Brexit: those stupid people

Monday 25 March 2019  

We've seen this so many times before, with the Sunday papers getting over-excited about a story which, in a matter of hours, turns out to lack substance – a cycle of highly speculative claims followed by denial which is entirely unproductive and an unnecessary distraction.

Thus, yesterday, even while The Sunday Times and others were racking up the tension about a palace coup, others had "senior ministers" dismissing the reports, with chancellor Philip Hammond dismissing the talk of a change as "self-indulgent".

That phrasing is highly appropriate. Chasing after phantoms rather than focusing on real issues is indeed self-indulgent, something to which our politico-media complex is all too prone. This sort of displacement activity replaces real work and the boring analysis of complex detail that might actually improve our understanding and help deliver results.

But, if this sort of cop-out activity is what we've been plagued with since long before Brexit, the demands of forging a coherent EU exit strategy have clearly exceeded the abilities of our politicians and journalists. Displacement activity has thus become their preferred option and first resort. They are good for little else.

Sadly, the politicians and journalists are not alone. A huge segment of the population has also chosen to opt out of any serious debate on the post-Brexit future of the UK, preferring instead endlessly to churn over the conduct of the referendum campaign, and to agitate for another in the hope of reversing the decision – thereby saving them the effort of coming up with any positive ideas of their own.

The net effect of all this misplaced activity, therefore, has been to waste time – even more time. We went through the referendum campaign without a serious debate on what the UK should look like after Brexit, and the bulk of the nation has been avoiding it ever since.

Around the fringes, we have Stephen Kinnock and his merry little band calling itself the Common Market 2.0 Group which at least is trying to bring forward "a Brexit deal everyone can support".

Even if they are failing dismally, with a pastiche which has no realistic chance of being implemented, they have got as far as understanding that the Efta/EEA option restores an element of control over freedom of movement, through the mechanism of Article 112 of the EEA Agreement.

As Efta members have unconditional access to regional and global standards-making bodies, they can also take some control over rule-making (more so than individual EU Member States) and, by ensuring regulatory alignment on conformity with the regulatory ecosystem, the EEA Agreement would remove the need for the Irish backstop.

But then, up pops the oaf Johnson, writing for the Telegraph, to tell us that this Norway/EEA/customs union proposal "would be catastrophic". Says Johnson: "We would not take back control of immigration policy; we would be rules-takers; there would be no free trade deals; and – here is the kicker – we would still have the Irish backstop".

Whatever the flaws of the Common Market 2.0 plan, three of these four are not among them. Only the limit on the free trade deals would bite. But here we have Johnson who sees fit to critique the plan without the first idea of its merits and failures, having clearly not taken any time to read it.

And therein lies our problem – amongst the various actors, there is the dialogue of the deaf. Each have their own little mantras, which they trot out to suit, and none of them listens to anyone else. so we have Lucy Powell, one of Kinnock's group, who firmly believes that CM 2.0 "can also happen quickly". We could, she avers, "be in Efta by the summer".

There is simply no way of dealing with this. Whatever else, the full package that would be required to make the Efta/EEA option work, and give us the "frictionless" trade that we would need, would require many years of negotiation. It is simplistic beyond measure to argue that CM 2.0 could be a quick fix. Even if it could actually work, we would be lucky to see it in action before 2022.  

Yet, we now have CM 2.0 representing the Norway Option in the "indicative votes" that may be coming. As a result, we have the one workable plan, that could have provided a solution, butchered by a gang of ignorant, ego-centric MPs, displacing the workable scheme and substituting their own messy, unworkable compromise.

As for the oaf, his idea of a plan is to extend the "implementation period to the end of 2021 if necessary" and use it to negotiate a free trade deal. He would have us "pay the fee; but come out of the EU now – without the backstop". This, to all intents and purposes, is the "Malthouse compromise", something unequivocally rejected by the EU with even less chance of being implemented than the CM 2.0 plan.

Picking up from my assertions on the Moral Maze, my premise was that you can only go so far with ignorance when confronted with MPs who put forward completely unrealistic proposals. When they do so again and again, unable to learn from experience, one must conclude that one is no longer dealing with ignorance but outright stupidity. And in those stupidity stakes, Johnson is as thick as the proverbial two short planks.

But when one has Peter Bone, who wants "managed no dealer" to be included in the list of options offered by MPs as an alternative to Mrs May's deal, there is not a single one that would pass muster. In nearly three years, between them, MPs have been unable to craft a workable exit plan. This is institutional stupidity at an extreme level.

As for Mrs May, it is a matter of record that her initial thinking was tainted by her need to close down freedom of movement, containing immigration from the rest of the 30 EEA members. Even then, as Booker points out in what will be his penultimate column, the perception of the need was flawed.

Earlier this month, amid all the gathering murk and chaos over Brexit, he writes, there emerged one odd little shaft of illumination so significant that it deserved much more attention than it got. This was an Ipsos/Mori poll (oddly enough, commissioned by the BBC), which charted the astonishing reversal in recent years of British attitudes to immigration.

Back in January 2011, a huge majority of voters, 64 percent, thought immigration had had a "negative impact" on British life, with only 19 percent viewing it positively. Ever since then, the two figures have steadily changed places, to the point where the "positives" now stand at 48 percent and the "negatives" at only 26 percent.

Confounding Mrs May, the two lines actually converged just after the 2016 referendum, although no faction had been more vociferous during the campaign than those most opposed to immigration. But even during the campaign, one poll asking which issue ranked highest in deciding people's voting intention put the economy on top after it was chosen by around twice as many people as immigration.

Obviously, there have been various reasons for this dramatic change in attitudes but, undoubtedly, one has been the growing awareness of all the ways in which immigration from the EU has been beneficial to our national life.

Immigration provides doctors, nurses and other staff to the NHS, allows care homes and the catering trade to function, supplies plumbers, construction workers and skilled pickers for our fruit farms, tens of thousands working in financial services and the City, and much else. Many of these people have already been leaving, just as we come to realise that they may never be replaced.

Booker refers to one of the findings of Neil MacGregor's fascinating recent BBC series As Others See Us, based on interviews with people from five countries across the world. It shows how they all agreed that cosmopolitan London had become the most welcoming and enjoyable city for them to visit in the world, and how much they would regret it if this ceased to be the case.

The greatest irony of all this, of course, is that the largest component in our immigrant population comes not from the EU but from the rest of the world, under rules that have nothing to do with the EU at all.

We have already seen how, since the referendum, immigration from the EU has declined while that from non-EU countries has continued to rise. Brexit will not help us to reduce this in any way. So much for "taking back control of our borders". We will have lost many of the people who have made this country great.

From the point of view of where we currently stand, arguably EU immigration is not the issue it once was – or ever was – which means that relatively modest enhancements to controls, facilitated by the EEA Agreement, might be sufficient to get us a long-term settlement. Those "red lines" aren't in any way as formidable as they once appeared.

Thus, we do have a means to solve the Brexit problem, and could craft a solution which could satisfy our needs. It seems therefore, that Brexit isn't the problem. It's the close-on 650 stupid people who are unable to do the job for which they are paid.

Richard North 25/03/2019 link

Brexit: the last hurrah

Sunday 24 March 2019  

Whenever the UK legacy media can no longer cope with serious political events (and it doesn't take very much for that to happen) it retreats from reality into its comfort zone and starts indulging in speculation about reshuffles, changes in leadership, general elections or some such.

With the Brexit story splintering, the diverse possibilities taking us in a myriad of directions which defy easy (or any) analysis, this seems to be happening at the moment. Stories circulating veer from predictions of Mrs May's imminent resignation, to tales of a full-blown palace coup.

