Richard North, 12/08/2018  
 


"Being a defender of Brexit is no fun these days. The Brexit camp can loosely be divided into two categories. The devious manipulators and the gullible followers. There is now a growing army of EEA Brexiters and we are gradually winning the argument against no deal, but the core of Tory influenced Brexit is still setting the agenda".

So writes Pete in his latest blogpost headed: "Yes, Brexit IS worth it". But he's right: it isn't fun. The sheer labour of dealing with the monstrous propaganda of the "ultras" takes its toll, and one tires of having constantly to repeat the same arguments to unyielding minds.

To make any real progress, it seems to me that we must have the legacy media and the bulk of politicians united in pointing out the dangers of the "no deal" scenario, making it absolutely clear that this is not a credible option.

However, as long as Mrs May occupies No 10, and maintains her stance that "no deal is better than a bad deal", we are facing an impossible struggle. Ostensibly, the only remedy is her resignation or removal – except that her replacement could be far worse.

Nor indeed is a general election an answer. Given the incoherence of the Labour stance and the untrustworthiness of Corbyn, we could hardly predict how a new government would behave – assuming that Labour could win, which is by no means certain.

This leaves us in a weird no-man's land where we end up getting shot at from both sides and the only option is to keep your head down and wait until it is all over. And, on present form, it will be "over" when we drop out of the EU without a deal, whence we have to start dealing with the realities of the damage that this will cause.

Meanwhile, it's open season for speculation, compounded by the "silly season" effect where the media will fill is space with derivative material that merges together to create a low drone of incomprehensible noise. Where no one really knows what is going on, and where the convoluted statements coming out of Downing Street so lack any intellectual coherence, anything goes.

Inevitably, that makes for a certain predictability to the media coverage. Rehearsing a "safe" narrative (safe, because it exhibits bovine conformity with previous article), we have the Sunday Times titillate us with the horror prospect of a 12 percent hike in food bills.

The paper gets the obliging chairman of "one leading supermarket chain" – who is allowed to remain anonymous – to warn that food products imported from the EU would be hit with an average tariff of 22 percent, thereby ignoring the fact that we are taking over some of the EU's tariff-free quotas.

Without a trade deal for goods, we are told, the UK would fall back on World Trade Organisation rules. Britain would trade with the EU under the WTO's "most favoured nation" status, but this would imply significant tariffs on many foods.

This is Brexit 101 stuff, but no newspaper is going to push the boat out and explore the issues in an intelligent fashion. Instead, we are enjoined to accept that this "is only one of three ways in which a no-deal Brexit would push up prices".

Additionally, Sterling will fall further, raising the cost of imports – which is possibly true. The working assumption in Whitehall is that it would drop by ten percent or more. Then we are regaled with the idea that prices would also be pushed up by supermarkets being forced to import food using different ports and longer routes to avoid congestion at Dover.

You can easily see why this blog is so consistently avoided. With our talk of mitigation and complex effect on trade patterns, our analyses are about as welcome as the proverbial pork chop at a Jewish wedding.

Given even a half-sentient analysis, one would never get away with the narrative on offer from the Sunday Times and its anonymous chairman. He tells us, "It's complete nonsense that Brexit supporters say we could, without any damage, go to WTO most favoured nation tariffs".

According to this source: "It's dreadful. There will be hold-ups at the border and that will make it impossible to take things out of the ground in Spain this morning and get them onto the shelves in two days' time". He adds: "This is so serious we're talking about civil unrest on the streets. Within two weeks of no deal this will become a very different country".

Yet it never seems to occur to anyone that the enormity of this, and its very predictability, means that even our dismally incompetent government cannot allow it to happen. And we have sketched a scenario where the worst effects of a "no deal" on the food supply can be relatively easily avoided.

Newspapers being newspapers, though, not only must they keep their readers ill-informed, they must slavishly adhere to the "he says, she says" formula that drives all contemporary reporting. With one person saying it's going to be a disaster, we must have a counter-view saying it won't be.

Selected for this role: is Malcolm Walker, founder and boss of Iceland. Helpfully, he has disputed the latest warnings from the food industry, saying: "All this scaremongering ... about stockpiling food - personally I think it's all bollocks. It's not in the EU's interests for there to be no deal".

Actually, I suppose that we should be grateful for any attempt by a newspaper to bring home the consequences of a "no deal", but since all we're getting is a litany of conflicting opinion, without the backing of research and analysis, the average reader is no better off. You can draw from the report any message that you want to believe.

The same lack of research is evident in a self-important piece from David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times. Displaying two further vices of the legacy media – the undue deference to "prestige" and the over-reliance on the oral culture - he asserts that a "no-deal Brexit" is "the silliest of silly ideas".

Smith addresses the argument put forward by the "ultras" that the WTO agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and on technical barriers to trade would ensure that the EU will have to stay open to British exports even in the event of a no-deal.

But, to make his argument, he is impelled to rely on Emily Lydgate, Peter Holmes and Michael Gasiorek of "the respected UK Trade Policy Observatory". Just where would the average hack be without all these "respected" institutions"?

Anyhow, this pair make the obvious comment that such claims are mistaken and show "a lack of understanding of the WTO rules". It seems though that one must be "respected" before one's comments are aired in the media. But at least we get to the point that WTO rules "impose an obligation to talk - but ultimately it is down to the importing country to determine whether the regulation meets its standards".

For the UK, the issue is not whether or not the goods are produced to the same standard on Monday or Friday. On Monday the UK does not need to prove this, on Friday "it may have to". And this would be WTO compatible. Even if the UK challenged the EU at the WTO, the process would take years - and would be unlikely to succeed.

Thus some points are at last getting through, even if the lack of detailed knowledge really does show - prestige will only get you so far. When it comes to food and EU law, I am a qualified environmental health officer (now retired) and have been immersed in EU food law for over 30 years. I have been a port health inspector and, as blog readers will know, I have made this area my speciality for as long as this blog has existed – for 14 years now.

This, clearly, does not qualify for "respect" in media circles, especially as I never tire of pointing out that, in where foods of animal origin are involved, there is no question of the UK having to prove conformity with EU standards. Until the UK is listed as an approved exporter, our exports will not be allowed entry.

Similarly, medicines carrying a market authorisation held by a UK company – although most certainly conforming with UK standards – will not be allowed entry. The same goes for vehicles and their parts, to chemicals and to aviation The need to demonstrate regulatory conformity is only a small part of the overall picture.

Nevertheless, Smith gives an outing to another "respected" figure – and rightly so. This is Malcolm Barr of JP Morgan – an avid reader of this blog.

Barr is allowed to say that, "By now it might have been thought that an informed consensus would have developed such that 'no deal is better than a bad deal' was recognised as political bluster. As tribal as Brexit has become, the implications of 'no deal' are not simply an issue of ‘remain’ versus 'leave'. One can be pro-Brexit while regarding ‘no deal’ as potentially disastrous".

This comment is based on a public domain circular produced by Barr and he would be the first to acknowledge that his sentiments are not unique. But he is a "respected" figure and thus gets quoted. For once, though, knowledge accompanies prestige, but that is not always necessary in this game. "Respect" is everything and will always trump mere knowledge.

But slowly, the message is getting though. Even the BBC is having a stab at setting out the consequences of a "no deal" and has managed to get some of the points right. A highly derivative piece in Money Week makes some of the same points.

These points won't have the slightest effect on the "ultras" though – the WTO option advocates are in the propaganda game and are not bothered about inconvenient things like facts. Whether Mrs May can be induced to change her mind – or is already in the process of so doing – is another matter. Perhaps she needs someone she respects to tell her which side is up.






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