Covid: rewarding failures


As the Covid scenario emerges into what is very clearly a new phase, there seems to be attempts in certain quarters to rewrite history, in which context it is appropriate to remind ourselves of what the CMO, Chris Whitty, was saying two weeks ago.

That takes us back to 15 December, when we saw multiple headlines following a press conference held by Johnson and Whitty which effectively launched the omicron "scare" in this country.

Typical of the media output at the time was the Sky News headline declaring: "Chris Whitty warns 'Big numbers' of coronavirus patients in hospital after Christmas due to 'phenomenal' Omicron spread".

The text had Whitty warning that the UK was facing "a really serious threat" from the omicron variant which, he said, was "moving at an absolutely phenomenal pace". He asserted that daily case records "will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up", warning that these would translate into "big numbers" being treated in hospital in the coming weeks.

There was no diffidence here, or equivocation. Whitty was extremely direct in his claims, saying, "I'm afraid there will be an increasing number of omicron patients going into the NHS, going into hospital, going into intensive care".

He made only a token acknowledgement of the uncertainties, admitting that, "the exact ratios we don't yet know", but immediately countered that by declaring: "there will be substantial numbers and that will begin to become apparent, in my view, fairly soon after Christmas".

"It will start before then", he said, "but, in terms of the big numbers, I think that's a reasonably, I'm afraid, a reasonably nailed on prospect", then adding there were "several things we don't know" about the omicron variant, only to assert that: "All the things that we do know are bad".

We now know that this assessment was a wild exaggeration but the point is that we already knew that at the time. On the same day, 15 December, I already had published my piece headed "the march of the Omicrons", which discussed the Tory MP rebellion over "Plan B" but also retailed the extraordinary claim by Sajid Javid when he told MPs that if they didn’t deal with the “grave threat”, omicron could "overwhelm the NHS" and child victims of car crashes would be left untreated.

We also had then the "gruesome warning" from the government's "top public health adviser", Dr Susan Hopkins, to the effect that the omicron had been doubling every two to three days in the UK but the pace appeared to have speeded up. She was then saying that a million people a day could be being infected by the end of December.

My response to Whitty pressing the panic button was published in the early hours of the following morning, conveying the feeling that the official response to the omicron situation had become "grotesquely surreal", also taking in the view Jenny Harries head of the UK Health Security Agency, calling omicron "probably the most significant threat" since the start of the pandemic.

Even as what I have come to call the "Covid Mafia" were wibbling, though, I was already writing that there was an amount of information which suggested that people infected with the omicron variant had been a third as likely to end up in hospital compared with those infected with the delta variant.

I did note that these results were from South Africa and thus, while they were not directly applicable to the epidemiological expectations, they lay within the realm of expected behaviours, where symptoms in London are being equated with the common cold.

And there is the crucial point. While there is nothing totally predictable in the behaviour of biological systems, we can safely talk in generalities of the behaviour of epidemic organisms and especially fast-mutating viruses which give rise to respiratory diseases through person-to-person airborne transmission without the need of an intermediate host.

Ten days after I wrote that, cited in the Guardian was Dr Julian Tang, professor of Respiratory Sciences at Leicester University. He articulated his "gut feeling" that the omicron variant was "the first step in a process by which the virus adapts to the human population to produce more benign symptoms".

"In a sense", he said, "it is to the virus's advantage if it affects people in a way that they don't get too sick – because then they can walk around and mingle in society and spread the virus even more".

There is absolutely nothing new about this observation. This is the sort of thing I learnt in college in the 70s, as a student public health inspector, reinforced many times over the years in the context of infectious disease investigations and a number of notable court cases in which I was involved.

This is something about which Whitty, and his Covid claque, should have been aware, allowing for more time to evaluate a fast-changing situation before recommending actions which could not avoid having profound economic, social – and health – impacts.

The nature of Whitty's motivation for pressing the panic button can only be a matter for speculation, although a political dimension cannot be ruled out, with the good and faithful servant ramping up the hype on behalf of the prime minister in order to distract attention from his other troubles.

But now, two days before the end of the month when Susan Hopkins predicted we could be experiencing a million new infections a day, all the government can offer is a composite figure of 129,471 positive test results for the day.

Data on patients admitted to hospital are still lagging, with the last figure referring to 20 December, when 1,171 was the number recorded. As to the deaths "within 28 days of a positive test", all the combined efforts of the government and the NHS can manage is a mere 18. They need to try harder – much harder.

When it comes to evaluating those patent numbers, though, the Telegraph has some interesting news – something we had long suspected.

"Just one-fifth of new Covid hospital patients are true cases", the paper says, by way of a headline. In the text, it tells us that the most up-to-date NHS data show that on 21 December, there were 6,245 beds occupied by coronavirus patients in English hospitals - an increase of 259 from the previous week.

But within that increase, just 45 patients were admitted because of the virus, with the remaining 214 in hospital for other conditions but having also tested positive - so called "incidental Covid" admissions.

However, even as the evidence continues to build that the omicron hype has been ramped up out of all proportion, without so much as a blush the Guardian notes the passing of "another record" daily rise in UK Covid cases, but mildly observes> "Omicron 'appears less severe'".

And, effectively scaling down the scare, it cites the prestigious Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford. He has been telling the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the omicron variant "appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital", and high Covid death rates in the UK are "now history".

The most recently available government data tell the tale. From over half a million omicron cases (confirmed and SGTF), there have been 407 hospitalisations (to 25 December) and 39 deaths. Furthermore, it is being said: "Catching omicron Covid variant may protect against delta".

The prestigious figure, of course, gets the scaremongers off the hook. Nothing is true until a knighted regius professor has informed the BBC, even if it was bleedin' obvious to mere mortals weeks before, as is the case here.

Inevitably, the Covid Mafia will continue to cover their own backs, fudging the issues. The only guarantee we have is that they will never admit how badly wrong they got it in the first place, yet another major error to add to the accumulation already on record.

Rather, Whitty is to be rewarded for his many failures with a knighthood in the New Year honours, a classic establishment response.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 29/12/2021 link

Brexit: moving on


"When the British people narrowly voted to leave the EU in 2016, they did not give the government a mandate to wreck our economic and political relationship with Europe", says the Observer in its editorial on Sunday, telling us that "the grim effects of Brexit" are "impossible to hide".

I suppose that, one of these days, the newspaper will get over the referendum. After all, it is nearly five years ago. One wonders, though, why it doesn't obsess over the Norwegian 1994 EU membership referendum. After all, the Norwegians only voted narrowly by a margin of 52-48 percent, a ratio some might recognise.

But opening on a cheap shot sets the scene, as does the assertion that leave voters "did not give the government a mandate to wreck our economic and political relationship with Europe". Mind you, it's probably true to say that leave voters didn't vote for nuclear Armageddon either, or for draining the oceans and filling them with solid waste.

The paper also has a highly selective memory when it adds some more assertions to its collection: "When Boris Johnson won the general election in 2019", it claims, "he was expected to forge workable new arrangements with the UK's largest trading partner, not allow exporters to be strangled by red tape and ruinous extra costs. Nor was he given a green light to break legally binding promises".

Here, one can never be sure precisely what was expected of Johnson, other than his vainglorious promise to "get Brexit done". But it should be said that, after Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017, there was very little prospect of "workable arrangements" being negotiated with the EU. The die was already cast, long before Johnson was voted leader of the Conservative Party.

And this is something that not only caught out the Observer but most other papers, the rest of the media, most politicians, virtually all of the trade associations and many businesses. Very few people fully understood what was coming but, had they paid more attention, they would have known. They should have known and, if they had, things might have been different.

Nevertheless, we would not disagree with the Observer's assertion that, when Johnson and his right-wing Leave campaign pals claimed to have "got Brexit done" on 31 January last year, they failed to say the patchwork agreement they signed had more holes in it than a Cumbrian coal mine.

Nor would we disagree that Johnson failed to admit he had fudged crucial issues such as Northern Ireland's borders, and sold out Britain’s fisheries, in order to claim a bogus victory.

But then, since Johnson is a congenital liar, who was surprised? Elect a liar and you get lies – simples. Still, the paper believes that "truth will out". Day by bleak day, it says, "the epic damage caused by this execrable deception, this shameful Conservative con, becomes ever more evident. No amount of Michael Gove spin can hide the facts".

"No amount of distortion of official statistics can conceal the harm", it adds. "Feeble claims by David Frost, Brexit booster-in-chief, that Covid and EU hostility are to blame will not wash. It's clear where responsibility lies, the paper says. And 'lies' is the operative word".

But, if there is one thing the Observer really isn't interested in, it is the truth, and nor has it show any inclination to apportion responsibility to where it belongs. It could start with Farage, it could take in the IEA and it could take a hard look at Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave, all of whom conspired to prevent an adequate (or any) exit plan being lodged as part of the referendum campaign.

But then, where was the media; where was the "remain campaign"; where was Cameron? Why didn't they point out the fatal lack of an exit plan? Why were they so quiet about the central failing of the "leave" campaign?

Now, of course, the paper wants to make a big deal about Johnson and his team. They cannot dissemble away alarming figures showing UK exports of goods to the EU plunged by 40.7 percent in January, the cause of which it claims is, in large part, Brexit bureaucracy, incompetence and delays.

From there, we don't need to go much further with the Observer. It has its narrative, and it's sticking to it. But, in its own way, it is no more interested in the truth than is, say, the Telegraph or the Daily Express. And that makes it just another contributor to the noise.

That much is evident from the contribution of the UK's chief statistician, Ian Diamond, speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, yesterday. As to the fall in trade with the EU, Diamond has a number of suggestions to explain what has been happening.

He points to the border disruption at the end of December and beginning of January, partly due to Covid and partly due to the end of the transition period. Secondly, there were a number of companies preparing for the end of the transition period which had stockpiled goods.

Diamond thus considers that there are a number of reasons why we should not take January as indicative of the long term. Furthermore, data on lorry flows from the end of January and beginning of February are starting to see a pickup.

Overall, he thinks that it is simply "too early to say" what is happening. Only over the next couple of months we will we see things start to work through to a long term place.

The Observer, though, desperately wants us to think that Johnson "sold Britain a botched EU deal and no amount of spin or downright lies can conceal that it is falling apart". But, sadly, its sister paper is forced to concede that the outrage isn't working.

This, of course, is the Guardian, which is reporting on an Opinium poll which has Johnson's personal approval rating surpassing that of Keir Starmer for the first time since May last year.

Approval of the job Johnson is doing has increased by six percentage points to 45 percent over the past fortnight, while 38 percent disapprove – down three points. Starmer's ratings have held steady, with 34 percent approving, up one point, and 29 percent disapproving, also up one point.

The prime minister's net approval rating of seven is his best since last May and, at two points higher than Starmer's net rating of five. It is also the first time Johnson's ratings have been above the Labour leader's since then. He has also established a clear lead when voters were asked who would make the best prime minister, with 37 percent opting for him, against 25 percent for Starmer.

There is little doubt as to what is driving this recovery: the vaccine rollout. As many people now approve (41 percent) as disapprove (41 percent) of how the government is responding to the Covid crisis, the first time this has been true since last May.

Clearly, at the moment, there is no mileage in bitching about a referendum which is on its way to becoming history. Brexit is settled policy and even a poll for the Independent has 54 percent wanting to stay out of the EU, compared with 46 percent wanting to rejoin. This is despite twice as many people saying that leaving the EU has been bad for trade as those who say it has been good.

With the Tories enjoying a six-point lead over Labour, with 43 percent of the vote compared with Labour’s 37 percent, Starmer would be on a hiding to nothing beating an anti-Brexit drum.

Where his party could possibly score is by picking up individual policy failures, such as Defra's inexplicable reluctance to take action against the Commission for refusing to supply a model EHC for unpurified live molluscs.

Equally, with UK businesses having to establish bases in EU member states in order to facilitate exports, Labour could be asking for specific relocation funding to keep trade flowing, on the basis that EU-based firms will also soon have to establish bases in the UK.

In other words, strategy needs to change. Accepting that Brexit is here to stay for the foreseeable future, opposition politicians and media need to be picking holes in the government's performance, rather than opposing (or defending) Brexit as a whole.

In particular, the eternal whinge-fest about the referendum has lost its traction. It is time to move on.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/03/2021 link

Brexit: Jingle Hell


The problem with Johnson as a congenital liar is that, while most people will recognise him for what he is and have long since ceased to believe anything he says, there is one person who will always believe his lies: himself.

Thus, when the Oaf tells us that "WTO terms would be more than satisfactory for the UK", he doubtless believes what he says, right down to the bit where he reassures himself that "we can certainly cope with any difficulties that are thrown our way".

This really does remind me of that old, very worn joke coined before most people on this planet were born. It concerns that famous "cowboy", The Lone Ranger and his loyal (native) Indian sidekick, Tonto.

One day, out on the range, the pair stumble into an ambush and, as the Lone Ranger, surrounded by bloodthirsty Indians, surveys his immediate future, he turns to his companion and says: "Now we're in trouble, Tonto". Tonto looks at the now advancing Indians, looks back at him, and says: "Who's this 'we', white man?".

Once Johnson dumps us in this mess, we will probably cope, because we don't have much choice. We'll have to, in order to survive. As for the author of our misfortunes, he'll be swanning around the lecture circuit, picking up lucrative fees, back writing his column for the Telegraph and picking up the million-pound advance for his autobiography.

Under the doctrine of failing upwards, people like him never suffer from their own cock-ups. At his level, there are no penalties for failure: hardship is for little people.

Thus, although his entire handling of Brexit so far has been a monumental cock-up, we're still locked into his fantasy world where the "great hero" (in his own lunchtime) is going to continue battling against all the odds and bring back in triumph an eleventh-hour deal, "taking back control" and protecting our precious fishes from evil foreigners.

According to the blatts, the UK negotiators have come up with a compromise deal on fishing, the likes of which are too tedious and tentative to explore, which is hailed as potentially unlocking the sticking point in the talks.

We've been here before, of course, many times, but it's enough for the Fanboy Gazette to rustle up some residual enthusiasm for their faded hero, and tells us that MPs have been told to be ready to vote on possible "Brexit" trade deal on Wednesday of next week.

If the deal pans out, MPs and peers will, it appears, be expected to pass the implementation Bill in one day, ready for the government to publish the necessary Statutory Instruments, the day afterwards, just in time for the end of the transition period.

Ironically, whatever this is, it certainly ain't democracy. With most MPs prone to learning difficulties at the best of times, very few of them are going to have the first idea of what they are voting for. As is usually the case, most will be voting on tribal grounds.

