Brexit: uncommon ground

Wednesday 22 May 2019  

The one thing Mrs May has managed to do with her speech – with not a milkshake in sight – is to demonstrate beyond peradventure the irrelevance of the Euro-elections.

Initially, I thought she would hold off until the election results had been declared, presenting her agenda by way of damage limitation. The current timing, however, puts the Withdrawal Agreement back on the agenda with a vengeance and reminds us of what is really important.

That said, the speech doesn't seem to have done Mrs May an awful lot of good. To judge from the general reaction, MPs aren't buying it. And that means she's no further forward with her plans to get parliamentary approval for the Withdrawal Agreement.

One major sticking point seems to be what appears to be a commitment to a "second" referendum by including in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) a requirement to vote on whether to hold one. As the Bill will stand, the vote must take place before the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified.

Here, it then gets a little bit confusing. As I understood it, the vote on the WAB was being used as a proxy for ratification of the withdrawal deal. But Mrs May goes on to say that those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal "need a deal and therefore a Withdrawal Agreement Bill to make it happen".

On this basis, Mrs May then asks these MPs to let the Bill have its Second Reading. Then, she says, "make your case to Parliament".

There is something there, though, that doesn't quite make sense. Reading it literally, Mrs May seems to be saying to MPs that if you want a referendum to ratify the deal, you must first ratify the deal – and then you get a chance to argue in parliament for a referendum.

Questioning after the speech didn't seem to clarify matters much. Asked whether she was making a "commitment" to a referendum, Mrs May managed to evade the question altogether. We were none the wiser.

At least, though, there is to be a statement in parliament today, and the WAB is to be published in the next few days. By then, one hopes, the mystery will be cleared up – or not. When Mrs May starts talking with the words "let me be clear", just about anything can happen.

Anyway, pending clarification, much of the legacy media is taking it that Mrs May is offering a "confirmatory referendum". This, according to the Telegraph has "provoked fury", and calls for her to resign "immediately" in what is being branded a "sellout" attempt to save her Brexit deal.

Tory Eurosceptics are describing the offer as "outrageous" and more than 50 are said to be prepared to vote against it. Among them were at least twenty who had previously backed the deal, including the Oaf and Dominic Raab, potential leadership candidates.

Brexiteer cabinet ministers are expected to urge Mrs May to abandon what they describe as a "doomed and irresponsible" last throw of the dice. They want, or so it is claimed, the prime minister to allow her successor to find a way through the impasse.

Such responses are enough to have many of the pundits declaring that Mrs May's bold "new deal" is already dead in the water, before even her ten points are put formally to parliament. But, in fact, if it wasn't the referendum, opposition to many of the others could be enough to torpedo the package.

For a start, Mrs May in her summary of the points, is dwelling in unicorn territory, pledging that the government will "seek to conclude" Alternative Arrangements to replace the infamous Irish backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used.

But, as her second point, she asserts that, should the backstop come into force, the Government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland – effectively meaning that we stay aligned to the customs union and the Single Market.

Third, she says that the negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs, the latter being a statutory requirement anyway, so it is hardly a concession.

As a sop to Labour MPs, her fourth point covers a new Workers' Rights Bill that guarantees rights no less favourable than those workers enjoy in the EU. Five has it that there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU- which presumably also includes commitments on climate change.

Her sixth point is undoubtedly contentious as she pledges that the UK "will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible" while outside the Single Market and ending free movement. This can be roughly translated as doing everything possible to ensure frictionless trade, short of doing anything that will actually secure frictionless trade – with nothing said about the upkeep of the regulatory ecosystem.

There is a hint of this, though, in point seven , where Mrs May says we will "keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border", thus "protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains".

For her eighth point, we learn that the government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock. This will be at the next election – precisely the compromise that Mr Corbyn has already rejected.

Ninth in her summary confirms that there will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum and, to finish up, there will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect her new deal. By this means, a declaration that is binding on neither party under international law, becomes binding on one party – the UK – before the negotiations start. This hardly seems the best way of proceeding.

Whether good or bad, by whatever measure you care to choose, the "new deal" clearly isn't a game changer. Says the Guardian, MPs across the House of Commons were unpersuaded by the proposals and, by yesterday evening not a single MP who opposed the deal last time had come out to support it.

Corbyn then put the boot in, saying: " We won't back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it's clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable deliver on its own commitments".

Nevertheless, Mrs May didn't come entirely unprepared for rejection. Inside that smooth, soft glove was a rather rusty old cast-iron fist, as she warned MPs of the consequences of voting against the Second Reading of the WAB. They would be voting to stop Brexit, she declared.

And although some suggest leaving without a deal, Mrs May noted that parliament "has been clear it will do all it can to stop it", herself stopping short of conceding that parliament can actually stop it – which it can't. But, if there is no deal, says Mrs May, "then it would have to be a general election or a second referendum that could lead to revocation – and no Brexit at all".

That rather begs the question of what will happen if there is a no-deal Brexit. Would we go without a general election, especially as the prime minister believes it would not be in the national interest? We would certainly have no referendum and a revocation could hardly be possible.

Despite all this, MPs are hardly in a mood to listen. David Jones, former Brexit minister has told the Telegraph, "I have been an MP for 14 years and I have never seen such anger among colleagues. She is desperate, she is deluded and she is doomed". Those "three Ds" now grace the front page of the comic.

What none of those airing their indignation may have realised though was that yesterday's speech was only partially addressed to MPs. She concluded it by saying to "every MP of every party", "I have compromised. Now I ask you to compromise too", but the next sentences were directed at the electorate.

"We have been given a clear instruction by the people we are supposed to represent", she said, adding: "So help me find a way to honour that instruction, move our country and our politics forward, and build the better future that all of us want to see". 

The barb "supposed" is interesting, and marks out the tenor of her comments. She is attempting to position herself on the side of the people, putting parliament in the frame for any failure to deliver Brexit. This will probably not work – completely. But it could do damage. Mrs May is certainly going down, but it looks as if she is intent on taking parliament with her.

Richard North 22/05/2019 link

Brexit: the Farage trap

Tuesday 21 May 2019  

With the spiv Farage churning out the Article 24 myth, this canard is proving harder to kill than a room full of zombies. But then the Spiv is only the latest in a long line of ultras, ranging from Campbell Bannerman to Owen Paterson, to resort to it.

This is the attempt to justify resorting to the WTO option by asserting that Article XXIV of the GATT Agreement permits parties engaged in formal trade negotiations to undertake mutual trade on tariff-free terms with the EU, by way of an interim agreement.

Furthermore, by way of a special dispensation, this interim agreement does not have to comply fully with WTO rules provided it has the approval of two-thirds of the WTO membership.

This, supposedly, relieves the UK of the immediate obligation to conclude a full Free Trade Agreement before settling trading terms with the EU, since the interim agreement may take effect for a period - ten years is often cited – as long as a full agreement is eventually concluded. This, it is held, gives time for the UK to sort out its trading arrangements should we leave without a deal.

However, while there can be no dispute that parties to trade negotiations can make interim arrangements prior to concluding a final deal, any such arrangements nonetheless constitute an international agreement. It thus requires the assent of all the parties to it. It is not something the UK can conclude unilaterally.

Yet the essence of a no-deal Brexit is one where the UK proceeds unilaterally, without concluding any agreements with the EU. In this (and any other) context, no deal means no deal. If the UK leaves without a deal, as Farage currently advocates – then to rely on WTO terms, as he put it – then by definition we cannot have concluded an interim agreement with the EU.

Even then, implementing an interim agreement is no simple thing. The parties to the agreement must refer the details of any such agreement to the WTO, with other information pertaining to the negotiations. Then, if the WTO then finds that such agreement is not likely to result in the formation of a customs union or of a free-trade area within the period contemplated by the parties to the agreement or that such period is not a reasonable one, it must make recommendations to the parties, which are them prohibited from implementing the agreement unless they are prepared to adopt the recommendations.

This latter provision is somewhat moot as a no-deal Brexit creates a situation where there are no discussions being held. There will be no "parties to the agreement" and therefore no mechanism by which an interim agreement can be sought, much less submitted to the WTO for approval.

