Richard North, 28/02/2021  

It's taken less than two months, but this weekend effectively marks the point at which the legacy media lost interest in Brexit. Trawl through the nationals and the main broadcast media websites and you will struggle to find the references to the UK's biggest political story of the century.

This in itself is an interesting, if not important phenomenon which deserves an explanation. Probably, it owes much to the refusal of the two main party leaders to engage.

The Brexit story is a difficult one for our media to cover. Elements are highly technical, demanding more of most journalists than they are capable of offering, and they get bored with the detail.

To sustain what is in essence a political story, therefore, they need that personal tension between party leaders. Without it, they lack their standard fallback biff-bam personality politics and the story struggles to survive.

As to the silence of the party leaders – we know this is deliberate policy on the part of Starmer, but it is more likely a matter of convenience for Johnson. Doubtless, he sees political salvation in the vaccination programme – currently buying him a seven percent "bounce" in the polls. By contrast, there nothing but grief for him in Brexit.

With coronavirus and plenty of other "human interest" stories to keep them entertained, it is quite evident that the media are happy to collude in downgrading Brexit, especially as Covid-19 stories offer endless opportunities for the "social workers' gazette" tendency which tends to dominate the contemporary media.

That is not to say that we have seen the end of Brexit reportage. Once the interest in Covid-19 slackens – which is likely as long as the vaccination programme succeeds – the issue may well re-emerge with a political edge. But, for the time being, there is a hiatus of indeterminate length.

Perversely, just as media interest subsides, the Sunday Times picks up an intensely political dimension to the saga, telling us that, just as Michael Gove moves on to pastures new, he finally "gets" the impact that Brexit is having on small and medium-sized business owners.

It is a mark of the topsy-turvy state of politics, the paper says, that Gove, one of the leading campaigners for Brexit, is increasingly regarded as an ally by those with concerns. According to one attendee of a final meeting between him and affected firms, the Cabinet Office minister, there was "a shift from saying there were teething problems to recognising that there are real issues here".

With him moving on, though, little is expected of his successor, David Frost, who is more likely to devote his energies to renegotiating the Irish protocol. This issue, at least, has enough political traction to give it a soap opera dimension and keep it in the headlines, albeit away from the front pages.

If Frost listens to the Brexit zealots, he will be invoking (or threatening to invoke) the Article 16 safeguards, and abandoning border checks on goods from GB destined for Norther Ireland.

According to Martin Howe in the Sunday Telegraph, this "unilateral action" would provide a firm basis for negotiating the Protocol's replacement with "sensible cooperative procedures for controlling the flow of goods across the Irish land border through away-from-the-border means".

Of course, this, away-from-the-border idea is nothing new, having been variously promoted by Peter Lilley and Shanker Singham. Yet with the EU having recently revised its Customs Code and its "official controls", it is unlikely that they will be keen on entertaining more changes just to suit the UK.

What the likes of Howe - and the others who have advocated this solution – do not seem to understand is that, if the EU makes significant concessions to ease the Irish land border problem, they will come under pressure from their other trading partners to adopt the same regimes.

A particular sticking point will be the location in Border Control Posts which, with a very few, limited exemptions, must be located "in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry into the Union", set out in Regulation (EU) 2017/625. So firm is the EU on that principle that supplementary regulations in March 2019, setting out the detail of the limited exemptions, or "derogations", giving very little scope for deviation.

The regulations were produced after the UK government and the likes of Shanker Singham had made their pitches for away-from-the-border facilities, which means that they can be taken as a definitive statement of the Commission view. It will not change its rules.

The trouble is, of course, that if the Howe line is followed, the only remedies will either be the reversion to a hard border between NI and the Republic, or checks on Irish goods when they enter other EU countries, as I suggested yesterday.

Something will certainly have to give, not least as there is a very significant cross-border movement of bulk milk, with around one billion litres of milk produced in Northern Ireland going over the border for processing every year, for processing in the Republic. This is worth €2-300 million each year.

If Whitehall is intent on a confrontation over the Protocol, there could be very rapid and harmful impacts on the Northern Ireland economy, precipitating a noisy political crisis which could keep the media entertained for as long as it lasts.

The only possible way out is a bilateral veterinary agreement, which could make special concessions for bulk fresh milk exports, which is a trade which is already highly regulated. Meat and other foods of animal origin, might be a different matter.

Meanwhile, as the media retreats from the more general coverage of Brexit, the Metro is carrying sponsored copy from the "UK government", declaring: "How British business is going from strength to strength under the new trade rules".

The piece features a number of traders (one pictured) who, miraculously, have experienced no delays at all in their shipments from European countries, the happy collective claiming that "planning is the reason for our Brexit success".

This naked propaganda hardly fits with the tales of woe we have been hearing, with the single "Brexit woes" story in the Sunday Times telling us that parcels posted to and from Europe are taking as long as two months to arrive, with delivery companies blaming Brexit.

British customers have described waiting up to eight weeks to receive items from countries such as Germany or Holland. And, once deliveries arrive, many are hit with unexpected fees to cover customs charges, additional taxes and courier costs, which can run to more than £100.

Against this, the very existence of government-funded propaganda, disguised as news stories, cannot help but raise suspicions that there is an additional reason for the current paucity of Brexit stories in the media.

Whatever the actual reasons, there is no question that Johnson is getting something of a free pass, and is not being brought to account for his failures on Brexit. If he does get away with it, this will in no small measure be due to the inadequacies of the media. But there again, we cannot argue that this is news.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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