU regulation on our chemical exports without once mentioning the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulations, relying as always on lightweight sources for oral evidence, mixed in with the obligatory human interest narratives.

Where the BBC leads, the Guardian follows, or vice versa. The newspaper is very much in the market for Brexit horrors, and they don't get much worse for Champagne Socialists than this one, with the headline: "End of the booze cruise? Calais wine stores run dry amid pre-Brexit stockpiling".

"Last weekend was manic, we'd never seen anything like it", Marco Attard, co-owner of the Calais Wine Superstore, wails to the Guardian. "We were so taken by surprise in February and early March that we sold out of many lines and have pressed the panic button to get more stocks in".

As a pointer to the future, Mr Attard says: "People are realising they might not be able to come to Calais and bring back the same amount of wine if we get a hard Brexit. They are stockpiling".

Horror of horrors, in the UK where the average price of a bottle of still wine in the UK is £5.73, the combination of extra post-Brexit costs could add an extra 20p to the price. You can see why the Guardian is so worried. This is even worse than the news that the number of overseas dogs being entered at Crufts has dropped for the first time in almost a decade.

Perhaps not all is lost, as the Irish Times is seeing things in less apocalyptic terms. It has convinced itself that the prospect of the UK seeking an Article 50 extension has risen significantly, with most EU Member States favouring two to three months.

That would give the booze cruises a little longer to run, although the feeling is that Mrs May will have to work hard to offer the "colleagues" a satisfactory reason for a time extension. One senses that even Mr Macron will not be too convinced that the need to support Calais wine merchants is sufficient grounds.

One very good reason for not approving an extension, though, is that it would cut short these interminable speeches from Mrs May, delivered from more and more bizarre venues. However, on a reductio ad absurdum basis, it might just be worth it if Mrs May could be persuaded to deliver her next speech from the top of a wind turbine. That is a less than simples challenge.






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