There may be a few Tory refuseniks but not enough to make any difference if Starmer's mob weighs in behind the prime minister, and supports the deal. If it does, that may be the very last bit of "just in time" engineering we see for some time, as what's left of the supply chain collapses in on itself.

However, that we are close to a deal – or any closer than we have been – is possibly wishful thinking. Even if fishing is sorted, there are still other matters, not least the "level playing issues". And if nothing else, these talks have taken on the character of a Matryoshka doll. The moment you open up one issue, there's another one inside.

Needless to say, there's a great deal of garbage being talked about ratifying any deal that might pass our way, and the media has yet to get its collective head round the idea that it will almost certainly require ratification individually by all 27 EU Member States.

That means – unless the EU itself is going to be party to an episode of collective delusion (which is quite possible) – that there is no chance whatsoever of the agreement being ratified before it goes into force, which means that we should be looking at provisional application, based on a Council decision.

The fun will really start if, in an attempt to get some sort of a deal in place, the parties fudge the details and the French (and possibly others) end up refusing to ratify, leaving the agreement to fall apart at a later date – assuming we ever get that far.

What we are not going to see, it appears, is any attempt by Johnson to seek an extension to the transition period, despite strong lobbying from diverse quarters, to stop the clock. Johnson it determined to have his moment of glory – perhaps the last one he ever gets in office.

Meanwhile, despite the Telegraph running the headline for most of yesterday that the French lorry ban was to be resolved within "hours", the crisis has yet to be dented, prompting another round of lies from Johnson, as he claimed there were only 174 lorries queuing on the M20 when the number was close to 900, with about 6,000 commercial vehicles having been diverted away from Dover. The man just can't help himself.

Macron, it is understood, is demanding that trapped drivers are tested for coronavirus and are cleared negative before they are allowed to take their vehicles into France, despite protestations from the British that the drivers are a low-risk group. Testing could be problematical if France wants drivers to take the PCR Covid tests, taking between 24 hours and 48 hours for the results, delaying attempts to clear the backlog.

What we don't know yet are the details of any EU-wide initiative which is expected to take over from the French ban, as part of a coordinated, EU-wide response. Johnson, it appears, has learned nothing from his time in office, as he prepares to make a "personal appeal" to Macron in a bid to get the traffic moving, heedless of the EU moves which will bind the French president's hands.

If there is an EU ban, it will add to (and partially replace) the 40 or so country bans which have imposed travel restrictions (mainly flight bans) on the UK, with more set to join them.

Thus, The Times and others are suggesting that it is going to be at least Christmas Eve before traffic is running again, and the ports are functioning closer to normal – if that is even a "thing" any more. Many drivers, from more distant parts, are not going to get back home in time for Christmas in what is being dubbed "Jingle Hell".

Only a week later and TransEnd will be hitting the Channel ports. One suspects that hauliers will be fighting shy of repeating their pre-Christmas experience. It would not be at all surprising, therefore, to find Calais and other ports deserted in the new year – deal or no deal – until the situation is clearer.

With that, there is talk of the whole nation being locked down in tier 4 after Christmas, which, with the UK in enforced isolation from the rest of the world, will largely solve Johnson's immediate Brexit/TransEnd problems. So intense will be the Covid restrictions that no one will even notice that TransEnd has come and gone.

That, in itself, is good enough reason for a delay – if only to allow time for implementation of any deal – but there is no chance of any rational behaviour coming out of No 10 Downing Street. Things may look normal outside, but at long as there is an egotistical liar inside, we will never be safe.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 22/12/2020 link

Brexit: fun and games


In days when the agenda is driven by rumour, fuelled by quotes from anonymous spokespersons and official non-statements, it is a refreshing change actually to have a good, old-fashioned speech to dig into, even if it doesn't tell us very much.

Needless to say, this comes from the Brussels end, with von der Leyen reporting to the European Parliament on the outcome of the European Council of 10-11 December – the meeting that was supposed to coincide with the final, final deadline for the "future relationship" talks, but somehow became just another one that got away.

Given that EU leaders on the 10th only spent ten minutes discussing the UK situation, vdL probably spend as much time briefing MEPs than was devoted to the main event, but even then it only qualifies as a "brief update" on what was termed "unfinished business".

"And as things stand", she says, "I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not, but I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow but it is there and it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying".

"The good news", she adds, "is that we have found a way forward on most issues, but this is now a case of us being so close and yet so far away from each other. Because two issues still remain outstanding, you know them: the level playing field and fisheries".

On the level playing field, vdL tells us, "our aim is simply to ensure fair competition on our own market, very simple. And this is why we need to establish robust mechanisms".

She goes on to explain to MEPs that the "architecture" being worked on "rests on two pillars: state aid and standards". On state aid, she says, "we have made progress, based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement, and the possibility to autonomously remedy the situation where needed".

On standards, we are told, the parties "have agreed a strong mechanism of non-regression". That, she says, "is a big step forward – and this is to ensure that our common high labour, social and environmental standards will not be undercut". Difficulties still remain "on the question of how to really future-proof fair competition", but vdL nevertheless reports that "issues linked to governance, by now, are largely being resolved".

That leaves fisheries, where the discussion "is still very difficult". We do not question the UK's sovereignty over its own waters, she says, "but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and fisherwomen".

In all honesty, the commission president says, "it sometimes feels like we will not be able to resolve this question. But we must continue to try and find a solution. And this is the only responsible and right course of action".

Any optimism that might be apparent from vdL, however, is not mirrored this side of the Channel (or perhaps it is delayed I the queue). Yesterday afternoon, the official line from Downing Street was that leaving the Brexit transition period without a trade deal remains the most likely outcome.

In a weary ritual, though, the spokesthing acknowledged that "we have made some progress", adding the formulaic mantra that "time is now in short supply to reach an agreement", as if we didn't know already, with the reassurance that talks will "continue over the coming days".

On that home from, the news of the day comes from less than a mile down the road, in the Palace of Westminster. Despite yesterday's report that MPs were to be kept on in anticipation of an imminent deal, they have, after all, been told to bugger off at the end of today, subject to an emergency recall if a deal is concluded.

Treated by some sources as a sign that a hopes of an early conclusion are fading, others are suggesting that the early warning of a possible recall keeps the door open for an agreement as early as next week.

Angela Merkel, however, has told the Bundestag that: "There has been progress but no breakthrough, but I think we will stick to our opinion, a deal would be better than no deal, but we are also prepared for the latter". Even if talks go on past Monday next week, though, it is not the end of the line. The European Commission could propose that all or part of the treaty is allowed to enter force, subject to ratification and the Council (not the European Council, as some papers seem to think) could then cement this "provisional application" in place with a formal decision.

That would pave the way for ratification by the European Parliament some time next year and, if necessary, ratification by Member States. Most papers are skirting round this point, but some are beginning to recognise the role of Member States.

There is even the possibility that, if the Commission tries to slide this through the system as a straightforward trade deal, it could be subject to legal challenge, with the outcome forcing the full ratification process. One could imagine France being quite keen on such a move, with the opportunity to veto the deal if its fisherpeople are kicking up.

There is also the possibility now being talked about of a temporary "managed no deal" – a bodge which could be put in place if the talks run up to the new deadline. This could involve a "complex mix" of unilateral EU measures, covering areas such as aviation and road haulage – requiring reciprocal action on the part of the UK.

This brings to mind the classic fudge of all fudges. In the absence of a formal, bilateral agreement, we have "synchronised unilateralism", where the parties spontaneously – but entirely independently – happen to grant each other rights or privileges which just happen to have the effect of a deal.

This is more than a bit dodgy as any such concessions, under WTO MFN rules, have to be available to all comers. But, with a bit of creative wording the situation could be buried in legal obscurantism so that, by the time any aggrieved parties got a complaint together and into court, the actual "fix" would have been replaced by a permanent deal.

There is even talk of adopting GATT Article XXIV, allowing interim trade deals, where talks are continuing, although that is hardly a quick fix and is unlikely to apply, where no agreement has been reached.

Meanwhile, some of the consequences of Brexit are beginning to hit home as British food exporters to Northern Ireland discover that they will have to pay vets up to £150 a time for export certificates which are needed to accompany consignments of live animals or products of animal origin.

The meat industry has been long-used to the veterinary fees racket, having been forced to pay for "veterinary supervision" of their slaughterhouses – often by recently-qualified Spanish or Portuguese vets with no slaughterhouse experience or English language skills. Now, it looks as if the rest of the food industry will be joining the rip-off club.

The bigger joke is that up to £600 will be demanded for the special certificates required for transporting horses which, when added to the other controls, will neatly stuff the horseracing industry.

For the moment, it appears that the government will be paying the fees, but that will last for only so long, with a review due in three months. When you add the inspection fees at the Border Control Posts – and factor in the inevitable rejection rate – exporting animals and animal products is going to be a pricey business, and not just to Northern Ireland. The costs will apply to all exports to EU Member States.

Such are the delights which await our businesses, deal or no deal, presenting them with "fantastic opportunities" to go bust. Who was it, I wonder, who told the government that we should go for "mutual recognition"? That doesn't seem to have turned out so well.

And, of course, this is only the start. Courtesy of Boris's Botched Brexit, we can look forward to endless fun and games.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 17/12/2020 link

Brexit: round and round we go


Brussels "sources", it seems, are slightly more leaky than the Titanic and possibly with similar effect, as those with any sense head for the lifeboats. But if the negotiators are intent on keeping people informed as to the progress of the negotiations, then I do wish they would do it properly, with organised briefings, instead of this "Secret Squirrel" stuff.

As it is, we have the Guardian, relying on "sources" of unknown provenance, not even identified as "EU diplomats" or some such, or the much-favoured "senior sources". These are common and garden "sources" – not even said to be "close to the talks", but merely "in Brussels".

These are enough, however, to give the paper the headline, "Breakthrough on fishing rights as Brexit talks hang in the balance", with the sub-heading: "Terms on access to UK waters all but finalised, say Brussels sources, but issue of following EU laws remains an obstacle".

In the nature of these things, however, no sooner was the report posted than denied, with the Mail carrying the story of No 10 in denial mode. The best that can be allowed, it would seem, is summed up by Sky News which has it that there has been "significant progress" but "no breakthrough". Relying on a "UK government source", it adds that "nothing new has been achieved".

Sky's Europe correspondent, Adam Parsons, goes on to tell us that "EU sources" are saying is that fishing is "no longer their big concern - they think that can be done", which is exactly what Bernd Lange was saying in Spiegel on Friday.

Sky takes the view that "The biggest obstacle to a deal is level playing field competition rules", a view which is "consistent with what we have been reporting all weekend", which is what I was suggesting as well, despite the Sunday Times going overboard – to coin a phrase – on fishing.

For all the bloviating in that paper about EU splits, the Guardian is at least pointing out that France and Germany have instructed Barnier that they are united on the need for the UK to face consequences over future divergence from the EU rulebook as policy changes.

This is the so-called "ratchet clause" under which the UK government would have to follow EU environmental, social and labour standards as they develop over time or face tariffs on British exports.

That opens the way for The Times to produce a lead story headed: "Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in final bid for a deal", having Merkel and Macron "closing ranks" to "confront Boris Johnson with a final offer".

This is supposed to be more "conciliatory" than past positions taken by France, but, after the "split" story, it is now being sold by The Times as a "the new joint stance", and "comes with a renewed warning that Mr Macron is ready to abandon talks to concentrate on preparing for a no-deal".

The Telegraph seems to be being more cautious in its report, headlining: "Brexit talks on 'knife edge' as EU backs down over fishing", telling us that no progress has been made on the "level playing field". This means, the paper says, that negotiations could end without a deal today.

This paper has it that "diplomatic sources" have been saying that France and Germany have been "squabbling" over the weekend, with France accusing Berlin of going soft on Britain to avoid no deal. On Sunday, France repeated its threat to veto any deal that is agreed if it crossed its own red lines.

Nevertheless, British sources are suggested finding agreement on fishing was "the easier part" of closing out a deal because there is some room for compromise on both sides. On the other hand, the issue of "level playing field" guarantees was an "existential threat" to British sovereignty which will only be resolved if Macron and other leaders make a significant shift.

Interestingly, while we are told that Johnson and von der Leyen will confer on Monday evening for the second time in 48 hours (something we already knew), the purpose of the discussion is "to decide whether to allow negotiations to continue into Tuesday or – if there is no prospect of agreement – to walk away for good".

That better fits with the initial aim of Sunday's talks – going through into today – which was widely trailed as being an attempt to assess whether the talks could be salvaged. The presumption was that the two lead negotiators would then report back to their Principals, who would then decide whether it was worth continuing.

On that basis, it would seem that there is a prospect of the talks continuing past today, into Tuesday and possibly Wednesday and beyond, assuming no one has pulled the plug today. However, Irish premier, Micheál Martin is suggesting that chances of a deal stand at 50-50.

One source says: "If we are still talking on Tuesday it will be a good sign, because it will mean we are on the right path and a deal is doable. We could even carry on until Wednesday if it's just a case of sorting out details, but there is a European Council meeting on Thursday and they won't want the talks to still be going on by then".

Much will probably depend on Barnier this morning, who will be holding a "stocktaking" meeting with the EU-27 ambassadors at 6.30am on Monday. What he hears from them will almost certainly shape today's sessions.

One significant difference which may emerge through today is whether there should even be an attempt to find a compromise, with countries such as Germany and Ireland keen to sign a deal this year, as against Paris, which has Macron thinking that it might be better to restart talks in 2021, rather than rush into a hasty agreement that all sides will later regret.

Despite the Armageddon refrains of the perils of a "sudden death" no-deal outcome, there are administrative mechanisms which could be used to delay the effects of TransEnd, so there is always scope for a creative "fudge" that will allow a period of reflection.

The danger is that, if an agreement is rushed, and the French (or others) have second thoughts, then the whole thing could fall apart at the ratification stage: plus de hâte moins de vitesse might be Mr Macron's watchword.

There would, of course. Be the question of whether Johnson could follow suit, and whether his impatient backbenchers would allow it. The 31 December 2020 is written into law and Parliament would have to agree to amend the Withdrawal Act to make a later date possible. This gives plenty of opportunities for mischief-making – to say nothing of racking up the uncertainty for business.

