Richard North, 16/11/2018  

The day the draft withdrawal agreement was published, I posted on Twitter what I thought was a sardonic message. The media, I wrote, have spent all day talking about the Brexit agreement without having any of the details. Just because the agreement has been published, that shouldn't make any difference. They might as well continue as they have before ... they've never needed details before. 

I need not have bothered. A mere twenty-four hours on from the publication, the media have abandoned even their perfunctory attempts to inform their customer base of the intricacies of the agreement.

And, if I was like the 79 percent who rely wholly or mainly on the television for my news, the chances of being exposed to any detail would have been very slight indeed. Two main BBC bulletins down, and the kindest one could say of the coverage on the details was that it was superficial.

Furthermore, it is quite clear that we are going to get no candour from the prime minister about the deal who, in trotting out her familiar mantras is now openly lying.

That much was evident from her statement following the cabinet meeting. There was nothing new in it, as she told us the deal: "brings back control of our money, laws and borders; ends free movement; protects jobs, security and our union".

Crucially, as we see non-regression clauses in the agreement, we are locked into maintaining major tranches of Union law, with no discretion afforded to the UK government. And nor is this at all academic. If we go back to pre-referendum times, one of the really big deals was the cost of EU regulation, with the much-touted Open Europe survey which claimed a £33.3 billion annual cost of the 100 "most burdensome" EU regulation.

Prominent in the top five was the EU climate and energy package, with a recurring cost of £3.4 billion a year, with the clear "promise" that leaving the EU would enable us to save those on those costs. Yet, as I pointed out yesterday, we are totally locked into the EU's climate change agenda, including implementing the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change, latterly reinforced by the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Strangely enough, one of the best clinical analyses of the "backstop" in the withdrawal agreement is in the much-reviled Telegraph and even this does not mention the non-regression requirements.

It is these, as much as anything, which makes a liar of the prime minister. Yet they get one sentence in the analysis offered by the Guardian, and the Independent gives us a mere partial sentence, informing us that the agreement "effectively keeps the UK tied to swathes of EU regulations through 'non-regression' and 'level playing field' clauses…". Otherwise, they are largely invisible in the media.

But there is no point looking to our MPs for clarity. They had their turn yesterday with the prime minister's statement to the House which turned into a three-hour marathon running to 52,000 words in the current edition of Hansard.

Here, in all that torrent of words, there is but one reference to "non-regression", made by the prime minister and limited to a throw-away remark on the question of workers' rights.

Mrs May, predictably, plays down the importance of the backstop, describing it as an "insurance policy" which is never intended to be used. "We want to ensure", she says, "that the future relationship is in place before the backstop is necessary".

This is targeted for December 2020, with the provision for a single extension to the transition period, to allow for delays in the negotiations. Yet this relies on the slender thread of a seven-page document setting out the outline of the political declaration.

All we have on offer hers are: "Comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition", yet it is this which is to provide the "alternative arrangements" to ensure "the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing".

In her address to the Commons, Mrs May elaborated on this, telling MPs that we were "looking to ensure that we have the frictionless trade across borders that will enable us to not only deliver on our commitment for Northern Ireland, but ensure that we have frictionless trade between the United Kingdom and the whole of the rest of the European Union".

One really does not have to be an expert in this context to know by now that the provision merely of a free trade agreement, even if it combines "deep regulatory and customs cooperation", does not secure " frictionless trade across borders". Not by any stretch of the imagination could this ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The prime minister, therefore, is attempting to sell us a false prospective, one that can only rebound on us when any arrangements have to be approved by the Joint Committee, in which the EU has a veto.

This, at least, was challenged, albeit weakly, by Frank Field in yesterday's debate, when he asked Mrs May to "guarantee to the House that at the end of March we will continue to have frictionless supply chains". This is what he got by way of a response:
We have also based the concept of the free trade area on the need for that frictionless trade in goods, to ensure that the people whose jobs depend on those supply chains do not see those jobs go, and that not only are we able to retain those jobs, but, with the other trade agreements that we are able to bring forward once we are outside the European Union, we can enhance the economy and create more jobs in this country.
Worryingly, Frank Field's challenge was not repeated, or expanded upon by other MPs, leaving Mrs May's claims hanging, the equivalent of arguing that black equals white.

In the following exchanges, however, there was some appreciation that this withdrawal agreement – and the backstop – does not fulfil the commitment to "taking back control" but this has not really carried over into today's media. There, in all its glory, is the soap opera of ministerial resignations, leadership challenges, rebellions and elections.

Notably, though, in what was styled as a "defiant press conference" in Downing Street yesterday, Mrs May had subtly changed her message to the public.

The deal, she then claimed, delivered on the vote of the British people by "ending free movement … ensuring we are not sending vast annual sums to the EU any longer [and] ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice". It also protected jobs and people's livelihoods, our security, and the union of the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, there was no mention of taking back control of our borders, nor of our law. And not by any measure has Mrs May set in train a process where we regain control over the regulatory agenda.

Therein, one can assert, lies the greatest flaw in the entire draft agreement. Had we adopted the Efta/EEA option, we would have limited the scope of the regulation which would have applied, and would have had some influence over new measure – with a right of veto.

But Mrs May has been amongst those to have rejected this option, precisely because we had to accept [some] EU laws, while she also wrongly asserted that we would have no say in the making of new laws. But in exchange, she wants us to accept an arrangement which is inestimably worse, taking in a wide range of EU law from an entirely subordinate position, with no easy exit clause.

For all that, though, the dangers of a "no deal" have been understood by some newspapers, so we have The Times arguing that MPs should "back Mrs May or gamble on a second referendum".

That is about as incoherent as Mrs May's draft withdrawal agreement, with neither option taking us closer to leaving the EU. The only real option in place now which unequivocally respects the verdict of the 2016 referendum is the "no deal".

That it should have come to that is a tragedy, and more so when we have a media so obsessed with the theatre of it all that it can't be bothered to explain the issues.

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