Richard North, 15/10/2019  

If you keep them in their comfort zones and let them focus on issues they understand – like court politics – the occasional hack can sometimes make a bit of sense. Thus we have Robert Peston delivering his opinion of the Queen's Speech debate, saying it was the maddest, most pointless event anyone alive has watched.

In his view, it was all "displacement activity" with the speakers taking refuge from the only two questions that matter, namely whether the UK is leaving the EU on 31 October (and if so how) and whether there will be a general election before Christmas. As a result, wrote Peston, the debate "has all the significance and weight of an undergraduate debate on a wet autumn afternoon".

It would be comforting to think that this put yesterday's proceedings in a class of their own but Peston's assessment could apply to the majority of debates conducted in the House of Commons. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the level of public trust in the institution has plummeted, with 77 percent of a recent opinion poll unwilling to trust it to make the right decisions on Brexit.

That figure, incidentally, compares with 76 percent for Corbyn, and 60 percent for Johnson, indicating that we are undergoing an almost complete breakdown in trust in the ability of our politics to fix Brexit. Johnson may be the least worst, but even that means that twice as many people don't trust him as believe he is capable of doing the right thing.

And when it comes to guessing whether we will be leaving the EU on 31 October, at least we seem to be getting closer to an answer. Finland's Prime Minister, Antti Rinne – holder of the EU's rotating Council presidency – took time out yesterday to warn that things were not going well in Brexit land.

Speaking in Helsinki alongside Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, who is the next European Council president, he told reporters that there was no "practical or legal way" to find an agreement on Johnson's latest proposal, in time for the European Council on Thursday.

This, of course, is not in the least surprising. The parties are trying to combine thrashing out an agreement on an incomplete and poorly-thought-out UK proposal while, at the same time, attempting to carve out a detailed legal text covering the areas where there is some degree of accord.

Inevitably, this is slow, painstaking work – and that is without taking into account the need to have versions in all 24 of the Union's working languages. And, understandably, the EU is insisting that any draft which goes up to the European Council for approval must be "legally operable", requiring the production of a complete, watertight legal text.

Nor is Rinne on his own. Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister and self-confessed optimist, also suggested that talks might have to "move into next week". And although he did qualify his own pessimism (or realism) by venturing that it was "too early to say", the very fact that he was making such a downbeat appraisal tells us an awful lot about the status of the talks.

Barring a miracle, therefore, there is next to no chance of Johnson putting a new deal to MPs on Saturday, assuming he still goes ahead with the weekend sitting. Apparently, a motion approving the session must be tabled at the very latest by Wednesday for debate the following day – and even then the swamp-dwellers could reject the opportunity to spend extra time in Westminster, in favour of prolonged lie-ins in their constituency homes.

Assuming, as I think we must, that there will be no deal settled on Thursday, on the face of it thus requiring Johnson formally to apply for an Article 50 extension, it would seem that there will be nothing much to talk about on the Saturday. The one exception might be to reassure the House that talks will continue (which is by no means a given), with a view to crafting a deal later in the month.

By tomorrow, of course, Barnier may well have put the coffin into the ground when it comes to a Thursday finale. It would be entirely in order for him to declare to the General Affairs Council that there had been insufficient progress in the talks for him to commend a deal to the European Council, even with an additional day that Wednesday might bring.

However, if Barnier is prepared to take an optimistic view and suggest that there is a chance that a special Council, convened in the following week, could bring about a resolution, Johnson could still hold out hope of closing a deal in time for the UK's departure on 31 October.

The "colleagues" may or may not play ball on this, but I would be inclined to suggest the caution will prevail and they will go for the extension option, planning to use the special Council to agree an extension to the end of January 2020. On the other hand, they could string Johnson along with the promise of an early deal, only to bounce him into an extension when it becomes apparent that the talks have not delivered.

Even over the space of a week, though, the variables have multiplied to such an extent that predictions have become perilous. Nevertheless, there are definitely signs of movement, with the Telegraph in a buoyant mood, reporting that there is "cautious optimism" in Brussels. With talks on a knife-edge, we are told that Johnson has cancelled today's planned Cabinet meeting, to avoid leaks that could derail delicate talks.

All the same, I'm still reluctant to accept that the "colleagues" will go for the quick fix. Recent polling – of which they must be aware – suggests that delaying Brexit could cost Johnson a majority in the coming general election, as Farage's party siphons off Tory votes. But whether a hung parliament – with the remote possibility of Farage holding the balance of power – is something they want to risk, only they can tell.

But the main constraint, as I see it, is the prohibition in their own Decision on conducting negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement during this extension period. Holding off until after the end of the month gets them off that hook, while a general election, which would cause talks to be suspended, might buy time and fresh opportunities – and the chance of a Labour government that could deliver a referendum.

It is at this point that the perils of speculation become all too evident. The Irish Times has it – along with the rest of the media – that Johnson is still adamant that Brexit will occur on 31 October and, even if he does seem boxed in, no one is prepared to bet that he doesn't have a trick or two up his sleeve. Thus, while we can assess the odds of certain plays coming to fruition, firm predictions are for the birds.

Not least, for all the media chatter, no one has actually seen a hard copy of the UK proposal – if one actually exists. And this could mean that all the earnest speculation over what the parties are discussing could be empty hype. Furthermore, with these complex issues, there can be absolutely no dispute that the devil is in the detail and the talks could so easily founder on a technical issue that no one can find a way of circumventing.

Then, of course, even if the parties manage to agree something, there is no guarantee that the swamp-dwellers will ratify. Opposition from the DUP seems to be firming up, and behind them are Unionist-supporting Conservative MPs who will vote alongside them.

It is enough, therefore, to posit that, by the end of today, we will be slightly more certain that we are not going to be seeing a deal this week. Beyond that the outcome is, as always, still anybody's guess.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few