Richard North, 16/09/2019  
 


Events have footprints. Even if you sometimes have to dig deep to find them, they are always there.

And if the UK is making "a huge amount of progress" in the supposed Brexit negotiations, as the johnson avers, there would be a footprint. It is not possible with such a high profile issue, involving so many people and so many moving parts, for the johnson's claim to be true and for there to be no evidence of it – for there to be no footprint.

By common consent, the essential marker would be a credible proposal for the replacement of the Irish backstop. This would have to be published somewhere, at least in short form, and there might be references to it in UK politicians' speeches. Perhaps there might be acknowledgements from the other side – even from one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats" - that the thing existed, alongside some sort of generally favourable response.

But what we know is that the only thing the johnson can lay his hands on is the fraudulent rendition of the "alternative arrangements" fronted by Greg Hands – but actually produced by "Snake Oil" Singham – which would not pass muster with ten second's scrutiny. It could not form the basis of a serious proposal as it would be laughed out of court by the EU negotiating team.

We also know that, for a considerable period and from multiple sources, there have been complaints that the UK has not submitted any "legally credible and workable" proposals, not least – most recently - from David Sassoli, president elect of the European Parliament, who was speaking in a highly public forum.

We also have outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who is due to meet the johnson on Monday for lunch, and still hopes for sight of some alternative proposals, but fears that "time is running out".

The balance of evidence, therefore, is that the UK has not tabled any substantive proposals. There is no evidence even that any such proposals exist. And there is also an element of negative evidence – the sort of which Sherlock Holmes would approve: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. If there was a proposal in existence and the EU side was misleading the public, the UK team could so easily produce it. It hasn't.

It is then a matter of inescapable logic that, if no proposals have been tabled, there cannot have been any significant negotiations and, regardless of what the johnson might claim, there cannot have been any progress, much less a "huge amount" of progress.

When we also factor in the undisputed fact that the johnson is a serial liar, prone to living in his own fantasy world, we have no cause whatsoever to believe it when it makes contested assertions. It doesn't get the benefit of the doubt – not ever.

Building up the case, with cross referrals and multiple sources, is a process known in the research community as triangulation. No one element is absolutely conclusive but the weight of evidence supports a specific conclusion – in this case that the johnson, once again, is lying.

When we then gain extra detail relating to a proposition, this is not taken in isolation but added to the material we already have. It may support or confound the proposition, but working with it strengthens any conclusions which may be drawn.

And after the frankly absurd media coverage, over the weekend, we now have a relatively sane piece from the Guardian which tells us that "EU officials" have rejected the johnson claim of "huge progress" in Brexit talks.

These officials – anonymous as always – are involved in talks with the johnson's envoy, David Frost, and – we are told - have dismissed the upbeat account. "No, in fact people are a bit dismayed", says one EU source, describing the mood after the latest talks.

This source goes on to say that: "I am not even going to call them negotiations – the last session on Friday did start touching on content – that's actually quite a step forward … but we still should have been there a long time ago and [an end result] is still quite far away".

Looking at the broader context, today's meeting with Juncker comes 26 days after the johnson met Angela Merkel in Berlin and declared he had 30 days to persuade the EU there was a viable alternative to the backstop. That meeting in Berlin, followed by others with EU leaders in Paris and Biarritz, had apparently "raised hopes that the prime minister was serious about a deal".

According to the Guardian though, optimism in Brussels rapidly dissipated after the johnson prorogued parliament and stepped up his no-deal rhetoric, while failing to put any proposals on paper. There we have it again: a reference to any formal proposals. Thus, says a senior EU official, a spate of recent reports from London analysts that a deal is becoming more likely is "completely wrong".

Nor has the johnson's latest flight of rhetorical fancy done him any good. His reference to the Incredible Hulk, with the assertion that the UK would break out of its "manacles" on 31 October, seems to have further fuelled EU scepticism about the prime minister in office's sincerity.

At least the EU side seem no longer taken aback by the johnson's inanity. Dismissing its language as "not very surprising", the EU source says: "It all makes it look like it’s a bit of a joke. We are talking about something extremely serious. The consequences of no deal will be extremely serious and it looks like this is being treated as a game in which you are the hero sort of story rather than [dealing] with real lives".

As to today's meeting, the Guardian notes that which we already knew: the outgoing commission president is not involved in day-to-day Brexit talks, but intervenes only at crisis points. And although Michel Barnier will also be present, there is no way this meeting can constitute a formal negotiating round. As I have pointed out, the EU simply doesn't do business that way.

The best hope of EU officials is that the meeting will "create momentum towards an agreement", but nothing of itself can be concluded between the parties.

Specifically, while David Frost has outlined some ideas for an all-Ireland regulatory regime for food and agriculture - which Downing Street thinks would go a long way to replacing the backstop - Brussels is not impressed. It thinks the ideas fall far short of what is required to protect European markets from dangerous goods, fraud or unfair competition.

Yet this sort of detail is not thrashed out by principals. And the idea that the johnson (or even Juncker) would have a handle on that level of detail is in any event absurd. Only headline issues are going to be discussed today.

And given the rhetoric we've been getting over the weekend, with talk of the johnson set to deliver a "tongue-lashing" to Juncker, gearing up for "a fiery showdown", the stage does not seem to be set for a meeting of minds. Even if the actual tone of the meeting is very different, Commission officials are still capable of reading the newspapers and drawing their own conclusions.

Furthermore, on top of all that, with time running short to resolve highly technical issues that touch on sensitive political questions, the EU – we are told - is also uncertain whether the johnson can get a Commons majority for a deal.

The johnson government has a "credibility problem" over whether it could get a revised agreement passed in the Commons, one EU diplomat says. "What kind of mandate" does he have?

Inevitably, though, the "credibility problem" extends far beyond this matter. With the johnson having established its reputation as a serial liar, nothing it says can be trusted; nothing can be relied upon. Even, or especially, its spaffing in the Telegraph lacks conviction as it burbles about its "passionate belief" that a deal can be finalised on 17 October.

Nevertheless, we will see great quantities of such "spin" from today's meeting, but we can also triangulate what we get. And that warns us to expect nothing very much.






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