Brexit: dredging up the arguments


As the rain continues to pour and the reports of flooding proliferate, we've seen re-emerge the assertion that the real cause of the flooding has been the intervention of the EU and its prohibition on dredging rivers.

Most recently, we've seen this on last Thursday's edition of the BBC's Question Time, when a member of the studio audience was allowed to ask the panel: "Why have the EU stopped dredging the rivers, and then they wouldn't have flooded in the first place?"

Not having watched the programme, I cannot tell whether this point was addressed by the panel but, to judge from the sharp reaction on Twitter, it was allowed to go unchallenged, only later being condemned in a Twitter post as "incredible ignorance".

That single post, at the time of writing, elicited 413 replies, 705 retweets and 2.4K "likes", with a not untypical response being one of denial – as in this claim that "Dredging rivers in England has absolutely nothing to do with the EU".

Another commenter suggests that, "all flooding will stop now we’ve left", while another (one of several) resorts to invective, declaring: "Proof if needed that there is nothing thicker than a Brexshitter".

As to the putative involvement of the EU in our flooding crisis, and its impact on dredging, the claim emerged well before the referendum, gaining currency in late 2015 in the aftermath of the Cockermouth floods which had swamped this Cumbrian market town in the early December, and following the flooding of the Somerset Levels which had captured the headlines over the winter of 2013-14.

The charge in 2015 came from author and former sheep farmer Philip Walling who, in his local paper, wrote that there had been an "almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000".

No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding, he claimed. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve "good ecological status" for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to "undisturbed natural conditions".

By the end of December 2015, this had been picked up by the Mail. It paraded the headline: "Britain's flooding crisis 'made worse by the EU': Green Brussels bureaucrats have 'banned' river dredging that allows water to drain faster, say farmers", from which point the culpability of "Brussels" became firmly lodged in the Eurosceptic narrative.

What sums up the current state of the art, therefore, is that we have two camps. One asserts that the EU is at the root of all evil, while the other denies any culpability on the part of the EU, and resorts to insult and denigration when confronted with those who disagree.

But what really typifies the "debate", in common with discussions about many aspects of the EU and Brexit, is that neither camp seems to be in the least concerned to bolster their arguments with facts. They are content, from positions of hazy ignorance and denial, to hurl brickbats at each other, never to resolve the issues.

Yet, as we were to see from an article in the Irish Times, days after the Mail had published, the UK was not the only country contemplating the effects of EU directives on flood defences.

In Ireland, Minister of State Simon Harris was concerned that plans to dredge the Shannon would breach not the Water Framework Directive, but the Habitats directive. However, he did observe that, with a humanitarian crisis in some areas, "in those instances protecting those communities may trump any EU directive that is in force".

Harris was not wrong and, in developing his point, I wrote a long piece adding detail to his argument. In so doing, I was able to point out that both the Framework and the Habitat Directives had derogations which allowed works to be carried out to prevent flooding.

As a matter of law, I wrote, the EU did not require the dredging of our rivers to be abandoned. And, in the real world, we had an Environment Agency spokesman saying that: "… over the past two years we have spent £21 million on dredging". In theory and practice, Walling was wrong.

In its own defence, the Commission told the Irish Times, that it was not to blame, its spokeswoman stating that the directives left scope for Member States to decide their own rules on how to manage their water courses.

Our government, in any case, argued through its chosen expert that dredging was not necessarily the answer to flood control and, in certain circumstances, could speed more water towards downstream communities even faster, potentially putting them at greater risk.

That was not the situation with the Somerset Levels flooding though, where proper maintenance of the entire drainage system, from ditches to rivers, could – in theory - have vastly increased the storage capacity of the system and held back the worst of the floods, allowing the excess to be discharged to sea.

However, in the autumn of 2013, Booker and I found, the Levels had been deliberately flooded, the background to which was charted on this blog and in more detail in my report of the floods.

What comes over is the complexity of the system, involving international conventions, EU law, national law and procedures, and local rules. And here, the EU cannot completely (or at all) escape responsibility for the flooding of the Somerset Levels.

It was the EU's insistence that Member States should meet quotas on restoring wetlands that set off the chain of events which led to the flooding of much of the area. The government, with the willing assistance of the Environment Agency and the complicity of the RSPB, decided that areas of the Levels should be allowed to revert to wetland in the autumn of 2014.   

It is far too simplistic, therefore, to assert that the EU "stopped dredging the rivers". Much more to the point, it has over many decades shaped water management policies in the UK and other Member States and which, in the UK and elsewhere, have increased flooding.

Nor can any single measure be relied upon. As this report on progress on flood defences in Somerset illustrates, protection comes from the combined effects of many different solutions.

Despite that, Owen Paterson – who was environment minister at the time of the 2014 Somerset flooding – asserted in 2016 that dredging had saved Somerset from being hit by flooding again.

David Hall, Chairman, Somerset Rivers Authority, was to make the same claim more recently, with a repeat performance by Paterson who last week asserted that: "Leaving the EU is a chance to rethink our disastrous flooding policy".

All this demonstrates, though, is how little Paterson learned while he was environment secretary – and what little attention he gave to the reports I wrote for him. As I explained with some care, underpinning the EU's Habitats Directive are the 1971 Ramsar Convention and the 1979 Berne Convention, both of which will continue to apply even though we have left the EU.

The real point about the EU, therefore - I wrote in 2016 - is that it is unnecessary. It simply adds another layer of government and adds to the confusion and lack of accountability in areas where clarity and certainty are required.

What leaving the EU won't do is change the essential direction of our water management policy – which is determined by international agreements - and nor, when one judges the way Brexit has been handled, will it necessarily lead to any improvement in its execution.

Richard North 23/02/2020 link

Climate change: more of more of the same


In 2014, Booker ran a piece in his column headed: "Forget your gas cooker – we're headed for 'zero carbon' Britain".

The standfirst asked: "How many people realise what the government is up to with its energy policy", with Booker going on to warn that the government was planning to phase out all use of gas for cooking or heating our homes by 2050.

This was all set out in a DECC report running to 252 pages, published four years earlier in 2010 with a foreword by Chris Huhne, then Secretary of State for energy and climate change in the coalition government.

Entitled, "2050 Pathways Analysis", it spared no detail as to how the UK's climate change policy would require "decarbonisation" of the energy supply which would necessitate the close-down of the domestic gas supply, forcing us all to use electricity for hot water, central heating and cooking.

At the time, Booker had already reported on this issue, two months previously, but he felt he hadn't done it justice. "It's one", he wrote, "that, when the penny finally drops, will be blazoned in shocked headlines across every newspaper in the land".

And now, six years later, Booker's former newspaper seems finally to have woken up to the story that it had ignored in its own pages (as it so often did when Booker was writing).

In what they call an "exclusive", they have the "headline" blaring: "Gas boilers could be banned from all homes to ensure the UK meets carbon neutral target by 2050". Even then, though, the story doesn't make the front page, evidently of less importance than the vital news that doctors have launched a campaign to "spare NHS patients" the "humiliation of backless gowns".

Thus, Booker's prediction hasn't quite come to pass – yet. Nonetheless, by ferreting around in the inside pages, we learn that the government is preparing to publish a White Paper later this year which will set out the "bigger decisions" that the UK has to make to meet their carbon neutral target by 2050.

Despite this having already been set out in the 2010 report, Lord Duncan of Springbank, the current Climate Change minister has said that the white paper "will consider whether the government should ban gas central heating altogether from all homes".

The thing is that Tory voters can hardly complain about this. Meeting the 2050 target was a prominent part of Johnson's election manifesto, which promised that: "We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change".

And, in this respect, if the Johnson fan club is expecting any great advances in Tory policy under their new leader, they might recall that this builds on David Cameron's initiative of January 2009, when he published an opposition Green Paper of the "low carbon economy".

At that point, Cameron was merely pushing the idea of a massive hike in the production of biogas – methane produced from the anaerobic digestion of farm and food wastes. This, he argued, would replace up to half of our residential gas heating. But now, with the advent of Johnson, we are going the full Monty, taking gas out of the equation altogether.

On top of this, of course, Johnson has already brought forward the timetable to 2035 to phase out internal combustion engines in motor cars, as well as banning hybrids, requiring motorists to acquire electric cars.

Assuming current rates of mobility, charging these vehicles would require a doubling of the UK's electricity generation capacity. Decarbonising homes would add significantly to this requirement, with estimated costs of at least £1.3 trillion.

However, the Sunday Telegraph remarks that it is not clear if homeowners will have to pay for this new strategy – as if there was any other option. Even if the government paid the costs out of taxation, we would still have to pay – on top of which domestic electricity bills are bound to increase.

Lord Duncan at least seems to recognise this, saying that the government will "need to address fuel poverty head on". He adds: "There is no point in decarbonising while making people cold and sick. We need to make sure we go hand-in-hand with that just transition for all the people".

I am not sure which planet this man is on but it isn't planet Earth if he thinks that the government can massively increase heating costs without triggering an epidemic of fuel poverty, especially when there is no evidence that the problem is even now being addressed.

But then this man is also talking of putting hydrogen into the grid, either in a hybrid or pure form, the latter being impossible without a massive upgrade in the system – if indeed it could be achieved. Even in "hybrid" form, though, it would massively increase energy bills.

The irony of this, though – as I pointed out last month - was that the greatest saving in regulation costs to be achieved from Brexit would be to cut out EU-mandated climate change measures. Yet here we have Johnson basically wiping out any gains that might have been made.

But that, as they say, isn't the half of it. In the unlikely event that this government actually cuts back on climate change measures, it could find the EU retaliating, by imposing tariffs on energy-intensive goods such as steel, cement and aluminium.

This tax is in the planning stage, aimed at targeting those countries which imposed lower carbon levies than the EU norm. As it stands, though, the UK remains committed to the principle of carbon pricing. Any future system, the government says, "will be at least as ambitious as the EU ETS".

Furthermore, leaving the EU will not affect our statutory commitments under the UK's Climate Change Act, which is domestic legislation. The UK will also remain a Party to international climate change agreements, including the Paris Agreement. Its commitment to them, we are informed, "will remain as strong as ever and will be unaffected by leaving the EU".

In effect, therefore, "climate change" is another of those "double coffin lid" issues where, even with EU legislation removed, we are still bound by international agreements.

On the other hand, it is generally the case that the UK is one of the leaders of the pack, going further and faster than most other nations in pursuit of what many believe is economic suicide.

Yet, for all that, some of the greatest supporters of Brexit have been those, like Owen Paterson, who are most opposed to climate change measures. There certainly appears to be a correlation between what is termed "climate denial" and enthusiasm for Brexit.

Since Johnson, in deed if not word, is actively pursuing the long-established UK climate change agenda, he may yet prove something of a disappointment to his supporters. And for the rest of us, it remains to be seen whether we can afford his version of Brexit on top of what are unaffordable costs of "decarbonisation".

Richard North 09/02/2020 link

Brexit: in whom we Truss


In her alter ego as a remainer, Liz Truss was in full flood a month before the referendum, telling The Sun that Brexit-backing bosses were "living in cloud cuckoo land" if they thought leaving EU would help business.

A vote to leave, she declared, "would be a triple tragedy – more rules, more forms and more delays when selling to the EU". Our firms, she said, "would drown in forms, which would hit profits and then pockets as jobs are cut and prices go up".

Now, in her born-again role as a Johnson groupie, she occupies the lofty position of secretary of state for the Department for International Trade, and is now launching a public consultation "to inform the UK's new independent global tariff policy".

With the UK having left the EU, her department's press release burbles that the government "is free to make its mark as a champion of free trade, safeguard against the forces of protectionism on the rise across the world, and crucially ensure that our tariff strategy is best for businesses and consumers across the UK".

The consultation seems to be based on the assumption that goods coming into the UK will no longer be subject to the EU's Common External Tariff. Her department thus believes that the UK's "new Global Tariff Policy" will coming into effect on 1 January 2021 for imports from any country with which the UK does not have a free trade agreement.

That itself is something of an assumption which could very well depend on the outcome of the trade talks with the EU. If we are to avoid complex and costly rules of origin applying to our exports to the EU, we would be best off aligning our tariffs with those of the EU – at least in those areas where our trade is concentrated.

But, without taking this into account, the government would have you believe that it is intent on "simplifying and tailoring the tariff" to suit UK businesses and households.

Truss has in mind removing tariffs of less than 2.5 percent and rounding tariffs down to the nearest 2.5, five or ten percent band; removing tariffs on key inputs to production which could reduce costs for UK manufacturers; and removing tariffs where the UK has zero or limited domestic production "which could help to lower prices for consumers".

Gone is any idea of "more rules, more forms and more delays when selling to the EU". High tariffs, Truss gaily informs us, "impinge on businesses and raise costs for consumers". This is our opportunity, her press release says, "to set our own tariff strategy that is right for UK consumers and businesses across our country".

Needless to say, the fanboy gazette is on the case, delivering a trilling headline that claims: "Households could save £8.3bn a year from post-Brexit plan to slash tariffs".

This, apparently, is based on "research" from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which – we are told – has estimated that the proposed new regime would "save Britain's 27.8 million households £300 a year, a total of £8.3 billion, based on the tariff cuts reducing bills by about one percent".

Strangely, Julian Jessop, an economics fellow at the IEA, is prepared to put his name to this figure, saying that: "This would be the immediate impact based on existing spending patterns", although he adds that: "The impact could increase over time as competition grows and consumers switch to cheaper suppliers".

However, if we turn to the European Commission, a reasonable respectable source of data on the income generated from customs duties (which includes the sugar levy), the total revenue from the UK in 2018, was a mere £2.9 billion (less the 20 percent paid to HMRC for collecting the tax).

Given that Liz Truss is not proposing to eliminate all tariffs, and is only reducing them in some areas, it is a little bit difficult to see how this activity will save £8.3 billion, when the total income at the moment is only just over a third of that.

Oddly enough, though, we've seen this game played out before, with exactly the same claim of saving £300 per household. This came in February 2017 – nearly three years ago – via The Sun, with Owen Paterson in the Sunday Telegraph putting his name to the absurd £300 figure.

Not least of the errors in the Sun's survey – which was widely trashed at the time - was that it applied the percentage savings to the retail prices, whereas in the real world tariffs are applied to the landed price (including shipping and insurance), which is a fraction of the price charged to the final consumer.

In any case, as I pointed out at the time the factors influencing retail prices are far too complex to apply such simplistic calculations.

But never let it be said that the fanboy gazette is incapable of making a complete arse of itself as it too applies notional savings to retail prices – the product of three of the Telegraph's finest minds, Lizzy Burden, an economics reporter, Tim Wallace, the deputy economics editor and Gordon Rayner, the political editor.

In another piece, stuffed with comfort quotes, Burden has Ruth Lea backing Truss's proposals as "eminently sensible". Not anywhere, of course, is there any mention of the increased costs that will be imposed on both imports and exports through the explosion of non-tariff barriers, which are variously estimated to add as much as 20 percent to trade costs.

