Richard North, 23/12/2017  

As the nation winds down for Christmas and "frantic Friday" is behind us, there are no political developments to sustain a sensible debate on Brexit – not that we've enjoyed much of that anyway.

I think it's worth noting, however, the torrent of media coverage on the passport announcement, especially when compared with the tiny amount we saw written on the Councils transition proposals. The passport issues is the media's equivalent of Parkinson's bicycle shed. It stays firmly in its comfort zone and ignores the complicated stuff.

Needless to say, this pre-holiday stories rarely survive the break so, by the time the business recommences, there will most likely be something else on the agenda which keeps the media diverted and entertained.

And, with the next round of negotiations set for 29 January, they will need a steady diet of events to meet their quotas and keep themselves amused before they have to get back to ignoring the substantive story.

That is very much the story of Brexit. Crucial issues, such as the Irish border question, the length of time taken to agree trade deals, the criteria for participating in the Single Market, are either glossed over or ignored, while the superficial and the trivia dominate the media.

We now have enough experience of this dynamic to know that things are not going to change. From expectations of a rational debate, we are going to have to get used to the fact that ignorance is the new norm. This is not only going to drive the debate but also policy at the highest level in UK politics.

This will make for a step change in the way we do politics. When people are acting rationally, relying on the best available information, there is an element of predictability. But when the actors distance themselves from the real world, it becomes impossible to guess their moves.

For instance, if the current Council proposals on transition are adopted, that gives us three years before we drop out of the EU and face the cold reality of "third country" status and all that entails.

A rational prime minister would make the best use of that time. We would at least have the opportunity to sort out customs systems and the infrastructure needed to manage trade with the EU. We might also do what we can to encourage the EU and its Member States to develop their own systems and their own very substantial infrastructure needed to deal with the UK.

As it stands, though, we have a delusional prime minister who believes that we can successfully negotiate a trade deal with the EU which far exceeds in scope anything which has been agreed to date – on a par with our current position within the Single Market.

Not only does she believe that, the woman is convinced that this can be achieved in the eight months left for substantive talks, between March and October of next year, thus reinforcing her ultimate delusion that we face not transition – whatever that might mean – but an implementation period, where we are gradually and systematically putting into place the trade deal that has supposedly been agreed.

Buoyed by this false logic, the prime minister would see absolutely no need to make any preparations for our coming "third country" status, and nor does it give our negotiating team any scope for making sensible arrangements with the EU that will enable us to make the best out of a bad situation.

The point here is that if the prime minister expects the EU to offer anything beyond a basic free trade agreement, she is going to be seriously disappointed. But far more to the point, her delusion does not give EU negotiators any firm basis on which to forge a workable agreement. We can see the time draining away as the UK sticks to its unrealistic demands, leaving us with the worst of all possible worlds – an exit without a deal.

That this might have been delayed from the 29 March 2019 to the 31 December 2020 is of no great advantage to us. The crucial need at the moment is to resolve the uncertainty for business. Here, a delusional prime ministers, insisting on impossible conditions, is not going to make things better. As far as I can see, the extra time will simply give businesses more time to restructure, and to transfer vulnerable operations to new bases in the territories of EU Member States.

However, for as long as the media narrative supports the empty claim that we have moved from phase one to phase two of the negotiations, and that this somehow represents a "victory" for Theresa May, nothing of this will impinge on the consciousness of the public – still less the media or the political establishment.

And while the collective punditry still tends to view that the risk of a "hard" Brexit has been reduced, the very best we can actually hope for it that it has been delayed, but with an increased likelihood that it will be the eventual outcome.

Even if we do manage to cobble together some form of trade agreement, it was Pete, as I recall, who noted that there was actually very little difference between reverting to the WTO option and going for a free trade agreement. Compared with what we have at present, either represents a very significant reduction in market access. The difference is merely one of degree rather than principle.

With the transition period, however, what we can expect is a false Brexit – a sort of "phony Brexit". At the end of March 2019, when expectations of disaster loom, little will happen. We will continue trading with the EU on terms very much as before. There is even the possibly that the EU will somehow "magic" the third country deals, so that we can keep trade with the rest of the world on a fairly even keel.

Rather like the "phony war" of September 1939 to May 19340, though, this could prove to be the calm before the storm. If the UK government hasn't used the "transition" time wisely, to prepare for third country status, then what is feared for March 2019 will simply be transferred to December 2020.

On the other hand, there will be an important difference which is unlikely to work to the advantage of the UK. The EU Member States (and the EU institutions) will have that much longer to prepare themselves for Brexit.

Ireland, in particular, can continue the process of reducing its dependence on trade with the UK, and can improve its links with other EU Member States and the rest of the world. One can eventually foresee a situation where the border with Northern Ireland becomes less of a problem simply because trade with the UK has been reduced to insignificant proportions.

Whatever does happen, the one certainty is that it will not be properly (or at all) explored in advance by the UK media. From this source, the UK public will be the last to be informed about what is going on and what is likely to happen. Instead, we will be regaled with stories of EU intransigence and the heroic struggles of Mr Davis and his team, pitched in the breathless style of the soap opera, in the form of the endless struggle of good against evil.

From our point of view, dealing with the prevailing ignorance presents a huge challenge. We do not have the resources to educate the nation and, in any case, normal instructional techniques are of little value. Amongst our political classes, there is a strong element of wilful or "constructive" ignorance. These people are ignorant because they want to be. It suits them and they revel in it.

How else could we have a prime minister believing that, because we are already convergent with EU law, a free trade agreement will be any easier to negotiate? Anyone with any serious knowledge of how the EU works will know that regulatory conformity is only the start of the process of harmonisation which permits frictionless trade (as in the Single Market).

Thus, without wanting it to do so, our role subtly changes from being an active campaigner to a recorder of events. If we cannot prevent a collective suicide, then at least we can write the nation's epitaph – and seek to prevent those at fault from escaping blame.

And all of that goes to reinforce the old saw that, against ignorance, the Gods themselves contend in vain. This was from Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), with some versions of the quotation substituting "stupidity". Between stupidity and ignorance, there is often little to choose – other than the one begets the other. But the net effects are the same so, either way, we're in for a torrid time.

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