Richard North, 06/10/2018  

It was all rather predictable. We were just waiting for Mrs May to get through the conference intact for there to be movement on the Brexit front. And so it comes to pass.

All the main newspapers are now carrying versions of the latest developments, so we must go through the tedium of organised speculation until the final agreement is reached and the details are released to the waiting world.

Generally, when all the media is coming up with the same story, they are getting fed from an official source. And that probably means we're being played, largely in an attempt to see how far Mrs May can stretch a deal without her party self-destructing.

According to the Guardian, even the EU is in on the act, preparing to help Mrs May build a parliamentary majority for a deal by offering a written commitment to "frictionless trade" if the UK changes its red lines after it leaves the Union.

Next week, we are led to expect a first draft of this "future deal", an outline of the political declaration running to four or five pages which, all being well, will be appended to the withdrawal agreement. To smooth the way, it will have a magic agreement called an "evolution clause" in which the EU will say it remains open to improving its offer should a British government change tack during the 21-month transition period.

However, there is so much incoherent garbage being written about this that it is hard to take much of it seriously. Most likely, this is the Commission buying time to conclude its own contingency plans for dealing with a "no deal" Brexit, while keeping its options open for any concessions that London might offer.

Mrs May, on the other hand, is playing the field in an attempt to get individual Labour MPs to support a compromise deal, thereby negating the DUP votes and those of the ERG "ultras" – which is hoped can be reduced to about ten diehards.

In other words, the word salad that was Chequers (and the subsequent White Paper) has been tossed back up in the air, ready to come down with a different arrangement of words that allow enough face to be saved by enough MPs to permit an outrageous fudge to be squeezed through parliament.

That may include a new form of words for the "backstop", which Mrs May can pretend doesn't mean what it actually means because it won't happen anyway and because, by the times it does, somebody else will be prime minister – or not.

Meanwhile, most of the nation has given up following the labyrinthine ins and outs of the Brexit saga, treating the issue more like a bad toothache, just wishing it would stop – virtually at any price. In between tweeting, Pete's been reduced to making a 1/35 scale model of a British Army Warrior (in desert colours - pictured), while I'm struggling with a 1/72 scale model of a German MAN truck in a desperate attempt to retain a semblance of sanity.

It's actually got that bad. Brexit is no longer a matter of rational analysis. It's become a tawdry political game, bound by the art of the possible with no reference to what the nation actually needs or what will properly prepare us for a future without the EU. This is about what Mrs May can salvage from the mess she has made.

With that, as the referendum itself fades into the distant past, we are beginning to lose sight of why we wanted to leave the EU in the first place. Earlier yesterday, for instance, I had a Twitter exchange with a lawyer who wanted to deny any adverse effects of the EU's fresh meat hygiene directives on the meat industry.

Then, watching the national BBC television news at 6pm, the lead story was an emerging scandal on the failure to dispose of clinical waste, arising from the failures by contractor Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), which handles such waste for a majority of health trusts.

Interestingly, the BBC had Unison's head of health, Sara Gorton, describing the situation as "simply horrific", saying it was "unlikely that such a distressing situation would have happened had the service remained in-house".

What, of course, no one asked was why such services are handled by independent contractors. Certainly, this has not always been the case. When I first qualified as an environmental health officer, hospital waste was most often incinerated on-site or removed by local authorities and buried under supervision deep in controlled tips – at minimal cost.

But, with the progressive encroachment of the EU into waste management, and pollution control, it has become virtually impossible for hospitals economically to provide their own waste incinerators. Simultaneously, the number of controlled tips has been savagely reduced under the assault of EU law, reducing opportunities for the safe disposal of the less offensive, bulky waste.

Oddly enough, HES says that some of its problems arise because of the reduction in the UK's high-temperature incineration capacity for the last few years to the UK government, NHS bodies and the Environment Agency. It does not say that much of this is due to the costs of meeting stringent EU emission requirements.

No one here, of course, is saying that there should not be emission controls, or stringent rules on the disposal of clinical waste. And we do not want to return to the situation where hospitals had "Crown Immunity" and were exempt from environmental laws. But it is the case that the EU's "one size-fits-all" regimes reduce flexibility and increase costs.

One can therefore sympathise, to an extent, with the "ultras" in wanting to "take back control", allowing UK the power to make its own laws. The EU's waste framework legislation would be a good place to start. It is doubly ironic, therefore, that the EU's waste law is "EEA relevant" and is therefore part of the EEA acquis. On the face of it, the Efta/EEA option would afford us no relief unless we could broker country-specific amendments.

All such considerations, though, have melted into the background. Viewers of yesterday's news bulletins would not have had the first idea of the EU involvement behind the drama they were watching, any more than a tiny minority now remember the devastating effect EU law had on the meat industry.

Therefore, it is worth remembering occasionally why we had to leave the EU and the eventual benefits from so doing. The difference between the likes of such as myself and the "ultras" is not in terms of overall objectives. We differ in strategy and expectations of timescale.

With over 40 years of political and economic integration, it always unrealistic to expect that we could undo the worst effects of EU membership overnight. And in many respects, the world has moved on. What was objectionable when introduced as EU legislation many years ago has now, for many industries, become sunk costs. There is little to be gained from attempting to reverse the tide.

What might help the debate, and the progress of Brexit, is a more focused evaluation of the advantages of leaving – and there are many. But, where the leave campaign failed during the referendum, it continues to fail now, talking in generalities rather than of specific instances.

Yet, each year now we see our council tax bills rise, while waste services continue to deteriorate. Most households are on fortnightly collection for general waste, as councils struggle to meet EU mandated quotas for recycling, only then to fail to re-use the recycled material.

In yet a further irony, Brexit will close a loophole, in preventing UK councils exporting waste material for recycling to EU Member States such as Poland, where illegal shipment have been helping them meet their quotas. It now seems that "waste crime" is a £1 billion-pound industry.

Such is the dire handling of the May government of the Brexit process, though, that we are unlikely in the near future to see any significant benefits from leaving the EU.

Instead, as the EU takes control of its own contingency plans, we are likely to suffer major adverse effects long before we are able to enjoy the fruits of our new freedoms. Yet, it didn't need to be this way - we could still get a better deal. The trouble is, no one seems to know how to do it.

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