With these talks, though, it seems that nothing is impossible, apart from the singular, pain-relieving objective of them actually finishing. But even then, the idea of finishing always was academic. Whatever else happens, these talks will not be the end. It is only a matter of time before we see the next tranche.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 07/12/2020 link

Brexit: ratification complications


In between putting the story of a dead f*****g dog on its front page, complete with photograph, the Mailygraph also manages to find space for a report about the latest developments (minimal) on the EU-UK talks.

There, at least we are getting a little (minimal) sense over the ratification of any treaty, and some confusion. The paper is saying that there will be little time for lawyers to draw up the final text of a deal, which is fair enough, but it then goes on to say that this is not enough time for "Parliaments of Britain and the 27 EU member states to ratify it".

While the UK Parliament could be made to sit through the Christmas break to pass the necessary legislation, the paper goes on to say, "EU member states have made it clear they would not be prepared to do so". Thus, it says. "Reports of a special sitting in Brussels between Christmas and New Year to ratify a deal have been dismissed as fanciful".

I think, in that final sentence, it's referring to the European Parliament, and that does make sense. I've consistently thought (and written) that it's unlikely that MEPs will agree to break into their Christmas hols, just to return to Brussels for a day, to approve the deal – notwithstanding that there are the committee formalities to complete.

But the paper also seems to be suggesting that the EU-27 Member States will also have to ratify the deal. This, in my view, should be the case. From what we've been told of this deal – that it includes an agreement on fisheries and security – it is a mixed treaty, which does require Member State ratification.

This possibility was rehearsed in Tony Connelly's Saturday piece, the first time outside this blog that I've seen the issue of Member State ratification raised.

Connelly himself is a little confused on the issues, which is unsurprising. They are complex and the treaty provisions are not exactly a model of lucidity. In these cases, it is often best to consult the treaty itself in conjunction with one or other of the authoritative briefing notes, such as this one from the European Parliament.

The trouble with hacks, though, is that they rarely do their own research, and usually rely on a "person with prestige" to explain it to them – which explains why they get it wrong so often.

Here, Connelly is hung up on Articles 217 & 218 TFEU, but the briefing note makes it clear that one must also refer to Articles 4 & 5 TEU, the latter stating that the Union can only act "within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States".

Where the provisions of an agreement fall outside the exclusive competence of the Union (unless subsidiarity applies), Article 4 then states that competences remain with Member States. It is from these provisions the need for Member State ratification stems.

The precise ratification status, therefore, will depend on the content of the treaty, and there is some limited wriggle room. But, on the face of it, a full-blown fisheries agreement will most certainly require Member State ratification, and if the treaty covers any matters of substance on security, then again MS ratification will be needed.

There are other complications, which we need not go into at this stage, but it is a fair guess that for this agreement, in addition to Union ratification, the Member States will also have to be involved.

The process for Member States runs to two stages. Firstly, the treaty must be signed individually by the Member States, but the signatures are subject to ratification. Thus, a signature subject to ratification does not establish the party's consent to be bound. Such an agreement cannot enter into force unless it passes through a domestic ratification procedure.

There is once exception here, in that there can be a provisional application, if provided for in the agreement and agreed upon signature. In that case, the treaty can take effect and will remain in force unless one or other of the Member States refuse to ratify.

Here, of course, ratification procedures are not uniform. They are determined separately and individually in accordance with each of the Member States' constitutional requirements. Mostly, this will require parliamentary ratification and, in the case of Belgium, regional parliaments must also be included. Remarkably, for this country, when all levels are taken into account, the agreement needs to be approved by eight parliaments.

In most of the Member States, there is also the possibility of referendums to consider. Only in Germany and Belgium are they explicitly ruled out by their constitutions. In the majority of states, they are not ruled out and, in two – France and Holland – they are explicitly allowed.

If there is any doubt as to whether the UK-EU treaty will require Member State ratification, the ultimate arbiter will be the ECJ. In the event of an immediate disagreement, the process could be put on hold until the court has ruled. This, however, would not interrupt provisional application, if agreed.

Overall, the net effect of MS ratification is to give states much more power, affording each a veto over the treaty. And it is not entirely untoward that one or other of the states could say "no". This was predicted very early on by Ivan Rogers.

And then, if Macron – or for that matter Rutte – wanted a political escape route with an unpopular treaty (with, say, the fishermen kicking off), the buck could be passed by holding a referendum. That holds out the prospect of the UK's deal being brought down by French citizens voting in solidarity with their fishermen.

Either way, the process of ratification could be significantly delayed, adding substantially to the uncertainty of an already uncertain process. Individual parliaments can take many months to go through their procedures and there is absolutely no chance of MS ratification being completed by 31 December, if it is required.

In the meantime, though, it is not even certain that there will be a treaty to ratify. Johnson is said to be preparing a "significant intervention" some time this week, talking to von der Leyen in what could be a final act of theatre once the negotiators have decided that there is a way through to an agreement.

Alternatively, he could be called upon to make concessions that Frost and his team are not empowered to make, putting him on the line if the treaty is opposed by his hard line Brexiteers.

Following any agreement at negotiators' level, the European Parliament takes the next step on the Union side but, as with May's Withdrawal Agreement, it probably won't bother until the Westminster Parliament has done its stuff.

In the UK, legislation will also be required to bring the treaty into force, which means that approval of the legislation will be taken as ratification of the treaty. That means the most urgent deadline is on the UK side. Provided a provisional application is agreed, the Union can take its time.

And that is just as well. With 23 working languages in the EU, the translators are going to be very busy, especially as each version must then be checked out by the Commission lawyers to ensure that there are no local deviations.

With all that, one can imagine that it will be some considerable time before the fat lady is called upon to sing, unless there is some glorious fudge in the making and the Commission finds a creative way of standing Union law on its head.

All we can do is watch and wait, in the one certain knowledge that nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed – unless you know otherwise.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 23/11/2020 link

Lambs to the slaughter


Talks on the key obstacle to a Brexit agreement are “only just beginning”, the UK’s chief negotiator says – warning the two sides are “some way from a deal” says The Independent.

David Frost revealed a new UK offer to limit future state aid, put forward last week, is “not an extensive text” and that “details” will not be produced until next year. “We are some way from a deal at the moment, if I'm honest,” he told a Lords inquiry.

Speaking to the Lords EU committee, Lord Frost accepted the UK had to deliver a regime “compatible” with the EU’s – even after Brussels dropped its demand for “dynamic alignment” with its own.

“We are only just beginning a discussion about [if] is it possible to go further than you normally do in a free trade agreement,” he acknowledged. The debate was about “high level principles”,” he said, adding: “I don't think we are thinking in terms of extensive text, setting out the detail of how we design our system. “That will be for the consultation that will come later this year, or early next, and the legislative process.”

On the face of it, it doesn't look like the UK is in any great hurry to find agreement with the EU. Frost is talking about "high level principles" while the EU wants and needs details if it is to agree to anything. You could be forgiven for thinking there is no serious attempt to negotiate.

However, Frost also hinted at attempts to reach a fudge to avoid the worst impacts of a no-deal – even if a full deal proves impossible – saying there would be “lots of practical matters that we would need to cover”. Whether or not it has sunk in that those much vaunted "mini deals" are a non-starter, and that an FTA in no way resolves our customs woes, remains to be seen. Michael Gove seems to be preemptively blaming the haulage industry.

Reading other reports, we see that it's all much the same tedious soap opera we've had for weeks and months to the point where the mere suggestion of blogging it now brings on bouts of PTSD akin with Vietnam flashbacks. Since the whole thing is irretrievably wrecked either way I just wish they would do us the courtesy of ending it.

The real Brexit story of the day though, is the belated discovery that thousands of sheep farmers may go out of business if tariffs are imposed. Estimates by the Country Land and Business Association show that if exports remain around the same level as last year, but tariffs are imposed, about 3 million lamb carcasses normally destined for export to the EU would not find a market there.

Some unsold lambs, they say, would return to the UK market, where they would depress prices and leave thousands of farmers facing hardship and potentially going out of business. Even if UK lamb consumption increased, and as many unsold carcasses as possible were put in cold storage, the CLA estimates that up to 2 million could go to waste.

This, however, could still be the case with or without a deal, as we have warned from very early on. When faced with onerous official controls at Calais, with the addition of unwelcome competition from down under or across the pond, the UK livestock industry is looking at a disaster.

So much of this was predictable and predicted, and this should come as no surprise - except perhaps to Johnson and his fellow maladministrators. It may actually be worth it just to see Welsh sheep farmers descend on Whitehall to crucify him. One suspects, though, they'll have to join a very long queue.  

Also posted on Turbulent Times

Peter North 08/10/2020 link

Brexit: with a whimper


I don't know how I expected the UK's relationship to end. Before and during the referendum, I didn't have a mental picture and, after the famous victory, I was hoping for a Flexcit-type solution where we slipped effortlessly from full membership to a long-term transitional relationship based on EEA membership.

Bearing in mind that, in 2016, Johnson wasn't prime minister, I don't think anyone could have reasonably predicted that the wreckers were going to take over and drive us into a cul-de-sac.

Now, it seems, we are headed up that dead-end alley without an escape route as Johnson does his macho thing and tells the EU they must conclude Brexit talks by autumn "at the latest", with the threat that the UK will opt for a no-deal scenario unless there is a sign of agreement by the end of next month.

This bravado may impress Tory headbangers but it is a little too close to the Blazing Saddles gambit for comfort – the one where the non-white sheriff puts a gun to his head and warns his black life doesn’t matter, or words to that effect.

Johnson supporters need to be careful what they wish for. The "colleagues" could simply shrug their shoulders and walk away. Ostensibly, he is taking this line in order to "give certainty" to companies which, as the Telegraph puts it, are "affected by the UK's exit from the European Union". Perhaps someone should tell the paper that we already have left the EU. They are thinking about the end of the transition period.

But, whether or not this is real, or just posturing, we have at least some entertainment to look forward to when Johnson, his chief negotiator David Frost, and Gove hold "high-level talks" today with the "troika", Charles Michel, president of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, and David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament.

To maintain the entertainment quotient, more talks will follow in each week of the five weeks between June 29 and July 27, as the sides go through the motions of trying to conclude a trade agreement.

Lost in the memory hole, of course, are the warning voices who've been saying that a fully comprehensive deal might take eight years or more to negotiate, so even if there is some sort of a deal, it's going to be a pretty sorry thing – nothing to get excited about.

Basically, therefore, this isn't really a serious process, especially as we have a UK Government spokesman telling us, "There's a high-quality FTA to be done, based on the agreements the EU has already reached with other countries".

If we're into that sort of posturing, we might as well have everyone join in. That certainly seems to be the view of Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the WTO, who is saying that relying on WTO terms under no-deal would slow Britain’s recovery from coronavirus. Sticking closer to present arrangements would be better for jobs, he adds.

Bluntly, I don't know why he bothered with that comment, as we're not going to end up with "present arrangements", or anything like them. He does, though, have a point when he says that the car industry and agriculture would be hit particularly hard by failure to secure a deal, as they would be subject to heavy tariffs under default trade rules.

Once again though, this misses the point. Some sort of tariff deal is probably on the cards, as that is relatively easy to agree. But the killers are non-tariff barriers, which are far more problematical than tariffs, and usually more expensive. And there simply isn't time to agree anything of substance.

When it comes to the car industry though, one wonders whether "team Johnson" will decide to stick with UNECE's WP.29 automotive standards, in which case most, but not all non-tariff issues melt away.

In the absence of an agreement on Regulation 0, there is still the matter of type approval. To sell cars in the EEA states, car manufacturers will have to gain type approval for each model, from an approval agency based in one of the EU Member States.

Something similar will have to take place with the vastly more complex aviation component industry, with no convenient UNECE to set standards. There is next to no chance that we can conclude a deal on aviation safety standards, and certification procedures.

This is a discussion the legacy media have largely avoided having, and we're still seeing much of the focus on tariffs. Such is the elementary level of the discourse that, if Johnson is able to stitch up a basic tariff deal, then he will be able to proclaim it as a victory, and the Muppets will get away with it.

That much is evident from Andrew Marr's comments yesterday, when he had Azevêdo on his show. The idiot Marr introduced him as the man "in charge of administering" WTO rules. It would be more accurate to say that Azevêdo administers the organisation. The Ministerial Conference and the General Council (as well as the subordinate councils) administer the rules.

Then, we've long given up expecting anything better from Marr, but it was marginally worth reading the transcript to see Azevêdo's comments on global trading prospects for next year.

With the World Bank estimating that the global economy will contract by five percent, and the Eurozone by eight, we're in for a rough time even without Johnson's games. In 2009, the contraction was 1.8 percent and the last time we saw a peacetime contraction of five percent was in the Great Depression of 1932.

As to trade, projections fall into a range of between minus 13 and minus 32 percent. Minus 32 percent was hit during the Great Depression so, Azevêdo says, that is "pretty significant".

By contrast, the Director General says, WTO terms for the UK are "not a catastrophe" – something he's said before, although he does concede that they "will impose a number of adjustments and those can be painful, particularly for some sectors".

However, fighting a potential 32 percent downturn in global trade is also going to be painful. And you could say that a major depression, on top of the local restrictions arising from coronavirus controls, on top of a no-deal exit from the transitional period, might just qualify as catastrophic.

Needless to say, in the Marr interview, non-tariff barriers weren't mentioned at all, although there is a passing reference to "sanitary restrictions" for agricultural products. There is says Azevêdo, "the issue of recognition of standards, of sanitary standards, technical standards". Those are things, he tells Marr, "that can be differentiated between regions".

The reference passes by Marr though. It doesn't even register as he starts burbling about state aid rules and China.

Not anywhere, it seems, are we going to get any sense, with The Times (paywall) opining that a no-deal "would be a failure of statecraft". A "deal" seems now to be taken as a fixed quantum, with no possibility of graduations. A deal is a deal is a deal, it seems.

Thus, it cannot be said - by the legacy media, at any rate – that any deal is going to be a lousy deal, with very little to distinguish it from a no-deal. The prospects for a comprehensive trade deal evaporated long ago, and the best we can hope for is an amount of damage limitation.

Never failing to focus on the trivia, we thus have the BBC headline: "War of the deadlines at Brexit summit", forgetting even that it isn't a "Brexit" summit. We have actually left. This is a "trade talks" summit.

But as long as we can be distracted by meaningless dramas about deadlines, no one has to expend any energy on discussing the substance. Perhaps the more interesting thing is how the EU will manage to fudge a "non-extension" to buy time for the talks which will have to continue into next year.