Interestingly, as I reported in a piece on non-tariff barriers written in 2015, the IEA had three years earlier stressed that: "Non-tariff barriers need to be brought to the forefront of the trade debate".

Eight years down the line, it is far too much to expect the IEA to remember its own nostrums – or even to get its facts right. But one cannot help but feel that it is supporting Truss's little venture in an attempt to keep attention away from the more unwelcome effects of Brexit.

Throughout the Brexit debate, most of the pundits seems unable to drag their thinking past tariffs and this initiative is very much playing to the gallery. By talking up savings from reduced tariffs, and ignoring (for the moment) the increased costs of trade friction, the public can be kept vaguely "on-side" until reality hits.

From the look of it though, the government is going to be struggling on this. Apart from the fanboy gazette, there had been very little media coverage of Truss's initiative. Only latterly has The Sun picked up the story, telling us that "Brits could enjoy cheaper coffee, trainers and wine as ministers plan to cut import tariffs from next year". But, those "savings" could include 42 euro cents per kg off sugar. Never mind the sugar tax.

One cannot tell whether this is a reflection of general disbelief or the boredom factor that blights Brexit, but it does not augur well for the government's propaganda machine if it can only enthuse the Telegraph. But if we were to ask in whom we Truss, the answer coming back would probably not be a happy one.

Richard North 07/02/2020 link

Brexit: waiting for the real thing


With the focus on Wednesday's proceedings in the European Parliament, little attention has been paid to the vital and final stage of the Article 50 process. This requires a vote from the Council of the European Union, on the basis of qualified majority voting, to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement.

Anyhow, that happened yesterday with the adoption of a decision by the Council, thus allowing the Agreement to enter into force at midnight CET on 31 January 2020.

By the time I publish my next blogpost, therefore, we will have left the European Union and will be considered (by the EU) to be "a third country", a new status which the Irish Times (and doubtless many more) considers "a senseless act of self-harm".

The naysayers are, of course, entitled to their views, but I think that the "self-harm" was in joining the EEC in the first place. And, as I wrote on the eve of the 2016 referendum, leaving is a matter of correcting that historical mistake. It has to be done and it would be better if it had never had to be done.

There is, of course, a possibility that, had we never joined and remained as a member of Efta – an organisation that we founded – we would have been party to the talks on the creation of the EEA.

There is even the further possibility that we could have brokered a better deal, we might currently be an Efta/EEA member – the status that we would have preferred to take us through the Brexit process – only perhaps improved by us becoming equal partners in a European Economic Space.

Even without that, there were other opportunities for economic cooperation at a European level, not least the European Council. But had history been even slightly different, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) had been awarded the management of the Marshall Plan, it could have emerged as the dominant force for economic cooperation in Europe.

This would have been the closest approximation to Winston Churchill's vision, set out in his Hague Speech of 1948 (the year I was born).

Then he argued for the United Nations to be the "paramount authority" in world affairs, but with regional bodies as part of the structure. They would be "august but subordinate", becoming "the massive pillars upon which the world organisation would be founded in majesty and calm".

Effectively, a New World Order would comprise a hierarchy of three tiers – national, regional and global. In the European context, this would have included all the nations in continental Europe, organised around the central body of UNECE, based not in Brussels but in neutral Geneva.

In the nature of things, however, the victors get to write the history and while the fascinating history of UNECE (linked above) has been effectively airbrushed from the popular record, acres of print has been devoted to the hagiography of the European Union.

As a corrective, Christopher Booker and I wrote an alternative history of the European Union, in The Great Deception. And, whatever its merits, there are two important omissions to the earlier chapters: one is the development of UNECE and the other is the story of the founding of the EEA.

These issues, seemingly less important when we published in 2003, in the throes of the European Convention and its Constitution for Europe, before it was transformed into the Lisbon Treaty. But they have taken on vastly more significance with Brexit, and may point our way to the future, after the current generation of politicians have finished botching the exit process.

Given the approval of my publisher, after the launch of Booker's Groupthink (now complete and due in March), I will get the go ahead to revise The Great Deception and bring it up to date, covering the period up to the end of this year when it is expected that the transition period will end.

It was something Booker and I had discussed many times but sadly, he can no longer be a partner to the endeavour, and nor will he be able to see the fruits of our joint work which has been instrumental in taking us out of the EU.

Interestingly, this was noted recently by Owen Paterson, with whom I worked for more than a decade. Although I disagree profoundly with his current stance on Brexit, he has always been a good friend.

He tells of our "fruitful collaboration", along with Booker, "whose co-authored books The Castle of Lies and The Great Deception, he writes, "did much to influence Eurosceptic opinion".

Although I have effectively been "no platformed", as was Booker in the later stages of his life, that is indeed true and it is a reflection of the state of the former Eurosceptic "movement" that, during the celebrations of today's exit, I will be sitting at home, consuming a wee dram as the clock chimes eleven, and then getting down to writing my blog – as I have been doing for the past 16 years.

I often claim that the only breaks I took during that whole period were when I was sent to prison for refusing to pay the Police precept of my Council Tax (in protest at the uselessness of West Yorkshire's finest – who then sent 12 police officers to arrest me), and for a couple of days when I lay idle in hospital having open heart surgery.

Before even the sadly late Helen Szamuely and I had started the blog, Booker and I had been working with Paterson, when – as he writes – "we shared frustrations that increasingly damaging European regulations were being compounded by crass implementation due to the ignorance of an urban Labour government doing great harm to the countryside and a variety of businesses across the UK".

In fact, the great rush of regulation came with the run-up to the "completion" of the Single Market in 1992, coinciding with Maastricht, under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and in the years after, up to 1997, which took in the great BSE crisis, and the ground-breaking Factortame decision on the ownership of the British fishing quota.

Our best work, I think, included that period, but Paterson nonetheless concedes that Booker's Sunday Telegraph column was "a fantastic platform" from which to highlight the depredations of the EU. "Combined with meticulous research from Richard North", he writes, "we made an effective triumvirate and won some important victories".

It saddens me, in this context, that Paterson has done a Peter Lilley who, back in August 2016, complimented me on my "original research" which, he wrote, was "thorough and well documented".

But, as with Paterson, that only applied as long as I was supporting their prejudices. Because I have called for a reasoned and measured Brexit process, we have parted ways. Both Lilley and Paterson now occupy the extreme fringe, pushing for an ultra-hard Brexit with no concessions to reality – and my research is no longer of value to them.

Tellingly, it was Lilley himself who wrote that "when politicians debate issues of which they have no experience they seize on any plausible argument which supports their case". Nothing changes.

The real battles, however, were elsewhere, with the struggle to get what we originally called the "exit and survival plan" onto the agenda. That endeavour has, so far, failed – largely due to the shortsightedness and lack of vision of the Eurosceptic Movement, and the hijack of the agenda by darker forces.

Directly and indirectly that has led to what Booker himself called " a catastrophic act of national self-harm" – not the fact of Brexit but the way the process has been botched. Pete writes of this yesterday, in somewhat pessimistic terms, then adding another piece warning that the real Brexit day is "a long way off".

Sadly, he's right, which is why I will only be having a small dram tonight. While the Grand Place in Brussels glows with Union Flag colours, we wait in hope for the real thing.

Richard North 31/01/2020 link

Brexit: bullshit for breakfast


I didn't like the term "Brexit" when it was invented and, as time has passed, it has become less and less appropriate. The point is that we are not leaving the EU, as such, but changing our relationship with it. That is the real purpose of Brexit.

Therefore, Brexit ain't over until, at the very least, we have concluded an agreement with the EU on our future relationship. For Johnson to be crowing about the country being "one step closer to getting Brexit done" is an irrelevance.

Even Johnson's fanboys in the Telegraph allowed their resident sceptic, Michael Deacon, to observe that yesterday's Brexit debate "turned into a festival of Tory gloating… while Labour looked feebly on".

"It was, in a way, completely pointless", says Deacon. "Five whole hours had been set aside to debate the new version of the Brexit bill, but five minutes would have been more than enough. Boris Johnson's election landslide had rendered today’s debate a formality, a walkover, a stroll in the park".

"So, instead of argument, dialogue and scrutiny", we are told by Deacon, "what we mostly got was Opposition moping – and Tory gloating" – followed by a vote which delivered 358 "ayes" and 234 "nays", a majority of 124 in favour of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill.

For once, it seems, the Telegraph and the Guardian were almost on the same page, with John Crace describing the debate as "characterised mostly by absence. An absence of thought and an absence of personnel. All the true one nation Tory MPs who used to expose the flaws in Boris's Brexit have been erased from the Commons".

And now Johnson goes unchallenged, Crace observes that he appears at best only half interested in his own arguments, having long since taken for granted that he would win.

During the debate, "he looked like a man who was phoning it in and could scarcely be bothered to even acknowledge the concerns of the Scottish National party and Northern Irish MPs. It now feels like almost an inevitability that the union will break up at some point in the next 10 years".

When it came to Corbyn, he too was operating on low power mode, with some excuse. There was literally nothing he could say to make a difference:
There were faintly despairing speeches from Labour’s Hilary Benn, Matthew Pennycook and Keir Starmer but the Tory benches were almost a total IQ-free zone. As Owen Paterson, Mark Francois and Liam Fox were only too happy to prove, since they are too stupid to remember that this was a Brexit deal to which they too had been vehemently opposed for more than three years.
But, to the victors went the spoils. And, says Crace, "the amnesia". Johnson "stood triumphant, surrounded by sycophants and crowned in laurels. He was Caesar. The autocrat, disguised as a man of the people, whose prescription for blue-collar Conservatism was old-fashioned, establishment paternalism".

Whatever else, this is not a pretty sight and, as Pete observes, it's a grim day for the remainers not only watching the bill pass but also reflecting on what they could have leveraged had they voted for May's deal. Both sides had been playing all or nothing and now "remain walks" away with nothing. But both sides get a dog's dinner of a Brexit.

For life-long leavers, such as myself, this should have been a sweet moment of victory, the point at which the "remain" case was finally rendered obsolete and we can finally kiss good-bye to those tedious attempts to re-run the referendum and push for another.

Thus, Johnson himself is not far wrong when he says this is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of "leave" and "remain". To him, the words seemed "tired" - as defunct as "big-enders" and "little-enders" or as "Montagues" and "Capulets" at the end of the play.

But, if we're all "leavers" now, one doesn't have to agree with Johnson that it is "the time to act together as one reinvigorated nation, one United Kingdom, filled with renewed confidence in our national destiny and determined, at last, to take advantage of the opportunities that now lie before us".

In fact, we aren't all "leavers". There are some, no doubt – even if they are currently stunned into silence – who harbour ambitions of rejoining, once we have left, of course. And the worse the Johnson version of "leave" becomes, the more voluble they will become.

But there are those, including myself, who embrace the prospect of terminating our membership of the European Union but reject Johnson's version of "leave", and his determination to avoid extending the transition period.

Johnson himself does not appear to understand that the terms of extension, that it is a one-time unrepeatable offer where, by the end of June, the government can choose to extend either to the end of December 2021 or to December 2022. But, whatever period is selected, that is it. There is no going back for more.

Yet Johnson yesterday was telling the Commons that, "there would be nothing more dangerous than extending the implementation period". He equated it with "a torture" that "came to resemble Lucy snatching away Charlie Brown's football" or Prometheus chained to the Tartarian crag, his liver pecked out by an eagle and then growing back, only to be pecked out again, with the cycle repeated forever.

The Withdrawal Bill, he claims, "learns the emphatic lesson of the last Parliament and rejects any further delay. It ensures that we depart from the EU on 31 January, and at that point Brexit will be done - it will be over".

But it will not be over. Not until we have forged a new relationship with the EU (and the severed links with third countries) will Brexit be over. And if Johnson insists on terminating the transition period at the end of December 2020, he then condemns us to a long, drawn-out process of post-transition negotiations to deal with all the issues which were not addressed during the transition phase.

Far from getting Brexit "done", the triumphal prime minister is taking us down a path where it will take years to restore some sense of equilibrium with the EU, where we will be able to deal with its institutions and the 27 Member States on anything like a sound basis.

Unrestrained, though, there is no limit to prime minister's rhetoric. While the Tory manifesto and the Queen's speech were notable in that they refrained from embellishing the objective of securing a free trade agreement, Johnson asserts that our future relationship with our European neighbours will be based on an "ambitious" free trade agreement.

In the same breath, he tells us there will be "no alignment on EU rules" with, he claims, "control of our own laws, and close and friendly relations". And prior to the vote he told his compliant MPs that "this vision of the United Kingdom's independence" is now "only hours from our grasp", adding: "The oven is on. It is set at gas mark 4; we can have this done by lunchtime - or a late lunchtime".

I really don't know about lunchtime, but this is a prime minister who consumed king-size portions of bullshit for breakfast. And, if this is the way it is to be, we can kiss goodbye to any rationality from our government.

Richard North 21/12/2019 link

Brexit: a Mad Hatter's tea party


As I write, the situation is about as transparent as a radiographer's apron, with the media reports to date about as coherent as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

The big news yesterday was Michel Barnier setting an ultimatum for the end of the day for agreement on a legal text to be finalised. This was in order for it to be presented to EU leaders at the European Council on Thursday. But, with the midnight deadline past, there is no news of whether an agreement has been reached.

One possible explanation might be that, as a surrogate for GAC approval, the "EU Ambassadors" (Coreper) are meeting at 1pm today to take a briefing from Barnier, and the draft will not have to be ready until then. This, apparently, gives the UK team and the EU's Brexit taskforce a few extra hours to complete their tasks.

According to the Telegraph, they are prepared to work through the night to complete the draft, ready for the Barnier briefing, prior to it being passed to the European Council.

This assumes, of course, that the parties are anywhere near reaching an agreement and, through yesterday, we were getting any number of negative signals, suggesting that it was as elusive as ever, even though there was a continuous stream of reports saying that the talks were close to a conclusion.

By mid-afternoon, though, we had The Times conveying a message from "British sources" who urged caution over reports that a deal could be ready by the end of the day. They suggested that the bout of optimism was a negotiating ploy to pressure London into making more compromises.

We also had the Guardian which had a "senior French official", speaking in Paris, who advised "extreme prudence" about the chances of a deal being struck that would satisfy the EU's capitals. "It's not the Irish who will make the deal", he said. "Yes, there are better atmospherics, but what matters is the content, and we have seen nothing yet. Whatever it is, we will want to look at it in very serious detail".

That latter comment from the French official tells its own story. By all accounts, any agreement reached is going to be a long, complex piece of text, a view supported by Angela Merkel who compared the Brexit talks to "squaring the circle", saying "It's very, very complicated".

Given that, I simply don't buy into the idea that a few Coreper officials will be able to fillet the document and give it the go-ahead, without the lawyers first having trawled through it. Even then, senior politicians and officials from all the Member States will want to give the "deal" the once over, before the European Council commits to anything.

