Richard North, 16/06/2020  

I'm not sure quite what to infer from the prime minister's choice of words to kick-start the "future relationship" talks, but it seems somehow fitting that he should use a 1960s slogan from an oil company, designed to boost petrol sales.

Neither am I sure we can take anything from the fact that the popularity of the slogan "put a tiger in your tank" peaked in 1964, a year after General Charles de Gaulle had vetoed the UK's first application to join the Common Market. For Euro-enthusiasts, the period doesn't have happy connotations.

It is a little surprising, though, that the publicity gurus from the supposedly "green" EU didn't warn its European Council president, Charles Michel, against falling for the Johnson trap of agreeing to put "carbon-generating pollutants" into the Union tank.

But then, one can quite see how tempted Michel might have been, tweeting "ready to put a tiger in the tank…", in order to set himself up for the obvious rejoinder: "…but not to buy a pig in a poke", then adding the irresistible comment: "Level playing field is essential".

If we should stretch this exchange to the breaking point, however, one could observe that the EU is quite happy to buy planet-destroying hydrocarbons from the UK, but will not accept its certified organic swine, delivered in a natural fibre, recyclable packaging, owing to the latter's lack of transparency.

There has to be a lesson in there somewhere. One wonders if the "level playing field" is for the pig to play on. In any event, one can't fault Michel for his sense of humour as he also says that "a broad & ambitious agreement, in line with #EUCO guidelines, is in our mutual interest". This is obviously a flying pig in a poke.

As for "tigers" and boost implied (although Esso petrol was no different from any other major brand at the time), you would have to work extremely hard to craft something as downbeat as the joint statement after yesterday's video conference.

Through this we learn that the "Parties" have agreed that "new momentum" is required and they thus "supported the plans agreed by Chief Negotiators to intensify the talks in July", all with a view to creating "the most conducive conditions for concluding and ratifying a deal before the end of 2020".

"Be still my throbbing heart", you might say, and more so when one sees that this intensification "should include, if possible, finding an early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement".

It's there, one senses, that fantasy took a rain-check and reality inserted itself. The "Parties" are actually nowhere near a deal. They aren't even talking about a deal. The best they can offer is the tentative "if possible", attached to the idea of "finding an early understanding".

Should one be incautious enough to ask what it is that the "Parties" are endeavouring to understand, one confronts not the issues themselves, but "the principles underlying any agreement". In strict terms (and what other terms can apply to this statement?), the talks are only at a stage where everybody is trying to define the ground rules on which the substantive negotiations can be based.

An optimist might suggest that, with the issues so well-known and frequently rehearsed, once the ground rules are agreed, a settlement can follow fairly quickly thereafter. But wiser counsel will caution that these are EU talks. Nothing is final until the beast has been felled with a silver bullet, buried with a stake through its heart in a casket padded out with crushed garlic and surrounded by glowing crucifixes.

Even then, this feat has to be achieved in time for the European Parliament to ratify it, which means – according to received wisdom – that the deal must be done by November.

This doesn't seem to worry the fatuous Johnson though, who seems to think that all we need now "is a bit of oomph in the negotiations" to get them completed by [the end of] July – in six weeks' time. Clearly, he hasn't read the joint statement – not that he would understand it if he did.

Trying to inject its own little bit of "oomph", The Times is suggesting that Brussels is preparing to back down over a Brexit fishing deal, acknowledging for the first time that European fleets do not have an automatic right to fish in British waters.

This is supposed to be a concession to help to unlock negotiations, but nothing is firm as we are having to rely on one of those "understandings", as in Michel Barnier is "understood" to have accepted that the UK will have to be treated as an independent coastal state. On that basis, there will be annual negotiations with the EU over fishing quotas from next year.

If this is even real – bearing in mind that the Member States must agree it – any such compromise will have to wait until other parts of the deal are "closer to being finalised".

On the face of it, this looks to be an inspired piece of kite-flying to see how much the UK is prepared to drop off the sledge in order to keep the fishermen (and the ERG headbangers) happy.

Despite that, there is very little else to add. The whole focus is on a "deal", but no one is even beginning to ask what it might cover. This is a matter of "never mind the quality, feel the width". A deal is all we need. Any deal will do. The public won't know the difference because the economy has already been poleaxed by the Covid-19 precautions.

As such, a deal there will be: we can park it in the corner and polish occasionally while the barriers close and trade dwindles. If people notice, how many will even care?

That question is far from academic, to judge from an article in The Washington Post, retailing the results of a recent Ipsos MORI poll. Citing Ben Page, the chief executive of the polling company, it has him saying that the public’s concerns about Brexit have been pushed aside, primarily by the pandemic and the economy.

"Where we will be next autumn and winter as we approach the 31 December deadline is another matter", Page says, then adding that "about one third of Britons think their country has already left the EU". This is what the article says, but I can't be sure whether Mr Page is being royally slandered. If he isn't, then we're in real trouble.

But the point stands that if Johnson stands up sometime towards the end of the year and burbles about the "fantastic" deal he as agreed, most of the media will take him at face value – and he will get a free pass from the likes of the Telegraph. The Guardian will complain bitterly about another Johnson "blunder" and all will be right in the world.

Except that, as the Guardian, the British public’s trust in the media has fallen off a cliff in the last five years, particularly among left wing voters. And even the most "trusted" brands like the BBC are seen by many as pushing or suppressing agendas, especially over polarising issues like Brexit.

Sadly, though, this is a nation which relies for its news coverage on four main sources, BBC News, the Guardian, MailOnline and Sky News, although there is a "silent majority", who still want news. Those are the people, one assumes, who do actually know that we have left the EU, and are in the run-up for a bum deal.

The rest will believe what they are told.

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