Late in the day, though, a cross-party group of MPs is to urge the government today to allow a vote on extending the transition period, pointing to polls showing that voters would support it. Since Johnson (and Gove) have ruled out an extension, nothing is likely to change.  

Come the 31st December, therefore, our relationship with the EU is likely to come to an end. In the hands of the mediocrities that control our government, though, it will be with a whimper rather than a bang.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/06/2020 link

Brexit: the magic roundabout


We're nearly halfway through June. From the perspective of the beginning of the year, before we were engulfed in Covid-19, this was to be the crucial month. It was when that all-important decision was to be made, as to whether the transition period was going to be extended, or whether we were going to risk a no-deal termination.

When we were struck by Covid-19, the obvious option seemed delay, extending the transition period while the nation dealt with the immediate crisis. It never seems to make sense to intensify one crisis by piling on another. And even if a longer transition period did end up with us paying more money to the EU, it would be a fraction of what the epidemic was costing us.

Yet, what we got from government initially was silence and then, from numerous sources, intimations that on no account was there to be any application for an extension.

Then – I'm not sure when, or precisely from whom – we started getting suggestions that leaving without a deal had become a more tenable option because we had already taken the financial hit, so there was little pain to be had from walking away.

As such, though, this was never formal government policy. We don't seem to have formal policies on EU-related issues these days – nothing like a White Paper, where different options and consequences are set out, with a national debate before any decisions are taken.

Instead, we seem to have policy by osmosis. One day we don't have a policy. The next, we do - but it is just there. No-one seems to know where it came from or when it arrived. And it is there for as long as it is there, until it isn't. Then it's not there, even if it's impossible to say when it disappeared.

Insofar as it is possible to say, though, the "no-extension" policy is firm. But you never know these days. We could go to the eleventh hour and, as we did with the Withdrawal Agreement, find Johnson dashing off somewhere to do the last-minute deal that he said he would never do.

We also have to take into account the EU. Nothing is ever final with that lot. So when the "colleagues" say that the 30 June is the final, final deadline, we need only accept it as final for as long as it takes them to devise an ingenious fudge which gets everybody off the hook.

Generally, anything can happen. They could stop the clock – that's been done before, so that the talks can continue while time stands still. Or, from the people who brought you a "non-paper", we could have a "non-extension", whereby the transition continues in force even though it has not been formally extended.

In that case, we would all maintain the status quo for as long as everybody agreed to pretend that it was there, without anyone admitting that it was. They could create a virtual UK, which still had membership of the EU, or we could have a real UK with a virtual membership.

The thing is with the Johnson administration, you never know. You can never be sure of anything until it has happened, and even after it's happened, it can unhappen. Add the uncertainty of the EU, and its inventiveness when it comes to fudge recipes, and we could end up with a happening of unknown dimensions which only happens when you don't look at it.

Even if something is agreed at the end of June, or appears to have been, that doesn't mean that it will necessarily hold until 31 December. By that time, the wheel could have been reinvented, and whatever we thought the deal might have meant will not be what it actually means in the cold December sunlight – assuming we have any.

Some people, though, take the view that Johnson does want a deal, so will keep talking after whatever deadline is imposed, and will keep going until we get a deal.

Others think that the prime minister will fail to get anything more than the most basic of deals – barely more than a no-deal - but he will parade it as a great victory and pretend that it was everything that he wanted. But we may not be told what it is and we will only find out later quite what a disaster it is.

There is another possibility, though. The cumulative incompetence of this government may give rise to a surge of Covid-19 cases during the late autumn, creating crisis conditions which drive out other considerations. In the throes of a newly-imposed lockdown, we may end up with a no-deal termination to the transition period but no-one will notice.

On the other hand, as we noted yesterday, the best-laid schemes of mice and men may come to naught, if the European Parliament decides to veto whatever minimal deal is agreed. Personally, I don't see that happening. But you just never know.

There is, of course, another possibility, one posited by the Financial Times. This has the government abandon any idea of being a normal nation, allowing most goods to enter the UK with minimal import checks, in order to speed up traffic flows.

Thus, when the government takes back control of our laws and borders at the end of this year, it turns out that it will apply no checks at our borders, so that we have very little control over what comes in. This is what is known technically as taking "a pragmatic and flexible approach". Others might have another name for it.

The only BAME person in the woodpile on this though is that, while the UK government is at liberty to waive checks on incoming goods, exports to EU Member States will be exposed to the full range of checks, and will require comprehensive paperwork before they are allowed entry.

What will most certainly happen then is that there will be considerable congestion in French and other Channel ports, which will delay traffic coming here. It will also extend the delivery timescale, which means fewer journeys per truck, putting greater strain on the already creaking transport infrastructure.

If the UK is accepting imports without checks, though – in the context where some of these goods will be used in exported goods, the EU many intensify checks on anything coming out of the UK, on the basis that risks are higher than normal.

The chances, therefore, that unilateral action at our ports will provide any relief lie in the realms of fantasy. As with so many things, this government doesn't seem to have thought it through. This will most likely reflect in other areas, where the Johnson and his ministers seem to have a very limited grasp of the issues.

This points to yet another and perhaps even more disturbing possibility. While we are carefully evaluating all the possibilities a reasonable government might consider, the reality might be that we are not dealing with a reasonable government.

Instead, we might be faced with a magical mystery tour in the grip of an administration that doesn't know what it is doing, and has failed to get to grips with the basics of post-Brexit trade.

Furthermore, it does not seem to have occurred to the government that, once we leave the EU and the Single Market, we cease to benefit from control systems which ensure basic product standards are kept. Without them, the UK could easily become the dumping ground for sub-standard goods, including unsafe food which gives rise to food poisoning or other ailments.

It can only be a matter of time before a consumer scare of one type of another has the media – and opposition MPs – demanding the imposition of rigorous import checks. One can even imagine legal action being taken to force the issue.

This also neglects the real risk of the UK being targeted by criminal gangs, using our market as the dumping ground for all manner of illegal goods, as well as people and drug trafficking. As we will be no longer linked into the EU's customs intelligence system, it will be very difficult to secure any level of safety without physical checks.

One can only hope, therefore, that the government is playing a vast practical joke on us and that, secretly, it really does have a spiffingly good plan ready to drop into place on 1 January. Somehow, though, I suspect we'll be back on the magic roundabout.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 12/06/2020 link

Politics: hole digging


It isn't an exaggeration to say that this country is a mess – or parts of it. Some things still seem to work. An electricity cable break the night before last, which cut off the houses opposite, had a digger out within hours and a repair crew outside my front door until 4 am. They restored the supply, but left the street looking like an outtake from the battle of the Somme.

And that's the odd thing. Services such as Amazon – whatever you might think of them – work superbly. I still cannot get used to the idea of clicking a button on the computer and having all manner of goods arrive on the doorstep the next day. Although right now, they'd have to navigate our personal trench system to make a delivery.

But many of the things to do with government or public services, it seems, are a train wreck, especially the NHS. By next year, it is estimated that there will be 10 million people on the waiting list, needing treatment.

It doesn't help that I'm one of them, waiting for a small operation that's normally day surgery, to relieve the constant pain of an uncooperative part of my anatomy. And that's not a cry for sympathy – I can deal with it, not least with the help of industrial quantities of pain killers, and it improves my writing no end.

But it is a daily reminder that a shit system has become a whole lot shittier, and isn't set to get better any time soon. And we're being enjoined by the Department of Health to give this organisation a clap on its 72nd birthday in July, despite the fact that so many people will not live to see their 72nd birthdays because of it.

But this is the least of some people's problems. For those facing a mountain of debt, or struggling to keep their businesses going, or wondering whether they'll even have a job after the summer, life must be a nightmare. Even the ongoing task of childcare is made all the more uncertain by the extraordinary mess the government has made of the lockdown.

Of all the problems in this benighted nation, therefore, one of the lowest on many people's list is the continued presence in public places of statues deemed "offensive" to the woke community.

For this to become a front-line issue, with an extraordinary amount of time and effort being devoted to it, strikes me as narcissistic self-obsession amongst people who have lost sight of what hardship really is – if they ever knew. Seriously, there really are more important things going on in the world right now.

Amongst those of immediate concern is the plight of our small but important fishing industry, which is waiting on the pleasure of her majesty's government to settle a deal with the EU which will keep the fleet operational after the end of December.

As it stands, it looks as if the government, with the incompetence for which it is becoming famed, it is about to fudge the chance of any agreement. This has the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, Barrie Deas, gloomily predicting that "July looks like a goner for a deal".

It would seem, however, that fishermen are not the only ones on the slab. We are being told that the European Parliament is considering vetoing – as it is entitled to do - any EU-UK trade deal that lacks "robust" level playing field provisions.

But it is a measure of the total unreality of this government that, faced with impending disaster, the prattling prime minister yesterday stood in front of the television cameras to announce a further relaxation of the lockdown, telling us that single parents and people living alone will be allowed to combine with another household to form a "support bubble".

Needless to say, this particular piece of stupidity applies only to England, with the prime minister declaring that single adults living alone will be "allowed" to go inside one other household and even stay overnight without maintaining physical distancing. But once a "bubble" is chosen, no switching is permitted.

There is obviously no feedback mechanism in Downing Street, because Johnson was obviously not listening to himself. Under his baleful eye, the mighty arm of the State is now awarding itself the power to decide whether certain consenting adults can sleep with each other, and under what circumstances.

It also means, apparently, that children can now hug their grandparents again – but not all of them. Children living with a single parent can see one set of grandparents who are living together. Children living with both parents, though, can only visit one grandparent who is living alone.

All this, incidentally, is from a government which is unable to prevent 10,000 or so morons assembling in Bristol, some of them to witness the dumping of a statue in the harbour, or a toe-rag attempting to set fire to a flag on the Cenotaph. If that one had had more than two brain cells, he might have known that EU-regulations on use of fire retardants make flags almost impossible to burn.

The point about the new "cohabitation" law, of course, is that it is completely unenforceable. What's more, after so many people have watched in dismay televised scenes of demonstrators breaking the lockdown rules by the tens of thousands, they are not so much inclined to "take the knee" as give a finger.

Yet, if that represents the mood of the "silent majority", there are papers such as the Guardian who still don't "get it", and probably never will. Entirely at ease with vandals trashing statues, the paper is now wetting itself over the prospect of "far-right" groups mobilising to defend them.

It gives space to Joe Mulhall, from Hope Not Hate, who gibbers that the police “need to take the danger seriously", warning of "the potential for conflict on the streets" if "BLM protesters or other anti-facist groups turned up to launch a counter-demonstration".

The sub-text here is that the statue-trashers must be allowed freedom to roam the streets, while the police look on with approval. Anyone who disagrees is immediately branded "far right", and a danger to all personkind.

Tim Newburn, described as a "professor of criminology at the London School of Economics", is then wheeled on to tell us that people who stand in to protect public property because the police have ceased to do their job, "could become extremely problematic".

What happens, says our Tim, is that "the police start to look like they are protecting the smaller of the two groups, which is likely to be the far right". No wonder things are going to rack and ruin when a "professor of criminology" no longer seems to know what a criminal is.

The Guardian, by the way, tells us that it stands "in solidarity with the struggle for truth, humanity and justice", but obviously not for self-appointed statue guards. When these are not "football hooligans", they are "far right" dross who need to be expunged from the face of the earth.

The Daily Mail, of course, is having a field day, the online version leading on a story recounting: "Shocking scenes as passers-by attack policeman and pose for selfies next to him as he wrestles with suspect in London street".

Widely shared on Twitter, the video footage hosted on the site shows a police officer being punched in the head as he wrestles a suspect to the ground in Hackney. As a crowd gathered around one of the officers, a second man could be seen arriving with a baseball bat. Footage shows one officer being punched in the head, while another officer was kicked by a group as she comes to her colleague's aid.

The paper discreetly avoids mentioning that the assailants and most of the "passers-by" are black – or dark-brown BAMEs if you prefer – as is the suspect to which the police are devoting their energies. The hordes of unreconstructed "wascists" who patronise the Mail site will draw their own conclusions: black lives matter.

One, however, loses the will to live when the police spokesthing tells us, "We are engaging with our community partners to discuss what happened and I hope that anyone who witnessed what happened comes forward and speaks with us". Don't they realise that, every time they open their mouths, a fairy dies?

And so it is that it is increasingly difficult to make any sense of this increasingly mad world. But at least I now have a hole outside my front door into which I can retreat. The electricity company might have stopped digging – for now. But that doesn't mean I have to.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 11/06/2020 link

Brexit: rage-tinted spectacles


On a site, until the advent of Covid-19, that was dedicated to Brexit, we've been remarkably remiss in not following the ins and outs of the "future relationship" negotiations as we lurch towards the end of June and the near-certainty of a refusal to extend the transition period.

Personally, it is not so much that I lack interest in the subject – how could I be other than interested in a topic that has been an obsession for the better part of my working life? But what kills it in terms of following the ongoing narrative is the very certainty, or near-certainty.

Ending the transition period at the end of the year seems, to all intents and purposes, a done deal. And if that is the case, then the talks are a charade – boxers circling in a ring, where neither one has the intention of hitting the other. They will go round and round until the bell rings and then retreat to their corners.

One could argue, however, that not even Johnson is so stupid as to take us out into the world, lacking a trade deal with the EU. But there is another certainty – he really is that stupid. And he has a lot of equally stupid supporters around him, including one Dominic Cummings, who are ready to reassure him that ending the transition period without a deal is the right thing to do.

What price Barnier warning Johnson that "he must keep his promises if he wants to avoid the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic"? Is this part of the ritual danse macabre or does the EU's chief negotiator really believe that Johnson will suddenly see the error of his ways and come rushing to the table at this month's summit, chastened and ready to talk sense?

Or is it just that Barnier is talking to his own domestic audience when he accuses the UK prime minister of backsliding on commitments made in the political declaration? In which case, what is the point in issuing an ultimatum, telling us that there will not be an "agreement at any cost", especially when it is directed to an English newspaper?

One suspects, though, that the timing might have something to do with it. This week sees the start of the fourth round of 'Brexit' talks, and it may be the last chance for serious negotiation before the end of the month and the shutters come down on the extension window, leaving us with the countdown to disaster.

With that in mind, Barnier is complaining that the UK has been taking "a step back - two steps back, three steps back - from the original commitments" in the political declaration. UK negotiators, he says, need to be fully in line with what the prime minister signed up to with us, because 27 heads of state and government and the European parliament do not have a short memory.