On that basis, a rainy afternoon in Brussels will hardly give sufficient an opportunity to prepare for Thursday's European Council, even if Johnson is prepared to fly to Brussels today, in an attempt to cement the deal. There will barely be time to get the deal translated into the Union's 24 working languages, much less circulated to 27 capitals for comment.

Despite its chequered reputation for fabricating rather dubious stories, therefore, The Times this time seems to have a point with today's (online) headline which declares, "Boris Johnson hit by prospect of no Brexit until 2020", with the sub-heading telling us: "EU warns deal may need two months to finalise".

What seems to be coming through is that the parties have only come to an agreement in principle, and that is what will then be conveyed to the European Council with the promise of detail to follow. The paper then quotes a "senior German official", who says a political agreement on a deal would not be enough "to resolve technical issues", thus requiring Brexit to be postponed for a third time for "some two months".

Also called in aid is a "senior EU diplomatic source", who says in Delphic terms that, "Without a deal this week, Britain will need an extension. With a deal this week, Britain will need an extension". Thus does Johnson face being pushed into a delay even if the outline of a deal is done.

As to whether the European Council will even countenance a delay, though, is said to depend on whether Johnson can prove he has sufficient support amongst the swamp-dwellers for a deal to be ratified, once it is presented. That means that, after the European Council, attention will turn to the House of Commons, with special attention paid to the proceedings on Saturday, if that session materialises.

However, after two consecutive days of talks with Johnson, resolve in the DUP is stiffening, with strong indications that the party will oppose the deal. Arlene Foster is now saying that the DUP would support only "a deal that respects the constitutional and economic place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom". She adds that there has to be consent which is in accordance with the Belfast agreement, in other words "there has to be consent from the nationalist community and the unionist community".

After expressions of support for the deal, some of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party are also having second thoughts, leading to what is being called a "major split among Tory hardliners". Owen Paterson, for instance, has branded the deal "absurd" and "unacceptable", while Iain Duncan-Smith is said to have "exploded" at No 10 officials.

It is now even being suggested that some Brexiteers might even prefer a delay, giving time to negotiate a better deal, rather than accept a fudge that will please no-one. But that assumes that any more time will necessarily open the way for a more acceptable resolution.

With no more sense to be had, one can only hope that some better news emerges through the day, allowing in a little more light, bringing with it – one hopes – some much-needed clarity. For the moment though, we are in a strange twilight world, where we may or may not have a deal, without actually knowing any of the detail and thereby lacking the wherewithal to determine whether it is even worth having.

I am not even prepared to speculate on what that detail might be, although it is interesting to note the comment of the Independent which admits that "details from the secretive talks are scarce", and then goes on to say that, "the latest sketchy reports from in the room suggest that the UK has agreed in principle to a customs border down the Irish Sea – which was originally rejected by Theresa May as something 'no British prime minister' could accept".

Mrs May's comment is a useful reminder of where we were at back in December 2017, and I looked up my own comments at the time. The big issue then was that Mrs May had more or less come to an agreement with Brussels, but had neglected to pass it by the DUP.

The story goes that the DUP intervened publicly, rejecting the Whitehall/Dublin deal. This led Mrs May to break off her meeting with Juncker to take a 'phone call from Arlene Foster, the outcome of which, it is said, was that attempts to conclude the deal with Brussels on the day were abandoned.

Now we seem to have history repeating itself except that, if anything, the deal is even more convoluted, leaving some to wonder whether, even if it is agreed, the administrative capacity exists to implement it.

Perhaps, though, it was never meant to be. The BBC is reporting that it has obtained Conservative party leaflets which suggest the party is preparing for a delay to Brexit. The text of one leaflet says: "Without a strong majority government, we can't deliver Brexit", indicating that the party is expecting the UK still to be in the EU by the time a general election is held.

One way or another, I have the sense that, over the past week or so, we have been played. All the to-ing and fro-ing of the past week or so is simply theatre to distract us from the reality that we are nowhere near a deal. In its own way, the Mad Hatter's tea party probably had more coherence.

Richard North 16/10/2019 link

Brexit: regulatory instability


Gravitating from his spot in The Times, Matt Ridley makes a guest appearance in the Telegraph to promote his vision of a deregulated Brexit that lets us enjoy the vast benefits of biotechnology.

In so doing, he's picking up on comments Johnson made from Downing Street about liberating "the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules", and developing "the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world".

According to Ridley's narrative, Britain was once the world leader in biotechnology for agriculture, but that all changed 20 years ago when the environmental movement led a successful campaign to scare people about it.

Then, says Ridley, the EU enthusiastically joined in the opposition to biotech crops, not by banning them but by strangling them in red tape. Since 2005, the EU has approved just one transgenic variety of crop for commercial use, a process that took 13 years, by which time the crop was outdated. Canada has approved 70 in that time.

Like with so many things, though, Ridley's grasp of the issues is somewhat fragile. As it happens, on this blog, we've occasionally covered what has turned out to be the long-running GMO soap opera, with key articles here, here, here, here, here and here.

Summing up the essence of the drama, it is possible to come away with a slightly different take, namely that we're dealing with a conflict between the European Commission and the Member States. As the regulator, the Commission has been keen to follow its own procedures and, left to itself, would have processed many more applications.

The story however, is that the majority of Member States have, for a variety of reasons, been opposed to the widespread use of GMOs. They have, therefore, been blocking the Commission's attempts to allow their use in European agriculture. In a very real sense, therefore, what we have been seeing is Member States exploiting the system to exert their own sovereignty.

Not least, sentiment has been influenced by the predatory activities of the pioneer developer, Monsanto, and its initial choice of a product which maximised the use of chemical inputs, as in Roundup-resistant rapeseed.

The odd man out, however, may well be the United Kingdom (although this has never been put to the test), with the likes of Ridley arguing that our EU membership has been holding us back. Therefore, along with his brother-in-law Owen Paterson, he sees Brexit releasing the chains.

Typically, though, to justify his expectation, Ridley builds a fictitious case based on a claim that the root of the EU's "Luddism" is that, in the Lisbon Treaty, the EU adopted an extreme version of the "precautionary principle". 

But, while indeed the treaty does require environment policy to be based on the precautionary principle, the Commission's interpretation goes way back to the year 2000, well before the Lisbon Treaty came into being. And, far from being extreme, its evaluation of the principle focuses on the management of risk and is a model of its kind.

But this is an old game Ridley is playing. Biotechnology is his Trojan Horse for a wider attack on EU regulation, citing what he calls a 2016 Business Europe survey which he says looked at the effect of EU regulation on innovation. It found, says Ridley, there were just two cases where regulation stimulated innovation, and many more where it had done harm by causing excessive precaution, legal uncertainty, high compliance costs, inconsistency between regulations and technology-prescriptive rules.

This report, however, is not by any means a comprehensive survey of the state of the art. The report is more of an evaluation of how the Commission could improve its regulation, citing various examples of where deficiencies have been observed.

The Business Europe report, therefore, is part of an ongoing dialogue from an organisation which is largely supportive of le projet and cannot be taken in the way Ridley intended.

But a hint of another agenda comes in an article in the Guardian, where Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, argues that Johnson's "right wing" group is seeking regulatory alignment with the United States. At the ideological heart of this group, he says, is Liz Truss, founder of the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, which is set on delivering the UK into Washington's pocket.

They have a plan to "unchain Britannia" by declaring war on the "bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation", but this Dearden declares is actually a plan to unchain big business. They believe it has suffered from masses of overregulation on the part of successive governments from Tony Blair to David Cameron.

In this paradigm, many Brexiteers have looked longingly across the Atlantic for decades, to an economy where business is supposedly free from the shackles of tax and regulation, which they see as a product of the European Union – an entity that competes with the Soviet Union for their disdain.

Brexit is seen as the opportunity to emulate that US model. And because modern trade deals are concerned less with tariffs, and more with how a country is allowed to regulate food standards, run public services and treat overseas investors, a trade deal with the US would be a powerful mechanism for transforming our economy.

Necessarily, therefore, the EU must be painted as the "bad guy", while the United States is seen as the model of a liberal economy, irrespective of the reality. Critics such as Dearden see Truss at one with Donald Trump’s administration, and argues that the content of a trade deal is preordained.

The US, he avers, wants Britain to allow food produced in enormous animal factories, pumped with steroids, hormones and antibiotics, into our markets. It wants us to accept even greater monopoly rights for big pharmaceutical corporations, meaning higher prices for medicines and more strain on the NHS.

It wants us to allow the Silicon Valley tech firms from Amazon to Facebook to Google to have greater power to use and abuse our data. And it wants to extend the rights of US corporations to enjoy "regulatory stability", even giving them the right to sue the British government in secret "corporate courts" for daring to do things such as introduce a sugar tax or pass a law to stop fracking.

This essentially left-wing or "progressive" view of improved trade relations with the United States is unlikely to gain much traction with the Tory right, but one does not have to buy into this world view to be troubled by the direction of travel emerging from the Johnson Administration.

Furthermore, despite having spent much of my working career criticising EU regulation, I do not find myself in sympathy with Matt Ridley. Alongside Christopher Booker, we found much wrong with regulation originating in the UK while Booker felt that many of the complaints about EU regulation were "trivial".

Nor were our complaints about EU regulation always directed at the nature of the law. Our greater concern was that economic and trade regulation was being misused as a mechanism for securing political integration. For the EU, regulation wasn't an end in itself, but a means to an end.

But when it comes to Brexit, we are where we are. Businesses are used to EU law and, for good or bad, have invested heavily in compliance. Thus, there is no benefit to be had from rapidly ditching the corpus of EU regulation, especially as that will hamper our trading arrangements with Member States.

While one could even concede that, in the longer-term, a pro-US regulatory agenda could be beneficial to the UK (although some US law is hardly better than the EU equivalents), what is not helpful to the economy is rapid change, and the uncertainty that goes with it.

In the final analysis, we favour the rebuilding of the Single Market as a truly European entity, but for the moment the national interest lies in regulatory stability and a carefully-managed transition. And that, it seems, are the very last things on offer from Johnson.

Richard North 31/07/2019 link

Brexit: on the brink of madness


For what it's worth, Mrs May is no longer leader of the Conservative Party, her resignation having taken effect last Friday.

And while the contest for her replacement as leader, and ultimately prime minister, doesn't formally kick off until Monday, it has already been running some weeks and – in the case of the "turd-giver" – some years.

It goes without saying that the Telegraph is pulling out all the stops to back its favourite son, with today's paper running a lengthy supportive article telling us that he has won over "top Eurosceptics" with a "clean, managed Brexit" pledge.

This magical "conversion" (as if they didn't already support him) apparently happened in a meeting with Eurosceptic grandees last week, when Johnson told them that Theresa May's deal was "dead". He thus gained the endorsement of Steve Baker who says he will now put his "complete faith" in Johnson rather than stand in the contest himself.

Priti Patel, the former International Development Secretary, has also decided to back Johnson, asserting that only he could "deliver Brexit and restore trust in politics". At least two grandees are preparing to follow suit, convinced that the "turd-giver" is best-placed to rescue the Conservative Party from the electoral obliteration they fear it faces if it fails to deliver Brexit.

As to Johnson's master plan, it seems that he has adopted the report published by Corporal Baker on 5 June, from which he has taken the title, to label his "pledge". It is claimed that the plan is backed by "a host of senior Brexiteers". This includes Esther McVey, a rival candidate, to whom one can add Gavin Williamson and Owen Paterson. But, no matter how many people support it, there can be no doubt that this plan is completely irrational.

A notable feature of the plan is that it argues that the UK should leave the EU without the Withdrawal Agreement. And, "without prejudice to the UK’s departure from the EU by 31 October", the UK "could consider proposals from the EU to revise the draft Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration to meet the criticisms made by Parliament".

Perhaps "irrational" is too gentle, too neutral a term. "Barking mad" might actually be more appropriate, as the Baker/Johnson "plan" relies on the EU delivering substantial post-exit revisions to the Withdrawal Agreement - despite Barnier, once again warning that the EU will never renegotiate the Agreement.

Furthermore, even if there was the slightest likelihood of the EU accepting any amendments – which there isn't – the changes suggested in the Baker/Johnson "plan" would be wholly unacceptable to the EU, not least because it incorporates some of the more unrealistic ideas from snake-oil salesman Shanker Singham, who has heavily influenced the draft.

For openers, the Baker/Johnson duo assert that the Government "must not consider the UK to be liable for the estimated £39 billion payable to the EU under the Agreement", with Johnson directly threatening to withhold the money, yet they want the EU immediately to agree to a "temporary trade deal".

Despite having been told that there will be no transitional period without the Withdrawal Agreement – of which the financial settlement is part - they then demand that "any transitional period" must be without the continuation of the European Communities Act, in whatever form.

Effectively, what they are seeking is Single Market access without any commitment to regulatory alignment and, just to emphasise this point, they demand that "mutual recognition should be provided for across all topics based on outcome equivalence".

This latter point is a particular obsession of Singham, which the EU will never allow. Yet, no matter how many times this particular piece of stupidity is knocked down, it pops back up like a Weeble, as if nothing had ever happened.

Collectively, this group of inadequates are retreating into their own private fantasy where, having decided that we should exit on 31 October on "WTO terms" – amounting to a no-deal Brexit – the EU will immediately agree a new deal. And this will be on far better terms than we have already been offered, conclusion of which would actually be an improvement on what any Member States currently enjoys.

If there was any justice – and sense – in the Brexit debate, the brink of madness should rule Johnson out of the leadership race before it officially starts. But, even then, he is not getting it all his own way. This weekend, he is under attack from allies of Dominic Raab, who are marking down the former foreign secretary as "a controversial face from the past", which the voters don't want as prime minister.

Raab's supporters cite a recent YouGov poll which found that more than half of those questioned (53 percent) thought Johnson would make a bad prime minister – more than for any other contender. As the same poll suggested that more voters (26 percent) saw him as a good potential PM – more than any of his rivals – this rather confirms his status as a Marmite politician. It makes a mockery of any idea that he is unifying figure.

Oddly enough, Rory Stewart claims to be the only contender with more positive than negative ratings, placed equal first with Johnson in the overall ratings.

Already, though, Johnson is attracting less favourable publicity, with Peter Oborne in the Mail taking a dim view of his prospects. However, critic-in-chief for the moment is Matthew Parris, who uses his column in The Times to declare that Johnson's premiership "will fall apart in a year".

Taking note of prevailing sentiment, he writes that, "colleagues know the party favourite is a lazy, untrustworthy do-nothing but seem determined to vote for him anyway". In detail, he says:
That he's a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist's ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory… such truths are apparently already "priced in" to Mr Johnson. One just hopes the actual electorate are informed that his rascality is already "priced in" and they’re not to bother their little heads with such horrors.
It really does say something of contemporary politics that a prominent columnist in a leading national newspaper can write in such terms about the leading contender for the Tory leadership, without the slightest fear of a libel suit.

