Richard North, 16/03/2018  
 


I do hope that the people who so approve of Mrs May's new brand of justice are never in front of a jury where the rules that seem to apply to Russia also apply to them.

Meanwhile, the distraction has paid off. Brexit has almost disappeared from the media, leaving a rump of disjointed stories and not a hint of a unifying theme. The low-key negotiations between officials in Brussels have scarcely been reported and the latest version of the draft withdrawal agreement has slid into the public domain with minimal comment.

This is an upgrade to the document we reviewed on 1 March – the one that had proposals on Ireland that had Mrs May declaring that no prime minister could ever accept them.

And while, apparently, there has been a little bit of give and take on the transition period, the blue touch paper issue of Ireland is essentially unchanged. It still remains for Mrs May to deliver up her alternative to the Commission or put up with a "wet" border. But, as Mr Putin has just found, our prime minister doesn't do alternatives.

Thus, on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, two weeks have achieved precisely nothing. The new draft has been issued in time for it to be circulated to the 27 Member States, so we can take it that this is the version which will go to the European Council.

But when Mrs May goes to Brussels in a week's time, in order to attend the first day of the Council, you can bet that Russia will be on top of her agenda. And, if the media take their cue from her, Brexit will barely get a look in. That will leave the Council meeting as 27 to spend the next day on the issue. They will probably spend more time on it in that one day than Mrs May has in the last month.

As well at the withdrawal agreement, though, they will have the latest set of draft guidelines on the framework for a future relationship with the UK to approve. These haven't been formally published yet, so we might get some media interest when copies are officially available. But there again, they might not.

David Davis himself is due to go over to Brussels on Monday – his first visit since Christmas – but there seems little he can do, and there is nothing specific on the table for him to approve. And his boss has already ruled out any movement on Ireland. However, there will be a press conference with Mr Barnier, so we may glean something of the situation from their comments.

This will be the same day as the meeting of the General Affairs Council. Assembling in EU27 format, it will discuss the draft guidelines. This is effectively, the formal approval, preparatory to the European Council meeting which will rubber stamp the GAC decision.

The Salisbury poisoning aside – which has given Mrs May the perfect excuse to ditch Brexit for a while – there seems to be a new tone to the mood music. The UK government as a whole is giving every indication of having lost interest in the negotiations. There is a smell of fatalism, where everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome, powerless to affect it.

On the other hand it could be that cabinet members have no idea what is waiting for them. Even last night, we had Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, asserting that there would be no post-Brexit lorry checks at Dover. Under no circumstances, he said, would the UK create a hard border.

This was on that grave of souls, the BBC's Question Time, where he roundly declared that "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks in the port. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future. Absolutely clear, it cannot happen.

Nearly two years since the referendum, it is hard to believe that a cabinet minister could be so blithely ignorant of the realities – but then Grayling is a Tory. Since Mrs May has ruled out continued participation in the Single Market, a hard border is inevitable. But if the man thinks we can get away without one, then there is no surprise that he is not concerned about the lack of progress.

We see the same litany being churned out by other ministers, and a pervasive belief that the EU will open its borders at the last minute and let the goods flow. This "eleventh hour" resolution is certainly one to which David Davis has referred, and perhaps he genuinely thinks that Mrs Merkel will come to our rescue, just to keep German cars rolling towards Britain.

Strongly bolstering that fantasy is the assertion that since the UK is already fully compliant with EU law, there should be no new barriers to trade once we leave. The nuances of EU requirements, such as the obligation in so many cases for businesses to be established in the EU, and the requirement to meld with the entire EU "ecosystem" simply passes these people by.

Likewise, Tory ministers have convinced themselves that their "frictionless" border in Ireland will be a practical proposition. Thus, whatever anyone says, there is no real expectation that there will be any problems. Everything will be alright on the night.

Currently, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is warning that Mrs May's pledge of no hard border can only be achieved if the UK "remains aligned with EU rules" for the foreseeable future. There is "no evidence", it says, of a technical solution to allow Northern Ireland to break free from the customs union and single market without the return of border posts and checks.

However, there is very little likelihood that this report will be taken seriously. Select committee reports come and go. Most are hardly worth reading. None seem to have any lasting impact.

With a strong strain of delusion, which reaches right to the top, you can see why Barnier and other EU officials are struggling to get their message though. Their warnings are dismissed as "project fear" or simply not believed. We may get another taste of that from Davis on Monday as he radiates complacency when he should be in a state of panic.

Everything, however, still hinges on the Irish border question. At the European Council, Mrs May is expecting to put the transition agreement to bed and Davis is confident that a deal will be struck. One of the key lubricants is that the EU is to drop its opposition to Britain signing trade deals during the period.

He seems to be forgetting Tusk's ultimatum though – that there can be no progress until the Irish question is settled. And it's there that the Irish Times injects a note of caution.

The paper retails that UK optimism that the Council will endorse an agreement on the transition period "may be premature". This comes from the famously anonymous "EU diplomatic sources" who are raising questions on the details and also on the broader issues of the withdrawal agreement. Crucially, the Tusk doctrine seems to be prevailing in that there is reluctance to separate out discussion of the transition deal from the withdrawal agreement.

As long as the EU insists on linkage, the UK is actually going nowhere. And while UK ministers may choose to ignore the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, the Commission will almost certainly take note of its views that technical solutions are not feasible.

That leaves an increasingly edgy business community that is finally beginning to realise that the government may not be able to deliver on a smooth transition. Thus does Sir Charlie Mayfield warn of "Brexit inertia" within companies that is "undermining efforts to improve British business performance".

"Undoubtedly, one of the great issues with what we're facing with Brexit is that it is causing a further sense of [inertia] and causing an impact on productivity — at least on confident investment in the future", he says. "There are good reasons why businesses are hesitating".

Not very much longer, one suspects, and hesitation will be translated into action as those companies that can will bail out and look to solutions outside the United Kingdom. That in itself may force Mrs May to focus on something more than Mr Putin, and fracture the delusional state within the Tory ranks.

While there is still the "Salisbury obsession", Mrs May can play, but soon enough there will be another poison chalice waiting for her, and it will not be filled with Novichok.






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