Richard North, 07/11/2020  

The day before yesterday we saw the publication of the NAO Report on UK border preparedness for the end of the transition period. It was reviewed widely in legacy media organs such as the Guardian.

That paper told us that Whitehall's spending watchdog has concluded that billions of pounds worth of trade with the European Union will face "significant disruption" on 1 January, regardless of whether a trade deal is agreed.

Amongst its worries were that crucial IT systems have yet to be tested and transit areas for lorries are not ready as the government attempts to prepare new border controls for the end of the Brexit transition period. Additionally, the planned controls, which had already been rated "high risk", have been further hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Times was on the case as well, retailing the NAO's observation that Britain's trade with the EU will face "significant disruption" whether or not a trade deal is agreed with Brussels.

This paper cites Meg Hillier, the Labour chairwoman of the public accounts committee, saying that the government "simply hasn't given businesses enough time to prepare", adding: "It's incredibly worrying that, with two months to go, critical computer systems haven't been properly tested. The government can only hope that everything comes together on the day but this is not certain".

It also has Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, saying that: "1 January is unlike any previous EU exit deadline — significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready. Disruption is likely and government will need to respond quickly to minimise the impact, a situation made all the more challenging by the pandemic".

Yesterday, we then get City AM headlining: " Boris Johnson says UK 'well prepared' for no-deal Brexit".

As to the text, the prime minister said that he hoped a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union could be agreed but, he added, "the country was well prepared if final-stage talks with the bloc did not succeed".

"I think there is a deal to be done if they want to do", he said. "If not, the country is of course very, very well prepared and as I have said before, we can do very, very well on Australian terms".

Bearing in mind the NAO report – and much else – if any other person had said this, he (or she) would be dismissed as ignorant, or barking mad. But this is the prime minister (for the moment).

But then, Rory Stewart seems to have sussed him. "Johnson is", he says, "the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister".

His range of skills in this area, he says, are prodigious. Johnson has "mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial".

He has also "perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true".

And this is that man who, today, is to hold talks with Ursula von der Leyen, before a potentially decisive week in the Brexit negotiations, "amid growing concern in Brussels at the lack of progress".

We can, of course, trust this "most accomplished liar" accurately to represent UK interests when he speaks on the phone with the Commission president, especially as this may prove to be the final chance for a political intervention in the troubled talks. What can possibly go wrong?

Whatever does happen, Barnier will be back in London on Sunday, returning to the treadmill of the EU-UK trade talks, as time rapidly ebbs away. The day of days, it now appears, will come at the end of the week, when some sort of resolution must surely be reached.

It almost gets tedious to remind ourselves (scratch "almost") that outstanding issues "remain the level of access to UK waters provided to EU fishing fleets, fair competition rules for business – including rules on domestic subsidies – and the mechanism in the final treaty for resolving future disputes".

One begins to wonder whether they are attempting to bore us into submission so that, once the "skinny" deal is finally made, we'll rejoice at whatever we get, in sheer relief that the torture is over.

However, even this may be unrealistic as Barnier has been saying that the gap between the two sides remains "too wide on too many issues". He told MEPs in a meeting last Wednesday that "next week is really the last chance for the British to move", yet movement is not really expected.

The interesting – or appalling (take your pick) – thing is that EU officials say that Johnson has not shown "any grasp of the detail", something about which Rory Stewart complains, but also wonders whether this is really the problem.

"Was it allergy to detail which meant that, two-and-a-half years after the Brexit vote, he still struggled to understand the Customs Union was blind to the issue of Irish borders", he asks. Stewart also questions why Johnson "kept saying that we could have a transition period without an agreement".

But contradictions are – to coin a phrase – all grist to the mill to Johnson. On 27 September 2019, he offered in the Telegraph his "plan for a better Brexit", calling for a "SuperCanada" free trade deal.

Amongst the delights he proposed were "Mutual Recognition Agreements covering UK and EU regulations", yet in the same breath argued for "regulatory divergence". To Johnson, this was "one of the key attractions of Brexit".

Thus, we had a man who wanted freedom to diverge, while still expecting the EU to recognise, unreservedly, the resultant standards – even though mutual recognition was a privilege afforded only within the Single Market. This was, at the time, delusion on steroids. And there is no reason to believe that, a year on, Johnson has any better grasp of the issues.

Stewart has a relevant observation here, saying that, "It is hard to accept that in every case he [Johnson] agrees on what is good, and intends it, but somehow frustrates himself from achieving it – rather than in fact having quite different beliefs, priorities and intentions".

In fact, it is impossible to divine precisely (or at all) what Johnson's "beliefs, priorities and intentions" really are. But to have this man at the helm at such a crucial time is seriously ungood. It doesn't take much to call him out as a bullshitter but, inadvertently, the NAO has done just that. We are "very well prepared", says Johnson. The NAO says otherwise.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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