Brexit: downfall

Saturday 25 May 2019  



Well, the deed is done, the prime minister bowing out with an admission of failure, and pledging to resign as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party on Friday 7 June "so that a successor can be chosen".

In truth, though, she's been a dead woman walking ever since the Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, when she set out her government's negotiating objectives for exiting the EU, under the title of a "Plan for Britain".

Unwittingly (she can hardly have done it deliberately) she set herself up for the fall, excluding the UK from the Single Market and thereby creating the conditions where her eventual nemesis, the Irish "backstop", emerged. This was the inevitable consequence of her decision and one which was to lead directly to her downfall. The rest, as they say, is history.

This is a story we've already told and, even on the day, we knew it for what it was – a complete disaster which I labelled a "car-crash plan", only to upgrade it to a "Jumbo-jet crash". From thereon there was no way she could succeed, so it was only a matter of time before she was making that dreadful, lonely walk to the lectern outside Number 10. The only surprising thing is that she lasted so long.

But now that she is on her way out, nothing is solved. The Withdrawal Agreement document still stands, together with the integral Irish backstop, which isn't going to go away. Upon the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement rests our entry to the transitional period, which will keep us away from the cliff edge while the government negotiates the future relationship.

Without the Withdrawal Agreement – as we've been told so often by the "colleagues" – there will be no transitional period and we drop out of the EU without a deal, into the no-man's land of the "WTO option", which is nothing more than a recipe for chaos and economic ruin.

Changing the prime minister isn't going to change the facts on the ground. A new leader might have delusions about going to Brussels and renegotiating the deal, but that isn't going to happen, even if the Oaf thinks he can walk on water – assuming he gets the poisoned chalice.

Thus, any new prime minister will still have to confront a recalcitrant, dysfunctional parliament which has long since failed to work out which way is up. He (or she) will still have to present the Withdrawal Agreement to the House and get it ratified, if a no-deal exit is to be avoided. And, if Mrs May could not get the MP collective to move, there is little hope that her successor will fare any better.

The Oaf, however, has kicked off the leadership race by declaring that we will leave the EU on 31 October, "deal or no deal", despite suggesting that he could try to renegotiate a better deal with Brussels before pressing ahead with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

Of course, it takes no talent at all to go down the no-deal route. This, after all, is still the default option so all he would have to do is about the only thing he is any good at – precisely nothing. Dealing with the aftermath, however, would tax the skills of an organisational genius, demanding a level of competence that the Oaf would surely fail to demonstrate, bringing his tenure in No 10 to an end faster than Mrs May has achieved.

Necessarily, that assumes that the Oaf would take the crown and, although he is firm favourite in this obscene contest, the front runner doesn't always win. In fact, during the 2016 contest from which Mrs May emerged as leader, the Oaf was very much the bookies' favourite, only for him to drop out of the contest before it had started.

In 2005, David Davis was favourite for the crown, but it was outsider David Cameron, on the basis of a single speech at the Conservative Party conference, who was first past the line. Heseltine was the firm favourite in the 1990 contest but it was John Major who went on to become leader. And, going back to 1975, the eventual winner, Margaret Thatcher, was not even a runner when Heath came under fire for losing the previous October election.

That the Oaf is even a contestant in this current race, however, says much for the deterioration of British politics. That a serial plagiarist, a known liar, thief, bully and thug – with a record of incompetence in office – can be presented as a serious candidate for the highest political office in the land has to rank as one of the lowest points in British political history.

The worst of it is that, for the duration of the contest, we are likely to see the suspension of any serious politics – even if it has been some time since we have seen the likes of any serious political debate about Brexit. But it is unlikely that we will get anything noteworthy from any of the candidates.

In a way, there is nothing very much any of them can actually do. Mrs May not only boxed herself into a corner, she also closed down all the options for an orderly exit – bar one, the universally unpopular Withdrawal Agreement. No candidate is going to prosper by advocating more of the same, or by admitting that any new prime minister is going to be in exactly the same position that Mrs May found herself in.

