Richard North, 02/03/2019  
 


With precious little hard news and, as I observed yesterday, much speculation on the back of anonymous sources, the noise level is as high as it has ever been. The inevitable corollary is that the intelligence content in media reports is about as low as it can get.

Essentially, you can pick any narrative you prefer, and there will be a legacy media source to support it. And, when reports conflict, it stands to reason that they cannot all be right. Some have to be wrong and it is even possible that most of them are – although it has to be said that the volume of reports is way down from a week or so ago.

Something with a ring of truth though, carried by the Guardian and duplicated by others, is the report from Michel Barnier that there has been "no progress" in the talks between EU and UK officials.

However, given that Barnier and others have been consistently stating that negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened, this hardly comes as a surprise. Summing up the state of play, one anonymous EU diplomat laments that, "The UK side keeps on insisting on the same two things and we keep on explaining why it won't happen".

Nevertheless, attorney general Geoffrey Cox, accompanied by Stephen Barclay – who could remain anonymous even with his name tattooed on his forehead - are expected back in Brussels on Tuesday for another round of non-talks. This makes one of the main games in town a process of guessing whether the parties can cobble together a form of words impressive enough to convey the idea that there have been concessions, without actually committing to anything legally binding.

The temperature of this can be expected to rise in the coming week, as speculation on MPs' intentions mount in anticipation of the Brexit vote scheduled for a week on Tuesday. Yet, with the number of factions vying for attention in the Westminster village, and the fragmentation of sentiment, one suspects that the outcome of the next vote will not be known until the tellers parade in front of the speaker.

That leaves the other media sport, keeping the witless hacks amused and the Brexit space/time quotas filled – apart from denouncing transport secretary Grayling and his £33 million payment to Eurotunnel. That sport, of course, is "guess the extension" – where ranks of anonymous "EU diplomats" and others are lined up to offer views on the length of time that will be sought, with two and 21 months competing for pole position.

There is also emerging an entertaining sub-plot, as Die Welt reports that legal experts in the Bundestag have issued a "confidential" opinion that an Article 50 extension past 1 July, without the UK participating in the European Parliament elections, would deny British citizens "a core set of rights", arising from their status as EU citizens.

They would be denied the "right to exercise the right to vote and stand in elections to the European Parliament in their state of residence". And, as a result of such an omission, the European Commission could initiate infringement proceedings against Great Britain.

This confidential report further states: "It is also conceivable that British citizens of the Union, before a national court, may sue to exercise their right to vote and stand for election". On this, though, I don't know whether we can even bear the irony of the likes of Nigel Farage suing the British government to allow him a chance to stand once more as an MEP – in between running his pub crawl from Sunderland to London.

The hang-up on the European Parliament isn't actually that new. We've been aware of the problem for some time, but it becomes particularly acute if the "colleagues" opt for a 21-month extension, or if a further extension is sought after an initial period that ran to the end of June.

The ultimate test may come if the matter is referred to the ECJ, which may be asked to rule whether it is lawful (under EU rules) for the UK to continue its membership of the Union without committing to the elections.

To avoid complications, it may be the case that, if an extension is sought, it will only run for the short-term and there will be no attempt at renewal. And, without anything substantive to offer Westminster MPs, any further ratification vote might fail, whence all we will have achieved will be to shift the no-deal cliff edge from 29 March to 30 June – or even to the end of May.

From the perspective of the Channel states, that could make a great deal of sense, allowing customs and border inspection services to get themselves better organised, while also allowing UK-based firms more time to shift their operations to the continent.

A short-term extension, with no prospect of a renewal, would rather shoot the fox of those MPs who are relying on an Article 50 extension as their antidote to a no-deal. There are those, such as Tobias Ellwood, who are having to confront an idea that goes past the original plan of "either or", to both. Instead of having an extension instead of a no-deal, they end up having an extension and a no-deal – in some ways, the worst of all possible worlds for the UK.

It must have dawned on all but the meanest of intellects though – which nevertheless puts it beyond the reach of many MPs – that, after the expiry of a short-term extension without an affirmative vote to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, Mrs May will have completely run out of options. And MPs can then vote through all the motions they like – a no-deal Brexit will follow as night follows day, no matter how many times we are told that a no-deal has "melted away".

The finality of this as an outcome, though, may be concentrating minds, with even the DUP reported as being prepared to soften its stance.

This all depends on their willingness to accept the make-believe of a "codicil" to the Withdrawal Agreement, otherwise known as a "joint interpretative instrument", allowing them to save face and pretend that something substantive has been achieved. One can expect speculation on this to form the core of the legacy media effort of the next week, as the hacks attempt to calculate the effects of shifting sentiments within the Westminster tribes.

Driving this could be a realisation that leaving on time, on 29 March, with a deal, is in fact the least-worst of all the options available – and better than risking an extension and betting the farm on there being a new deal which MPs will accept. The bird in the hand is beginning to look distinctly better than the two in the bush.

That much is further reinforced by the continual speculation about the fate of Mrs May. Some "senior" Tory backbenchers are said to be willing to back the prime minister's deal if she is prepared to set out a timetable for her departure, allowing a successor to take over the trade deal negotiations.

There might even be some sense in this approach as it will be the success or otherwise of the trade talks which will decide whether the backstop kicks in. But that said, there are no indications that any of the Westminster tribes are close to crafting a workable trading relationship with the EU and, if they believe that an agreement can be concluded within the 21-month transitional period, they are vastly under-estimating the difficulties that face us.

This then has Mrs May's former aide, Nick Timothy offering his view that the problem with the prime minister's approach to Brexit has been that she has treated it as a damage limitation exercise, rather than taking advantage of the economic opportunities of leaving.

He also accuses remain-supporting MPs of viewing "leave" voters as "racist, stupid or too old to have a stake in the future", adding that the current political deadlock risked "opening up space for a populist right wing party". This, he says, "is one of the dangers of where we are right now".

That rather adds another layer to the policy matrix, where the response to Brexit becomes one of taming populism rather than developing a new economic paradigm in the Brussels-free space afforded by leaving the EU.

Once again, we're back to the same old failing that we've addressed so many times – the absence of a plan for a post-Brexit UK. With none of the Westminster tribes capable of stepping up to the plate, "damage limitation" is about all we can expect, with the emphasis on damage, and not a lot of limitation.

With less than four weeks to go – supposing that we do not come away with an extension – there seems hardly enough time to achieve anything else, and even that would be a significant improvement on the disaster of a no-deal that would otherwise await us all.






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