Richard North, 10/09/2018  
 


There is no Brexit debate in this country, at least not in the legacy media. We merely have opposing sides parading their ignorance. The role of the media is to provide an uncritical platform, the effect of which is to block the flow of information with a cascade of never-ending noise.

A classic example of this we saw yesterday in the Mail on Sunday with a "he says, she says" confrontation between the oaf Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the current holder of the office of foreign secretary.

The oaf's contribution quickly gained for the Mail a desirable level of notoriety with an ill-judged assertion that Mrs May's Chequers plan has "wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution", with the "detonator" handed to Michel Barnier. 

Apart from anything else, the analogy is muddled. If Barnier activated the detonator, it wouldn't be suicide. Literally, it would be murder. And that's what Johnson is arguing that Mrs May is giving him the means to do. 

The theme is typical Telegraph/"ultra" rhetoric, with Johnson demanding: "Why are they bullying us?", and "How can they get away with it?" "It is", he goes on to write, "one of the mysteries of the current Brexit negotiations that the UK is so utterly feeble".

He argues that we have a massive economy; the sixth largest in the world. We ought to be able to do that giant and generous free trade deal the Prime Minister originally spoke of. Yet, the oaf complains, "And yet it's, 'yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir'". And so continues the litany:
At every stage in the talks so far, Brussels gets what Brussels wants. We have agreed to the EU's timetable; we have agreed to hand over £39 billion, for nothing in return. Now under the Chequers proposal, we are set to agree to accept their rules – forever – with no say on the making of those rules.

To this man, "It is a humiliation. We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500 lb gorilla. And the reason is simple: Northern Ireland, and the insanity of the so-called 'backstop'".
And there's the crunch. According to the oaf, this has opened us to "perpetual political blackmail", whence we get the "suicide vest" jibe which then becomes a "jemmy with which Brussels can choose - at any time - to crack apart the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Johnson interprets the "backstop" as Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and the Single Market, in other words part of the EU, with a border down the Irish Sea and then sees the Chequers plan as "our own version of the backstop". If we can't find ways of solving the Irish border problem, then the whole of the UK must remain in the customs union and Single Market".

This then is what the Mail calls a "blistering denunciation of our Brexit strategy", but if we're to evaluate it, we have to start from the basics – of which Johnson has never shown any grasp.

Starting with point one: when we leave the EU, the UK becomes a "third country". Point two: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becomes part of the external border of the European Union. Point three: at the EU's external border, extensive border controls automatically apply to goods imported from third countries, making for what is known as a "hard border". Point four: under normal circumstances, the EU cannot vary these controls for any one third country without falling foul of the WTO's non-discrimination rules, potentially damaging the integrity of the Single Market.

However, because of the special situation and history of Northern Ireland, neither the UK nor the EU wants to establish a "hard border", to which effect the EU has asked the UK to come up with a plan which can allow existing border arrangements to continue, in the absence of which it want a formal commitment to a "backstop" which will enable a "soft" border without the potential to damage the Single Market.

By any measure, this is an extremely difficult situation, where there are very limited technical options - made even more difficult by Mrs May's insistence on leaving the Single Market. And since the very beginning of the talks, the parties have been struggling to find a mutually acceptable solution, with the UK yet to make a formal proposal while rejecting the EU's current text for the "backstop".

Not in any sense could any rational person thus describe the EU's stance as "bullying", and neither could this be construed as an intention to break open the United Kingdom and detach Northern Ireland from it.

The problem could be solved by what one might call Norway-plus, the Efta/EEA option with additional deals to cover areas which are not part of the EEA Agreement. But since Mrs May has ruled this out – as have Mr Johnson and his "ultra" colleagues – it is hard to see what other way might achieve the desired end.

In an attempt to square the circle, Mrs May has come up with her "Chequers plan" which, bizarrely, doesn't solve the problem. For all Johnson's squealing about suicide vests, it is a weak shadow of the Single Market which cannot be accepted by the EU.

Thus, we have Johnson going over the top in his characterisation of the EU, while complaining about a "solution" from Mrs May which is never going to fly, leaving us with an impasse, where the risks of a "no deal" exit are very high and increasing.

His complaint thus stands that: "we have managed to reduce the great British Brexit to two appalling options: either we must divide the Union, or the whole country must accept EU law forever". Both options are exaggerations, and he fails to acknowledges his own role in preventing a solution from being found.

Instead, Johnson dwells in the land of unicorns, asserting that, since "we live in a world of smartphone apps and electronic forms and Authorised Economic Operator schemes", there "is no need for any kind of friction at the border at all".

This leaves us with his catch-all solution, which is to "scrap the backstop, fix the borders for frictionless trade, and get back to the open and dynamic approach outlined in Theresa May's original Lancaster House speech - with a big Canada-style free trade deal". Failing that, he asserts, "we should tell our friends they won’t get a penny".

That then leaves Jeremy Hunt to counter – something he should never have done. The very fact that he engages with the stupidity gives it a level of credibility it does not warrant. But, since the government holds an untenable position, he can only offer a lame defence which lack conviction.

"The Government's overarching aim", he says, "is to restore Britain's sovereign control over our borders, laws and money, while protecting jobs by ensuring our exporters can trade as freely as possible with the EU". He then claims: "We will also protect the peace in Northern Ireland and firmly resist attempts by some in Europe to divide our United Kingdom with customs posts down the Irish Sea".

As for an objective (or any) defence of the specifics of the Chequers plan, we search in vain. There is none. All we actually get from Hunt is an assertion that Mrs May is "better than anyone I know at holding the line in the face of intense pressure", with an appeal for unity.

As a country we can help, too, because her efforts to achieve the best outcome for Britain will be greatly strengthened if we are united behind her", the man says. And Parliament will have the chance to debate and vote on any agreement. Thus, the message is "we should not rush to judgment on a deal that is still under negotiation".

Looking at these contributions together, we have to ask what the Mail has achieved. It has juxtaposed a wildly exaggerated, distorted account of the current state of negotiations with what amounts to an uninspiring call for unity. The paper has filled space and given it the controversy it so loves, but what constructive purpose has it served? Does anyone walk away from these articles better informed, or any more capable of understanding the issues?

Then as the Independent points out, this is not really about Brexit. These are the opening shots in the developing Tory civil war, in which we have become unwilling bystanders.

And at the margins, we are treated to a discussion on Brexit which is so uninformed and uninspiring as to be excruciatingly tedious. In what is for the UK the most important political development of the century so far, the paper has managed to turn it into something unspeakably banal.






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