Any honest debate would have to concede that the options are so limited that the only thing a successor should be able to do, in order to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit, is follow exactly in the footsteps of Mrs May – which would then raise questions as to why she was forced out of office. Hence, the very last thing we are going to see over the next few weeks is an honest debate.

There are still those, for instance, who assert that a no-deal exit would simply give way to a series of "pragmatic mini-deals" with Brussels.

Doubtless, the EU will act to protect its interests but its actions so far have been to implement a series of unilateral measures which, where they provide some relief for the UK, do so only because it is in the interests of EU Member States – and on the basis of reciprocity. Such measures can hardly provide the conditions for frictionless trade that UK companies need, or put us back in control when all we are doing is reacting to EU initiatives, the nature of which we learn only when they have been published.

One can see, though, the dishonesty and self-deception pervading such arguments when the current author of the claims still calls in aid Article XXIV of the GATT, despite its assumed application having been comprehensively debunked.

It doesn't help either that Brussels is in the midst of its electoral cycle, as well as replacing its Commission president and renewing the Commission. As it winds down for the summer, it is the very worst time for a new prime minister to seek new terms from the EU. The "colleagues" have more pressing matters to deal with, and are not without their own problems.

The idea that the Commission is then going to drop everything and focus on the needs of the UK is beyond absurd. The UK will be way down the queue in the list of things the Commission has to do, and the UK government will find it hard to get the attention of European policy-makers.

Yet still we see the UK-centric assumption that the EU will immediately launch a series of complex negotiations for the benefit of a UK which will have walked away from the political declaration as well as the Withdrawal Agreement. The arrogance of such an assumption speaks for itself.

It is nevertheless the case that some of the more lurid scare stories have been overblown, but there cannot be any dispute that the UK leaving without a deal will place us at a grave disadvantage – with full consequences emerging only after the event. Blind optimism and disregard for the implications of a no-deal exit do nobody any favours.

Despite this, we are going to be forced to endure the endless prattling of vacuous, self-seeking pundits, all for no political gain whatsoever, just for the dubious benefit of seeing a different face at Number 10. And then, in early October, when the conference season is done, we will start all over again, with exactly the same agenda, with the same unresolved issues on the table.

But, as the Westminster bubble devotes itself to its own private agenda, the real world continues to exert its own influences. Soon enough they will find that getting rid of Mrs May has achieved nothing at all of any consequence.



Richard North 25/05/2019 link

Brexit: today's the day?

Friday 24 May 2019  



Just about everybody's at it, homing in on Mrs May who is expected today to announce the date of her departure from Downing Street. Monday, 10 June is widely forecast as being the start of the leadership contest, after the state visit from President Trump and the Peterborough by-election.

Once again, therefore, the political classes have turned in on themselves, playing their dire games instead of getting on with the job for which they are paid. By way of a consolation prize for the Brexit we should have had but haven't got, we have a vast spectator sport called "guess the new leader", as the Westminster bubble takes time out to focus on its own concerns.

And, of course, it is a spectator sport. Unless you are a fully paid-up member of the Conservative Party - one of a tiny minority – you don't get a say in who is to be the leader of the government in one of the most critical periods in the country's history.

And then, even in that privileged position, you only get to vote on the pickings of three hundred or so Tory MPs, who will do their best to ensure they control the selection process, the net effect being that no one, at this stage, is able to predict who will be in the final run-off.

In what amounts to a thoroughly undemocratic process, the one small consolation is that the MPs may at least act as a filter to block the loathsome Johnson being put to the wider membership. Left to the rank and file members, they would probably vote for this creature. He has long been their favourite.

Possibly manifesting a sense of guilt about going AWOL at such a time, the bubble-talk is of the contest being over by the end of July, by which time parliament will be in recess. But that, as I have observed before, will require the agreement of the minor candidates. With as many as 25 expected to throw their hats in the ring, the bulk of them will have to stand down after the first round in order to speed up the voting process.

But, with a significant number of MPs on the "anyone but Johnson" ticket, that degree of cooperation cannot be assured. There will be a significant number who want to game a system where the short-sharp campaign is said to favour Johnson.