Parris's thesis is that Johnson could lose a vote of no confidence in the Commons as he headed for a no-deal Brexit but could (just) win a general election later in the year and come wobbling back, Weeble-like, into Downing Street before Christmas. But then Parris gives him less than a year in office. His colleagues, Parris says:
know he’s lazy. They know he's untrustworthy. They know how he tries to wing things for which he ought to prepare. They look at the £700,000 he has earned since he quit government, much of it on the national and international speaking circuit, and wonder. They know he ducks. They know he makes conflicting promises. They know he skates on thin ice.
"And in their hearts", he concludes, "they have no confidence in Boris. But they're scared. They think he may possess a kind of magic. The magic, my friends, will fade". Why though we have to go through this process of electing him in the first place is anyone's guess. The nation cannot afford the Johnson madness, or the elemental stupidity of his colleagues and supporters.

Richard North 09/06/2019 link

Brexit: the Farage trap


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard North 21/05/2019 link

Brexit: rats in a sack


It's three months short of three years since the referendum and only now are MPs starting to look seriously at the options available to them for Brexit. Even then, their plans are an irrelevance for, unless they ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, we're headed for a chaotic exit where the EU will be calling the shots.

This is, of course, provided Mrs May doesn't suddenly reverse course and decide to revoke the Article 50 notification, in which case we're in for a whole new mess of politics that will take us in directions no-one can predict.

The other possibilities are well-rehearsed, including a delay in Brexit to allow for another referendum and even the outside chance that enough MPs will come together at the very last minute to do the business on the Withdrawal Agreement. But even now, with an apparent change of heart by Rees-Mogg, that looks distinctly unlikely.

However, enough of the ERG "ultras" are beginning to realise that further resistance to Mrs May's deal could put the whole Brexit project at risk so, belatedly, they are coming round to the idea of backing their prime minister – something they could have done months ago had they thought about it, nothing really having changed in the interim.

That leaves, according to one source, Tories turning on each other, fighting "like rats in a sack", as the different factions start blaming each other for the failure to bring Brexit to a successful resolution.

Needless to say, rather than sort out their differences in an adult fashion, MPs are indulging in this massive exercise in displacement activity of "indicative votes", leaving the public stone cold. Only about seven percent think that the government has handled Brexit well, while just six percent expect the UK to get a good deal.

This is the fruit of a new survey produced by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) which has leavers and remainers equally critical, taking in a substantial increase in leavers who have lost confidence in the government's handling of Brexit.

At this stage, the focus is on the government, so there is no separate assessment of parliament's role in the debacle. And nor would it be easy to assess as the respective roles of the executive and the legislative are not always clearly defined and have varied over time. And then, a distinction must be made between the Tories and the opposition parties, which further complicates any assessment.

News of the day (for some), though, is Rees-Mogg admitting to a "thought process" that people like him hadn't gone through before, that Brexit is a process rather than an event. "I think many of us felt that, on 29 March, we leave, that's it, bingo, done", he says. "Whereas it seems as if leaving is much the same as joining". Unravelling our membership, he adds, "is perhaps not a single event but a process of unravelling and diverging which will take time".

If Mogg is serious in that this "thought process" has only just occurred to him after all this time, it says a lot for a man who has made himself a thought leader in the Brexit debate, widely quoted by admirers and the media. He could have read this in Flexcit more than five years ago and any time since. But such material is not for the likes of Mogg – he is far too knowing and much too grand to acquire information from such a lowly source. Nevertheless, in the current edition, I write:
If we see "Brexit" as a process rather than a single event, the act of leaving becomes an enabler rather than an end in itself. In our view, the primary objectives of those managing the withdrawal are to set up the structures and strategies which will provide a sound foundation for the governance and development of a post-exit Britain. Crucially, we also need flexibility to react to change, and deal with the many unknowns that will emerge. For the immediate outcome, and in the years following an exit, we would be satisfied with economic neutrality – neither gain nor loss.
That people such as Mogg are so selective in their choice of material is very much part of the problem we have with the Brexit debate, where choices are most often made on the basis of the prestige of the source, and whether they support existing prejudices. But there is also the phenomenon of anti-prestige, where some sources, such as Flexcit, will not be read under any circumstances, simply because of what they are.

This is now carrying over into the immediate events where, to add to the incoherence of the Common Market 2.0 plan, we now have George Eustice come up with his own version of the Norway option which at least avoids the pitfall of including a customs union.

However, when one sees Eustice write in detail about his plan, it immediately becomes apparent how far he has to travel and how little he understands of the practical difficulties of implementing the full Efta/EEA option.

There seems something inherently perverse driving MPs to publish their own little pet schemes, with only the bare minimum of preparation and understanding, with their refusal to consult sources which would help them on their way. But then, such people cannot really be interested in securing real solutions, otherwise they would doubtless take more care in what they write. As so often, we seem to be looking at ego-driven grandstanding.

Even his basic terminology is wrong, with Eustice referring to Liechtenstein having a "derogation" from the free movement provisions (of the EEA Agreement), when in fact the principality has secured a permanent amendment to the Agreement, which is an altogether different thing.

The basic problem Eustice has with his plan, though, is his failure to understand that the EEA Agreement represents only a part of the skein of agreements which secure the relationships between the EU and Efta States – and especially Norway.

Thus, while he argues that the process of rejoining the so-called "EFTA pillar" can be concluded within three to six months, with no need for a long implementation period, he grossly understates the complexity of concluding comprehensive arrangements which would give the UK the "frictionless" trade it needs.

In and amongst everything else, we would need a comprehensive agreement on VAT which goes further than any agreement so far concluded between the EU and any third country (including Norway), with extensive provisions for sharing data which would be extremely difficult to negotiate, given the sensitivities of this issue.

Eustice does, however, refer to the need for a protocol on agri-trade, but that also understates the position. Given that trade in agricultural goods between the UK and the EU is so significant, it is unlikely that we could conclude an agreement on free access of goods without the UK committing to something very similar to the EU's common agricultural policy. Much the same will apply to fisheries and the CFP.

At best, as I have already suggested, to conclude an Efta/EEA Agreement tailored to the requirements of the UK would take many years, which makes it neither an easy nor quick option. Thus, we would still need the Withdrawal Agreement and a prolonged transitional period before we were home and dry.

Even then, from the perspective of the Efta States, the EEA Agreement is flawed, lacking in the co-decision provisions which Delors originally promised. While the Agreement in its current form might suit the UK for its short-term needs, it is not an adequate long-term option. We would need to rejoin on the basis that we would be supporting Efta States in seeking to remedy its defects.

Such issues should have been explored years ago - as indeed they were in Flexcit – and by now largely settled. We should not, weeks before we are due to leave, be confronting cut-down Janet & John versions of complex plans, produced by evident lightweights who clearly have only a superficial grasp of the issues.

But, to cap it all, we have a Labour MP, one of the 650, complaining that "you might as well have put a dead cat in there instead of me; it would have had as much of a role as I’ve had in the Brexit discussions".

Yet, any individual MP has extraordinary power and resource. With privileged access to the world-class House of Commons library – with portals to every major academic library database in the world – MPs have unrivalled opportunities to educate and inform themselves, without personal cost.

They have unlimited opportunities to place written questions demanding information from ministers (Owen Paterson and I placed over 350 on a single subject), they can raise oral questions, early day motions and adjournment debates, and have all the media access and prestige that they could ask for, to get their messages heard.

For sure, it is not easy and takes a lot of work, but the opportunities are there and can be effective if skilfully used. One wonders why, therefore, this MP bothered to get elected if he is that useless.

But then, it would be hard to identify a single MP who would invite admiration for their performances. From the jaw-dropping admission of Rees-Mogg, to the crass misstatements of Lucy Powell, we are dealing with a grouping that, at best, is sub-optimal. All they seem to be able to do with any verve is fight like rats in a sack.

Richard North 27/03/2019 link

Brexit: into the madhouse


In my lifetime, we have gone through what amounts to a revolution, but in an area most people have never heard of – manufacturing quality control.

In the original system, production workers did their own thing while inspectors at the end tested the products and set aside faulty items for repair or "remediation". This was changed to a regime where "quality" was built into the product throughout the manufacturing process. Faults were detected and eliminated during production so that each item came off the assembly line in perfect working order, "right first time".

Clearly, though, this concept hasn't reached the higher levels of politics. It seems our MPs can churn out the most unmitigated rubbish, with not the slightest concession to quality.

And, if one is unwise enough to suggest that the product is somewhat less than of sterling quality, there will always be those who will suggest that we pitch in to help improve it, in the manner of old-fashioned quality inspectors. It seems that there is no expectation that, with all their resources, MPs should get it right first time.

A classic example of this dynamic comes from Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central and co-sponsor of the "Norway-style" plan currently masquerading as a solution to Brexit under the title "Common Market 2.0" (CM 2.0).

In the beginning, of course, there was the Norway option, published in 2013 by the Bruges Group, which was then improved upon to emerge a year later in Flexcit as the Efta/EEA option.

Yet neither of these versions, it appears, found merit with those of our MPs who thought to pursue the Norway option in their own names. First Stephen Kinnock and then Nick Boles just had to reinvent the wheel and, on the basis of limited study and even less comprehension, came up with their own versions.

Having made a total mess of his first version, Nick Boles sought to come up with a revised plan, managing to make it even worse than the first, with the addition of a customs union. This was a wholly unnecessary adjunct as the EEA Agreement already makes provision for tariff-free trading between members, without the encumbrance of a common external tariff.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious problem of not being able to join Efta if we are in a customs union with the EU, Kinnock and Boles have persevered with this bastardised version, joined by the egregious Lucy Powell, who has recently been parading the merits of a revised version which, if things go well for the triumvirate, will become one of the options put to the House of Commons in the so-called "indicative votes" expected tomorrow (Wednesday).

Apparently concerned at the unfavourable construction put on tying in the customs union to CM 2.0, however, Lucy Powell popped up earlier this month to reassure BBC Today journalist Nick Robinson that the new version of CM 2.0 "does NOT propose a customs 'union' but Singke (sic) Market membership and a customs arrangement".

This is an interesting claim as we see from the text of CM 2.0 that the "customs arrangement" to which Powell refers, "will involve applying the existing common external tariff". And that, precisely, is the WTO definition of a customs union. This is a rose by any other name.

Now, here is a dilemma. On the basis of her education, one could judge that Lucy Powell is not an unintelligent woman, having read Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford and King's College London, gaining a BSc at the end of her studies. Furthermore, having worked as campaign director for the pro-EU campaigning organisation, Britain in Europe, one might suppose she was better informed than average about the EU and its workings.

With that, it is hardly credible to assert that Powell could not know that a customs union was a free trade agreement with a common external tariff, without also asserting that she is extraordinarily ignorant or so stupid that she does not understand what she is saying.

But it does not stop there. In common with her fellow enthusiasts for CM 2.0, she believes that her "single market plus a customs arrangement" not only negates the need for the backstop, but has the "added advantage of being an off-the-shelf, quick model".

At this stage of the game, where there is so much known about the nature of the Efta/EEA option, two things are certain. Firstly, because the EEA is an adaptive framework, specifically attuned to each Efta State, it is not an off-the-shelf model. Secondly, given its complexity and the need for multiple bilateral agreements to augment it, the option cannot be a "quick model".

Self-evidently, it would seem, Powell is ignorant about the EEA. But what sort of person goes into the fray on such a high-profile issue without first making sure that they are fully and properly informed? Is this someone going out of their way actively to deceive, or is it someone so stupid that they are incapable of informing themselves?

In my considered view, anyone who goes into the political fight without fully preparing themselves with the best possible information is exhibiting the height of stupidity. Others may care to label it differently but, base motivations aside, what better description is there?

As for further developments, if we see "CM 2.0" on Wednesday specifically set aside for MPs to vote on, we will see a number – perhaps several hundred MPs – plumping for an option that is not in the least workable, based as it is on a series of demonstrably flawed premises. Given the choice, do we brand these MPs ignorant, or stupid? And at what stage does the perpetuation of ignorance become, in itself, stupidity?

As to our response to these people, there are those who would have us treat them gently. Like Michael Portillo, they don't like my "tone" and want me to expend time and energy educating our errant MPs, in the hope that they will mend their ways, rather than "insulting" them.

It has long been my personal experience that MPs follow along the general dictum that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Offering unsolicited information to MPs is rarely successful – for it to stick, they must first ask to be informed, and be prepared to study what they are given.

Even then, we have the experience of Owen Paterson to guide us – a man with whom I worked closely for ten years, helping him with his speeches and keeping him briefed on EU-related matters. And yet, here is a man who has rejected almost everything he has been told, to adopt one of the most extreme "ultra" positions imaginable. To convey information is not necessarily going to have any impact.

But, if we are having no impact, and no one is listening, one might ask what is the point of writing a blog. Yet that is precisely the question we could ask of every journalist and broadcaster, as we have a situation where the prime minister and her immediate advisors have long since ceased listening to anyone. We are all on the same footing.

Talking this over with Booker, he has long been of the view that we have no role in speaking the truth to power, as such. It is pointless even trying when they are no longer listening – or even capable of understanding what we say. Rather, we are writing the epitaph of a failed system for those who come after us. And that requires candour, not diplomacy.

Certainly, it is not possible to make any sense of what is coming out of Westminster at the moment, from any level – prime minister downwards. Someone on Newsnight even described parliament as a "madhouse".

Yesterday, for instance, we had the bizarre experience of listening to Mrs May tell us that, "unless this House agrees to it, no-deal will not happen", despite this self-same Mrs May previously telling us that no-deal is the default position.

In the same breath, we heard her tell us that "no Brexit must not happen" and "a slow Brexit that extends Article 50 beyond 22 May, [and] forces the British people to take part in European elections, and gives up control of any of our borders, laws, money or trade, is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together".

On the one hand, the only way a "no Brexit" can occur is if she allows it. In the absence of her deal being ratified, the most likely outcome seems to be that we will leave the EU on 12 April. That much is very much the view of the European Commission.

Since Mrs May is now saying that she will not even put the deal to another vote – as there is insufficient support for it - the only way that the Article 50 period can be extended beyond 12 April is for the UK to "indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council". That means we are really in trouble.

The CM 2.0 charade indicates that, even after all this time, MPs are not capable of coming up with a realistic exit plan. Even while they have supposedly seized control of Brexit, they will fail to agree amongst themselves as to alternative courses of action. And whether this is a manifestation of stupidity may be a matter for debate, there can be no dispute that it represents a failure on the part of the political system.

Whatever else one might say, we were entitled to expect that our politicians deliver a rational and effective Brexit. And whether or not you think them stupid now, it would certainly be stupid of them to think that, after their failure, there can be business as usual.

Richard North 26/03/2019 link

Brexit: end of the line


Basically, it's down to the MP collective on Tuesday. If they vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, that then frees Mrs May to go to Brussels and ask for a short extension to give time to get all the necessary legislation in place.

Some former refusnik MPs are said to be changing their minds. Others, such as Owen Paterson, are not. To judge from Paterson's issue-illiterate screed in the Telegraph, though, he hasn't thought it through, and still labours under the belief that no-deal is a credible option.