By Monday morning, we thus expect (virtual) tanks to be parked on Parliament Square – so recently vacated by the Stop Brexit march that the litter hasn't yet been cleared – with any one of a number of actors, ranging from Nicky Morgan to Michael Gove ensconced in Downing Street as our new prime minister, while workmen pile Mrs May's chattels in the garden.

In the latest iteration, "senior ministers" are moving to oust Mrs May and replace her with her de facto deputy, David Lidington. In a frantic series of private telephone calls, we are told, senior ministers have agreed that the prime minister must announce she is standing down, warning that she has become a toxic and "erratic" figure whose judgment has "gone haywire".

Actually, even our lot aren't that brutal, but even the earlier reports had it that Mrs May was "under pressure" to name a date for her departure, with suggestions that her departure might be imminent.

Cabinet support was said to have "drained away", the DUP had made clear its lack of faith in her and even her closest allies were claimed to believe that it was "inevitable" she would have to resign. "It's obvious that this is where things are headed", these helpful anonymous sources said.

Meanwhile, David Lidington – in between standing by to replace his boss - had held talks with opposition leaders about votes on alternatives to her Brexit deal, while the media is stuffed with gurus fantasising about different versions of Brexit in the certain knowledge that none of them will ever have to be put to the test.

It is both instructive and interesting that almost the entire media establishment has rounded on Mrs May as the fount of all our problems, but that does save it from having to accept any responsibility for its own part in this ongoing debacle. Ditching the current prime minister would cast her admirably in the role of the scapegoat, whence she could take with her the burden of the collective's sins as she was pitched over the precipice.

The arrival of a new prime minister might also be taken by the "colleagues" as a signal for a fresh start in the Brexit drama, allowing issues to be broached that had been previously so tinged with red as to be off-limits. With one fell swoop, therefore, every problem in the world is instantly solved by the single expedient of a new face at Number 10.

The ever-so tiny fly in the ointment of this creative endeavour is that, in all probability, Mrs May hasn't been consulted about her new non-role and, given a choice, has no intention of booking a furniture van any time soon. And, with the year not yet up before there can be another Tory "dump the leader" move, there is no procedure short of a successful vote of no confidence that can be used to depose her if she doesn't want to go.

There could be a distinct possibility, therefore – verging on a racing certainty – that speculation on our revered leader's imminent demise is somewhat overheated. Come Monday, we can expect to see her in the House, delivering her verdict on last week's European Council and issuing the MP collective with its next homework assignment.

That would then leave Jeremy Corbyn to chance his arm with another vote of confidence, this time in the hope that the DUP and a number of Tories will desert the ship of state and allow Labour to form a government.

As yet, there is not so much a fly in this ointment as a bluebottle the size of a house brick. Within the Labour ranks, there is no more clarity about Brexit than there is within the Tory factions, who themselves would be hard put to agree on anything, with or without a new leader.

Currently, it seems, Corbyn's inner circle is "warming" to the idea of a "Norway-style" Brexit (not to be confused with the Norway option), while other activists are intent on pushing for a second referendum, which may or may not include a "get back into jail free" card, allowing the UK to stay in the EU.

In other words, the chances of any coherence coming out of the Corbyn camp is precisely nil, which would rather defeat the purpose of chucking out the Tories and replacing them with a coalition of opposition parties. There would not only be Labour to take into account, but also the tender sensibilities of the SNP – who could go any direction under the sun, and twice on Thursdays.

Bearing in mind that, if any of this is to happen, it must be done and dusted before 12 April – in the event of there being no third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. There must be time for any new leader to cobble together a new proposal to submit to Brussels, and build a caucus of support in the House of Commons, sufficient to convince the "colleagues" that it can be made to stick.

In reality, such is the febrile atmosphere in the House that, even if the genuine Mother Theresa was teleported down from Heaven to take charge, she would have trouble getting a single plan to stick. She may have taken vows of chastity, poverty, and (especially) obedience, but none of the MPs have.

Thus, on the current timetable, unless Mrs May actually puts the Withdrawal Agreement to MPs by Friday and gets it approved, we're looking at the 12 April deadline kicking in, with that actually becoming the date for a no-deal Brexit. Even now, the term "default" doesn't seem to have gelled with the bulk of the MP collective, but that is distinctly on the cards.

The point here is that, even under the best of circumstances, it would take a heroic effort to pull together a consensus which could then be used to convince the "colleagues" that there is a tenable game plan, sufficient to justify a further Article 50 extension after 12 April.

Any such effort would require absolute focus, and a determination to bring together all the warring factions to discuss and agree a common position. Yet, in reality, fragmentation continues, while the bulk of the attention is on internal power plays, consigning Brexit arguments to the status of background noise.

Looking at the UK from their perspective, EU leaders must doubtless be scratching their heads in wonderment. When the country now has less than three weeks to come up with a plan to avert a highly damaging no-deal Brexit, they might have expected a vibrant debate to be spilling over into the media this weekend on how to divine a way forward.

But, if that was the expectation – and not an unreasonable one at that - it would have reckoned without the venality of the UK legacy media and the willingness of Westminster politicians to allow themselves to be distracted. And since these dynamics have played a considerable part in creating the current mess, it is unlikely that we are going to see an improvement any time soon.

One senses that this realisation is dawning on the "colleagues" and that they are ready to cut us loose. There must be a limit to their tolerance for the messing about that they are seeing in London, and an awareness that there is not going to be a negotiated resolution. Sooner or later – and sooner rather than later – they will need to take the decisive action that the UK system seems incapable of taking.

The only good thing we have to look forward to is the end of the tedious re-runs of the referendum debate, and the calls for a people's "Stop Brexit" vote. Once we are out, on whatever terms, there is no going back, short of making an entirely new application to join, under Article 49.

No sooner is the UK gone, however, than the Member States will be looking to a new treaty, creating a divergence that will widen the gap even if the UK stands still. Perhaps that is why we are seeing such frenetic activity from the marchers. In their bones, they must know this is their last hurrah, the closest they will ever come.

Richard North 24/03/2019 link

Brexit: hope dies last

Saturday 23 March 2019  

It's like all the bits have been thrown up in the air and allowed to land at random. Whatever coherence there was – and it was very slight – has completely evaporated and there is no sense whatsoever to be gained from the situation as it currently stands.

On the agenda is the third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, ostensibly due for Tuesday except that the feeling is that Mrs May will pull it if she fears she will lose it, which is thought likely to be the case. That might then lead to a different ploy, with the MP collective being asked to give their views on what they prefer, through a series of seven "indicative" votes, none of which as yet have been specified in detail.

Where that would actually leave us legally in respect of Article 50 is not entirely clear, because that option is not directly factored in the outcome of the European Council just gone.

What we do have to help us is the formal text of the European Council Decision, which does set out the exact position in respect of two separate scenarios.

Firstly, if the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons by 29 March, the Article 50 period is extended until 22 May. If it is not approved by then, the period is extended until 12 April. And in that event, the United Kingdom will indicate a way forward before that day, for consideration by the European Council.

Putting that together, the easy (but less likely) bit is that the Commons agrees the Withdrawal Agreement next week. That will give until 22 May to sort out all the legislation needed to implement our departure from the EU, whence we will then slip, seamlessly into the transitional period and start the negotiations to establish the long-term relationship.

If by 29 March – in less than a week – the Commons hasn't approved the Withdrawal Agreement, all bets are off. Basically, the government then has two weeks to tell the European Council what it thinks should happen, without there being any commitment on its part to any particular action.

In this case, Article 50 will still stand and, without a Withdrawal Agreement in place, the default option is hit the buffers with a no-deal Brexit on 12 April unless the Council is so overwhelmed by the brilliance of the UK's proposals that it decides to extend the Article 50 period again, for a period as yet unspecified.

