Brexit: just add water

Thursday 14 November 2019  

According to the Telegraph, the Tories did after all offer Farage an electoral pact, in exchange for him targeting just 40 key seats.

The deal was that the Tories would put up "paper candidates" in the Labour-held constituencies, carrying out only minimal campaigning in order to give Farage's party a relatively free hand. This, however, was not good enough for Farage. He wanted the Tories to drop their candidates altogether, otherwise they might still attract votes.

As a result, says The Telegraph, talks broke down late on Tuesday but, as the deadline for nominations approaches at 4pm today, Farage is still under intense pressure to stand down more of his own candidates.

Clearly, the pressure is all on Farage as another poll, this one from ComRes, shows the Brexit Party losing vote share, currently at seven percent having dropped two points since 11-12 November. Moreover, analysis of these results has the Telegraph reporting that this puts the Tories on course for a 110-seat majority.

Apparently, working-class voters are flocking to the Conservatives, redrawing the electoral map, based on divisions between leave and remain. Thus, the expectation is that the Conservatives will win 380 seats, Labour 194, Lib Dems 19, Scottish National Party 36, Brexit Party 0, Plaid Cymru 2 and Green Party 1.

With this trend undoubtedly known to Tory strategists, it is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson is in no mood to make concessions to Farage. With the scent of victory in his nostrils, even at this early stage in the campaign, the Brexit Party is looking increasingly irrelevant.

All Johnson has to do – as he did in his speech in Coventry yesterday – is repeat in his bumbling best, that only the Tories will deliver Brexit. As a rather unfortunate aside, to a largely indifferent group of factory workers, he described his efforts as a "Pot Noodle deal" – all you had to do was "add water".

The Guardian's John Crace was quick to pick up the insensitivity of that remark, but I too heard it broadcast on BBC TV's six o'clock news and observed that it would go down really well in Yorkshire, where the prime minister in office had just been, hearing complaints of his tardy response.

One would expect a Guardian writer to be critical of Johnson, and I can hardly claim any lack of bias here, but I think that any objective observer of Johnson's public speaking performances would admit that his speeches are largely an incoherent shambles and his delivery is dire. He may have some kind of magnetic charm on a one-to-one basis, but as a public performer he simply doesn't cut it.

The great fortune of the man is that he is up against Jeremy Corbyn, a politician with slightly less charisma than a plank of wood, and a delivery style that is not altogether dissimilar.

Yesterday, Corbyn was trying to pretend that Brexit didn't exist, focusing entirely on the NHS, offering a message that amounted to: whatever the Tories promise to spend, I will spend more.

Most of us, I rather feel, are already tired of these bidding wars. Apart from their unreal nature, people within the NHS are saying that the immediate problems are not money, per se, but a growing staffing crisis, with thousands of posts left unfilled. And that, whether Corbyn likes it or not, can to some extent be attributed to Brexit. Yet, the opposition leader seems set to exacerbate these problems with his promise of a four-day working week.

That said, as a frequent user of the NHS, while one would readily concede that the organisation has its problems, the bits with which I am in contact seem to be working remarkably well, and can be commended for their speed and efficiency, with minimal waiting time.

What I particularly dislike is Labour's rhetoric about privatising the NHS. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I had a life-saving heart operation – carried out in a private hospital under contract to the local health trust.

The operation didn't cost me a penny, which seems to me to conform entirely with the NHS ethos of "free at the point of delivery", and I cannot understand why there should be any objection to contracting out services to private suppliers.

Currently, I'm going though a series of diagnostic tests and these too have been contracted out to the private sector, once again with minimal waiting time and maximum efficiency – and the parking is free. I would sooner Corbyn stopped wasting his time on this wild goose chase and expended his energies on Brexit. 

Here, it is not as if he is without material to work on. We have, for instance, ex-minister David Gauke warning that a Tory majority will lead to a "disastrous" no-deal Brexit.

The former justice secretary has picked up on Johnson's intention to complete the next round of EU negotiations by the end of 2020, without calling for an extension of the transition period. He thus believes – not without good cause – that: "The Conservative Party is wanting to take the country in a dangerous direction". Far from getting Brexit done, he says, "we are going to enter into a negotiating period that isn't going to deliver a free trade agreement in time".

While Gauke wants us to "lend" our votes to the Lib-Dems, Michael Gove has rushed to defend Johnson's position, asserting that it is "feasible" a deal will be done by December 2020.

"No country is closer to the EU at the moment in terms of its economic relationship than the United Kingdom", he says, "and Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister has said he believes it is entirely feasible that we can conclude all the negotiations that we need to conclude in 2020".

Never mind that both Barnier and Juncker have said that a comprehensive, Canada-style deal cannot be done in the time. A little bit of cherry-picking is the perfect antidote to any Tory problem.

Here again, though, we have had an argument we have heard before. Because we already have a high degree of integration, it goes, it should be easy to craft an agreement where most of the principles have already been established.

Needless to say, this completely misses the point. As it stands, we have a high degree of economic integration, the reward for which is that UK goods and services have a degree of access to EU markets which are not afforded to third countries.

The task which will be facing UK negotiators then becomes one of unprecedented complexity. For the first time in history, we have a nation trying to unravel one of the most sophisticated internal markets yet devised, while trying to maintain as high a level of access as possible.

At the same time, the negotiators will be trying to minimise the need to conform with the wide range of flanking policies which invariably accompany the EU's comprehensive trade deals.

By any measure, this is going to involve slow, delicate negotiations. The idea that the process can be completed in eleven months is absurd, yet here we have senior Tory politicians effectively arguing that black is white.

If it wasn't for the fact that Corbyn's own policy on Brexit was so incoherent, he could have a field day, deconstructing Johnson's mess. But so compromised is the Labour leader that his best strategy is to stay clear of Brexit and – as we saw yesterday – to focus on other issues.

The only thing is, every time politicians raise subjects in this election which aren't about Brexit, one is tempted to ask what they are hiding about their Brexit policy – what is it that they don't want us to focus on? If this is supposed to be the Brexit election, then the very least our politicians can do is keep to the point and talk about Brexit.

Richard North 14/11/2019 link

Brexit: a moment of truth

Wednesday 13 November 2019  

While Johnson defends himself against criticism for his slow reaction to the floods, while his opponents seek to make capital out of his discomfort, Farage is probably wondering what hit him.

After unceremoniously dumping 317 of his candidates, he is now facing something of a backlash as yet another group have learnt a lesson that others before them have learnt: they are expendable when they conflict with The Great Leader's ambitions.

The Guardian cites Darren Selkus, now former candidate for Epping Forest. He says Farage had "betrayed my incredible volunteers and thousands of constituents who will have no one to vote for". In a statement on his local party website, Selkus said that as soon as Farage made the announcement at a rally on Monday in Hartlepool, he and other ex-candidates were immediately locked out of their Brexit party emails and supporter databases.

More reaction comes from Robert Wheal, who had been due to stand in Arundel and South Downs. He believes Farage's argument about protecting Brexit was "absolute codswallop", complaining that, "Brexit party supporters have worked their socks off for that party and he's dropped them like a stone at 12 o'clock yesterday".

Claire Mowbray, who was to have taken on Theresa May in Maidenhead, tweeted: "I can't tell you how disappointed I am", adding: "I will be closing this Twitter account".

While bruised egos come to terms with their own redundancy, there are more immediate concerns. For instance, it appears that Arron Banks is still not the bestest of friends with his protégé Nige.