It's what happens if the collective rejects the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time – which seems most likely – that's got everybody guessing. Scenarios vary wildly, ranging from Mrs May stepping down and being replaced by a hard-liner, to the European Council agreeing to a two-year standstill to allow the UK government to rethink its strategy.

Should Mrs May be looking for a short extension after approval of the Withdrawal Agreement, the smart money is on the European Council agreeing with little difficulty, shunting Brexit day to as late as 1 July, whence we enter the transitional period and a no-change scenario until the period has ended (with or without further extensions).

However, in anticipation of another rejection, it seems that sentiment in Brussels is hardening, with the "colleagues" more likely to treat the UK as a "disruptive child", possibly refusing to grant any extension, precipitating us into a no-deal Brexit on 29 March - in a mere 12 days.

Personally, I think pragmatism will prevail and we'll get a short extension, at the very least – purely on the basis that the EU Member States need more time to prepare for a no-deal. But what looks increasingly unlikely is the "colleagues" agreeing to the long option.

That isn't stopping Mrs May using the threat of a long delay to Brexit as pressure to induce her MPs to vote in her favour, arguing that any delay past 1 July will require the UK to take part in the European Parliament elections – which is probably the case.

The dates for elections have already been set and the requirement to hold elections is set out in EU law, most recently Council Decision 2018/994. If the UK is to remain in the EU via an extension to the Article 50 period, then it is obliged to implement EU law. And while this could be waived for a Member which is on its way out in a matter of weeks, this is less tenable if the delay is prolonged.

Despite that, it is unlikely that default would automatically precipitate the UK's departure, even if the UK was in breach of treaty provisions as well as breaking EU law. After all, the treaties afford every citizen of the Union "the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament in the Member State in which he or she resides" (Article 39, TFEU).

The normal procedure to deal with a breach would be for the Commission to commence infringement proceedings, while there are a number of temporary fixes that could be arranged to keep the European Parliament functioning in the absence of elected UK members, requiring no more than a Council Decision to implement them.

The long delay, therefore, is probably less of a threat than Mrs May (or the media) imagines. The most likely outcome is a short delay scenario, followed by a no-deal exit on 1 July. Happening just as we move into the holiday period, the timing could not be more conducive to maximising cross-Channel disruption, as tourists get caught up with commercial traffic.

Nevertheless, this puts the no-deal scenario at the top of the list, confounding those many MPs who have deluded themselves that they have voted it off the table. All it needs is a frustrated or impatient European Council to sit on its hands and do nothing and the default date of 29 March automatically kicks in, leaving Mrs May only one option to stop Brexigeddon: revoking the Article 50 notification.

Arguably, that makes the choice on Tuesday as between a no-deal exit on 29 March, a short delay and then a no-deal on 1 July (or a little earlier), or no Brexit at all - in effect, no deal or no Brexit, with no certainty as to which way we go – notwithstanding that to stay in the EU would require the repeal of all the Brexit-related legislation.

Here, there is an interesting possibility that has scarcely, if at all, been rehearsed. Currently, under the doctrine of Crown prerogative, Mrs May does not need parliament's permission to revoke the notification. In a fit of pique, even, she could e-mail the letter to Donald Tusk at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute – even letting the seconds run down before hitting the send button.

That alone, though, would not end the exit process. Parliament would then have to cooperate in rescinding all the Brexit legislation, otherwise Brexit day stands and the European Communities Act would be repealed. That would deprive the government of its power to implement EU law.

Recently, we've been hearing much about the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties, and in particular Article 62 on "fundamental change in circumstances" in relation to the backstop.

Although some are warning against attempts to use this Article – it being marked down as an "utterly hopeless" endeavour – in the absence of parliamentary authority to implement the EU treaties, arising from refusal to repeal Brexit legislation, a different scenario could apply.

In this case, we could see Article 61 apply: "Supervening impossibility of performance". This states that a party may invoke the impossibility of performing a treaty as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from it, if the impossibility results from the permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty.

Whether lack of parliamentary approval qualifies as "permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty" is one for the lawyers to argue, but on the face of it, Mrs May doesn't necessarily get a free ride if she wants to call the whole thing off.

One person who is getting a free ride, though – at least from the media – is Nigel Farage. He has re-emerged from the woodwork to front a protest march from Sunderland to London, walking the first leg only, before disappearing.

Having done nothing since the referendum (or before) to promote an orderly exit, focusing instead on personal enrichment, he now gets sympathetic headlines from the likes of Sky News about being "betrayed" over Brexit. Yet, if anyone has betrayed the Eurosceptic movement – in not pursuing a coherent exit strategy – it is Nigel Farage.

But while Farage postures, Mrs May is back in print, telling Sunday Telegraph readers from behind the paywall that, "the patriotic thing for MPs to do is vote for my deal".

Observing that "voting against no deal does not of itself change the legal reality that, as things stand, a failure to agree a deal ultimately means we leave without one", Mrs May will probably not reach the last of the refusniks, who have convinced themselves that there is nothing to fear from a no-deal.

Since it is unlikely that many Labour MPs are going to read the Telegraph, she is probably speaking to the wrong audience. Thus, although she talks of Brexit as "a prize well-worth striving for", claiming that it is "well-within our reach", we seem as far away as ever.

This is more so as The Sunday Times has an entirely different take, having Mrs May tell us: "Back my Brexit or UK will never leave". She is to tell Brexiteers they have until Thursday to support her or risk a "collective political failure" in the form of a "Hotel California Brexit" where "you can check out but you can never leave".

One thing the paper has right, though, is its editorial which declares that: "The time for playing games is almost over". Tory MPs, the paper says, "have it in their hands to prevent outcomes that would be much worse, for them, than accepting Mrs May's withdrawal agreement". They should, it concludes, "face up to their responsibilities". The games can be left to the likes of Farage.

Richard North 17/03/2019 link

Brexit: the zombie plan


A series launched recently on Netflix has Natasha Lyonne playing Nadia Vulvokov in the series Russian Doll. Not dissimilar in broad concept to Groundhog Day, the central dramatic device is for Nadia to be killed over and over again, each time to restart her life at exactly the same point – in the toilet of her friend's apartment, where a party is in progress celebrating her birthday.

The parallel between this and Brexit is obvious, particularly the notion that there are technical fixes that will enable the Irish to avoid a hard border in the event of a no-deal. That zombie idea has died almost as many times as Nadia in the eight-part series but, no sooner dead, it reappears in the toilet of No 10 Downing Street.

In its latest iteration, it has taken on the mantle of the "alternative arrangement" that Mrs May so desperately needs to satisfy the ERG and dispense with the Irish backstop which is holding up progress on the withdrawal agreement. It has thus acquired the unlikely sponsor of home secretary Sajid Javid, who yesterday assured Andrew Marr that this was a viable proposition.

Months ago, this great sage asked the Border Force to advise him, looking at what alternative arrangements were possible. And, he told Marr, "they've shown me quite clearly you can have no hard border on the island of Ireland and you can use existing technology".

Thus, according to our home secretary, "It's perfectly possible". We don't even need magic wands or powdered unicorn horn to sprinkle along the border. "The only thing that's missing", he says, "is a bit of goodwill on the EU side".

I must admit, it's a little bit worrying to discover that we have a cretin for a home secretary, but then you just can't get the staff these days. But, while there is no one in his own department who can call him out (and keep their jobs), at least we have the former director general of the UK Border Force (UKBF) prepared to do the honours.

This is Tony Smith CBE, who now runs his own border security consultancy. He took to Twitter to explain that the UKBF had an operating mandate agreed with Ministers which set out what checks are made by the UK.

Currently, some of those checks are electronic, some are hands-on. UKBF does people and goods checks but not in Ireland. There, due to the Common Travel Area and the Single Market, these are not necessary. And should they arise, he says, "tech" can go a long way, but it "can't fix this alone".

"We need to understand", says Smith, "what needs to be checked before we can deploy tech". And that depends upon what the Customs partnership will look like and what regulatory alignment is agreed between the authorities either side of the border.

Currently, we have bilateral agreements with neighbours such as the CTA with Ireland and Sangatte/Sandhurst with France. These inform what checks are done, where and how. And what checks can be done by one country on behalf of the other.

So, Smith advises us, "the key is in the protocol". And "tech" is then just a tool that follows that. We have good systems in place (as does the EU) for electronic checks, but without some clarity about the regulatory framework on either side it is hard to say how this will work in practice.

Bilateral or multilateral agreements can reduce the level of checks needed and "tech" can go a long way. But it needs to be seen as part of a border transformation programme within a regulatory framework, and not a solution in its own right.

And that, of course, doesn't take into account the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, to say nothing of product conformity checks in the absence of a Mutual Recognition Agreement on conformity assessment.

If there was any doubt still to be had, though, that goodwill could fix it, we had Sabine Weyand enter the fray once more, this time directly to address the issue of whether technology could solve the Irish border problem. Her short answer was: "not in the next few years".

In fact, she was being generous. Not ever will "tech" be the answer. It must always be worked in with the regulatory framework and, as long as there is no-deal, there is no framework to work with. Javid, like so many others on this issue, is simply gibbering.

Yet, despite that, Mrs May is due in Brussels this week, "Battling for Britain" over the miasma of "alternative arrangements", apparently seeking a compromise solution that will involve the EU conceding that the backstop should have a unilateral withdrawal clause or a built-in end date.

Neither of those will be agreed by EU negotiators, so if that is the extent of her mission, she is already doomed to failure. But, it seems, the "ultras" are determined to make it so, with their insistence that the backstop is scrapped entirely and replaced by the aforementioned "tech".

Given that the prime minister is already on a path to failure, though, it seems hard to accept The Times narrative that she is being set up to fail by the hardliners. Mrs May is quite capable of failing all by herself without any outside assistance.

Nevertheless, we are told that Downing Street is going through the motions, setting up a new working group to explore the possibilities of implementing the so-called "Malthouse compromise", a scheme so mad that I have not even bothered to publish an analysis, in the expectation that it would soon self-destruct.

I suppose I should have known better. As with the "WTO option", the madder the scheme and the less likely it is to work, the more likely it is that it will be taken seriously by the politicians and the media. In the working group, we are to see a mix of Brexiteers and Tory remainers, including Nicky Morgan, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson, chaired by the current Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay.

These people will now waste their time pondering over the application of technology to the Irish border, on which basis the "cunning plan" is to get the EU to abandon the withdrawal agreement altogether – with the backstop - allowing an extended transitional period while the details of a new departure agreement are worked out.

It does not seem to matter how many times Barnier and other senior EU officials have said that, without the backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement and, without the withdrawal agreement, there will be no transitional period. This, after all, is a zombie plan, ready for its next appearance in the Downing Street toilet.

That almost certainly keeps us on track for a no-deal exit, even if there is now talk of the EU agreeing to a "codicil" to the withdrawal agreement – whatever that actually means. More likely, we are led to expect that pressure will increase for a delay to Brexit, simply to allow us more time to prepare.

It is presumed that "the scales will fall from Theresa May's eyes" this week, when she gets the cold shoulder from Brussels and realises that her "Battle for Britain" is over before it even started. Then, she will put her energy into convincing the "colleagues" that they need to give her more scope to organise the self-destruction of the UK.

Nevertheless, we can be reassured by Liam Fox. He has recognised that it would not be in the UK's best interest to leave without a deal, admitting it could put the economy "into a position of unnecessary turmoil".

Even then, he argues that, "We would be able to deal with that scenario", asserting: "we have got to guard against two things. One is an irrational pessimism that says that everything will be a catastrophe and irrational optimism which says everything will be okay". The truth, says Fox, "lies between the two".

This, doubtless, will give us endless comfort as the zombie apocalypse gathers force, and we find the streets littered with the corpses of abandoned Brexit plans - and Nissan motor cars.

Richard North 04/02/2019 link

Brexit: choose your experts


Mr James Delingpole is a fool. He was probably always a fool but there was a time when I counted him as a friend and I was too polite to tell him. He would ring me up occasionally for brief discussions, and sometimes he'd ask me to write for his disgusting publication - for which I was never paid.

All this was some time ago and, as he has followed in the path of the Brexit "ultras", we've lost touch. I ignore his publication, just as – quite evidently – he ignores mine.

Last week, though, he made a special fool of himself appearing on Andrew Neil's This Week to talk up the merits of a no-deal Brexit. Completely unprepared to defend his case, he came badly unstuck, provoking a less than favourable commentary from our Pete.

But such is the nature of the beast that he is now back, publishing in his own defence an article in which he proclaims: "I'm right – Brexit on WTO terms is going to be just great for Britain".

Normally, we would ignore hubris of this nature from such an ineffable lightweight, but there is an interesting social phenomenon here, where somebody who is so comprehensively wrong about a subject, can return to it only days later, to prove himself even more ignorant than during his first attempt, while declaring himself absolutely right on all counts.

Perhaps, if no-deal was a person, like Melania Trump, we would have Breitbart apologising and paying substantial damages, rather like the Telegraph, that custodian of measured reporting, upholder of Leveson's "powerful reputation for accuracy".

But, as a mere political issue, the likes of Delingpole can play fast and loose with it, deliver the most unmitigated trash by the way of argument, declare victory and move on, basking in the fond applause of the clapping seals who make up so much of his audience.

And, with the benefit of his having spent most of the weekend boning up on the WTO, we find Mr Delingpole staking his reputation on the claim that "most world trade is done on WTO terms". Also, he says, "the vast majority of the UK's trade with countries outside the EU is done on WTO terms, and it would be illegal for the EU to impose punitive tariff barriers on the UK, much as it might like to".

This is where I would really like "no-deal" to be a Melania Trump figure. With the number of times we've seen this canard published, the various claimants would have paid out billions in damages. The claims about most world trade being done on WTO terms, and UK trade with countries outside the EU being done under WTO terms, are completely false.

The thing is that I've been writing about this in detail, long before the referendum, with a piece about China published in May 2015 - nearly four years ago.

It was there that I referred to the EU's own treaty database and pointed out that, to set the framework for trade between China and the EU, there were multiple agreements - 65 over term, including 13 bilateral agreements. These ranged from agreements on trade and economic co-operation to customs co-operation.

At issue here is that, while these agreements are trade-related, none of them are formal free trade agreements (FTA), devoted to tariff reductions, and registered with the WTO. And because there are no FTAs as such, we get pundits assuming that there are no agreements at all, on which basis it is assumed that trade is being carried on solely under WTO rules.

I made this point with greater force in May 2016 in respect of the United States and the EU, pointing to 38 EU-US "trade deals", of which at least 20 were bilateral. That was at a time when the great sage Charles Moore was writing that: "The EU has never yet, in its history, had a trade deal with America".

Interestingly, that same year when I was working with Owen Paterson, Moore wanted to write an article about UK energy policy, featuring Paterson's views. At Owen's behest, Moore thus telephoned me at my humble abode to take down, almost verbatim, my research data on energy, on which he relied for his article.

