Richard North, 05/12/2019  

One struggles with the question of whether Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is really as stupid as he appears, or if he's playing a rather devious double game – almost a variation of "move on, nothing to see here".

Johnson has been talking to ITV News's political editor, Robert Peston, whence he declared, "We will have got Brexit done, and you will find, what will happen is the parliamentary agony will be over, the political agony will be over and the misery and tedium and procrastination that been going on will be over".

On that basis, he says, "everyone can stop talking about Brexit after the end of January", assuming of course his party wins the general election.

But this claim is simply not credible. Anyone with more than the slightest knowledge of the Brexit process knows full well that, after we leave the EU (if we actually do), the next phase is going to be extremely troublesome. Inevitably, it will remain a "hot" political topic, and doubtless will be the subject of much debate.

Hence, if Johnson believes otherwise – if he really believes what he is saying – then he really is a very stupid man. On the other hand, if he's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate, then this is another example of Johnson the liar. But it's also a very stupid lie, as it is so far from being credible.

In fact, where the next phase will be taking us is already the subject of much discussion in Brussels, and the issue is to be raised in the European Council on 12-13 December – coinciding with the general election and the declaration of results.

By the time they come to publish their formal conclusions, therefore, the heads of states and governments will probably know the outcome of the election, and can certainly factor this into whatever decisions they make.

Already, though, draft conclusions have been leaked, and have been trawled over by, amongst others, the Irish Times. This paper's headline take of the draft is that it reiterates the urgency of the "timely ratification" of the withdrawal agreement.

The draft also welcomes the reappointment of current chief negotiator Michel Barnier to co-ordinate negotiations on the future relationship with the UK, while the EU leaders reconfirm their "desire to establish as close as possible a future relationship with the UK in line with the political declaration and respecting the previously agreed European Council's guidelines, as well as statements and declarations".

According to the draft, the European Council intends to invite the Commission urgently to propose a detailed mandate for the talks to the General Affairs Council. And conscious of timetabling constraints, it cautions that: "Negotiations should be organised in a way that makes the best possible use of the limited time available for negotiation and ratification by the end of the transition".

There is an interesting clue as to the EU's intentions in the reference not only to notification but also ratification by the end of transition period. If that is to occur by the end of December 2020, as Johnson intends, then it rules out a mixed treaty – which must be ratified by all the EU Member States – and thereby, by definition, a comprehensive free trade agreement.

This, then, is effective confirmation that the EU is prepared to accept a "quick and dirty" agreement, which will only encompass a very limited range of topics. We can almost guarantee that this will include a tariff and quota agreement, as this is required by WTO rules in order to qualify as a free trade agreement.

And whatever the reservations of the pundits such an agreement is not likely to be tied to any serious conditions by the EU as its Members States, with a favourable balance of trade to the UK, would be the main beneficiaries.

Nor, as is held by the chatterati, is fishing likely to be much of an obstacle. The UK will assume the status of a third country, there are already provisions in place under EU law for securing fishery agreements with third countries. The Commission has already published a Regulation which sets out the parameters, and the matter can be dealt with administratively, under the aegis of existing international law, without holding up the "future relationship" negotiations.

The Financial Times - which also reports on the draft – has EU diplomats stressing that the draft text does not prejudge the outcome of the election, but it does reflect the need for the Union to prepare itself for the UK's scheduled departure on 31 January.

But they are also signalling that it may be impossible to get everything done in the time allocated, further indicating that the EU negotiators are gearing up for a de minimis treaty.

In any negotiations, though, there is always a possibility that they could fail, and especially if either side over-reaches and demands more than the other side is prepared to give. However, with the highly experienced Barnier leading the EU team, one assumes he will know exactly how much he can push, without going too far.

But, with the EU and Member States well advanced in their preparations, there is less ground to cover than might be imagined, if the object is to keep a basic trade relationship going. Many of the procedural issues are covered by the Commission's unilateral contingency plans, requiring no immediate input from the UK government.

And, although no-one is talking about it at the moment – neither the politicians nor the media – it is entirely logical to expect talks to continue after the end of the transition period. Although one then expects a basic trade treaty to have been concluded, this can be added to at any time, and built up on an incremental basis eventually to form a more comprehensive treaty.

Therefore, talk of the timeframe being "unrealistic" – with predictions of what amounts to a no-deal departure at the end of December 2020 – are missing the point. The real issue is how much the UK negotiators – under instruction from Whitehall – are prepared to sacrifice to get a deal over the line in the appointed time.

Given Johnson's willingness to throw Northern Ireland under a bus in order to get his withdrawal agreement, one presumes that he will concede a great deal in order to walk away with his headline "victory" in securing a deal without extending the transition period. One can almost hear the crowing, as he tells us how clever he has been, apparently defying all the odds once again.

Where we go then does inevitably depend on our negotiations with the United States and other countries, but if there are major conflicts on the way, which will reduce our ability to broker enhanced access to EU Member State markets, one can easily imagine why Johnson would want to project the impression that Brexit is "done" and the talking is over. Clearly, the less scrutiny he gets, the happier he will be.

That may also explain why, in the final countdown to the election, Johnson is talking of tax cuts within weeks of leaving the European Union, with a promise that he will hold a "Brexit budget" in late February.

Under the circumstances, this would provide an effective distraction to divert the nation's attention from the impending trade talks, which are expected to start next March. As it stands, the legacy media is easily distracted by virtually any "bone" that the government throws its way, and will need little excuse to ignore what will be highly technical talks in Brussels.

Perhaps then, this is what Johnson was doing yesterday, in talking to Peston. He needs the second stage of Brexit to go away – to disappear from the public agenda. And for that he wants the cooperation of the legacy media which, from past experience, will be only too willing to oblige.

And, as long as the public can be led to focus entirely on domestic issues, that will leave Johnson free to sell us out on the international stage without anyone noticing, or worrying too much – the classic misdirection technique.

It almost makes you wish that the man was lying again. He is more dangerous when he appears to be telling the truth.

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