It does sound rather ominous though when he tells us: "We remember very clearly the text which we negotiated with Boris Johnson. And we just want to see that complied with. To the letter... And if that doesn’t happen, there will be no agreement".

This almost has the ring of a Mafia enforcer hinting darkly, "we know where you live", although it'll likely have about as much impact as a bailiff telling a homeless man that he's about to be evicted. Johnson, on the home front, thinks he has nothing to lose.

Already, there are clear indications that this is water off a duck's back, with Downing Street responding with accusations that the EU is trying to drag out the negotiations until it's too late to do a deal.

It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, that negotiations have stalled, and they are not set to go anywhere if senior British government figures are claiming that Brussels is either "not ready or not willing to inject momentum" into the talks, and make the compromises necessary for an agreement.

Needless to say, nothing much has moved since we last looked at the issue. At centre stage is still the same old argument about level playing fields, with no new arguments to inject into a debate so stale that if it was bread, you'd be taking a club hammer to it.

Then, of course, there are the negotiations on the access of the EU fishing fleet to UK waters, which is going absolutely nowhere. There's actually too much bad blood on this for the UK to make any concessions, with too much history to forget. Perversely, it is unreasonable for the EU to expect rationality, but then the Commission has its own problems trying to keep marauding Spaniards at bay.

That said, Barnier does have a point about needing to avoid "the double economic hit of a no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic". He needs, though, to stop calling it Brexit – we've already left. Perhaps we need something new – like "transend", or "extran". Anything but Brexit.

The trouble is that the Tories seem already to have priced in Covid, arguing that we can now afford to take the no-deal "hit", because the damage to trade and the economy in general has already been done. If there are no aircraft flying, and the ferries are coming over empty (the few that are running), nobody is going to notice when we lose our Single Market rights.

There is also a strain of opinion that has it that we need a clean break from the EU so as to expedite our trade deals with other third countries, and thus speed up our economic recovery from Covid. The ability of some pundits to turn facts on their head is legion. Going "full Boris" with a no-deal "transex" (nah) is going to catapult our economy into the stone age, and delay any recovery.

But what characterises the argument is the lack of it – argument, that is. When you have the morons' mouthpiece, aka the Daily Express headlining, "Boris to defy EU Brexit bullies", it's pretty obvious that the intellectual capacity of the nation has lost some ground.

If – as we do – we have a situation where there is a binary breakdown into "goodies" and "baddies", and the EU is characterised as a "bully", to be resisted at every opportunity, then we only have one direction to go. That is down.

When Barnier thus talks of the need for "damage limitation" and suggests that we have a "joint responsibility" in this very serious crisis, this isn't seen as wise counsel or emollience. Rather, it is another example of EU bullying.

By the same token, when he tells us that the crisis is affecting families, with so many deaths, so many people sick, so many people unemployed that we must "do everything we can to reach an agreement", this is seen through rage-tinted spectacles and taken as another Brussels "threat".

With logic having taken a nose-dive through a tenth-storey window, there is no way back. Pete talks of weaponising groupthink and the concept of "ignorance farming", where the combined forces of the Telegraph, Express, Guido and Breitbart cultivate the ignorance of their readers in order to provide a lumpen mass of support for an increasingly unresponsive government.

With that, Barnier is probably wasting his time. If he thought about it, and expended a great deal of political and intellectual capital, he could probably engineer a better deal to offer the UK.

For instance, where there is quite reasonably concern about the cost of any transition extension – in terms of ongoing contributions – the EU could perhaps be cajoled into offering the UK a substantial discount. Between getting nothing and something, it has nothing to lose.

For the moment though, even if this was on the agenda (it isn't), EU negotiators would not think it worth the bother. The UK will say "no" anyway, and will treat it as a sign of weakness – a platform for demanding more concessions.

As long as the UK is wearing its rage-tinted spectacles, there is no mileage (kilometrage?) in Barnier playing nice. For him and the EU he represents, the negotiations are a lose-lose. He might just as well set out his stall and tell the UK to take it or leave it. And since Johnson seems determined to walk away, Barnier's best bet is to make the loss look as big as possible.

Maybe that's what he's doing. Or maybe not. We'll know by the end of the month, unless there is another last-minute fudge, and we may as well not expend any energy on speculation. We'll need it later.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 01/06/2020 link

Coronavirus: great intentions


Obviously fed up with merely moving on, an increasingly irritable prime minister has resorted to drawing lines. He has yet to specify the crayons or the colour but, since the primary schools are still closed, there is plenty to choose from.

However, while Johnson wants to stand behind an uncrossable line, it doesn't look as if the rest of the world is too keen on playing. The Cummings crisis is just as active as ever it was, making it not so much uncrossable as dotted.

And yet, if we are to pay careful heed to the words of the prime minister, when he was asked at yesterday's presser why anyone should take the rules seriously if Cummings didn't, he actually said: "I've said quite a lot on this matter already. Durham Police said they were going to take no action, and that the matter was closed". Only then did he add: "… and I intend to draw a line under the matter".

So, actually, Johnson hasn't got round to borrowing a crayon set from the local primary. He only intends to draw a line. And knowing this prime minister, that could be any time, or not at all. If this man shakes your hand, you count your fingers. As for lines, you cross them when you come to them.

Nevertheless, all this talk of lines rather took the journos' eyes off the ball – or perhaps they were never really on it. Not one has ever asked why, in order to lift the lockdown, Johnson has devised five tests while the WHO has suggested six.

Furthermore, Johnson's five tests are in important respects significantly different from the WHO criteria. These require that public health and health system capacities are in place to identify, isolate, test, trace contacts and quarantine them, and that outbreak risks are minimised in high-vulnerability settings, particularly in homes for older people, mental health facilities and crowded places of residence.

Since neither of those criteria are in place, one can only assume that the WHO would not be too happy with Johnson's lockdown relaxation programme. But since they are not on the list, the prime minister can fudge the figures and make out that we are on the way to a brighter, more relaxed future – which is exactly what he did yesterday.

As he intends to draw only one line, though, we have a little bit of difficulty. In order to read between the lines of what the prime minister was saying, we really need two to be going on with. And with only an intention to work with, we can't even dart round the edges of the forthcoming line and pretend it's two.

But intentions are really what Johnson is all about these days – all he's ever really been about. For instance, he doubtless intended to be a good prime minister, but that somehow got lost on the way.

In his attempts to beat the virus, he intended to have a world class test and trace system up and running by 1 June. But yesterday we learnt that it would not be fully operational until the end of June.

This came out in a conference call between the disaster-prone Dido Harding and a group of MPs. Not all the 25,000 people who had been recruited, she admitted, had been fully trained – and that was even accepting that the process undergone by the gig-economy telephone operators actually constituted training – and the all-important process of integrating with local government and its teams of experienced contact tracers "was yet to be completed" .

That, however, is only the half of it. As the system opened for business yesterday, the website crashed, with staff unable to log in and commence work. Others found their phones not working and other technical faults, leading one new recruit to observe that the system was "a sticking plaster", made to look as if it is being delivered.

As to the local government operation, Devon county council is one of the so-called 11 "beacon areas" identified by the government for extra funding to enable it to put a test and trace system in operation.

Yet, although it has been told it has until the end of June to put its plans in place, it hasn't been given any detail about how it’s supposed to link up, or how to enforce against people who don’t comply with requests to self-isolate. All they've been told is to have a plan in place.

To add to their woes, a potentially fatal flaw in the system has been reported: up to 350,000 test samples – those carried out at drive-through centres between 2 April and 6 May – have been taken without recording individual NHS numbers or full addresses.

This was picked up by the Manchester Evening News last week and reported on this blog, flaws which make the data effectively unusable to local investigators.

This, to an extent, was foreseeable. In my very first major outbreak investigation – back in 1976 - we had something like 600 cases dumped on us in a matter of days.

As it transpired, one of the forms which accompanied the samples we took was badly designed . Inspectors kept missing vital information, because it was not clear what was wanted. Many of the samples collected were unusable and, midway through the outbreak, a substantial resource had to be devoted to re-sampling.

The point here is that sampling is the easy bit. The crucial part is to make sure that the administrative system is effective – so that the samples go to the right lab, with the right data, and the results are then processed and returned to investigators in a timely fashion.

Getting a working system up and running is never simple. There are so many working parts, and so many things that can go wrong, that systems have to be devised, trialled and refined, until all the bugs have been sorted. Put an untried system into the crucible of a major outbreak and it will most likely collapse – which is exactly what is happening here.

Then there is the system on the ground – with this report pointing to some of the practical difficulties, not least the struggle to extract information from healthcare workers, particularly in the NHS.

Notwithstanding the technical flaws, this points to another fundamental flaw in the system. Covid-19 is nothing if not a hospital acquired disease, with hospitals becoming reservoirs of infection, seeding the communities they serve.

Those who have had practical experience of dealing with the NHS – the monolithic nature of the bureaucracy and the natural inclination towards secrecy - already know something of the problems faced. In food hygiene days, it wasn't until we had got rid of Crown Immunity and started prosecuting NHS managers that the service woke up to the need to stop poisoning patients and did something about their kitchens.

The only way the system is going to work is if it is wholly independent of the NHS, staffed by experienced law enforcement officers (such as EHOs) who can prise information out of this organisation.

Fundamentally, contact tracing is a law enforcement function. Under public health powers, we were armed with detention powers, which we were able to use in the event of non-cooperation. This is not a job for amateur call-centre operators, or even Public Health England muppets.

And this, interestingly, is what this report states, noting that tracing "would be backed up by the law, by the environmental health officers who have absolute authority". Our powers, in this respect, were greater than those held by the police, where we could apply for a magistrate's order to detain those suspected of carrying disease.

Unsurprisingly, of that system, we see a report that only one-third of people asked to self-isolate actually complied with the request.

The trouble is that the likes of Johnson and Hancock have no idea of what an effective system looks like, and neither do Whitty or Vallance. They simply lack the practical experience and background, while institutional knowledge has been lost. In short, they haven't a clue, and they're not prepared to listen to those who have.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find the Guardian suggest that, after PPE and testing, contact tracing looks like the next UK shambles. Pete has the same idea.

But, for Johnson, nothing of this matters. He intends to provide a "world class" contact tracing system and, locked in his own fantasy world, the great intention becomes the reality. He reminds me of that 1965 Animals song, which went: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood".

Interestingly, the follow-up was: "We gotta get out of this place".

Richard North 29/05/2020 link

Coronavirus: a lack of preparation (again)


Anyone who has been tracking Brexit over the years has learnt to accept that the media, in general, is issue illiterate and largely ignorant on the detail of the functioning of the European Union. And I cannot honestly say that any media organ has got to grips with the technicalities of Brexit, or the options available.

The Covid-19 epidemic, however, has brought to light a new dimension of ineptitude into the legacy media as we see it adding a level of innumeracy so profound that it makes a nonsense of any attempt to track the progress of the epidemic through popular media reports.

Never more so has the aphorism been true that if you don't buy a paper you will be uninformed but, if you do buy one, you will be ill-informed.

To pick on one example, illustrative of the broader tendency, we see in the online edition of the Mail - the content of which appears in the today's print edition – the "revelation" from Dominic Raab that the lockdown will continue.

That, obviously, is fair enough. It comes straight out of yesterday's presser, with him warning that "the worst is yet to come", as officials announce 717 more UK deaths. But, says the paper, the "daily toll drops for a third day in a row".

It is, as one might expect, this last comment that is particularly irritating. As we have learned, the figures released daily by the Department of Health/Public Health England are composites of multiple days and do not represent any single day. Therefore, no valid trend can be inferred from these figures which, even without the many other errors that could affect them, could conceal an underlying increase.

For sure, the death toll (for the UK), in reverse order, for the last three days stands at 917, 737 and 717 – ostensibly giving some grounds for optimism. But, the current NHS England figures are incomplete and it will take as long as a week before any meaning can be drawn from them.

Furthermore, that latter statement is an absolute. The corrected figures for the last three days, again in reverse order, stand at 516, 443 and 118 deaths. But as the reports come in on successive days, these will be corrected, and corrected again, over the next two weeks. Each figure will look very different from what it is now.

One wonders, therefore, from where Raab gets his information that allows him so confidently to assert that "the worst is yet to come". It can't be the hospital admission figures, which are supposedly coming down (in London, at least). Perhaps it is the daily mortuary figures, which are not released publicly, but which will give a rough indication of which way the trend is going.

Whatever the source of Raab's information, his caution is reinforced by CSA Vallance, who tells us that the lockdown measures will only be lifted "when we are firmly the other side" of the peak, and the rate of infection is coming down. "It would be a complete waste of everything everyone has had to do until now", he says, if measures were lifted too soon and the infection rate simply rises again.

Here, though, Vallance seems to be exploiting the gullibility and technical illiteracy of the media, as a drop in the infection rate is by no means sufficient grounds to lift the lockdown.

In fact, it was only a few days ago, widely reported by the media, that the World Health Organisation set out its criteria for easing restrictions.

It lists not one but six "important factors to consider". Only the first is that transmission is controlled. Secondly, sufficient public health and medical services, which includes the ability quickly to detect, test, isolate and treat new cases as well as to trace close contacts.

Thirdly, outbreak risks in special settings like long-term care facilities must be minimised, fourthly preventive measures must be in place in workplaces, schools and other places where it's essential for people to go, fifth, importation risks must be managed; and sixth, communities are fully aware and engaged in the transition.

Arguably, the UK currently fulfils none of these criteria and even if we saw transmission declining, there would be considerable difficulty in coming up to specification on the other factors – and especially the "test and trace" elements of the public health system.

If, however, the media are content to boil down the criteria into the one factor – whether the transmission rate is down – ministers once again will have been allowed to fudge issue and allow the country to drift into a relaxed lockdown, for which it will be almost completely unprepared.

Specifically, despite the merits of "test and trace" having been well-rehearsed, with good evidence of its value coming from Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, there are no indications whatsoever that the UK government is preparing to enhance its public health measures.

Interestingly, even in the United States, with Boston, Mass the example here, the need to track down contacts and test them is being recognised. An "army" of workers is being recruited in Massachusetts, where state officials say they will eventually deploy nearly 1,000 people to do contact tracing.

In the UK, of course, we have local authority environmental health departments which, if pushed (even to the extent of calling up recently retired officials) could field as many as 10,000 trained staff. But there is not the slightest indication that government intends to use this resource.

Neither do we see any serious measures in place to address the serious situation in care homes, where Covid-19 is quite evidently rampant. Rather, the government seems to be intent on sweeping under the carpet this epidemic within an epidemic.