On that basis, the Spiv – as always – is talking rubbish. But it doesn't matter how many times the Article 24 myth is debunked. Creatures such as Farage will continue to resuscitate it, demonstrating the paucity of their case and their fundamental intellectual dishonesty. The worst of it, though, is the number of feeble-minded people who are prepared to believe what they are told, or to forgive those who so readily pervert the Brexit debate.

Somewhat late in the day, but nonetheless welcome despite that, we have today Chancellor Philip Hammond making what Sky News calls one of his strongest attacks yet on a no-deal Brexit. He will, we are told, declare that the scenario would "knowingly... inflict damage on our economy and our living standards".

Checking back on my own work, I have to remind myself that it was on 29 July 2016 that I wrote my definitive monograph on the WTO Option and its application to Brexit. I didn't mention the Article 24 myth as it did not seem to have been invented then, but I was nevertheless unequivocal in my conclusions.

In order to get there, I had resort to the European Commission's Europa website, and the Treaties Office Database which boasts an advanced search facility. And this readily illustrates that countries cited as having no trade agreements with the EU do in fact have multiple agreements with the EU dealing with trade issues.

Where the likes of the Spiv go wrong is that they assume that only the formally-defined Free Trade Agreement (FTA), held on the WTO register, constitutes a trade agreement. But there are many forms of trade agreement which do not appear on the WTO register, thereby giving a false impression of the state of the art.

This is especially the case with the United States which has its own State Department declare: "The United States and the 28 Member States of the EU share the largest and most complex economic relationship in the world". Transatlantic trade flows (goods and services trade plus earnings and payments on investment) averaged $4.3 billion each day of 2013.

On the Treaties Office Database, I thus found recorded 38 EU-US "trade deals", of which at least 20 are bilateral. Similarly, China has 65 agreements with the EU, including 13 bilateral agreements - ranging from trade and economic co-operation to customs co-operation. None of these are of the simple, tariff reduction variety, but collectively they have enabled China to become the EU's second largest trading partner, with trade valued at over €1 billion a day.

None of these "trade deals" are on WTO register but, with these and other countries that have such deals with the EU, it is difficult to identify countries which do trade solely under WTO rules – there are so few of them. One cannot even cite North Korea, ranking 182 as an EU trading partner, as this country is not a WTO member.

Altogether, the EU has 880 bilateral agreements with its trading partners, and there is no example of a developed nation trading with the EU solely by reference to WTO rules. For the UK to trade with the EU relying on the WTO Option would be unique for a developed nation, creating an unprecedented situation. There is nothing with which a comparison could be made.

As to my conclusions, I was under no illusions that the WTO option was (and still is) a very dangerous and potentially expensive option which could do significant damage to the EU and UK, the effects of which could be long-lasting. The adverse effects of dropping out of the EU Treaties without an alternative agreement in place are so serious, I wrote, that this is not something any responsible person would want to consider.

Not leaving it there, I subsequently wrote many impact assessments, detailing the effects of a no-deal exit. And while there have been some modifications arising from temporary mitigating measures introduced by the European Commission, its Notices to Stakeholders still stand as testimony to the problems we confront.

Many of these have been revised since first publication and make for sombre reading. The latest version of the Notice on VAT rules, for instance, leaves readers under no illusions that leaving without a deal is very bad news.

Singling out VAT specifically is important as this is not a matter comprehensively covered by the Efta/EEA Agreement or the Swiss bilaterals. And, on the Swiss border, it is this issue which accounts for much of the trade friction and the lengthy queues.

Yet, despite these mere facts – and the huge amount of well-founded literature on the subject – buffoons such as Farage continue to pop out of the woodwork, spouting their rubbish. And not content with that, there is that ultimate insult, where they purport to represent leavers as a whole. Hammond is dead right there, accusing no-deal Brexit advocates of trying to "hijack" the referendum result.

Even then, it should not now be taking the Chancellor at this late stage to be warning of the dangers of a no-deal. The facts should be well-established, to the extent that the charlatans who continue to promote this as a viable option should be laughed out of court.

But this is not merely a matter for the opinion leaders. The information needed to come to a reasoned conclusion is readily available on the internet. For those who prefer to make up their own minds by referring to primary sources, these are also easy to get hold of.

When Booker and I started on this game, back in the early 90s, the internet was not fully developed and it could take us a week or more to get hold of a single copy of an EU directive, in hard copy format, for us to study. Researching The Great Deception was a nightmare, with most of the 1000-plus references having been obtained in document form, without recourse to the internet.

Nowadays, a huge amount of information is available at a touch of a button, with sophisticated search engines at our beck and call. There is really no excuse for falling into the Farage trap, buying into his brand of ignorance.

In this age of information, the individual can no longer claim that lack of information is an issue. Those who preach democracy must know that a functional democratic society requires an informed population, and the ease with which information is available brings a new responsibility. If you have an opinion, it should be your own - not one spoon-fed to you by a passing demagogue.

Those people who so uncritically slurp up Farage's rhetoric are responsible for their own ignorance. There is no retreat from this: they are part of the problem.

Richard North 21/05/2019 link

Brexit: a tsunami of trivia

Monday 20 May 2019  

On a strictly personal level, I don't think it could be possible for the current Brexit agenda to be more tedious. We have a totally irrelevant election on Thursday, topped by Mrs May's "new" initiative. This, it turns out to no one's surprise, is simply more of the same.

When the next few weeks are over, and we've got through the frenetic excitement of the election, and Mrs May has once again lost her vote in parliament, we'll be back where we started. But, in a sense, that might even be a relief as we'll know where we stand once again – up the creek without a paddle, where we've been for months.

Unfortunately, it'll be a totally different creek. We're about to be enmeshed in a Tory leadership campaign which will create a gigantic distraction, taking us still further away from addressing the core issues that have to be resolved before we can secure an orderly Brexit.

Farage's pathetic agenda will melt away without trace within days of the election. His no-deal WTO fantasy isn't going anywhere and there is no depth to his party, so we fully expect the newly-elected MEP group to disintegrate in a welter of bickering and recriminations in a repeat of previous "successes".

It is all very well avoiding a detailed programme so that there is nothing over which members can argue, but there is a downside. Without a unifying doctrine to which the members can subscribe, there is nothing to bind the group. There will be no cohesion and no loyalty. Individual ambitions and jealousies will assert themselves and, within weeks, the group will have splintered.

On the other hand, dogs bark and the caravan moves on. The media will have the Tory leadership campaign to entertain and distract it. Journalists will tire of Farage when they have the candidates making their individual pitches, giving them plenty of material to fill time and space with excited reportage and speculation.

Tactical voting will dominate the early period, but the leading players will also be crafting their own personal manifestos, with their Brexit strategies featuring prominently. But since they are appealing to an electorate which has only a limited grasp of reality, we cannot expect anything sensible to emerge by way of a workable Brexit plan.

Amongst other mad ideas, we can expect to see one or more candidates advocating a return to Brussels to renegotiate the deal, more of the "alternative arrangements" for the Irish border, and endless chirping about the benefits of signing up free trade deals.

Without the rhetoric being rooted in reality, and without it having to be checked with the "colleagues" for acceptability, there is nothing to stop individual candidates spiralling off into their own private fantasies. And there will be little in the way of worthwhile media comment that brings them back to earth.

As a result, until such time as we see a new leader in post, we have to suffer a suspension of grown-up politics, while the children play their facile games. And then, if the Tory conference is to be the anchor, that suspension will last until the early days of October before the winner's proposals can be tested in the crucible of Brussels.

Like as not, we will then be back in the cycle of crisis meetings as the players try to resolve something before the looming deadline shuts down the talks. As before, we will be entirely dependent on the good will (or otherwise) of the European Council, as to whether those talks are allowed to continue.

There is also the talk of a general election to contend with, but I don't see an election being called before the summer break. And since you can't have an election through the summer holiday period, we are looking at an autumn contest, at the very earliest.

