Richard North, 05/09/2019  
 


Interviewed by ITV's Robert Peston last night, after the turmoil through the day in the Commons, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had one simple message to deliver. "It's been a very good day", he said.

Unavoidably, an irreverent version of certain poem came to mind concerning a boy standing alone upon a burning deck from whence all but he had fled. The explanation for this, in my version of the poem, was that he was the only person there who had no idea what was going on.

And that was the odd thing about yesterday. We all know what happened. The political websites of the media are full of it, lovingly spelling out the step-by-step detail as events unfolded.

In terms of the sheer wealth of events, the twists and turns, the convolutions and the plots, there has never been anything like it. The political journalists have never had it so good – for them, there has never been a better time to be alive. This was a day about which, in years to come, they will regale their grandchildren.

But as to actually what is going on, this is anybody's guess. We have a Bill in progress which Johnson insists on calling Jeremy Corbyn's "surrender bill", aimed at forcing the Johnson's administration to do something he has promised not to do – to ask for a further extension to the Article 50 process.

If the Bill was passed by the Commons, Johnson said he would demand a vote on a general election. The Bill did pass, and headed for the Lords where a valiant attempt was in preparation to talk it out. But, good as his word, Johnson called for a vote - which he won on paper by 298 votes to 56 - but didn't get his way as he failed to reach the two-thirds majority required.

That means we don't get an election yet – scheduled this time for 15 October – but that doesn't mean we don't get an election at all. That's up to Labour, which has yet to decide whether it will commit or when. What it seems to be doing is trying to set a binding date for the election, something for which the fixed term parliaments act makes no provision.

For whether we get our turn in the polls, therefore, we must wait and see, although, given the choice of potential candidates, there is perhaps less allure in the prospect than some might think.

But the wait might not be as long as all that. Even as I was writing, it was rumoured that Labour had cut a deal in the Lords with the government frontbench that they'd agree an October General Election in exchange for ending the ten-hour filibuster which the Lords were rolling out.

In the meantime, there had been some good news for Stephen Kinnock’s amendment to the "surrender bill". He had wanted to link the Article 50 extension to a requirement for the government to submit for parliamentary approval "the passage of a withdrawal agreement bill based on the outcome of the inter-party talks which concluded in May 2019".

But a few minutes into the voting, MP Lindsay Hoyle announced that the division had been called off because the amendment had been passed by default – a technical approval because MPs opposed to it had not put up tellers.

Effectively, this would mean that, if Johnson needed to request an article 50 extension (because he has not negotiated a new deal, and MPs had not voted to approve a no-deal Brexit), then the delay would enable MPs to vote on a version of the Theresa May's deal.

It was not clear at the time whether the absence of tellers was an accident or the result of some cunning plot but, if as seems likely, it was an accident, the irony meter is on overload, with the only useful thing to come out of the whole day to have happened unintentionally.

The crucial thing about the "surrender bill", of course, is that it kicks-in in the event that Johnson fails to get a new deal. And here, the penny is at last beginning to drop, as more and more people understand that there are no negotiations in progress. During PMQs for instance, Jeremy Corbyn told Johnson that he could not be accused of undermining negotiations, "because no negotiations are taking place".

Then, in a briefing in Brussels by senior EU officials, including Michel Barnier, ambassadors of the EU's 27 governments were told that talks were at an impasse.

The proximate cause was that Johnson's envoy, David Frost, had promised but failed again to deliver concrete proposals. The mood was thus "very pessimistic", although the Commission reiterated that the EU was "unwavering" in its support for Ireland's position.

As regards its understanding of the UK position, one diplomat ventured that the EU only knew what UK didn't want. As a result, it was trying to work out which of the options might apply: whether the UK didn't have a plan; whether it had a plan but it was still in the works; or whether it had a plan but was not ready to present it.

While monitoring developments in London, the EU-27 had decided to focus its energy on no-deal preparations, starting with yet another technical meeting today. In anticipation of this, the Commission has published another communication on finalising preparations for Brexit, noting that "all actors" should now make any necessary final adjustments to their plans in relation to a withdrawal without an agreement on 1 November 2019.

They should not, the Commission warns, rely on the assumption that a third extension will be requested by the United Kingdom and that it will be agreed by the European Council ahead of 31 October.

As regards trade in goods, economic operators are told that they need to prepare for important consequences in the fields of customs formalities, indirect taxation and, where applicable, sanitary and phytosanitary controls as of 1 November 2019, if the United Kingdom withdraws from the Union without an agreement.

These consequences, they advise, include, among others, the application of customs formalities. Declarations will have to be lodged and customs authorities may require guarantees for potential or existing customs debts. Prohibitions or restrictions may also apply to some goods entering or leaving the EU from or to the United Kingdom, which means that import or export licences might be required.

As regards Ireland, a no-deal Brexit will lead to two distinct fiscal and regulatory spaces on the island of Ireland. Under international law, and in particular WTO rules, the Commission says, from 1 November 2019 both the EU and the United Kingdom will be under an obligation to levy on each other's products the tariffs applicable to goods from any other member of the WTO without preferential arrangements.

In addition, it says, EU law will require that all goods entering Ireland from the United Kingdom be subject to the relevant checks and controls to protect the safety and health of EU citizens, preserve the integrity of the internal market and enforce compliance with fiscal obligations (duties, indirect taxes).

The Commission then reaffirms that the backstop provided for by the Withdrawal Agreement "is the only solution identified that safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, ensures compliance with international law obligations and preserves the integrity of the internal market".

That further calls out Johnson's claim that "progress" is being made on the backstop – the situation carries over unchanged. Bluff and bluster may be the man's stock in trade but, with three votes in two days, he has lost them all – a 100 percent record as a loser.

But then, in his very own words, "It's been a very good day". I wonder what it takes to make it a bad day – and how we can help.






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