The point here though is that, if infection is rampant in care homes, these units become reservoirs of infection which can re-introduce Covid-19 back into the community even when it otherwise seems to be under control. For a very good reason, therefore, the WHO wants outbreak risks in special settings controlled.

Furthermore, this will extend beyond just care homes to hospitals (which are themselves major reservoirs of infection), and to facilities such as prisons and immigration detention centres, as well as homeless hostels and other accommodation centres where infection can easily be spread. At the very least, there needs to be enhanced surveillance and routine background testing. Yet, as we see, not even suspected Covid-19 cases in care homes are being tested.

As to the risk attendant on workplaces, the private sector has been active in protecting employees, but the efforts have been patchy. In the construction industry, for instance, hygiene facilities were often minimal and social distancing non-existent.

Before we could be sure that it was safe to go ahead with workplace relaxation, we would need to see very clear and sector-specific rules from government, with effective enforcement measures in place.

The "importation" issue is another questionable area. While some governments are imposing mandatory quarantine on travellers coming into their countries – with supervised hotels set aside for this purpose - almost daily we see reports of people flying in from hotspots all over the world and being allowed entry into the UK without screening or any mandatory isolation.

Finally, it is debatable as to whether the public is "fully aware and engaged", to the extent that any transition to a more relaxed regime can be self-policing. But unless we can be confident that people will not go beyond the limits set, then any relaxation could become a very dangerous experiment.

Relaxing the lockdown, therefore, is more than a matter of government offering a few facile slogans and letting nature (in the form of SARS-Cov-2) take its course. This needs to be a structured, carefully managed process.

But, unless the public debate can progress beyond simplistic considerations of a drop in the transmission rate, we risk being as unprepared for the relaxation as we were for the original lockdown.

Richard North 14/04/2020 link

Coronavirus: buying time


The daily figures for Covid-19 cases and deaths have been getting later each day but yesterday Public Health England excelled itself. It was well past nine in the evening before they finally appeared and then with the caveat, "these figures do not cover a full 24 hour period".

Nevertheless, the 1,542 increase in the cases was impressive enough, bringing the total to 9,529. But the 463 dead reported – up only ten percent from 422 the previous day – is significantly less than might have been expected.

Conveniently, the lateness of the hour and the fact that they are incomplete have kept the figures out of the headlines, leaving the media all over the place. Some newspapers have Johnson's "volunteer army" for their front pages while some pick on the promised availability of a virus test. Almost all feature Prince Charles as a mild coronavirus sufferer.

But yesterday was also a day when, it seems, there was an intent to inject a note of optimism into the proceedings, with Foot & Mouth modeller Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London telling us that the crisis could be over by Easter. Furthermore, Ferguson is "confident" that the NHS can remain "within capacity" and cope with the surge of cases.

Ferguson is a member of the government's scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), and has produced a report suggesting no more than 20,000 people might die from coronavirus. And in his optimism for an early peak for the epidemic, he has the support of deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries who also believes the worst might be over by Easter.

Strangely, though, even the fanboy gazette is casting doubt on the magical predictions of the modellers, noting the absence of reliable data and urging caution in its interpretation.

It quotes Rosalind Smyth, director and professor of child health, at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, warning that Britain simply has no idea how many cases it has because of a lack of testing. "On conservative estimates", she says, "the true figure is likely to be five to ten times higher".

These are the sort of issues I was addressing a week ago in my post on "number crunchers", and now, even the Guardian is getting in on the act with a piece headed: "The UK's coronavirus policy may sound scientific. It isn't".

This is a commentary by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering and author of The Black Swan, together with Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex System Institute, and they have some interesting observations to make.

Firstly, the pair rather put the modelling fantasy into perspective, telling us that their work did not use any complicated model with a vast number of variables. It was no more necessary that "someone watching an avalanche heading in their direction calls for complicated statistical models to see if they need to get out of the way".

The trouble I find, though, is that these modellers, with their graphs and charts and the faux certainties offered by complex computer calculations, based on mysterious formulae and algorithms, have a strange allure for hard-pressed politicians in crisis situations, seemingly giving the comfort of certainties that simply do not exist.

Taleb and Bar-Yam actually point out that the error in the UK, in managing this epidemic is on two levels: modelling and policy-making.

Firstly, at the modelling level, they say that the government relied at all stages on epidemiological models that were designed to show us roughly what happens when a preselected set of actions are made, and not what we should make happen, and how.

As such, the modellers use hypotheses/assumptions, which they then feed into models, and use to draw conclusions and make policy recommendations. But the assumptions are untested and lack robustness. They are fine as academic models but, say Taleb and Bar-Yam, "if we base our pandemic response plans on flawed academic models, people die. And they will".

This was the case, they say, with the disastrous "herd immunity" thesis which, in fact, was nothing more than a dressed-up version of a "just do nothing" approach which never had the slightest chance of working – as indeed I pointed out at the time.

But the second, and more grave error, is the policymaking. No 10, we are told, appears to be enamoured with "scientism" – things that have the cosmetic attributes of science but without its rigour, this making it so attractive to politicians (and their advisors) who have a limited grasp of science.

This, say Taleb and Bar-Yam, manifests itself in the nudge group that engages in experimenting with UK citizens or applying methods from behavioural economics that fail to work outside the university – yet patronise citizens as an insult to their ancestral wisdom and risk-perception apparatus.

Social science, they say, is in a "replication crisis", where less than half the results replicate (under exact same conditions), less than a tenth can be taken seriously, and less than a hundredth translate into the real world.

So what is called "evidence-based" methods have a dire track record and are pretty much evidence-free. This scientism also manifests itself in Cummings's love of complexity and complex systems - which he appears to apply incorrectly. And letting a segment of the population die for the sake of the economy is a false dichotomy – aside from the moral repugnance of the idea.

The view of Taleb and Bar-Yam is that, when dealing with deep uncertainty, both governance and precaution require us to hedge for the worst. While risk-taking is a business that is left to individuals, collective safety and systemic risk are the business of the state. Failing that mandate of prudence by gambling with the lives of citizens is a professional wrongdoing that extends beyond academic mistake; it is a violation of the ethics of governing.

The obvious policy left now, they say, is a lockdown, with overactive testing and contact tracing: follow the evidence from China and South Korea rather than thousands of error-prone computer codes. Thus, "we have wasted weeks, and ones that matter with a multiplicative threat".

Yet, for all that, they have said nothing that hasn't already been said on this blog, and elsewhere. There only place where there is no sense of control is No.10, where Johnson continued to wing it, buoyed by extremely dubious modelling from the same team that brought us death and destruction in the Foot & Mouth epidemic.

As yet, though, the Johnson administration doesn't have a plan B, but you have to admire its skills in creating the superb distraction of the "volunteer army", which has the media taking its eye off the ball. But, with both Italy and now Spain, leading the way in emergency treatment (pictured), indicating our direction of travel, this can surely only be short-lived.

One gets a sense though that, deep down, Johnson still thinks this is a problem that will go away of its own accord, and that all he needs to do is hold his nerve until the crisis abates. And if that is the case, the likes of Neil Ferguson are playing to his weakness, bolstering his fantasies.

For the moment also, this is buying time, as is the promise of home testing kits, which may or may not be available in the near future. But while, as I recently warned, you can't bullshit a virus, fudging the figures will only give you so much respite before reality comes crowding in.

And, as Pete illustrates, there are complications to this epidemic that go way beyond Johnson's limited competence to deal with. Having failed even to grasp the domestic dimensions, his dire tenure as foreign secretary make it unlikely that he will be able to deal with the broader international issues.

However, if it was buying time that Johnson was after, it looks as if he has partially succeeded. An astute politician, though, buys time to seek solutions. Johnson seems just to be deferring the crisis in the hope that it will go away. It won't.

Richard North 26/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: not theoretically impossible


In what has been described as a somewhat rambling performance yesterday, Johnson has excelled even himself in contradicting his own message to the plebs at large.

This was in his daily press conference where he opened the proceedings by declaring that everything was in hand with the Covid-19 epidemic, despite it having so far delivered 3,269 confirmed cases in the UK, up 603 from the day previously, with the body count now at 144.

"We can turn the tide in the next 12 weeks", he announced to his audience of journalists, "and I'm absolutely confident that we can send the coronavirus packing in this country".

This was the Johnson his fanboys know and love, the man who will cut through the doom and gloom, the man who in the best tradition of the Beano will grab this virus by the short and curlies and send it packing. Oh to be in England now that Johnson's here.

There was, of course, one minor snag. This was only going to happen if "we take the steps, we all take the steps that we have outlined and behind them when what we are asking everyone to do is so crucial for saving literally thousands of lives by defeating this virus".

I suppose he knew what he meant to say, but one can understand why his performance was described as "rambling". But that did not stop one of the journos present noting that the Dennis the Menace of politics was suggesting to the public that, if they follow the rules, he the great Johnson could "turn the tide on this disease".

"Are you telling people", the hack continued, seeking confirmation of this startling claim, that by the summer they might, they just might be able to go back to normal life, that they might even "be able to go on their summer holidays?"

At this stage, the prime minister was still in his can-do mode, borrowing from his Brexit rhetoric. "I'm very confident we'll get this thing done", he said, and without even having to promise to die in a ditch. There were plenty of other people about to do that for him now that, after his wasted weeks, patients were being turned away from a London hospital, following in the wake of Italy.

"I'm very confident that we'll beat coronavirus", Johnson repeated, heedless of the growing crisis. "I think we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks", he said. But, he was quick to remind us, "it depends on collective, resolute action".

There was no stopping this wave of optimism. The great man was encouraged to find that "the more disciplined" we could be in doing that, "the greater the chances that the scientific community will be able soon to come up with the fantastic results on testing, to say nothing of the other medical treatments".

This is from a man who can't even discipline his own hair, but at least he was able to tell the hackery that "testing" was "crucial to our success in defeating this virus". Now he tells us.

But it took a hack from his own fanboy gazette to tease any more out of him, and even under this gentle probing, his coherence fell apart. "What I want to do is to get on top of it", he roundly declared, notwithstanding his earlier determination that so many should die in order to achieve the nirvana of "herd immunity".

The only trouble is, he mused, "at the moment the disease is proceeding in a way that does not seem yet to be responding to our interventions". No shit Sherlock, one might have said, although no-one in the room articulated this out loud.

Nevertheless, this virus was going to be sent packing … wasn't it? Johnson certainly believed, or so he said, that "a combination of the measures that we're asking the public to take and better testing, scientific progress, will enable us to get on top of it within the next 12 weeks and turn the tide".

But then it all crumbled away to dust. "Now, I cannot stand here and tell you we will have by the end of June, er that we will be on the downward slope", he added, "It's possible", he tentatively advanced, "but I simply can't say that that's for certain. Of course, not".

And then came the admission: "We don't know where we are and we don't know how long this thing will go on for". But never fear. What the prime minister could say was that the epidemic was "going to be finite". As to turning the tide, well that's what tides do, so it was going to turn. Yet, all he could really offer was the promise that he could "see how to do it within the next 12 weeks".

So there we all are, saved at last. Weeks into the Covid-19 epidemic, Johnson has climbed up the learning curve and has now mastered the black art of sending this virus packing – as long as we all do what we're asked.

Across the Channel, though, there was another Great Leader – who was a tad less bombastic, none other than French president Emmanuel Macron. Visiting the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where researchers came up with a test for coronavirus and are working to develop treatments and a vaccine, he sombrely declared that no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last.

Also warning that defeating the virus "would likely require an overhaul of how Western economies function", he declared that no one was able to say "how long we'll have to keep this reduction of social contacts", or do we know "how many waves we're going to have and how the virus is going to behave and how we will absorb it".

But we didn't have to go across the Channel to find someone so downbeat. Earlier in the day, the two stooges – Whitty and Vallance - had given their own press conference, marked by the CMO admitting that a coronavirus "exit strategy"' might rely on a vaccine becoming available.

Whitty, however, stuck to his original script, confirming that his short-term aim was to delay and reduce the peak of the epidemic, then planning to reduce the "overshoot". This amounts to attempting to reduce the number of people who catch the illness.

For the long-term, a vaccine was "one way out of this", but a vaccine would not happen very quickly. Largely, he was still trying to finesse the case rate "to the point where we minimise the probability that at any point the whole system is overwhelmed by this". Then, globally, science would come to the rescue, helping us over time "to get to an optimal position".

Not one mention of 12 weeks was made, with Whitty conceding that it was "improbable" to think a vaccine would be available within six months, and nor was it realistic to expect to be able to get rid of the virus completely – so much for "sending it packing".

Thus did he say: "It is our judgement, and it is my judgement certainly, if you look around the world, the idea that we are going to put this virus back to going away completely, whilst not theoretically impossible, seems so improbable that basing scientific evidence on the theory that that is something we are trying to do seems to be a mistake". It is good to know, therefore, that Johnson's ambition is "not theoretically impossible", which is all this charlatan needs for an opening.

In the meantime, his diligent civil servants have been toiling away to produce a 329-page Coronavirus Bill which gives the government far more power than the Civil Contingencies Act, for longer, without the parliamentary scrutiny – for what that's worth.

In the name of sending this virus "packing", parliament is ceding power to the executive which far transcends anything to which Brussels could ever aspire. Johnson might not be getting coronavirus "done", but he's certainly dispensing with even the pretence of democracy for a while.

This is perhaps just as well for, while the government has nearly half of Britons supporting its policy, Johnson has effectively given himself 12 weeks to deliver a miracle. If he fails, his default end-of-the-pier-show act could turn into the end-of-Boris act. And that would come not a moment too soon.

Richard North 20/03/2020 link

Brexit: power to the people


In a different world, it might be of some interest that the House of Lords has approved the Withdrawal Bill, having added five amendments.

But since it is likely that these amendments will be voted down by compliant Tory MPs, this will simply trigger what is known as a "ping-pong" period between the two chambers, eventually ending up in some sort of fudged compromise.

Under normal circumstances, the Lords do have some leverage because Johnson needs to get this Bill into law before the end of the month, and the Lords can run it right to the wire if they hold their nerve.

But these are not normal times, so predictions are unwise. We will just have to wait to see what happens – idle spectators witnessing the wreckage of a system that once had some pretensions of becoming a democracy.

Oddly enough, the stresses are beginning to show, as Gordon Brown pops up with some comments on how to fix our ailing political system, proposing a "forum of the regions and nations and a council of the north" as well as a council for the Midlands.