Thus, as long as my work had the stamp of approval from Owen, it was kosher enough to use – not so my well-founded work on the WTO option. This contradicted what Moore wanted to say, so it was ignored. Similarly, Delingpole used to ring me up in a flap when he needed information for an article he was writing. But, surprisingly enough, I've heard nothing from him over the WTO no-deal controversy.

This is something of a pity as he would have benefitted greatly from a round-up piece I wrote in March 2017, and more so from my Monograph on the WTO option which was published in July 2016. And, on the same day, I'd written another blogpost on the subject, quoting none other than Pascal Lamy.

Crucially, I also cited a US State Department report on foreign trade, which declared: "The United States and the 28 Member States of the EU share the largest and most complex economic relationship in the world", thus enabling transatlantic trade flows (goods and services trade plus earnings and payments on investment) averaging $4.3 billion each day of 2013.

But, these days, this is not how the same is played. For Delingpole to make his case, he must select his own sources. Clearly, the US State Department is not good enough, so he relies on the far more prestigious source (in his terms), the report authored by Peter Lilley. That says what Delingpole wants to hear, so it becomes his source of choice.

Never mind that I have unfavourably reviewed it, and another pamphlet on which Delingpole also relies. As he explains, he finds the arguments from Lilley "more compelling than anything I've heard from remainers", notwithstanding that he has made no attempt to read any of my work (except that I'm not a remainer). But then, says Delingpole:
It's in the nature of living in a complex world with far too much information to sift that we tend to contract out our expertise to preferred specialists, much as in days of yore we might have chosen our favourite knights to represent our cause in the lists.

If you can't be bothered to do your homework on this issue, just take it from me: this is one of those issues not unlike global warming. There is a vast, well-funded Establishment determined to protect its interests at whatever cost — even to the point of getting lots of "prestige" figures (economists, heads of big business, etc) to tell barefaced lies about the imaginary disasters that lie ahead if we don’t do what they say.
And that's what it's all about. You select your "experts" – but entirely on the basis that they tell you what you want to hear. Delingpole elaborates on this on Twitter, declaring:
It's really about which "experts" you choose to believe. And there really comes a point where it HAS to be an act of faith. To understand - or think you understand - every nuance of WTO, you need to be a specialist in international trade law, finance, politics, business, etc...
To this, Pete responds:
No, you start with primary sources and work your way in. On the one hand you have the WTO website and the EU notices to stakeholders or you can choose to believe a pack of Tory cronies all of whom rely on a single source who tells them what they want to hear.
But then, Pete might have spent more than a weekend learning about the WTO, providing an interesting take - another source for the likes of Delingpole to ignore.

We cannot win at this game of trading prestige – but neither do we want to. If that's all the other side has got, then it has already lost the argument. Delingpole can declare his little victory, but if he believes his own propaganda, he's an even bigger fool than I take him for.

Richard North 28/01/2019 link

Brexit: the invisible battle


To the general disdain of many of his online readers, Booker today reviews the speech given last week by Sir Ivan Rogers to a packed audience at University College London.

Under the title, "The government is guilty of 'a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership'", Booker remarks that this "significant speech" was "scarcely noticed", even though delivered by the man who in January 2017 resigned as our ambassador to the EU after warning of the "muddled and ill-informed thinking" behind the way the Government had chosen to approach Brexit.

What was so significant about the speech was, in Booker's view, the way Sir Ivan painted such a devastating picture of why he sees our national debate over Brexit as having been all along "bedevilled by fantasies and delusions".

Sir Ivan, writes Booker, would have hoped by now that these might have been "dissipated in the face of reality". But they are "still being propagated on all sides", a state of affairs that then leads to some trenchant commentary.

Demolishing one of those delusions after another, nothing better reflected the trenchancy of his verdict than the language with which it was peppered: "bizarre", "fatuous", "piffle", "patently absurd", "demagogic rhetoric" and "vacuous pomposity".

As we appear to be sliding towards the "cataclysm" of a no-deal exit, the performance of the Government and our entire political class, says Sir Ivan, has amounted to "a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership".

The first fatal mistake, as he saw it, was the deliberate decision of the official Leave campaign in 2016 not to suggest any specific plan for how best to leave. This subsequently allowed all the different competing factions to claim that their own delusional strategy was what the country had voted for.

By coincidence, or not, this is picked up by the Observer's Nick Cohen who writes a piece headlined: "Brexiters never had a real exit plan. No wonder they avoided the issue".

His sub-heading goes on to say that, "The harsh truth about leaving the EU was obvious five years ago. But the right covered it up", which leads him into his theme that "the secret history of modern Britain is made in obscure corners between men and women taken seriously by no one but themselves".

I'm not quite sure what he means by this jibe about "men and women taken seriously by no one but themselves", but the obscure "corner" that Cohen takes as his starting point for his "secret history" is the winter of 2013/14 when the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) offered a €100,000 prize to whoever could devise a means of leaving the European Union.

It was then that he asserts that this was the moment when it ought to have been clear that "Britain" could only leave the EU, "if it is willing to pay an extortionate price". But the IEA's judges, led by Nigel Lawson and Gisela Stuart, refused to acknowledge this "harsh truth". They were followed by the Leave campaigns of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings and, finally, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who even now cannot speak plainly.

As if to anticipate their failings, the winning entry of the IEA's Brexit competition came from a minor functionary in the British embassy in Manila by the name of Iain Mansfield. He, says Cohen, "brushed away the difficulties of leaving the EU and offered us our first helping of unicorn cake". Britain, Mansfield declared, could enjoy the free movement of capital and goods in the single market, he announced, but stop the free movement of labour.

To Cohen, that "triumph" marked an ominous moment. Until 2013, even right wing politicians accepted that they could not have the best of all possible worlds. Britain was tied into an integrated European economy. No government could wrench it away in a couple of years. Britain would have to stay in the customs union, as Liam Fox had said in 2012.

The two-year reference, though, is neglecting a rather important development – the Lisbon Treaty which only came into force in 2009. It was that which brought in Article 50 and its two-year negotiating period – something which, even in 2013 we were still coming to terms with. Some, in a series of heated discussions, argued that Article 50 was a "trap" and we should ignore it altogether.

Cohen, though – like Sir Ivan – picks up on Flexcit, the plan suddenly getting more media attention in the last week than it has had for the last two years. He describes a certain Richard North, the advocate of Flexcit, as "the most significant thinker in the Brexit movement", and has me warning that a sudden departure would wreck people's lives.

I really didn't put it quite that way, although I suppose a certain amount of artistic licence could allow for that. I certainly did argue that the process of forty-plus years of political and economic integration could not be reversed in so short a period as two years.

Thus, paraphrasing Flexcit, Britain would have to be like Norway and stay in the single market, "at least in the medium term", as it dedicated many years, maybe more than a decade, to flexible negotiations about a future arrangement.

Rationally, says Cohen, "a flexible approach made sense". But by the winter of 2013 the market for rational politics was faltering. I am cited as describing how Lawson and his fellow judges excluded from the shortlist entries that said the only way to leave the EU was to follow the Norwegian example.

At that point, Cohen gets a little confused as he asserts that, until that point, I had had regular meetings with Arron Banks, Owen Patterson (sic) and Cummings. Of course, that didn't happen until later. Cummings contacted me in May 2015, asking for a meeting in London to discuss the referendum.

He told me that he didn't always agree with me on politics and communications, but my "knowledge of the issues is obviously incomparable, on our side anyway!". His immediate impression was that "most of the SW1 crowd" seemed to have learned approximately nothing over the intervening decade since victory on the euro, and thus he wanted to discuss tactics. He said he had printed out the latest version of Flexcit and planned to study it.

We actually met on 18 May in the King Charles I pub near Kings Cross. In arranging the meeting, Cummings told me not to worry about being late. He would have Flexcit to keep him occupied. And, true to his word, when he arrived at the pub, he had a heavily annotated copy in his bag.

I had very close contact with Cummings right up to mid-September, when I met him and Owen Paterson in a London restaurant to discuss the coming campaign. We parted on the best of terms but, as I told Cohen, "something then happened". I don't know precisely what it was. Cummings went dark on me. Subsequently, I was "no platformed" by Vote Leave and was excluded from any role in the campaign. Says Cohen:
You don't need to be a detective to work out why the darkness fell. How could the Brexit campaign inspire nationalist passions, how could Fox, Lawson, Johnson, Farage and Banks inspire even themselves, if they were to say that the only rational way to leave the EU was to carry on paying money, accepting freedom of movement and receiving laws that Britain had no say in making, while an orderly retreat was organised? Who would vote for that? What would be the point of leaving at all?
He continued:
Better to take the road to Narnia and promise everything while committing to nothing. After the prize was awarded to a political fantasy, Cummings gave fair warning of what was coming next. Writing in 2015, he admitted that the campaign would offer no exit plan: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or any Brexit in between. "There is much to be gained from swerving the whole issue", he explained. Opponents of the EU "have been divided for years". In any case, "the sheer complexity of leaving would involve endless questions of detail that cannot be answered".
That was the crunch. In what I've called an example of craven political cowardice, Cummings "swerved" round the contentious issue of an exit plan and focused the campaign on the Red Bus and its money message.

An honourable man, and an honourable political movement, says Cohen, would have found these excellent reasons to think again. Not Cummings and not the Brexit movement. Intellectually, their Brexit was an empty idea. But electorally, allowing millions to believe that the impossible was possible was perfect post-rational politics.

Thus Vote Leave went into the referendum campaign without a plan and, while Arron Banks briefly entertained backing Flexcit, he too ran away from the idea of fronting a plan. Apart from our Leave Alliance, the campaign was intellectually destitute.

Says Cohen, it is easy to portray Cummings, Johnson and Farage as grand villains. Indeed, he adds, "if we crash out with no deal, we will be hard pressed to find so much misery brought to so many by so few". But "the Cameron government, every MP who voted for the referendum, the supposedly ferocious interviewers at the BBC and hard-nosed journalists in the press let them get away with it. None insisted that the voters be told what form of Brexit they were voting for".

There we have an interesting moment of candour. An exit plan wasn't offered as a matter of deliberate policy by [some of] Brexit's supporters, and as a consequence of unforgivable negligence by politicians and journalists.

Cohen hopes we can now see "the consequences of obscure arguments in political backwaters". Supporters of a "people's vote" are met with the superficially plausible objection: "But we've already had a referendum".

Supporters of May’s deal and the "Norway option" face the objection that the Leave campaign never told them that we would have to accept EU rules once we left. Finally, for the supporters of a hard Brexit and the millions who risk their futures by believing them, "crashing out and crying 'to hell with it' are the logical consequences of the illogical retreat from reason they began in 2013".

There again, as I also told Cohen, we had that battle ten years earlier, in 2003 when some of us pushed Farage to form a study group to produce an "exit and survival plan" for when we left the EU. As I recorded, Farage would have none of it and engineered my removal as Ukip's senior staffer. The IEA's failure, therefore, ended not the first but the second attempt to get an effective plan in place; Cummings's rejection ended the third attempt and Arron Banks's cowardice brought the fourth attempt to an end.

And here we are again, rehearsing the same issues. Sir Ivan also saw the significance, as has Booker in reviewing his speech. This is not something that is going to go away.

But, for Sir Ivan – with Booker picking up the narrative – the second fatal step was to allow the Brexiteers to hijack the Government’s own strategy, by slamming the door on the only practical approach that would have allowed us to leave the EU entirely while retaining full access to that single market.

There has been "nothing more vicious in UK politics", said Sir Ivan, than those relentlessly misleading attacks on the "so-called Norway option", which could have avoided any damage to our trade (and solved the Irish border problem) while achieving all that many Leavers voted for.

Instead we have had one fantasy proposal after another, each more unworkable than the last, from Theresa May’s "backstop" Withdrawal Agreement to the make-believe for which Sir Ivan reserves his most withering scorn: that we could somehow just rely on those "mythological" WTO rules, which, as he explained at length, would be the most disastrous outcome of all.

Sir Ivan ended his talk on what seemed to be his realisation that he had only been writing the epitaph on an almighty national tragedy, the catastrophic consequences of which we have scarcely yet begun to imagine. But those consequences rest on "obscure arguments in political backwaters" which run back to 2003, with the invisible battle finally lost in 2015.

Cohen concludes that, for good or ill, you can guarantee that the arguments that affect us most are the ones that never make it on to evening news. In the case of Brexit Britain, that could not be more true. That 12-year struggle sought to shape the entire campaign, and its failure led directly to where we are today.

And while few people even realise that this epic battle was even fought, it is a battle that will have to be re-fought before we are finally clear of the EU, with a lasting, stable relationship.

Richard North 27/01/2019 link

Brexit: in service of the cause


Not willing to leave the issue alone, the Telegraph recently ran an authored piece from Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region of France, writing under the headline: "We in Calais are ready for no deal, but is Britain?".

This is a local politician with a position to defend. He is fighting off intense competition from Belgian and Dutch ports, anxious to send a message that the port and the tunnel will be able to handle traffic in a post-Brexit scenario. Thus, he is obviously going to say that "we in Calais are ready".

And he's not entirely lying. One way or another, they will be ready. The port and Eurotunnel will cobble together temporary facilities, with a gaggle of Portacabins and borrowed buildings, using half-trained officials and untried IT systems, all to provide some sort of service on the day.

If, as has been suggested could happen, traffic falls to a mere 12 percent of previous levels, then they might just be able to cope without too many delays – as long as French fishermen or farmers don't intervene and blockade the port.

Nevertheless, there's no way Calais could handle normal traffic, and Xavier Bertrand is the wrong man to ask anyway. He's a local politician and customs and veterinary checks are managed by central government, mandated by EU law. They are outside his control, so he's not in any position to give assurances, one way or another.

But then, the Telegraph is no longer in the news business. It is a propaganda sheet with an agenda. It's the same agenda as Breitbart, which runs a similar story, based on Bertrand's comments to Sky News, where he made the same pitch.

As for Sky, it's in the entertainment industry. There's not enough conviction in the entire operation for there to be an agenda. The reporters simply add to the noise, filling time in the same way that the papers fill space. Anything goes.

Another one with an agenda, though, is Owen Paterson. As an MP, he is supposedly a representative of his constituents. In that role, he would serve his constituents best by finding out what was going on, and keeping them informed. But that's not Owen's game.

The man who once declared that it would be "madness" to leave the market has since been seduced by the dark side, so he tweets Bertrand's comments as being "helpful" and "pragmatic". To date, that gets him 645 retweets and 1,324 "likes".

In truth, Mr Paterson has no means of knowing whether Bertrand is right or not. In times past, he might have asked me – and in this case I would have told him to treat the claim with great caution. But, like the Telegraph, Owen is also in the propaganda business. Bertrand has said something helpful to his cause, so he gets tweeted. If the words had been unhelpful, there would have been silence.

And that's the way it works these days. Whether something is true or false doesn't matter. Information is just a commodity, to be harnessed in service of the cause.

