Richard North, 28/10/2017  

With the focus on Spain and the growing crisis in Catalonia, this has become the latest distraction for the British media – not that it needs any excuse for taking its collective eye off the ball when it comes to Brexit.

Top of the news in that department is the loss of David Davis's deputy Brexit minister, Joyce Anelay, claiming that an old injury caused when she leapt from a Black Hawk helicopter has worsened to the point where she can no longer perform her duties.

The lessons of not leaping blindly into a void haven't escaped the more perceptive observers and we are now left with Martin Callanan as a replacement. He is formerly leader of the Conservative group in the European Parliament, now elevated to the upper House as Baron Callanan.

In its contribution to the Brexit debate, though, the Mail headlines: "British Airways boss says firm will continue to fly planes after Brexit even if there is no deal with Brussels", another example of how the right wing press is attempting to downplay the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit.

"In an apparent rebuke" to Philip Hammond, we are told, "International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh said BA [British Airways] will continue to fly after Britain quits the EU in March 2019". But this, apparently, is on the basis of Mr Walsh saying: "In terms of Brexit, there'll be an outcome and we will continue to fly".

Walsh goes on to say that: "Whatever that is, we will manage our business without any difficulty... We'll leave this to the politicians to resolve. But I'm confident that there'll be a comprehensive agreement between the UK and the EU on air travel".

What we are seeing there, of course, is unbridled optimism, but we also see a blunt contradiction of the Mail headline. Walsh's comments are on the basis of his expectation that there will be a "comprehensive agreement", yet the newspaper represents this as an assurance that the airline will keep flying in the event of a "no deal".

Even the Financial Times is playing a similar game, reporting that the bankers UBS has received "regulatory and political clarifications" that make it "more and more unlikely" that the Swiss bank will end up moving 1,000 jobs from London after Brexit.

One point here, unsaid, is that Swiss banks are established outside the Single Market and have already had to come to terms with trading conditions that others banks will be meeting for the first time with Brexit.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, its chief executive, Sergio Ermotti, who with chairman Axel Weber warned in January that as many as a fifth of UBS's 5,000 staff in London might have to move to the EU if the UK lost access to the "common market", is now saying that "the 1,000 [job] moves?..?is becoming in the last few months more and more unlikely".

Less credible, though, is an assertion that a "senior UK-based banking executive" was now "much more optimistic" than six months ago because he was confident a two-year transition deal would be achieved that would make Brexit more orderly. And this is despite Mrs May telling us that she will not accept a transition deal unless a free trade agreement is concluded by 29 Match 2019.

It is thus left – as so often – for the Irish press to bring us back down to earth, in this case the Irish Times. It has the chairman of the Allied Irish Banks (AIB), chairman Richard Pym, warning that the Irish state "must prepare for 'car crash' on Brexit".

The contrast with the Mail article couldn't be more extreme, as Pym also accuses UK politicians of "misleading" the British public over the EU talks – to which he might add the media as well. Obviously not a fan of Brexit, Pym is worried that the "headbanger Brexiteers" might get their way and fears that "turbulent waters lie ahead".

At a speaking event organised by the bank, he was followed by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney who added his weight to the charge that UK politicians had been misleading the public – specifically in terms of what is achievable in talks with the EU. "What has been promised politically in the UK is simply undeliverable", he said, noting that "The realisation of that is dropping slowly".

As to the Brexit talks, Coveney stressed that the "colleagues", "… must work towards a deal that recognises there are consequences to leaving the EU". And, stating the obvious – which should not actually need stating – he said: "That's not a punishment. It is simply a fact that membership of the EU brings privileges, such as the trading structure".

You might even have thought that he's been listening to Sir Ivan Rogers's evidence, when Coveney added: "Leaving the EU cannot result in holding on to all the trade benefits of membership, while at the same time convincing your people that you can get all these other goodies. It can't be done. It won't be done, and it cannot be negotiated".

Also on the same lines as Sir Ivan, Coveney gave short shrift to the idea of an early agreement on trade. "I'm not aware of any detailed bilateral trade agreement that has happened in six months, particularly not one of this complexity", he said.

Negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement between Britain and the EU, was in Coveney's view, simply not possible in a short period of time. "The idea that two teams are going to negotiate a free trade agreement in six months is not going to happen", he declared. "The best case is that some kind of framework or set of principles can be agreed that will lead to follow on talks to actually solve the problems".

Clearly, this has not percolated into the general public consciousness in the UK – even if there is some appreciation that things are not going as well as they might. However, there is much more for the public to learn, with former European Commission secretary-general Catherine Day saying that the UK would "eventually wake up to the fact that they have way less influence in the world, and they will hate that".

Day thinks that the British "haven't yet realised that the power play has changed completely, and that it will be the EU that sets the terms of their departure". In her view, "If that doesn’t happen, there will be no deal".

And nor can we take it that the EU Members are going to lose much sleep over the fate of the UK. Day adds that Brexit would lift a "restraint" that it has placed on the Union. "I detect a new confidence in the EU", she said. "A feeling that the UK has been a restraint on moving forward for a long time, and that has now been lifted. Sovereignty in a globalised world is an illusion. We only have clout if we work together".

Agree or not with that sentiment, one gains the growing impression that the EU has already written off the UK and has reconciled itself with our departures. And in the event, the chances of it allowing us to extend the Article 50 period – much less withdraw the notification – seems extremely remote.

One wonders, though, whether an extension could ever be on the agenda, not least because Bloomberg is reporting that the UK is stalling on the next round of talks. The EU is said to have offered two or three rounds of negotiations but no date has been agreed for restart, with the UK failing to respond to the EU's offer.

It would be unwise to read too much into this but, given David Davis's remarks about the EU leaving an agreement to the 59th minute of the 11th hour, it is not totally untoward to surmise that the UK team is marking time, waiting for the "magic minute" when the clocks stop and the EU engages in serious negotiation, giving the UK everything it wants.

The thing here, I suppose, is that if you are going to have a fantasy, you might as well make it a good one. They don't cost any more. And this is clearly what Davis is doing, alongside his boss, Theresa May.

But, while the Tory politicians might feel impelled to preserve their fantasy, going every which way (according to the Sun cartoon), there doesn't seem any good reason why the media should be so willing to assist them in keeping the British public in a state of ignorance.

Even the left-wing press seems reluctant to spell out the full consequences of a "no deal" Brexit, while the likes of the Telegraph, the Express and the Mail are in full denial mode. One could not even guess where the Financial Times stands.

Nevertheless, the media have 17 months to break it to their readers that the UK government doesn't have the first idea of what it is doing. And for that, barely anyone needs to consult the media.

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