Richard North, 23/10/2019  
 


There was absolutely no need for Johnson to insist on truncated proceedings in the Commons on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). Since the European Parliament is nowhere near ready to give its consent – needing at least a couple of weeks – the prime minister in office had nothing to lose by giving MPs more time. Even before yesterday evening's voting, his 31 October timetable was already unachievable.

One big mystery, therefore, is why Johnson was creating an artificial crisis, pushing MPs to pass the Bill at an unreasonable speed, when there was time enough to spare for a more measured approach. The answer, though, may have been in Johnson's statement to MPs, where he said that, "if parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen… I must say that the Bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward to a general election".

This rendered it fairly obvious that the government's immediate objective was not ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement but to trigger an election where Johnson could argue "let's get Brexit done". In other words, the national interest had been relegated to a poor second (if that), in favour of personal and party advantage.

But there is another big mystery – why the media collective is so keen to give Johnson a free pass, failing to point out that his timetable is already shot to pieces by the European Parliament, and that there is no need to rush.

It is not as if there was no information from which the media could divine what was going on. On Monday, Guy Verhofstadt actually tweeted that his Brexit Steering Group had agreed to advise the Conference of Presidents to await the full ratification on the UK side before the European Parliament voted on the deal. "It's now up to the UK Parliament to make their choice", he said.

If any British reporters had read the tweet, none of them seem to have understood the implications. It took Irish broadcaster RTE to work it out after a fashion, following Jean-Claude Juncker's address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, yesterday. "It's not possible, not imaginable", said Juncker, "that this parliament will ratify the agreement before Westminster will have ratified the agreement".

Verhofstadt himself was later to clarify what was meant by "ratify", talking of getting the "Queen's signature" – i.e., Royal Assent. And even when Juncker delivered his statement, it wasn't going to happen this week.

Thus, while RTE noted that MEPs gathering in Strasbourg had some degree of expectation that they might get a chance to ratify the latest Brexit deal, it also reported that the European Parliament was not due to sit next week.

Some MEPs had pointed out to RTE that an emergency sitting would not be possible because "they will be away on delegation visits". This, the broadcaster said, "suggests that the departure deal could be pushed beyond October 31st deadline - even if it is passed by MPs in London".

Of course, it does a little more than "suggest" a delay to Johnson's deadline – it more or less guarantees it. But if RTE could work out as much as it did, albeit with the help of a few MEPs, then there was nothing to stop the rest of the media picking up the issue and running with it.

Throughout yesterday, though, the almost unbroken refrain from the UK legacy media was one of charting Johnson's "dash to the wire", framing the narrative in terms of the "day of high Brexit drama" in Westminster as he sought to meet his 31 October deadline.

Not a single UK source, that I can find, has published a story informing us that the deadline is already unachievable, if the prime minister in office wants to leave with a deal. The closest we got was the BBC's Katya Adler tweeting Juncker's comments about not ratifying the Agreement. But if she understood their significance, she chose to keep her views to herself.

Ignoring Adler's tweet, the broadcaster's website then contented itself with dribbling the headline: "Boris Johnson in last push to get deal through", telling us, "Boris Johnson will urge MPs to back his Brexit deal in a final bid to get the UK to leave the EU in nine days' time".

This issue-illiterate dribble continued into the early-evening television news, with the website reporting Johnson telling MPs that if the Bill timetable was rejected, "and the EU confirmed a delay to the 31 October exit", he would abandon the Bill and push for a general election. The TV news broadcast showed a brief clip of Juncker, but did not include his comments on ratification.

Neither did ITV perform any better, with its star journalist, Robert Peston, on the case. He elected to blather about Johnson having to choose between trying to get a Brexit deal with a short delay, forced by a Labour demand for more time to debate the WAB, "but with the associated humiliation of missing the October 31 date", or campaigning in a December general election on a platform of delivering his deal if he regains power – notwithstanding that it will still require the consent of the European Parliament.

Not the slightest hint of the European Parliament's role, and the fact that Brexit with a deal had already been delayed, troubled this self-important media commentator.

Apart from illustrating the profound ignorance of the media about EU procedures, these examples reflect the London-centric "bubble effect" where anything outside the narrow Westminster-Whitehall nexus is largely invisible to reporters. The European Parliament, hundreds of miles away in Strasbourg, only has relevance when it fits a pre-conceived narrative, already decided in London.

It also suggests a significant degree of self-indulgence. One can see reporters almost drooling with excitement as the "drama" unfolds, so the very last thing they want to know are inconvenient facts that will spoil their fun. In the main, the fourth estate has lost sight of its duty to keep the public informed – to which effect the first requirement is for journalists to inform themselves. This they no longer do.

News is not about facts any more, but entertainment – journalists entertaining themselves at our expense. We, the recipients, are supposed to consider ourselves privileged when we're allowed to watch the media royalty blathering at us from our TV screens.

As they droned on into the night yesterday, misinforming the public without so much as a blush, Johnson at least had the comfort of winning the vote on the second reading of the WAB, with a convincing majority – by contemporary standards – of 329 votes to 299.

As Denis Staunton, London correspondent of the Irish Times pointed out, this was the first time a Brexit deal had won a majority in the Commons. Ironically, it had been supported by 19 Labour MPs who had rejected Mrs May's deal but were now voting for an infinitely worse deal presented by Johnson.

There was considerably less good news for Johnson, though, on the timetable motion. In an overcrowded chamber, which soon degenerated into its customary disorder, the "ayes" delivered 308 votes against the "noes" who garnered 322 – with the help of the DUP. Their votes were decisive.

Amazingly, the flustered prime minister in office complained that the MPs had voted "for delay" rather than support a timetable that would have "guaranteed that the UK would be in a position to leave the EU on October 31st with a deal".

Journalists apart, there lies the fount of all ignorance. Surely though, with his phalanx of civil servants advising him, alongside the Brussels-based UKREP officials, Johnson cannot have been unaware that his hopes of a deal-based Brexit on 31 October had already been dashed.

Aware or not, Johnson had the ideal cloak to disguise what may or may not have been a staggering level of ignorance. Rather than "pull" the Bill, he announced that he was to "pause" it while he consulted with the European Council about its plans for an extension. That way, the inactivity of the European Parliament will not become immediately evident.

Another thoroughly dishonest ploy is to blame Labour for the delay, the Conservatives having produced a graphic tweet proclaiming that "Boris's Brexit deal has passed parliament, but Labour have voted to delay it" – a bit rich when the decisive votes were from the DUP.

But, without a date for resuming the Bill's scrutiny, Johnson's government is compounding its already considerable problems. Every day the Bill is on "hold" is a day that the European Parliament will not be starting "consent" proceedings.

With only a week spare to make the Brussels plenary slot, and no resumption of the debate planned this week, any more delay could bump the proceedings to the Strasbourg plenary starting on 25 November. That might roll back Brexit even further, shunting it into December.

This makes an extension, already an inevitability, now even more necessary. Fortunately, Donald Tusk has come galloping to the rescue with a recommendation that the EU-27 accept Johnson's original request for an extension – which, presumably, will include a break clause, allowing an exit once the Agreement is concluded. He is proposing to use a "written procedure", so a European Council meeting will not be needed.

The extension will, if accepted, provide space for Johnson to "get ratification done", without having to rush, and time for the European Parliament to do its stuff. The latter can work without publicity so its proceedings need not trouble our politicians or media. Locked in their impenetrable ignorance, they can continue to play out their games on a Westminster canvas.

As so, as the prospect of a 31 October exit recedes into oblivion, the artificial crisis gets more unreal by the day.






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