It certainly says something of contemporary politics that his supporters want that quick campaign, fearing that, if it is stretched out, their favourite will "blow it", by making one of his frequent gaffes. Presumably, they want him to be in post as prime minister before he makes his next gaffe – which he most assuredly will.

Until the Tories have sorted out their own internal grief, though, serious politics has been suspended. And since it is a long time since we've seen anything like serious politics, there is no guarantee that they will resume once a new leader has been appointed.

The one guarantee we do have is that, should the Tories be rash enough to allow Johnson to be their leader, we will not see anything approximating serious politics until he is gone. With that - and the certainty that this man would not command a lead in any general election – one hopes that this partisan electorate will see sense.

The trouble is, of course, that the Conservative parliamentary party is not exactly a reservoir of huge talent. In fact, the gene pool is such that it challenges the very fundamentals of Darwinian theory, where the most prominent of the candidates conform more with observations of what happens in a sewage farm.

However, to be presented with the choice of the least-worst, as an alternative to an outright wrecker, is not exactly a sound basis on which to select someone who will have to make some extremely difficult and complex decisions and then, potentially, go on to lead the government through complex and prolonged negotiations with the EU on our future relationship.

Nor is a general election any answer. This nation has been doubly cursed, having suffered not only the worst prime minister in living memory – if not our entire history - but also a staggeringly incompetent opposition. Between the two, they have destroyed public faith in our system of government, to the extent that even rather dubious demagogues begin to look attractive to the feeble-minded.

Confronted with what amounts to a non-choice, one can have a certain sympathy with those who look beyond the current party mix for their salvation. But if party politics is at the root of much of what ails our system, opting for more of the same, only with different colours, is hardly going to solve our problems.

It would be a mistake, though, to think we are alone in our problems. Most countries in Europe are experiencing some degree of popular disillusion with their politics and, across the Atlantic, the spectre of a divided nation is just as real. It is not just our party political system that it at fault. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do politics, not just here but in many other countries.

Sadly, in this country at least, the response has been very much in keeping with the tenor of our own parliament, articulating our dislike of current systems and volubly expressing opinions on the things we don't want. But there is a singular paucity of positive ideas for improvement and most thinking in the area of reform is restricted to trimming round the edges of existing systems, dealing with procedural and consequential matters.

Short of a violent uprising and open civil war though – or the sort of low-grade armed insurgency in which the IRA specialised - it is hard to see how fundamental change could be achieved in a system where the establishment is highly skilled at maintaining the status quo, and marginalising those who are seeking genuine change.

But then, in the history of mankind – right up to and including the establishment of the modern Irish state – it is difficult to find a successful example of activists enforcing fundamental change to a system without violence.

The one exception might be the relatively peaceful transition of the former Communist satellites to a style of democracy, after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But even in this, we have yet to learn whether the Ukraine is an outlier or a harbinger – without forgetting Yugoslavia. One could say that the post-Communist settlement is still work in progress.  

Viewed in that context, the UK's travails over Brexit might be seen in the broader context – possibly in terms of the gradual disintegration of the post-war settlement in Europe. Every now and again, the political tectonic plates do shift and, with three-quarters of a century having elapsed since 1945, we are probably ripe for change.

I would like to think that, as a species, we are capable of devising a new political settlement, and without the violence so often attendant on such change, and without having to endure the tedious histrionics of passing demagogues before we are able to identify a lasting model of governance, suitable for the 21st Century.

Whatever does evolve, one thing is for certain: representative democracy as we know it is dead in the water. The primacy of this system depends on the foundation myth that elected representatives are somehow better qualified and equipped to make decisions than the people they supposedly serve.

If Brexit has done nothing else, it has exposed for all to see the emptiness of that premise. Far from being leaders of thought and opinion, many MPs have shown themselves shackled to their tribal factions, weighed down by empty mantras and trailing in the wake of ordinary people, who are far better informed than they.

The rise of the citizen expert is something on which we commented back in August 2016, noting that the phenomenon had not yet been properly (or at all) understood. The aphorism "knowledge is power", I wrote, is still as valid as ever it was, and it is fair to say that much of a politician's power resides in the impression that they have better access to knowledge than ordinary mortals.