Yet, for all that, it is hard to stop information flowing. The paywall-free Guardian, for instance, is conveying to us that the Cabinet Office is drawing a parallel between the volcanic eruptions in Iceland during 2010, when aviation in northern Europe was badly disrupted, and a no deal Brexit.

The Cabinet Office, we are told, believes this represents the "nearest recent example" of what government departments could have to cope with, even if the potential disruption to the UK is likely to be much broader.

We also get to learn that these comparisons, and the lack of detailed preparations at the heart of government, are causing immense disquiet among some rank-and-file civil servants. "The level of planning required for no-deal Brexit is the same level as war planning", a Whitehall source is cited as saying. "A no-deal Brexit will have the same systemic impact. Iceland gives us hints and clues about what might happen, but Brexit is unlike anything we have ever seen".

Any serious evaluation of the potential consequences will confirm this, which emphasises the enormous disconnect between serious studies and the output of dilettantes such as James Delingpole, whose certainties are matched only by his profound ignorance of the subject.

According to a civil service evaluation which the Guardian claims to have seen, a "reasonable worst-case scenario" includes a reduction in certain fresh foods and increases in prices, with people on low incomes disproportionately affected.

Also expected, without any explanation as to why, are price rises across utilities and services including fuel, and diverse effects from private companies "cashing in" because they will put commercial considerations first.

Police forces are expected to be "stretched" by the likelihood of protests and counter-protests, along with an increase in public disorder, restocking of medicines becomes problematic after the first six weeks and there is disruption of supplies to vets, which could "impact the UK's ability to prevent and control disease outbreaks" among animals.

Another, well-rehearsed issue is the "significant reduction" in the flow of goods through Dover and Eurotunnel, to as low as 13 percent of current capacity on Brexit day.

It is hard to see specifically how this translates into experiences which will impact on the lives of ordinary people. Expectations of public disorder are largely speculative and fears of food shortages may be ill-founded. As long as outward traffic (to the continent) is managed, there should be no reason why the flow of food imports should be interrupted.

However, we do know – from previous experience – that shortages can be triggered by panic buying, with supermarkets stripped bare of certain commodities even when normal stocks are available. Much will depend on public sentiment in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, and the way issues are handled by the media.

Within the civil service, concern is focused on the decision-making processes of the Cobra committee. While local authorities, agencies and health trusts have been making no-deal preparations, there is little understanding in Whitehall about what they have done, yet Cobra "can only take decisions if it knows what is going on at the local level". A source complains that it needs information that has been properly collected and collated but, at the moment, "we don't have that system in place".

Others complain that they are "having meetings for the sake of having meetings" and that there has been no proper oversight of what is happening on the ground. Thus says another source, "In many areas we are flying blind. It's appalling and incredibly frustrating". He adds: "There has been a lack of energy and a lack of urgency. The preparations for no-deal Brexit feel very unstable".

This cannot be helped by what Sir Ivan Rogers called in his recent speech "denialism". We have one strain of the narrative, expressing increasing concern at the potential consequences of a no-deal, while a substantial body of noisemakers argues that there will be no problems or, at worse, minor and temporary disruption.

It is very difficult to determine exactly how the public is responding to the apparent contradiction, but I for one am not in the slightest bit reassured but boilerplate official statements, where we are told that: "The government remains committed to delivering an orderly withdrawal from the EU. Our high-level planning assumptions ensure we can responsibly prepare for all scenarios".

The essential flaw here is that so much of the no-deal planning relies on actions taken by authorities in EU Member States, and by the EU institutions. And when we are getting bland, but unsubstantiated claims from the likes of Xavier Bertrand, there are no good grounds for confidence.

Nevertheless, there is considerable resilience within UK public systems, and there has been extensive private sector planning, to deal with the possibility of supply chain disruptions arising from a no-deal Brexit – all of which might reduce the impact of temporary disruptions.

In terms of crowd psychology, reaction is likely to be at its most severe if problems are unexpected and build rapidly, feeding a crisis mentality. Yet, there can hardly be anyone who is unaware of claims of logjams at Dover. In the event of nothing serious emerging, there is a distinct possibility that Brexit day could seen as a non-event, from the perspective of a public spectacle, with the real problems developing out of sight.

On the other hand, we could experience a "slow burn", with low-level problems building to crisis proportions – weeks or even months down the line.

But if there has been something that has not been factored in, it is the appalling deterioration in the quality of media coverage, and the erosion in trust in media sources. As long as the likes of the Telegraph and others treat news as a commodity, to be shaped according to need, public responses may be unpredictable when claims (and even official statements) are treated with suspicion or even disbelief.

Playing fast and loose with the truth may be easy to do, but coming events may demonstrate that there are consequences. Trust is hard to build but easily squandered and, after Brexit, it may be the commodity that is in perilously short supply.

Richard North 26/01/2019 link

Brexit: a bucket of cold water


There are some good things about the internet. We can see, almost in real time, just how crass our MPs really are. We can also, through blogging and various social media platforms, let them know what we think of them. The downside is that they ignore us anyway and carry on regardless, entirely unaffected by what we think of them.

Exchanging notes with a certain person though, I received the terse instruction: "do keep at it - the worst is to come". So we do. But this ghastly drama will have to play itself out with us able to do little more than watch and comment until it is over. But comment itself is an activity worth doing.

Those people who are gradually eroding our futures must know that we are watching, that we know what they are doing, and that we have long memories. Powerlessness is a state of mind. Power comes with patience: there will always be opportunities for redress. It is just a matter of biding one's time.

It was perhaps timely, therefore, that yesterday saw Sir Ivan Rogers deliver another of his famous speeches, this one to a packed audience, and in a sombre mood (video here).

Turning to his closing comments first, which is an odd way of doing it but it seems apposite, Sir Ivan reminded us that he had said before Christmas: "It is really time to wake up".

What he said yesterday, perhaps more clearly than he had before, was that "it is not just one side of this debate which seems to be lost in its own dreams", even if he understands why each of the alternative versions of reality was more attractive to those who wish to live there, than the real world that he saw. He continued:
And I know that reality that as I have understood it and lived it for many years - with my many companions who work so hard on behalf of our public, our politicians and our governments – is cold, boring, and prosaic and peopled by desiccated technocrats who can always come up with some tedious reason why you can’t have all of what you want all of the time.

I know that those who have kindly cheered my remarks and comments have been buoyed by the hope that I might be helping to puncture the dreams being peddled by their opponents, and perhaps by the thought they could discern a lurking poetry in the dead hand of my bureaucrat prose. I am not able to do more than throw a bucket of cold water on those who sleep on and on, in the hope that they - finally - wake up and notice that the fire could consume them.
In that sense, we're in the same business – trying to bring a sense of reality into this debate – and not being terribly successful at the moment. And if we now rush to the opening of Sir Ivan's long speech, he started by telling us that "we desperately need clear and honest thinking about our choices not just for the weeks but for the years, indeed decades, ahead".

"I continue to think", he said, "that our political debate is bedevilled by what, at the time I resigned, I termed 'muddled thinking', and by fantasies and delusions as to what our options really are in the world as it is, as opposed to several different worlds people on different sides of the debate would prefer to inhabit".

Nevertheless, it is not going to be possible to capture the real flavour of the speech but, if there is a theme, it's that we're going backwards. Sir Ivan had hoped that the fantasies "would be dissipating by now in the face of reality" but they are "being propagated on all sides". The denialism is pretty universal, but "if we are to take good decisions about our future, it is now genuinely urgent that we get beyond the myth-making".

We're in a position where the different factions want different things, with the prime minister offering her TINA (There Is No Alternative) solution against a threat of a no-deal which is not having the desired effect. The EU has never for one minute believed that the UK would go through with it, as it is self-evidently a lot worse – in economic terms - than the deal on offer.

Those who don't want a no-deal also don't think any responsible Government will do something so self-evidently self-harming, but are using the possibility as evidence that Brexit is going badly wrong, and may prove a disaster, thereby justifying a new referendum. And those who like the idea of no-deal are using developments to sell the public the proposition that it is perfectly viable and won't be so bad, that it can be "managed". It's a "proper Brexit" unlike the "dog's breakfast" that the prime minister has on offer.

None of the players on the extremes, therefore, has reacted in the way the prime minister hoped and expected, while the centrists also do not accept the prime minister's "it's my way or the abyss" contention. They think their options for the future relationship have a better chance than the prime minister of commanding a majority in the Commons.

This has brought us to the stage in what amounts to "revolutionary politics" where it is essential for both the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionaries to extirpate any "compromiser", leaving us with the "bizarre spectacle" of Brexiteers, many of whom used to argue that the Norway or Swiss options would be a vast improvement on remaining in the EU, now dwelling on the "patently absurd" proposition that either would be "a terrible betrayal".

An underlying and important truth in this debate is thereby revealed that, as long as we were in the EU, Eurosceptics, "despite the narcissism of small differences", could always hold together. But the moment an attempt was made to define what was wanted from Brexit, as opposed to what Eurosceptics didn't want, unity completely fragments Small differences become large ones.

That was the fate of "the most thoughtful sceptic attempts to map an exit route" – embodied in a lengthy tome called Flexcit, "which is a genuine, serious attempt at least to grapple with what insider experts knew were inordinately complex issues". It was spurned by the mainstream Brexiteers, despite some brief dabbling by the likes of Owen Paterson.

Says Sir Ivan, Dominic Cummings "shrewdly" deliberately avoided proposing any plan. He "focused the entire campaign on what it didn't want, ensuring that resonated with the maximum number of voters who might find Brexit appealing, but would have radically different ideas of what it would deliver for them. The last thing he, or the political leaders of the campaign, wished to do was to set out a proposed destination, and a route map to reach it".

I would omit the word "shrewdly". It was a craven act of political cowardice, running away from the pressing need to show leadership, lancing the boil and coming up with a plan around which the broader Eurosceptic community could and would unite. Instead, the London-centric Tufton Street gang, with their Tory sponsors, hijacked the campaign for their own ends.

Either way, with the road running out and under the pressure of simply having to specify where one wants to end and how to get there, the option of "WTO only" - which all serious leave thinkers and politicians had themselves disparaged before the referendum - has now emerged, in various guises, as the preferred option of the hard Brexiteers.

As one astute commentator, who voted leave, put it rather superbly this weekend, it is the "I have no solutions and can’t be arsed to think" option. Says Sir Ivan, "it's a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership, under cover of increasingly empty demagogic rhetoric about betrayal".

But as to solutions they advance as better than the horror that they think is the prime minister's proposal, "we still get only vacuities", while a jump to WTO-only freedom of course "makes no sense", particularly from people who say we must leave the EU in order to pursue our sovereign free trade deals with other trade blocs or countries.

As for Westminster though, Sir Ivan observes, "we are deep in the Alice in Wonderland world of UK politics", where the vast bulk of the peculiarly antiquated debate about our trading future has been focussed on goods and tariffs issues. We need a far more sophisticated discourse, particularly when it comes to services. But, what is dismal about our political debate is the inability to start that debate until the problems are upon us.

What stands out from Sir Ivan in this context is his resort to the blunt language of a frustrated analyst. He speaks, for instance, of the EU, in the event of a no-deal, refusing to share "the latest Brexiteer fantasies" that all we need to do is flout the WTO's Most Favoured Nation principle and carry on according each other preferences and refusing to levy tariffs as if nothing had changed.

It is bizarre, he says, "listening to self-styled defenders of the liberal international order even suggest this nonsense". But "no deal" has, let's be honest, become just the latest canvas for Brexiteer dreams. None of what they say has to be true. "It just has to sound compelling and reassuring to people".

When we are assured by the former Foreign Secretary that "ample, balanced and pragmatic mini deals" will be prepared in a jiffy once we have just said "no" to the current deal, he knows full well it isn't true. It's just a pale repetition of the same tired old rhetorical tropes we heard from him in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Former Brexit Secretaries and the former Foreign Secretary are accused of "breath-taking" dishonesty and Brexiteers are dismissed as "fantasising about bilateral deals with Dublin", when confronted with the realities of the backstop.

At the moment, Sir Ivan concludes, "we have a political class still determined not to look realities in the eye", with a warning that "they will only damage their reputation further with the public if they continue to fail to". And we have very little unity: perhaps less than 30 months ago, "with growing risks to both social and national cohesion. Indeed with a growing risk that the UK will break up".

What we need, he says, is "a political discourse that recognises there is no single, perfect answer". There never was, inside or outside the EU. Not a discourse in which all sides play the "everything bar my own version is either a humiliation, a betrayal or a total disaster".

And we need a political process which enables the public to see the choices. Or we shall have many bitter years in which we only really hear from the losers as trade-offs – and huge trade-offs are coming - are made untransparently.

There is "no leap to freedom" which permanently ends our membership with the EU and it does not pay to be starry-eyed or naïve in negotiating with the EU machine, and for all the belligerent talk and now the fist-waving "no deal" rhetoric, senior Ministers have been both, and have been rolled over repeatedly.

This "self-absorbed British political debate" which seems to specialise in outrage about what we absolutely cannot tolerate, but be terribly short of proposals for what we could live with post-Brexit, is not the way to deal with the "difficult negotiating partner" of the EU. And so we finish where we began, with Sir Ivan throwing a bucket of cold water on those who sleep on and on, in the hope that they - finally - wake up and notice that the fire could consume them.

Richard North 24/01/2019 link

Brexit: a scene of utter confusion


After such an event-filled week, it is unsurprising that Friday was an anti-climax. For all the drama that has swamped the broadcast media, the newspapers and the internet, nothing has actually been resolved, so all we saw yesterday was a lot more of things not being resolved, but without the drama.

That which was of any real significance was negative, with the Independent reporting that Theresa May's pledge to reach a cross-party consensus to solve the Brexit crisis "appears to have fizzled out with no further talks planned".

A spokesman for Downing Street then said that the prime minister would instead be meeting with "a large number" of her cabinet, both in small groups and in one-to-one conversations. But there were "no plans" for cabinet members Michael Gove and David Lidington – who have met senior back benchers from other parties – to hold further talks.

Apart from the non-event of the non-talks, there was another non-event – a speech by a former foreign secretary, where nothing of any significance was said. Everything is now on hold for Monday, when Mrs May must deliver her so-called "plan B" to parliament. Then the fun starts all over again as MPs table their amendments – speaker permitting.

Filling the gap between then and now will be a torrent of media speculation, limited only by the constraints of imagination and intellect of the contributing journalists. Generally, this means we must suffer pretty pedestrian fare, with guesses as to whether we are poised for another general election, and similar matters. It is unlikely that we will be treated to any serious analyses of Brexit-related issues.

Problematically, virtually everything worth saying has probably already been said – mostly not by the legacy media. And that leaves an unlikely hero in the figure of the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, to dismiss Mrs May's latest efforts by telling journalists: "I don't see how the current deal can be tweaked", then adding: "She is really expecting Brexit to go ahead on 29 March".

From one version of our prime minister's conversations with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, we get even less. A spokesperson for the European Commission is said to have described Junker as having had "an exchange of information on both sides", with the promise that: "The two agreed to stay in touch". All Tusk would do is resort to Twitter with the cryptic comment that he had discussed with Mrs May "the next steps on the UK side".