Beyond that, there is neither clarity nor certainty, leaving nothing but speculation, rumour and gossip. All this does is add further to the quantum of noise which is drowning out attempts to understand what might happen – itself a forlorn prospect as we are seeking to know the unknowable.

It is an absolute, though – from which the EU Member States have not deviated – that the EU will stand by the Withdrawal Agreement. Thus, in the event of a third Commons rejection, all it will want to hear from the UK, and Mrs May in particular, are plans for the next attempt at ratification. And, fourth time round, it seems extremely unlikely that there will be anything on offer which will induce the "colleagues" to extend the Article 50 period beyond 12 April.

What is puzzling though, is that there is talk of the third vote being delayed past next week, which means that the deadline of 29 March will have expired by the time a vote is held, whence the 12 April cut-off will apply, irrespective of the outcome.

In the unlikely event that the MP collective approved the deal, that would put the European Council to the trouble of having to extend the Article 50 period once again, to allow the legislative processes to be completed – which we presume it would do, albeit with a certain amount of irritation.

But, with the 12 April date automatically kicking in, that then cuts down the time Mrs May has to craft alternatives, in the event that MPs reject the deal, also shortening the time the European Council has to consider its options if Mrs May does come up with anything worth listening to. And, as we know, the European Council needs an amount of time to draw up its conclusions. It may not have the time or inclination to react.

That rather points to a growing suspicion that Mrs May has given up any serious attempt to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified, putting us on course for a no-deal exit on 12 April – as the default option. There is even a possibility that we will arrive at that point without even having had a third vote and a further likelihood that no attempt will be made to pursue European Elections.

Assuming Mrs May is still in office by then, removing any possibility of a new actor for the "colleagues" to play with, one rather feels that it isn't only our prime minister who has given up. Certainly, the Guardian seems to believe that the EU leaders are stricken by fatalism, with senior EU officials saying that the likelihood of a no-deal outcome is "very, very real".

This stems in particular from Donald Tusk's closing remarks at the completion of the European Council yesterday, when he said that "the fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends". We are, he added, "prepared for the worst, but hope for the best". As you know, he then concluded, "hope dies last".

The huge irony is that, right up to the last minute, there will doubtless be a significant number of MPs who will still believe that the default option won't happen and that something will happen to drag us back from the brink of the precipice. The actuality of leaving, therefore, will come as a shock to some.

From the look of it, it also seems as if the severity of a no-deal Brexit could come as a shock as well. A classified government paper is warning of a "critical three-month phase" after leaving the EU during which the whole planning operation could be overwhelmed.

Government departments, the paper says, will have to firefight most problems for themselves – or risk a collapse of Operation Yellowhammer - the operation set up to manage the government's response to a no-deal Brexit.

Regular readers will be aware of our view that there is no necessary reason why there should be chaotic conditions at the Channel ports, or any shortage of essential imports, but that assumes a degree of competence in planning and preparation which we have so far not seen in any branch of government, and especially in the Department for Transport, which will be in the hot seat.

Nevertheless, with the amount of stockpiling and the probability that businesses will scale down their movements in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, it is not unreasonable to expect the cross-Channel traffic in the first few weeks after Brexit will be relatively light – notwithstanding Easter holiday traffic – allowing the authorities to cope with relative ease.

That, however, does not preclude structural problems in the management of government departments. The Cabinet Office is expecting each operational department to set up their own operational centres, funded from their own internal budgets, in order to handle matters within their areas of responsibility.

Notoriously reluctant to commit funds to what could be an open-ended commitment, departments could cut corners, leaving their centres dangerously under-resourced and over-stretched, unable to cope if the going gets rough. Any unpredicted developments could very easily create crisis conditions, with the authorities losing control.

This seems most likely to happen at local level, where there is concern that cash-strapped local authorities are not getting the guidance they need from Whitehall. A source has told the Guardian that, "Central government is not providing leadership", declaring that: "At the moment we are trying to plan for everything. There is no direction [or] accountability. The response to a no-deal Brexit needs to be built from the bottom up".

Probably the greatest danger comes with the uncertainty. Even though we are potentially three weeks from a no-deal Brexit, one day ago we were one week from that possibility. Budget-holders are going to try to avoid committing funds until the last possible minute and some may hold on to the belief that we will get a last-minute reprieve and 12 April won't happen.

For all the publicity and hype, therefore, there is still the perverse possibility that some authorities will be caught by surprise and will be unprepared when their hour of destiny comes. And there simply won't be the reserves in place to take up the slack.

Under the circumstances, the best thing Mrs May can do is make up her mind as early as possible as to her intentions, and then give as much notice to the public as possible. But if we're not even going to get that, then we're all going to be struggling to cope in a few weeks.

Richard North 23/03/2019 link

Brexit: and finally …

Friday 22 March 2019  

After a long hard day at the European Council in Brussels, where the outcome was anything but foreseen, we get there in the end, with the final conclusions on Brexit. Central to these, the European Council agreed an extension to the Article 50 period, to last until 22 May 2019, conditional on the Withdrawal Agreement being approved by the House of Commons next week.

If the MP collective doesn't do the deed, the extension gets cut to 12 April – the last day on which the UK can move a writ to set up the European Elections. Nevertheless, the European Council expects the UK "to indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council".

As if it was needed, the Council reiterates that there could be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement, and declared that any unilateral commitment, statement or other act should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Then, by way of insurance, it called for work to be continued on preparedness and contingency at all levels for the consequences of Brexit, "taking into account all possible outcomes".

In some respects, this represents a climb-down from the original position of a "sudden death" extension to 22 May on the condition that the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified, with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit by the end of next week in the event of another refusal.

Given the apparent response to Mrs May's lecture yesterday, that was looking to be the likely result but, at the very least we have two weeks more within the warm embrace of Mother Europe.

What that then does is give the government another opportunity to consider holding European Elections, to pave the way for a request for a further, longer-term extension. All of a sudden, the uncertainty which looked like ending is back on the table again.

However, if Mrs May sticks to the stance of no elections, and the MP collective hasn't delivered, then we're out with a no-deal only two weeks late, and precipitated into a crisis which will take considerable government resources to manage.

If we do commit to elections – and swallow the humiliation entailed – that would still leave open the requirement for the UK "to indicate a way forward" some time before 12 April. This, presumably, would come in a formal statement from Mrs May, shortly after her third defeat in the Commons, whence she would have to come up with plans for a successful fourth attempt.

Bearing in mind that it is going to be hard enough getting the approval of the speaker for a third vote, it is going to be harder still to get a fourth – and probably with less chance of success than any previous attempt.

On this basis, the "way forward" condition from the European Council seems to have the character of a back-covering exercise, with little expectation of it being fulfilled. Some might see it as blame avoidance – going through the motions of being open to further discussions, even though there is no realistic expectation of anything substantive coming from them.

That would tend to suggest that parliament's rebellious mood – if it is maintained – will spell the end of the Brexit process. At the third vote, we will be out on our necks and struggling to keep our heads above water in a no-deal world. That would certainly be the intention of Emmanuel Macron, who has been especially robust about limiting extension options.

A possible alternative might be for Mrs May to resign in the event of a third failure – third time lucky, some might say – leaving her successor to come up with proposals to break the logjam. A new face at the table, however, doesn't make the task any easier, and we could end up with a hard-liner who wants to take us out without a deal.

One idea being canvassed is mass defections from the Conservative Party to the independent group, with the subsequent formation of an opposition coalition fronted by Mr Corbyn. This could see Mrs May facing a vote of no confidence and a new government in place to deal with Brexit.