The important thing here, I continued, is that, with extraordinary wealth of information now available, it is not access which is the limiting factor, but time – and then skill. There simply isn't enough time in a day to visit all the information on a given subject, so even if MPs devoted all their time to keeping themselves up-to-date, they could never compete with the specialist who can afford to devote more time to the acquisition of information than they can.

In a sense, I concluded, information has been democratised. It is possible that, in its wake, we could actually see a true national democracy, rather than the pale shadow that passes for it at present. Thus, if information really is power, the people are probably closer to real power than they ever have been.

What they and the politicians need to do is to realise that there has been a shift of power, and then the "citizen experts" need to learn how to use their new-found power to effect. That is as true now as when I wrote it. The only thing that has changed is that the need is that much more urgent.



Richard North 24/05/2019 link

Brexit: negative forces

Thursday 23 May 2019  



In and amongst the welter of trivia, it has been a refreshing change to have our prime minister address issues relating to Brexit, which she did with her speech on Tuesday. And she was at it again yesterday, with her promised statement to parliament, delivered to an uncharacteristically empty chamber.

"If we are to deliver Brexit in this parliament", Mrs May said, "we will have to pass a withdrawal agreement Bill. We will not do so without holding votes on the issues that have divided us the most". "We can pretend otherwise and carry on arguing and getting nowhere", she continued, "but in the end our job in this House is to take decisions, not to duck them".

She would put those decisions to this House, she said, "because that is my duty and because it is the only way that we can deliver Brexit". Thus, she said: "Let us demonstrate what this House can achieve. Let us come together, honour the referendum, deliver what we promised the British people, and build a successful future for our whole country".

But it made no difference – nothing she could have said would have made a difference. Neither the Commons, nor the media – nor even the nation, it seems – wants to talk about Brexit any more (a situation that has prevailed for some time).

The only agenda in town, and certainly in the Westminster bubble, is how long Mrs May will last as prime minister. Speculation reached such a peak yesterday that some pundits were convinced that she was on the brink of resignation.

By late evening, with no resignation in sight, the money was on her doing the deed on Monday, once the Euro-election results are known. Even then, The Times reckons that she will announce her departure tomorrow, after meeting with the chairman of the 1922 Committee.

And so this dreary charade plays out enlivened briefly by an intervention from Jean-Claude Juncker who has been speaking to CNN in an exclusive interview.

So often it is said that the spectator sees more of the game, and that insight seems to be the gift of the Commission president. "What I don't like in the British debate", he tells CNN, "is it seems more important to replace the Prime Minister than to find an agreement among themselves," adding that for the EU, it's not about the "identity of the next prime minister, it's about the Withdrawal Agreement".

This is the man, incidentally who, as the prime minister of Luxembourg in 2007, observed to his fellow national leaders in respect of eurozone economic policy: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it".

Now, he talks admiringly about the determination of Mrs May, stating: "This is a woman who knows how to do things but she is unable to succeed in doing things." And in an interesting human aside, adds: "I like her very much, she is a tough person".

Tough or not, it is pretty clear to all that she is not going to succeed in getting parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. If that is going to happen – if at all, it's going to be under a different leader. But there are many other possibilities, entirely dependent on who next wears the crown, and how both parliament and the EU leaders react to the new UK prime minister.

For the moment, though, we don't even know the timescale. Theoretically, Mrs May can't be removed from office by her own party, and it might take a little while to change the rules – and even then the 1922 Committee has been reluctant to take the plunge.

The resignation of Andrea Leadsom might be a prelude to other members of the Cabinet walking out, but even that will not necessarily force the issue. If she was so minded, Mrs May could simply appoint replacements, using members of the House of Lords to fill the gaps, as needed.

Messy though that could be, it nevertheless means that Mrs May still has some leverage – which she could use to broker an orderly transition, when she meets Sir Graham Brady today. This could mean stretching out her tenure to the Tory conference at the end of September. Even if that calculus could change in a nanosecond, but the moment and for the next few minutes, and possibly a few more minutes after that, it remains an option.

