Richard North, 05/11/2019  
 


You never know with Johnson, whether he is lying, pig ignorant or taking us for fools. Yesterday, when the prime minister in office was being interviewed by Andrew Marr, he refused to rule out an extension to the transition period past December 2020. But today, we learn that Downing Street has categorically ruled this out.

And just to remove any doubt, when work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey appeared to suggest that the December 2020 deadline would be "tough to meet", she was slapped down with brutal finality when the No 10 spokesman stated: "The government will not be extending the transition period".

In anything approaching a sane world, this news would have a devastating effect on the election debate. Johnson's government has unequivocally committed to a course of action which will ensure that the UK drops out of the EU at the end of December next year without a deal – or with only the most basic of tariff agreements.

To all intents and purposes, this puts us in much the same position we would have been if Johnson had taken us out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It just delays the process by just over a year – although we will have the "divorce bill" to pay and the rest of the withdrawal agreement to contend with.

If Johnson could be trusted, this would be manna from Heaven for Farage. He could stand down his troops and bide his time. Come the end of next year, he could then revel in achieving his aim of a "clean break" Brexit, having won the battle without firing a shot.

But this is not to be. Yesterday, Farage effectively declared war on just about everybody, but particularly the Tories, revealing to the world his collection of 600 candidates. One of them, however, had to be released when she claimed to have come from another planet, while another stood down from the marginal Dudley South seat, announcing he was backing the sitting Tory, Mike Wood.

Nevertheless, in the Methodist Hall in Westminster, 450 of Farage's prospective MPs gathered for a series of pep-talks and a training session, after each candidate had been photographed under a somewhat ambitious slogan (pictured).

As for the Tories, Farage "blasted" them for their "conceited arrogance". After all, he said, he was there to help gain a Tory majority, or he could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. "There will be no Brexit without the Brexit Party", he insisted.

Farage is convinced that Ukip, back in 2015 when it was still a functioning party, took more votes from Labour than the Tories, and thus claims that David Cameron "wouldn't have even got a majority without Ukip".

This, of course, was the election when Ukip was going to make a breakthrough. In the event, the party lost one of its two MPs and Farage lost to a former Ukip official turned Tory candidate in Thanet South, by a margin of over 3,000 – promptly resigning as leader of the party.

Shortly before that election, YouGov had polled Ukip supporters to find out how they had voted in the previous election. Some 45 percent had voted Conservative, while 11 percent had voted Labour.

By 2017, when Ukip was falling apart – having been deserted by The Great Leader – another YouGov poll showed that 30 percent of its supporters might have stayed at home. Of those who had voted Ukip in 2015, 45 percent deserted to the Tories. Only about 12 percent went to Labour.

What little evidence we have, therefore, does not support Farage's contention that he's pulling more votes from Labour than the Tories. And those who remember the 2019 Peterborough by-election will recall that, on a turnout reduced by 10,000, the Tories lost far more votes than Labour while the Brexit Party came in a respectable second. Arguably, against a discredited Labour, Farage cost the Tories the seat.

A recent example of a poll for Portsmouth South is instructive. A Labour marginal in 2017, its MP took 18,290 votes as against the Tory who gained 16,736 votes. The Brexit Party's appearance on the scene earns it 14 percent in a Survation opinion poll, both the Labour and the Conservative share drop and the Lib-Dems creep in to take the lead.

And this is against the overall background of an ICM poll where the Conservatives are on 38 percent (up three), Labour hits 31 percent (up two) and the Lib-Dems are on 15 percent (down one). In common with other recent polls, Farage's party support has ebbed (down two), giving it a nine percent share of the vote.

For all that, the morning's newspapers seem to have wiped Brexit from their front pages altogether, with the single exception of the Express, which features a confrontation between Johnson and Corbyn. Farage doesn't get a look in, while the election of the Speaker takes pride of place in the political news.

With the gap closing between the Conservatives and Labour, the "Ukip effect", carried across to the FaraCorp party could have a significant impact on the general election result. At our most charitable, the best we can say is that Farage's determination to field a full pack of candidates can only introduce a huge element of uncertainty.

The trouble is that Johnson's determination not to extend the transition period means that, effectively, the Tories and The Brexit Party are on the same page. The only real difference between them is in timing – both are heading for a no-deal Brexit.

However, the net effect of yesterday's events could be that a hung parliament has moved that much closer, potentially bringing a no-deal forward to 31 January. Worse still, we could be looking at a narrow Corbyn victory or – if they could bear to work with each other – a Labour-SNP-Lib-Dem coalition, however unlikely that might sound.

And yet, standing back from all this, even if The Brexit Party vote collapsed – which in theory it could do – and Johnson swept in with a decent majority, enough for him to risk extending the transition period to the end of 2022, we would not be out of the woods.

When work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said that the future relationship negotiations would be "tough going", she was not exaggerating. As indeed the successive governments under May and Johnson have under-estimated the time to draw up a withdrawal agreement, so too is this government being far too cavalier about the time it will take to craft a future relationship agreement with the EU.

With the Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA) having taken eight years to negotiate, with the treaty running to 1,598 pages, it seems inconceivable that we could agree a comprehensive treaty with the EU in much less time.

Why on earth Mrs May agreed such a short transition period is anyone's guess, and Johnson did nothing to change a provision which allows for a one-time only extension which cannot be repeated, is something of a mystery. Thus do we seem to be heading for a deferred crisis, whatever the outcome of the election.

To that extent, although the election was supposed to clear the impasse, the end result looks so disagreeable that chaos will prevail, whatever the outcome. Farage is simply muddying the already turbid waters.






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