Somehow, though, that idea seems less than plausible, but then not many of us thought that dropping out of the EU without a deal, at the very last minute, was ever a possibility. Not for nothing did I write yesterday that we find ourselves having to learn that the inconceivable is part of the new norm.

Then, always looming in the background is the last-minute prospect of the government revoking the Article 50 notification, especially as a petition to that effect has now passed two million. Even this is not as straightforward as it appears, requiring subsequently parliamentary cooperation to repeal the Brexit legislation, it remains a possibility right up to the very point when we formally leave.

Basically, therefore, we are no further forward than we were yesterday, with still no real idea of when we are going to leave, or under what terms – or even whether we are going to leave at all. Even in respect of narrower events, we don't even know if we will have the same government by next week.

At this moment, we're not even sure when the third vote will be, other than it will be next week, pencilled in for the Tuesday. On the Monday, we will get the traditional prime minister's report from the European Council and it is at that point that we expect Mrs May to make her intentions clear.

Much of the media are taking the view that her Wednesday speech has "backfired", and the Guardian even went so far as to call it "shabby, shameful and a form of national sabotage".

As far as it goes, there can be no question that the Withdrawal Agreement is very far from desirable, and that Mrs May's clumsiness in ruling out continued membership of the Single Market has been responsible for many of her woes. But parliament can't walk away from this process and take no responsibility for it. Its own lack of cohesion and its inability to pursue a credible alternative have contributed to the prime minister's lacklustre performance.

Now that the Withdrawal Agreement has been finalised, though, there is no option other than – albeit with extreme reluctance – to support it. This is not with any enthusiasm and the very fact that this is all we have on offer represents a chronic failure on the part of Mrs May to do any better. But just because the prime minister has failed to perform adequately is no excuse for making a bad situation worse.

It seems to me, therefore, that there is something particularly precious in the indignation being expressed by the MP collective. With their bruised egos on show, some are even resiling from their previous positions of support, just because of the tone of the speech.

One wonders, though, how they expected the prime minister to react. With the Withdrawal Agreement blocked twice, and no alternative in sight – and very little sign of success on the horizon – a make-or-break attack on the source of the blockage hardly seems inappropriate.

Even where there is some attempt to craft an alternative, as in the Common Market 2.0 plan supported by Stephen Kinnock, it is extraordinarily inept.

Hailed as "the fastest route to Brexit", it is anything but. The authors are vastly under-estimating the complexity of tailoring the EEA Agreement to the needs of the UK, neglecting the need for multiple additional bilaterals and obviously unaware that a working agreement would require entering uncharted waters.

It is all very easy to come up with a fantasy option in principle, but the devil is in the detail. The supporters of this idea have simply not addressed the reality of that detail and are promoting something the true nature of which they know not, with no idea of how to get there.

Furthermore, it was never the case that the Efta/EEA option could be the final cover. It it is not a suitable long-term solution, and therefore requires an additional framework to legitimise the effort required to enable the adaptations needed to make it workable for the UK. Eventually, any scheme will have to deal with the integral flaws of the EEA Agreement, if it is to be a long-term, stable solution.

Bearing in mind that the original EEA agreement took ten years to evolve, it is most unlikely that we could conclude a revised agreement within two years. We could be looking at a process which takes many years more. It is worth striving for, but is not a quick or easy fix, and will not work if it is treated as one.

When one thinks that this is the best idea that the MP collective can come up with, they are hardly in a position to complain about Mrs May's performance. In a nutshell, they are all as useless as each other.

Until or unless MPs can themselves craft a credible solution to Brexit, they are in no good position to stand on their pride and complain about how they are treated – by the prime minister or public at large. Her failure does not compensate for, or excuse theirs.

And the one thing for sure is that, once the effects of a no-deal Brexit become apparent, the public will not be kind in their assessment of those who brought it about. Also in the frame is the MP collective. They wanted their "meaningful vote" and now they've got it, they can take responsibility for it.

If MP Anna Soubry feels unable to go home because of death threats over Brexit, she had better get used to the idea of booking long periods away from home – along with her other colleagues. Threats are indeed regrettable but a fact of life for those in the public eye. If MPs decide to inflict pain on the citizens of this country, they can hardly expect an easy ride.

Going back a bit, I recall my father – a schoolmaster – once being threatened with a beating by a gang of boys. He responded by publicising details of the route of his walk home, complete with timings. Our "principled" MPs might face sterner challenges, but nonetheless, there seems a curious detachment between actions and consequences. 

None of the political classes come well out of Brexit. They really cannot now expect business as usual.

Richard North 22/03/2019 link

Brexit: time to decide

Thursday 21 March 2019  

Yesterday, so I am told, was international happiness day – not that there was much of it in SW1. As each day brings new shocks to the system, with developments stretching credulity beyond any tolerable limits, we find ourselves having to learn that the inconceivable is part of the new norm. What once might have been considered beyond the realms of the possible are now taken as routine.

By whatever measure you might care to use, though, the prime minister’s statement yesterday was extraordinary, coming on the back of her letter to Mr Tusk, asking for a limited Article 50 extension, and his response making the extension conditional on the MP collective ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.

It was ironic that, even as she spoke, I was on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze being lambasted by former cabinet minister Michael Portillo for being "crude and belligerent". I had, after all, dared to suggest that our "principled" MPs make the effort to acquaint themselves with the technicalities of Brexit, also averring that the sheer inability of so many of Westminster's finest to get to grips with the issues rendered them fair game for the epithet "stupid".

The irony comes with the content of Mrs May's speech for, while Portillo was defending his former colleagues, the prime minister was very much on the attack. It was nearly three years since the public had voted to leave the EU, she said, and MPs had been unable to agree on a way to implement the UK’s withdrawal. As a result, we would now not leave on time with a deal on 29 March.

This delay, she added, is a matter of great personal regret for me, but went on to declare her certainty that the public had had enough. "You are tired of the infighting", she said, "You are tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, and knife crime".

Echoing what is self-evidently a widespread public sentiment, she posited that we, the public wanted this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with, a proposition with which she agreed. "I am on your side", she said. "It is now time for MPs to decide".

Here, then, was a direct challenge to the collective. She had written to Donald Tusk to request a short extension of Article 50 up to the 30 June to give MPs the time to make a final choice. Now they had to confront the issues. It was time they made a decision.

"Do they want to leave the EU with a deal which delivers on the result of the referendum – that takes back control of our money, borders and laws while protecting jobs and our national security? Do they want to leave without a deal? Or do they not want to leave at all, causing potentially irreparable damage to public trust – not just in this generation of politicians, but to our entire democratic process?"

"So far", Mrs May said, "parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice. Motion after motion and amendment after amendment have been tabled without Parliament ever deciding what it wants. All MPs have been willing to say is what they do not want".

Prior to this speech, all sorts of speculation had been rampant, up to and including Mrs May resigning and calling a general election. The Westminster lobby was at fever pitch and just about anything was on the cards. But the outcome has proved somewhat more prosaic, if rather courageous (or foolhardy, depending on your perspective).

What Mrs May has effectively done is by-pass the House of Commons and appeal directly to the public, daring the MPs to put up or shut up. Although we have no date set, it would appear that the Withdrawal Agreement is to be put to MPs next week, before the scheduled Brexit takes effect, when there will be the choice they have been doing everything they can to ignore: deal or no-deal.

The way this choice is now being framed is that, if the MPs support the deal, we get an Article 50 extension which then leads naturally into the transitional period. If they reject it once again, then we drop out of the EU on 29 March – only a mere eight days away – for the hardest of all possible hard Brexits.

