EU Referendum

Brexit: madder and madder


It seems hardly possible that we could end up yesterday knowing even less about the state of the "deal" than we did the day before. But if Johnson's team has done nothing else, it is to have achieved this – a sense of utter, impenetrable obscurity to the extent that no-one outside the magic circle knows what's going on.

After a day of baffling to-ing and fro-ing, which had the hacks waiting outside the Berlaymont at the crack of dawn, waiting to doorstep officials as they went in for the talks, we were supposed to see the deal done by midday. As it was, we saw a series of postponements until, shortly before 7pm our time, we heard from a government source, via the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, that there was to be no deal that day.

Some papers were slow to catch up, with the Mirror running its report almost to midnight, telling us that "the likelihood of that being wrapped up is close to zero tonight… despite early excitement that terms were close to being agreed".

Other hacks were quicker off the mark, pitching in to confirm that a deal is off the agenda for the day, but there was no consistency about the reasons for the non-event. Some suggested there were only "minor issues" left, others reported it was all to do with the DUP and the signals coming from London and yet others spoke of "unresolved issues" across the board, including customs issues and VAT.

Uncharacteristically, the normally vocal Barnier went quiet, saying nothing as he arrived at the Europa building in Brussels shortly after 6.30pm to brief the EU Ambassadors on the state of the talks, and it wasn't until the meeting was over that we got confirmation that there was to be no deal that night.

Such was the let-down that the garrulous Verhofstadt was reduced to telling reporters: "There is nothing to say because the negotiations are still continuing. I think there are possibilities for an agreement but it's not done". There are, he said, "on customs, still outstanding issues".

As Verhofstadt indicated, though, talks were to continue – potentially through the night - indicating that there is more to the delay than simply the DUP. Asked if the DUP was the problem, the senior diplomat from a major member state said, "Just the VAT" - before shrugging and adding "apparently".

Previously, there had been a possibility that Johnson might fly over to Brussels on the Wednesday, but that didn't materialise. Now there are suggestions that he could go earlier than usual today, if it was felt that his presence could help move stalled talks along.

However, for all the drama, by midday yesterday, EU officials were saying that there was not enough time for formal agreement on the deal. And, if that was the case at midday, then it certainly had to apply as the delays mounted. Thus, even if the parties are able to finalise talks this morning, it is far too late for Barnier to recommend the deal to the European Council. All there can possibly be this week is an agreement in principle.

While the Telegraph claims that Brussels is saying that an agreement is "effectively in place", the Independent reports the DUP is dismissing talk of a breakthrough as "nonsense" and has the government bracing for a "humiliating extension request letter".

Despite progress, the paper says, EU officials suggest that any deal would still have to be delayed by around two months to "resolve technical issues" and that Johnson's hopes of an agreement before the European Council "are fading as new hurdles emerge".

Negative vibes also seem to have been picked up by Robert Peston, who has belatedly realised that there cannot be a deal today. "There may be an agreement tomorrow between Brussels and London", he writes, "but no detailed text has yet been shared with the 27 EU leaders and their respective governments". So, he concludes, "it looks way too late for EU leaders to endorse a formal Brexit deal with Boris Johnson at the EU Council tomorrow and Friday".

He may be late to the party, but – I suppose – better late than never, enabling him to look at the consequences. The "best the UK PM can hope for", he says, " is a political discussion that sends out a positive message on the prospects for a deal". And this "means that MPs cannot vote on a deal this Saturday", so there can be no meaningful vote.

In turn, this means that even if Johnson does not want a Brexit delay, there is no earthly way (that Peston can think of) that he can avoid one, if he wants a Brexit deal (which he does).

Unusually for a journalist, Peston also takes into account the European Parliament, saying he can think of no way it can scrutinise and ratify the deal - if it is ever done - before 31 October. Actually, he's wrong. Provided a deal was agreed early next week, there could be time, even if it requires pushing procedures to their limit.

Nevertheless, Peston thinks that Johnson's pledge to get us out of the EU at the end of the month "looks to be for the birds", noting that his battle cry was "Brexit, do or die". Presumably, Peston ventures, "there was an unspoken third option", asking whether anyone knows what it is.

As to the fate of Johnson's "deal", it should by now be so obvious that the European Council cannot possibly approve it today that the whole media – and not just Peston – should be proclaiming that fact.

Interestingly, Anna Soubry, noting that it is increasingly clear that Johnson's "new deal" is worse than May's, then whinges that parliament will get five hours debate on Saturday (if it happens) "without any independent assessments, analysis or select committee scrutiny of the most important set of decisions we will make in generations". That, she complains, "is plain wrong".

She, like so many of the others, though, simply can't step outside her own frame of reference and realise that what applies to the swamp-dwellers in Westminster, must have equal relevance to the 27 Members States who supposedly will be asked today to approve a deal.

With talks almost running up to the start of the European Council, there is not the slightest possibility that the officials from the EU-27 Member States can give any legal text – if it even exists by then – the sort of detailed scrutiny that will allow them to make recommendations to their respective heads of state and government.

Yet, all we get from the fatuous Laura Kuenssberg is that it is "not now clear whether there would be a deal at all this week". If this is really the best the BBC can do, then it is unsurprising that people are so ill-informed.

But then, we have the Guardian telling its readers that Johnson "is expected to try to pass the deal through Parliament on Saturday", when the overwhelming likelihood is that there will be no deal to present.

Almost certainly, all that can happen on Saturday – of any substance – is for Johnson to affirm that he is to write to the European Council asking for an extension to the end of January 2020.

With this scarcely being discussed, no one seems to be entertaining a discussion about what Johnson is supposed to do if, the subsequent week, his team manages to agree a deal with the EU. Does he insist on a break clause in the extension decision, to enable the UK to depart early?

However, even the possibility of an agreement next week seems remote, and there is no incentive for opposition parties to ratify a deal if they have an extension in the bag. The preference may be to engineer a general election, which means that talks with Brussels would be discontinued until the result was known.

So much of what is happening though is unknown that we could all be building castles in the air, with surprises waiting around the corner, ready to prove the pundits wrong. Today, therefore, will be as unpredictable as ever, as we all struggle to understand what is going on in an environment that gets madder and madder by the day.