At least Banks is on the ball, after urging Farage to stand his troops down in Labour marginal seats. "Brexit is under threat", he says. "We need to see further moves to stand down candidates in marginal seats they can't win and go for the 40 or so Labour seats where the Tories (Conservatives) haven't got a hope".

Banks is asserting: "There are 48 hours to save Brexit and save the country from a Corbyn government", adding that, "Nigel has remade the Conservative party in his own image, the Conservative Party is the Brexit Party". Thus, he says, "The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority".

Banks is not alone in asking Farage to call off the hounds. George Farmer, who gave £100,000 to the Brexit Party in May and June, also wants half of the 300 Brexit Party candidates to stand down.

Even The Sun is taking a hand. In a "Sun says", comment piece, it declares: "Nigel Farage must swallow his pride and stand down more Brexit Party candidates - only Boris Johnson can achieve Brexit".

"Farage", it says, "is taking a monumental gamble with Brexit and his place in history. He should rethink and stand down dozens of candidates today. To his credit he did Boris Johnson a big favour pulling out of Tory seats", but it adds, "it is a giant risk to assume that in Labour marginals his Brexit Party will lure Labour voters but not Tories".

The paper agrees with Arron Banks in having the Brexit Party focus on a handful of Labour Leave constituencies. The Tories, it says, could take a back seat there, while becoming the sole Leave option in scores of winnable Labour marginals. If Boris cannot take those, the Lib-Dems and SNP will gift Corbyn power. "Painful as it is", it concludes that Farage "must swallow his pride. It's not a 'sellout' to the Tories. They simply should not be rivals".

However, if Farage does as he is asked, laying off another 150 or so candidates, it would reduce the Brexit Party to a tiny rump, with little political heft. Targeting a mere 40 seats would be even worse. Either would deprive Farage of his publicity platform, relegating his status to that of a bit player.

Predictably, therefore, The Great Leader is refusing to move, reacting defiantly, saying: "I put country before party yesterday and now will take the fight to Labour. Three hundred nominations have been signed off - time to get on the road!"

His party chairman Richard Tice is equally defiant, declaring that "Arron is talking nonsense. We are not here to help the Conservative Party".

This does rather leave the election more open than Farage might have intended. His idea of leaving Conservative-held seats uncontested was supposed to take the heat off Johnson but fighting the marginals could still cost the Tories a significant number of seats.

That, of course, pre-supposes Farage is still able command a respectable proportion of the vote. But the events of the last few days may have damaged the credibility of a man who for the past few months has been riding high. And so much of a one-man party is his creation that, if Farage goes down, his party could go down with it.

Here, the next few days might be critical. Even before Farage pulled more than half his troops out of the battle, his poll ratings were plummeting (some say that is why he acted in the way he did) and if they continue downwards then it could be game over for "our Nige" – the end of a long career.

Doubtless, there will be plenty of pundits prepared to write Farage's political obituary, and the Mirror seems already to have made a start. Under the headline, "Brexit Party implodes after Nigel Farage's general election 'dodgy deal' with Tories", it tells us that the party had been set to hold a rally in Westminster today, but this was quietly cancelled as members vent their fury at Nigel Farage over his "dodgy deal" with the Tories.

That is possibly more telling than other recent events. The party had been assiduously promoting its rally, which was due to be held at Church House in Westminster. But a spokesman has confirmed it is "not happening". He said the party had "already said what we needed to say".

This is a far cry from the heady days of Farage's launch. Now, his best chance of achieving any significant effect would be if Johnson would agree to stand his candidates down in the 40 or so seats where Banks believes the Tories "don't stand a chance".

But, so far, there is no sign of any pact in the offing. There may be local deals, with individual candidates standing down, but there is unlikely to be anything official. If it is to happen, though, tomorrow is the day, when candidate nominations have to be in.

What may doom Farage though is the latest YouGov poll. Commissioned by The Times, it has the Tory lead widening to 14 points after Farage had withdrawn his candidates.

The Tories are on 42 percent, Labour is on 28 percent and the Lib-Dems are on 15. Crucially, though, on standard measurement, Farage's party takes nine percent of the vote. But, when the removal of 317 candidates is factored in, his percentage vote drops to a mere four percent. Not only does that make Farage electorally insignificant, it also suggests that, if he drops more candidates, his vote share will simply fade away.

To that extent, Farage is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. As he approaches his moment of truth, he is damned if he gives up more candidates, and damned if he doesn't. Those political obituary writers had better get sharpening their pencils.

Richard North 13/11/2019 link

Brexit: forever cursed

Tuesday 12 November 2019  

News of yesterday was, of course, Farage's "unilateral" concession to the Tories, with a promise that he would not put up candidates in seats won by them in 2017, thus standing down 317 of his own hopefuls.

This, apparently, was not a negotiated pact, and there is no public quid pro quo from the Tories. Farage says that he was swayed by Johnson's Sunday video message, promising that the transition period would not be extended beyond the end of 2020, and the government would strike a "Super Canada Plus" trade deal.

But if Farage – as he insists – is acting to stave off a Corbyn victory, then once again he has failed to think it through. It is not the seats which the Tories won in the last election that count. With or without Farage's intervention, Johnson will probably win most of these anyway.

More importantly, there are the Labour marginals, which the Tories must secure in the coming election if Johnson is to secure a working majority. Yet Farage intends to front candidates in all of these seats.

If we use the Ukip results in the 2015 general election as an indicator of the Farage Party performance, we can see that his candidates could still do serious damage to Johnson's electoral prospects.

For instance, in England, the most vulnerable target seat is Kensington where Labour has a majority of 20 over the Conservatives. Ukip didn't stand in 2017 but it took 1,557 votes in the 2015 election. That level carried over to 12 December could make the difference between victory and defeat, especially as the Lib-Dems are also eroding the vote of the leading pair, without taking enough to win the seat.

Next in line is Dudley North with a Labour majority of 22. In 2017, Ukip did stand and took 2,144 votes. But in 2015, it took a whopping 9,113 votes. Using that as a comparator, the Brexit Party would almost certainly give the seat to Labour this time round.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is another vulnerable seat, currently held by Labour with a majority of 30. The Tories have been pushing hard in this seat but were deprived victory in 2015 when Ukip took 7,252 votes. The party didn't stand in 2017 but if the Brexit Party takes over in 2019, it could again keep the seat in Labour hands.

In Crewe and Nantwich, a slightly different situation applies. In 2017, Labour took the seat from the Conservatives by a margin of 48 votes, with Ukip scoring 1,885. In 2015, Farage's party took 7,252 votes and the Conservatives kept the seat, which could suggest that Ukip was soaking up Labour votes. 

However, 5,000 more people voted in 2017 than two years earlier and, while the Tories added over 3,000 votes to their tally, Labour piled on a massive 7,000 votes, indicating that it was the increased turnout that made the critical difference.

Moving on to Canterbury, this seat was a Labour gain in 2017, with a majority of a mere 187. Ukip did not stand. Notable then was the collapse of the Lib-Dems, who lost nearly 2,000 votes on their 2015 showing, along with the Greens who lost nearly 2.5K, while turnout was more than 3,000 up. Ukip in 2015 took 7,289.

This seat thus illustrates how the complex interactions of small party votes and turnout can affect the overall result, and it is not entirely clear that Ukip is the king maker. But the presence of the Brexit Party in 2019 can only muddy the waters.

Barrow and Furness also presents an interesting picture. A traditional Labour seat, under pressure from the Tories and Ukip, in 2015 the combined effect of both parties reduced Labour's majority from over 5,000 to a vulnerable 795. Ukip took 5,070 votes.

