Richard North, 25/03/2019  

We've seen this so many times before, with the Sunday papers getting over-excited about a story which, in a matter of hours, turns out to lack substance – a cycle of highly speculative claims followed by denial which is entirely unproductive and an unnecessary distraction.

Thus, yesterday, even while The Sunday Times and others were racking up the tension about a palace coup, others had "senior ministers" dismissing the reports, with chancellor Philip Hammond dismissing the talk of a change as "self-indulgent".

That phrasing is highly appropriate. Chasing after phantoms rather than focusing on real issues is indeed self-indulgent, something to which our politico-media complex is all too prone. This sort of displacement activity replaces real work and the boring analysis of complex detail that might actually improve our understanding and help deliver results.

But, if this sort of cop-out activity is what we've been plagued with since long before Brexit, the demands of forging a coherent EU exit strategy have clearly exceeded the abilities of our politicians and journalists. Displacement activity has thus become their preferred option and first resort. They are good for little else.

Sadly, the politicians and journalists are not alone. A huge segment of the population has also chosen to opt out of any serious debate on the post-Brexit future of the UK, preferring instead endlessly to churn over the conduct of the referendum campaign, and to agitate for another in the hope of reversing the decision – thereby saving them the effort of coming up with any positive ideas of their own.

The net effect of all this misplaced activity, therefore, has been to waste time – even more time. We went through the referendum campaign without a serious debate on what the UK should look like after Brexit, and the bulk of the nation has been avoiding it ever since.

Around the fringes, we have Stephen Kinnock and his merry little band calling itself the Common Market 2.0 Group which at least is trying to bring forward "a Brexit deal everyone can support".

Even if they are failing dismally, with a pastiche which has no realistic chance of being implemented, they have got as far as understanding that the Efta/EEA option restores an element of control over freedom of movement, through the mechanism of Article 112 of the EEA Agreement.

As Efta members have unconditional access to regional and global standards-making bodies, they can also take some control over rule-making (more so than individual EU Member States) and, by ensuring regulatory alignment on conformity with the regulatory ecosystem, the EEA Agreement would remove the need for the Irish backstop.

But then, up pops the oaf Johnson, writing for the Telegraph, to tell us that this Norway/EEA/customs union proposal "would be catastrophic". Says Johnson: "We would not take back control of immigration policy; we would be rule-takers; there would be no free trade deals; and – here is the kicker – we would still have the Irish backstop".

Whatever the flaws of the Common Market 2.0 plan, three of these four are not among them. Only the limit on the free trade deals would bite. But here we have Johnson who sees fit to critique the plan without the first idea of its merits and failures, having clearly not taken any time to read it.

And therein lies our problem – amongst the various actors, there is the dialogue of the deaf. Each have their own little mantras, which they trot out to suit, and none of them listens to anyone else. so we have Lucy Powell, one of Kinnock's group, who firmly believes that CM 2.0 "can also happen quickly". We could, she avers, "be in Efta by the summer".

There is simply no way of dealing with this. Whatever else, the full package that would be required to make the Efta/EEA option work, and give us the "frictionless" trade that we would need, would require many years of negotiation. It is simplistic beyond measure to argue that CM 2.0 could be a quick fix. Even if it could actually work, we would be lucky to see it in action before 2022.  

Yet, we now have CM 2.0 representing the Norway Option in the "indicative votes" that may be coming. As a result, we have the one workable plan, that could have provided a solution, butchered by a gang of ignorant, ego-centric MPs, displacing the workable scheme and substituting their own messy, unworkable compromise.

As for the oaf, his idea of a plan is to extend the "implementation period to the end of 2021 if necessary" and use it to negotiate a free trade deal. He would have us "pay the fee; but come out of the EU now – without the backstop". This, to all intents and purposes, is the "Malthouse compromise", something unequivocally rejected by the EU with even less chance of being implemented than the CM 2.0 plan.

Picking up from my assertions on the Moral Maze, my premise was that you can only go so far with ignorance when confronted with MPs who put forward completely unrealistic proposals. When they do so again and again, unable to learn from experience, one must conclude that one is no longer dealing with ignorance but outright stupidity. And in those stupidity stakes, Johnson is as thick as the proverbial two short planks.

But when one has Peter Bone, who wants "managed no dealer" to be included in the list of options offered by MPs as an alternative to Mrs May's deal, there is not a single one that would pass muster. In nearly three years, between them, MPs have been unable to craft a workable exit plan. This is institutional stupidity at an extreme level.

As for Mrs May, it is a matter of record that her initial thinking was tainted by her need to close down freedom of movement, containing immigration from the rest of the 30 EEA members. Even then, as Booker points out in what will be his penultimate column, the perception of the need was flawed.

Earlier this month, amid all the gathering murk and chaos over Brexit, he writes, there emerged one odd little shaft of illumination so significant that it deserved much more attention than it got. This was an Ipsos/Mori poll (oddly enough, commissioned by the BBC), which charted the astonishing reversal in recent years of British attitudes to immigration.

Back in January 2011, a huge majority of voters, 64 percent, thought immigration had had a "negative impact" on British life, with only 19 percent viewing it positively. Ever since then, the two figures have steadily changed places, to the point where the "positives" now stand at 48 percent and the "negatives" at only 26 percent.

Confounding Mrs May, the two lines actually converged just after the 2016 referendum, although no faction had been more vociferous during the campaign than those most opposed to immigration. But even during the campaign, one poll asking which issue ranked highest in deciding people's voting intention put the economy on top after it was chosen by around twice as many people as immigration.

Obviously, there have been various reasons for this dramatic change in attitudes but, undoubtedly, one has been the growing awareness of all the ways in which immigration from the EU has been beneficial to our national life.

Immigration provides doctors, nurses and other staff to the NHS, allows care homes and the catering trade to function, supplies plumbers, construction workers and skilled pickers for our fruit farms, tens of thousands working in financial services and the City, and much else. Many of these people have already been leaving, just as we come to realise that they may never be replaced.

Booker refers to one of the findings of Neil MacGregor's fascinating recent BBC series As Others See Us, based on interviews with people from five countries across the world. It shows how they all agreed that cosmopolitan London had become the most welcoming and enjoyable city for them to visit in the world, and how much they would regret it if this ceased to be the case.

The greatest irony of all this, of course, is that the largest component in our immigrant population comes not from the EU but from the rest of the world, under rules that have nothing to do with the EU at all.

We have already seen how, since the referendum, immigration from the EU has declined while that from non-EU countries has continued to rise. Brexit will not help us to reduce this in any way. So much for "taking back control of our borders". We will have lost many of the people who have made this country great.

From the point of view of where we currently stand, arguably EU immigration is not the issue it once was – or ever was – which means that relatively modest enhancements to controls, facilitated by the EEA Agreement, might be sufficient to get us a long-term settlement. Those "red lines" aren't in any way as formidable as they once appeared.

Thus, we do have a means to solve the Brexit problem, and could craft a solution which could satisfy our needs. It seems therefore, that Brexit isn't the problem. It's the close-on 650 stupid people who are unable to do the job for which they are paid.

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