Richard North, 10/06/2019  

There is one thing you can guarantee about our wonderful British media. Whatever subject it addresses, it will always go for the lowest common denominator.

And so, when the "turd-giver" comes up with an insane scheme for re-opening Brexit negotiations with the EU, the media ignores the detail and picks up on the headline-grabber, his threat to withhold the so-called "divorce bill" – when they can drag themselves away from speculating about who took what drugs.

The fact that Johnson's overall plan is insane, one which would bring our relations with the EU to the point of collapse, goes without comment. This is a catastrophe in the making yet it is so far under the media horizon that you'd have to dig down to Australia to find it.

It's quite helpful, therefore, to have the Financial Times publish a piece headed, "The Tories badly need an honest debate on Brexit", adding that party members "should press leadership candidates on their strategy".

Actually, it's not just (or even) party members who should be pressing the candidates – the media should be playing its role. In fact, if the party members are to make any progress, they need the media using its resources to expose the different agendas.

Oddly enough, the FT piece opens by saying that "the definition of insanity, Einstein reputedly said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result". I was thinking of using the same (reputed) quote but thought it too much of a cliché. Nevertheless, the point is made.

Says the FT, as the Conservative party leadership contest kicks off this week, several leading candidates' Brexit strategy boils down to a more robust version of the failed approach that cut short Theresa May's unhappy premiership. Thus, it says, the 120,000 Tory party members who will choose the next prime minister should beware of falling for phoney promises. They risk propelling not just their party but the country towards an even deeper crisis.

The Brexit approach of hardliners such as Johnson, Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom, the paper notes, recalls the fabled Briton abroad who believes if only he shouts loudly enough, the foreigners will eventually understand.

Through sheer force of personality - or simply not being Mrs May - and putting the no-deal Brexit threat firmly "on the table", we are told, they will be able to renegotiate the outgoing prime minister's flawed withdrawal deal. Should that prove impossible, they will walk Britain off the plank on 31 October.

But we don't need the FT to tell us that neither outcome is achievable. We know full well that there is no time to renegotiate, even if there was a willingness to restart the process. At best, the new prime minister will arrive in Downing Street only in late July. And that will coincide neatly with MPs and Eurocrats hitting the beach.

Then, after the holidays, we have the party conference season in the UK, which lasts into early October. In Brussels, the European Commission will be in its final weeks before changing leadership.

But this is all theoretical. As we all know – and the FT reminds us - the EU-27 has repeatedly declined to reopen the withdrawal agreement and its Irish backstop. Yet Tories consistently underestimate Brussels' determination to ensure Brexit does not reimpose a hard border in Ireland.

There is no reason any new prime minister would be granted concessions that Mrs May could not extract from the system. It is said that EU leaders are readying a tough statement making this clear at a summit this month.

This, of course, will ensure that any of the mad plans from the likes of Johnson - or Raab, for that matter – will be stillborn. For all their blathering and inane posturing, they are wasting their time and our time. They are leading us up a path from which there is no return.

On top of this, we have the House of Commons which, if it has made up its mind on anything, it is that it doesn't want a no-deal Brexit. Again in remind-mode, the FT tells us that speaker John Bercow is insisting no prime minister will be permitted to force through such a departure against parliament's will.

Some believe that an attempt to take us out without a deal would trigger a grave constitutional crisis. That may or may not be the case, but the MP collective has been notoriously slow to understand that no-deal is the default setting. Without positive intervention from the new prime minister, this will happen anyway, regardless of what parliament wants.

But we have seen Dominic Raab talk of suspending or proroguing parliament so that it cannot intervene if he, as prime minister, wants to play the no-deal card. However, even the likes of Bercow need to realise that, even within this woolly constitution of ours, there are limits to the power of parliament. There is still the residual power of Crown prerogative and its roll-out in this instance cannot be ignored.

In the view of the FT, though, a conflict with parliament would force a new prime minister to call an election. Either that, one assumes, or a vote of confidence will achieve the same thing. Either way, a forced election is the last thing the Tories need. It is also the very last thing the nation needs, especially if the outcome is Corbyn taking over.

None of that gets us any further with Brexit. Rather than go for the no-deal scenario, the new prime minister could try for another extension, although we know that some EU leaders might be reluctant to allow this. We hear suggestions that delay would only be allowed if a general election or a referendum was planned.

There is also the possibility that a new prime minister could put Mrs May's red lines back in the pot and seek to renegotiate the political declaration, brokering a few cosmetic changes to the backstop to go with it.

With Johnson in place, though, this seems hardly plausible. On the face of it, the man is committed to taking us out on 31 October. But since his insane plan cannot possibly work, and won't get past the front desk of the European Commission, he could end up switching horses. There are many people who would believe anything of him, including keeping us in the EU.

Thus, as far as this debate goes, we are back where we have always been, with most of the same scenarios that we've been confronting for some time. If we rule out parliament ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement and cast the net as wide as we can, we have four possibilities.

The first and most obvious is that we leave without a deal on 31 October. From there, there is the mitigation strategy, which is essentially what Johnson and others are talking about, whereby the UK expects the EU to come to the table to handle the post-Brexit situation. The third scenario is to revert to another referendum and the fourth a revocation, both of these with or without a general election.

But where the utter dishonesty is creeping in is the pretence that a no-deal scenario is a plausible option. We even have John Mills at it again, where his line – in common with the rest – is somehow to have us believe that no-deal doesn't actually mean no deal. It simply means a different form of deal with the EU, on the assumption that it will be keen to talk to us to avoid the harmful effects of a no-deal Brexit.

Crucially, the golden thread that runs through this fantasy scenario is that, immediately following a no-deal exit, the EU would be back at the table entertaining talks on a free trade deal, despite us having refused to conclude a financial settlement.

Insofar as it is never possible with absolute certainty to predict the future, we cannot say that the EU will not negotiate with the UK after a no-deal departure, but it is a racing certainty that the "colleagues" will not be in any hurry. One can also be fairly well assured that there will be preconditions to any formal talks – not least, the payment in full of the financial settlement.

If following our departure, there is no agreement on tariffs, the EU has a big enough trading base to be able to source goods and services from countries other than the UK. We cannot assume that the EU Member States will continue to buy from us.

On the other hand, in the short term, many of the goods we obtain from the EU will not easily be replaced from other sources – especially foodstuffs. With or without tariffs, we will still have to buy from them. There is no immediate need for the EU to sign a trade deal with the UK for trade to continue.

This is where all these fantasy scenarios fall down. There is this entirely unproven and unsupported assumption that the EU will be anxious to do a deal with the UK on almost any terms. But it is just as likely that the EU will be entirely indifferent to the idea of sitting down to talks with the UK, forcing us to trade on the terms set by the bloc.

Equally, there is the blithe assumption that the UK will somehow be unaffected by the raft of non-tariff barriers, and that the border controls will have no material effects on the flow of trade, and the cost of exporting. So, before we go any further, we could have that honest debate. The trouble is that the fantasists don't do "honest". They either fudge the issues, gloss over the complications or, failing that, they simply lie. Then, a media wedded to trivia doesn't do serious news any more: they are capable of neither honesty nor debate.

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