Then, it doesn't seem likely (or even practical) that we have a general election campaign running at the same time the current Article 50 period is set to expire, so we are left with two plausible possibilities.

The first is that a new leader negotiates with Brussels for another extension on the basis that a general election will be called, or that leader allows a default, no-deal exit on 31 October, followed by an election – which received wisdom will have it that the Tories will most certainly lose.

At no time during this period, though, do we expect to see any serious discussion about workable Brexit solutions. And nor, with the wide range of scenarios confronting us, is it worthwhile expending the energy on devising schemes to fuel the discussion. More to the point, there is no market for sensible discussion until the election fantasies have worked their way through the system.

What can be worked out on this side of the Channel can also be divined by analysts in Brussels and the other capitals of Europe, and it may well be that Member State leaders take a hand in the process, having a decisive effect which may make the choice of the new Tory leader an irrelevance.

The crucial point here is that the new Commission president will not take up his post until 1 November, giving the European Council more influence over the events in the immediate run-up to 31 October, when the UK is set to drop out of the EU. And it could well be that Member State leaders call the shots, giving a higher than normal probability of them refusing any extension that the UK might request.

Any careful, knowledgeable analysis, therefore, must have regard to this possibility, which should also be feeding back into the Tory leadership campaign. Individual candidates might have their own ideas of how they would like the UK's exit to be handled, but they need also to have realistic plans for handling a precipitate, no-deal exit.

In other words, the test of suitability for the leadership should rest as much on the ideas offered for dealing with what will most certainly be a major crisis, and a severe test of any political leader.

Should we find ourselves outside the EU on 31 October, probably the very last thing we want to be dealing with is a general election. We will need all hands to the pumps, with an active and fully engaged prime minister at the helm, with ministers on top of their briefs and deploying the full resources of their departments. This cannot happen if they are in the midst of an election campaign.

Equally, should we find ourselves with another extension, the "colleagues" are really not going to be that impressed if the extra time is devoted to running a general election. They will be looking to a new leader to come up with proposals for resolving the Brexit impasse.

Taking account of these issues, perhaps the very last thing that should be on the agenda is talk of a general election. A new Tory leader might be expected to do something which seems to have been absent for a long time – exhibit leadership. But then, since none of the facts on the ground will have changed and we're still dealing with a dysfunctional parliament, that might be expecting the impossible.

That much might also be evident to the "colleagues", possibly strengthening their resolve to cut the knot and cast us adrift on 31 October. Even then, the irony of the EU taking back control should not escape us.

Bluntly, the more one looks at this scenario, the more likely it seems. And given the complexities of a no-deal exit, it is not unreasonable to assert that preparations should already be in high gear. To be able to cope with possible outcomes, government needs almost to be on a wartime footing. There should be no question of a summer break, for either the civil service, government or parliament. All the institutions should be working flat out, to reduce the chaos and potential harm.

And this is really why Brexit has become so tedious. It is not just that we are dealing with fantasy politics, but that there are all sorts of serious issues that are not being addressed.

Struggling for ideas of an equivalent situation, one could imagine the level of frustration that might affect someone at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, being asked to report on car parking policies in a provincial town. We are frittering away our energies on trivia, while serious issues are barely given a second thought.

At the moment, the only news we should be considering is that which addresses measures to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified in parliament – thence to bring us a transition period and the opening of trade negotiations – or preparations for a no deal exit.

Instead, we are indulging in a tsunami of trivia at the expense of serious politics, dwelling on the irrelevant with an agenda devoid of serious content.

Richard North 20/05/2019 link

Brexit: big and bold

Sunday 19 May 2019  

Just to keep us on our toes, the prime minister has promised a "new bold offer" in a bid to persuade MPs to back her deal. This, she says, will be an "improved", washes whiter "package of measures", which she believes can win new support in parliament.

Mrs May's initiative is something of a contrast to her lacklustre launch of the Tory Euro-election campaign – a speech without an audience attended by a single pool journalist (pictured).

We will now see some "sweeteners" included in the forthcoming Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), with the aim of securing cross-party support. These, if we are to believe what we are told, will include the bones of the May/Corbyn deal, including new measures on protecting worker rights.

There may also be provisions for a future "customs arrangement" with the EU and on Northern Ireland – whatever that means. Supposedly, this will include the use of technology, although this will fall short of removing the backstop. Nothing immediate is proposed but its inclusion is supposed to give confidence that the "alternative arrangements" will be deployed in due course.

At the moment, the promise is accompanied only by a series of anodyne statements from the prime minister, who says: "I still believe there is a majority in parliament to be won for leaving with a deal". She adds: "When the Withdrawal Agreement Bill comes before MPs, it will represent a new, bold offer to MPs across the House of Commons, with an improved package of measures that I believe can win new support".

Whatever the outcome of any votes, she says, "I will not be simply asking MPs to think again. Instead I will ask them to look at a new and improved deal with fresh pairs of eyes - and to give it their support". We will get more of this from the prime minister in a major speech before the end of the month, presumably as part of the damage limitation after the Euro-election results are in.

Once again, therefore, one has to give Mrs May full marks for persistence. Against all the odds, she is still trying to get this deal sorted, giving he something to barter when she meets Graham Brady to agree a timetable to elect her successor as party leader and prime minister.

As to the actual odds, one gets a sense of the hurdles facing Mrs May from what must qualify as quote of the week. This comes from Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 Committee, who says: "You can watch the movie Titanic a hundred times, but I'm afraid the ship sinks every time". He thinks that an increasing number of Tory MPs – even those who voted for it a second or third time – are saying "enough is enough". And if this was not enough, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, is also doubtful that a fresh attempt would succeed.

Before we get there, of course, there is that minor detail of the Euro-elections. And if developments are not bad enough, we also have to suffer the Tory grandees coming out of the woodwork to lecture anyone within hailing distance.

As always, these are the usual suspects, John Major and Lord Heseltine. They are to demand an end to the "virus of extremism", calling for a "return to the centre ground".

It says something of these people that they actually believe that their intervention will have any effect on the event of the Thursday to come, even with Heseltine "revealing" that for the first time in an election he will not vote Conservative.

Instead, this former Tory minister and arch Europhile is to vote for the Lib-Dems, custodians of the "Bollocks to Brexit" message that has done so much to improve the standard of political discourse.

Not exactly a fan of Brexit, he dismisses his own party as "myopically focused on forcing through the biggest act of economic self-harm ever undertaken by a democratic government". According to Heseltine, the Conservative Party is infected by a virus and risks descending "deeper into darkness".

Major's input is just about as vacuous, stressing that the need for an inclusive Tory party is "greater than ever". He warns that: "the middle ground of politics is empty". His "One Nation Conservatism" gave him a home in politics and "made it possible for me to move from rented rooms in Brixton to a life which, as a boy, I could have only ever imagined".

If that's the best the grandees have to offer, they might just as well have kept their own counsel. The march of the Farage party continues unchecked, maintaining its lead in the polls, with the Tories languishing in fourth place. But the most significant development here is the Lib-Dems creeping up on Labour, having overtaken the Tories.

Some small compensation nevertheless comes with a survey by Gallup International, which finds that 43 percent of UK citizens believe Brexit is "a good thing" for the country, compared to 40 percent who think the opposite.

Looking at the run of polls, this may be an outlier, and it is not having any effect on a 60-strong group of Tories calling themselves the "One Nation Caucus". Led by Amber Rudd and Damian Green, and backed by eight pro-EU Cabinet ministers, they are launching a bid to block leadership candidates backing a no-deal Brexit.

Adopting rhetoric not dissimilar to the Tory grandees, they are urging MPs to reject "narrow nationalism" and the "comfort blanket of populism". Tomorrow, they are preparing to issue a "declaration of values" before going on to hold hustings to interrogate would-be successors to Theresa May.

Seriously on the ball, the document they are producing is designed as a draft manifesto for the next Conservative leader. It will state that the "climate change emergency" should be given a comparable level of attention and urgency as counter-terrorism, to help draw support from younger voters.

