Richard North, 07/10/2018  
 


I really don't feel inclined to take the bait on the current speculation. Rumours abound and you can have any outcome you like – ranging from a deal within weeks to crashing out whenever you like.

The BBC version is quite entertaining, with "top EU officials" expressing optimism that a deal can be struck by the end of the year. We then have Juncker saying that the chance of a deal has increased in the last few days and agreement could be reached by November. Tusk, on the other hand, is looking to the end of 2018, while Varadkar says there is still "a fair bit of work to be done".

Just to keep us entertained, though, Saturday's Times wanted us to know that the EU was set to reject Theresa May's plan for frictionless post-Brexit trade. I've lost track of what that plan is, but Sabine Weyand, Barnier's deputy has told a meeting of EU ambassadors: "Things have started moving. We are ready to do whatever we can to bring this to a close".

Mirroring Varadkar 's concern, however, another EU figure has cautioned that new backstop proposals, tabled informally by the government this week, raised "fundamental issues" that required work on both sides.

There is no chance of breaking through this noise. The players will act out their allotted parts, the media will report what they are told, and the merry-go-round will go round and round. And, in the unlikely event that the EU and the UK negotiating teams have already stitched up a deal, we will be told all about it in due course.

Meanwhile, the Sunday newspapers are all over the place, illustrating the febrile nature of current developments. The Telegraph is taking an upbeat line, with the claim that "leading Brexiteers" have backed a package of concessions to help unlock a Canada-style trade deal with Brussels.

Senior members of the ERG, including Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg are saying that they would support EU officials being stationed at UK ports after Brexit if it would help break the impasse with Brussels. They also suggest that they would support the Government enforcing EU rules on goods exported to the bloc by firms in this country.

By contrast, the Sunday Times reports that these self-same ERG members have issued a last-ditch threat to vote down the budget and destroy the government unless Mrs May takes a tougher line with Brussels.

Basically, as I was indicating yesterday, the reporting of Brexit has become a charade. With no clarity of message, analysis is near impossible and attempting to predict the next moves is pointless.

One thing that needs to be recognised, though - as Pete has pointed out - is that a Canada deal – is no answer. No matter how many plusses it has, it will not satisfy the UK's needs.

And then, if by some miracle Mrs May manages to agree a form of words for the "backstop", a 21-month transition period is hardly long enough to conclude negotiations, especially as the Commission has to be re-appointed next year and, after Brexit, it will not be fully in operation until the following November.

That leaves Booker to offer his own commentary in his column, remarking that, immediately after the 2016 referendum result, few could have predicted the position we are in today. With only a fortnight to go before we were meant to have reached final agreement on our withdrawal terms, virtually nothing, including the Irish border, has yet been resolved.

Recalling Mrs May's toe-curling performance at last week's conference, he suggests that, instead of Dancing Queen, a more appropriate accompaniment to her arrival on stage might have been Frank Sinatra singing "as the end draws near… I did it my way".

In her stubborn insistence that "Chequers" would be our only proposal on the table, she had miraculously united both the Brexiteers and the EU in agreeing that her plan was completely "unworkable". We have thus got used to the idea that the most likely outcome of Brexit will be "no deal".

Coming up with greater prominence, though, is the only other suggestion on offer, a "SuperCanada" treaty. And, even if it were possible, Booker too is reminding us that it could only give us trading terms with our largest export market very much less favourable than those we enjoy now.

It is not surprising therefore that it was mocked by Philip Hammond as no more than empty wishful-thinking, as he mimicked Boris Johnson blustering that "we just have to want it a bit more… and it will all be fine".

As the uncertainty persists, ever louder fears are being expressed by one industry after another, from aviation and pharmaceuticals to Welsh lamb exporters, that next March they could be facing crippling border controls and catastrophe.

And for all the excitable speculation from the legacy media, we are no further forward. Mrs May can continue babbling that she will "honour the referendum result" but, says Booker, this shambles is definitely not what most of us thought we were voting for in 2016.

Yet, one good thing to come out of the conference, as recorded by the Observer is a survey carried out by Opinium for the paper. This has Theresa May being held in far higher regard by voters as a leader and a person than the oaf Johnson.

Furthermore, not only do voters from all parties, including the Conservatives, clearly prefer Mrs May to Johnson as a Tory leader, they also see the prime minister as more decent, decisive and trustworthy than the former foreign secretary.

And despite misleading impressions given by self-selecting surveys carried out by Conservative Home, Mrs May's lead over Johnson on questions of leadership and character is even higher among Conservative supporters than the electorate at large.

In terms of detail, among voters at large, almost twice as many (32 percent) think May is the best person to run the Conservative party compared with Johnson, who is preferred by a mere 17 percent. Among Tory voters, the gap between the two is far more clearly in May's favour, with 62 percent thinking she is best to lead the party, compared with 15 percent who believe Johnson would be better.

When asked about their individual qualities, voters preferred May to Johnson on almost all counts, with Conservative voters again backing her by higher margins than supporters of all parties. While 47 percent of all voters think May is "a decent person", only 30 percent have that view of Johnson. Among Tory supporters, May is seen as decent by 83 percent against 48 percent for Johnson.

This must be comforting news for Mrs May, and it is a testament to the inherent sense of voters at large. The results indicate that Johnson is largely a media phenomenon who lacks widespread support in the country, and especially in the Conservative Party.

Nor indeed is there any great support for the "no deal" scenario embraced by the "ultras" who support Johnson. A BMG Research poll for The Independent confirms that most of the British people do not share the ERG vision.

Offered a range of options, only 14 percent support leaving the EU without a deal and trading on minimum WTO terms. By contrast 61 percent supported options presented to them as giving Britain "frictionless access" to the Single Market. This figure includes those who want to remain as an EU member, a figure that has increased in recent months.

Says the Independent, it would seem that the prime minister's Chequers plans is a better reflection of "the will of the people" than anything Johnson and Rees-Mogg have to offer.

The paper adds that the poll is "further evidence that, even if the British people want to come out of the EU's political structures, they are keen to maintain the closest economic relationship possible". Indeed, it says, "there is plenty of evidence from other opinion polls that the Single Market is more important to more people than controlling immigration".

For us, this would confirm that the people who make the most noise are not those who best (or at all) represent public opinion. With our support for the Efta/EEA option, we are far closer to the mainstream than is Johnson and his fellow travellers. That the media gives more attention to Johnson tells its own story.






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