These, he argues, should gain their funds in the same way as Wales and Scotland do, labelling this extremely modest proposal "a sort of constitutional revolution". We have been a unitary state for too long, he says. "Once we bring in nations and regions you have a very different kind of UK and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would feel more comfortable".

There is something of this in The Harrogate Agenda, only we go much further in suggesting local income tax and the approval of annual budgets through the medium of local referendums. What we cannot tolerate is another layer of politicians sucking at the tit of the public purse, demanding money with menaces and telling us what to do.

This is why the most recent regionalisation movement, pushed by John Prescott, failed. We simply do not want more politicians, redistributing power between them. If there is to be a "constitutional revolution", it must involve a real transfer of power to the people.

In this sense, it really is quite wearying to see yet another politician perceive that there are flaws in our system of governance, only to come up with yet another raft of proposals which do not address the core failings. None so far have put the finger on the main defect, the failure to recognise that the essence of democracy is empowering people.

Coincidentally, we get a long whinge in the Guardian with Alberto Alemanno complaining "that the EU won't fix its democratic deficit with another top-down 'conference'".

This is a reference to Ursula von der Leyen honouring a promise she made after her appointment last year, to launch a two-year "deliberative process" tasked with overhauling how the EU works and listening to the voices of its citizens.

Alemanno's concern is that the conference is supposed to be "a bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe". What he evidently doesn't appreciate is that all the "listening" in the world will be to no avail if those listening are not required to act on what they hear.

But then, Alemanno, whose day job is working as professor of EU law at the HEC in Paris, is also the founder of an outfit called The Good Lobby, which aims to foster "collaborations between civil society and professionals (lawyers, consultants, academics)" willing to share their time and talents, "training civil society on the different ways in which we can make a change".

One of these days, one hopes, the chatterati might begin to realise that there is very little to be achieved by creating endless talking shops. Meaningful change will only be delivered when people have the power to make it happen. The trick is to enable that process without having to resort to violent revolution.

If there is an unlikely place to start looking for solutions, it might be the OECD, which at least is trying to get to grips with the way regulation works and how to make it better.

Explained in outline here, the OECD has been carrying out an assessment across all EU countries and the European Union of the use of stakeholder engagement, regulatory impact assessment (RIA), and ex post evaluation to improve the quality of laws and regulations.

With more detail provided by the OECD, we see the observation that "better regulation agendas" need "constant attention". The "set and forget", model of regulation does not work, says the OECD, just as it does not work for laws themselves.

This homes in on a particular interest of mine for, while the OECD argues for full "stakeholder" engagement before laws are made, it places special emphasis on systematic ex post evaluation of laws, leading to a review of existing regulations to determine whether regulatory goals have been achieved. This then allows for the introduction of improvements and the removal of obsolete or ineffective laws.

The issue here is that pre-legislative consultation is of limited value. Even those who will be directly affected often have difficulty visualising how new laws will work, and very often it is not until a law is in force that its faults are revealed.

In practical terms, the ability to change a faulty law is an important test of any democratic system. And it is here that not only the EU fails, but where we see a lack of flexibility in dealing with globalisation and the laws which emerge from global or regional bodies.

What we find is that, when standards and agreements are presented to national legislatures for codification as national law, texts cannot be changed and, once installed, the laws are almost impossible to change. Thus, what the OECD doesn't do, with its emphasis on ex post evaluation, is empower ordinary people.

For the next iteration of The Harrogate Agenda, however, we think we have at least a partial solution, which lies in the wider use of waivers and safeguards in international agreements, the nature of which is discussed here.

In short, our government should be constitutionally prohibited from agreeing to any treaty which did not encompass either waivers or safeguard provisions (of the nature of Art 112 of the EEA Agreement) which will permit any party to disapply specific provisions, without having to denounce entire agreements.

Where we then find that we are bound by an inappropriate or damaging law, which stems from an international agreement, the electorate should have the power to hold a referendum to demand a waiver or suspension of the relevant provisions, so that the law may be repealed or amended.

While one finds that some people manage to get extraordinarily worked up about such provisions, it is the case that both waivers and safeguards are common in international agreements, and provide vital safety valves where, otherwise, parties might feel the need to withdraw from them.

What is different here is that the people themselves are empowered to demand action, without having to go cap-in hand to the government in the hope that it might listen to their problems.

And there does lie the answer to many of our political woes. Politicians need to be aware that democracy comprises two parts, the people and power. Translated literally, democracy means people power, and without that power being thus devolved, no state can be considered to be a true democracy.

And, in the nature of things, if power is not given, it is taken. The latter is something that could be very messy.

Richard North 22/01/2020 link

Brexit: when the bells were silent


I can't imagine why Johnson ever thought he could "bury" Brexit, especially when he seems to be in some disarray about how he will celebrate the end of the first phase on 31 January.

But the main reason why he is unlikely to get away with it lies in his own hands or, to be more blunt, his failure to turn the next phase into a boring routine, so tedious that the media won't bother to follow it.

Having been adamant throughout the election campaign that the UK would secure a "fantastic" deal, telling everybody that the chance of no-deal was "absolutely zero", he has now admitted to BBC Breakfast television that there is a "slim chance" that the UK won't make it before his self-imposed December 2020 deadline.

Needless to say, he is keen to say that it was "epically likely" it would happen, which is about as convincing as a surgeon telling you "it won't hurt", just as he is about to saw off a limb without anaesthetic – having drunk all the whiskey to steady his nerves for the operation.

What Johnson has done therefore is inject just the necessary amount of "will he, won't he?" uncertainty to give it legs as a media story, allowing endless speculation as to the outcome of the coming talks.

It also sets the scene for a nail-biting drama in December, as the talks go to the wire, giving him a platform to announce another famous victory, artfully avoiding questions about the content.

You can see the dynamic at play when the Financial Times reports this development as "likely to cause concern in the business community", which supposedly "fears that if no deal is in place then Britain will have to start trading with the EU on WTO terms in January 2021, with tariffs, paperwork and delays at ports".

This, of course, nicely distracts attention from what should be the real concern – that Johnson, as he himself avers, is likely to get a deal, but a very poor one which will cause no end of problems in the longer term. To that extent, it is the fact that there will be a deal which should really be worrying business, given that it is most likely going to be a slow-motion train crash.

But you can also sense where Johnson is going with this, having told BBC Breakfast that, although there was it was "very, very, very likely" a deal would be done, he accepted that "you always have to budget for a complete failure of common sense". Without having to read between the lines very much, it is fairly evident that he holds himself as the reservoir of "common sense", and thus any failure will be down to the intransigence of the European Union.

That remark, however, will not have gone unnoticed in Brussels, especially as stage Irishman Phil Hogan is sounding off yet again, with another of those statements of the bleedin' obvious. This time, to an audience in the United States, he is accusing Johnson of "brinkmanship" complaining that the UK's approach to negotiations was creating "uncertainty" for business.

Once again, this rather misses the point as the problem for business is not so much the uncertainty – even if there is plenty of that – but the certainty. The entire business community can be pretty well assured that they will be something delivered on their plates, but it will most likely be a steaming pile of crap.

Undeterred, Hogan is warning that the short timeframe "puts enormous pressure on the UK system, and then of course on the EU system" to meet the deadline, and adds that it would be legally very difficult for Britain to change its mind and request an extension later on, after the 1 July extension deadline expires, even if it became clear to both sides that more time was needed.

Given the propensity of the EU to break its own rules, there must be few people seriously ruling out the possibility of a fudge. Doubtless, the best minds in Brussels are already working on a formula which might buy more time, possibly involving the creative use of vocabulary, where we get an extension by any other name which produces a "non-transition" to cover the period of the no-extension.

Nevertheless, Hogan is adamant that "We need to wake up to this reality that gamesmanship and brinkmanship is not going to work on this occasion", referring to the brinkmanship that worked last time round, if only for the EU. And if it worked once, then the EU will hardly be adverse to trying it again, right up to the point when it ceases to deny that it is possible.

The bigger problem that the EU has – even it hasn't fully realised it yet – is that Johnson probably doesn't want an extension, at any price. Worse still, he shows every sign of being entirely indifferent to the shape of an EU-UK agreement, beyond the vague aspiration of seeking an abolition of tariffs and quotas.

Thus, the only response we've had from UK officials is that Hogan's warnings, and the rest of the "noise" from Brussels, is a negotiating tactic intended to lure the UK into requesting an extension. And since that would require the UK to make extra contributions to the EU budget and to continue applying all European law for an extended period, the answer is set to remain, no thank you very much.

As this ritual dance progresses, though, the legacy media never fails to disappoint, keeping up its reputation for embracing the lowest common denominator, focusing its attention on the so-called "battle of the bongs", as Johnson sparks a surge of fruitless donations in an attempt to get Big Ben chiming on 31 January.

For so many of us who have worked decades on campaigning to leave the EU, it was always on the cards that we should look to some sort of celebration to mark our formal passage from the "evil empire".

I would have thought that a chain of beacons, from one end of the nation to the other, might have been the appropriate activity, each bonfire attended by copious consumption of alcoholic beverages, pork pies and mushy peas. Only Farage could think that a party in Parliament Square was an adequate substitute.

Once again, though – and rather ironically – the leaden blanket of uncertainty has cast its dire effect. With no way of telling until the last moment that we were really going to leave, after so many false starts it has not been possible to organise a genuine community response from the heart of England.

But, given the botched process so far, with little prospect of anything better, for most of us – including Eurosceptic die-hards - 11pm on 31 January will be a sombre moment of reflection. We may take such comfort as we can from the fact that we have achieved a lifetime's ambition of actually leaving the EU. 

But it is perhaps just as well that the bells of Big Ben will not be chiming. Otherwise, we might be reminded of the words of Sir Robert Walpole. When the bells were rung in London on the declaration of war against Spain in 1739, of which Walpole disapproved but which was compelled by popular clamour to support, he was heard to say, "They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands".

This was the same man who, when his son offered to read history to him, remarked, "Oh, don't read history! That I know must be false". These days, politicians tend to write the histories, rather than read them, which is why we know they must be false, but who then will be there to write the history of this event, when the bells themselves were silent? 

At least Quasimodo can have no complaints, not that Notre Dame is in a position to take up the slack. Perhaps we should give him a job.

Richard North 17/01/2020 link

Brexit: taking shape


In the grand scheme of things, Corbyn is an irrelevance – an unpleasant little man who was never able to rise to the demands of his position or assume his place in history. But, at the moment, he is also an unwelcome distraction – dragging attention away from more important matters that will determine the fate of this nation.

However, since there is little chance that the Labour leader will get near the reins of power, the focus on his inability (or unwillingness) to control the antisemitism in his party will simply have the effect of reinforcing his undesirability and add to the reasons why he will never become prime minister. It will not change anything.

His greatest contribution to history, therefore, will have been to preside over a wholly ineffective opposition which has thus failed to have any material impact on the career of a Tory politician who, in all senses, is unfit for any office more important than a road-sweeper yet is set to lead his party to victory in December.

Meanwhile, great events continue to take shape, not least the progress of the United Kingdom towards Brexit and, in particular, the nature of the future relationship which must be negotiated once the UK has left the EU.

And here, at least – in the wake of yesterday's lecture from Sir Ivan Rogers – there has been a development in the form of a closed-door (but widely leaked) briefing to MEPs in Strasbourg by Michel Barnier, appraising them of his priorities in the coming negotiations.

Of some considerable significance, although he warns of the difficulties incumbent in concluding negotiations in the short timeframe that prime minister Johnson is expected to set, he does not rule out reaching an agreement in the time. There is no talk of a no-deal from this quarter.

From the Financial Times, which seems to have one of the most comprehensive reports, we learn that Barnier conceded that the eleven months from the UK's planned exit on 31 January until the end of the transition period would normally be far too short to negotiate a trade agreement. But, despite that, Brussels would strive to have a deal in place for the end of 2020.

For that to happen, though, the talks would have to focus initially on core trading arrangements, such as plans for duty-free, quota-free trade in goods. These matters lie within the exclusive competence of the Commission and can be agreed without requiring ratification from Member States.

In terms of priorities, Barnier also stressed that he would be seeking to ensure continued strong co-operation with the UK on security and defence. No detail has been given on how this is to be secured, but there are mechanisms which range from the informal "understanding", to the political declaration and the full-blown treaty.

In practical terms, a political declaration would avoid the need for ratification and, while not legally binding, would stake out mutual commitments and obligations which could subsequently be elevated to treaty status.

Other issues also beyond the scope of the Commission to agree are matters such as road haulage and aircraft take-off and landing rights. Barnier says that sorting these could take longer than the eleven months so the plan seems to be for the EU to rely on the unilateral contingency measures crafted by Brussels to deal with the no-deal scenario.

What seems to be taking shape, therefore, is a fudge based on a "quick and dirty" treaty which will only accommodate the basics, while the wheels of commerce will be in the hands of the Commission until firm arrangements can be made.

This differs from the no-deal scenario where the Commission has been adamant that there would be no mini-deals to keep the wheels turning. Here, the initial treaty would effectively act as a framework agreement which would be added to by way of protocols, negotiated without time constraints – possibly over a period of years.

Overall, this would very much be to the advantage of the EU. Not only would it be the beneficiary of a "bare bones" treaty, it could then set the timetable for further talks and call the shots, as the dominant trading partner.

In the longer term, much will depend on the UK's willingness to adopt the EU's so-called flanking policies, on such matters as social and environmental standards, with market access held as a carrot to incentivise the UK's agreement.

Such things, for instance, as a comprehensive mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment could be high on the list for post-transition talks. That agreement could be a stand-alone treaty as it is between the United States and some other countries, or it could be tacked on to the "framework" agreement as a protocol – with exactly the same status.

All being well, if the UK does leave the EU on 31 January, as Johnson intends, Barnier plans to present national governments, via the General Affairs Council, with a draft mandate for trade talks in February, in the hope that it could be approved in time for negotiations to begin on 1 March. This might need a special European Council, as the first meeting for 2020 is not scheduled until 26 March.

This phased approach, which Barnier seems to concede is the way forward, might be a neat way to overcome Johnson's insistence on ending the transition by December 2020. Although the UK will take a substantial economic hit, the most obvious effects will not be immediately visible and those that follow can be disguised in government statistics for some time.

From the point of view of the new Johnson government – if the Tories win the election – they can claim their "victory" in achieving a trade agreement without resorting to an extension, and thereby claim to have honoured the manifesto commitment. In reality, they will have concluded only a partial treaty and talks will likely continue for some years – if not decades.