In 2017, with turnout up by more than four thousand and Ukip falling away to sub-thousand levels, the Tories piled on nearly 5,000 votes. Labour did less well, adding just over 4,000 votes, with the Lib-Dem and Green votes largely static. With that, Labour's majority was reduced to 209. Had the 962 Ukip votes gone to the Tories, Mrs May would have gained another seat.

Keighley in West Yorkshire, just up the road from me, is another interesting case. But here, one of the figures to watch is the turnout. In 2010, it was nearly 48K and the Tories took the seat from Labour with a majority of nearly 3,000. In 2015, turnout increases by another 2K and, while Ukip takes over 5K (up from 1,470 in 2010), the Tories keep the seat, with a majority of just over 3K.

In 2017, turnout is up to nearly 52K, 4,000 additional voters compared with 2010, and the Tories add nearly 4K to their 2015 showing. But, with Ukip dropping back to just over 1K, Labour adds 5K-plus to its score, just enough to take the seat with a majority of 249. If the Brexit Party comes in with a high vote in 2019, it looks pretty certain that Labour will keep the seat.

So far, we've looked at seven seats, all of them vulnerable to the "Ukip effect", which could rob the Tories of their local victories. But there are many more.

A particularly fascinating example is Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire. In 2010, it was a Labour-Lib-Dem marginal and it is currently held by Labour with a slender majority of 441. In 2015, Labour took 19,448 votes to hold the seat, up against the Tories who were way behind on 10,628 votes. Significantly, Ukip got 10,150 votes, almost beating the Tories to second place.

Ukip also stood in 2017, but its vote shrank to 1,885 while the Tories soared to 20,844, quite obviously hoovering up the Ukip votes. But, as turnout also increased by 2K, so did the Labour vote, just beating the Tories. A Brexit Party intervening in the 2019 race will certainly make things interesting.

And then there is Stroud. Yet another Labour marginal, the margin by comparison with the others is a relatively healthy 687. In 2015, however, it was a Conservative seat attracting 27,813 votes against Labour's 22,947. Ukip got 4,848 votes, just short of Labour's majority of 4,866.

Come 2017, with Ukip barely scraping past the thousand mark, the Tories climbed to 29,307. But the turnout also increased by 3,000 and the Greens lost just over a thousand votes. Labour crept ahead to win the seat with 29,994 votes.

Bringing to ten, the sample of seats we're looking at, we have Bishop Auckland, a Labour seat that in 2015 boasted a majority of 3,508 at a time when the Tories scored 12,799 and Ukip revelled in 7,015 votes.

In 2017, with Ukip not standing, and an increase in turnout, the Tories climbed to 20,306, within hailing distance of Labour's 20,808. The Lib-Dem vote only dipped slightly, making obvious that there had been a huge transfer of Ukip votes to the Tories. The Brexit Party could definitely cost Johnson the seat this time round.

Overall, one has to say that the so-called "Ukip effect" is not always clear-cut, but in the seats we have looked at, it seems mostly to favour Labour. By that token it is fairly safe to say that the Brexit Party definitely has the potential to damage the Tories on 12 December.

But often neglected – to the point of being ignored by many pundits, and certainly not taken into account in the opinion polls - is the effect of turnout. In some seats, we are possibly seeing the combined impact of turnout plus the "Ukip effect", and in some cases, the voting pattern is influenced by the ebb and flow of votes for other minority parties and the Lib-Dems.

In marginals, where the seat might turn on a few hundred votes, or even less, this makes for an unpredictable mix. But it will be made that much more unpredictable by Farage's announcement yesterday. In a way, the careless concession is typical of a man who doesn't do detail, and tends to act "off the cuff", rather like Johnson.

Thus, in an uncertain world, the one certainty is that the drama of the Brexit Party isn't over yet. Unsurprisingly, Farage is being urged to pull candidates out of every marginal. If he doesn't, and his party's intervention does deprive Johnson of an expected victory, one can quite imagine that, in some quarters, his name will be forever cursed.

Richard North 12/11/2019 link

Brexit: a no-choice democracy

Monday 11 November 2019  

This is the way it goes. The Tories cobble together an attack piece in time for the Sundays, claiming that Labour policies will cost £1.2 trillion, and achieve some success in placing the figure on the front pages of a few sympathetic newspapers.

By mid-Sunday, Labour has counter-attacked, deriding the Tory costings as a "work of fiction". Nevertheless, the £1.2 trillion figure has been lodged in the public consciousness and left to stew for the first part of Sunday. Labour's profligacy with public money, the message says, makes the party unelectable.

Johnson seriously needs a distraction of this nature, as his Brexit policy is falling apart in front of our very eyes. Under pressure from Farage, it seems that he has committed to getting "the fantastic new free trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020". Thus, he confirms, "we will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020".

This comes from Johnson's Sunday night "Twitter video" proving beyond doubt that the man is a complete idiot. He burbles about a "fantastic deal" that means "we can take back control of our money our borders, our laws, as soon as we come out of the EU".

"And of course", he says, "it enables us to do a big free trade deal with our EU friends and partners. And I want to stress that that will be a straightforward free trade agreement with no political alignment".

But this "straightforward free trade agreement" is "on the model of a Super Canada Plus arrangement", which is anything but straightforward. Furthermore, the actual EU-Canada agreement (CETA) took eight years to conclude.

But just to demonstrate how deeply he is embedded in his own fantasy world, Johnson tells us: "Look at how quickly we got a new withdrawal agreement done it took us less than three months" – an assertion of jaw-dropping proportions.

Apart from the fact that the bulk of the withdrawal agreement is unchanged from the draft brokered by Mrs May – with only the Irish protocol having undergone any substantive changes – the actual changes are a reversion to the previous deal agreed by Mrs May until it was scuppered by the DUP.

For Johnson to claim his process took "less than three months" puts him in the land of the fayries, where unicorns graze and cuddly white lambs gambol in perpetual sunlight. The man is barking mad.

Then to use as an example something that took the best part of a tortuous three years, as the basis for a claim that we can conclude a comprehensive trade agreement in so short a time, is to put him on another planet.

Even then, Johnson is asserting that this could be done by the end of 2020, a mere eleven months. But this will be a mixed treaty, so it will have to be ratified by all 27 EU Member States, including some of their regional parliaments.

And although there are provisions for treaties to take partial effect before ratification, the parties really need to leave about six months for the process. This means, effectively, the treaty must be concluded by June, leaving a mere five months for negotiations.

The most likely consequence of this insane timetable is that we drop out of the EU without a fully-formed deal and fall back on the EU's contingency arrangements. The best we could hope for is a "bare bones" treaty, limited to tariff-free arrangements and nothing much else.

Effectively, as we have remarked so often before, in terms of our trading relationship with the EU, this is so close to a no-deal exit as makes no difference. If Farage and his followers want WTO terms, that is exactly what they will get.

The problem though is that is what Johnson is promising, whether or not Farage is demanding it. It is his own personal default position, which he will execute if he wins a big enough majority in the election. With that, Farage effectively gets what he wants, so there is no need for him to take on the Tories with a full slate of candidates.

Despite that, the legacy media rather seem to be missing the point (as always). The Telegraph, for instance, is getting worked up about Farage's activities, running an editorial with the headline, "Nigel Farage risks losing everything with his great election gamble".

It argues that Farage now risks jeopardising the very achievement he has spent a political lifetime trying to bring about. And, while he can't win the election, and will be lucky if he wins any seats, Johnson can lose it. If that happens, the Telegraph says, there will be another referendum because Labour, the only other party likely to be in a position to form a government, is committed to one, albeit only after yet another renegotiation.