At the other extreme, Mrs May could be gone before the day is out and the Party might allow the "men in grey suits" to anoint a new leader, to avoid a time consuming and uncertain selection process. But that would require all but one of the leadership contenders voluntarily to stand down, leaving only one candidate on the slate. Bluntly, I really don't see that happening.

There is, of course, the possibility that Mrs May resigns anyway, leaving David Lidington, her de facto deputy, in charge. Without a mandate for anything though, and precious little authority, all he could do is preside over the leadership contest and organise the handover when it happens.

That leaves uncertainties compounding uncertainties, added to which there is nothing to indicate that Mrs May's successor will fare any better than she did. The parliamentary arithmetic will remain largely unchanged, although the Tories could be facing a by-election if Mrs May decides to opt for a seat in the Lords.

Perversely, that puts us in the hands of the "colleagues" in Brussels. The irony is becoming increasingly certain – that much will depend on whether the European Council is prepared to grant yet another extension to the Article 50 process.

Here, Juncker has some more interesting comments to make in his CNN interview. He wants to see the Brexit process come to an end, declaring: "We have to stop this process because it's harming the general atmosphere in Europe. It's harming growth perspectives worldwide".

He does not favour a second referendum, but would prefer the UK to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. "I would like to say yes to a second referendum, but the result might not be any different", he says. "We are observers in a British stadium - it's up for them to decide".

Nevertheless, he believes the Brexit uncertainty is harming not only the EU, but also the UK itself. "I hope they will agree among themselves, and they will leave (the EU) by the end of October ... I think it's their patriotic duty to get an agreement", he tells CNN.

Despite his frustration over the political manoeuvring in London, he still suggests that another delay to the Brexit deadline could be on the cards. "I am getting fed up because we are (just) waiting for the next extension," he says – as broad a clue as you can get. However, as 31 October approaches, Juncker will be on his way out. The president-elect will already have been named and – in the normal course of events – approved by the European Parliament.

Notwithstanding that, the decision on an extension isn't for the Commission president to make, although he will be able to influence the decision. But the new man may be less forthright than his predecessor, and the European Council may be minded to take its own path. And while the presumption is that an extension will be given, only a fool would take it for granted.

There is the assumption, of course, that the UK will apply for an extension. But a bellicose leaver in post as prime minister could decide to let the clock run down without intervening. There is very little that parliament could do to stop this happening – even a motion of no confidence might not work, as time could run out while the procedures were still in progress.

On the other hand, a new prime minister – if so minded – could invoke Crown prerogative and revoke the Article 50 notification, telling parliament only after the event. The subsequent statement to the Commons might be quite entertaining – and somewhat more raucous than the average PMQs – but this remains a theoretical possibility.

As a way of blunting the outrage in the country at large, a new leader could propose a "confirmatory" referendum, turning the tables on Labour into the bargain.

The thing is here that nothing can be considered as "off the table". Over the last three years, so much has happened that none of us predicted that we can hardly argue that we will be able to predict what is coming. The new norm has to be the unexpected.

Entirely to be expected, though, Juncker used his opportunity with CNN to lash out at "stupid nationalists", complaining that, "These populist, nationalists, stupid nationalists, they are in love with their own countries". When asked why he thought that anti-EU forces were more successful in mobilising their base than "pro-Europeans", Juncker replied: "It's always easier to mobilise negative forces than to mobilise positive forces".

Whether that is true or not, there are certainly a lot of "negative forces" around. And, as Mrs May is finding, they have already been mobilised.



Richard North 23/05/2019 link

Brexit: uncommon ground

Wednesday 22 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 22/05/2019 link

Brexit: the Farage trap

Tuesday 21 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 21/05/2019 link

Brexit: a tsunami of trivia

Monday 20 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 20/05/2019 link

Brexit: big and bold

Sunday 19 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 19/05/2019 link

Brexit: an explosive mix

Saturday 18 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 18/05/2019 link

Brexit: the end of May (not)

Friday 17 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 17/05/2019 link

Brexit: when the games stop

Thursday 16 May 2019  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 16/05/2019 link
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