Richard North, 13/06/2018  

If chaos and confusion attending the end of the debate on the Lords' Brexit amendments, with the word "shambolic" freely being used, one has to observe that this probably signifies nothing more than a House of Commons that has disappeared up its own fundamental and is now destined for the irrelevance that it has so assiduously earned.

In all the torrent of verbiage that been devoted to this extraordinary day that was yesterday, not a single commenter seems to have observed that the government is being asked to concede something that it is not within its gift to offer – namely a role for Parliament in the talks with Brussels, should Mrs May's designated team find it impossible to get agreement on the UK proposals.

That the prime minister, in the event of the UK failing to reach an agreement – which looks ever-more likely – should then be required to consult with (or take instructions from) Westminster as to what line she should then take, is a counsel of absurdity so manifestly improbable that even the scriptwriters of a political satire might have difficulty raising a laugh with it.

The underlying point here, of course, is that come the October European Council, the UK and EU negotiators will be expected to have agreed the text of a formal Withdrawal Agreement (including a protocol on the much-debated Irish border question), which will then formally be presented to the European Council signifying the end of the negotiations.

Theoretically, at this point, the text must then be approved by the European Council, by the European Parliament and then by the UK Government – the latter requiring the assent of both Houses of Parliament.

However, it is not only the Withdrawal Agreement that must be finalised. The parties must also conclude discussions on the framework for a future relationship, taking in trade, security and much else – with the production of a political declaration, the text of which has to be submitted for agreement by all parties.

Given that there has been no movement since December last on the Irish border question (with other issues also unresolved), and the UK government has yet to publish its proposals for a future partnership, its is quite conceivable – almost to the point of certainty – that the October deadline will not be met.

Aside from the Withdrawal Agreement, the certainly of failure is more or less assured from the cretinous statements published by the Department for Exiting the EU in an animated tweet, setting out its preferred options for trade (pictured).

The fact that we are now seeing Trumpesque "negotiation by tweet" is bad enough, but when we see the government declaring that it "wants seamless and frictionless trade of goods after we exit the EU", then proposing "a comprehensive system of mutual recognition", it is pretty obvious that, even if the lights are on, there is nobody at home.

Taken straight from the Legatum playbook, it will come as absolutely no surprise to learn that there is precisely zero chance of the EU accepting a trading relationship with a third country based on the mutual recognition of standards. This simply isn't going to happen.

Facing that near-certainty of failure to agree in October, one can see a possibility of the talks going into overdrive, and then being extended into the autumn to allow parties more time to resolve outstanding issues. In that the six months allowed for "ratification" is fairly generous, one could see the talks running into Christmas and even the early New Year.

In such situations, hope springs eternal. Talks are never written off until they are over – and the deadline even in January 2019 will not have expired. Even at this late stage, therefore, it will not be possible to state with conviction that the talks have failed and that there is "no deal". That status can only exist after midnight (our time) on 29 March 2019.

Between now and then, it is hard to see what useful (or any) contribution Parliament could make to the negotiations. It certainly could not veto a "no deal": that is completely outside its powers. In deciding whether there will or will not be a deal, the stance of the European Council and the European Parliament will be final. If they decide there will be no deal, there will be no deal, regardless of anything the UK government or Westminster says.

On the other hand, the negotiations – such as they are – are between the European Commission, represented by Michel Barnier as the chief negotiator, working to a mandate decided and set out in writing by the European Council, and the UK government. The Westminster parliament has no locus and cannot intervene directly in the talks. It can only work through the UK government.

With that, it is hard to see how Westminster – even if it was able to speak with a single voice – could credibly instruct the government on a "line to take", much less monitor delivery. It is even harder to see how, at a late stage in the talks, the UK government (independently or at the behest of parliament) could introduce a new or different line of approach. Any new direction would require the Commission to go back to the Council for a revised mandate and an extension of time (the latter also needing the assent of the UK government).

A new settlement then agreed (if, indeed it was agreed) would then have to be put to the Council and the European Parliament for ratification and, of course, the UK government and the Westminster Parliament - taking far more time than is available.

Inevitably, the chances of such a scenario materialising would seem to be rather slender. The most likely outcome is that M. Barnier will seek to continue talks with the UK government on the basis of his current mandate. He is unlikely to entertain any radical departures which would require him to seek a new mandate – with all the delays and complications that that would entail.

Whatever the ambitions of MPs (individually or collectively), therefore - and the febrile "deals" cooked up over the last days and hours with Mrs May - the die is already cast.

As currently constituted, there is no useful role that the Westminster parliament can play in these talks, other than to approve any settlement (should one be agreed). If it refuses approval, then the outcome will be "no deal". That makes the choice what it has always been: take it or leave it. The idea of a "meaningful" vote is delusional.

Bearing in mind that the outcome will most likely be a failure of the parties to agree, this actually renders parliament obsolete – an idle spectator with no more power to influence events than the rest of us. MPs, constrained by existing ties, will be able to make a lot of noise, but will not be able to do much else.

The only way this sorry affair can be brought to any different resolution is if parliament stopped playing procedural games and decided to exercise real power. It needs to bring the government to book by means of a vote of confidence – forcing a new leader to form a new government.

It is only this, presented to Brussels, which might have sufficient impact to change the direction of the talks, allowing the introduction of new ideas such as the adoption of the Efta/EEA option. But this would also require a recognition that more time is needed, with a formal application for an extension of the Article 50 period.

Yet nothing of the events of the last few days – or weeks – have brought us any closer to this state. The frenetic manoeuvring in the Commons to the accompaniment of the over-excited posturings of media commentators has achieved precisely nothing. And with nothing changed, the shambles of yesterday is the shambles of today.

The essential problem here – as we have observed so many times – is that both the legacy media and the politicians have lost the plot. Unable to come to terms that we are playing out a drama on an international stage, where our fate depends as much on foreign actors as it does our own, the politico-media nexus has retreated into its comfort zone and cultivated an infantile demeanour to armour itself against the real world.

Any solution lies in its own hands, but such is the degree of infantilisation that there can be no confidence in the this being understood and actioned. We seem doomed to watch the play being acted out, children trapped in personas they don't understand, unable to break free and play sensible roles.

Thus, as the media hyperventilates and the commentariat so comprehensively misses the point, all we can do is watch and record, with growing dismay. For, whatever the prizes that the gabbling children of our capital so value, the game they are playing is not worth a light. As they squabble to dominate the dunghill of Westminster, all we can say is: who cares wins? The real game is elsewhere.

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