What makes this different this time round is that any blame for a hard Brexit is likely to fall fair and square on parliament. MPs will be in the hot seat, having to explain to their constituents why they have taken such a damaging course of action, with a good chance that some of them could lose their seats as a result.

Despite the sensibilities of Mr Portillo, though, it looks as if Mrs May could have got it right. With their behaviour in the House, MPs have made themselves no friends. Their apparent – and sometimes very real – detachment from their constituents has weakened their standing and their poor grasp of issues has clearly irritated many people who have themselves taken the trouble to understand what is at stake.

That notwithstanding, Mrs May is taking a serious gamble. There is a significant – even if undisclosed – number of MPs who would welcome the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. Many of those are unlikely to respond to the prime minister's ultimatum, while their numbers are not likely to be made up by Labour MPs filling the ranks.

Then there are others who simply haven't understood the issues and believe that a sprinkling of unicorn dust will solve their problems, so they don't have to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement after all. That leaves others who think that, at the last minute, Mrs May will pull the plug and revoke the Article 50 notification rather than permit a no-deal Brexit.

We could find ourselves in the situation, therefore, where the collective – for its different reasons - defies their leader and precipitates us into what amounts to an accidental no-deal Brexit. If that happens, it will have been brought about by the inability of parliament to bring a majority to bear for the deal, even though the vast majority are opposed to a no-deal – the law of unintended consequences.

The one wild card in all this is the European Council. Although Mr Tusk has set out the condition for the EU-27 to agree an extension, it is quite possible that, at the eleventh hour, they hold an emergency council and agree to an unconditional extension – quite simply because many of the Member States need the extra time.

If this happens in the context of a third rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement, though, the "colleagues" won't be doing the UK any favours. All this will mean is that we drop out of the EU without a deal at the end of June rather than at the end of March. And, if it is possible for a 30 June exit to be worse, it probably is, occurring as it does at the beginning of the holiday season.

By then, most businesses that have them will have implemented their Brexit contingency plans, or have incurred irrecoverable costs in preparing for a no-deal Brexit. This means, deal or no deal, considerable economic damage will have been done. It is already too late to mitigate the economic effects.

As to the political effects, there is no knowing where the repercussion will end. Rarely have we had the executive and the legislature at such odds and it is probably even rarer to find MPs less in favour with the public. Brexit is proving to be a destructive process and we are only at the first stage. We still have the long-term relationship with the EU to address.

The only good thing to come out of all this is that the uncertainty looks set to end. Mrs May is firmly signalling that she is not interested in a longer Article 50 extension and, if she fails to organise European Parliament elections, by the time it comes to the end of the short period, there will be no chance of a renewal, at whatever length. It will be moot, though, as to whether the reality of a no-deal will be better or worse than the uncertainty that led up to it.

And, for all that, today will prove an anticlimax. It was always going to be a big ask to expect the "colleagues" to come up with an extension decision at such short notice. Some Member State leaders have not even had the time formally to consult their own parliaments.

Thus, the action has been transferred to next week, the can taking one final kicking before it comes to rest against the Brexit buffers. I wonder if Mr Tusk has humour enough to have a sign on his desk saying "the can stops here".

Richard North 21/03/2019 link

Brexit: a failure to communicate

Wednesday 20 March 2019  

So, what should have been another busy day for the MP collective has turned out to be a damp squib. But there are always PMQs tomorrow, which will give the hon. Members a chance to misbehave, to the disgust of most of those who can still bear to watch the shambles.

But those seeking a rest from the unedifying spectacle of parliament will find little relief in the media, much of which is as insufferable as the politicians on whom they report or comment. However, there is some slight solace in the realisation that the House of Commons is now probably one of the least-loved places in the kingdom – even if very few commentators have any real idea of how to make it better.

It comes to something, though, when to get any sense out of the situation we have to go to Michel Barnier, who was speaking in Brussels yesterday following the General Affairs Council after discussions with the EU-27 on Brexit.

Sense, of course, is relative, but here was the man repeating all over again that there was "only one possibility for an orderly exit from the EU" – the adoption of the withdrawal treaty as "the only available and possible treaty that has been negotiated seriously and objectively together".

The absence of ratification of this agreement, he said with a fair degree of understatement, "today obviously causes a major uncertainty for the United Kingdom - but also for the European Union and for all the countries of the European Union". But then he made the obvious comment: "To get out of this uncertainty, we need choices and decisions from the UK".

For the moment, such "choices and decisions" are not to be had. Mrs May has spent the day talking to her cabinet and others, in discussions to which we are not privy. But, by today we expect to hear from her as to her intentions for an almost certain application to the European Council for an Article 50 extension.

The question for everyone is whether she will go for the long or the short – or, as seems to be the case, both. She might go for the short option to get her past another vote, held in or before mid-April, and then a longer period of up to two years to give the nation a chance to forge a consensus on what to do next.

If that is actually the plan, it is a poor one. With a divided nation and a parliament all at sea, providing a refuge for the educationally sub-normal, together with a government which gives new meaning to the word incompetence, the chances of there being even the slightest drift towards a common cause is extremely remote. This is a nation which lacks vision and purpose, which is not going to rally behind a single cause any time soon.

The chances are, therefore, that decisions we should be making for ourselves will be made by the EU-27, either now in terms of whether they allow a short extension, or later when they meet again to discuss the longer period. More so than when we were "normal" members of the EU, we are now entirely dependent on the decisions the "colleagues" will make.

There was just one way we could have defined our future, maintaining a modicum of control, and that was if parliament had ratified the withdrawal treaty the first time round, and then the second and then, given the opportunity, the third time round. But the MP collective instead chose to play games, bringing us to the parlous state where we are currently parked.

Before that, we could have had a prime minister who had taken the time to evaluate the options before acting, and then offered political leadership by explaining her decisions and seeing them through, rather than being blown every which way by the moronic ERG tendency.

We could also have had a media which had journalists who knew their subject, and were capable of acting skilfully and honestly, setting out to inform and educate the public. But, instead of that, we have venal, self-serving ignoramuses dedicated more to self-aggrandisement than their appointed task.

Simultaneously, we have suffered failures in three of the most important pillars of the establishment – government, parliament and the media. The loss of any one might have been recoverable, but the cascade failure we have experienced is near fatal to the political process. There is no obvious way out and, in the short-term, probably no remedy at all.

Thus, whatever Mrs May decides today, it will not make a lot of difference to the short-term. The likelihood is that she will only be going for the short option which – with the prospect of a longer delay to follow – makes it the worst of all possible worlds.

On the one hand, she is prolonging the uncertainty but, in leaving open the possibility of a further extension, there is no clear date in sight for businesses which will signal when the uncertainty is to end. Even the uncertainty is uncertain.

At a political level too, the uncertainty rebounds. Barnier in his press conference yesterday warned that "extending the uncertainty without a clear plan would add to the economic cost for our businesses but could also incur a political cost for the EU". On that basis, it is hardly surprising that the EU wants the UK government and parliament "to decide very quickly what the UK wants to do next".

This, currently, is being translated into any one of three options – a change to the government's red lines, a general election or another referendum. Only those, it is being said by Michel Barnier, would justify a longer extension.

Such conditions – if they are demanded by the EU-27 – could well-backfire. The prospect of the EU effectively demanding the removal of our prime minister – replicating the circumstances in Italy during the financial crisis – might be enough to harden sentiment and unite the country behind a no-deal. This could be seen as better than caving in to overtly political demands.

But if that remains a possibility – which indeed it does, even if it arises through the "colleagues" refusing to extend Article 50 – it further adds to the uncertainty. It becomes uncertain whether the uncertainty will continue. And, as for a referendum, this could magnify the divisions already evident in the country, with unforeseen repercussions.

