Richard North, 15/10/2017  

In this week's column, Booker resorts to quoting Dr Samuel Johnson. "Nothing more wonderfully concentrates a man's mind", the Doctor observed, "than knowing that he is to be hanged in a fortnight".

It is true that Christmas is a little more than a fortnight away, but with speculation that the Brexit talks might collapse by then, and Theresa May talking about leaving without a deal, it seems that the proximity of disaster is having a similar effect.

This is seen in the emergence of ever more people who know what they are talking about. They are coming out of the woodwork to warn that this could face us with an unthinkable catastrophe.

The seeds of that catastrophe were sown back in January when Mrs May first sprung on us that she wanted us not just to leave the EU single market, but also the wider European Economic Area, which could have given us, outside the EU, much the same "frictionless" access to that market that we have now.

But what she and her more recklessly bull-headed colleagues had chosen instead was that we should become what the EU classes as a "third country", making it inevitable that entry to our largest export market would face a maze of "non-tariff barriers" and time-consuming border inspections.

Amongst those that Booker identifies as beginning to sound the alarm, we have the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping. He warns that the collapse of talks could overnight bring to a halt the ferry service that carries 12,000 trucks a day from Dover across the Channel.

Another alarm is raised by the head of the British Airline Pilots Association who warns that "UK airlines could find that they have to stop flying". The effect on "the entire UK aviation sector", which employs more than a million people, would be "devastating".

An equally devastating prospect was painted by a report from the European Fresh Produce Association, representing the growers who supply annually to the UK 3.1 million tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables, worth about €4 billion. Meanwhile, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium predicted we can expect empty shelves in our supermarkets.

All this and very much more is what Booker has been trying to explain ever since that fateful day last January. And at the top of the political tree, the only minister who seems to have a glimmering of what is bearing down on us is Philip Hammond. And his reward is to be screamed at for being "treacherous" and a "saboteur".

Yet this was after his paper on customs arrangements pointed out that we will need several years and hundreds of millions of pounds just to put into place our own border controls – in accordance with international rules – without mentioning the billions of euros we will expect our continental and Irish neighbours to spend on setting up theirs.

The ostrich-like behaviour, Booker asserts, is the price we are paying for having spent 44 years enmeshed in a system that our politicians never really tried to understand is that they may now have to learn about it in the hardest and most damaging way possible. But their likely response will simply be to blame those dreadful foreigners for being so "difficult".

If only, our man laments, they could have taken on board the realities of what we are facing in a more clued-up and grown-up fashion. Then, perhaps the catastrophe they are heading us for really could and should have been avoided.

Yet, to look once again at the comments on the column (something which, these days, I try to avoid), we see many of the same, familiar names, lambasting Booker for being a "remainer", dismissing his piece in often quite insulting terms. And to support their diatribes, we often see a cascade of ignorance which hasn't changed since the very start.

All of this makes the so-called debate on Brexit utterly tedious. Against the ardent, "hard Brexit" polemicists, we make no more progress than is the UK in its Brexit talks – and for much the same reason. There is an almost complete lack of empathy combined with an obstinate refusal to confront even the most basic of facts.

Thus do we hear trotted out time and time again the false assertion that the EU doesn't have trade deals with the likes of China and US and that, since we already supposedly deal with them on WTO terms, sliding out of the EU without a deal holds no fears for them.

There is absolutely no point in challenging the errors and false assumptions on the Booker comments. The very same people who are peddling their wares have been doing so for months, despite repeated correction. They are totally oblivious to the facts.

Nonetheless, in the absence of rationality, all these people are doing is producing noise. The real game is going on elsewhere – mostly in Brussels, where the decisions are going to be made without assistance from the Sunday Telegraph commentariat.

Insofar as there is any meaningful activity this side of the Channel, we may be seeing the re-emergence of the remainer caucus in the Westminster Parliament, which might be beginning to flex its muscles once again.

This is the view of the Observer, which reports that "a powerful cross-party group of MPs is drawing up plans that would make it impossible for Theresa May to allow Britain to crash out of the EU without a deal in 2019".

Predictably, we're looking at the "usual suspects" including Kenneth Clarke and several Conservative ex-ministers, together with prominent Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat and Green MPs. The idea is to give Parliament the ability to veto, or prevent by other legal means, a "bad deal" or "no deal" outcome.

The mechanism is the EU withdrawal Bill, to which several hundred amendments have been tabled. One of those is from former cabinet minister Dominic Grieve who, together with nine other Tory MPs and members of all the other main parties, had tabled an amendment saying any final deal must be approved by an entirely separate act of Parliament.

If passed, says the Observer, this would give the majority of MPs who favour a soft Brexit the binding vote on the final outcome they have been seeking. That would amount to the ability to reject any "cliff-edge" option.

For my money, I doubt whether this or any of the other high-profile amendments will succeed, including one tabled by Clarke and the former Labour minister Chris Leslie. This requires Mrs May's "plan" for a two-year transition period after Brexit to be written into the withdrawal Bill, without which – supposedly - exit from the EU should not be allowed to happen.

There is something in the claim that a sense of crisis is engulfing the government, with whips fearing a series of Conservative rebellions and defeats over the Bill. Ministers have thus been forced to postpone the committee stage of the legislation, which was due to start this week.

Predictably, though, this will have no effect whatsoever on the "Ultras", one of which (at the very least) is expected to break cover and call for the suspension of Brexit negotiations until the EU agrees that trade talks can begin. This line already has much support in the country and the first out of the traps is more or less guaranteed a slot in a Sunday politics programme, as the media salivate at the prospect of more Tory splits.

However, while David Davis is trotting off to Brussels tomorrow for unscheduled talks – the nature of which have not been disclosed - as expected, elements of the media are beginning to review the consequences of a "no deal" scenario, starting with the much rehearsed fate of the airline industry.

While the focus is very much still on tariffs, there is a recognition that we will be seeing a return to customs checks, with the consequential effect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Nevertheless, the detail is pretty thin and it's quite evident that journalists are out of their depth.

Mostly, though, the papers are staying within their comfort zone, devoting far more time and space to the Westminster soap opera. High on the list is the dumping of Hammond, the prospect of a reshuffle and the endless speculation about a possible replacement for Theresa May.

For most normal people, this simply adds to the tedium, leaving us to count down to Friday when the European Council, meeting as 27, deliver their verdict. Since there is nothing new expected there either, Brexit-watching becomes a treadmill where events blur, one into the other to create a perpetual groundhog day.

Yesterday, I spent some time completing an Airfix model of the DUKW – something I first built when I was about 10. Today, I think I'll have a bash at building the IGB "Otter" armoured car, although I may build the Heller AMX-13 first, as a "quickie". It's getting so bad that a boyhood hobby is once again proving more interesting than what passes for the real world.

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