Richard North, 05/04/2017  

Illustrating just how much the news agenda is driven by its oral culture, yesterday saw Sky News political editor, Faisal Islam, tell us that we will not get a free trade agreement within two years. This could have been picked up from the European Council draft guidelines document, which was on the record last Friday, but that is not the way of the legacy media.

Instead of reporting something which would have come from his own efforts, acquired from actually reading a piece of paper, Faisal Islam has to go to Jordan to interview the Prime Minister, putting to her that the UK will act as a "third country" when it comes to a trade deal with the EU.

The response he then takes as Theresa May confirming that Britain's final signed trade deal with the EU will have to take place after the two-year Article 50 process, on which basis he concludes what we've already known for days without his help – that there will be no trade deal until we have left the EU.

This, incidentally, is a conclusion already reached by Christopher Howarth, he of ERG "Ultra" fame, desperate to prove to his masters that there is nothing preventing concurrent negotiation followed by a conclusion at 00:05 on Saturday 30th March 2019.

The guidelines, bleats Howarth, go on to say "an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during the second phase of the negotiations … as soon as sufficient progress has been made in the first phase".

Sadly for the little gofer, though, before we get to that phrasing, the European Council noted that Article 50 TEU requires to take account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union in the arrangements for withdrawal, only then adding: "To this end, an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during a second phase of the negotiations under Article 50".

But then, in the bit that Howarth leaves, out, it says: "The Union and its Member States stand ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions to this end in the context of negotiations under Article 50 TEU", before then declaring that this will happen "as soon as sufficient progress has been made in the first phase towards reaching a satisfactory agreement on the arrangements for an orderly withdrawal".

What we have, therefore, is a statement that makes it abundantly clear that there will only be "preliminary and preparatory discussions" before the Article 50 process is concluded. Only in the foetid little mind of a Tory "Ultra" could there be any question of a deal being concluded in anything short of a few years after we become a "third country".

The implications of this are obvious – not least that Mrs May will be going into the next general election having not closed the deal with the EU. The crucial talks will be still to come. This is why I wrote in my previous piece that the spin machine will be out in force.

But the delusion spreads further than the paid help. In response to Faisal Islam's questioning, Mrs May had said: "There's obviously a legal situation in terms of how the European Union can conduct trade negotiations".

She then says: "I'm clear that by that point at which we leave the EU, it's right that everybody should know what the future arrangements, the future relationship, that future partnership between us and the EU will be. That's the sensible thing. It's a pragmatic way to look at this and I believe that’s what we'll do".

So, the Prime Minister was clearly acknowledging that the Article 50 process would be confined to defining the "future relationship". And when Islam asked whether all of this could be done within two years, Mrs May replied: "Yes". This, as the Financial Times rightly observes, blurs her initial response and the distinction between an agreement on "the future relationship" and a fully formed trade deal. Taken literally, Mrs May is confident only in defining our future relationship within the two year period.

The Mail though, conveys a conflicting interpretation. Having sampled the Howarth Kool-Aid, it triumphantly declares that: "The Brexit trade deal CAN be done in two years Theresa May insists despite German sneers that it is too difficult".

The latter reference is to Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's foreign minister, who says that new trade relations would be "a laborious endeavour". He told the Independent: "First, we have to get things right on the orderly withdrawal, then we will want to talk as soon as possible about our future relationship and get as far as we can within the next two years".

This is very much in accord with the draft guidelines but, despite this, the Mail calls in aid the self-same Sky News piece, crowing that "Theresa May has insisted a Brexit trade deal can be ready to sign in two years". This, of course, is exactly what she hasn't done.

On the other hand, the Evening Standard has Labour commenting that Mrs May's stance amounts to a "significant retreat" from the Government's previous position that a trade deal could be done within the two-year deadline. The party's Brexit spokesman Paul Blomfield said: "It is less than a week since the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, and it seems every day brings another broken promise from the Government".

That much is effectively endorsed by the Independent, which headlines a story: "Theresa May admits defeat on crucial Brexit policy", telling us that: "Prime Minister accepts trade deal with EU will not be possible before Britain leaves union".

Thus, the cat is out of the bag, just in time for our idiot foreign secretary to tell the world: "Britain will 'more than survive' if it leaves the EU without a deal". Unsurprisingly, this is contradicted by the Brexit select committee which states that the "no deal" scenario:
… represents a very destructive outcome leading to mutually assured damage for the EU and the UK. Both sides would suffer economic losses and harm to their international reputations. Individuals and businesses in both the UK and EU could be subject to considerable personal uncertainty and legal confusion. It is a key national and European Union interest that such a situation is avoided.
That prospect, however, has receded to a second order issue, as the scope of the talks has contracted to such an extent that the scenario not longer has the same immediate significance.

For sure, the talks could break down over the money, but I fully expect Mrs May to fudge that. When the decks are cleared over this and expat rights, the main issue of substance will be the transitional deal. That is where Mrs May could find herself eating crow, and just maybe she will find it too much to bear and will walk out. May equals mayhem, so to speak.

My money, though, is a fudge covered by "spin", especially as she seems to be ready to ditch her principles and allow free movement to continue through the transition period. This, according to the Mail, could extend to five years while the free trade deal is negotiated.

In that article, the Mail has changed its tune about closing the deal, writing that: "Mrs May insisted the Brexit deal could be completed within two years, but acknowledged that the full trade deal, which would have to be signed off by every EU parliament, might take longer".

This means that the spin-meisters are going to have their work cut out. Mrs May has already started, by confusing "transition" with "implementation", but no doubt they will emphasise the prime minister's "success" in extracting us from the EU (not). Details will be glossed over and she will be presented as the victor whom we must choose in the general election to close the deal.

I would not care to bet on it, but it would not surprise me if some genius coins the slogan: "give me the tools and I'll finish the job", while everybody conveniently forgets that any lack of closure will be entirely down to the prime minister's poor judgement.

Despite that, Downing Street currently insists that Mrs May's position has not changed, only that "her language has shifted to bring her more closely in line with the EU's Brexit negotiating draft". It seems that anything goes in this crazy world, where the media read nothing and rely on court gossip for their reports.

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