All of this speaks to a nation that has lost its way. And that suggests more than just a lack of vision or purpose. We seem to have no mechanisms for repairing the damage.

In days past, one supposes the nation could rally behind a Churchillian figure, or entertain a national debate. But not only do we lack anyone in the political domain even approaching the stature of Churchill, there is hardly anyone who we could trust to lead a debate.

The showbiz glitz that the television broadcasters mistake for debate would obviously be entirely inadequate for the purpose, the newspapers are a haven for propaganda and misinformation and parliament has squandered any goodwill that it might have had. As for the prime minister, the quickest way now to shut-down any debate is to get her to deliver a speech calling for national unity.

There perhaps lies the heart of the malaise in that we have a nation which is not capable of having a conversation with itself – certainly not without it breaking down in rancour and recriminations. And if there is no communication, there can be no mediation.

Worst of all, despite the EU Member States, individually and collectively demanding that we tell them what we want from Brexit, we are unable to deliver a collective or consensus view. Now, more than ever, it thus appears that the failure to come up with a positive agenda is acting to our disadvantage, something to which I drew attention back in 2011.

Then I referred to a parliamentary debate on 15 October 1940 when, as the wreckage of London lay around them, MPs gathered to find out whether the government was prepared to make a definitive statement on war aims. But Churchill refused, point blank. He was guardian of the status quo, suppressing any debate on the issue.

Churchill's Information Minister Duff Cooper, very much supported the idea, and had been speaking secretly for it in Cabinet. On this day, he expressed his support as far as he could, but had been brought up sharply by Richard Stokes. He was the Labour MP for Ipswich, a Military Cross winner (and bar) in the First World War, a stern critic of British tank design and soon to become an arch critic of the area bombing policy.

Cooper, said Stokes, had enunciated what we were fighting against, but not what we were fighting for. "[It] is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better".

And that's exactly what we were lacking during the referendum campaign and what we lack now. It is all very well wanting to get out of the EU – the "negative object". But what are we to do with our new-found freedom? Where is our "positive object"? Until we have one, we are going nowhere. We have emerged from our own private war without one, and we are on our way to losing the "peace".

The idea of needing a "positive object", I called the Stokes precept. And for want of that, we are frozen in time, unable to decide where we want to go and unable to communicate our needs. At the time, in 2011, I wrote that we will continue to lose our battle until we are able to deal with the issues put by Richard Stokes, back on that awful day of 15 October 1940.

We are still losing.

Richard North 20/03/2019 link

Brexit: the worst is yet to come

Tuesday 19 March 2019  

I can't think why the Speaker's ruling yesterday on the resubmission of the Brexit motion should have come as a surprise. This is something that anyone with a basic understanding of parliamentary procedure takes as general knowledge. Certainly, I knew of it, writing on the 14 March:
My understanding is that a motion already submitted to the House and rejected cannot be resubmitted in the same session, so there will have to be some creative framing to get this in the House again.
I seem to recall also writing somewhere, or perhaps telling someone, that there was a procedural way round this block. Mrs May, as prime minister, could ask the Queen to prorogue parliament, thereby ending the session, setting the date for the new session on the same day the old one ends. The Queen would formally summons parliament to attend, and start the new session in the traditional way with a State Opening of Parliament.

That perhaps is a bit drastic – there may be other procedural work-rounds – but talk of a constitutional crisis is somewhat overblown. However, it would not be wrong to talk of a political crisis. Nor can it be fairly said, as Downing Street apparently claims, that Bercow is sabotaging Theresa May's efforts to rescue her Brexit deal.

If it is truly the case that Downing Street was unaware of this restriction, and is currently in a state of shock, then it points further to a sense of pervasive incompetence in government, about which I remarked in my previous piece.

As to the source of this information, it resides in Erskine May, but obtainable to mere mortals only on payment of £439.99 – although it is, of course, free to our rulers. What sort of democracy is it, one might ask, where members of the public have to pay a small fortune to obtain a copy of our parliament's rules, but then it is somehow typical of the way this country is governed that the plebs should be deprived of such information.

However, since the rule dates from 1604 (which is long enough even for our present crop of MPs to be aware of it), it is available in earlier versions of Erskine May which are in the public domain. And there we can see that this is not a small, arcane point. A whole chapter is devoted to the rule under the title: "same question may not be twice offered". There we find that:
It is a rule, in both houses, which is essential to the due performance of their duties, that no question or bill shall be offered that is substantially the same as one on which their judgment has already been expressed in the current session.
We also find details of where prorogations have been resorted to in order to circumvent this rule. One period in 1707 lasted a week but in 1721 it was over in a mere two days. In theory, though, there seems to be nothing to stop a prorogation being set for an hour or less, which could – in theory - keep Mrs May's motion on track, ready to be voted on before the European Council later this week.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, plans for today's expected vote are in disarray, with the situation accurately described as "chaos", even if we detach the constitutional aspect from it. The fact is that, since the government intended to offer the same "question", it should have been prepared. It wasn't.

With the situation totally fluid, one must assume that the previous calculus has gone by the board. Originally, Mrs May was to give the MP collective the opportunity for another vote, with the intention of then seeking a short Article 50 extension if her deal was ratified. Only if it was rejected for the third time was the prime minister to ask at this week's European Council meeting for a longer extension.

Now, theory apart, there seems little chance that there can be a third vote before the European Council, even if a prorogation is settled upon. In practice, I rather doubt whether the Queen could be prevailed upon at such short notice to attend a State Opening of Parliament. Charles could, of course, stand in, but the timetable still looks very iffy.

Thus do we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation. With only ten days to go before the scheduled Brexit day, any idea of a roadmap has evaporated. The "colleagues" in Brussels can have no idea of Mrs May's intentions because, most likely, she herself has no clue of what they are. As for us, we not only don't know whether we are going to leave on time, we don't even know what is planned over the next few days.

That said, one wonders why Mr Bercow left it to the eleventh hour before making it known, very publicly, that he intended to invoke standing parliamentary procedure. The possibility of a new vote has been on the cards since the end of last week, and the viability of bringing the same deal back to the House ad infinitum was raised by Angela Eagle as a point of order on 13 March - five days ago.

At the time, Bercow acknowledged that there were "historical precedents" for the way in which such matters were regarded. He was, he said, "grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me that such a ruling might at some point in the future be required". Anticipating such a ruling, he could have easily passed word of his intention to Downing Street before the weekend started.

When it was raised again the next day (Friday) by Chris Bryant, he cannot really claim that he needed any great deal of time to think about the issues raised. In his statement yesterday, he noted that the convention was "very strong and of long standing".

In fact, Bryant had already told him that the ruling had been reasserted by four different speakers, notably in 1864, 1870, 1882, 1891 and 1912. Each time, the speaker of the day ruled that a motion could not be brought back because it had already been decided in that same session. Bercow himself then confirmed that Erskine May made reference to no fewer than 12 such rulings up to the year 1920.

One of the reasons why the rule has lasted so long, he added, is that it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House's time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes. Decisions of the House matter, Bercow said:
They have weight. In many cases, they have direct effects not only here but on the lives of our constituents. Absence of Speaker intervention since 1920 is attributable not to the discontinuation of the convention but to general compliance with it; thus, as Erskine May notes, the Public Bill Office has often disallowed Bills on the ground that a Bill with the same or very similar long title cannot be presented again in the same Session.
With the issue so clear, there was no need to delay a ruling and leaving it so late reduces the already short time to crisis level. And as the government runs out of time, it also runs out of options. But, crucially, it gives Brussels perilously little time to react in circumstances where London's problems are relatively modest by comparison.

