Richard North, 13/01/2019  

Booker is in reflective mood in his column this week, writing under the headline: "If the Brexit negotiations are a game of chess, Theresa May is dangerously close to checkmate".

Two years ago, after Theresa May's fateful decision that she wanted us not just to leave the EU but to shut ourselves off from "frictionless" access to the export market which provides one pound in every eight we earn as a nation, he tells us that he wrote that we seemed to be embarking on a game of snakes and ladders.

But in this game we were determined to avoid every ladder that might help us to climb the board towards the desired goal, and to seek out every snake which would slide us back down again to square one.

Another sporting analogy since used by others has been that which chess players call zugzwang. This is where a player reaches a position where any subsequent move will be disastrous for him. Such is the position we have boxed ourselves into today, where MPs are this week faced with a choice between the devil and the raging sea.

On one hand our MPs can vote for a deal imposed on us by the EU, which would leave us much worse off than we are now. On the other, we can drop out of the EU with "no deal" for what Mrs May only coyly calls "uncharted territory" although she must now realise this would be a far greater disaster than her own "bad deal".

The real problem, of course, says Booker, is that our politicians have got themselves into such a hopelessly ill-informed muddle that there is no longer a Commons majority in support of any next move we might make. The various vociferous factions all know what they are against, but they cannot agree on any positive move that might dig us out of the gaping hole they have all unwittingly conspired to get us into.

We still hear one lunatic fringe claiming that, if we leave without a deal, we can somehow just rely on those fabled "WTO rules". This is an option that simply doesn't exist, Booker says, because the WTO merely provides principles, which can only take force when used to shape a formal trade agreement.

And while we have to put up with the endless propaganda from this source, another bunch clamours ever more loudly for a second referendum, which would take months to set up and plunge the country into an even more toxic state of chaos than it is in already.

For the best part of two years, and with increasing intensity, these groups have been tearing themselves apart over one little bubble of make-believe after another, to the point where we now seem to be sliding by default towards the worst possible option of all: an economic, social and political catastrophe far greater than most people have yet begun to imagine, as we shall only discover when it hits us.

In Booker's view – one with which I am in complete agreement - the fault for this lies squarely with our entire political class. Locked away with the media in their Westminster bubble, they never began to understand the reality of what we were up against, and how much of this mess could sensibly have been avoided.

One cannot think of any time in history, he concludes, when the standing of British politicians, either with the public at large or in the eyes of the outside world, has ever – quite deservedly – been lower.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be getting through to them in any material way. The bubble which they inhabit may allow them brief glimpses of the loathing which we have for them, but their bubble insulates them so effectively that they are barely, if at all, influenced by it. They carry on regardless, apparently heedless of the damage they are doing.

This points up the role of this blog, doing what has to be done in what passes for a free society – recording the events that the media fail to note and providing an alternative narrative for those who are interested. Most of all though, it provides a record of what passes, one that is outside the grip of the bubble, which neither media nor politicians can control. Their influence stops at the gate.

In my view, it is just as well someone is doing it, as we seem to be entering new realms of fantasy. Today's Sunday Times, for instance, has an over-excited headline declaring "a very British coup", outlining what it reports to be a "Commons plot" to seize control of the Brexit "negotiations" and sideline Mrs May.

This, apparently, relies on an assertion, that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March "unless there is a new act of parliament overturning existing legislation", whence Nick Boles and others are seeking to make it "illegal" to leave the EU without a deal.

This, on the face of it, is gibberish. A no-deal Brexit is the default outcome, in the event of the withdrawal agreement not being ratified. This is mandated by EU law to which UK law is subordinate. Parliament can no more make a no-deal scenario "illegal" than Canute could have held back the tide back in the day.

As to taking over control of the negotiations, there are none. They have ended and both the Commission and European Council have made it abundantly clear that there is no possibility of their being re-opened.

According to the ST story, though, Downing Street believes that the "coup" would enable MPs to suspend Article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned — a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Yet, this is just as much gibberish. There is no provision, as such, for putting the Article "on hold". For sure, the UK government (but not parliament) could seek a time extension, but this requires the unanimous assent of the EU-27. And as for overturning the referendum result, again this is for the government, in revoking the Article 50 notification.

The story, as written, is not internally consistent, nor consistent with reality, any more than is the Sunday Telegraph story which has the Tory Party on the brink of an "historic split", occasioned by the government offering incentives to Labour to get its backing for the withdrawal agreement.

Needless to say, this obsession with domestic politics neglects the core issue: unless parliament votes for the withdrawal agreement, the default outcome is a no-deal Brexit. The government doesn't have to do anything – it does not have to declare it as a policy objective. It will happen automatically.

The turmoil in parliament, however, does point to Mrs May losing control, but there is no guessing as to whether rival Tory MPs will drive us to a general election. But even if that is the eventual outcome of Tuesday's vote, it could still leave Mrs May in charge and, should the Tories be returned, we are back where we started.

What people should be focusing on, therefore, is the dominant choice which is still the only serious offer on the table: the withdrawal agreement or a no-deal. It is not possible to give any guarantees that the necessary outcome of a vote against Mrs May won't be a no-deal scenario.

Here, the lack of preparedness is an issue – not here but in France. Earlier in the week, we saw transmission of comments from Jean-Marc Puissesseau declaring that Calais would be "ready" for Brexit on 29 March, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

To add to this, we also have a committee report from the French Senate published on 21 December. It has Pierre-Henri Dumont, a deputy of the 7th district of the Pas-de-Calais - which includes the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais – who unequivocally states that the customs infrastructure will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit on 30 March 2019.

There is also an important intervention by president of the committee, Jean-Louis Bourlanges. He addresses the question of whether the import controls will have to be applied at the border or whether they may be exercised further from the border in order to avoid bottlenecks.

According to rapporteur Alexandre Holroyd, the French government (as of the end of December) was waiting for the Commission's answer on whether the controls can be several kilometres from the border, connected to the ports by "maritime corridors". And at that point, Bourlanges refers to the "unacceptability" of proposals published in the summer, when a remote customs area was mooted.

In this context, we can refer to yet another French Parliament Committee, this one on 16 October 2018. It took evidence from Jacques Gounon, President and CEO of GetLink SE (Eurotunnel), who complained that there was no symmetry between France and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom, Gounon said, planned to carry out physical checks up to twenty-five kilometres inland. France, on the other hand - due to Community rules – could not exercise controls on goods outside the entry points. They had to be stationed in the "secure corridors" of the ports and tunnel terminal areas.

From this, it appears that the Tunnel operator is well aware of the constraints of EU law, far more so than Jean-Marc Puissesseau. As it stands for Calais, therefore, not only is the infrastructure not going to be ready, the French government has not even got the clearance from Brussels as to where import controls might be exercised.

Inescapably, this means that chaos is going to be the result of a no-deal, yet nothing of this has found its way into the UK media. It is thus not only the standing of British politicians which has never been lower, as Booker avers. It is also the media, which is constantly demonstrating its inability to report coherently on Brexit – something that Booker is not allowed to say, bearing in mind his own newspaper is one of the worst offenders.

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