Behind the scenes, though, it seems that sweetness and light is not the dominant sentiment. Apparently, Mrs May left European diplomats "in a state of disbelief" after her telephone conversations with EU leaders.

Despite the parliamentary defeat, she seems to have made no changes to her demands. She is calling for either a legally binding time-limit for the Irish backstop, a right for the UK to withdraw unilaterally, or a hard commitment to finalising a trade deal before 2021 to avoid the backstop coming into force. Nothing new is being proposed.

Predictably, the Guardian takes a dim view of all this. But it is devoting its main Brexit story to a warning by "soft-Brexit" cabinet ministers that Mrs May is "appeasing hard-Brexit Tories".

Rather than reaching out across the House of Commons, Mrs May is focusing on updating cabinet ministers about her talks with MPs, which included her allies in the Democratic Unionist party, and ERG members such as Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Steve Baker.

The paper has one cabinet source questioning why the prime minister was prioritising the views of those who had done so much to damage her. "The ERG spent two years conjuring up every violent image they could think of in order to discredit the PM", the source says. "Then they tried to bring her down. And then when that failed, they tossed her carefully crafted Brexit plan in the bin. Remind me why we are inching towards this mob?"

Cabinet ministers who have so far met with Mrs May say they have been "reassured" that she is not seeking a customs union compromise in order to get her deal through parliament. Nor is she prepared to entertain a referendum. But, as to what the next steps are, one said, "we are none the wiser".

Another cabinet source, we are told, says – without apparent irony - that Mrs May was urged not to pursue a route that could see a Tory split. But, the source says, "The only way forward that doesn't split the party is to bring the DUP and the ERG on board".

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that people are "none the wiser". The convoluted mess that hovers around Mrs May, like a cloud of flies over rotting meat, is quite beyond the scope of understanding for us mere humans.

If there is any sense at all to be made of this, it is that we are firmly on the path to an unmitigated no-deal, with the prime minister at the helm. Nothing in any of the reports we have seen suggests that she is making any serious attempts to avoid that outcome.

This, however, is totally at odds with more lurid assertions that we are on the receiving end of an "establishment plot" to rob the people of their Brexit. Oddly enough, Nick Boles is seen as an establishment stooge, with his Norway-style deal being seen as a plot to keep us in the EU.

In that context, the no-deal is seen as the antidote to "remain", polarising the debate by defining it in terms of two extremes – craven surrender or no-deal – and nothing else.

Yet, even that is too straightforward for The Times. It wants to introduce the third element of delaying Brexit if no deal can be reached in the immediate future. But, just to keep us all entertained, it is also having the ERG looking to force Mrs May to prorogue parliament, thereby stopping the Commons from blocking a no-deal Brexit.

At this point, we see the gibberish taking over, leaving Matthew Parris to step in with a cunning plan which would ensure that the Conservative Party never governed again, except as part of a coalition.

It is just as well, I suppose, that we have a saviour at hand, in the form of Keir Starmer who has popped up out of nowhere to call for an "open and frank debate" to break the Commons deadlock. After all, MPs must be feeling extremely neglected, having been deprived of any opportunities to discuss Brexit in the House.

Then, as, icing on the cake, we learn that the pound rallied by 1.3 percent against the euro as business confidence grew that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided. One is not sure what currency traders know that we don't, but if they are convinced we're out of the woods, they must have a special line to the Almighty.

The business community aside, anyone looking in depth at the state of play of Brexit, they can only come away with a scene of utter confusion. And for some, that has to make it the EU's fault. When they have spent a lifetime blaming everything on the EU, it is difficult to get out of the groove.

Richard North 19/01/2019 link

Brexit: political variables


It took us very little time after the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement to decide that it was a very poor result and not one we would like to have seen adopted. It was almost so bad that even a no-deal Brexit looked preferable.

But, despite some prevarication, the key word was almost. What is being styled as Mrs May's deal has many undesirable features, but the potential consequences of leaving the EU without an agreement are not those that any sensible person would willingly entertain. Reluctantly, we conclude that, if presented with a choice between Mrs May's deal and a no-deal, we have to go with Mrs May.

That selection would stand in the event that the choice was made as between Mrs May's deal and revoking Article 50, and there is not really a valid comparison between accepting Mrs May's deal and opting for another referendum.

However, if we were to be given the choice of either an Article 50 revocation or a no-deal, that is probably the one situation where I would feel compelled to opt for a no-deal. That would be my personal choice, on the basis that rejoining is simply not an option. The schism with the EU is already permanent – I can't see the UK ever again being a functional member of the Union.

However, if the ESRC-funded party members project is to be believed, I am at odds with the majority of the Tory rank and file.

The study, run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, gives some support to my antipathy towards remaining in the EU, with only 15 percent of the membership wanting to stay in, but when it comes to Mrs May's deal, just 23 percent are prepared to back it. This compares with a massive 57 percent who would choose to leave the EU without a deal.

How valid these findings are is difficult to tell and the survey posits a three-way referendum giving the choice between the two options. However, I recall a You Gov poll back in mid-November where 28 percent of Conservative voters supported Mrs May's deal, with 41 percent opposing it.

Although the structure of this ESRC study is different, it might suggest that opinion against the deal has actually hardened, and more Tory voters are prepared to break ranks with the prime minister than before, even with the confounding option of leaving the EU.

But this rather contradicts my assertion made just before Christmas, that there was far more support for Mrs May and her deal in the country at large than there was in the frenzied hothouse of Westminster. This, I then hazarded, would have a number of Tory MPs returning to London after the break, with the words of angry constituents ringing in their ears – enough to change their views on how to vote.

If, however, MPs have been getting a message which supports opposition to the deal, then we may see the opposite effect, with many more resolved to vote against it on 15 January. Mrs May will then be hard put to make up the numbers from the ranks of the opposition parties.

Beyond what will undoubtedly be the first of several votes, I don't think anyone sensible is prepared to predict what might happen. What might be called received wisdom allows for the possibility that there might be a vote of confidence that Mrs May might win.

With the prime minister proving to be a master of political stratagems, having outflanked the ERG in the leadership stakes, she may well have several other rabbits which she is preparing to pull out of the hat. But there can be no dispute that every time we see sentiment firming up against the deal, it brings us that bit closer to a no-deal scenario, whence we crash out of the EU.

At the time I was writing in the pre-Christmas period, we were seeing in the The Sunday Times a report of speculation "swirling" about a possible move by the EU, with the belief that we would see the Commission coming up with a form of words that made it look as if concessions had been given on the Irish backstop.

For all that, we get news from that other impeccable political source, The Sun, which tells us that EU leaders "insist" that Brexit negotiations are over, "despite Theresa May pleading for more concessions".

Mrs May is understood to have spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel since Christmas, and "is also said to have reached out to other leaders including Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte". Yet she has come away empty-handed, with not even a face-saver to put to her electorate.

To make matters worse, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Angela Merkel have got together to pledge to "stand by" the Withdrawal Agreement.

Separately, Varadkar had declared that Ireland will not accept any change to the deal that renders the backstop inoperable. The threat of a no-deal scenario, he adds, was not of Ireland or the EU's making, and that he was looking to the UK to propose a viable solution that we (the Irish) can accept.

Perhaps anticipating a hardening of sentiment against the deal, the government is to launch a publicity blitz on the dangers of a no-deal, with adverts set to warn of "disruption" to travel and the supply of medicines, as Defra Secretary Gove warns of "grim" consequences for farming.

Gove's intervention has brought Owen Paterson into play, with paean of praise for the genetically modified foods that we can spread throughout the land in the deregulated, post-Brexit UK – as long as we have the sense to ditch the Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Paterson's enthusiasm for GMOs is well known, but I sense that this is not exactly the issue that is going to turn the hearts and minds of the UK population against the "rule of Brussels" – given that the job hasn't already been done. But, nonetheless, Paterson stands by his view that the Withdrawal Agreement "would leave UK farming in a potentially dire situation, remaining bound to the EU".

Despite that, what happens to our food exports to EU Member States, Paterson doesn't say. But it is a fairly good bet that, if we adopt the sort of deregulated nirvana that he so desires, our growers and farmers will have considerable difficulty selling their wares to our continental neighbours.

Paterson, though, is not on his own in "dissing" the Withdrawal Agreement. Predictably, the Telegraph throws its weight into the fray, with an article and a cartoon lampooning the "scaredy-cats" and their "exaggerated fear of no deal".

The egregious Steve Baker chips in to tell us that: "There will be legitimate reasons for the Government to run a public information campaign in the event of no deal. But any campaign must be exquisitely calibrated to ensure it is legitimate public information and not an attempt to scare the public to lobby their MPs to vote for [Mrs May's] unacceptable deal".

The odd thing about this, though, is that with the government preparing to talk up the threat of a no-deal, Transport Secretary Chris is playing it down, with his reassurances about the post-Brexit performance of the ports.

But even now, he's very far from out of the woods with Seaborne Freight. News is reaching the media of the "chequered business past" of Seaborne Freight's chief executive, Ben Sharp, raising further questions "about the government’s vetting of the company, which has no ferries at present".

Mr Sharp, The Times tells us, was managing director of Mercator, a chartering company, that was forced into liquidation by HM Revenue & Customs in 2014 over a significant tax bill. He is now managing director of Albany Shipping, which is technically insolvent and does not appear to be operating. Mercator International’s accounts for 2013 show that it owed all of its creditors a total £1.78 million.

If one was to be logical about this, then the accumulation of criticism over "ferrygate" should raise concerns about the capability of the government to manage a no-deal scenario, nudging people into Mrs May's camp. But politics doesn't work that way, and there are too many variables for any sound predictions to be made.

This could be a question of head over heart, and if people are reacting emotionally, then they seem more inclined to accept a no-deal scenario. To borrow a phrase though, if they are now ringing the bell over the advent of a no-deal, soon they will be wringing their hands.

Richard North 04/01/2019 link

Brexit: party games


We're back playing games again, not that we've ever stopped. But today might be the day when Mrs May's numbers are up, all 48 of them. It was supposed to have happened a while back but the rebellion fizzled out. Now it is back on the agenda again – or not, depending on whether the Party really wants to rid itself of Mrs May.

We are led to believe that this "miracle" is brought to us by Owen Paterson who has signed the final letter. Amongst, his complaints, he has May repeatedly saying "no deal is better than a bad deal", even though it is clear her objective was to secure a deal at any cost.

One senior Brexiteer claims that Mr Paterson lining up with the rebels was a "big moment" after the mutiny embarrassingly failed to gain traction before. "We have had some false starts, but this looks like the green light", he said.

Now it's down to Sir Graham Brady to give Mrs May the official word, which he is expected to do after PMQs. If this happens, we're on a well-trodden path to a leadership contest, but the destination is far from certain. We could end up with a new leader but the outcome could be a strengthened leader, immune from further challenge for a year.

Mrs May can stay in office if she even gets a majority of one, but – as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost – she needs a resounding victory, otherwise it will be virtually impossible for her to survive. There could be a vote as early as next week and if Mrs May loses, that will leave the way open for a full-blown leadership contest during the Christmas holidays – just what we really need to keep us entertained.

I suppose if there was going to be a time for this, the Christmas period is the least worst. Most of the country will be shut down, as indeed will Brussels, so there will be little political momentum lost. And, of course, if Mrs May wins, she could be back with renewed vigour, ready to see off all comers.

However, if this is the least-worst time, we still need it like a hole in the head. At very best, a leadership contest is a distraction. At worst, we could end up with an unreconstructed "ultra" knuckle-dragger, although the "no deal" outcome remains a possibility whatever happens.

For the moment though, we can kiss goodbye to rationality as sheer politics take over and the issues are consigned to the back seat. Just when we needed people absolutely focused, the Westminster bubble is set to take time out, and indulge itself.

Half of me wants to shut up shop right now and do what even some of my most intensely political friends are doing – hunkering down and waiting until it is all over. There is no sense to be had until this is over, and not a lot to be had anyway if the wrong people emerge.

But, for the life of me, I cannot think of any of the potential candidates as people I would choose for the post of prime minister. If pressed, all I could do is produce a ranking of those whom I would like least, although the person at the bottom of my list would come as no surprise.

With the European Council at the end of the week, though, this development can only weaken Mrs May's stature and add massively to the uncertainty. Small wonder, therefore, that Brussels is warning member states to step up no deal preparations.

These developments come just as "haulage bosses are upping the ante on the effects of a "no deal" scenario on goods movements through Dover and Calais. Rod McKenzie, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association (RHA), asserts that Government plans for customs checks at Dover are "so impractical" it would take eight hours to clear an average lorry carrying food and goods from Calais.

This figure comes from a rather elastic view of a "consignment", with the suggestion that one lorry could carry up to 8,000 consignments, each of which would need a separate customs declaration form, each of which would take ten minutes to fill in. That would take 170 people eight hours to process, we are told.

Even if you took the average trailer which has 400 consignments per delivery, that would take nine people eight hours to process, says Richard Burnett, RHA chief executive.

Generally, however, a consignment is taken to be one batch dispatched from the same person to a single recipient (consignee). There can be many different product types in one consignment. Thus, the idea that the hauliers will be burdened to that extent is somewhat over-egged.

Much of the report is incoherent anyway, with the news that there would be temporary border inspection posts (BIPs) for food controls in place for April and recruitment had begun for the first batch of 250 customs officials. Yet, it is veterinary officials who will be carrying out the work, not customs officials.

In the event of the withdrawal agreement being ratified, the BIPs won't be needed anyway, while the "no deal" scenario means that no foodstuff of animal origin can be exported to the EU for the foreseeable future – which again means that BIPs won't be needed.

All we can reliably deduce is that there are going to be problems and delays, something which we knew already. And those who wish to deny that, are going to deny it, come what may, branding it "project fear".

With such an erosion of accuracy in reporting, facts now are a tradable commodity, and you bring to the table those which best suit your case. Thus we had the charlatan Dominic Lawson yesterday blethering about the "Norway option", asserting that a Norwegian government official had written that during the past 20 years, his government had incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA agreement.

Last time I checked, though, of the 21,178 EU laws currently in force, only 5,779 had been incorporated into the EEA Agreement and were in force. That, incidentally, amounted to 27 percent of EU law.

Entertainingly, Lawson addresses the authors of "Norway plus", declaring that he "won't accuse them of lying, only of asserting the opposite of the truth", while Nick Boles accuses Lawson of producing "another ill-informed hatchet job". No mention is made of Boles's gofer, who gets his facts so egregiously wrong.

Even if we could get the players to focus on the facts, therefore, it would be to no avail. Not only would they get them wrong; they would accuse their opposite sides of making the mistakes. If we could afford to walk away and say "a pox on all your parties", we would do so.

As long as they are playing their games, though, they are doing no one any favours, making the next few weeks a turgid exercise in applied tedium. We will be glad when it's over.

Richard North 12/12/2018 link

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