Richard North, 10/11/2018  
 


I have it on very good authority from somebody who has met him several times, that Jo Johnson, erstwhile transport minister, is as stupid as his brother – stupid in the way that only intelligent men can be.

This is a man who, until yesterday, most of us didn't even know existed – much less that he was a minister. And now he has resigned in protest at Mrs May's handling of Brexit, declaring her approach to Brexit to be "a failure on a scale not seen since Suez".

His parting shot is to demand a referendum in which the people would be asked to confirm their decision to leave the EU. If they chose to do that, they would then be asked to give them the final say on whether we leave with the prime minister's deal or without it.

Apart from anything else, this is a complex, conditional question sequence which could not give a clear-cut result. It could thus not pass the "intelligibility" test so the Electoral Commission could never agree it, even if a referendum was possible – which it isn't.

One really does weary of this. For there to be a referendum, at the very least six months would be needed, although probably longer. David Cameron's Brexit referendum took just over a year to get to the ballot box.

With less then five months to go and a deal unlikely now to be agreed by December – if then – the EU would have to agree an extension to the Article 50 period. We cannot assume that would happen. And if there is no agreement, then we would end up having a referendum on whether to leave, after we had already left.

What I think would be particularly significant is this context is a another matter, which has hardly been discussed. That is the question of which groups would be selected to lead the official campaigns. And, with two questions (if allowed), there would be two campaigns.

You could, for instance, have people who wanted to remain in the EU but, if the majority wanted to leave, they would then vote for Mrs May's deal. You could have remainers who would vote against both but you could also have leavers with similar mixed motives – those who could be either for or against the deal.

As a result, there would have to be one campaign on whether to leave the EU, and another on whether to support the deal. Specifically, you could not expect those who wanted to leave necessarily to support the deal,

The official campaigns for the 2016 referendum have, of course, been disbanded. The "peoples' vote" group might be turned into a remainer campaign, but who would represent the leavers? Vote Leave has been disbanded and, in any case, is discredited. It could not take up the cudgels. "Leave means Leave" might qualify, but might not since it is largely a faction within the Conservative Party.

Without official campaign groups, though, could there be a free and fair referendum? Yet, how long would it take to get the groups up and running, and then for them to prepare their submissions?

All this though is entirely academic. If nothing else, Mrs May is known for her stubbornness. And her office's response to Jo Johnson's demands has been unequivocal. " Britain will not have a second referendum on its membership of the European Union under any circumstances", it says.

Nor can referendum supporters expect any succour from Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was interviewed yesterday by Der Spiegel, when he was asked: "If you could stop Brexit, would you?" The terse response was as unequivocal as you can get: "We can't stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted Leave".

Basically, the idea of another referendum is dead in the water. Even if it could happen, the two leaders of the major parties aren't going to lift a finger to make it happen. The "Peoples' Vote" people are wasting their time and money.

In fact, though, this isn't anything to do with the "people". Asked in a poll to choose between options, only nine percent of respondents went for a new vote on UK membership. When asked a straight question on whether they want another referendum once the Brexit negotiations are over, 43 percent said yes, 35 percent no and 22 percent didn't know. There is no clear margin to support action.

That, therefore, puts us back where we've always been – waiting for Mrs May to come up with a proposal which will be acceptable to the EU. And here we’re still marching up and down those hills to the tune of the Grand Old Duke of York.

On the way up the hill, we heard from Leo Varadkar who considered that a deal was possible "within weeks", even if it did not amount to a "clean break". Talks, he said, would have to continue. The less said about the detail the better. 

The main event, though, has been Mrs May caught out admitting in a leaked letter that there would have to be a "wet" border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something she had always said would be completely unacceptable. Predictably, this has precipitated a showdown as DUP leader Arlene Foster accuses the prime minister of breaking her promises.

She has made it clear that the DUP could not support a deal which annexes Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. "We will have a different regulatory regime from the rest of the United Kingdom and essentially there is going to be a border down the Irish sea and no unionist would be able to support that", she said.

That now puts any vote on the deal in parliament at risk, which means that even if the prime minister could get something past the EU, it may not survive a mauling in Westminster.

But getting it past the EU has just got harder as Ambassadors for the EU27, including France and Germany, have told the Commission that they want of look at the text of any deal reached with the UK, before it can be made public and a special European Council is called.

That is reckoned to add another week to the process, making it even less likely that the Heads of State and Governments can get together by 25 November, this being the last date considered practical for the extra Council.

If it was at all possible, the plot gets thicker, with telling us that cabinet ministers have drawn up a secret no deal "Plan B" for adoption if Westminster votes down the May deal – if we ever get that far. Sky News also has the story (which The Sun claims as an "exclusive"), which amounts to the UK buying a two-year transition period off the EU for the princely sum of £18 billion.

This, however, has not been put to Brussels, and since there is no proposal to make up the rest of the dosh which was expected, there seems little prospect of it going ahead. One wonders whether the authors of this scheme have ever heard M. Barnier say that there could be no transition period without a withdrawal agreement, which in turn requires agreement on the backstop.

And even there, the dark clouds are gathering over No.10 as it is reported that the EU-27 are to reject Mrs May's idea for independent arbitration, to enable the "non-permanent" backstop to be ended non-unilaterally.

We are thus left with the same old, same old impasse with no one really knowing what on earth is going on, and nobody ably to tell whether a super-king-size rabbit is suddenly going to be extracted from a hat. If I was Mrs May, I'd definitely be planning to leave the country under an assumed name.

But then, perhaps that's what we're supposed to think. A far too candid senior EU source suggests that "divergent and possibly contradictory narratives" about a deal are probably deliberate. "If the British want to deceive their public about what it means, that's up to them", he says. "Maybe that's what it takes".

The things people will do to get ahead. Maybe it's a good idea to keep a few spare in case of emergencies.






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