Taking on the Oaf and second-runner, Dominic Raab, this group is aiming to "stop any leadership candidate who endorses a 'Nigel Farage no-deal Brexit'". However grandiose their language, there is a possibility there that they will be able to massage the voting to prevent either candidate's name being put in front of the wider membership.

But, while the immediate agenda will be dominated by the forthcoming Euro-elections, we can look forward to a small dose of reality from Chancellor Philip Hammond, who is to address the CBI this week. A preview of his speech tells us that he will warn of the "ideology of easy answers that is spreading" and criticise potential leadership candidates for making promises of spending and tax cuts that they cannot keep.

"Easy answers", of course, are just what the feeble minds are looking for, and nothing Hammond or anyone else says will make a difference, with so much of the nation in thrall of what amounts to a psychic epidemic. That very much takes in the enthusiasm in some quarters for a "no deal" outcome.

For all that though, things aren't so very different from the Euro-elections of 2014. While Farage is currently polling around 34 percent, back then a poll in early May recorded him on 29 percent.

The big difference between then and now is the collapse of the vote for the two main parties. In 2014, Labour recorded 26 percent, as opposed to its current showing of 15 percent, while the Tories got 23 percent against the nine percent they are polling at the moment. By contrast, the Lib-Dems got ten percent while they are currently polling 17 percent.

Then, as probably now, the YouGov poll suggested that while Tory and Labour supporters were backing Farage for the Euros, "they would switch back at the general election next year". Potentially, with three years to go for the next general election, the rhetoric about Farage sweeping all before him is somewhat overheated. A lot can happen in that period.

Yet, no one can possibly predict the degree to which the party system will continue to deteriorate. That is the new factor in the mix, where the public are losing faith in traditional politics to a degree that does not seem to have any obvious historical parallels in the UK.

It'll take something much more than Mrs May's "big and bold" initiative to restore the equilibrium, and it is doubtful whether a new prime minister will make much difference. For the record, in 2014, 34 percent believed Cameron to be best suited to be prime minister, 19 points ahead of Miliband on 15 percent with Farage on five percent and Nick Clegg on three.

But this was a time when Cameron had made his commitment to a referendum on Europe, declaring that the British people deserved "one last go" to get a Europe that suited them. He had dismissed Ukip's "throw in the towel" approach, instead insisting that he would be able to renegotiate a better deal with Brussels before putting it to a public vote before the end of 2017.

From "better deal" to "no deal", how bold can you get?

Richard North 19/05/2019 link

Brexit: an explosive mix

Saturday 18 May 2019  

There was a moment a little while back when hope overruled experience and we thought a May/Corbyn deal just might be possible – if only because the leaders were acting out of a sense of self-preservation. After six weeks, though, they have ground to a halt and Mr Corbyn has pulled the plug, blaming Mrs May for her "intransigence".

In truth, though, it was never going to be and especially now when there's blood in the water from a mortally wounded prime minister, allowing Corbyn to assert of the government that it had become "ever more unstable and its authority eroded".

Even if a deal could have been concluded, it would have needed Mrs May to have stood by it, acting as its guarantor. And she is not long for this political world, leaving "serious questions" about "the government's ability to deliver on any compromise agreement".

Unsurprisingly, that doesn't mean that Mrs May has given up. If nothing else, she gets full marks for perseverance, apparently mulling her indicative vote as a prelude to the fourth and final vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, still scheduled for the first full week in June.

The idea, it seems, is to use a preferential voting system – unprecedented in the Commons – where MPs are asked to rank their preferred (or least detested) options.

In theory, this will yield a clear winner – even at the risk of delivering something no one would have picked as their first choice. But it gives Mrs May the opportunity to pin it to the political declaration, committing to its implementation if the collective agrees to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

Quite what the voting dynamics will be in this case is hard to determine. But one can imagine that there may be a singular lack of enthusiasm for ratifying something that has already been rejected three times, in return for the promise of an outcome that no one actually wants.

However, such is the mood of the House – if not the nation – that there is only one preference that will currently command a majority, not just of the Tories but of all sides. That is the departure of Mrs May. Until she has gone, normal politics is "on hold" – not that the word "normal" could be used to describe the current situation.

For the present, we are in the grip of fantasy politics, where MPs show signs of harbouring the belief that a "new broom" could return to Brussels and reopen the negotiations, or at least widen the scope of the opportunities available. And, in that, much will depend on the character of that "broom".

The worst of it is, though, that from the latest YouGov survey of 858 Conservative Party Members, 64 percent oppose Mrs May's deal and 66 percent believe the government should opt for a no-deal – putting the rank and file clearly at odds with the majority of the parliamentary party.

When it comes to renegotiation, only 13 percent of the rank and file think that the government should try for a renegotiation, while a mere 12 percent want it to persevere with trying to get parliament to ratify the existing deal. A pitiful six percent actually want a deal with Labour.

As to the leadership candidates, the Oaf comes out as the clear favourite, with 39 percent of the vote. A poor second is Dominic Raab with 13 percent. The other potential candidates struggle to make single figures, with even Michael Gove only picking up nine percent.

Unsurprisingly, the Oaf scores well on having a "likeable personality" (even if that applies mostly to those who don't know him), scoring 77 percent – more than twenty points ahead of his nearest rival.

But where one sees a clear departure from the real world is in the rankings for "competence". This is the man who was an unmitigated disaster as foreign secretary and whose dismal tenure of the London mayoralty is still the talk of the town. Yet he scores 61 percent, again putting him in the lead.

This provoked one commentator to remark that Rory Stewart, with years of patient, intelligent and diligent service gets a rating of 27 percent, while Johnson with years of lies, cock-ups of different kinds and being the worst foreign secretary in living memory, gets 61 percent.

Traditionally, the Conservatives have been known as the "stupid party", and in this ranking they are living up to that name. One can marginally understand that feeble minds will be attracted to the Oaf, but to rate him as "competent" requires a special brand of delusion.

Through this also runs a strain of cynical calculation, with the Financial Times reporting that it is increasingly common to find Tory MPs who list the flaws in the former foreign secretary, but then ruefully admit: "I'm going to back him anyway". Specifically, he is seen as the only person who can stop Farage.

While Tory MPs variously see him as frivolous, unreliable and a flop in his two years as foreign secretary, not to mention his role in the Brexit chaos that is gripping the party and country, one former pro-Remain cabinet minister admitted to the FT that while he was close to some of the other candidates in a crowded leadership field, he was backing the Oaf. "It's rather against my own expectations", he admitted. "The fact is, for all his flaws, he has a streak of brilliance".

For all that, the Oaf is probably less popular in the parliamentary party than he is with the rank and file, so his best chance is for a short-sharp campaign, where the list of contenders is whittled down to two, allowing him to go head-to-head in a national vote, which he is likely to win by a considerable margin.

Before he gets there, though, MPs have to trim the list through successive votes, with one candidate being eliminated in each round. Unless some voluntarily pull out, we could be in for long process, dragging on through the summer.

And in this, we are dealing with a highly sophisticated electorate which is quite capable of voting tactically. And while successive opinion polls show he is the most popular Tory politician with the general public (as opposed to Tory voters), he is also the most disliked.

That opens the way for his detractors to front a series of stalking horses to ensure that the Oaf never gets his name put in front of the rank and file. If they have their way, they will never actually get a chance to vote for him. But, if Dominic Raab is seen as a credible alternative, the nation may find itself expelled from the frying pan into the fire.

Should he actually take the crown, it is then likely that whatever support the Oaf has in the party will not be reflected in the nation at large. This opens up concerns with MPs which may affect the voting calculus, with the FT remarking that, if they put Johnson into Number 10 they could end up facing a rendezvous with a very angry electorate much earlier than they would like. "Vote Boris, get an election", says one remainer MP.

The scenario they fear is that the Oaf will go to Brussels to try to renegotiate Britain's exit deal in the autumn only to be rebuffed. He would then urge parliament to allow him to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, only to be rebuffed by MPs.

In that scenario – assuming that we don't drop out of the EU by default - MPs are said to be worried that the Oaf might be forced to hold an early election - or a second referendum - to break the deadlock. In the election stakes, even against Corbyn, this is a contest he might lose, especially with the Farage party running interference, costing the Tories vital marginal seats.

