Richard North, 06/11/2020  

The US presidential elections and Covid are happening at the wrong time. Everybody's eye is off the ball. A president is for four years, Covid will end soon enough, but - as Pete observes - Brexit is for life.

Therefore, it is fair to say that we have our priorities terribly, terribly wrong. Tedious and repetitive though it may be, the fallout from Brexit is going to have a direct and long-term effect on most of our lives, with a far longer and possibly more damaging impact than the contemporary concerns.

Personally, of course, I need no reminding. I'm still updating The Great Deception and have now reached the point in 2019 where Mrs May has lost control of the Westminster parliament and is on the countdown to her resignation.

Putting together the story of the period from the referendum to date is a real test of my skills. While some authors have had the luxury of writing lengthy books about just part of the story – as in Anthony Seldon's May at 10 – The Verdict (running to 715 pages) – I get about 40 pages (roughly 20,000 words) to write up the whole period, but only having first edited that number of words from the original copy.

On balance, I think that "writing short", rather than long, is the better option. It was after all the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (so I am told) who wrote: "Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte, roughly translated as "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter".

It certainly is much harder work writing succinctly. My first, trial chapter for the period, running to just over 10,000 words, started on the day after the referendum and only reached the end of 2017.

The copy was returned by my publisher with a terse note and even I have to admit that the second version, ending with the resignation of Mrs May – written with the same number of words – is far better and actually convey more information about the first year than I had in the original version.

I can thus feel rather superior about Seldon's book which, although covering the same events I'm dealing with far more words, essentially offers a soap opera version of the May premiership, and scarcely touches on the technical aspects of the negotiations and subsequent agreements which dominated her tenure.

Mind you, given that the first draft of the Withdrawal Agreement alone ran to 585 pages (and was to go through several iterations), a full technical appraisal would probably be longer than his book. It would most almost certainly be unreadable and, most likely, unread.

There is, therefore, a happy medium to be found – which I don't think can be found in Seldon's book, or for that matter another doorstop of a book, Tim Shipman's All out war, his version of the referendum campaign. Although supposedly a runaway best-seller, I note with malicious glee that used copies can now be bought for less than £1.

In this, although the sales are less spectacular, The Great Deception has sold consistently well since its first publication in 2003 and, even to this day, second-hand prices of the latest edition seem to be holding up well.

Mind you, if I'm finding the current chapter difficult to write, the next one – which will cover from Mrs May's resignation to 1 January 2021 (or perhaps a few weeks beyond that) - is going to be even harder, not least because the story is not complete, and the outcome is as yet unknown.

One of the reasons (but not the only one) why I am covering the subject so assiduously on the blog is that I will refer to my posts (and some of the comments) in the weeks to come, as material for the coming chapter. What I write on the day gives a far more immediate feel of events than going back over newspaper reports and archive material.

All of this, though, is but a somewhat lengthy lead-in to today's post where I note (and have done for a little while) a slowly dawning realisation in some corners of the media that the end of the transition period is going to be a shitshow without compare, with or without (and seemingly without) Johnson's "skinny" deal.

We have, for instance, a piece in The Irish Times which retails Mick Mulvaney, the US president's special envoy for Northern Ireland, claiming that Ireland's Simon Coveney told him during a private meeting in September that the EU could use commercial aviation as a lever to compel the British to adhere to the Brexit deal to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

According to this rendition, Coveney was concerned the EU could put "tremendous pressure" on the Irish to control the flow of goods coming across the Border from outside the EU in Belfast to inside in Dublin, whence Mulvaney was told that there were "much more powerful levers the Europeans could pull under those circumstances than a border across the island of Ireland".

Coveney is said to have referred to commercial aviation as an example "which gets to the British in some place which is a little bit closer to home, perhaps in a larger economic impact", with Coveney then saying that, "British Airways continues to want to fly from London to the continent and if the Europeans got really, really upset they could make BA's life very difficult".

The story has since been denied by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, which almost certainly means there is some truth in it. After all, when the transition period ends, the UK will need an aviation agreement with the EU and, as far as I am aware, this has still not been settled.

Then we have the BBC recording that a Stormont committee has been told that Irish Sea Brexit border will involve checks in both Britain and Northern Ireland.

There will be identity checks on sealed containers in ports like Cairnryan, Heysham and Liverpool, after the paperwork had been checked online by staff in Larne. Then, a "small number" of lorries arriving off ferries in Northern Ireland will be physically checked.

A separate but linked story in the local Welsh press tells us that, pending the building of a facility on Anglesey, near the port of Holyhead, customs checks will be done in England, possibly with traffic being directed to interim sites in Birmingham and Warrington.

Adding to the fun, the Guardian has Sainsbury's telling us that the supply of some fish, dairy and meat products to its stores in Northern Ireland could be significantly reduced from January because of Brexit.

CEO Simon Roberts warns that, unless there is more clarity on the Northern Irish situation, there will be a restriction on a substantial number of products "and quite key, everyday products too".

We are also told that supply chains will be hit by Brexit whether there is a free trade deal or not between the EU and the UK because the Northern Ireland protocol kicks in at 11pm on 31 December. Who knew?

It is understood, we are further informed, that the EU has yet to grant a third-country listing for products of animal origin, a controversial issue that came up quite recently. This should have been settled by now, and there will be serious problems for the whole of the UK if it isn't sorted by the end of the year.

There are also plant health issues, which are putting Scottish seed potato companies, which sell into Northern Ireland, under "incredible strain. The latest guidelines tell us that EU third country equivalence will be required to market seed potatoes from GB into NI, which can take 1-2 years to be granted. This, the guidelines helpfully say, will leave a gap where GB businesses will be unable to export.

And so we sit round the fireside and enjoy the yarns of everyday country folk from a group of offshore islands on the perimeter of mainland Europe, this is all grist to the mill for the next few months and for some time more.

Despite the media obsessions with other matters, there is already a lot to keep us entertained, and there's a lot more to come.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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