Richard North, 17/09/2018  

So, speculation which lifted off in The Times in the earlier part of this month has died a death in the same newspaper ten days later. Thus, no more are the extravagant claims that the heads of state and governments were preparing to dump Barnier, rip up the draft Withdrawal Agreement and lay down a carpet of flowers to welcome Mrs May to Salzburg, where a sweetheart deal awaited her, decorated with a pretty ribbon bow. 

Sadly, there will be no flower-strewn paths for Mrs May. Rumours "swirling in Brussels" that EU leaders would agree a new mandate for Barnier at Salzburg have been scotched. "This expectation is totally wrong", says one of those ubiquitous, anonymous EU diplomats.

Instead, a new narrative awaits. EU leaders are now expected to offer the UK prime minister "little more than kind words". Hopes of a Brexit "breakthrough" at Salzburg are gone, leaving the prospect of meeting the "looming autumn deadline" somewhat hanging in the air.

The Times picks up Midair Bacon's claims that UK negotiators were "closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues" – already denied by Brussels - wrongly linking this with Barnier's supposed claim that a deal was "possible" within six to eight weeks, omitting to add the "realistic" qualification.

But, having given some credence to the hope that things were getting close, it then shoots that hope down in flames, restating what we already know – that the talks have made no progress on the most difficult issue - the Northern Ireland "backstop".

As expected, attempts to seek what is loosely termed as a "breakthrough" have been deferred until after the Tory conference. Seemingly, our "EU diplomats" are now so "wary" about any initiative they propose being twisted and used against May by "ultra" MPs that they have decided to hold off on new proposals until she gets through her annual jamboree.

In fact, there never was the slightest chance of a "breakthrough". The bubble of the Brussels hothouse is every bit as prone to fantasising as the Westminster equivalent. This still has Peter Oborne in the Mail on Sunday, earnestly declaring that he has spoken to "well-informed sources" close to the British and European sides of the Brexit negotiating teams, on which basis he detects "signs of a breakthrough". There's a mood of optimism, of friendship even, he says.

You pays yer money and makes yer choice on that one, as Oborne has Mrs May bypassing Barnier and dealing directly with Macron and Merkel. Otherwise, it looks very much as if the European Council meeting at Salzburg – once the focus of endless speculation – has reverted to its original status as a mere "stock-taking exercise". Another helpful but anonymous diplomat has been roped in to declare: "The less that comes out of this summit, the better for everyone".

With any expectations of progress at the October Council having already been discounted, the next milestone is a possible emergency meeting in November, yet to be agreed. A date may be the only substantive thing to come out of Salzburg, and even that may not be agreed.

All this puts the talks right at the edge. Barnier initially set October as the deadline and any extension cuts into the time set aside for ratification. The time allowance, however, undoubtedly had some inbuilt flexibility which means a delay is unlikely to be fatal.

The question then arises as to what might happen if the parties fail to reach a new agreement in November. We are led to expect that this will be the end of the process, but it beggars belief that everyone will sit tight, twiddling their thumbs until the time runs out in March and we leave without a deal.

Before we even get to November, though, Mrs May's plans have to run the gauntlet of Tory activism, with the oaf Johnson doing his level best to sabotage Chequers and undermine the negotiations from the London end.

His latest stunt is to mount a full-frontal attack on it in today's Telegraph column, asserting that it is a "constitutional abomination". If Chequers were adopted, he writes, "it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule".

Launching such lurid hyperbole in the run-up to conference effectively amounts to Johnson declaring war on his own leader. There is no way back from this. The battle lines have been drawn and only one contestant is going to come out alive.

If Mrs May backs away from her Chequers plan, even her residual authority will be torn to shreds and she will have no option but to resign. On the other hand, Johnson needs to show he has the support of a sizeable number of Tory MPs if he is to force the issue – something which is by no means certain.

Yet, what makes this contest bizarre to the point of being unreal is that, even if Mrs May wins the day and emerges to take the Chequers plan to Brussels intact, she has no chance of it being accepted by the EU. The issue, therefore, will be whether she comes away feeling strong enough to offer concessions which will make the plan more acceptable to Mr Barnier and the European Council.

But here, one wonders if she has any intention of offering any concession, in any circumstances. According to a Sunday Times report, in a Panorama programme to be broadcast this week, she is to re-emphasise herself as a "bloody difficult woman". On that basis, she could still be negotiating in the expectation of a last-minute cave-in by Brussels – something that is unlikely to happen.

Even then, there is a further complication, arising from comments made by Michael Gove. He asserts that any relationship settled between the UK and the EU could always be altered in the future, an idea that might mystify EU negotiators. In their reality, an agreement reached will be locked in by way of a formal treaty, unchangeable without the agreement of both parties.

Nevertheless, unlike Johnson, Gove publicly supports Mrs May. "The Chequers approach is the right one for now" he says, adding that the responsibility rested with the EU to compromise, "because we've shown flexibility".

If this represents the settled view of Mrs May's government – and there is no way of telling for certain – then the negotiations are in serious trouble. There is little if any possibility of a compromise, if it involves the EU having to weaken its stance on the integrity of the Single Market.

Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility of the Roger's "fudge", whereby some formula is found which enables both sides to save face and preserve their essential interests. But it is going to need a great deal of creative thinking to resolve the "backstop" and there are no obvious solutions on the horizon, unless you accept today's Times report.

From the same journalist who had it that the Salzburg European Council was set to consider new guidelines for M. Barnier, we now have it that the EU is "secretly preparing" a new plan for the Irish border.

This is drawn from an unpublished "diplomatic note", recording talks between EU ambassadors last Wednesday, where it suggested that "technological solutions" could be used to minimise customs checks at the border, while "goods could be tracked using barcodes on shipping containers under 'trusted-trader' schemes administered by registered companies".

Even though this looks suspiciously like the already rejected "Max Fac" solution, the new plan is supposed to remove the need for new border infrastructure. The proposals, it is claimed, are to be circulated to European governments after the Conservative Party conference on 3 October.

As we have seen in the recent past, such reports have a habit of springing up out of nowhere, and disappearing just as fast, while the news overhang means that people such as Oborne can be recycling speculation which has long been replaced by new, "washes whiter" fantasies.

In terms of the Irish border, we may actually be seeing attempts of what Barnier calls the process of "de-dramatising" the issue, emphasising the role of technical controls and highlighting the fact that some checks on the movement of animals and other goods between the UK and Northern Ireland already exist – with nothing of substance changing.

For all that, the only bankable certainty is that we are no further forward than the last time I wrote that we were no further forward. And with the media closing the circle on its Salzburg speculation, bringing us back to the starting point, the chances are that we will be no further forward next week.

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