Richard North, 18/09/2019  

So intense was the interest in yesterday's Supreme Court hearing that, according to the Press Association, the live stream on the court's website was accessed 4.4 million times - with 2.8 million stream requests being logged in the hour before the 1pm break for lunch. Typically, the live streaming service is accessed about 20,000 times a month.

For all that, there will be nothing significant to report until the court actually delivers its judgement, and nothing it can offer takes us any closer to an orderly (or any) Brexit. In a sense, this judicial porn is nothing but yet another distraction from the main event.

Nor are we entirely clear from that other distraction – Monday's abortive press conference where Xavier Bettel "empty lecterned" the johnson in what many regard (for him) as a PR disaster.

Nevertheless, there are those who are keen to spring to the johnson's defence – there are always some – not least the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, who raged at Bettel's "calculated insult".

What I've not seen rehearsed anywhere, though, is the role of the johnson's advance party, who would have scouted the sites for his visit and approved the arrangements – which then would have been given the final approval by the johnson.

Yet, even from the most superficial review of the press conference venue, it was painfully obvious that the site was insecure, with public access only yards away through wrought-iron fencing. It was open to the advance party to veto the site, or ask for better security arrangements, all on the basis of refusing to commit to a press conference at all – thereby avoiding the embarrassment of a last-minute cancellation.

However, given that the mistake was made and the invitation was accepted, a more robust politician would have toughed it out. Had the johnson sought to speak and been drowned out, it could have turned to Bettel and said – to the effect – "I am a guest in your country – is that how you treat your guests?" I can't see Thatcher wimping out – yet that is precisely what the johnson did. Confronted with a well-behaved, if noisy, demonstration, he turned and ran.

Still, though, the johnson is always buttressed by willing ranks of apologists. Why there are so many people prepared to spring to its defence is examined, after a fashion, in this article which explains how a "nasty piece of work" like the johnson manages to defuse animosity and attract so much support.

Although not the most impartial of sources, writer Brendan Humphreys, a political historian and lecturer at the University of Helsinki, notes that, "It is not really surprising that a natural entertainer like Boris Johnson would tickle and cuddle his country, rather than let the cold, wet reality in". But, he adds, "what is disappointing is his country's willingness to be tickled".

That is so often the problem here. Even grown men – who you thought might have acquired a little sense – seem to be defenceless against the "eccentric charms" of this charlatan, and will let their brains dribble out of their backsides rather than exercise their critical faculties.

But if too many English are willing to indulge the "eccentric gentility" that the johnson represents, his charms have less pull on the dastardly "Johnny Foreigners" with whom he has to deal.

Thus, with Junker due to speak at the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, we see Commission spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, repeating a familiar refrain: "We are still waiting for concrete proposals from the UK side", she says. "Both sides have stated that they want to have a deal. A no-deal Brexit is in nobody’s interests so clearly there is the willingness to arrive to a solution".

Andreeva goes on to say that, "I think we have recalled that it's now the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement that are necessary in order to move the discussions forward", conceding nothing to the johnson's "eccentric gentility".

Certainly, the "colleagues" are less than impressed by the pratting about of the UK "negotiating team" who, we are now told, have so far only presented the EU with a draft of the withdrawal agreement with the backstop scrubbed out.

Although this is not news to most of us, we also have it confirmed that the team is refusing to put forward a written proposal to Brussels at this stage "for fear it will be rejected out of hand or publicly rubbished". Instead, they want to wait until almost the last minute before the October Council before presenting a plan to the EU, with just two weeks before Brexit.

Alarmingly, if this really is the strategy, then there is nothing at all to commend it. It is barking mad. There is no possible way the European Council will consider a document of such nature submitted to it. It is not equipped to do so and not legally authorised to conduct detailed negotiations.

Rather, it will pass anything it gets down to the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who will consult the Member States and then deliver his views to the Council, with a formal proposal for action if requested.

The insistence of sticking to procedure is heavily emphasised by Ireland's Simon Coveney, who has admitted that there have been "significant informal contacts" with UK ministers on the shape of a possible new deal. But the Irish government nevertheless insists that it will not negotiate with the British government on Brexit. Negotiations can only take place between the UK and the EU task force led by Michel Barnier, it says.

If the "cunning plan" is anything like that "revealed" by ITV's Robert Peston (again, not news to many of us), Barnier will doubtless be recommending further talks to thrash out the details, as a precursor to rejecting the many unacceptable elements.

What will be on offer, Peston suggests, is a unified single market for agriculture between Northern Ireland and the Republic (with a single set of sanitary and phytosanitary rules), so that cross-border flows of livestock and food are not hindered. There will be customs and limited unintrusive goods standards checks on the island but away from the border itself and no customs union with the EU for either the whole UK or Northern Ireland alone.

Where rules for agriculture or even for other limited markets are set for the whole island by Brussels, the principle of a "Stormont lock" will apply. In the words of Peston's source, this will require that "the people of Northern Ireland must be able to withdraw consent, with all that entails".

Since Brussels has always insisted that any arrangement to keep open the border should not be capable of being terminated unilaterally, this has little chance of being accepted. But there is also the question of how tariffs and quotas will be handled, and there is no mention of VAT.

It really is quite remarkable that one of the more complex cross-border issues is the management of VAT refunds, an issue which creates endless problems and administrative burdens on the Swiss border. Yet this never seems to feature when the problems of the Irish border are raised.

This alone indicates that we're not dealing with serious proposals – and that is before we get to the concept of Northern Ireland having to adopt the entire regulatory ecosystem when it comes to SPS rules.

I tire of having consistently to point out that regulatory alignment is only a starter for ten. Free movement of agri-goods will require adoption and maintenance of the full SPS policy, supervision and enforcement package, and it is hard to see how judicial oversight by the ECJ can be avoided.

Whatever is actually dumped in the European Council's laps on 17 October, though, it is a racing certainty that the johnson will not be walking away in triumph with a new "deal", ready to present it to the Westminster parliament.

And just in case there is any prospect of the European Council momentarily weakening, a critical European Parliament will be on the case, ready to exercise its powers – refusing to ratify if it believes too many concessions have been made.

All in all, on present trajectories, there is not the slightest chance of the johnson getting its deal at the October European Council. At the very least, he will have to ask for more time, so that Barnier can examine the plan and make his recommendations.

Thus, if the idea is that having a plan will circumvent the requirement to apply for a time extension, the johnson is going to be sorely disappointed. Once again, the pronounced inability to grasp the detail will be letting it down.

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