Whether leavers or remainers, therefore, this forthcoming leadership contest injects a further level of uncertainty to a situation which is already profoundly uncertain. And if we find it hard to read, the "colleagues" in Brussels will be doubly handicapped, especially as they seem to rely on the UK legacy media for their information.

Politically, they are facing a very difficult choice, come 31 October. By then, patience will almost certainly have run out, and one can imagine there will be a desire to cast the UK adrift, refusing any Article 50 extension application – if it transpires. On the other hand, there will be some pressure to give the new leader a chance to make a case – even the Oaf, who could jump any which way.

This makes for extraordinarily bad news all round. As the risks of a no-deal exit multiply, the ongoing damage brought about by the uncertainty can only continue to exert its effects. If we then end up adding a general election to the mix, without seeing Brexit resolved, the consequences could be explosive.

Richard North 18/05/2019 link

Brexit: the end of May (not)

Friday 17 May 2019  

After May comes June, but May will still be there. But, if she fails to get her deal through parliament, she'll resign. And if she gets it, she'll also resign, only a little later. Either way, she'll stay in office until a replacement is found, which could have her opening the conference and then standing down as her successor is announced.

Since the money is on parliament rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement, the resignation will probably comes sooner rather than later, even if it makes little practical difference.

Some sources think there could be a short, sharp contest with the new leader in place before the recess. But so many Tory MPs want a shot at her job that the selection process can hardly be quick. Thus, as the hours drain away towards a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, the party is doing exactly what Donald Tusk warned against – wasting time that should be devoted to resolving the Brexit crisis.

I really don't know what future historians will make of this, but there is no reason why they should be charitable about a political party which is ducking the big issues and frittering away time on a leadership contest that will resolve very little indeed.

This also means that the political news during the summer will be largely devoted to the leadership soap opera. Never slow to chase after distractions, rather in the manner of an over-excited dog chasing cars, the media will happily ignore the details of the Brexit debate and devote endless space and time to speculating on who is to wear the crown.

As always, the Oaf – as darling of the media – will get more than his fair share of attention, although not a few pundits are suggesting that the appeal of the former foreign secretary is fading.

On the other side of the divide, we will doubtless have remainer factions pursuing their equally tedious attempts to reverse the Brexit vote, with ever more talk of a referendum or even revocation. This will add to the general air of ennui, while the nation switches off and hopefully is able to enjoy some reasonable weather over the holiday period.

Once the summer is over – if the conference proves to be the cut-off – the new leader will have precisely 29 days to resolve Brexit, if the certain disaster of departing without a deal is to be avoided – or not, as the case may be. But, with nothing to offer but more of the same, we are still looking at departure on 31 October.

Meanwhile, still in May, Channel 4 has done a hatchet job on Farage's new toy, asking about the generosity of Arron Banks who has expended £450,000 in setting up "Ni-gel" in his luxury house in Chelsea, and jetting him off to the United States to meet Mr Trump.

This was during a period when, in addition to his £9,000 a month income from the European Parliament, topped up by an extra £30,000 declared in media appearances – three times more in a month than the empire makes in a year – a sum which had the "man of the people" complaining that he was "53, separated and skint" and that "there's no money in politics". He needs to try blogging.

One thus gets from this some marginal entertainment from seeing the importunate Matt Frei door-stepping the hapless Farage who, with a face like a fried egg, tries to ward off – not altogether successfully – a barrage of hostile questions.

As one might expect, this theme is picked up enthusiastically by the Guardian, with a detailed story which will undoubtedly keep its readers happy but will have no effect whatsoever on Farage's supporters.

Needless to say, this is another distraction, taking us away from exploring Brexit issues, although one has to say that the funding of prominent (and any) politicians is a legitimate matter of public interest. One only wishes that the media would be just as inquisitive about the sources of funding for the "Peoples' vote" campaign.

At least one need not be concerned over the fate of Change UK and, if Farage is getting worked up about the treatment he is being given, he should perhaps devote some time to reading the ubiquitous John Crace and his account of that party's election rally in Bath.

Writes Crace, covering the event "was like intruding on a private grief". A recent opinion poll put Change UK on two percent and, in a pointed barb, Crace observed that it wasn't so clear "whether that figure had been rounded up or down".

Just five minutes before its major EU election rally in the Remain heartlands of Bath was about to start, he told his readers, "there were still plenty of seats available in the cricket pavilion where it was being held. And there were only 32 chairs to start with. A few late stragglers helped fill the room, but the media still well outnumbered supporters".

Remorselessly, Crace continues: "Change UK is dying before it even learned to walk. Its MPs know it. Its candidates know it. The public knows it. Change UK never really wanted to change anything. What it wanted most of all was for things to stay the same. For the UK to remain in the EU and for the extremes of both the Tory and Labour parties to shut up and go away".

With the remain parties most interested in squabbling amongst themselves, he concludes, the Brexit party is getting a free pass, adding: "Farage must be pissing himself".

The said Farage might be even more inclined to micturition at another offering from the paywall-free Guardian, headlined, "Majority of Europeans 'expect end of EU within 20 years".

This is according to a YouGov survey, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), which has 58 percent of people in France believing the EU is very likely or fairly likely to fall apart within 20 years, second only to Slovakia (66 percent).

Of the 14 countries polled by YouGov – constituting more than 70 percent of the seats of the European parliament – it was only in Sweden (44 percent), Denmark (41 percent) and Spain (40 percent) that the proportion predicting implosion dipped below a majority.

One wonders to what extent the "colleagues" share these feelings. There is certainly something rather frenetic about their newly-coined slogan, "Strength in Unity", as if they were trying to convince themselves of something that was by no means a true reflection of the state of the art.

To a certain extent, the UK has done le projet a favour, creating a unifying force. Without Brexit, the stresses within Member States might be much more evident, and we would be seeing much less "unity" and a lot more squabbling. Like Farage and his money, they doth protest too much.

One significant thing to come out of the survey, though, is a widespread feeling that, even though le projet is doomed, 92 percent of voters thought they would lose out if the EU collapsed. They feared losing unity on security and defence and "valued being part of a bloc that could counter the US and China, amid growing economic uncertainty and the parlous nature of the transatlantic relationship".

This is something of an important dimension to Brexit, and one much neglected in the broader sweep of publicity about the EU. The UK is by no means the only country undergoing a crisis of confidence, and there are real world issues outside the realm of European politics which need more attention than they are getting.

The Ebola epidemic in the DRC, for instance, could have a long reach, where we suddenly have to confront primeval forces of nature that have little respect for the posturing of politicians.

And that is the ultimate tragedy of Brexit. Something which should have been settled expeditiously and efficiently is dragging on, to the extent that other pressing issues are on hold. But this cannot last. Sooner, rather than later, the real world will demand attention – and that may well be before May is out.

Richard North 17/05/2019 link

Brexit: when the games stop

Thursday 16 May 2019  

There is no logic in the current developments. Mrs May has already tried three times to get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament and failed. With nothing fundamental having changed, there is every indication that she will fail again.

The Sun is even more certain than mere indication, reporting that the government faces "a catastrophic three-digit defeat". As well as the Tory rebels standing firm, leave-backing Labour MPs are also refusing to bail out the PM, with one telling The Sun that the PM "will be lucky to get 10 of us".

It could be argued that the prime minister can only pursue the line she is taking because she has completely run out of any other options. But with such an obviously flawed strategy, one has to ask what she hopes to gain. And there, there is no plausible explanation.

Certainly, to eke out another few weeks in office before she is finally forced to resign does not seem enough. But anything else is speculation and the more one digs, the wilder it gets. What is probably undisputable is that another major defeat will mean the end of the May premiership. It is hard to believe she could weather the almost total loss of authority that a major defeat would entail.

Nevertheless, trying to work out what is going on amounts to an exercise in advanced futility. But there is a view that we are dealing with an advanced degree of incompetence which goes under the description of "deranged complacency".