Somehow, though, I would have expected something more than this superficial analysis, even if it is rather difficult to second-guess Farage. While it is true that his party could damage the Tories, following its decline in the polls, there is probably less danger of that than there has been. There is even a possibility that support for the Brexit party could collapse.

Apparently, we will know of Farage's intentions today when he announces his plans in Hartlepool, but even if he agrees to stand down most of his candidates, it will make very little difference to Johnson's own declared plans. This is the point the legacy media seems to be missing. With or without Farage, Johnson seems to be heading for disaster.

On the other hand, Corbyn is more of an unknown quantity than even his policy ambiguities would suggest. He has said he will pursue a renegotiation if his party is elected to power, but he has been very thin on the detail. Also, he has not attempted to convince us that he could force the EU to take part in new talks, so his policy could be still-born before it gets off the ground.

Should the EU refuse to entertain a renegotiation, we are truly in uncharted territory, as Corbyn has not given the slightest clue of how he would react. He hasn't even indicated that he is aware that there is a problem.

Once again the Telegraph pitches in, this time giving space to Liam Fox to write that it is clear that anything other than a Tory victory "will perpetuate the stalemate and dither that has characterised the painful political period since the referendum".

It is not too hard to agree with this, as there is a high level of uncertainty attendant on a Corbyn victory. But that puts us, the voters, in an invidious position. We either go with Johnson who will most certainly lead us to disaster, or we choose Corbyn to take us to an uncertain destination, the outcome of which is difficult to predict, which will probably lead to disaster.

For those who are troubled by such prospects, a visit to Nick Cohen's latest column would confirm their worst fears.

He presents us with the choice in this election of #NeverCorbyn or #NeverBrexit, with the vote crossing party lines. Those who think Corbyn would be a disaster (which includes some high profile former Labour supporters) must vote for Johnson, even though they may loathe him and be unenthusiastic about Brexit. Those who believe that Brexit must be stopped at all costs are left to vote for Corbyn, even if they abhor his train-wreck policies.

According to Cohen, we must experience the horrors of either a Johnson or a Corbyn government before we have enough voters to turn against them, although that rather leaves the question hanging as to what alternative we would then choose.

This is where politics turns round to mock us. We are presented with extremely unattractive choices, with potential outcomes which no rational person would voluntarily accept. It is said that democracy is about choices, but there must be – and most certainly is – more to democracy than this.

Richard North 11/11/2019 link

Brexit: horns of a dilemma

Sunday 10 November 2019  

Just short of a year ago, Liam Halligan published in the Telegraph an article headed, "'No EU-UK deal? It is not the end of the world', says WTO chief".

Setting the scene, Halligan told us that, if Britain failed to strike a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU ahead of March 2019 (when we were due to leave the EU), UK-EU trade reverted to WTO rules. "While some claim this would be a disaster, not least parliamentarians determined to frustrate Brexit", wrote Halligan, Azevedo disagreed.

This was Roberto Azevedo, current director general of the WTO. Through the filter of Halligan's writing, he told us: "About half of the UK's trade is already on WTO terms – with the US, China and several large emerging nations where the EU doesn't have trade agreements", which led us to the "money quote", where he said, "So it's not the end of the world if the UK trades under WTO rules with the EU".

The interview was much touted by no-dealers who used it as justification for their stance, even though the following week Azevedo clarified his remarks saying of the UK-EU negotiations, "Whatever happens, this is not going to be a situation where all trade stops, and there is a collapse in terms of the economy as a whole - that for me would be the end of the world".

"But", he added, "it's not going to be a walk in the park. It's not like nothing happened, there will be an impact. It will be a very bumpy road, and maybe long as well".

As to the original interview, I'm not even sure that Halligan quoted Azevedo correctly, where he supposedly asserted that "the US, China and several large emerging nations didn't have trade agreements with the EU". That was not true and I can't imagine Azevedo saying this.

In July, however, when Farage has adopted the no-deal mantra as his own, asserting that we need a "clean break", we saw Prospect magazine belatedly join the debate, bringing together three key figures from the WTO, including Azevedo and Pascal Lamy.

The arguments were sound enough, including a take-down of the GATT Article 24 mythology, and to have three towering figures from the world of international trade make a case should have meant something. But the article passed with scarcely a ripple, leaving Farage to pursue his no-deal obsession, untroubled by mere facts or argument.

This is the nature of the Brexit debate, such that it is. The noise-makers prevail, their positions fixed and entirely responsive. And, as Pete observes, the infection has spread to the election campaign, turning it into a nightmare parody which only superficially resembles the real thing.

Inevitably, the anchors in this parodic episode are the opinion polls, which serve as talking points – even if their limitations and frailties are well known. Latest into the fray – giving today's Observer its lead – is a survey by Opinium which has Labour gaining three points in a week to reach 29 percent, cutting the Tory lead to 12 points after that party dropped one point to end up with 41 percent.

Significantly, some 66 percent of Labour Leavers now plan to vote for Corbyn's party, up nine points on the previous week, while 48 percent of Labour Remainers are also planning to vote for the party, again sharply up on last week.

This, of course, gives some hope to Labour supporters that their party is closing the gap – and very much still in the fight. But, if you drop by the Telegraph website, the Janet Daley column gives the impression that it's all over bar the shouting, as she writes that: "The major Opposition party is no longer functional. The governing party – whatever your view of it – is the only credible one that can be supported".

In truth, neither party is credible and public hostility to the election seems to be building, even if this is not directly reflected in the polls. But what certainly is showing – in the Opinium poll – is a continued decline in Farage's three-man party, which is down three points to six percent (one fifth of its showing at the European elections).

On top of that, we now see Arron Banks writing for the Mail on Sunday calling for leavers to unite, for fear of losing Brexit altogether.

To that effect, the MoS tells us Farage has been in secret talks with the Tories. Amazingly, not only will Farage stand down a number of his candidates, he will also accept Johnson's withdrawal agreement – thus ostensibly abandoning his "no deal" position which any amount or argument has failed to shift.

The price, however, is one which effectively restores that position. Farage is said to be demanding of Johnson that he negotiates changes to the political declaration and, crucially, ends the transition period in December 2020, rather than extending it to the end of 2022.

We haven't been given any details as to the changes required to the political declaration, but since it is currently Johnson's position that he will not extend the transition period, it would appear that the two leaders are not that far apart. If they agree to agree, Farage effectively gets his no-deal without having to put up a raft of candidates.

The key date will be 14 November, when candidate nominations close, which gives just a few days for a deal to be reached. But then, we have the polls to consider. The MoS has also commissioned its own, this one from Deltapoll. Remarkably, it too has the Tories on 41 percent and Labour on 29 percent, exactly the same outcome as the Observer's Opinium poll.

By coincidence, Farage's party also drops to six percent, in this instance having lost five points – its support having nearly halved according to this poll. And that may give Johnson the idea that Farage is a busted flush and he need not bother with a deal.

Back with the Telegraph though, John Curtice casts doubt on Farage's claim that he can win over Labour voters that the Tories can't reach.

Farage's greatest appeal, it seems, is to former leave voters who now believe that we should go for a no-deal exit, a view held by 74 percent of Brexit Party voters but only 34 percent of Conservatives. Curtice thus thinks that Johnson's best bet is to persuade those leave voters that his deal really will represent a "clean break" with Brussels.

Since, without extending the transition period to 2022, that is effectively the case, Johnson should have no problem doing that, but for the effect it might have on voters who think that Johnson has genuinely brokered an agreement which takes no-deal off the table.

