Richard North, 19/11/2018  

You can tell by their tone of voice and the body language that BBC presenters are loving Brexit just now. With the negotiations effectively over (except for the last hurrah as Mrs May goes to Brussels), they can dispense with any pretence of following the detail and devote their energies to lapping up the Westminster soap opera.

With the (largely) London-based media doing the same thing, this drags coverage down to a new level of tedium as we have to suffer in equal measure the ignorance and self-importance of sundry politicians and their hangers-on.

Most of those whom we saw during the negotiation phase had little enough to say worth listening to, but now the babble is more or less devoted entirely to politics, there input is of even less interest. I actually found myself switching off a BBC report on Brexit, mid-flow. I could no longer stand the prattle.

As Nick Cohen observes, "political correspondents, who couldn't find a big picture in a multiplex, buzz around Westminster hyperventilating about the number of letters sent to the 1922 Committee, and the replacement of minister X with junior minister Y, as if it mattered in the slightest".

Much of the trouble with the Brexit debate is that it is virtually impossible to kill a bad idea. They just keep getting repeated over and over again, ad nauseum, to the point where one no longer bothers with rebuttals. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference: their authors are in "broadcast only mode", impervious to outside influences.

Of course, some (even most) politicians are permanently in this mode, with their fingers pressed so firmly on transmit button that no-one else's output can be heard. They prefer it that way as it removes the need to answer criticism or hear their (mostly) stupid ideas torn to shreds.

No more so is this event than in yesterday's contribution from the Labour Party, through the persona of Kier Starmer, determine to exploit the mess left by Mrs May to their own electoral advantage. Very high up in the stupidity stakes is the assertion that, in the event that Mr's May's deal was voted down, the party would make sure parliament offered a legislative route to make "no deal" impossible.

Thus says Starmer, "If the prime minister’s deal is rejected – and that's looking increasingly likely – parliament will not just sit back and allow her to proceed with no deal", thus showing all the signs of failing to understand that "no deal" is the default value that kicks in automatically if the UK fails to reach an agreement with the EU.

But Starmer goes on to say: "There are plenty of Conservative MPs who have come up to me to say that they will not countenance the UK crashing out of the EU without an agreement. There is a clear majority in parliament against no deal, and Labour will work across the Commons to prevent no deal".

This was said to the Observer newspaper and one cannot wholly (or at all) absolve it or the journalists – Toby Helm and Michael Savage – from responsibility for this stupidity. I have had many interviews with journalists who have questioned what I've said to them and it has always been understood they would not usually publish material which was not credible, and demonstrably so.

For there to be a story here, the journalists interviewing Starmer should have reminded him of Article 50 and told him that exit was automatic in the event of failure to reach a deal. If Starmer had then persisted in asserting that he was planning to block a "no deal" departure, the story should have been that the shadow Brexit secretary, after all this time, still doesn't know how Article 50 works.

The problem here is that the journalists are just as wrapped up in their own little "transmit only" bubbles, with a separate feed only to a minuscule group of sources, to which they constantly refer – to the exclusion of all else. This is why it is pointless following journalists on Twitter – the bulk of their posts is often recycled output from other hacks, often accompanied by adoring puffs.

Another recurring feature is the way business (or, at least, corporate business) has mishandled Brexit. Quick of the mark to push "project fear" during the run-up to the referendum, big firms were largely forced into silence during the actual campaign for fear of adverse consumer reaction.

In the aftermath of the referendum, however – when they could legitimately have expressed their preferences for certain outcomes – they remained silent, even when timely and accurate information on the impact of a "no deal" could possible have done some good.

Only latterly did a few businesses emerge, but in small numbers – not enough to escape accusations that they were continuing with the "project fear" meme.

But now, only days after Mrs May's "un-deal" which has the majority of the nation rising up in opposition, business has been quick off the mark to endorse it. Currently launching into the fray is the CBI with its president John Allen at its conference today warning that, while "not perfect", it "opens a route to a long-term trade arrangement".

As one also gets news of the UK running out of food warehouse space, as firms seek to stockpile against the possibility of a "no deal" Brexit, one can sympathise with the concerns of business, even if one has to remark that they score "nil points" for political acumen.

The warehouse situation though, is interesting. Retailers and manufacturers have apparently been rushing to stockpile everything from garden peas to half-cooked supermarket bread and cold-store potatoes, with space fully booked for the next six months. Customers are now being turned away.

But what is especially significant is the comment of Malcolm Johnstone, owner of Associated Cold Stores & Transport (ACST). He says he "started getting inquiries two to three months ago, but they reached fever pitch in the last 48 hours", after the chaos in Westminster last week. "There has been a sea change since Wednesday".

This is absolutely typical in my experience of industry response. The likelihood of a "no deal" has been building steadily over the last six months or so. At any time in that period, I would have thought the situation justified businesses hedging their bets. I've personally invested scarce funds in a three-month stockpile of food and essentials, having started well over a year ago.

Businesses, though, so often leave it to the last minute and then they wonder why they are caught out. It was the same with new legislation; when I worked for a trade association, one would often warn operations to prepare in good time, only for them to do nothing and then complain bitterly when they were caught out.

It strikes me that we live in a politically immature society where even high-level decision-makers act with naivety when it comes to political matters. And when companies do invest in political intelligence, so often they opt for hiring "prestige" figures rather than supporting the sort of well-founded research that trade bodies should be doing but rarely accomplish successfully.

In that context, one is reminded of the low-grade offering from the Institute of Directors last February where they suggested a "hybrid option" with a partial customs union similar in scope to the arrangement between Turkey and the EU.

One, of course, only has to point out that the Turkish border is hardly a model of frictionless trade for this suggestion to be shown up for what it is – another example of the failure of industry to step up to the plate. But, insofar as there is the common feature of a partial customs union, one might say that the draft withdrawal agreement is closest to the Turkish option than any other, the one that had been ruled out by virtually every knowledgeable analyst.

Customs duties and like matters could, of course, have been dealt with by political declaration, with the UK committing to apply the EU's schedules of tariffs to our trade with the rest of the world – which is what is going to happen anyway.

A no-tariff deal as part of the withdrawal agreement would then have been perfectly acceptable. There was never any need, or justification for, a customs union – still less the non-regression clauses that go with it.

But then to have come up with s sensible exit plan for the UK would have required a level of knowledge alien to our decision-makers and an openness of debate which we rarely, if ever, encounter.

Today, The Times gives space to Deborah Meaden, entrepreneur and investor. She argues that the draft withdrawal agreement is not the solution to this Brexit crisis but an exacerbation of it.

But she also expresses surprise at the CBI's stance. At its conference today, where Mrs May has been invited to speak, none of the 100-plus bosses of British businesses who are opposed to this deal and have called for a People’s Vote have been invited to speak.

No matter whether you are "leave", "remain" or just very bored by it all, says Meaden, that defies both business and common sense. As decision-makers and investors we need to know all the information and all the options at this crucial time, she adds.

There she's put her finger on it. Politically, the UK is an information desert. We get all the sound and fury of political debate – and the shifting sands of opinion - but no actual substance. And we are now paying the price.

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