Richard North, 03/11/2017  

It says something of the current febrile mood of the media that a conference organised by the UK in a Changing EU yesterday covering a wide range of issues on Brexit failed to get any publicity other than a brief mention in i-news and Civil Service News - despite the presence of many journalists in the audience.

However, much of the media disinterest may well have stemmed from the lacklustre line-up of speakers, where UK in a Changing EU opted for the "usual suspects" such as Henry Newman of Open Europe, John Springford, Centre for European Reform, and Ian Dunt, editor of These are the sort of people who exude orthodoxy and have virtually nothing of interest to say.

One speaker of marginal interest, however, was Theo Rycroft, Head of the EU Exit Strategy Department in the Foreign Office. He was the one speaker that got the cover, although in a presentation (including questions and answers) that lasted nearly an hour, one can see why journalists had difficulty in reporting anything that might grab the attention.

This is a man who spoke sitting down, reading from prepared notes for about 25 minutes, churning out the known government position with tedious precision, including the tired mantra that we start the negotiations with the UK having complete alignment of our regulations, which gives us "access to the market".

Anand Menon, chairing this session, led the questions and it was from this part that emerged from Rycroft that the UK "will not have signed a trade deal with the European Union before the Article 50 deadline is reached in March 2019".

This, of course, we already knew, but the newsworthy issue is that here we have a relatively senior servant apparently contradicting a Prime Minister who still seems to think that we will conclude a free trade agreement by the end of the Article 50 negotiations.

Rycroft stated that agreement on a trade deal was more likely to occur during the so-called "implementation phase". And, if this is to be taken at face value, this means that there will be a gap between our departure from the EU and the point at which "implementation" cuts in.

The man actually sketched out a scenario where we conclude the withdrawal agreement which comes into force on the day we leave. "That then goes into an implementation period", he says, "which then moves into an agreed trade agreement at the end – that's the structure, that's what we're aiming for".

Interestingly, after this exchange, we got a question from William Wilson of Wyeside Consulting. He asked a question about the chemical industry, noting that "nobody had any idea what was going to happen or what the institutional structures were going to be – whether we manage a relationship with the European Chemicals Agency or not".

His point was that this particular type of industry is going to need to know something before the 29 March in order to be able to plan anything. It will suffer tremendous damage if it doesn't.

Here Rycroft burbled about the government giving as "much certainty as possible to business", hoping that the government could start giving details in a couple of weeks. One never gets details at such events, of course, but here we have lodged that which we've been reporting for many months – that the chemical industry is exposed to "tremendous damage".

In between, however, this hapless civil servant had managed to confirm that there was a "minimal chance" of the UK dropping out of the EU without a deal. "On planning, we approach these negotiations anticipating success and we do not want or expect to leave without a deal", he said. "But of course we are planning for all potential outcomes, including the highly unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached".

It's responses such as these that make me glad I don't live in London, whence I might be tempted to attend some of these conferences. But watching the streamed videos is enough to tell us that the conference circuit is indeed the "usual suspects" churning over the same limited set of factoids, with very little new to say.

This largely represents the trough into which the Brexit "debate" has descended. One also gets the flavour of it on Twitter where one sees journalists re-tweeting each other and congratulating them for their "brilliance" for what is in fact largely mundane, uninspired repetition.

It is not surprising, therefore, when – as occasionally happens – journals such as the Financial Times look outside the box and steal things, mainly from the blogs, to bring back home and dissect, their legacy media colleagues are so effusive about their "ground-breaking research", trawling over stuff we did months and sometimes years ago.

So few of them dare to step out of their comfort zone though that they rarely see the original sources from which the material was purloined. Thus, the likes of the Financial Times can bask in the warmth of the applause from their appreciative colleagues as they recycle their stolen material.

Lacking as they do any self-awareness, we then see excited chatter from the media about the 58 "impact assessments" that the government has so far refused to release. But, if the journalists had been doing their jobs properly, they would already have been carrying out their own impact assessments for various scenarios. Government documents would have little to tell them.

A curious journalist, for instance, might have picked up on William Wilson's comments about the chemical industry. The prospect of "tremendous damage" to an industry which exports in the order of £20 billion-worth of goods to the EU each year is something, one might think, that has the makings of a good story.

But since I did my "impact analysis" on REACH in late January (in response to Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in which she asserted that "no deal is better than a bad deal"), I do not recall any of the main national newspapers doing anything of the same depth.

Likewise, you might have thought that the Formula One story might have gained some traction but, again, the legacy media hasn't been interested. Not even the racehorse story was enough to jolt them out of their lethargy, and write a proper account of what might happen, even when Booker did the story.

Oddly enough, there is a letter in today's Financial Times complaining that it "underplayed the risk" of the EU referendum. But now it, and the rest of the media, are underplaying the risks of the "no deal" scenario and (especially) the risks of leaving the Single Market.

Much of this, if the UK in a Changing EU conference is any guide, is because the media and their fellow travellers occupy the same tiny little bubble, from which they so rarely emerge, thus insulating themselves from exposure to anything but the orthodoxy.

Even here, when they get an apparent contradiction and what could be major headlines, they ignore what they hear. But, if the government is really of the view that we are not going to close the Article 50 negotiations with a fully-fledged trade deal (something which everybody else already knows), then the media needs to step up to the plate and explain what, in practical terms, this actually means.

This won't happen, of course. That would mean stepping outside the bubble – a place that the media fears to tread. And when individual journalists occasionally do, they scuttle back so quickly with their ill-gotten gains that they have no time to understand what they are dealing with.

Soon enough though, the reality will close in. One small consolation then is seeing the surprise and dismay at events which were predictable and should have been predicted. But, knowing the arrogance of the media, they will probably pretend they knew it all along. That is what they do.

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