Richard North, 04/12/2019  

With so much going on, substantive Brexit issues have almost disappeared from the national news agenda. Eight days before the vote, therefore, the politicians are effectively running down the clock and, in the time available, are unlikely to be seriously challenged in the time left.

Even if it is accepted that Johnson is the only choice for voters who want to see Brexit "done", that still doesn't excuse the Conservatives from making clear the next steps they intend to take, with clear statements as to the trade-offs which we will have to accept.

But the crucial questions which should have been addressed and answered during the course of the election campaign have been unresolved. So now we are left with a scrappy, messy, jumble of noise which has totally failed to do anything but render the so-called "Brexit election" a charade.

Effectively, we will be going into the polling booths blind – those of us who intend to vote. Votes will be cast on the basis of incomplete information, forcing the electorate to take a leap in the dark. Almost proving the point, we have a headline in the Independent which declares: "Boris Johnson sparks more uncertainty after refusing to say if businesses should continue no-deal Brexit preparations".

This comes after Dominic Raab confirmed yesterday that the UK will "absolutely" keep no-deal on the table in trade talks with the EU following the UK’s formal withdrawal on 31 January. And since the Johnson has unequivocally ruled out any extension of the trade talks beyond December 2020, there are worries that the 11-month negotiation period will end in us dropping out of the transition period without a deal.

In several pieces on this blog, I have suggested that we are in fact more likely to emerge with a "quick and dirty" deal which initially will amount to little more than an agreement on quotas and tariffs. Thus, deal there will be, except that the immediate outcome will be little better than if the government had actually failed to reach any agreement.

In a sense, therefore, it is entirely sensible to keep no-deal preparations in hand, as many of the provisions will be needed, alongside the EU's no-deal contingency plans.

But we really should not be in a situation where the Independent claims to have asked Johnson three times whether businesses should be preparing for the possibility of no deal on 31 December 2020, only to have the prime minister in office dodge the issue entirely.

What he did say is that, "We have a great deal” which is "going to allow us to come out smoothly and efficiently on 31 January", but that isn't really the point. If the withdrawal agreement is in place, we immediately move into the transition period, which is a "standstill" provision which leaves our trading relationships with the EU unchanged.

The trauma comes when the "standstill" - or transition period – comes to an end, and that is planned for us after 31 December of next year. People and businesses have a right to know what is in store for them and, with only an 11-month negotiation period, there is no possibility of a "good deal". It is going to be bad. The only question is, how bad.

We do, of course, have the final debate between Corbyn and Johnson on Friday, this one on the BBC. But, given the dismal failure of the broadcast events so far to shed any real light on the leaders' intentions, there is little expectation that anything new or interesting will emerge. Still less do we expect Johnson to remove the "uncertainty" of which business complains.

It should be that Johnson is pinned down on exactly what his intentions are for the "future relationship" talks, but even in the unlikely event that the right questions are asked, Johnson will probably "chunter" his way through, failing to deal with the points raised.

Meanwhile, of course, Corbyn is just as bad, if not worse, having projected an entirely unrealistic Brexit policy, predicated on a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, without any detail being specified. And, so far, he has been allowed to get away with this, largely unchallenged.

During the 2016 referendum, I lamented that the legacy media was unable sensibly to report on referendums, and was treating the event like an election. But, as we progress into this election, we are having to conclude that they can't handle elections either. This will be the campaign which ground to a halt, having died of shame.

Basically, with the politicians unwilling to inject any real substance into their Brexit policies, and with the media unable to drag the detail out of them, the debate is dying a death. Beyond endless, and largely repetitious speculation, we are all running out of things to write about.

Even the wonks and the specialist journals are sounding bored, while being both repetitious and unimaginative. Euractiv, for instance, has Sir Michael Leigh, a former EU chief enlargement negotiator, droning on about difficulties in reaching an agreement in 11 months – as if we were not aware of them already.

He argues that Johnson could only make a breakthrough in FTA talks "if he is ready to stab his Singapore-on-the-Thames friends in the back and commit the UK to applying relevant EU principles, rules and standards for the lifetime of the agreement".

All that shows, though, is that the wonks have little to offer either. A clinical evaluation tells us that if Johnson is determined to conclude a deal in 11-months and Michel Barnier has already intimated that a deal can be done, then a deal will be done in the time. But it will not be able to encompass a comprehensive deal which includes an accommodation on regulatory standards. That simply cannot be done in the time.

Thus, "quick and dirty" is all we are going to get, and it is about time that the wonks got to grip with this, and started to spell out what it will entail. When it comes to the detail, though, they are no better than the politicians.

Leigh thinks that the prime minister "would do better to come clean with the electorate on the complexity of the task ahead rather than face new accusations of duplicity when his promise that a trade deal with the EU will be concluded in 2020 comes to nought". Better still, Leigh needs to be warning of the consequences of that "quick and dirty" deal.

Possibly, because so many of the actors have nothing new or interesting to say, the gathering ennui is being reflected in the polls.

The latest YouGov poll has the two main parties largely static, with the Conservatives on 42 percent (down one point) and Labour on 33 percent, also down one. This leaves the Tories with their narrow nine point lead, only two points above the turning point, where we see a hung parliament.

Even Kantar are only putting the Tories 12-point ahead now, having last month awarded them a virtually unassailable 18-point lead, despite reporting that the recent Labour "surge" has stalled. Still worse, ICM only gives the Tories a seven-point lead.

Despite Brexit still leading as the issue deciding how people vote, the election contest is so lacking in energy that the parties are not even able to push the gap between them any wider. Both sides stumble on, generating neither enthusiasm nor passion, as their candidates go through the motions.

Perhaps Trump, on his visit to the UK yesterday and today, having decided he doesn't want our NHS, even on a "silver platter", might be prevailed upon to take our politicians back with him. There surely must be plenty of room in Air Force One. That, at least, would give us something to cheer about.

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