Richard North, 25/08/2019  

I really don't know how many times it has to be said, but if Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is intent on the UK leaving the EU on 31 October – and he has made it clear that that is his intent often enough - then we will be leaving without a deal.

There are few people who will sensibly dispute that the European Union is a rules-based organisation and, when it comes to agreeing treaties – of which the Withdrawal Agreement is one – there are no short cuts. Procedure must be followed or any subsequent agreement may not be legally valid. It is not only what is agreed that matters. It is also how it is agreed.

Procedure in this is set out in Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and, if that procedure is followed, there simply isn't time even to go through the necessary steps to re-open negotiations, much less come to a formal agreement – which must then be approved by the European Council and ratified by both the European and the Westminster parliaments.

To suggest otherwise - that we are able to go through all the necessary procedural steps to finalise a new treaty – is rather like gazing at an airliner from which the wings have been removed and earnestly discussing loading passengers for its next flight, ignoring the rather minor problem that the aircraft cannot fly.

The rhetoric about reaching a new deal by 31 October, therefore, is just that – a cynical, empty ploy which should not be worth any discussion. If Johnson is to be taken at his word, and he is absolutely firm on his leaving date, then there is no possible outcome other than a no-deal exit.

Certainly, according to a recent Opinium/Observer poll, the majority believes a no-deal on 31 October is now the most likely outcome.

This, though, does not reflect an overwhelming sentiment. Only 37 percent of voters believe there will be a no-deal exit. By contrast, 22 percent think Brexit will be delayed for a general election or another referendum. Only 13 percent buy into the myth that we will leave with a deal on or shortly after 31 October. And only nine percent think Brexit will be delayed indefinitely or cancelled without a referendum.

By that measure, Johnson has not been able to convince anything like an actual majority that he intends to keep his word – understandable given the man's history as a serial liar.

What Opinium does not seem to have been put to its sample is the possibility that Johnson himself might seek a further extension of the Article 50 process, in order to create room for talks at a European Council level. One can quite imagine the man attending the October Council, only then to return with an argument for delay.

However, the mood music doesn't seem to support that scenario. Lead story for The Sunday Times is Johnson putting Britain on an "election footing" by warning Brussels that "he will slash more than £30 billion from the EU divorce bill in the event of a no-deal Brexit".

This supposedly "tough" stance is apparently intended to win over Brexit Party supporters, although one suspects that the only thing that will impress them is our departure on 31 October. All the rest is detail.

The Observer, on the other hand, has Johnson running to the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, to ask whether parliament can be shut down for five weeks from 9 September "in what appears to be a concerted plan to stop MPs forcing a further extension to Brexit, according to leaked government correspondence".

There is, of course, the distinct possibility that this is calculated misdirection on the part of the Johnson team. It doesn't fit in with the scenario that has a vote of no confidence being held, leading to a general election and the dissolution of parliament.

But then, this sort of speculation has been part of the political game forever, and one is quite used to the Sunday papers attempting to set the agenda, only to have their stories debunked within hours of their publication. In this foetid political atmosphere, nothing is real and nothing has substance. A story lasts only for as long as it takes for it to be replaced with another one.

Far more entertaining, in a wearisome sort of way, is the emerging spat between Johnson and Donald Tusk about who will go down in history as "Mr No Deal".

This arises from Tusk's comments when he arrived for the G7 summit in Biarritz, when he accused the prime minister in office of wanting a no-deal Brexit, while suggesting that he should be doing everything he can to prevent going down in history as "Mr No Deal".

In what very quickly degenerated into a childish exchange, we had Johnson hitting back "hard", asserting that it was Tusk who risked being given that title. "As I've made it absolutely clear", Johnson said, "I don't want a no-deal Brexit but I say to our friends in the EU: if they don't want a no-deal Brexit then we've got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty".

In a petulant aside, he then added, "If Donald Tusk doesn't want to go down as 'Mr No Deal Brexit' then I hope that point should be born in mind by him too". It is so good to see such mature politics at play.

But here we go full circle. By insisting on a condition that he must know that the EU cannot accept – on a timescale that cannot be met - Johnson is thereby ensuring that there cannot be meaningful negotiations. Yet he is able to blame the "intransigence" of the EU in not coming to the table.

One can quite see why Tusk might think that Johnson is determined to pursue a no-deal Brexit. He is only coming to the conclusion that any of us might have reached (and, in fact, already have) that there is only that one possible outcome from his current stance.

That, of course, leaves it open that the serial liar is once again lying though his teeth, and has no intention of honouring his 31 October pledge. At the last minute, he will find some excuse or other for not going ahead with it. It has even been put to me that Johnson is quite capable of revoking the Article 50 notification, thus keeping us in the EU – even though it would be electoral suicide.

More likely, it would seem at this stage, is that Johnson is following what he believes to be a "win-win" strategy, in offering the EU his "alternative arrangements", anticipating that the "colleagues" will back off at the very last minute and dump the backstop in favour of his scheme. And, if it doesn't, he comes away looking the "Mr Reasonable", winning the blame game hands down.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible that Johnson has swallowed the Singham Kool Aid, especially as it has been fronted by the idiot Greg Hands, in which case he could actually believe that he has a workable strategy that will actually avoid a no-deal Brexit.

He seems unable to grasp the procedural requirements of the rules-based organisation he is up against, and therefore does not understand that there will be no last-minute "recantation".

This, according to the Independent on Sunday is leading to a bizarre game of double-bluff, where pro-EU Tories are nervous about when they should act to thwart a no-deal Brexit, as they don't want to be blamed for derailing Johnson's efforts to get a deal. Most Tories in the rebel alliance are apparently reluctant to be the obstruction to that by acting prematurely.

One might have thought that "pro-EU Tories" might have enough knowledge of the construct they so love to realise that Johnson's strategy is a non-starter. But they have shown no better understanding of the nature of the EU than their Eurosceptic counterparts.

Where the flaw in what passes for their thinking possibly lies is in the legend that EU deals are most often made at the last minute. And while there may be some truth in that, it applies mostly in internal negotiations within the institutions.

The failure here is to understand that the Article 50 talks are external treaty negotiations that are bound by rigid procedural elements – the very same that led to the lack of flexibility which scuppered the Doha Round of the WTO talks. There is going to be no last-minute reprieve. Johnson is driving us into a cul de sac, from which there is no escape. All we have left is the blame game.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few