Johnson, therefore, is on the horns of a dilemma. To gain the support of the Faragistas, he must convince them that his agreement really means "no-deal" – which indeed it does – while he must convince the "moderates" who would be minded to vote for him that he is planning an orderly exit.

His best bet, from an electoral point of view, would be to avoid talking about Brexit, diverting attention onto other issues, such as the cost of Corbyn's spending plans, estimated by the Tories at £1.2 trillion – a figure dominating today's headlines.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Farage is bringing Brexit back into focus, raising issues which are not to the Tory leader's advantage. If he makes a deal with Farage, he is essentially admitting that he is going for a no-deal Brexit, and if he doesn't, he will be fighting Farage for "no-deal" voters, which means he will have to convince them that he will deliver what they want – or end up with a split vote.

Some might say that this is a classic example of chickens coming home to roost. Without a coherent position on Brexit, Johnson has laid himself wide open to electoral blackmail, in a game he might have difficulty winning. And, from potential ally, Farage might prove to be his executioner.

I think this might be called nemesis, but for the fact that Corbyn's £1.2 trillion-worth of unelectability might save the day for the Tories.

Richard North 10/11/2019 link

Brexit: pantomime politics

Saturday 9 November 2019  

I don't know why anyone should be surprised that Johnson should be out of his depth when it comes to his own withdrawal agreement, and whether traders have to fill in customs declarations when they send goods across the Irish Sea.

In technical areas, he has consistently shown his ignorance of finer details, from bananas to kippers, and he has never taken the trouble to keep himself informed. This is a man who flies by the seat of his pants and gets away with it because his supporters have suspended their critical faculties for far too long.

Now we are lumbered with this man, who has set himself up as the champion of Brexit. And we even have Arron Banks apparently falling out with Nigel Farage. According to the Telegraph, the former "bad boy" and his side-kick Andy Wigmore, are looking at teaming up with the Conservatives to use the clout of their Leave.EU website to urge people to vote Tory, rather than for the Brexit Party.

Banks believes it is "insanity" to be standing candidates in Bath, Winchester or Newbury. "Why", he says, "would you do that, why would you try to actively let Liberal Democrats into Parliament. It is crazy". Wigmore takes up the theme, adding: "We recognise that Boris is the only option, we recognise that we have a very powerful tool in our social media".

He continues: "We have been very supportive of what the Tories have been doing, we have become an echo chamber for a number of their key policy statements". According to Wigmore, "We have that huge reach - we are going to make sure our voters and supporters know the risk that if you don't vote for Boris then you are going to let Corbyn and the Lib-Dems in and then Brexit is over".

Whether the Leave.EU team is of any use to the Tories remains to be seen – the outfit has a chequered history which would deter most established political parties from admitting any association. But these are strange times, and normal rules no longer seem to apply.

Nor is this the only "hit" that Farage has taken from Leave.EU. In a piece published today by, Alex Andreou writes of a "detailed plan" for leaving the EU, "which Nigel Farage's Leave.EU signed up to in January 2016". Andreou cites the opening paragraph of this plan, which states:
Leaving the EU will have significant geopolitical and economic consequences. But we believe it is unrealistic to expect a clean break, immediately unravelling forty years of integration in a single step.
And on that basis, he claims that "We all instinctively know that politicians shift the goalposts when it suits them, but it is rare that they do so as quickly or as blatantly as the leader of the Brexit party". "It is rarer still", Andreou continues, "to be able to pin down precisely the extent, based on indisputable documentary evidence".

However, I rather suspect that Andreou is adding two and two and making five. What he has done is pick up my post of 8 January 2016 (months before the referendum) when I announced that, following several meetings with Banks and Wigmore, I had agreed to work with Leave.EU as a consultant for the duration of the EU Referendum campaign.

As part of the package, I wrote, Leave.EU had decided to adopt Flexcit as their formal exit plan, subject to a rebranding exercise which I was then working on. This became The Market Solution.

At the time, Andy Wigmore agreed to a statement, saying: "the campaign is keen to work with the best brains and opinions we can find to make sure the UK public know the truth and also the best solution for the UK". He added, "This is above party politics and above egos anyone who wants to be out of the EU is on the same side".

It turned out, of course, that we weren't on the same side. I knew that Banks was in close touch with Farage (he'd even suggested that we meet), but of what passed between them I have no knowledge. All I know was that, rather as had happened with Cummings, Banks broke off contact and ditched Flexcit (aka The Market Solution). But I don't think, even in the brief period that Banks endorsed the plan, Farage had ever taken it on board.

Nevertheless, with exposure on Twitter and multiple re-tweets, there is significant exposure to the claim that Farage once accepted that it was "unrealistic to expect a clean break", yet he is doing precisely that.

It is of some little consolation, though, that Bruno Waterfield, The Times EU correspondent, tweets that at least one senior Whitehall mandarin was looking at Flexcit as a model in summer to autumn 2016. It was, apparently, "killed off" by Treasury hostility to EEA/EFTA and Nick Timothy in Downing Street.

We were so near yet so far. Yet Andreou writes that, to date, Flexcit "is the ONLY detailed plan put forward by Leavers" (his capitals) – and indeed it was, and still is. The revised copy, although now a little dated, is still way ahead of the field, augmented by my Monograph series and, of course, the daily blogposts, closing on two million words since the referendum.

Readers can imagine how frustrating it is to see our cause represented by the "lurching and rambling Johnson, who now has a website dedicated to his "lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations".

As such, he presents an easy target for the enemies of Brexit and not only does Marina Hyde rise to the challenge, another article observes that the prime minister in office "does not appear keen to meet the public".

We saw something of this in Johnson's leadership campaign when the prize was his to lose – which had his minders keeping him away from the media and the public lest he open his mouth and spoil his own chances.

Now we have the Guardian reporting that Johnson's outriders "used to boast during the 2016 referendum that unlike David Cameron, whose slick campaign events were carefully controlled, their man actually enjoyed the rough and tumble of getting off the Vote Leave bus and in among the public".

But, it says, at the end of this first gaffe-strewn week of the general election campaign, "the prime minister has barely met a voter – aside from the Northern Irish manufacturers he addressed in a rambling speech on Thursday evening, during which he appeared to misconstrue his own Brexit deal".

At this early stage in the general election campaign, this is not the image Johnson want to convey, even if it is being projected by his enemies. But, of his fanboys in the Telegraph, even they seem to have given up praising their hero and are now doing the "attack dog" stunt on Corbyn.

And that is how this campaign is panning out. Most definitely, personality politics have taken over, with each side attacking the opposing leaders. Even though Matthew Parris wails in The Times that "voters are turned off by pantomime politics", the actual issues don't stand a chance. Even so, we're still here, and Flexcit is still the best plan in town.

Richard North 09/11/2019 link

Brexit: not in the real world

Friday 8 November 2019  

Reading the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) and the associated policy summary isn't everybody's cup of tea. But the document issued yesterday is only 12 pages long and written in plain English with relatively little jargon. And, with its references to Brexit, it is well worth reading.

Somewhat less user-friendly is the Bank of England's monthly Monetary Policy Report for November. At 49 pages, it presents more of a challenge, although it still manages to be remarkably free of the dense jargon that might be expected in such documents.

Taken together, though, the documents have important things to say about Brexit, giving an insight into the state of play and the thinking of the Bank of England (BoE) on the issue.

