Richard North, 20/05/2019  

On a strictly personal level, I don't think it could be possible for the current Brexit agenda to be more tedious. We have a totally irrelevant election on Thursday, topped by Mrs May's "new" initiative. This, it turns out to no one's surprise, is simply more of the same.

When the next few weeks are over, and we've got through the frenetic excitement of the election, and Mrs May has once again lost her vote in parliament, we'll be back where we started. But, in a sense, that might even be a relief as we'll know where we stand once again – up the creek without a paddle, where we've been for months.

Unfortunately, it'll be a totally different creek. We're about to be enmeshed in a Tory leadership campaign which will create a gigantic distraction, taking us still further away from addressing the core issues that have to be resolved before we can secure an orderly Brexit.

Farage's pathetic agenda will melt away without trace within days of the election. His no-deal WTO fantasy isn't going anywhere and there is no depth to his party, so we fully expect the newly-elected MEP group to disintegrate in a welter of bickering and recriminations in a repeat of previous "successes".

It is all very well avoiding a detailed programme so that there is nothing over which members can argue, but there is a downside. Without a unifying doctrine to which the members can subscribe, there is nothing to bind the group. There will be no cohesion and no loyalty. Individual ambitions and jealousies will assert themselves and, within weeks, the group will have splintered.

On the other hand, dogs bark and the caravan moves on. The media will have the Tory leadership campaign to entertain and distract it. Journalists will tire of Farage when they have the candidates making their individual pitches, giving them plenty of material to fill time and space with excited reportage and speculation.

Tactical voting will dominate the early period, but the leading players will also be crafting their own personal manifestos, with their Brexit strategies featuring prominently. But since they are appealing to an electorate which has only a limited grasp of reality, we cannot expect anything sensible to emerge by way of a workable Brexit plan.

Amongst other mad ideas, we can expect to see one or more candidates advocating a return to Brussels to renegotiate the deal, more of the "alternative arrangements" for the Irish border, and endless chirping about the benefits of signing up free trade deals.

Without the rhetoric being rooted in reality, and without it having to be checked with the "colleagues" for acceptability, there is nothing to stop individual candidates spiralling off into their own private fantasies. And there will be little in the way of worthwhile media comment that brings them back to earth.

As a result, until such time as we see a new leader in post, we have to suffer a suspension of grown-up politics, while the children play their facile games. And then, if the Tory conference is to be the anchor, that suspension will last until the early days of October before the winner's proposals can be tested in the crucible of Brussels.

Like as not, we will then be back in the cycle of crisis meetings as the players try to resolve something before the looming deadline shuts down the talks. As before, we will be entirely dependent on the good will (or otherwise) of the European Council, as to whether those talks are allowed to continue.

There is also the talk of a general election to contend with, but I don't see an election being called before the summer break. And since you can't have an election through the summer holiday period, we are looking at an autumn contest, at the very earliest.

Then, it doesn't seem likely (or even practical) that we have a general election campaign running at the same time the current Article 50 period is set to expire, so we are left with two plausible possibilities.

The first is that a new leader negotiates with Brussels for another extension on the basis that a general election will be called, or that leader allows a default, no-deal exit on 31 October, followed by an election – which received wisdom will have it that the Tories will most certainly lose.

At no time during this period, though, do we expect to see any serious discussion about workable Brexit solutions. And nor, with the wide range of scenarios confronting us, is it worthwhile expending the energy on devising schemes to fuel the discussion. More to the point, there is no market for sensible discussion until the election fantasies have worked their way through the system.

What can be worked out on this side of the Channel can also be divined by analysts in Brussels and the other capitals of Europe, and it may well be that Member State leaders take a hand in the process, having a decisive effect which may make the choice of the new Tory leader an irrelevance.

The crucial point here is that the new Commission president will not take up his post until 1 November, giving the European Council more influence over the events in the immediate run-up to 31 October, when the UK is set to drop out of the EU. And it could well be that Member State leaders call the shots, giving a higher than normal probability of them refusing any extension that the UK might request.

Any careful, knowledgeable analysis, therefore, must have regard to this possibility, which should also be feeding back into the Tory leadership campaign. Individual candidates might have their own ideas of how they would like the UK's exit to be handled, but they need also to have realistic plans for handling a precipitate, no-deal exit.

In other words, the test of suitability for the leadership should rest as much on the ideas offered for dealing with what will most certainly be a major crisis, and a severe test of any political leader.

Should we find ourselves outside the EU on 31 October, probably the very last thing we want to be dealing with is a general election. We will need all hands to the pumps, with an active and fully engaged prime minister at the helm, with ministers on top of their briefs and deploying the full resources of their departments. This cannot happen if they are in the midst of an election campaign.

Equally, should we find ourselves with another extension, the "colleagues" are really not going to be that impressed if the extra time is devoted to running a general election. They will be looking to a new leader to come up with proposals for resolving the Brexit impasse.

Taking account of these issues, perhaps the very last thing that should be on the agenda is talk of a general election. A new Tory leader might be expected to do something which seems to have been absent for a long time – exhibit leadership. But then, since none of the facts on the ground will have changed and we're still dealing with a dysfunctional parliament, that might be expecting the impossible.

That much might also be evident to the "colleagues", possibly strengthening their resolve to cut the knot and cast us adrift on 31 October. Even then, the irony of the EU taking back control should not escape us.

Bluntly, the more one looks at this scenario, the more likely it seems. And given the complexities of a no-deal exit, it is not unreasonable to assert that preparations should already be in high gear. To be able to cope with possible outcomes, government needs almost to be on a wartime footing. There should be no question of a summer break, for either the civil service, government or parliament. All the institutions should be working flat out, to reduce the chaos and potential harm.

And this is really why Brexit has become so tedious. It is not just that we are dealing with fantasy politics, but that there are all sorts of serious issues that are not being addressed.

Struggling for ideas of an equivalent situation, one could imagine the level of frustration that might affect someone at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, being asked to report on car parking policies in a provincial town. We are frittering away our energies on trivia, while serious issues are barely given a second thought.

At the moment, the only news we should be considering is that which addresses measures to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified in parliament – thence to bring us a transition period and the opening of trade negotiations – or preparations for a no deal exit.

Instead, we are indulging in a tsunami of trivia at the expense of serious politics, dwelling on the irrelevant with an agenda devoid of serious content.

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