Richard North, 05/03/2018  

From a personal point of view, the easiest thing to do for today's blogpost would have been to review Mrs May's interview with Andrew Marr. However, while even the best of his interviews tend to be vacuous, this one was more so than usual. Pre-recorded at No 10, it had all the hallmarks of stage-managed propaganda with nothing on offer that the prime minister hadn't already said.

The interview with Simon Coveney was far more interesting. From that we seemed to get a genuine human response, with the Irish foreign minister giving his view on Mrs May's Mansion House speech.

What she referred to, essentially in terms of detail, Coveney said, was the basis of two papers that the British negotiating team had published last summer. There was the "Northern Ireland and Ireland" position paper and the future partnership paper on "Future customs arrangements". Beyond that, he said, the prime minister hadn't "really gone into any more detail than we've already heard in terms of how she's going to solve the problem of maintaining a largely invisible border on the island of Ireland".

Actually, Coveney isn't quite right there. One can forgive him for that: once you've heard one May speech on Brexit and her feast of clichés, they all tend to sound the same and blur into one another. But her mention of mutual recognition seems to be new.

I've gone through both papers again, and there no mention of "mutual recognition" of standards. The first time it makes a formal appearance in a ministerial speech, in the Brexit context, is in February, when David Davis raised it in Vienna. From what I can ascertain Mrs May picked up the theme from there, building it into her own speech as a key device to break the logjam.

Before she had done so, it is a pity she hadn't read the guidance from her own government. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had issued guidance on 16 October 2012 and she could have learned a great deal from it, and specifically the application of the principle to "non-harmonised goods".

However, with it popping up in Mrs May's speech, we really do seem to have something new added to the mix, even if Coveney didn't realise it. But then he's hardly alone. Almost to a man (and woman), it's passed the legacy media by. It was raised in the Marr interview, but only by the prime minister, when she referred to , "a new relationship on financial services based on this concept of mutual recognition and agreement on regulations".

Needless to say, Marr did not pick up on the cue. He immediately started blathering about passporting, his researchers having missed this vital issue. One wonders where, if at all, anyone does any serious research these days.

However, Marr interviewed Peter (now Lord) Mandelson, former EU trade commissioner. Speaking of the "leap of faith" that when it comes to regulations "we're going to look for mutual recognition, not alignment", he then declared: "I don't believe the EU will accept that in a month of Sundays". He accused Theresa May of "trying to dance on the head of a pin that simply doesn't exist".

The origins of the thinking (if that's what you can call it) on mutual recognition are obvious enough, the term having appeared in the Legatum Institute paper in November 2017. But we also see it emerging in Guardian which revealed in mid-February that Daniel Hannan's Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) was arguing that an "ideal US-UK FTA would focus on mutual recognition of standards and qualifications for goods and occupations".

If the legacy media is failing to put two and two together, however, it appears that the point hasn't been lost in Brussels.

Our own people may be beset by muddled thinking but Commission officials are well aware of the implications and are not disposed kindly towards an attempt to by-pass established Single Market systems. Mandelson notes that they will remain true to the "legal basis of the single market [and] the rules and the established trade policies of the European Union".

Come tomorrow, therefore, when the Commission releases draft negotiating guidelines on future trading relationships, we are told that the draft is being kept short and general to smoke out more detail from Mrs May on her intentions.

Sources confirm the Mandelson view, saying that it was "unthinkable" that the basic thrust of the EU's position would be altered by the prime minister's words. Specifically, it will be made clear that the call for a mutual recognition of regulatory frameworks – as well as Swiss-style membership of EU agencies, including the European aviation safety agency - will not be possible with the UK outside the Single Market.

Certainly, it is more than evident that patience amongst leaders of the EU Members has worn very thin and sources suggest that even the most Anglophile of them are wearying of the charade. This works against Mrs May, as the UK's position is serving to strengthen the unity pf the 27 – Italian elections notwithstanding.

Over the many years I have been watching the EU – reinforced by my time served in Brussels – one learns not to under-estimate the European Commission. Some of the best and brightest political minds in Europe are to be found in Brussels and they are not unaware of the manoeuvrings of Mrs May's right wing "theologians".

There are, of course, blind spots, but it will not have escaped their attention that there are those in high places in the UK political system who have never wanted a deal. They fully expect, therefore, that the Hannan, Redwood and IDS tendency in the ERG will cast the inevitable EU rejection of their ploy as a "national humiliation", arguing that we should walk away and take up the WTO option.

All the indications are though, that Mrs May doesn't favour this route. Her Mansion House speech and her Marr interview follow-up reveal an emollient demeanour that signals a reluctance to pursue a confrontational position.

Even when pressed during questions after her Mansion House speech, she showed no great enthusiasm for her earlier "no deal is better than a bad deal" mantra, from which one can assume that she has no immediate plans to stage a walk-out, however much her "ultras" would want her to do so.

On the other hand, though, her lack of knowledge of the issues – and her innate lack of understanding of the "biology" of the European Union - leaves her prey to bad advice and what could be fatal missteps. Having then to steer a path between bitterly divided Cabinet colleagues, her main concern is the political stability of her own government, rather than assessing what will produce a deal that Brussels can buy.

The outcome of this would seem to favour an eventual "Canada Dry" type of resolution, although the festering sore of the Irish border question will stay on top of the agenda. To that extent, Mrs May remains trapped between irreconcilable opposites.

Factor in a compliant and ignorant legacy media, and a Parliament with very few serious people on either side, and we have the makings of a political train wreck. The task for the saner forces on both sides of the Channel now amounts to damage limitation, trying to avoid the worst.

The result, as Mandelson observes, could be "painful for the country". But no one yet is able to suggest a clear way out that has a chance of working. And all the while, the clock is ticking.

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