In many respects, this does begin to look very similar to the way Norway-EEC relations were handled in the aftermath of the Norwegian rejection of membership in 1972. This relied on a very short, basic treaty, negotiated in little more than six months, which was then expanded over a number of years with the addition of protocols.

A different way of doing things would be to negotiate a series of stand-alone treaties, more in line with the Swiss model, although the EU has never been particularly keen on this mechanism and even now is looking to revamp the whole system,

Of course, the combined experience of Norway, Switzerland and others eventually led to the EEA Agreement in 1994 and, even now, after a period of a decade or more, we would perhaps see an EEA v.2, with the UK joining forces with Efta states to forge a joint cooperation treaty with the EU. Maybe this is what it will take.

As soon as the immediate Brexit talks are out of the way, though, the EU has other fish to fry. It must attend to a long-delayed treaty of its own, which has been on hold ever since the UK's EU referendum.

Touched upon by the Telegraph, a fuller report can be found on the CNA website. It tells us that France and Germany are looking to the EU to convene another "Conference on the Future of Europe", which they believe is necessary to make the EU "more united and sovereign" across a range of challenges.

This, of course, is entirely expected and one of the many reasons why so many in the UK campaigned to leave the EU. There is never a status quo as, no sooner is one treaty laid down, there is another in the planning stage – and then another one after that, in a never-ending process of integration.

Ironically, had the UK not had its referendum and decided to leave the EU, our government would be gearing up for another intergovernmental conference, and new treaty talks. The big difference would then be that the UK would have to hold a referendum to ratify the treaty. By this means, we could still have been looking at Brexit, albeit delayed by a few years.

As it is, even with the disgusting Corbyn unable to craft a coherent Brexit policy, we are finally looking at an exit on 31 January. But, of one thing we can be absolutely certain. That is not the day when Brexit will be "done". We will have to wait a decade or more for that to happen.

Richard North 27/11/2019 link

Brexit: vapid and inane


So, the first of the great non-debates is over. The first half was dedicated (sort of) to Brexit and told us nothing we didn't know already. But, under the frenetic moderation of Julie Etchingham, the format merely allowed Corbyn and Johnson to state their positions. There was nothing in depth that would allow us to get to the bottom of the issues.

Following the break, we moved on to the NHS – yawnsville. Once again we heard much that we've heard before, but learnt nothing new. Punctuated by intrusive clapping, the formulaic nature of the engineered confrontation simply failed to deliver.

A fascinating fifty minutes of debate, said Etchingham, before allowing the leaders to sum up. I must have missed something. I certainly didn't recognise The Sun headline which talked of a "bruising TV debate". All I saw in this was an hour of my life lost, never to be regained.

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph seems to agree. "This debate between Johnson and Corbyn never got going – because Julie Etchingham wouldn't let it", his headline reads.

The most memorable answers were for the most inane question, he writes. Right at the end, a young man in the audience asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn what present they would give each other for Christmas. Corbyn said he would give the prime minister a copy of A Christmas Carol by Dickens: "So you can see how nasty Scrooge was". Johnson said that he would give Mr Corbyn "a good read" too: "a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal".

"If that seems vapid and inane", Deacon added, "it was at least in keeping with the rest of the broadcast – because, although it was meant to be the first big debate of this election campaign, it didn’t really feel like a debate at all. It simply never got going".

And for once, the Telegraph and the Guardian were of a single mind. John Crace dismissed the whole debate with the headline: "Bluster from smirking Johnson; fudge from freshly trimmed Corbyn", telling us: "Tory and Labour leaders manage an insincere handshake in an S&M dungeon – but little else".

"All pretence that the debate was a serious contribution to the election campaign had been abandoned when the lights went up on a set that looked like a cross between a 1970s afternoon gameshow and an S&M dungeon", he added.

I suppose it was inevitable that this should have been the case. Even without Etchingham's leaden moderation, both leaders had far too much to lose so neither was going to take any risks. And then the policy set by ITV of embracing a wide range of issues meant the debate was never going to run deep. Crace actually had it, writing: "the whole purpose of the format is to be as uninformative as possible, with both party leaders sticking to set lines".

What the media make of it generally depends on their political stance. Predictably, the Telegraph took a pro-Johnson stance, reporting that Corbyn had been "jeered over Labour's Brexit confusion".

The Mail took a similar line, proclaiming: "Boris Johnson wins leaders' debate... just: Voters back PM by 51% to 49% after Brexit-shy Jeremy Corbyn was jeered for refusing to say NINE times in bruising ITV face-off if he backs Leave or Remain".

Here, we see the same obsession that gripped Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Westminster bubble preoccupation with what Corbyn actually believes. The Independent, on the other hand, had Johnson "challenged" over selling off the NHS, with the Guardian offering similar fare, telling us that: "Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash in ITV election debate over 'NHS for sale' claim".

The Mirror got more personal, reporting that the audience had burst out laughing when Johnson, in response to Etchingham's questioning, claimed that "truth matters" in politics. "The Tory leader who's been sacked twice for lying didn't quite get this one past the audience or ITV host Julie Etchingham", the paper added.

Nevertheless, that was probably the high point, with the nearest thing to a gaffe coming from Johnson when he responded to a question on the royal family, declaring that it was "beyond reproach". Corbyn went for the more cautious, "needs improvement".

Predictably, for such a lacklustre affair, the YouGov snap poll puts the result close to a draw: 51 percent to Johnson and 49 percent to Corbyn. In opinion poll terms, the statistical error does allow for a draw. But even if Johnson did narrowly squeak ahead, it was a margin that can hardly give him any comfort. Oddly, the Financial Times headlined, "Johnson survives hazardous duel with Corbyn".

As to the detail of the YouGov poll, 58 percent of viewers came away feeling frustrated. But some 40 percent thought that Johnson came across as more trustworthy, putting Corbyn in the lead with 45 percent.

When it came to being "in touch with ordinary people", Corbyn was streets ahead with 59 percent, leaving Johnson on 25 percent. Johnson made up ground, though, on who came across as more prime ministerial. He made 54 percent as opposed to Corbyn who only scored 29 percent. And that could be the impression that matters.

Speaking for YouGov, Chris Curtis, the organisation's political research manager, remarked that their poll showed that the public was "divided on who won the debate". As with the media split, respondents took a partisan view. Most Labour voters thought Jeremy Corbyn had won while Conservative voters thought Boris Johnson was the winner. Very few people changed their minds.

However, said Curtis, "given the Conservatives went into this debate in the lead, they will hope the lack of a knockout blow means they can maintain this until voting day".

Certainly, the polls would tend to support that hope, although with the most recent YouGov Westminster voting intention, only just. It has the Tories losing three points since 15 November, dropping to 42 percent. With Labour gaining two points, creeping up to 30 percent, the gap closes to 12 percent.

By complete contrast, KantarTNS – carrying out its polling over 14-18 November - has the Tories grabbing eight points to rise to 45 percent, with Labour level-pegging on 27 percent. That gives the Tories a virtually unassailable 18-point lead.

In both polls, the Lib-Dem vote share is virtually static, at 15-16 percent, but KantarTNS has Farage's limited company plummeting seven points to end up with a miserable two percent, with YouGov recording a static four percent. Either way, it seems that the party is over for Farage.

Following a break for "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", ITV actually gave Farage and the others an hour of airtime with a series of one-to-one interviews. But it looks as if ITV got it right (with the support of the High Court), focusing on the two main players. Despite the earlier indications that we were looking at a multi-party contest, this is shaping up to be an old-fashioned Lab-Con slugging match.

Mind you, the Guardian is pushing the boat out with Suzanne Moore writing under the headline, "Why vote? You’re just clinging to a wrecked system". Her sub-heading reads: "The looming general election offers fake binary choices – Corbyn or Johnson, leave or remain. Taking part is to bolster brokenness".

"Voting", she says, "now feels like clinging to the wreckage of a system we should dismantle. All the issues that really matter require cooperation, not silly, point-scoring conflict. That’s what this election feels like: a proxy war in which we are unwilling conscripts with little actual choice".

There was something of that in yesterday's "great debate". Not a few pundits remarked that there was definitely an anti-politics mood abroad. That is one to watch in this election. Given also poor weather and the dark nights, we could be looking at reduced turnout casting an unpredictable shadow over the whole election.

Richard North 20/11/2019 link

Brexit: for whom the bell polls


Considering for how long we've been told that the polls are notoriously unreliable, there are an awful lot of them about this weekend – and all but one pointing in the direction of a Tory victory.

Particularly chipper is the Sunday Telegraph which is parading the headline: "General election poll: Conservatives at highest level since 2017, survey shows".

This is a SavantaComRes poll and it puts the Tories on 41 percent (up one percent), with Labour taking 33 percent, albeit up three points. For the record, the Lib-Dems take 14 percent (down two), the Greens two (down one) while Farage's limited company reaches a new low with a paltry five percent, losing two points since 12 November.

But if the ST really wanted to crow, it should have gone for the Opinium poll, published yesterday. While SavantaComRes gives the Johnson a mere eight-point lead, he gets 16-points from Opinium, with the Tories standing at 44 percent, up three compared with last week, as against Labour on 28 percent, down one point.

Interestingly, this poll also has the Lib-Dems dropping one point, standing at 14 percent, with Farage's party level-pegging on six percent.

Even better would be The Sunday Times, which relies on YouGov for its polling. This puts the Tories on 45 percent (up three) and Labour static on 28 percent, the same as it was on 12 November. That gives the Tories a healthy 17-point lead.

On this poll too, the Lib-Dems haven't moved, showing 15 percent, and neither has Farage's limited company. For the moment, it has bottomed out at four percent. It just has to lose one more point to reach a milestone in its decline. That's when it will have dropped to ten percent of its European Election showing.

Returning to the Sunday Telegraph poll, which gives the Tories an eight percent lead, that paper's headline makes an interesting contrast with the Independent, which uses BMG poll data to back a headline declaring: "Labour cuts Conservatives’ poll lead to eight points".

This survey has the Tories on 37 percent, against 29 percent for Labour, allowing the paper to assert that Jeremy Corbyn's party has gained ground. It tells us that a series of big policy announcements helped Mr Corbyn’s party to dominate the agenda, while the Tories were forced onto the defensive over new figures revealing that A&E waiting times are the worst in almost a decade.

Nevertheless, Johnson appears to have the advantage in uniting "leave" voters behind him after Farage's vote has fallen away. Some 61 percent of leavers now say they will back the Tories, significantly up from the 48 percent showing last month. And this could increase: BMG has not yet accounted for Farage's party standing in less than half the seats.

Even now though, the Tories are doing better than Labour, Corbyn is also picking up more "remainers", currently collecting 40 percent of that vote. However, 28 percent go to the Lib-Dems, indicating that Corbyn has been unable to unite the anti-Brexit movement. For all that, there is some progress, as last month's figures were, respectively, 37 and 32 percent.

But, if that is the Independent "take", the Mail on Sunday puts itself firmly in the Tory camp, having Johnson "surge" ahead of Jeremy Corbyn. It also suggests that the Tories are tightening their grip on working-class voters, with 45 percent supporting them, against the 30 percent who would vote for Labour, as politics realigns on "leave" and remain" lines.

Here, we are dealing with a Deltapoll survey. This gives the Conservatives a 15-point lead, up from 12 points last week, giving them 45 percent of the vote, as against 30 percent for Labour. Deltapoll also claims to have picked up a slump in Lib-Dem support – down five to 11 percent.

As to the fate of Farage's limited company, the paper suggests that the "revolt" of the candidates – many of whom pulled out of contests rather than risk splitting the Tory vote in key marginals – has left the party marooned on six percent. Interestingly, the poll suggests most voters think Farage's political career is nearing its end: a total of 45 percent say his most successful days are behind him, and just 11 percent think they lie ahead of him.

Not so, Johnson, it would appear. Although the MoS is wary about making predictions, given the complexity of the planned voting patterns, it says that a uniform national swing in line with its poll figures could give Johnson a majority of 108. Stepping back from the bigger picture, though, the Observer has chosen to concentrate on three London marginals held by the Conservatives: Kensington, Finchley and Golders Green, and Wimbledon.

The paper claims that local polling in these constituencies shows a surge to the Lib- Dems. All three voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum. In all three, it says, the Lib-Dems have been boosted by their stance on Brexit – but mainly at Labour's expense. Finchley and Golders Green has seen the biggest shift, with a 25 percent swing from Labour to the Lib-Dems – although the candidate still trails the Tories by 14 points.

Tory leads in the other two seats are far narrower: three points in Kensington and just two points in Wimbledon, largely as a result of Johnson's Brexit policy having gone down badly with many pro-EU Tories. Around half of the party's Remain voters have deserted it, most having gone to the Lib-Dems.

Mirroring the national picture, the Conservatives are currently leading in these strongly "remain seats" because the opposition is divided between Labour and the Lib-Dems. If Labour was out of the picture, most of the Labour votes would transfer to the Lib-Dems. But if the Lib-Dem candidate quit, the Tory majority would probably increase.

This sort of polling, also carried out by Deltapoll, certainly provides an illustration of the complexity of voting patterns, and opens the way for some shock results when the votes are counted. But, for all the reservations about opinion polls, they do seem to be stabilising relatively early and – with one exception in the weekend's batch, are presenting a relatively consistent picture.

What seems to be turning sentiment is the simplicity and clarity of the Tory message: "get Brexit done". Although this hides a subtle lie – as there is no chance that Brexit will be "done" for many years - it is far more attractive a message than the fudge and confusion that is coming from Labour on Brexit.

Arguably, the Lib-Dems are delivering simplicity and clarity in equal measure, but voters also appear to remain conscious of the purpose of a general election – to choose a government. Despite the many loathsome attributes of Johnson, no one in their right mind could imagine "shrieking Jo" as a prime minister.

The one great unknown, though, is turnout – variations of which probably have a far greater effect than many pundits realise. And whatever else this election isn't, it most certainly is – as Nick Cohen describes, a tawdry affair.

There will be many voters who are prepared to rebel against a political class which treats them with such contempt, presenting second-rate place-men (and women) as candidates, anticipating that we will turn out to vote for one or other of them.

More likely though, if the polls are to be believed, enough people will hold their noses to ward off the stench coming from Westminster and deliver a result. But politicians should not delude themselves that this election is a vote of confidence in them. Voting for the "least worst" is not a choice any of us would prefer.

Richard North 17/11/2019 link

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The Many, Not the Few