Confronted with an unprecedented situation where there are multiple variables and significant long-term consequences, 27 Member State governments have to consult internally to establish their own responses, and then they have to consult with each other and with the EU institutions before coming to a common position. At the best of times, this would be difficult to achieve but, given the circumstances, it is almost at the point of expecting too much.

Probably, the only play available to the "colleagues" is to give the UK a short-term extension, for the sole purpose of organising a third and final vote. For that, though, they will need Mrs May's assurances that there is a procedural "fix", which undoubtedly there is. The precedents for a prorogation are sound. Even the speaker agreed that resubmission after prorogation "is self-evidently valid".

However, if prorogation takes us into an extension period, it would almost certainly create a make-or-break situation, where a negative vote would precipitate a no-deal Brexit - unless at the last minute Mrs May is prepared to revoke the Article 50 notification. An affirmative vote would take us into the transition period.

From this perspective, it would seem that the long-extension option is off the table. Keeping to their current policy stance of refusing a long extension unless there is a "substantial justification", the European Council might find it difficult to authorise anything other than a short period, in the absence of any certainty as to the Westminster parliament's intentions – which now cannot be divined before the European Council.

One final possibility, though, might involve the Council deferring any decision and convening an emergency consultation on 29 March. That, literally, would leave it to the eleventh hour – one hour before midnight, Brussels time - maximising uncertainty and creating an intolerable situation.

The only thing consistent about Brexit, it now seems, is that just when you think it has got as bad as it can get, it gets worse. On that basis, one fears that the worst is yet to come.

Richard North 19/03/2019 link

Brexit: uncharted territory

Monday 18 March 2019  

Booker is on the case in this week's column, writing of a prediction he made on 20 January 2017. It concerned what would happen when Mrs May arrived in Brussels to present the EU with her proposals for Brexit. Its negotiators, wrote Booker, would be "staring at her in disbelief" that she could come up with anything so flimsily unworkable and "potentially catastrophic".

The reason for this, he suggested, was that "she showed so little sign of understanding the fearsome complexities of what a successful disentanglement from the EU would involve". To underline this, he quoted the verdict of that week's Der Spiegel, that she was "clearly living in the German equivalent of cloud-cuckoo land".

What prompted such shocked responses, Booker argues, was that after months of insisting that she wanted the UK to continue enjoying "frictionless" trade "within" the EU's internal market, she had finally decided with her Lancaster House speech that she wanted to remove us completely not just from the EU, which was all the British public had voted for, but also from its internal market.

The only thing that is certain about our referendum result, Booker thus writes, is that, whatever else the 17.4 million of us who voted "leave" thought we were voting for, it was not the ever more chaotic shambles of an impasse we are looking at today. Yet this was ultimately made inevitable by the fact that Mrs May went into the negotiations without any workable plan which might get round those complexities which to this day she has never understood.

As a few of us, he adds, were urging long before the referendum that there was only one practical way to secure the outcome which most people in Britain would probably have welcomed if it had ever been raised to the centre of our national debate. This was the only one which would have met the requirements of the referendum result by taking us completely out of the EU without inflicting potentially catastrophic damage to our economy.

As Booker has said too often before, if only we had chosen to join Norway in the European Free Trade Association and thus remained within the European Economic Area, we would have freed ourselves overnight from three-quarters of all the EU's laws and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, while continuing to enjoy near "frictionless" trade with the internal market from outside the EU itself.

We could not only, like Norway, have won the right as an independent country to make trade deals with the outside world, but gained significantly more influence on shaping the rules of the internal market than we had previously. Furthermore, we need never have heard of the Irish border problem. In short, we could have avoided virtually all those intractable obstacles besetting us today.

Yet none of this was ever honestly explained to us or properly debated. Instead our politicians chose en masse to take us into a labyrinth in which every passage inevitably leads to a dead end.

And so, says Booker, on Thursday last, when the "Benn amendment" offered parliament a last chance to look again at that Norway option, it was rejected by just two votes. We are, Booker concludes, trapped in a labyrinth entirely of our own making. But external reality is now finally closing in on our years of make-believe.

This Benn amendment, of course, was an attempt to take control of the government's agenda, "to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support". In this, Booker is perhaps more optimistic than I am. The chances of the MP collective finding a "way forward" in my view is so remote that it can be completely dismissed.

We've seen as much with Nick Boles who turned the promising idea of the Norway option into an ill-thought-out proposal to use Efta/EEA as a temporary parking slot, then to replace it with an even more ridiculous idea of "Norway-plus", tying it in with a customs union.

This has since transmuted into "Common Market 2.0" which embodies all the worst aspects of the Boles train crash, with not the slightest chance of it being adopted.

The problem, as we have pointed out so many times, is that there is no standard model for the Efta/EEA option. The EEA Agreement is an adaptive framework, each of the Efta States having crafted its own bespoke arrangements to suit their particular circumstances.

Furthermore, for each of the States, the Agreement does not stand alone. With Norway, for instance, it is augmented by an additional 50 bilateral treaties which, collectively, facilitate the EU-Norway relationship.

For the Efta/EEA option to fit the special and extensive requirements of the UK was never going to be easy – or fast. This is why the UK needed to hold off with its Article 50 notification to allow time to put together the details and organise the negotiating schedules.

And while the political classes are currently tormenting themselves with the question of whether to opt for a short or long Article 50 extension, right from the outset I was suggesting that the first order of business after the Article 50 notification should have been to agree a prolonged extension, just to give us the time to complete the negotiations.

Yet, even now, there are those who believe the "Norway option", or even a "Norway-style agreement" can be used as a quick fix, to make up for the failure of the Withdrawal Agreement, or even to replace it. These are people who are demonstrating their complete inability to understand the complexity of the EEA Agreement, and their lamentable failure to deal with anything more demanding than an expenses claim form.

With the millions of words so far written, it is probably fair to say that no-one has approached the task of managing the Brexit process with the same degree of coherence that found its way into the Flexcit plan, or evolved their thinking to such effect as has emerged on this blog, with the help of its readers.

The proof, as they say, is in the eating. At no time have we ever been lost for ideas of where to take Brexit, or ever been uncertain as to what needed to be done. While the Johnny-come-latelies pad out the ether and newspaper columns with ever-more unworkable schemes, there resides in those who contributed to the Flexcit plan a body of knowledge which the political (and media) classes have never been able to match.

As it stands, using the EEA template remains the best bet, although it is unlikely that we can rely on Efta embracing our membership. That creates complex but not insurmountable problems on how to replicate the institutional structures necessary to administer the agreement. And then there will still be dozens of supplementary agreements that will have to be negotiated, not least on customs cooperation and VAT.

By comparison with the clarity we are able to offer, such has been the inadequacy of the official UK negotiating team that we are left with the wholly unsatisfactory Withdrawal Agreement as the best (and only) option in town, and nothing on the table to follow.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Phillip Hammond is now saying that even if the MP collective agrees the deal on Tuesday, it will still be "physically impossible" for us to leave the EU on the 29th March.

When it comes to incompetence, therefore, this is way beyond ocean-going level. The entire political and administrative establishment, with nearly three years to play with and all the resources of the state, has comprehensively failed to deliver on a policy which has been its main objective.

Not only that, but we have a dysfunctional parliament which, as numerous observers point out, is able to assemble majorities only to express what it does not want, and lacks entirely the ability to form a consensus on that positive "way forward".

Thus, with only days to go to the scheduled Brexit day, we have Hammond telling us that the government can't tell us whether we'll leave in April, May or June. And, if it cannot bring together a majority to support Mrs May's deal, then it "will have to look at a longer extension", which puts us in "uncharted territory".