Starting with a statement of the obvious, we are told that, in October, the UK and EU agreed a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, the UK House of Commons approved the second reading of the Bill that translates the agreement into law, and the UK and EU agreed a flexible extension of Article 50.

Thus, sterling has appreciated markedly as the perceived probability of a no-deal Brexit has reduced and, says the MPC, "These developments are also likely to remove some of the uncertainty that has been facing businesses and households".

Moving on, we are then told that the MPC's projections are now conditioned on the assumption that the UK moves to a deep free trade agreement with the EU, although it is admitted that "some uncertainty is likely to persist". This is because the details of the UK and EU's eventual relationship "are assumed to emerge only gradually over time and the smoothness of the transition to it remains to be determined".

As for the current situation, the MPC now anticipates that GDP will emerge one percent lower by the end of 2022 than was projected in August. Three quarters of the difference is accounted for by moves in asset prices and the "weaker global environment", but the remaining quarter is partly due to changes in Brexit assumptions, brought about by Johnson's deal.

Nevertheless, UK GDP is expected to pick up during 2020 "as the dampening effects from Brexit-related uncertainties begin to dissipate", boosting business investment growth. From one percent annual growth by the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2019, the MCP expects to see 1.6 percent by 2020 Q4, 1.8 percent by 2021 Q4 and 2.1 percent by 2022 Q4.

This, however, assumes an improvement in global growth and progress on Brexit - and in particular the future trading arrangements with the EU. But, as Mark Carney, BoE governor, acknowledged yesterday, "both are assumed in the MPC's latest projections; neither is assured".

In fact, says the BoE in a separate report, "some uncertainty is likely to persist". Brexit, it observes "is a process rather than a single event" and, while the agreement sets out the broad parameters of the UK and EU's future trading relationship, "the range of potential outcomes is still relatively wide".

If there were prizes for understatement, this report would surely be on the short-list, as the chances of securing a stable, long-term trading relationship with the EU in the near future seem slight. And as long as Johnson insists on concluding a deal by next year, without extending the transition period, the chances are next to nil.

On the other hand, if Corbyn takes the prize of No 10 residency, there is absolutely no knowing what will happen. On the face of it, he will try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, and claims he will be able to wrap up Brexit within six months. Very few people, though, would have confidence in that estimate.

Either way, therefore, with nothing really resolved, one might expect little in the way of a reduction in uncertainty. And - in the event of Johnson renewing his lease on No 10 – if by the end of June he has not extended the transition period, adding the full two years allowable, we cannot rule out a collapse in business confidence.

Then, come the end of 2020, as we are precipitated into what will amount to a no-deal scenario, the most likely outcome is a deep and prolonged recession, with predictable effects on the private sector and public finances.

With that hanging over us, therefore, it does seem rather unwise for both main parties to commit to ambitious public spending promises, fuelled by massive increases in borrowing – in what seems to be an unrestrained bidding war.

Those of us schooled in traditional economics are more used to the idea of governments building up reserves in the good times, to help cope with the demands on public finances that recessions bring, at times when tax revenues fall.

For sure, under Keynesian economics, governments are encouraged to spend during recessions, and Sajid Javid's promise of a £300 billion investment spree could be just what is needed to keep economic activity buoyant when exports collapse as a result of our failure to agree a trade deal with the EU.

However, when shadow chancellor John McDonnell promises an even larger £150 billion "social transformation fund" over the next five years, on top of £250 billion for investment in green infrastructure over 10 years, and renationalisations which are expected to cost nearly £200 billion, one begins to wonder if we are inhabiting the same planet as the politicians.

Javid, for instance, is assuming that he can keep borrowing at today's low interest rates, ignoring any future inflationary effects from a botched Brexit – such as the plummeting value of the pound and the soaring costs of imports. And that is without taking account of the fragile global economy which could slip into recession at any time.

Despite that risk, Chancellor Javid assumes that the UK GDP will continue to grow, thus allowing debt to fall as a proportion of GDP. However, he promises to cap borrowing if debt interest payments rise beyond their historic share of GDP. But, on that basis, where the economy is in recession, his spending promises would never be realised.

Since much of this new investment would be directed at infrastructure projects, there are also serious questions about the ability to deliver at short notice. For instance, with construction projects the shortage of skilled labour – made up in the recent past by immigration from EU Member States – would be a major constraint.

The worst of it all, though, is that the politicians seem to be either ignoring Brexit or assuming that it will have no harmful effects on the economy that they need to take into account. They really do seem to be occupying their own fantasy worlds, which bear very little relation to possible post-Brexit scenarios.

In fact, once again – with day two of the election campaign over – Brexit seems to have disappeared from the front pages of the print media. Personality politics have even displaced news of the spending war, with several papers featuring as their lead items, the decision by "Labour veterans" to support the Tories.

A more sanguine media would, of course, be homing in on the soft optimism of the MPC report, warning that the uncertainty incumbent in the unrealistic Brexit policies of both main parties has not improved our overall position.

Together with a deteriorating global economy – and some very worrying economic news coming out of the eurozone - there is a far stronger risk of recession than is being allowed for. The BoE's growth projections could be completely off-beam, with the real-world situation rendering ambitious spending promises so much hot air.

Richard North 08/11/2019 link

Brexit: on with the charade

Thursday 7 November 2019  

I do wish Johnson would stop his nonsense about getting Brexit "done". At the very best, all we're getting is the first phase of a very long process that is going to take much longer than the prime minister in office would have us believe.

And it's not only Michel Barnier who is telling us that. The outgoing European Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker, added his ha'porth to the mix, telling the BBC's Katya Adler that he very much took issue with the Johnson's assertion that a brand-new comprehensive post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal could then be negotiated in a year or less.

"These things take time," Juncker said. "Just look at the free trade deal the EU negotiated with Canada. That took seven years".

Juncker then said he had a feeling that many UK MPs and government ministers believed negotiating trade deals was easy. But, he said, it would take quite some time to disentangle the UK from decades of forging common rules and regulations with the EU and to form a distinct and new relationship.

As for Corbyn's ideas, Juncker said he didn't think Labour's pledge was a realistic prospect, although conceded that it was for the next European Commission chief to decide if there was any flexibility to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement once again.

Strictly speaking though, we are told that the decision on whether or not to re-start exit negotiations with the UK would fall primarily to EU national leaders in Berlin, Paris and beyond. The European Commission negotiates Brexit on their behalf.

And, as we know, the "national leaders", constituted as the European Council , can't possibly re-open the Withdrawal Agreement – they have expressly ruled that out in the current extension decision, as indeed they had ruled it out before Johnson came on the scene.

However, it seems that we've got it all wrong, according to the Independent. It is relaying a claim from a commission spokesperson in Brussels, who has denied that Theresa May's agreement had been "amended" in any meaningful way. The EU had merely made "clarifications".

Nevertheless, even the Independent displays some scepticism here. The "sensational claim", it says, is at odds with Downing Street's presentation of negotiations. It also notes that Johnson hopes to get his agreement through parliament on the basis that it is not the same as his predecessor's.

The new narrative – or so it appears – is that Johnson has not achieved anything of significance. He did not get the EU to blink and "bin the backstop". Rather, in Juncker's words, they had found a new way in renegotiations to come up with exactly the same result as the original backstop. In practical terms, if not legally speaking, under Johnson's deal, Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU's customs union after Brexit.

This is the border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK Johnson had initially said he would never, ever allow.

Thus, when it was put to the spokesperson that there were obvious differences between the two agreements, and that six paragraphs of the protocol on Northern Ireland had been changed, she said there were "differing views" about what constituted an amendment. In effect, the words might be different but the overall effect is essentially the same.