This, though, is focused on the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party, where the party hierarchy is discounting the threat from Farage's party. They believe that the voters will have their "fling" on the meaningless Euro-elections but will obediently come trotting back into the fold for the general election, when it really matters.

Such a scenario may or may not be true, but it's an argument born from experience. People are generally willing to take a punt on the Euros, but when it comes to choosing a government, wiser heads prevail. There is no way that Farage and his misbegotten group of allies could constitute a credible government and it is unlikely that they could prosper in a real contest.

Looking at the way the polls are panning out, it does rather seem to be the case that Farage is hurting the Tories more than Labour. With 20 percent of the vote spread evenly across the country, he will do little more than rob the Tories of marginal seats and hand them to either Labour or the Lib-Dems.

One serious possibility, therefore, is that Farage's intervention could hand victory to Corbyn, doing more damage than the polls would indicate. This would be a variation of the Ukip effect, where the votes lost to the interloper favour the second runner to the marginal Tories, who would otherwise have kept their seats.

But, assuming we are not going to see an early general election, this tells us nothing of what might happen to Brexit if Mrs May fails once more to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified. We are still left with the three broad options: a no-deal Brexit, revocation of the Article 50 notification, or the launch of another referendum – although the timescale is probably too short for this option.

If we assume the failure of what is being cast as May's final card, the last-chance for MPs to vote for an orderly Brexit, then the pundits' favoured outcome seems to be a vacancy in Number 10 and a rapid leadership contest. That could even be concluded before the recess, giving a new prime minister the summer break to devise a new strategy.

That might mean the victor addressing conference to reveal all to the faithful and the nation, presumably having made soundings in Brussels to assess whether there is any slack that can be exploited.

The vibes we're getting at the moment is that the "colleagues" are not disposed to extend the Article 50 period beyond the end of October, and neither will they entertain reopening the negotiations. Whether they will be prepared to reconsider their stance with a new prime minister in post is an unknown. The response may even depend on who the Tories choose for their new leader.

Maybe it is an unlikely possibility, but the Tories could choose someone deemed to be a moderate in the eyes of Brussels. They could successfully negotiate more time for a referendum on the deal, with a pledge to be bound by the outcome.

However, there is still the possibility that Mrs May refuses the invitation to fall on her sword. With no obvious replacement waiting in the wings, and with the 1922 Committee having baulked at the prospect of changing the rules, there is no mechanism short of a vote of confidence in parliament that could depose her. Defying all odds, it could still be her presenting the case at the Tory conference.

Such an outcome seems far more likely than Corbyn pushing a vote of confidence and precipitating an election. It is not even apparent that he has anything to gain from an early election. In any event, there can't be a referendum over the summer, which means that nothing could happen until September. And the very last thing we need is an even bigger political vacuum than we already have.

Once again, therefore, we're facing unresolvable imponderables. Short of being a fly on the wall in Number 10, anyone's guess is as good as the next man's. The legacy media is all at sea, awash with speculation but with nothing of substance to offer.

If there is one certainty to come out of all this, it is that the result of the Euro-elections will be an irrelevance. The parliamentary vote will come just over a week afterwards but, unless it is posited that MPs will be bounced into voting for Mrs May's deal because of the Farage vote, the outcome will the same as it was always going to be.

Effectively, there will be no bankable leverage from the Euro-vote. In any case, if things run to form, it will only take weeks for Farage's group of newly-elected MEPs to disintegrate in recriminations and squabbles, rapidly dissipating any influence they might have had.

The main game, as always, will be played out in Brussels. In the event of the MPs failing to ratify the deal, it is up to the European Council to decide whether it wants to entertain a request from the UK government for another extension – if such a request is made. Until then, we must assume that every day that passes simply brings us closer to the 31 October and a no-deal exit.

A no-deal outcome is, of course, the preferred outcome for Farage, so some might regard this as a win-win for him - except that this was always on the cards. But what has barely, if at all been discussed, is what might happen if Farage gets his way and we do drop out of the EU at the end of October without a deal.

Given that we might still be looking at a general election in May 2022, that would mean that the country will go to the polls with nearly 30 months' experience of a no-deal relationship with the EU. If the adverse effects are anything like the predictions, there will be a very different mood in the land.

Potentially, what we might see is the country turning against those who have brought about the situation in which we then find ourselves. Far from being seen as the saviour, Farage might well be marked down as the author of our considerable misfortunes. By then, the effects of a no-deal will no longer be theoretical. They will be plain for all to see.

Farage's best, and possibly only chance of long-term fame and glory might be to fight a battle before the reality of what he advocates comes to pass. But he is not master of events and the opportunity he needs may not come to him in time.

On the other hand, both the main parties might be tainted by a no-deal outcome, affecting their electoral prospects. But it is a bit of a stretch positioning Farage as the man who will rescue us from the consequences of a no-deal when that is what he wanted in the first place. Crazier things have happened, but I don't think we're that crazy – yet.

If we are then faced with a situation where there is general disaffection with politics, that also takes in Labour, we must expect the Farage party also to be caught in the flak in any general election, as opposed to the Euros. Against all expectations, we could end up with a massive Lib-Dem resurgence, where they hold the balance of power.

It is a mistake, therefore, to focus too much – or at all – on the imponderables of a general election that may be some years away. The here and now is the battle for Brexit, and if the choice becomes one of no-deal or no Brexit, the dynamics may yet again change, adding strength to the "stop Brexit" campaign.

For the next week, though, it seems nothing is going to arrest the unstoppable march of the Farage party. But when the games are over and we lift the curtain again, the reality will be just the same. We'll be no further forward.

Richard North 16/05/2019 link

Brexit: national government?

Wednesday 15 May 2019  

Here we go again. Mrs May's spokesman has announced that a Bill implementing the Brexit deal will be introduced in the first week of June, a vote for which will have the effect of the Commons assenting to the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.

This is despite the lack of a deal with Mr Corbyn, although talks are continuing into today. Yet, with very little expectations of success, this puts Mrs May's stratagem into the high risk category, so high that failure seems almost certain.

Coincidentally, Donald Trump will be in the country on a three-day state visit, attending – amongst other things – the D-Day 75th Anniversary commemorations in Portsmouth. Whether that will have any impact on parliament, in a positive sense, is unlikely but it will keep the media distracted for a while.

But what will also still be in everybody's minds will be the results of the Euro-elections and the thinking is that Mrs May will be relying on the expected Faragical surge to bring the MPs into line, assuming that they will be terrified by the result.

Voting for the deal, so the theory goes, will be the garlic which wards off the evil and keeps Farage from repeating his magic at the general election.

Either way, Downing Street is stressing that it is "imperative" to have the vote in early June if the UK is to leave the EU before MPs' summer recess – usually in the second half of July. It thus looks as if Mrs May is trying to get as close as possible to her original 30 June deadline.

That is probably the only opportunity left to put Brexit to bed before the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, scheduled from 29 September to 2 October. This will either make it a victory parade for the dancing queen, or a doom-laden admission of failure pointing us in the direction of a no deal exit at the end of October.

The timing of the vote is also seen as a last-ditch attempt by Mrs May to deflect the pressure on her to resign, buying her enough time to get to the recess, whence things go quiet for a bit while everyone is on their holidays. Whether she then resigns or toughs it out until the conference is anyone's guess.

Judging her intentions isn't made any easier when the electorate also seems equivocal, taking the view that getting rid of Mrs May would make very little difference. A ComRes poll for the Telegraph has only 15 percent of voters more likely to vote Conservative in the Euro-elections if the prime minister was replaced. On the other hand, 60 percent say that her departure would not affect the way they vote.

Crucially, 40 percent thought there was no suitable replacement for Mrs May, as against a mere 31 percent who thought there was a suitable candidate in waiting. None of the names offered attracted majority support of all voters.

Only 22 percent of all voters think the Oaf would make a good leader of the Tories, as opposed to 57 percent who think otherwise – nearly three to one against him. Only 35 percent of Tory voters support his leadership bid, which rises to 40 percent of "leave" voters but, even with him at the helm, the Tories lose to Labour at the next general election.