There in two words is summed up the totality of the dereliction of our government, its utter incompetence which has brought us to the brink of failure and economic catastrophe. It has taken us on a long and arduous journey, only to lead us, without hint of apology, into "uncharted territory".

It is not only the government that is to blame though. This is truly a collective failure of a system that has laid bare its own incompetence and has shed the last vestiges of any credibility it ever had. Its failure could not be more pronounced, more absolute and more inexcusable.

What is perhaps even more damning is that those responsible have no real idea of their own inadequacies and have neither the capability nor the humility to understand why they have so roundly failed. Nor do they have the first idea of what they need to do to make things better. They look failure in the eyes and can only promise us more of the same.

With nothing to offer us but dribble from the likes of the oaf, it is left to the sheeted dead to squeak and gibber in the streets. They do not even have the wit to realise how loathed they are.

Richard North 18/03/2019 link

Brexit: end of the line

Sunday 17 March 2019  

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: our sneering and pompous MPs

Saturday 16 March 2019  

"Many MPs are simply too dim to understand the issues and they are not intellectually capable of grasping the complexity of the Brexit challenge". Those are not my words this time, although they could easily have been written by me and I have said as much in many previous posts.

This time, though, it's Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Mail under the headline, "Taking us for fools!". Sandbrook thus says "our sneering and pompous MPs could threaten the future of our democracy". And as I am wont to say of the legacy media, they catch up eventually.

Sandbrook, however, goes further in naming names, pointing to the Commons speaker, John Bercow, "who treats the whole thing as an opportunity to show off", Jeremy Corbyn, "who rants and raves at the despatch box without showing the slightest scintilla of intelligence or integrity", and that clown Boris Johnson, "who sees all this as a vehicle for his leadership ambitions, and blithely tells a radio interviewer that police investigations into historic child sex abuse were 'spaffing money up the wall'".

What about Mark Francois, jousting with novelist Will Self on TV about the size of his penis, Sandbrook asks, adding that "it almost went unnoticed that Labour MP Fiona Onasanya turned up to vote this week wearing an electronic tag, having just been released from prison after lying when she was caught speeding".

There is no doubt, he says, that some ERG hardliners have become addicted to the sound of their own voices. "Would their chief shop steward, Steve Baker, be on television quite so often if Brexit were done and dusted? No wonder he and his friends keep voting against the deal. They don’t want to lose their place in the limelight".

The other great villains, Sandbrook adds, are the hardliners on the other side, the slavering "People's Vote" fanatics who never miss a chance, their bottom lips wobbling, to tell us how wonderfully principled they are. Once again, he adds, "it amazes me that these sanctimonious prigs cannot see how arrogant, graceless and irresponsible they appear".

And so it goes on, using very much the language I've been known to use, alongside Pete, both of us taking our share of opprobrium, and the sneering dismissals of the clever-dicks who know so much better than we do and are so keen to mark us down as marginal to the debate.

But the fact is that Sandbrook is putting his finger on these issues. His writing about them in a popular newspaper is an important development, even if his voice (like so many) is lost in the prevailing noise. He offers a necessary corrective, which brings home the simple fact that many (if not most) of our MPs are not up to the job, and parliament is a failed institution.

What we won't get from Sandbrook, of course, is a critique of the equally dismal role played by the media in the Brexit saga. The hypocrisy of the fourth estate is colossal – it will happily criticise just about every and anything that crosses its path, from individuals to institutions, but only very rarely does one find even a hint of understanding in the flaccid intellectual grasp of issues portrayed by the average journalist.

Then, while focusing on the politicians is a start, we also need to look at their life-support systems, from the lacklustre performance of the House of Commons library and the inadequacies of the select committees, to the self-important posturing of the think-tanks who feed the Westminster bubble.

The thing is, right from the start, there were very few options open to this nation in managing Brexit. By a simple process of elimination, therefore, the way forward was fairly clear and relatively easy to discern. You didn't need the proverbial "rocket science" to work it out, which is why we were able to put a plan together in Flexcit, which has made so much sense for so long.

It is five years since that exercise was started, in which period we've seen the political establishment, from the top down, make every mistake in the book, all the time filling the ether with noise and parading its self-importance. Yet nothing they have been able to produce is worth the tiniest fraction of the money spent on sustaining these parasites, and nothing of what they support will endure. 

Bizarrely, supposedly Brexit-supporting MPs clustered around the ERG, are at last beginning to realise that their activities are putting at risk the very survival of Brexit. Thus, we may even see a "dramatic" turnaround next Tuesday as these buffoons reverse course and support the Withdrawal Agreement.

In the meantime, the MP collective has made a laughing stock of us all, where we actually get the headline from the idiotic Sky News, declaring "EU leaders warn no-deal Brexit not ruled out despite MPs' vote for delay", with the sub-head: "The House of Commons is told a vote in favour of extending Article 50 does not necessarily rule out a no-deal Brexit".

One could ask whether there were any MPs so thick that they didn't realise this from the start, having read Article 50 and understood the meaning of treaty provisions automatically ceasing to apply in the event of no agreement. But apparently, there are hundreds of these cretins who think that their Canute-style vote can take a no-deal off the table.

But even if belatedly, they are starting to realise the obvious – and stuff which we've been telling them for ages which, in their arrogance they have ignored – much of the damage has already been done.

In Flexcit, in the early sections, I make no less than 17 references to the need for certainty and the avoidance of uncertainty, and if there was anything more important, it would be hard to find. Yet these posturing idiots have taken us to the wire and beyond, so that with 13 days left to the original Brexit day, we still don't know where we are going, or even if we are actually leaving the EU.

Effectively, all we have to show for nearly three years of torment is a divided country and a looming economic disaster, and growing evidence that we are governed by a bunch of people for whom the description "cretins" would actually be a compliment.

But, with Brexit in the limelight, the failure of the political classes to deal with this one job that they had to do opens up questions about the competence of the system to handle a wide range of tasks, from teaching our children to policing our streets and running our transport system.

And yet, while we focus on the politicians, there is still that niggling truism that we get the governments we deserve. But should the incompetent Mrs May be deposed, we see in The Times the headline: "Boris Johnson is Tory voters’ favourite to take over as party leader".

Bluntly, if the nation chose as its leader this liar, thief, sexual predator and incompetent, then it deserves everything it gets and more. There would be no hope for a nation that could willingly embrace the idea of this vile man getting anywhere near the reins of power. Personally, I would be in the remarkable position – along with many more – of rejecting the authority of any government that this oaf led, pointing out clearly and decisively that it neither represented me nor spoke for me.

Apparently, though, "brand recognition" played a large part in the positive response to Mr Johnson. Should people actually be confronted with the reality of this man moving into No 10, one hopes that sense will prevail.

However, we may not even be asked. In what is supposedly a democracy, we don't get to vote for the leader of our government, and between elections the leader is appointed by a small caucus of the party in office. It seems odd that people who are so concerned about a Brexit in name only seem quite content to have a political system that is a democracy in name only.

When we have a House of Commons filled with cretins, at least the fault lines are showing. It should now be obvious to even the meanest of intellects that Brexit is only going to be the start of a long process.

Getting rid of the EU simply exposes the dereliction of our own political system, to an extent that the EU has probably unfairly taken much of the flak for our own government's failings. Be that as it may, we need to get Brexit out of the way so that we can make a start on a long journey towards democracy, something that we've never really had in this country and delude ourselves if we think we have.

For a start, though, we will have to do something about our "sneering and pompous MPs". Fortunately, in this country, we do not have to shoot them to get rid of them. But of those who currently hold seats in the current House, very few if any should return after the next election.

Richard North 16/03/2019 link

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