The real reason for the Commission's assertions, therefore, might be that Brussels for months insisted it would never reopen the withdrawal agreement it struck with Theresa May. Thus, the Commission may be trying to restore some of its lost credibility, especially as it will be trying to enforce that latest extension decision which repeats the limitation on re-opening the new withdrawal agreement.

This is certainly suggested by the spokesperson's insistence that: "… what matters now is the latest European Council decision on 29 October which excludes any further reopening of the withdrawal agreement that we have spent negotiating for two years, and on the basis of which we granted an extension".

This commentary is almost surreal and there must have been an amount of jaw-dropping in the Commission press room. We await further "clarification" of this statement, but it does look rather as if the EU is seeking to draw a line under Brexit and make it happen on 31 January – regardless of who gets to be prime minister.

But if Brussels has been dining on magic mushrooms, there have been plenty to spare for London where it would seem that neither the Tories nor Labour have anything close to credible Brexit policies, leaving voters forced to make a choice between two unrealistic – if not fictional – options.

If this is supposed to be the "Brexit election" – even if the parties are trying to steer the electorate's attention to other matters - the false choices on offer from the two main parties make a nonsense of the entire election process. Voters are being asked to opt for one or other scenario even though neither can actually happen.

But then, since all the political parties seem to be in the land of the fayries, voters can do little other than to invest in industrial quantities of popcorn and make the most of the charade – or opt out altogether.

Whether they like it or not, though, this election campaign has the makings of a media extravaganza, with very little real contact between voters and politicians. Such was the case when Johnson travelled to the NEC in Birmingham yesterday to stage a public launch for his party's campaign.

Described as a "big rally" by the Mail, the picture (above) shows a very modest crowd. Take away the hundred or so journalists, candidates and staff and the number of genuine supporters was very small.

But it was there that Johnson unveiled the party's general election slogan: "Get Brexit Done - Unleash Britain's Potential", with the message that Brexit can happen quickly after the election if he wins a majority. In Johnson's words, "It is there. You just whack it in the microwave, gas mark - I don't know what, I'm not very good at cooking - it is there, it is ready to go. Prick the lid, put it in and then we can get on".

What the man is trying to project, though, is totally unrealistic "We get this deal through parliament and then we can get on with all of the fantastic projects in which this government is engaged, uniting and levelling up our country, giving people opportunity across our country with better education, better infrastructure and new technology". That, he says, "is what this government is all about".

Once past the actual withdrawal stage, if it ever happens, we are either in for the long haul of negotiating a trade deal with the EU, which can only give us a fraction of the market access that we have now, or we are precipitated into a no-deal situation at the end of next year. The very last thing we will be able to do is "move on" from Brexit.

The failure of Mrs May, right at the beginning of the negotiations, to go for the only option that would have given us a smooth transition - the Efta/EEA option - means that we are locked in a Brexit quagmire, where the UK's negotiators will be struggling to bring back from Brussels anything of substance – with the inevitable drag on our economic performance.

But, despite that, the politicians seem to be getting their way. A quick review of this morning's papers seems to indicate that the media has abandoned Brexit, with the emphasis turning to other matters. Allister Heath of the Telegraph wants to turn this election into a binary contest between "Boris" and Corbyn. He may get his way.

Richard North 07/11/2019 link

Brexit: a huge misstep

Wednesday 6 November 2019  

Not since 4 June 1945 when Winston Churchill unwisely compared the Labour Party with the Gestapo (one of the factors which led to the Tory defeat in 1945) has a political leader launched such an ill-considered attack on his opposition in a general election campaign.

But, if had to be anybody, it was going to be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who today launches the Conservative Party Campaign "exclusively in the Telegraph" with a quote that takes the lead spot on the front page.

"The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn", Johnson says, "is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally… they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks".

Whatever the manifest and very evident faults of the Labour Leader, to compare him with the genocidal Stalin and his extermination of the Kulaks is huge misstep. Through enforced famine and executions, Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths, marking a terrible period in history which cannot begin to be linked with the activities or motives of UK politicians.

Yet, so far gone is the Telegraph in its adoration of its favourite son that it frames an approving news story, reporting that Johnson "has compared Jeremy Corbyn to Stalin over his 'hatred' of wealth creators as he says the Tories will 'cheer, not sneer' entrepreneurs if they are returned to power".

Earlier yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg had been criticised for his "insensitive remarks" about the Grenfell Tower fire, the nature of which was considered to be damaging to the Tories. And, although this grabs its share of the morning's headlines. Johnson's intervention is in another league altogether. Yet the Telegraph isn't even aware of the implications or the outrage which must surely follow.

Perversely, on the first official day of the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was reported as looking to switch the election focus away from Brexit, with the Financial Times noting that Labour's election campaign plan features Brexit on only two days out of 27. The Labour leader, the paper says, wants his party to campaign on issues such as rail fares, animal welfare, the high street, dentistry, NHS funding, social care and "cycling and walking".

The strategy was considered a gamble, "given that Britain remains convulsed by strong feelings on both sides of the Brexit debate", leading one sceptical Labour MP to remark that, "It's like we want to seal Brexit in 10 metres of concrete and bury it under the seabed", adding wryly: "Good luck with that".

Johnson's comments, though, may play straight into Corbyn's hands, as the highly inappropriate comparison is bound to deflect attention from Brexit and, if a sense of outrage does build, it could deflect the parties' campaigns into personality politics and bitter recriminations.

It may be, of course, that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Johnson who, yesterday, took a serious "hit" from Michel Barnier who took it upon himself to deliver a corrective to the "fantasy Brexit" offered by the prime minister in office.

Speaking at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Barnier directly contradicted Johnson's claims that the post-exit future relationship talks would be "straightforward". Warning that they would be "difficult and demanding", he said that the UK and the EU in the summer of 2020 faced "a moment of truth" on whether to extend the transitional period.

Approval of Johnson's withdrawal agreement by the UK parliament was only the prelude to years more negotiations, Barnier said, making the obvious point that: "As long as we have not completed both negotiations [the withdrawal agreement and future talks] with the UK the risk of a cliff edge remains and we should all remain vigilant".

Stating that the current withdrawal agreement was "a necessary step" but not the "final destination", Barnier stressed that an agreement on zero quotas and zero tariffs on trade would be linked to respecting EU norms on environment, worker protection and state aid, in order to maintain a level playing field between EU and British companies. "The EU will not tolerate unfair competitive advantage", he added.

With the prime minister's official spokesman adamant that there will be no extension of the transition period, this has the makings of a front-page controversy, especially as we are reminded that MPs were promised an opportunity to vote on whether the transitional period should be extended. Johnson's spokesman now says that no such vote would go ahead because the government will have reached a trade deal by then.

So fragile is this assertion that Johnson has as much reason as Corbyn to take Brexit off the agenda, if not more so. Although Corbyn's Brexit policy continues to be incoherent, despite attempts yesterday to clarify it, Johnson has nothing to gain from having his withdrawal agreement subject to intense scrutiny through the election campaign.

Such thoughts have even attracted the attention of the great sage, Rafael Behr, who adds a typical Guardian spin to the issue, writing:
With a sustained display of incompetence, cowardice, delusion and ideological mania, British politics has created a situation so monstrous and writhing with venom that the public cannot bear to look at it. Brexit is like the mythical Gorgon that turns to stone all who meet its gaze. It must instead be stalked indirectly, using the monster’s reflection in their polished shield.