Interestingly, when it comes to a May/Corbyn deal, 49 percent support the idea while only 26 percent oppose it. This is about the only issue which attracts a clear majority – possibly pointing the way forward for the two party leaders.

What we don't get to know are the voting intentions of the public if Mrs May either delivers Brexit with parliament approving the Withdrawal Agreement, and how that might change if we drop out without a deal.

However, given the spread of voting for the general election, some pundits are pointing to a high probability of a hung parliament, suggesting that either the Tories or Labour might have to form a coalition with Farage's party in order to gain a working majority.

But if one homes in on the one area where there is a clear electoral message, the support for the Tories and Labour working together indicates that a workable solution might be a national government, replicating the conditions of 1931, 1935 or 1937, or Winston Churchill's 1940 wartime coalition.

That would certainly fuel Farage's "betrayal" rhetoric, but one could believe that an embattled political establishment might find this to be a more convenient way of excluding the interloper. And taking this to the extreme, one could even speculate that the two main parties might join together in order to revoke the Article 50 notification.

At a time when the country was under such serious stress, the idea of government unity seemed by far the best solution at the time. In the desperate time to come, this may again seem a reasonable solution for the political classes, who have more in common with each other than their electorates.

Under such a scenario, one might see the two parties coming together in a formal pact during the life of this parliament, with them then standing on a joint, national platform for a general election, as they did in 1935, thereby giving a resultant government the appearance of a mandate on which to proceed with EU reintegration.

That would certainly give Farage something to moan about, and enhance his betrayal narrative. But even he might be pushed to get a majority under such conditions.

Richard North 15/05/2019 link

Brexit: the end of rationality

Tuesday 14 May 2019  

Talks between the Tories and Labour are on the brink of collapse, or maybe not. If we're to believe what we're told, there is no agreement within the Cabinet on what to do next, and there is no "plan B" on the horizon other than to turn to parliament again for another drubbing.

Even if Mrs May did manage to agree a deal with Labour, the chances are that her own party would reject it, possibly precipitating the terminal split that has been long expected and is overdue in coming.

Given the political vacuum, it is entirely understandable that some people might turn to a passing demagogue for deliverance, even if history provides endless examples of how this provides no solution at all. But then, people aren't exactly "turning" to Farage. They are having a risk-free punt on him, in a meaningless election. Giving the Tories a "kicking" is flavour of the month, and there is no better way than to vote for the spiv.

After that, it remains speculation as to whether Mrs May will resign in the near future. She has yet to set a date. And for all the frenzy, the general election isn't until 2022. Even though the media's favourite hobby is predicting whether the date might be brought forward, there is no firm indication that we are going to see an early contest.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Swindon Honda plant has been confirmed. According to one source, workers were shunted into a room and shown a DVD confirming the plant closure. They were then told if they had any questions to go to their union rep or HR.

Says Unite regional secretary, Steve Preddy, "Workers have been left stunned by the utter callousness of the company, which has chosen to deliver this devastating news to their loyal workforce first by media leaks and then by DVD". This, of course, is nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit but "is part of Honda's broader global strategy in response to changes to the automotive industry".

With Jaguar Land Rover having a hard time, and Ford preparing to cut hundreds of jobs at its Dunton technical centre, it is perhaps just as well that motor manufacturing seems progressively to be shutting down in the UK. It will save it having to adapt to Brexit changes, when and if they come.

In fact, this opens the way for a new game in town. We can junk years of work and hundreds of thousands of words of analysis on the effects of Brexit, and simply walk away with a seraphic smile because a spiv-in-a-suit is standing up in front of his adoring fans and telling us that no-deal is the way to go.

This is "new politics" with no difference. Such politicians don't need policies. They don't need to get their facts right. In actuality, they don't need facts at all. They can just rattle off a few phrases, like "WTO deal" and they will be guaranteed an uncritical reception from their faithful.

However, if there is a message in this for the "political classes", it perhaps is not one that was originally intended – if indeed there is anything there as coherent as an intention. It says to the politicians that they are wasting their time working up serious policies. They just need to dip into the rubbish bag – any old toss will do as long as it is a crowd-pleaser.

In a very real sense, though, those politicians have brought it on themselves. In their own ways, they've been feeding us any old toss for years. "Brexit means Brexit", our prime minister told us. "No deal is better than a bad deal", she also declared. And everything was going to be "strong and stable".

What Farage has done is pick up this disdain for the truth, amplify it and reflect it back to his own audience, for his own purposes. If the "establishment" politicians are at ease with patronising their audiences, feeding them with undiluted tosh, he can do the same – only better.

Divorced from even the slightest hint of responsibility for what he says or does, Farage is freed from any of the normal restraints that might serve to keep him on the straight and narrow. He can lie fluidly, changing the story to suit the mood and whatever is needed to keep the mob happy.

Interestingly, even critics in the media can be ignored. John Crace can chunter on for all he is worth, but he works for the Guardian, which can be dismissed with a quick sneer.

As for the BBC, this is the "enemy" – a role which it seems to have developed for itself with consummate ease. Anything said there, which does not meet with approval, can be dismissed as "bias". Awkward questions can be turned aside, easily deflected by screams of outrage which will bring admiring plaudits from his fans.

There is no sense, anywhere, that the media is part of the democratic process and that its task might be to call politicians to account. Maybe because it has been performing so badly for so many years that this has given the likes of Farage his opening. The establishment titles have lost support and respect. People are only too willing to see the worst in them.

On the other hand, Farage has his claque, in the Telegraph, in Breitbart and Spiked online, the latter ludicrously dismissed as "right wing", despite its Communist antecedents. For all its detestation of Farage, the left-wing press have never really understood him, or his appeal.

Crace, though, does understand the dynamic. Of Farage's venture up to darkest Yorkshire (and it doesn't get much darker than Pontefract), Crace writes:
Farage acknowledged the applause, his plastic perma-smile stretching into a fixed grin. These weren't really his people, but he needed to make them believe they were. He needn't have worried. The crowd of overwhelmingly white over-50s men and women weren't there to make any demands on him. They just wanted him to sprinkle a bit of stardust their way. Nigel relaxed a little. Though not too much. This was the new, reinvented Farage, not the slightly pissed joker of years gone by. Stay on message. Give them what they want. Then give them more of what they want.
And that's what its all about. Twenty years as a professional politician, and his apprenticeship canvassing for his first Euro-elections in 1999, has taught Farage how to work a crowd, a skill which he has honed and refined almost to perfection. And he knows more than most that rhetoric, not detail, keeps the mob happy.

But the better he gets the worse it gets. If his audience can be palmed off with the low-grade crowd pleasers that has become Farage's stock-in-trade, there is no mileage in expending the effort on research and analysis, to give people a realistic account of the issues they face.

As I have noted before on this blog, when we were working up the arguments for Flexcit, I barely expended any energy on dismissing the WTO option. It was so self-evident that it was not a viable option that I included it for the record, without troubling readers with too much detail.

If, on the basis of next to no research, and even less understanding, Farage can then tour this land promoting this self-same WTO option, to rapturous applause, then we have gone beyond the bounds of rationality. Mere reason is a waste of time when the mob is so easily pleased. Crace picks up on this, describing it as "an all too possible version of the future":
One where nuance and complexity have given way to soundbites and populism. Where lip service is paid to healing divisions, providing it's everyone else who is making the compromises. It was one of the most genuinely disturbing political events I've ever attended. And Westminster ought to be shit-scared.
But we have been there before. The picture shows the Britain First "peace rally" of July 1939, where Oswald Mosley kept a crowd variously estimated between 30-60,000 in rapture for over an hour. And from that speech comes this nugget:
Well, fellow Britons, if a Movement which has been born and has run for less than seven years, a Movement started with thirty two men, without newspapers, without Press, without money, and without resources, with nothing in the world except the English spirit alive and flaming in their souls, if in less than seven years we have driven the Parties together in this corrupt conspiracy to prevent us speaking to the British people, how much longer before we win and they perish?
In eighty years, the rhetoric has hardly changed, and neither is it any harder for the demagogue to fill a hall with his adoring faithful. "Let us make no mistake", Mosley said those eighty years ago:
This Movement is a revolutionary Movement, a Movement which seeks no compromise, a Movement that will stand for no unity with the Parties of betrayal. We stand for union of the British people - yes, we do - the union of the British people in a new system of their own creation, but a system purged and cleansed of this corruption. Our Movement, therefore, is a Movement of revolution, a Movement which will be given its power by the declared will of the British people, not merely with their consent, but with a passion of enthusiasm behind it that the old Parties of Democracy have never known. We are a Movement of revolution in fundamental challenge to everything for which the old Parties stand.
A year later, Mosley was in prison. And if history repeats itself, now might be a good time for it to do so.

