Richard North, 05/11/2018  

There is a clear split in emphasis in the legacy media at the moment – between those who are obsessed with the Arron Banks drama and those who are still interested in the progress of Brexit.

The utility of Banks is clearly evident from Matthew d'Ancona who sees in the affair the opportunity to call a halt to the entire Brexit process – notwithstanding that nothing has yet been proved. It says a great deal of such people that they seem almost entirely unconcerned about what is actually happening to the most important political event of the century. With the UK poised on the brink, the machinations of a second-rate chancer somehow takes precedence.

The fact is though that Banks is a sideshow. Even if he is as guilty as Hell, it is too late for the NCA investigation to affect the outcome of the Brexit process, even if it was relevant – which it isn't. The die is already cast.

Of far more importance then is the fate of the elusive deal that got The Sunday Times so excited yesterday, a narrative which is unravelling as we speak. And if any confirmation of that was needed, the Irish Times puts it to bed with its story headlined "Report of secret deal to keep UK in customs union after Brexit is 'speculation'".

This is not just the prime minister's office any more. That view is shared by Irish minister for justice Charlie Flanagan. This he told RTÉ's This Week programme, reminding us that there was a "rapidly ticking clock" with just five months to go until Britain exits the EU.

Following this up is Patrick Smyth, the Irish Times Brussels correspondent with another story, this one headed, "Backstop agreement may be close but Brexit deal is far from certain". In a delightful contradiction, the sub-heading tell us that "British and EU negotiators [are] prepared to re-enter 'tunnel' amid talk of legal 'bridge'", inviting the question as to why the negotiators are heading for a tunnel if they want to build a bridge. But of such contradictions is life made.

In actuality, the "tunnel" is where the Brexit negotiators from both sides have consented to a mutually-agreed shutdown of external comment and spin. That this is in force rather puts the mockers on the speculation of The Sunday Times. It has to be relying on secondary sources, distant from the coalface, with an inevitable loss of fidelity.

Talks, apparently, are due to resume today, back in the "tunnel" but they will do so against the background of the weekend speculation, which will have elevated expectations of tomorrow's cabinet meeting. This, incidentally, is the day before the Commons goes into recess and EU ambassadors meet again to assess progress.

Reporting, however, has been thoroughly confused with references to a "customs union", although Smyth writes of a "customs arrangement" which may or may not be the same thing, especially as he also refers to a customs union. As Pete points out, understanding is being hampered by this never-ending confusion of terms.

If we add the Northern Irish political dimension, it then gets worse. Smyth is writing of imposing on the DUP a "less-than-perfect but necessary solution" to avoid a no-deal Brexit. This, he says, is a confrontation that everyone bar the DUP now believes will be necessary.

Smyth has it that the outcome then involve the UK's membership of a customs union and participation in "most single-market regulations", but this is something Mrs May's government continues to insist will not happen.

There is also talk of enforceability and third party arbitration, but if the UK has not conceded the basic point of regulatory alignment, with provisions to ensure that this is maintained in the future, then the talks are not past first base.

And when we also get to hear that Dominic Raab has privately demanded the right to pull the UK out of any "backstop" agreement after three months, one can see how little progress has actually been made. This is from a report in the Telegraph which has the report in The Sunday Times that Mrs May had already concluded a "secret deal" being dismissed by negotiators from both sides on Sunday night. "If anything, things are now going backwards", says one source.

The Guardian tends to reinforce this, telling us that the chances of Theresa May striking a deal with Brussels that she can sell to the cabinet and parliament are said by EU officials to be 50-50. Competing red lines in key areas remain "incompatible", we are told.

As I can demonstrate from my Sunday blogpost though, you don't need Secret Squirrel sources to be able to detect that there are problems. The inherent inconsistencies in the Times report, and its speculative nature, were enough to be going on with.

And such is the nature of these negotiations that we can be reasonably confident that, when details have been agreed, they will be openly published. To that extent, all this Secret Squirrel stuff simply reinforces the strengthening impression that there is nothing bankable on the table.

Nevertheless, there is obviously something in the wind and things could change very quickly. The indefatigable Irish times is offering a late entry which asserts that a final deal is set to include a backstop that will apply to the entire UK, but will have additional measures for Northern Ireland to ensure there is no hard border.

The understanding of this paper is that there is a common view emerging in Dublin, London and Brussels, where the Northern Ireland "backstop" would effectively give way to one that would apply across the entirety of Britain for customs only. But it would also contain additional measures that would apply on the Irish Border, taking in some extra customs rules as well as rules to ensure the North's regulations remain in alignment with EU standards.

To a certain extent, this contradicts earlier reports, although this story is datelined Dublin rather than Brussels, coming from Fiach Kelly, the deputy political editor. He has a "government source" saying that the single backstop has as its main element a UK-wide customs union – to be extended with additional measures for Northern Ireland.

Perhaps hedging his bets, Kelly warns that sources in Dublin and Brussels are still cautious about the prospect of a European Council being convened later this month. However, he says, although there is "some scepticism" that a legally tight customs arrangement between the EU and the UK can be finalised in a short time, Dublin believes it is possible with "political will".

With that, we are enjoined to believe that the key stumbling block to a deal is now when the provisions of the backstop will end – which puts it back in Midair Bacon's court, and his demands for a three-month cut off. The situation is further confused by the Telegraph calling this a "guillotine" clause when surely it must mean a sunset clause.

Either way, not a lot of anything makes sense, and can't do unless the whole of the UK maintains regulatory alignment with the EU, with a commitment to continued alignment in the future. With the talk of customs unions only applying to the whole of the UK, that doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

The test, it seems, is whether Mr Raab makes it to Brussels this week. He is on standby to go, with Barnier ready to meet him – as long as there is a real prospect of a deal. Brussels, we are told, is saying it doesn't want a repeat of last months "botched" visit, when everyone was fired up and nothing happened.

But if that occurs later in the week, it will be after the cabinet meeting, so one presumes that Raab – if he goes – will be carrying with him the united assent of Mrs May's government, giving some weight to whatever deal is on offer. And with parliament on its hols, there is none of the inconvenience of having to deliver a statement to a hostile Commons.

That is perhaps just as well for, at the moment, we are getting anything but clarity – and more than a few contradictions. If we are any the wiser by the end of the week, it will be a major development but, until it's in the bag (if at all) confusion reigns.

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