Richard North, 15/10/2018  

After the interminable to-ing and fro-ing, there were only a limited number of ways talks could have been concluded. And, as it turns out, despite high-pressure meetings in Brussels yesterday, with the last-minute, unscheduled intervention by Dominic "Midair Bacon" Raab, none of them happened.

At times yesterday, there was intense speculation that Mrs May was about to agree a "secret deal". But, in the event, her representative bottled out. Raab stayed for less than two hours and refused to meet journalists. Then, at 6.43pm, Michel Barnier tweeted the bad news:
We met today @DominicRaab and UK negotiating team. Despite intense efforts, some key issues are still open, including the backstop for IE/NI to avoid a hard border. I will debrief the EU27 and @Europarl_EN on the #Brexit negotiations.
This looks terminal, not least because a meeting of Sherpas scheduled for today has been cancelled. This means that there is to be no further negotiator interface before Tuesday's general affairs council – an essential prerequisite to a deal being presented to the European Council.

On that basis, it does not look as if there can be a successful outcome to the October Council – if by success we mean a negotiated deal. For others, this brings us to an outcome which has been the target all along.

Nevertheless, according to Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times, the development has been treated with "shock and dismay" in Brussels even though, as it turns out, Raab wasn't there to close the deal.

Contrary to some expectations, the Brexit Secretary did not go to Brussels to give a final political impulse to a deal that was close to signing. He was there to say it wouldn't happen. London could not stomach the compromises necessary for the Irish backstop agreement, says Smyth.

Given the behaviour of the "Ultras" this weekend, this comes as no surprise. But we will not be able to judge the full impact of this latest development until we know what the European leaders plan to do.

If, as surmised by Spiegel Online, they decide to allocate the special November meeting to agreeing contingency plans, then we can assume the negotiations are as good as over. But if further face-to-face meetings are planned, we may still be in with a chance.

Even the Guardian has picked up on the possible re-purposing of the November meeting. In the self-important way of the legacy media, it can thus "reveal" what was reported in Spiegel five days ago, and discussed several times on this blog.

Needless to say, the paper sees this through the prism of domestic politics, telling us that the plan "is likely to pile further pressure on the British prime minister". But if it comes to that, the last thing on the minds of European leaders will be such game playing.

A "no deal" presents serious challenges for EU Member States, and for the EU institutions. A considerable amount of physical preparation will be needed, together with a substantial number of legislative adaptations before even a minimal cross-border operation can be resumed with the UK. The same applies to the UK, and Ministers have been warned to step up contingency plans here – even if there are severe limitations as to what can be achieved.

In the interim, attention in the UK will doubtless be focused on Mrs May and whether she can survive this setback. Conservative Party factions will have to decide whether to mount a leadership challenge or try to salvage a new deal from the wreckage.

There is, of course, room for Mrs May to make a dramatic personal appeal at the European Council dinner on Wednesday, as is being suggested in some media reports. But, given the success (not) of the attempt at Salzburg, her advisers might counsel against such a move. Beyond that, she seems to have run out of options – unless this really is carefully crafted theatre designed to force an eleventh-hour resolution.

Officials, however, have moved to dampen speculation that the break-up in negotiations was in fact choreographed. "There’s trouble", one of those anonymous sources told The Times. "This was not the plan". A senior EU diplomat added: "This is not good and the backstop remains the problem".

Whatever the real agenda, we can expect to see a resumption of propaganda designed to talk down the impact of a "no deal" Brexit. We've already seen Lord Wolfson attempt this magic feat, declaring to the Marr show that he doesn't think it would be a disaster.

This is in stark contrast to his views expressed last month when his own company, Next, warned that Britain faced "crippling delays at ports and a further fall in the pound" if it left the European Union without an agreement.

His change of heart might have something to do with the fact that the think tank Open Europe of which he is chairman, is about to issue a report telling us that "no deal" is a walk in the park. Thus, contradicting his own company's findings, Wolfson states that customs do not need to be a friction for trade. Goods coming from outside the EU, he says, take "no more" than an hour to get through customs and work being done on the Irish border to make it frictionless should be applied to all borders in the UK.

As long as this sort or blether escapes unchallenged, and the media – with the complicity of the politicians – fail to bring home to the public the catastrophic potential of a "no deal" exit, then there will never be the head of steam needed to ensure Mrs May goes the extra mile to get a deal, with the "Ultras" backing off from their outright opposition.

For the moment, though, everything is up in the air and predictions have little value. The situation can change by the hour – the exemplar being media reports from yesterday when some would have had it that a deal was in the bag, even while others were reporting that talks had collapsed. Those leading the way found themselves having to backtrack on their own reports, while others are struggling to catch up.

In some respects, though, we are paying for past sins. If the dangers of a "no deal" scenario had already been lodged in the public consciousness, we perhaps would not be where we are. But so tenuous has been coverage of the options that it is still widely regarded as a tenable option – hence Open Europe's input today.

Add to that the media's terrible habit of relying on the "he-says, she says" style of reporting, where conflicting views are given equal weight – or even weighted according to prestige rather than the quality if evidence – and it is probably already too late to redress the balance. Like as not, we will have to find out the hard way what a "no deal" really means in practice.

Worst still, we are now almost certainly going to see an orgy of Westminster party politics, with the added complications of the SNP making its moves, and the DUP stirring the pot. Clinical appraisal of Brexit-related issues will disappear while domestic politics dominate the front row.

Behind that, it takes little imagination to expect an intensification of the campaign for another referendum as a thinly-disguised ploy to reverse the verdict of 26 June. There may also be a publicity boost when the ECJ rules on whether Article 50 is reversible, with strong political pressure to call the whole thing off – if indeed, the ECJ says that this is allowable.

If a week is a long time in politics, though, this is for the distant future when the situation may already have undergone as yet unpredicted changes, creating entirely new challenges (or not).

In anticipation of what might happen next year, I have decided to take (for me) the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the invasion beaches in Normandy (pictured). This is in lieu of my annual break and, by this evening, I will be lodged – with Pete – in a hotel in Caen, ready to embark on our own personal invasion of France.

Given the uncertainty of Brexit, I felt we had to do it now. Next year, it may not even be possible, until things have settled down. And even then, things will hardly be the same.

Owing to the marvels of the internet, I will be able to stay in touch with developments and am planning to blog each evening, as always – albeit that my posts may be slightly shorter than normal. Moderation will be maintained on the comments.

All being well, I will be back in England on Friday - to what could even be a different country.

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