Richard North, 10/03/2019  

Janet Daly has seen the light and is now writing that Mrs May's deal is our only way out of the EU. Brexiteers have to take it, she says.

Better late than never one might say, although it would not be unfair to ask what took her so long. We came to that conclusion a while ago, having decided it was the least worst of a bunch of very bad options.

Whether the MP collective has the sense to come to the same conclusion is any one's guess, although some may be influenced by Daly. There are still MPs who take their lead from what they read in the newspapers, although it's possible that they mostly take their daily propaganda sheets because they reinforce existing prejudices.

Most likely, though, it is too late. In any case only a small fraction of the collective will even read Daly, not enough to make the difference. Doubtless, the die is already cast although the outcome is unknown to us all.

There was a time that we thought that on this blog we could make the difference, but now even once great newspapers seem to have little influence. One is not even sure these days what it takes to be heard. The noise level is so high and the voices so many that none of the old rules apply. And even if they did, no one is listening.

I'm not even sure that the much-vaunted Facebook ads are really having any effect public opinion. Are people so gullible that they are being manipulated by something as shallow and obvious as "no deal" messages?

The point is that things have changed, and not for the better. There are those who would sneer at my complaints about a lack of influence – and there are some people who are very good at sneering.

But there was a time when we felt that we all had influence. Imperfect though the system was, there never was a time when I felt that we could not make our views known when it really mattered. And many a theme raised in Booker's column got further mileage in Westminster and Whitehall.

Blair brought some changes but, oddly enough, even on Gordon Brown's watch, it was possible to communicate with government and get things changed. The divide came with Cameron, when the system started shutting down and things began to get nasty. And from there it went downhill as the political classes went into transmit mode only.

It wasn't just – or even - Brexit. The system was in decay before we got there. But the referendum lifted the lid, and the stench started to leak out. When people started to notice, the deafness had already set in. The system had lost the ability to listen.

The big problem was that, if government was ever going to solve the unique and complex set of challenges presented by Brexit, government at all levels needed to listen. It didn't and it isn't listening now. It has closed in on itself and lost the plot. And now the situation is probably irrecoverable.

For us lowly mortals, though, only if we ever give up trying to make ourselves heard is the game is over. Governments come and governments go. And as long as there is hope that change is possible, it is worth continuing to agitate. That's what we do because, if that hope is ever lost, we inherit darkness.

In this context, we need to remind ourselves that if we do leave the EU as scheduled on 29 March, it will be only the first step in a very long process. And with government having made a meal of what is essentially the easiest step, that doesn't augur well for what comes next.

This first step, after all, was just the mechanics of leaving. There are some, including (unsurprisingly) some well-known journalists, who think this is our exit plan. But it isn't. It just deals with formal processes of leaving and the related administrative issues. The hard bit comes when we have to define and then agree the ongoing relations across a wide spectrum of activities.

Even then trade is but one small part of the whole, although the way the EU is structured, it impinges on a wide range of other activities ranging from workers' rights to climate change policy. These will all have to be addressed.

If we exit with a no-deal, these issues will have to be addressed sooner rather than later. Obviously, co-existing on the same continent with rich and powerful neighbours, without formal trading relations, is not sustainable. Whether piecemeal or in a coordinated fashion, we will have to go back to the negotiating tables, just to sort out the basic nuts and bolts of how we work together.

Here, we are being told by the Telegraph that the public is "swinging behind no deal Brexit", while Mrs May is being urged to use the £39 billion "divorce bill" as leverage to secure a "safety net" of an "implementation" period of up to 33 months following a 29 March exit, allowing time for further preparations.

One can only assume that the reason why people are relaxed about a no-deal exit is because they have very little real understanding of what a no-deal involves. And when you see the level of ignorance pervading amongst journalists and politicians, this is unsurprising. The very parts of the establishment which exist to inform the public have lamentably failed in their duty, so we can hardly expect much else.

As to the idea of using the financial settlement as a way of brokering the transition period that would have come with the Withdrawal Agreement (with extensions), this is little short of insanity. It is a graphic illustration of the madness that has stricken the politico-media nexus that it is not seen for what it is.

Again and again and again, the European Union, through its many representatives, have made it crystal clear that there can be no Withdrawal Agreement without a backstop, and then no transitional period without a Withdrawal Agreement.

A no-deal Brexit, therefore, ensures that there will be no transitional period. Apart from the short-term unilateral contingency measures implemented by the Commission and Member States, we immediately assume the status of a third country with all that that entails. As regards cash payments, the most likely scenario is that the UK will not even get to sit at the same table as the EU unless the negotiators come bearing an eleven-figure cheque.

Once the money has been paid up-front, I can then imagine our people will be spending the next couple of years fire-fighting, to end up with a disjointed bundle of ad hoc agreements which give us a nightmarish relationship and a disaster for those trying to trade with the continent. The idea of a "managed" no deal is simply political flatulence, produced by people who would struggle to compete in the IQ stakes with amoeba.

For the short term, then, we are going to get a mess. There is no escape. But, at some point there will be a need for a longer-term solution, where even a comprehensive free trade agreement will not get close to satisfying our needs. But to get any further, we will need a degree of thinking and imagination that has so far not been apparent amongst the political classes and their fellow travellers.

Furthermore, while a referendum on the withdrawal deal was never a realistic proposition, simply because no provision had been made for it in the original Lisbon Treaty, there is unlikely to be any circumstances where a government can sign off any form of long-term agreement with the EU unless it has first put it to a public vote.

Thus, for the future, if the government is going to make any progress, it will have to build its listening into policy making. Mere ritual consultation will not be enough if it expects the public to rally behind its policies. With the referendum genie well and truly out of the bottle, it is not going to go back willingly.

One way or another, therefore, will need to reconcile ourselves to a mess in the short-term. It need not have been a mess, but that is all our government is capable of delivering. In the longer-term, there are no indications that government performance will be any better. So it cannot be argued that involving the public in the policy-making process can deliver any worse results. They can't get any worse.

That then, is the next move – to make clear that the referendum is an established part of the UK political process. And it is not just for the ritual of voting that we want to see this happen. If governments are forced to put their final policies to a public vote, they will have to involve us right from the very beginning if they are to stand any chance of getting them approved.

The first test will be the approval of the long-term UK-EU relationship, a treaty that must be put to the people for approval by way of a referendum. And if that is on the table, then government will have to switch off its megaphone and start listening again.

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