Richard North, 08/11/2018  

Of late, as I sit down to write the post for my morning readers, I wonder to myself whether it is even possible to write another post on Brexit, or whether tonight is the night when I leave a blank space, having given up the struggle to make sense of what is going on.

The trick, I find, is to write the same way you build a Bailey Bridge. You start with a "launching nose" attached to the bridge, which is run across to the other side to stop the whole assembly dropping onto the gap. Only when the bridge is firmly anchored on both sides is the "nose" removed and traffic allowed to pass.

Thus, just to get going, I can find myself writing any old thing in the knowledge that, once the piece is complete I can chop off the beginning – my "nose" – and post the completed piece in the hope that the rest is relatively coherent.

However, when one confronts the wreckage of Mrs May's Brexit strategy – if that's what it is – I am gripped by the overpowering urge to close down the computer and walk away, returning only after 29 March out of a sense of curiosity, to see what actually happened.

To explain why this urge should suddenly be so overpowering, one must reach into the box of well-worn clichés – so heavily used to the point where they must now be completely worn out. With this aid, one has to remark of yesterday's events that you simply couldn't make it up. Bizarre has become the new normal.

As we left it with yesterday's overnight post, Mrs May was preparing her normal weekly cabinet meeting, but one about which there had been much speculation on whether she was about to "bounce" her colleagues with a new plan.

This, as it turned out, was pure speculation (as was pretty obvious at the time) but, as the story developed through yesterday, the idea emerged that the race was on to get a final agreement with the EU at a special European Council which had been pencilled in for 17 November.

To that effect, the narrative had it that Mrs May had to clear her proposals with the cabinet by the end of the week, this being the last possible moment before it had to be submitted to M. Barnier's team so that a recommendation (via the General Affairs Council) could go to the Council for its deliberations.

Thus, with nothing settled at yesterday's cabinet, we were warned to expect an "emergency" meeting on either the Thursday (today) or Friday – or Monday at the very latest - at which a proposal would be "signed off" in preparation for its urgent dispatch to Brussels.

So it came to pass that it was being reported by yesterday afternoon that e-mails had been sent to all cabinet members with copies of a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement. This news came from "Whitehall" sources, and the drama was set in place.

However, only shortly afterwards we were appraised of "No.10 sources" which told us that the new draft did not include any details on the Irish backstop. This, apparently, had not yet been agreed – although by whom it was not said. For all that, the e-mail to Cabinet ministers had not made this clear, but it was enough to put back the "emergency" meeting to next week.

Then, coming in from left field was another little sub-plot: a "row" had developed over the disclosure of legal advice given to the government over the backstop, on the basis that, if legal advice was referred to in cabinet papers, the full text should be attached.

This seems to centre on the view of Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general. He had been telling fellow ministers that a UK insistence on unilateral termination of the backstop would put the whole deal at risk, as the EU would most likely reject it – something the Irish in particular have been keen to emphasise.

With this unresolved, the chances of a November Council were fading like an autumn mist, leading Leo Varadkar to observe that, with every day that passes, "the possibility of having a special summit in November becomes less likely".

The Irish prime minister nevertheless reminded us that there was a Council scheduled for 13-14 December, which meant a deal could be settled in the first two weeks of the month. "But I think beyond that you're into the New Year, which I think wouldn't be a good thing", Varadkar added – in what must qualify for "statement of the bleedin' obvious" of the week.

Enter now the famous anonymous "EU sources" in Brussels. The Guardian has it that they are "deeply sceptical" of the notion that negotiations are on the brink of a breakthrough. Putting the situation in perspective, one senior official said it would be a mistake to "underestimate the incompatibility of the views" of the two negotiating teams.

And there it is – round and round we go, with each day bringing us no further forward after acres of text and hourly alarums. At least the popular media has the US mid-term elections to entertain their journos, but for Brexit watchers, the cupboard is bare.

Although I have no view on the coverage of US events by the UK media, one can only hope (without any great expectations) that it is more coherent than the stuff we are getting on Brexit.

The current "take" of The Times, for instance, has Brexiteers fearing a "single market by the backdoor", with ministers "increasingly concerned" that Mrs May is about to announce that Britain will be forced to stick with EU rules on state aid, workers' rights and the environment.

According to the paper, Whitehall sources are saying that this was the price the EU was understood to be seeking "to allow a customs agreement as part of the Northern Ireland backstop".

The words to focus on here are "customs agreement" as we then learn that cabinet ministers are pushing Mrs May to clarify the position. Some EU countries, we are told, are demanding the changes because they want to maintain a "level playing field" with the UK after Brexit to ensure that Britain cannot benefit from a customs union without the obligations the rest of the 27 must follow.

Now, with a "customs union" added to the narrative, we get input from transport secretary Chris Grayling. He is understood to have told Mrs May he was concerned that this "would mean a single market through the backdoor".

Thus, in a mere three paragraphs of a media report, we have "customs agreement", "customs union" and "single market", all being used more or less interchangeably, with neither definitions nor distinctions made between the terms.

The Guardian is no better, with a self-important editorial. Here, the paper dribbles about the "sticking point", which it rightly observes "has not changed for months", defined as "how to ensure a frictionless Irish border when the UK wants to leave the single market and the customs union". The solution, the paper then says - as was long ago apparent – "is to stay in a customs union after all".

So, it seems, in the Guardian's considered view, the answer to securing frictionless trade across the Irish border is "to stay in a customs union". And by such means is the whole sweep of history ignored. The EU's customs union opened up all the border and there was no reason to create a Single Market. The customs union did it all.

With this level of comprehension, poisoning the entire political food chain, it is hardly surprising that there is an "incompatibility of the views" between the UK and EU negotiators. Even if they were all speaking the same language, the words would have different meanings. The divide must be unbridgeable – even with a "launching nose".

In that sense, it will take far more than a Bailey Bridge, or any other sort of bridge, to bring the two sides together – they are barely on the same planet. We need to go back and write a common dictionary, where all the words have meanings and they mean the same things to the different players in this drama.

Only then can there be meaningful negotiations and media reports that make any sense. At the moment, we are still getting noise – which gets louder by the day. It soon must be time to don the ear defenders and retreat to the bunker. Meanwhile, the Commission is stepping up preparations for a "no deal" Brexit.

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