EU Referendum

Brexit: a retreat to sanity


Now in my fourteenth year of continuous blogging (the late Helen Szamuely and I started EURef on 22 April 2004), I've prided myself in never missing a single day apart from the period when I was locked up by West Yorkshire's finest, and for three days while I recovered from open heart surgery. That's nearly five thousand days of blogging, with millions of words written.

Writing the day's piece starts early, with the review of the papers and reading a few selected blogs. Depending on the nature of the post, the whole day might be taken up by searching for and reading online material. Writing proper usually starts by about 9pm – although sometimes earlier – and I try to be finished by about 2am.

Even when I've been falling apart from illness, or so tired that I've been barely able to keep my eyes open, I've delivered the goods, with the focus since the referendum almost exclusively on the impending train-wreck of the Brexit negotiations which, in my view, could hardly have been handled worse.

But I have to say that, with each passing day, it gets harder and harder to write my daily article. And it's not that there isn't anything to write about – quite the reverse. It's that politics are getting to the point where events are so surreal that, if you put them altogether under a fiction wrapper, no one would actually believe them.

Of the latest instalments of this mad soap opera, we have the ghastly Priti Patel conducting her own private foreign policy with the Israelis while the unspeakable Johnson has been compromising British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has the misfortune to be incarcerated in an Iranian jail, while refusing to apologise for his error.

And then there is David Davis – with his sidekick Steve Baker - trying to fend off demands to see over 60 "sector analyses" that have transmuted in 58 "sectoral impact assessments" that don't actually exist.

The media, on the other hand, have locked themselves into a moral panic, giving rise to a situation where a minister touching a journalist's knee sometime in the distant past is a resigning offence, while the serial liar Johnson, potentially condemning a guiltless woman to jail in the most dire conditions, stays in office.

Unable then to concentrate on the most important domestic political event since the war, the fourth estate is waxing indignant over the "Paradise Papers", stolen documents which have been in circulation for over a year – only now dominating the headlines just when the entire future of our nation is at risk through the incompetence of our government's approach to Brexit.

Given these circumstances, it is not only hard to write anything rational – one is constantly asking oneself why one should bother. What really is the point of trying to inject clinical analysis into this maelstrom of insanity?

The thing is though, I'm not much good at this introspective stuff. Pete does it better, leaving me to plod on with the technical stuff in the certain knowledge that the greater and more thorough the research, the lower the readership – there is a direct inverse correlation.

But then, how could I possibly compete with such scintillating journalism as that offered by Lou Stoppard, GQ's Contributing Editor who "talks you through the jacket that is slowly replacing the suit" under the heading: "The death of the suit? Thanks Brexit".

If this is what people really want, then not only am I wasting my time. I'm on the wrong planet. I don't even belong here. I'm the person reading the piece in the Guardian under the headline "Brexit: EU warns UK it has less than a month to make concessions", where we are told that: "Senior officials in Brussels say EU unlikely to agree to trade talks in December unless the UK offers more on Brexit divorce settlement".

We've actually heard in the Sunday Times that Mrs May has used officials to signal financial concessions, with EU negotiators now drawing up the outlines of a future trade deal with Britain after the UK government suggested that it would agree to pay more than €60bn (£53bn) for the "Brexit bill".

But this is just another instalment in the ebb and flow of the soap opera. It's all rumour and innuendo, relying on unattributed briefings from anonymous officials – many of them denied or discredited within hours of their emerging. Thus, as it stands, we may not get trade talks given the go-ahead in December, or we may not. You pays your money and you makes your choice.

Needless to stay, those who say it's "all down to the money" neglect the Irish question, which is still no closer to solution than it was 501 days ago – when we had the referendum. And then there's the rights of EU citizens in the UK, post Brexit.

The Government has come up with another compromise solution, pledging a "streamlined system" for allowing EU nationals to stay in the UK after Brexit.

Details are set out in a five-page technical note in which the UK says it will be "bound by the obligations set out in the Withdrawal Agreement as a matter of international law". But the appeal provisions reside with the UK courts and there is no role envisaged for the ECJ.

Given, therefore, that the EU's own red line is breached, one can see a situation in December where even an enhanced money offer will not be good enough. There must be "sufficient progress" in all three of the "phase one" issues, and the money only gives us one out of three.

This puts us on the cusp of an existential crisis, where the December talks are set to collapse in a welter of recriminations, leaving the UK to face a bleak future in a decade-long depression. However, you would struggle to find even a hint of this on the front pages of the print media, where the fate of Priti Patel dominates the broadsheets, balanced by news of the suicide of a Welsh politician.

Huffing and puffing on its inside pages, the Guardian vents its opinion on Boris Johnson and Priti Patel: "incompetent, insubordinate and still in office", it says. We would not disagree.

But where we would disagree with this paper, and the legions of politicians who infest Westminster, is in their sense of priorities. For this country, there is nothing more important than Brexit, yet they are treating the issue like a game, tossed around as a party-political plaything with no progress ever being made.

It should be, I suppose, some small comfort that the great Wolfgang Münchau has come to the conclusion that: "Only sane route for Brexit is taking the Norway option". But then, I came to that conclusion in 2012, five years ago, only to have it rejected by the IEA, who rigged their competition to deliver a different answer.

If it takes Münchau five years to draw the obvious conclusion, how long is it going to take him to come up with the detail needed to make this option work? At this rate, we could be looking at the end of the century.

And with that, I've decided I can't be bothered to write a piece for tonight. To keep myself sane, I'll do some modelling instead. To keep the blog warm, I've posted a pic of a model I made earlier. They never look much when you photograph them, but this Dingo scout car is less than two inches long, with nearly 40 parts. It's the nearest thing I'll get to sanity this side of Brexit.