Richard North, 02/09/2018  

In the 14 years that I've been publishing, August has always been the worst month. In the silly season, news dries up, political developments are few and writing becomes something of a chore.

But now August is over and we're on the verge of a new political season, so the tempo should start to pick up. And you can tell that because Dancing May, back from her triumphs in Africa, has put her name to a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, staunchly proclaiming by way of a headline: "There will be no second referendum on Brexit – it would be a gross betrayal of our democracy".

That's good enough for an opener, I suppose, but she follows that with a sub-heading fraught with ambiguity: "There will be no compromises on Chequers that are not in our national interest". Define "compromise"; better still, define "national interest".

We could have an interesting debate on both, especially as the Telegraph translates this into a front-page lead, having Mrs May declare that: "she won't surrender to Brussels over Chequers plan".

It wouldn't be Mrs May, however, if she wasn't clear on something, and true to form she manages to be that in the first sentence of her piece, telling us that the coming months "will be critical in shaping the future of our country" and – wait for it – "I am clear about my mission".

"This government", she says, "will fulfil the democratic decision of the British people by ensuring that the UK leaves the European Union on 29th March next year – and that as we do so, we build a stronger, more meritocratic Britain that is fit for the future".

It is worth persevering with this a little, to learn from the prime minister that, at Chequers in July, "the government came together around a set of proposals that could break the deadlock on the negotiations and bring a fresh dynamic to the talks". And now she asserts: "there are signs over the Summer that this has happened, with real progress in the negotiations".

The thing is, though, that Mrs May isn't the only person in this galaxy who can be clear about things. And, from re-reading my own blogpost, I have come to the conclusion that it is pretty damn clear that there hasn't been any progress worth talking about.

The worrying thing then is that Mrs May actually believes what she's writing. Or perhaps it's true as Juncker claimed, that the prime minister does live on another galaxy, where there truly has been progress. Somehow, mysteriously, her communications are leaking over into this galaxy, where they've been picked up by the Telegraph which hasn't realised the extra-terrestrial source.

Further content would appear to support that thesis, as she says: "Our White Paper proposals are a good deal for Britain. They will allow frictionless trade in goods and agricultural products, protecting the jobs that depend on just in time supply chains".

There's not a lot of point in pursuing this further, other than to record Mrs May's distant observations about a "no deal". "We want to leave with a good deal and we are confident we can reach one", she says. "But, of course, there is still a lot more negotiating to be done".

Therefore, she says, "it is only responsible that we have also spent time this summer preparing for a 'no deal' scenario, just as the EU have done too. As the head of the WTO has said, no deal would not be the end of the world, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park either".

And although Mrs May, speaking from her alternate galaxy, recognises that there would be "real challenges" for some sectors - for both the UK and the EU – "we would get through it and go on to thrive". We will be ready for a "no deal if we need to be", she says.

Then comes the headline phrase again: "I will not be pushed into accepting compromises on the Chequers proposals that are not in our national interest". Frustratingly, she doesn't expand on those points. The debate will have to wait for another day.

Elsewhere in the Sunday Telegraph, tucked away in its usual obscure corner, is the Booker column (no link yet). And there, undoubtedly from this galaxy, Booker refers to the "wishful thinking" which pervades virtually all discussion of Brexit on this side of the Channel.

And if by some strange coincidence, the words from Mrs May were delivered in this galaxy, we are certainly dealing with wishful thinking, on an industrial scale – assuming that another agenda is not at play. We could be seeing the prime minister setting us up to fail, with the "no deal" scenario already decided.

But, says Booker, another measure of the wishful thinking was the claim by more than one newspaper that last week's speech in Berlin by Michel Barnier, in which he spoke of offering the UK "a partnership such as there has never been with any other third country", somehow marked a "softening" of the EU's line and a decisive "breakthrough" in the talks.

All one had to do is look more carefully at reports of his speech to see that nothing important has changed since the talks began. "The single market means the single market", repeated Barnier yet again, and there is no way Britain can be allowed any special privileges on trade which would not apply to any other "third country".

Furthermore, concludes Booker, since there is still no solution to the Irish border problem, or to any of the thousand-and-one other issues which remain, it seems we are still doomed to crash out next March without a deal, with all the dire consequences that will bring.

That said, I have more than a suspicion that the end of this silly season isn't going to bring any relief. If we needed any confirmation about the media's inability to report Brexit sensible, we got it in spades last week.

And, with no further Brexit events on the Brussels front scheduled until the October European Council, we can expect an orgy of introspective domestic politics, taking us through the conference season, where speculation on internal plots and court gossip take over.

Already, we're seeing signs of this, with the Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times both devoting their front-page leads to what is claimed to be a coup by Lynton Crosby.

Supposedly, Crosby's political research firm, CTF Partners, is working with the ERG on a campaign to mount a nationwide attack on Mrs May's Chequers plan, while aiming to oust the prime minister and replace her with the erstwhile foreign secretary.

Undermining Chequers, according to these febrile reports, is seen as the lever which will prise Mrs May from Downing Street, with an anonymous "senior Tory" quoted by The Sunday Times as saying: "If we stop Chequers, there is no way she'll survive".

The media needs no encouragement to run this sort of story and, in an environment where journalists frequently fail to deal effectively with the technical aspects of the Brexit process, we can expect to see the media pack retreating to its comfort zone and devoting itself to endless variations on this theme.

One thing we must expect in the near future is the ERG's alternative to Chequers, timed for release before the Conservative Party conference. Although it is unlikely that we will see a credible plan for managing the Brexit process, that will doubtless be treated as another step in the ongoing plot to turn Mrs May into an ex-prime minister. Most likely, the actual details of the plan will hardly be discussed.

On the EU front, Salzburg will come and go with nothing resolved and, short of some genuine breakthrough being engineered between now and the October European Council, it is difficult to see what Barnier or any of his colleagues can say that they haven't already said several times before.

From a personal perspective, therefore, it looks for us as if the silly season "famine" is set to continue. Furthermore, when the domestic noise level reaches the pain threshold, most sensible people to shut out the clutter and wait for a semblance of sanity to be restored. The audience itself is deserting the field.

Oddly enough, even "battle-hardened veterans" from both main parties are not particularly looking forward to the coming months - if the Observer is to be believed.

It cites one former Tory cabinet minister (of which there are many), saying of the period, "It could be utterly ghastly, with a complete breakdown in party discipline", adding: "It is unprecedented in my 30 years". And a Labour MP is said to be similarly apocalyptic: "This is probably the most dangerous, existentially dangerous, period for the Labour party since 1981. It's not clear that the party will survive this time", he says.

It might even be asked whether it is possible to report objectively on Brexit in this turbulent atmosphere when, even at the best of times, the media has difficulty separating fact from fiction, or recognising invention for what it is.

When in a speeding car on a long journey on a motorway, dealing with the monotonous sameness of the immediate landscape, all one can do to measure progress is to count off the junction numbers. In monitoring Brexit, we have precious few such markers and can only rely on experience and gut feeling.

Never more in my life have I found myself wishing time away. March cannot come soon enough.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few