Richard North, 04/10/2017  

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way".

This is not London and pre-revolutionary Paris but nonetheless two cities, one in England and one in France. We write of Manchester where the Conservative Party conference is in full swing and of Strasbourg where, yesterday, the European Parliament met to consider Brexit and the state of play of negotiations with the United Kingdom.

In Manchester, we had the inexpressible foolishness of Liam Fox, supposedly hitting back at the European Union over the length of time it is taking to get a deal.

"The process is being made harder than it has to be", says Fox, "but the blame for that doesn't lie on this side of the Channel, the blame for that lies on the unwillingness of the European Union to get into the second stage of negotiations". The longer the delay in moving on to discuss future trade, the "more difficult" it is for everybody to get to a deal in the timetable the UK wants - by Brexit day in March 2019, he said.

He went on to say: "There is intense frustration that the European Union are concentrating on issues like the money and not letting us progress beyond that - I think that is what's driving certainly the frustration of most of the people I have spoken to here over the last few days".

This is bolstered by the rank stupidity and the usual crass lack of judgement displayed by our Foreign Secretary who, with all the diplomacy and subtlety of a leaking cess pit, told a fringe event that a Libyan city had bright future "once they clear the dead bodies".

That contrasted with the ineffably lightweight David Davis who told his audience that it would be a "dereliction of duty" for Britain not to prepare for the failure to achieve a deal with the EU and warned: "Britain needs us to be ready for the alternative". So, he said, "there is a determined effort underway in Whitehall devoted to contingency arrangements so that we are ready for any outcome - not because it is what we seek, but because it needs to be done".

This is the fantasist who goes to Brussels to represent Britain in the Brexit negotiation yet does not seem to believe it is his place to stay there and take part in the talks. He then regards criticism of his inept performance "as a compliment".

But 700 miles away, to the southeast, the European Parliament had been in session in Strasbourg, "humiliating" Theresa May, according to the Mirror. It had voted overwhelmingly in support of David Davis's counterpart, Michel Barnier, passing by 557 votes to 92 a resolution declaring that the UK government had failed to clear enough hurdles over citizens' rights, the financial obligations and the Irish border. There had thus been "insufficient progress" in the talks to date.

It would take "a major breakthrough" at the fifth round of talks next week, the MEPs said, to get approval from the October European Council to move to phase two and discussions on our future relationship.

Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president, said he welcomed the more conciliatory tone of Theresa May's recent speech in Florence, but urged her "to convert goodwill into the concrete plans needed to truly take negotiations forward".

He added: "The vote on today's resolution confirmed the parliament's unity in support of our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The debate also showed a clear desire for constructive engagement with the United Kingdom, but equally, considerable concern with the delays encountered so far".

Putting his stamp on the debate, Barnier (pictured), had said there were still "serious divergences" between the two sides, especially on the issue of the financial settlement. He suggested that Theresa May's offer to pay into the EU budget until 2020 did not go far enough.

It is perhaps significant that he was applauded by MEPs when he said: "We will never accept for the 27 to pay what was decided on by 28, it's as simple as that. The taxpayers of the 27 don't have to pay for the consequences of the decision that they didn't take. So, no more, no less".

Barnier also suggested that Britain was underestimating the "very heavy human and social, legal, financial, technical and economic consequences" of Brexit. "Often these consequences are underestimated", he said. Nevertheless, he could not recommend to the European Council that the required "sufficient progress" had been made, telling MEPs that, on the "key subjects", there was not enough progress "to undertake in full confidence the second phase of negotiations".

And nor was Barnier alone. Alongside him was Commission President Juncker. He was in an uncompromising mood. "For those who think that the UK should just 'go over Michel Barnier's head'", he said, "I remind them that the Commission has been appointed by the 27 Member States and my choice of Michel Barnier had been welcomed by them. He acts on the basis of clear negotiating mandates".

Thus he said, when it came to the European Council, he completely endorsed Barnier's view, declaring: "I cannot say that we are ready to enter the second phase of the negotiations".

To conclude his address to the Parliament, Juncker reminded MEPs of 30 March 2019 and the Special Summit at Sibiu, in Romania. There, he said, we will give our vision for the future of Europe and decide what we will be prepared to defend and build together at 27. And of that future, it "is not Brexit, it is Europe", he proclaimed.

And now we wait for the next actor in this drama, Theresa May, to give the speech in Manchester that will close the conference and perhaps shed some light on where we go next. If, as is possible, she issues any form of ultimatum to the "colleagues", then the next round of talks will achieve little and Barnier will go to the European Council with the same message he took to Strasbourg.

The only thing May seems to have to offer is a repetition of her dismal little mantra, declaring: "The question isn't so much around this formal declaration of sufficient progress, the question is 'are people now ready to think about what future partnership between the EU and UK will be?'" She adds: "We have to get to that at some point, I believe it's possible to get to a good, deep and special partnership because it's good not just for the UK, but it's good for the EU as well".

And that really is all she seems to have. We'll get a good deal "because it's good not just for the UK, but it's good for the EU as well". Like many others, the lady does not seem to realise just how little the "colleagues" actually care. "The future is not Brexit, it is Europe", says Juncker.

Johnson, on the other hand, says that Britain must stop treating Brexit as if it is a "plague of boils" and instead "roar" like a lion about the opportunities it presents.

But, as the Telegraph parades on its front page Johnson's picture under the headline, "The Roaring Lion", it is not to Dickens but to Shakespeare and the Duke of Albany in King Lear to whom we must turn. "Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile", says Albany: "Filths savour but themselves".

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