Richard North, 12/11/2018  
 


While we are seeing an orgy of introspection amongst (some) remainers, obsessed with their second referendum and the unfairness of life, the universe and everything, the tragi-comedy of the Brexit soap opera continues apace.

As we left it yesterday, Mrs May had been told that EU Ambassadors had refused to accept her Schrödinger's backstop. EU negotiators, we learn, want the ECJ to have an automatic role in ruling on whether Britain could dump this mystical beast, something that bumps right up against the UK's red lines.

One report has EU officials and diplomats fearing that divisions within Mrs May's cabinet and wider splits in her party mean that she is unable to give her chief negotiator, Olly Robbins, a clear mandate allowing him to seal a deal over the next 48 hours.

But, if the Independent is to be believed, the situation is far worse than that. Confronted with the prospect of having absolutely nothing to offer, she has cancelled a cabinet meeting planned for today, simply because there is no longer a deal for her colleagues to approve – not that they would approve it even if there was a deal, which there isn't.

Actually, the Monday meeting was originally set for last Thursday – or even Wednesday. Then it became Friday and then it became today. And now it isn't any day soon, if ever.

Effectively, this means that the already slender chances of securing a November agreement with the EU have all but vanished. Although there is still the possibility of something happening at the routine Tuesday cabinet, the problems haven't gone away. Another day, or even another month, isn't enough to magic up an alternative.

Furthermore, the failure of the cabinet to deliver means that HMG will miss out on the General Affairs Council meeting today, when Michel Barnier will be updating the EU-27 foreign ministers on the state of play on the Brexit talks.

Missing this slot could prove to be the last straw which ensures there will be no November meeting. It would have been at the General Affairs Council that Barnier would have made his recommendations which would then have been conveyed to the European Council.

What this says that, after all this time – nearly 900 days from the referendum – we're basically no further forward. One could say that we're back where we started, except that, on reflection, Mrs May's plan never really got off the ground. The uncomprehending stupidity of her Lancaster House speech saw to that.

On the face of it, that leaves only one destination – a nice shiny "no deal" awaits us for 29 March, the "accidental Brexit" that we've long feared, arising simply because the players didn't know what else to do, or how to deliver it.

Even if the December Council then agrees to look at Brexit, that isn't going to be much help. After all this time, Mrs May hasn't been able to stitch up anything that will keep her own side and the EU negotiators happy. It seems hardly possible that another month is going to make the difference.

One assumes, though, that something has to break – if only because it must. But at this stage, looking down the tunnel into the unremitting darkness, there is not even that slight relief of a light in the distance that may or may not be a train coming in the other direction. The cupboard marked "deals" is bare – and so is the tunnel.

Still, though, the rhetoric spills out. One of those ever-helpful anonymous sources "close to the government" acknowledges the delay but says: "The fact is that we have got to get something that's right. We are not going to accept an outline deal at all costs and we are still working on it".

Optimistic that might sound to some, but it feels closer to a death knell. Mrs May has run out of options. If she can get anything past Brussels, she won't keep her own people on-side. The only chance is a miracle in the near future, where the ERG suddenly go all soft and cuddly, roll over and let Mrs May tickle their tummies.

And with that extremely unlikely to happen, as Brussels is giving her nothing she can use as leverage. Confirming this is yet another anonymous source. This one is a "senior UK government aide", who says he is "increasingly pessimistic" about the chances of the deal given the demands from Brussels in recent days. "They are pushing and pushing on everything", he says.

That would seem to suggest that, far from relaxing its grip, to give Mrs May a break, the EU is making no concessions. Whether this is last-minute game playing, or something more sinister, is difficult to tell. But with the talks going to the wire, they are leaving it perilously close if they do intend to broker a deal.

In fact – according to the Financial Times - Brussels is ramping up the pressure, demanding that that the UK concedes tough environmental targets and EU oversight of state aid rules as part of the "backstop". It's almost as if they can smell the blood in the water.

Add to that demands from Brussels on EU access to UK fishing waters – very much a dog-whistle issue for the "Ultras" – and it is almost as if the EU is deliberately trying to engineer a breakdown in Westminster.

Already, there are more threats of resignations from pro-EU ministers, in the wake of Jo Johnson, while Andrea Leadsom, Commons Leader, is flatly stating that Parliament would reject any attempt to give the EU control over the backstop. And since that is already a deal-breaker, there would appear to be no possible way of making progress.

Anywhere we look, therefore, there is negativity. It doesn't matter which source you look at, there is no comfort to be had, while the oaf writes that the government seems to be on the verge of total surrender and is calling for a "cabinet mutiny".

Needless to say, he is spewing out his usual gibberish, arguing that "we get rid of the backstop; we agree with the EU, the Irish and the commission that there is no need for a hard border in Ireland; and we get on with a SuperCanada free trade deal".

It is difficult to believe that anybody could be quite so stupid, ignoring the fact that the EU's central requirement is for a "backstop", without which nothing else can be agreed. One wonders how many times the EU has to say it before it finally sinks in to the "Ultra" tendency.

However, that has not stopped Nick boles disinterring his failed "Norway for Now " proposal, relying on the prestige of "leading lawyers" to come up with something just as inane as the original.

Still wrongly calling Art 112 an "emergency brake" – thereby illustrating his lack of grasp of the subject - he also fails once again to understand that the EEA Agreement is an adaptive framework and, to make it work will require a comprehensive skein of amendments to the EEA Agreement.

Instead, he seems to think that retaining existing EU arrangements (despite being outside the EU) can bridge the gap between leaving the EU and setting up a "new set of agreements" with the EU, inside his "Canada" option. In other words, he now wants to be in the EEA but not ruled by the EEA.

At least Mr Boles is not challenging the general presumption that the very last thing you can rely on from Conservative Party MPs is intellectual coherence. His "Norway for Now" idea has even less chance of being adopted than Mrs May's own rejected "backstop" proposals.

More prominent though is the talk of mutiny, and with that in the air, one has a mental picture of Mrs May at the point of a cutlass, walking the plank, ready to take the dive into shark-infested waters.

This is much more than just a bad day at the office. But, if the alternative is following the path set by Johnson (or Boles for that matter), one can almost imagine her doing it willingly.






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