Richard North, 27/04/2019  

With very little happening on the parliamentary front at the moment, and virtually nothing coming out of government on Brexit, the legacy media agenda is desperately thin – another indication of the parasitic nature of the relationship.

A clue as to why it is so quiet comes from the Sun newspaper which tells us that Tory MPs are "begging" party chiefs not to talk about Brexit until after the local elections because it is so "toxic" on the doorstep.

It is thus thought to be "inevitable" that Mrs May is going to leave it until after 2 May before putting the Withdrawal Bill before parliament – which effectively means nothing is going to happen until the following week.

Not for the first time , vital decisions on the EU are being delayed for party political reasons, with the debate on "Europe" suppressed because of domestic considerations. Donald Tusk's hope that, with the Article 50 extension, we might use the extra time wisely, is looking more forlorn by the day.

It is even quite possible that we face further delays if the Conservatives take a drubbing in the elections, as is widely expected. The government and MPs will want to take time out to consider the implications and also to dream up some immediate initiatives in order to stabilise party morale.

Of course, it was never going to be that the political classes were suddenly going to get a grip on the situation, and start entertaining a sensible debate about Brexit. Given the low level of knowledge and the failure of MPs even to grip the basics, it was far too optimistic to expect anything of substance to emerge.

However, even those used to the desperately low level of political intelligence must be cringing about the news that Graham Brady is again calling for Mrs May to "tear up" the backstop and submit the Withdrawal Agreement to parliament without it in order to "end the six month-long Brexit deadlock".

I suppose, in a new-found spirit of reconciliation, we should not be calling this man a cretin and instead be asking kindly after the welfare of his wife and children – and his cat, if he has one. At that point, overwhelmed by the positive vibes, Brady will see the error of his ways and immediately call upon his fellow MPs to back the Withdrawal Agreement, as is.

On the other hand, after nearly three years of being messed about by idiot MPs, we might just be entitled to the occasional critical comment, if for no other purpose than to convey our dissatisfaction at the inability of our political classes to resolve Brexit in a grown-up fashion.

Looking at this in the broader perspective, one wonders what one is entitled to do when confronted with the incompetence of MPs. The mighty Portillo, I recall, would not accept them being called "stupid", and didn't like my "tone" when I referred to them in that fashion.

But, while one could accept a general moratorium on generalisations, is anyone honestly going to assert that there are not some very stupid MPs? And, if that is the case, why should one not say so? Are they suddenly going to perform so much better because we desist from stating the obvious? How, indeed, are they going to come to terms with their own stupidity unless it is pointed out?

In reality, though, when MPs are able to retreat into their bubble when they are fortified by the attentions of a sycophantic media, there is no need for them to take much notice of us mere plebs, or to change their behaviour in any way. And, where the nation is as split as the Commons, MPs can justify their actions by reference to whatever group most closely reflects their own opinions.

In more rational and less fevered times, it might be argued that this is precisely the sort of situation where a referendum would be most appropriate. But apart from the time required – which we don't have – plunging the electorate into a further debate, where the atmosphere is already toxic, doesn't strike me as the best way of settling a disputed issue.

However, my greatest reservations stem from the behaviour of the legacy media. Although a diminished force, it still has considerable influence – yet is demonstrably incapable of dealing with the very different nature of a referendum, as opposed to a general election.

The essential difference between the two is that the purpose of the election is to select a government for the next five years. Issues play a part, but it is mostly about the people (and especially the prime minister) who we want in office. To that extent, a strong focus on personalities is quite legitimate. People want to know who they are voting for – and rightly so.

By contrast, the referendum is primarily – if not completely – about issues, and over a much longer time span. Yet, in the last referendum, the campaigners made the contest about personalities, while the media not only allowed that to happen – it actively encouraged it.

When, on the few occasions, the media did decide to look closely at specific issues, it made a complete mess of it. A classic example came on 19 May 2016, when the BBC had Jeremy Paxman fronting a programme entitled "Who Really Rules Us?", purporting – amongst other things – to take a close look at regulation.

Unfortunately, Paxman chose for his main example Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88, laying down quality standards for cucumbers – the so-called "straight cucumber directive".

What Paxman hadn't realised though was that this law had been overtaken by Regulation (EU) No 543/2011, "laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) No 1234/2007 in respect of the fruit and vegetables and processed fruit and vegetables sectors".

The crux of this regulation was to require that vegetables conformed with a "general marketing standard", which – where one existed for the specific product – meant conformity with the applicable UNECE standard. And it is the case that there is a standard for cucumbers.

When it came to who really rules us, therefore, the quality of the cucumbers we buy is set out not by the EU but by UNECE.

As one might expect, this detail was completely lost on Paxman, who thereby missed a glorious opportunity to explain something of the complexity of the regulatory system and the effects of globalisation. More than anything, this revealed the incompetence of the BBC's flagship current affairs programme to deal with the core issues relating to the EU.

With that as a background, it is my view that the media in general does not have the capability to inform the public about the issues pertaining to the process of leaving the EU. It is one thing asking whether we should leave, but how we go about it breaks into an entirely new level.

Arguably, before we are able to trust the system to run referendums on complex technical issues, the information services which inform the debate must be substantially enhanced – and that will require input from government, the media and the campaign groups, with Electoral Commission oversight.

Like it or not, therefore, the MPs are in the hot seat. They wanted their "meaningful vote" and now they have to live up to the responsibility and deliver a result. It will be some considerable time before the system will be capable of dealing effectively with referendums on technical issues.

In the meantime, the blather about the European Elections is merely a distraction, which takes us away from the role and responsibilities of MPs and their reluctance to make a decision.

Yet, as long as we have the Labour Party obsessing about customs unions, and the likes of Brady indulging in fantasy politics, we cannot be optimistic that parliament is ever going to step up to the plate. There are no indicators anywhere that the political classes are going to take their responsibilities seriously, and nothing to suggest that we will be ready by October, when the final decision time comes.

Bringing us full circle, to those who are so egregiously failing us, I don't believe we owe any duty to be even, or friendly in our view of them. For those sensitive souls who find this objectionable, it was Harry S Truman to whom was attributed the saying: "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".

There are an awful lot of people who need to get out of the kitchen.

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