That is why the election will be only obliquely about Brexit. It will not feature rational evaluation of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. These campaigns never do. The referendum drove big red and blue buses down every social fault line in the country without arriving at a functional definition of Brexit. The 2017 election was more animated by fox-hunting and dementia care than customs unions and regulatory alignment. Even when politics appears to be about Brexit, it conspires to be about something else: jostling for position in a Tory leadership race; pro-remain guerrilla manoeuvres in the remote hills of Commons procedure.

With parliament dissolved, anything relating to the substance of negotiation in Brussels will fall off the agenda because it is a boring subject for most voters and always has been. Meanwhile, neither of the two candidates to be prime minister is going to offer an honest appraisal of why leaving has been so difficult and why it brings no material benefit to the country.
Of course, while Behr neglects to point out that it is actually his fellow hacks and commentators who find Brexit so boring – not least because they lack the competence and knowledge to report it properly - we will see the legacy media conspiring to assist the politicians in lobotomising Brexit. And Johnson's "Stalin" remarks may give them the opportunity they have been looking for.

The only thing is that, in 1945, Clement Attlee had been rather miscast. The voters looked at him, the timid, correct, undemonstrative, unaggressive ex-public-schoolboy, ex-major, and couldn't see an Adolf Hitler in him. Yet, he managed to handle Churchill's intemperance rather deftly, pointing out that the then prime minister had wanted to draw a clear distinction between Winston Churchill, the great War leader, and Mr Churchill, the leader of the Tories.

In this case, we have only the tawdry leader of the Tories, but then I suspect that Corbyn is not the match for Attlee – at an intellectual level, at any rate – while the mud sticks easier to Corbyn, a man who is on the extreme left wing of his party.

Nevertheless, it too early to judge whether this misstep is going to take off. The main newspapers had already gone to bed by the time the Telegraph dropped its bombshell, leaving no time to react. We will see today how things develop but, if this is not the excuse to drop Brexit and go personal, there will be another one not far behind.

Richard North 06/11/2019 link

Brexit: muddying the waters

Tuesday 5 November 2019  

You never know with Johnson, whether he is lying, pig ignorant or taking us for fools. Yesterday, when the prime minister in office was being interviewed by Andrew Marr, he refused to rule out an extension to the transition period past December 2020. But today, we learn that Downing Street has categorically ruled this out.

And just to remove any doubt, when work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey appeared to suggest that the December 2020 deadline would be "tough to meet", she was slapped down with brutal finality when the No 10 spokesman stated: "The government will not be extending the transition period".

In anything approaching a sane world, this news would have a devastating effect on the election debate. Johnson's government has unequivocally committed to a course of action which will ensure that the UK drops out of the EU at the end of December next year without a deal – or with only the most basic of tariff agreements.

To all intents and purposes, this puts us in much the same position we would have been if Johnson had taken us out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It just delays the process by just over a year – although we will have the "divorce bill" to pay and the rest of the withdrawal agreement to contend with.

If Johnson could be trusted, this would be manna from Heaven for Farage. He could stand down his troops and bide his time. Come the end of next year, he could then revel in achieving his aim of a "clean break" Brexit, having won the battle without firing a shot.

But this is not to be. Yesterday, Farage effectively declared war on just about everybody, but particularly the Tories, revealing to the world his collection of 600 candidates. One of them, however, had to be released when she claimed to have come from another planet, while another stood down from the marginal Dudley South seat, announcing he was backing the sitting Tory, Mike Wood.

Nevertheless, in the Methodist Hall in Westminster, 450 of Farage's prospective MPs gathered for a series of pep-talks and a training session, after each candidate had been photographed under a somewhat ambitious slogan (pictured).

As for the Tories, Farage "blasted" them for their "conceited arrogance". After all, he said, he was there to help gain a Tory majority, or he could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. "There will be no Brexit without the Brexit Party", he insisted.

Farage is convinced that Ukip, back in 2015 when it was still a functioning party, took more votes from Labour than the Tories, and thus claims that David Cameron "wouldn't have even got a majority without Ukip".

This, of course, was the election when Ukip was going to make a breakthrough. In the event, the party lost one of its two MPs and Farage lost to a former Ukip official turned Tory candidate in Thanet South, by a margin of over 3,000 – promptly resigning as leader of the party.

Shortly before that election, YouGov had polled Ukip supporters to find out how they had voted in the previous election. Some 45 percent had voted Conservative, while 11 percent had voted Labour.

By 2017, when Ukip was falling apart – having been deserted by The Great Leader – another YouGov poll showed that 30 percent of its supporters might have stayed at home. Of those who had voted Ukip in 2015, 45 percent deserted to the Tories. Only about 12 percent went to Labour.

What little evidence we have, therefore, does not support Farage's contention that he's pulling more votes from Labour than the Tories. And those who remember the 2019 Peterborough by-election will recall that, on a turnout reduced by 10,000, the Tories lost far more votes than Labour while the Brexit Party came in a respectable second. Arguably, against a discredited Labour, Farage cost the Tories the seat.

A recent example of a poll for Portsmouth South is instructive. A Labour marginal in 2017, its MP took 18,290 votes as against the Tory who gained 16,736 votes. The Brexit Party's appearance on the scene earns it 14 percent in a Survation opinion poll, both the Labour and the Conservative share drop and the Lib-Dems creep in to take the lead.

And this is against the overall background of an ICM poll where the Conservatives are on 38 percent (up three), Labour hits 31 percent (up two) and the Lib-Dems are on 15 percent (down one). In common with other recent polls, Farage's party support has ebbed (down two), giving it a nine percent share of the vote.

For all that, the morning's newspapers seem to have wiped Brexit from their front pages altogether, with the single exception of the Express, which features a confrontation between Johnson and Corbyn. Farage doesn't get a look in, while the election of the Speaker takes pride of place in the political news.

With the gap closing between the Conservatives and Labour, the "Ukip effect", carried across to the FaraCorp party could have a significant impact on the general election result. At our most charitable, the best we can say is that Farage's determination to field a full pack of candidates can only introduce a huge element of uncertainty.

The trouble is that Johnson's determination not to extend the transition period means that, effectively, the Tories and The Brexit Party are on the same page. The only real difference between them is in timing – both are heading for a no-deal Brexit.

However, the net effect of yesterday's events could be that a hung parliament has moved that much closer, potentially bringing a no-deal forward to 31 January. Worse still, we could be looking at a narrow Corbyn victory or – if they could bear to work with each other – a Labour-SNP-Lib-Dem coalition, however unlikely that might sound.

And yet, standing back from all this, even if The Brexit Party vote collapsed – which in theory it could do – and Johnson swept in with a decent majority, enough for him to risk extending the transition period to the end of 2022, we would not be out of the woods.

When work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said that the future relationship negotiations would be "tough going", she was not exaggerating. As indeed the successive governments under May and Johnson have under-estimated the time to draw up a withdrawal agreement, so too is this government being far too cavalier about the time it will take to craft a future relationship agreement with the EU.

With the Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA) having taken eight years to negotiate, with the treaty running to 1,598 pages, it seems inconceivable that we could agree a comprehensive treaty with the EU in much less time.

Why on earth Mrs May agreed such a short transition period is anyone's guess, and Johnson did nothing to change a provision which allows for a one-time only extension which cannot be repeated, is something of a mystery. Thus do we seem to be heading for a deferred crisis, whatever the outcome of the election.

To that extent, although the election was supposed to clear the impasse, the end result looks so disagreeable that chaos will prevail, whatever the outcome. Farage is simply muddying the already turbid waters.

Richard North 05/11/2019 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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