Richard North, 13/09/2019  

It's almost as if Brexit was now being handled by disparate tribes, each residing on different planets, with absolutely no communication between any of them.

On this side of the divide, we have the leader of the Johnson tribe – a serial liar – who is earnestly trying to convince everyone that he didn't lie to the Queen, even though three of Scotland's most senior judges are convinced he did.

Elsewhere, representing the planet Brussels, we have the new president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, warning that there could be no Brexit agreement without a Northern Ireland backstop and then complaining that no new proposals had been received from the UK, at least nothing that is legally credible and workable.

But his really entertaining intervention came on his comments about a possible extension. There we have the Westminster tribe desperately trying to make the leader of the Johnson tribe go begging for one, only to have Sassoli say he can't have one anyway, except in "overriding circumstances" such as a general election – which the Westminster swamp-dwellers have twice refused.

The forthright Sassoli grandly declares that all the European institutions are at one in their support for a common position, although he reminds us that, when it comes to an agreement, the European Parliament will have the last word.

Picking up on the scheme already rejected by the leader of the Johnson tribe, he says that the EU is willing to go back to the original proposal of having a Northern Ireland-only backstop, but that is the limit of any concessions. If there is a no-deal departure, that will be entirely the responsibility of the UK. But there can't be an agreement without a backstop, he says. "There won’t be one".

This is, of course, where we see not only different planets but divergent orbits. As far as we are aware, the Johnson tribe is still committed to eliminating the "undemocratic" backstop, despite not having an alternative to keep the Brussels tribe happy.

Backing up Sassoli is Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of a moon called Luxembourg which orbits Brussels. He says there is no reason at the moment for EU-27 to grant another Brexit extension to the UK. But he does concede that, when there are concrete reasons, the Brussels tribe will discuss whether we will give a new mandate or a new extension. At present, though, everything is up in the air.

Top dog Michel Barnier thinks the Brexit situation "remains serious and uncertain".

The Johnson tribe leader had decided the UK would leave the EU by 31 October 2019 at the latest. And to confound his tribal elders, he wanted to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement by demanding the withdrawal of the Irish backstop, as well as serious amendments to the political declaration – all the time saying that he was ready for an exit without agreement if his "requests" were not accepted.

Barnier also notes that the Westminster swamp-dwellers have rejected such a scenario and have passed a law the object of which is that, if the Johnson doesn't return by 19 October, at the latest, with an EU agreement, then he will be obliged to request an extension of the negotiation period until 31 January 2020 – which others in the Brussels tribe seem reluctant to give him.

Unfortunately, Barnier is unable to say objectively whether contacts with the government of Johnson tribe will be able to reach an agreement by mid-October. The EU is ready to work constructively with the Johnson government, and to consider "all concrete and legally operational proposals that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement".

All he can be certain of is that the European Council will meet on 17 and 18 October. This, he says, will be the moment when the European Union will have to "take note of the situation" - assuming that the parties haven't found an agreement. At the moment, though, Barnier has "no reason to be optimistic".

The Times, however, reports that there might be a solution in the offing. The DUP, it appears, is expressing a willingness for Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

To suggest that this would serve as a substitute for the backstop, though, might be a little optimistic. There is the whole raft of Single Market legislation to consider, to say nothing of the flanking measures such as employment and environmental standards, as well as the vexed question of VAT. But, never mind, hope springs paternal in Brexit la-la land.

At some time though, the music is going to have to stop, whence the EU tribe will have to make some hard decisions. At the moment, its official stance is that there can be no re-negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop. That prohibition lasts until 31 October, whence there is room for a further extension for the specific purpose of allowing limited talks – possibly after a general election.

Nevertheless, Barnier is not ruling out a no-deal, reminding colleagues of their duty to prepare for it. But even in a no-deal scenario, he says, the fundamental issues and priorities raised by Brexit, and which are settled in the withdrawal agreement, will still have to be resolved.

That brings home something which the Johnson tribal leader really doesn't seem to have taken on board. With his mantra of getting Brexit "done", and getting it "over the line", he hasn't realised that all the issues that were addressed in the Withdrawal Agreement will be waiting for him if we drop out of the EU without a deal.

Furthermore, it is painfully clear that the EU is not going to entertain negotiations on a free trade agreement until outstanding issues have been settled. The 31 October "deadline" therefore, is something of a chimera. If we do drop out, it will mark simply a change in the status of negotiations, leaving the UK in a weakened position as it will lack leverage.

Still, though, the Johnson labours under the illusion that the threat of a no-deal does give his tribe some leverage. Barnier rather scornfully dismisses this, remarking, "as if this would make us change our principles". If it happens, the no-deal exit will be watched by the "colleagues" with a mixture of pity and concern, but mainly pity – as they observe a once-proud nation making a bloody fool of itself.

Here, the Westminster swamp-dwellers are intensifying the noise-level on the no-deal outcome, some of them arguing that they need to see the end of the prorogation so they can get back into the debating chamber and blather about Operation Yellowhammer.

The irony of them getting excited about a no-deal just now clearly escapes them. It was in January 2017 that Mrs May was talking about a no-deal being better than a bad deal, and that surely was the time to start discussing the implications of that scenario. Had there been an intelligent debate at the time, with a better appreciation of the consequences, history could well have been different.

As it is, the swamp-dwellers are missing the point – as they so often do. Locked into their visions of food and medicines shortages, and queues at the Channel ports, they still haven't cottoned on to the main impact of a no-deal Brexit – the collapse of exports to EU/EEA member states.

Still we're getting Muppets such as Liam Halligan talking down the effects, and still retailing the tired old claim that we already trade with the rest of the world under WTO rules. Everything in Halligan's foetid little world is "project fear" and there is no down-side to a no-deal Brexit.

Yet, in a post-Brexit environment, the immediate downturn in export sales is more than sufficient to trigger a technical recession which, unlike previous events, will not be cyclical. Export substitution is likely to be slow and uncertain so losses could well represent a permanent loss of capacity. None of this is a necessary consequence of Brexit, which always had the potential of the Efta/EEA option. But, as Jeremy Warner points out, all we've managed to do over the last three years is destroy the middle ground. It's now either a "clean break" Brexit, or remain.

For this, the diverse players should be truly damned. The inability of the political classes to handle Brexit is one of the great stains on our recent history, and one which will take us generations to expunge. And the worst is probably yet to come.

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