Richard North, 13/11/2018  

There is a chance, of course, that we're being played. The negotiators from both sides, when they meet in Brussels, could be sitting at their screens playing video games. The final press release is already printed with just the date to add.

But there again, we could be looking at the biggest mess since we left the cat in the living room for 48 hours and forget to let it out. At least the product of that little disaster could be spread on the garden (not that there's been any shortage lately), which is more than can be said for what is actually being delivered by the combined efforts of Teams EU and UK.

Apparently, they were still talking at 2.45 on Sunday morning, packing up fifteen minutes before I posted on the blog. These part-timers do so feel they're hard done-by.

But so it came to pass that, at the General Affairs Council, Michel Barnier explained that "intense negotiating efforts continue", but "an agreement has not been reached yet". To no one's surprise, key issues remain under discussion, "in particular a solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland".

According to The Times, although no deal has been agreed, we do have the "architecture of a deal. It is clear to both sides what the political trade-offs are that will have to be made for an agreement to be reached.

Others are more blunt about what went on, asserting that the Brussels talks actually broke down after Olly Robbins told his opposite number that he could not "go back to the cabinet" with what the Commission was proposing.

So that's what it comes to. The two sides know what they need to agree, but do not yet know whether they can – but most likely they can't. And if that really is the case, we're up the proverbial creek and so far away from a paddle that even if we were holding an illustrated book on the history of paddles, we'd still be wondering what they were.

Nevertheless, it seems that there could be some movement. If The Times is to be believed, Mrs May is intending today to brief her cabinet on the state of play with the idea of "unlocking" a deal by Wednesday. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

For all that, confusion abounds as the same newspaper has Michel Barnier angering Downing Street by claiming that today's meeting of the cabinet would be shown the parameters of an agreement.

What we should make of this is anybody's guess. But the Independent more or less confirms that there are problems. Yesterday lunchtime, it was reporting that Downing Street had dismissed any idea that a Brexit deal was close, saying any suggestion of an imminent agreement should be taken with "a bucket of salt".

As the story was updated, the same paper told us that "hopes are fading" for the November Council as Downing Street admitted "substantial issues" are still to be overcome between London and Brussels – as indicated by the General Affairs Council.

I guess the timelines are important here because the story has been developing with such speed that things could have changed, leaving The Times on the money. Or it could be that the Independent has got the real story and Mrs May has an empty slot in her diary for Wednesday.

There again, its updated story, The Times also had the "bucket of salt" quote, so it would appear that we really don't have a deal in the offing. At least, with that, we're back in familiar territory.

That is a territory all too familiar to the Guardian. It is telling us that Britain has all but given up on a special "Brexit summit" at the end of November. There remain, it says, too many sticking points to complete the talks in the time "originally hoped for".

This paper also confirms what is already evident from multiple sources, that there has been "no breakthrough at the moment". And that inevitably means that today's scheduled cabinet meeting could not possibly have been the substantive discussion allowing ministers to sign off the UK's Brexit negotiating position. The best that can happen is that the cabinet will note developments and discuss no-deal planning.

Just supposing, against all the odds, a Brexit deal could be signed off by the EU at the European Council on 13-14 December, that in any case would leave little time to squeeze in a parliamentary vote to ratify the agreement before Christmas.

This brings the Guardian into the fray with an editorial declaring that that Mrs May is looking for a deal "so vacuous that it will be meaningless". It is significant, the paper then remarks, that three out of four living former prime ministers – Mr Brown, Tony Blair and John Major – alight on a national plebiscite to solve the Brexit conundrum.

Since the Tories have spent months saying no deal is better than a bad deal, it goes on to say, the British public might, given the chance, take them at their word. If MPs were to refuse to support a Brexit plan, or to ask for more time to get a better deal or to vote for a general election, there would be chaos.

Under those "foreseeable circumstances", the Guardian thus declares, it would be foolish to rule out another referendum. And there we have another recruit to the referendum cause, even though there is no acknowledgement that more time would be needed for that purpose alone.

This is an interesting development where the only way out of the impasse is seen as a surrender to the forces of populism that supposedly got us into the mess in the first place – a referendum to catch a referendum, so to speak.

However, this may be all too late. Several sources, such as the this and this, have it that Dominic Raab, at the head of a group of "senior cabinet ministers" is ready to tell Mrs May that the current deal on offer from the EU is unacceptable. They want her to prepare the UK to leave with "no deal", unless she can secure further concessions.

This cabal apparently has the backing of former foreign secretary William Hague, arguing that the prime minister and her cabinet must start "fully preparing the country to leave without a deal".

Faced with serious cabinet opposition, and little chance of getting the current deal past the Westminster Parliament – and even less chance of getting any concessions out of Brussels - this may leave the prime minister with no option but to give way to the pressure.

In many respects, Mrs May is already halfway there, telling her audience at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in the City that she would not push for an agreement "at any cost". And at this stage, it would be very easy to engineer a "no deal" scenario by default.

All that has to happen is that Mrs May does exactly what she is doing at the moment – stalling. A succession of missed deadlines and inconclusive talks can bring her inexorably to the 29 March, when we drop out of the EU automatically.

The advantage for Mrs May is that the default option bypasses parliament and, to an extent, marginalises the cabinet. The automaticity means that no one has to decide anything. We just leave – something the "ultras" have always wanted.

The irony of all this is that, despite the number players in the field, all pushing their own agendas, no one is actually in control. Once Mrs May pressed the button to start the Article 50 countdown, having already closed down her options, it was almost pre-ordained that we were going to end up with a "no deal" Brexit.

What is so utterly bizarre about all this though is the idea that we can "full prepare" for this eventuality. Leaving without a deal essentially hands the initiative to Brussels and the Member States, with limited potential for reducing what will inevitably be major damage to the economy.

It is only because the government has played down the consequences of a "no deal" and the media has not joined all the dots, that this can even be contemplated. But far from an outside chance, it now has to be said that "no deal" looks to be the most likely outcome of the negotiations.

If then the government spends the next four months of so preparing, there is a possibility that we could end up with a "crypto deal", as a series of bridging deals – on issues such as aviation – are pencilled in for implementation shortly after we leave.

But, in all this uncertainty, there is one near-certainty: we are likely to see massive business flight as every operation that can jump ship looks for safer quarters on the continent. Responding to the oaf's "fuck business" remark earlier this year, somebody might even invest in some skywriting (pictured) to send a message, as they depart these shores.

Unfortunately, they may well be too late.

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