Richard North 14/05/2019 link

Brexit: that interview

Monday 13 May 2019  

There was much ado yesterday about Mr Farage losing patience with Andrew Marr during his interview, but the histrionics have rather obscured the major thrust of the interview, and the incoherence of Farage's position.

In opening the dialogue, we saw Mr Farage claim that he had coined the phrase "no deal is better than a bad deal", and was using it every day for the last two weeks of the referendum campaign. But although he claimed that, Marr professed to some difficulty in finding any examples of him saying it. Farage's response was, "you'd better look closer" – not a very helpful comment. But I can't find any reference of Farage saying it either and I don't recall his saying it at the time.

In fact, the evidence points fairly conclusively to Mrs May being the first user of the phrase, and that was in January 2017 during her Lancaster House speech. Farage's prior claim is just another indication of the fantasy world he inhabits.

Nevertheless, he went on to tell Marr that the reason he did not advocate a no-deal during the referendum campaign was that it was "obvious" we could do a free trade deal. Monsieur Barnier and the others were talking about this, he said. "The problem is the Prime Minister never asked for it, so we finished up in the mess that we're in…".

And there, in a few short words, Farage illustrates his lack of grasp of the subject. He complains that Mrs May didn't ask for that deal. Instead, she chose to go for a "close and special partnership". Basically, says Farage, "right from the start, she was happy for us to be kept very close to the customs union, so where we are now, the only way the democratic will of the people can be delivered is to leave on a WTO deal".

But, as an indication of what Farage was actually saying after the referendum, Marr quoted comments he made in November 2015 on his show: "Iceland and Switzerland can get deals that suit them, we can do something far, far better than that. Norway chooses its own deal. We will choose our own deal".

Not quoted by Marr, though, Farage went on to say: "I want us to have a simple free trade agreement with the European Union not to be a member of a political club, not to be subject to the decision of its courts".

A few months later in the following year, on 21 February 2016, Farage was back on the Marr show, declaring that there was "one absolutely certainty if we vote to leave the European Union". That was that "we will be in charge of our own country. We will make our own laws. We will run our own ministerial departments". On trade, Iceland had negotiated their own free trade deals and, if Iceland could do it, he was "absolutely certain" that the world's 5th biggest economy could do it.

A few days later, Farage was interviewed by Channel 4 alongside Anna Soubry, following David Cameron's famous "renegotiation". And, as explained by the Guardian at the time, Farage said he would not want to be a member of the Single Market because he believed the UK should be a fully independent country.

There was no equivocation about this. Soubry, under the watchful eye of Jon Snow, put the direct question to Farage: "Do you want us to be a member of the Single Market?" He replied, "no". Rejecting the idea of joining Norway or Iceland, he agreed with Soubry that he wanted the UK to be "alone". What he wanted was "independence", the country to be "self-governing" and "making our own laws". If we leave, said Farage, "we'll be self-governing and responsible for our own future".

In March 2016, Farage's political group in Brussels, the EFDD, published a pamphlet bearing his name as its author, urging people to vote in the referendum. Paid for by the EU, it stopped short of spelling out his own Brexit plans, but it was pretty clear that he was not a fan of the Single Market.

On 12 June 2016, Farage was back on the Marr show talking of tariff-free areas, assuring his host that the German car industry needed our market very badly. Marr's suggestion that it was "unlikely" that the EU would do a "good deal" brought a response from Farage in these terms: "the benefit that we joined the EU for", he said - namely tariff-free access – "is now outweighed by our net membership fee alone". So "the worst case scenario economically is better than where we are today". That is about as close as he ever gets to the "no deal" schtick. 

Later that month, Farage was telling the European Parliament that Britain would be the European Union's "best friend" after it had struck a deal to allow for tariff-free trade. "Let's cut between us a sensible tariff-free deal and thereafter recognise that the United Kingdom will be your friend (...) We will be your best friends in the world", Farage said, adding: "If you were to cut off your noses to spite your faces and to reject any idea of a sensible trade deal the consequences would be far worse for you than it would be for us".

But, earlier that same month on Twitter - just before the referendum – Farage had been asserting: "I want what's best for Britain: controlling our own borders, making our own laws, running our own country".

When, on 28 June, Farage told Bloomberg that we should aim for a simple free trade agreement between the EU and the UK, it becomes pretty clear what Farage's stance was. Summed up, he wanted the UK to be self-governing, making its own laws, and working with the EU on the basis of a free trade agreement which gives us tariff-free trade.

Thus we got to the point yesterday where Marr directly challenged Farage. During the referendum "you were advocating one thing and now you're advocating something different. You're advocating a no deal Brexit", he said. And that is a fair point. Throughout the campaign and beyond, the one consistent thing we get from Farage is that he want a free trade agreement with the EU – something he is supremely confident we would get.

But now, his response to that is: "the only way we can deliver the democratic will of the people is to leave on WTO terms". He adds: "I'll tell you something. Once we do that the European Union will be banging our door down to have a sensible, tariff-free deal".

To this, Marr asks him to accept that "from the point of view of the referendum in 2016 there is no mandate for a no deal Brexit?" And this is Farage's response:
I'm sorry, I couldn’t disagree more. We voted to leave. We didn't vote for a deal. We voted to leave once with a referendum. The year after that both the Labour and Conservative parties promised us in their manifestos they would honour the result of the referendum and here we are, nearly three years on from that referendum, Brexit's not been delivered, and frankly, given this government and given this parliament there is no prospect of these parties delivering a clean break Brexit.
Marr persists with his line, reminding Farage that: "We've just heard you and everybody else in the leave campaign saying there was going to be a deal. We are now in a very, very different situation".

And, to that, Farage declares that: "We didn't ask for a free trade deal. That is a fault of a prime minister who has wilfully deceived the nation from the very beginning". And from there, he attempts to change the subject, to the issue of democracy.

There is here, quite obvious confusion. The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Mrs May is, by its nature, the "divorce" settlement. Not until we have left the EU can the UK then negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, which is what the political declaration is all about.

Farage was pressed on the point that "actually disentangling ourselves from the EU without there being an economic hitch after 45 years is very, very complicated, very, very difficult". Says Marr: "It requires nuance and patience and that is what the government has been trying to do. And in a sense you’re sitting at the back of the classroom throwing bottles". Yet all we get from Farage is:
I'm sorry, I'm sorry the government has not been doing that. The government is trying to sign us up to a new European treaty which keeps us tied in terms of our military, our security, keeps us effectively inside a customs union. We have been betrayed, not just by the Conservatives, Labour have done the same thing too and ultimately – and this is what people are talking about outside central London, do we live in a democratic country or don't we? That's the debate, Andrew, that is going on in the country.
Dwelling further on the Norway option, Farage then concedes that this country was doing better than we are, but that we can do much better than that. "We could have gone for a free trade deal", he says, but "we didn't". He adds: "We're now three years on, we have to deliver the democratic will of the people of this country and the only way we can do that is by leaving on WTO terms".

So there we are. The logjam in parliament means nothing to Farage. The need to settle the Withdrawal Agreement in order to commence negotiations on a trade deal passes him by. The fact that through the referendum campaign and beyond, he consistently told the nation we could negotiate a free trade deal no longer applies. We have been "betrayed" and the only way out is to leave on WTO terms. The Dolchstoßlegende reigns supreme.

And that, on 23 May, is what Farage wants people to vote for.

Richard North 13/05/2019 link

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