Richard North, 24/02/2019  

With thirty-four days to go before we are scheduled to leave the European Union, it is difficult to know how we should be reacting to the prospect of an event which could presage a disaster – or not.

One possible response might be for the media to be putting together a comprehensive assessment of how the nation might be affected by a no-deal which looks more likely by the day.

Maybe they are keeping their powder dry – they'll certainly have plenty of time later and it would be difficult to keep up the momentum for over five weeks. There is only so much one can write, for so long.

For the moment, the media seem to have given up on Brexit as they focus on the domestic political agenda. This is a sort of comfort food for journalists who are otherwise totally out of their depth, leaving us assailed with tedious accounts of cabinet splits, backlashes and rows.

Where attention is being given to Brexit, the main topic seems to be whether an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period will be sought, this being the preferred method of stopping a no-deal Brexit. But missing from this aspect of the soap opera is the recognition that any extension must be approved unanimously by the EU-27.

Nevertheless, there are also the contrarians who reject the idea of taking a no-deal "off the table", one of these being John Penrose, minister of state for Northern Ireland.

He has been given space in The Sunday Telegraph to hold forth on the matter, arguing that to remove the no-deal option wouldn't just massively weaken the prime minister’s negotiating position. It could, says Penrose, torpedo Brexit completely, leaving us in a "Hotel California" Brexit, where we'd checked out but could never leave.

One is never quite sure with Tory politicians as to whether they are quite as stupid as they sound or are trying on some devious ploy, the nature of which is clear only to them.

But, in Mr Penrose's fertile imagination, he seems to believe that if we say we will never, ever leave without a deal, the EU would know, for certain, that they can stop Brexit in its tracks simply by refusing to agree a deal with us. Alternatively, he says, "if they're feeling subtle, by offering a bad deal they know parliament will turn down".

Either way, he concludes, they'd know we'd blink. Faced with those options, we couldn't take either of them. We would have no choice. We'd have to go cap in hand and beg the EU to delay the day we leave.

This text is taken more-or-less verbatim from Mr Penrose's authored piece in the ST, so it's an accurate reflection of what he writes. But, if he actually believes it, then he has a few problems.

Firstly, it is actually the case that the EU has agreed a deal with Mrs May, one which is now awaiting ratification by the Westminster parliament. Secondly, there is no further deal on offer – good or bad. And thirdly, if the deal is not ratified or if the EU-27 do not agree to a time extension, no-deal becomes the automatic default. Short of revoking the Article 50 notification – which Mrs May assures us she will not do – there is no other way of taking a no-deal off the table.

This, therefore, is an example of the fuzzy thinking that is going on inside the Westminster bubble which seems to have retreated so far from reality that it is no longer touching base with anything which approximates the real world. And, while we can still expect some fun and games in the House of Commons later in the week, there is nothing there which indicates that MPs fully understand what the word "default" means.

Nor, with the amount of hyperventilation over the prospect of parliament "taking control" of the legislative timetable, does there seem to be any recognition that the two measures that can influence the Brexit date – extension or revocation – both lie in the gift of the prime minister, subject to crown prerogative.

Thus, MPs can continue to behave like sulky teenagers, or wind themselves up into an almighty strop and start instructing Mrs May to take certain actions. But in the final analysis, the MPs will discover that their much-vaunted "sovereignty" does not reach outside their building. As the Queen's first minister in what is a constitutional monarchy, the prime minister can sit on her hands and do exactly nothing. And the outcome of that is that we drop out of the European Union on 29 March without a deal.

I doubt whether that was what Michel Barnier had in mind when he said earlier this week that he was more concerned than ever that the UK could crash out with a no-deal "by accident", but his instincts are probably right. A no-deal now looks to be the most likely outcome, and there is nobody on record offering any new fixes which would draw us back from the edge of the precipice.

And that, more than anything, is the most worrying of developments. If we were a nation on the brink of war, we would expect our politicians and diplomats to be rushing around in some modern-day version of shuttle democracy, doing everything humanly possible to avoid an outbreak of hostilities.

On a similar basis, one would expect all the relevant actors to be making every effort possible to ward off a no-deal Brexit, with the media following every development and reporting on every move.

With Mrs May headed to the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, however, there is no sense of urgency and not the slightest intimation that any new initiatives are afoot. It has already been made very clear that the event is a summit with Arab leaders, so there is absolutely no prospect of a Brexit breakthrough.

That leaves the prime minister with a few more air miles, but with absolutely nothing to offer parliament that could possibly break the deadlock. And, by Thursday, there will only be 30 days left to Brexit.

Whether that will focus any more minds remains to be seen, but it is probably too late for the media to get its act together. Oddly enough, this week, even Booker has given up on Brexit, preferring instead to address the issue of "fake news", in the wake of the select committee report.

Although he is not allowed to make disparaging remarks about the print media, for the Telegraph, there is always an open house on attacks on the BBC, which allows Booker to take on board some of the more egregious lapses of the state broadcaster.

This very much puts the BBC in the frame as a major producer of fake news, but – as always – the Telegraph should be walking away with the prize, but for its own self-enforced immunity.

Its latest offering is a letter that has a small company owner claiming to ship products "to and from countries all over the world under World Trade Organisation protocols", whence he experiences "no problems".

As long as we are in the EU, however, trade with all but a couple of countries is conducted under the cover of agreements brokered by the EU and, since we are part of the EU's customs area, nothing is admitted to this country without coming under EU-mandated customs control.

Such a letter, therefore, should never have been published. All it does is represent part of the continued efforts by the Telegraph Media Group to distort the political agenda and mislead its readers.

That leaves the reading public subject to the same diet of misinformation that they've had to tolerate since well before the referendum, while bogged down in a quagmire of uncertainty which leaves us still guessing as to the outcome of Brexit as the clock ticks down to zero.

Still, perhaps the latest news from the Sunday Times will prove to be the game changer. It is telling us that Whitehall fears there will be "piles of bodies at ports" after no-deal Brexit, as any disruption to the free flow of goods, aircraft and ships would have a knock-on effect on the ability to repatriate the bodies of non-UK nationals who die in Britain.

If the worst comes to the worst, one can imagine us hearing a call not heard in England since the black death, as carts tour the streets with the drivers calling, "Bring out your dead". When the slaughter of the first-born follows, we might even consider a referendum on whether to go for the plague of locusts.

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