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Brexit: Johnson's 'dead body'

2020-08-14 08:46:42

I must thank Pete for posting for me yesterday. It saved me the labour of writing up a post in an extremely thin news environment when it comes to our main subjects of interest. And there is no way I am going to write about A-level grades, other than to observe that there seems to be no limit to the ways in which this government can mess up.

As I surveyed the news scene last night, in preparation for today's post, things weren't much better – as one might expect during the so-called "silly season". Inevitably, the period is a nightmare for anyone seeking to cover a limited range of subjects in some depth.

High up on the agenda, though, is the meeting between prime minister Johnson and the Irish prime minister Micheál Martin, who met in Belfast yesterday – the first time the two have met.

From that emerges a comment from Martin that Johnson has a "genuine desire" to agree an EU trade deal, specifically to prevent worsening the economic shock of Covid-19.

One might note that if this is the case, it could well be the first and only time Johnson has been genuine about anything in his life, but then this is the opinion of an Irish prime minister, who may or may not be right. The Irish are supposed to be good at detecting blarney, but it's not always easy when dealing with a sociopath like Johnson.

In any event, "desire" is one thing. Making it happen is something completely different, and while it could be said – as Martin has – that there was a "shared understanding" between London and Brussels over the importance of securing an agreement, that does not mean we are any closer to an agreement.

However, there is a sort of ritual about this process, with all sides exuding confidence before the event, neither wishing to cast doubt on the outcome for fear of being blamed for when the talks go belly-up. One can, therefore, place about as much confidence in these statements as one can Soviet-era tractor production figures.

That still leaves so-called "Brexit negotiators" ready for a fresh round of talks in Brussels next week. It seems difficult to accept that they will achieve anything at all if they really are Brexit negotiators. Someone needs to tell them that we left the EU on 31 January.

They are, of course, dealing with the "future relationship" talks, but we've long given up on expecting the legacy media to cope with such nuances, any more than we can expect the average hack to give the European Council its correct name, instead of calling it a "summit". Inaccuracy is built into their DNA.

This becomes apparent when we have The Times tell us that these egregious negotiators will be grappling with "the two most difficult outstanding issues". These are defined as "fishing rights and the EU’s demand for a so-called 'level playing field'; on state aid and environmental protection".

This, though, doesn't check out when you look at the agenda. There are eleven separate subject areas listed, and any one of them could be a deal-breaker. And easily one of the most intractable issues is the yellow block labelled "horizonal arrangements + governance".

The governance issue is one of great concern to the EU, and there is a real difference here with the UK. British negotiators want a series of stand-alone deals. The "colleagues" would prefer an overarching institutional architecture, embodying a single agreement with each of the sectors embedded within the framework.

Given the EU's obsession with institutional tidiness, it is quite possible that the deal could founder on this issue alone. The "colleagues" really do not want another Swiss-type deal, comprising a raft of messy deals, not least because they are trying to get the Swiss to adopt a more rational framework.

Nevertheless, David Frost, styled as "the UK's chief negotiator" – as opposed to Johnson, who must be the "negotiator-in-chief" – says he hopes to get an agreement in principle next month that can be signed off by EU leaders. Tractor production is up again.

Here, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction. The "EU leaders" will not be signing off an agreement in principle. They will want to see the finished, definitive version, with every "t" dotted and every "i" crossed – unless they are capitals, of course. There is a huge difference between "in principle" and a formal treaty text.

That said, I just don't think we can put any faith in what Martin is saying anyway. He's burbling away, speaking in soundbites and meaningless buzzwords. What on earth is a "landing zone", when it's at home?

But it's when he talks about not needing "another shock to the system that a no-deal Brexit or a sub-optimal trade agreement would give to our economies", that he gives the game away. Doesn't this eejit realise that the very best deal we can hope to take away is sub-optimal?

Thus, we can look a little more carefully at Martin's words when he says, of his talks with Johnson, that "We agreed Covid has had a negative impact on our societies. I did take from that a genuine view that a comprehensive free-trade agreement was in the best interest of all concerned and that [Westminster] was sincerely seeking such an outcome".

Well Chuck, a "comprehensive free-trade agreement" would indeed be "in the best interest of all concerned", but it isn't on the table. The man speaking here is fundamentally unserious or, like so many politicians these days, pig ignorant. He needs to be preparing for a bare-bones deal, because that is the best we're going to get.

The Irish Independent fleshes out Martin's statements with a little detail – and possibly a little more accuracy. It has the man saying: "I think where there's a will there's a way.

It seems to me that there is a landing zone, if that will is there on both sides and I think it is". Here, the landing zone is not so much "in sight" as simply "there". That could be neither here nor there. But can one really take seriously cliché-driven drivel like "where there's a will there's a way"? Who says that sort of thing these days, if they want to be taken seriously?

Once the meeting was over, it seems, "Downing Street" – meaning the prime minister's spokesman - said Johnson had reiterated his desire to conclude a trade deal with the EU-27. But then the old mantra was trotted out: he was not prepared to accept an agreement "at any price". That almost certainly means that the only thing we will get is no deal.

We are also told that Johnson reiterated his promise – aka lie - that businesses in Ulster would enjoy unfettered access to markets in England, Scotland and Wales. "There will be no border down the Irish Sea - over my dead body", he is quoted as saying.

Actually, I much prefer the Belfast Telegraph version, which has as its headline: "Irish Sea trade border 'over my dead body', says Johnson". Given that there will be such a border, that is an extremely attractive proposition – and Belfast is just the place to make it happen.

Also published on Turbulent Times.