Richard North, 13/11/2020  

With respect to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, one of the constant refrains of our much revered prime minister is that we're all in this together, and even in his latest statement he was warbling about how "we can together protect our NHS, save lives and get this virus back in its box".

It seems, however, that "togetherness" does not extend to the rabble occupying 10 Downing Street, where divided loyalties and rampant egos are dominating the headlines in certain papers, when the focus really should be on other things – like the impending deal (or not) with the EU.

By contrast, and even in absolute terms, the ins and outs of this soap opera really don't matter. But now that the obsession with the US presidential campaign is abating and whingeing about Covid-19 is getting repetitive, the media must have something to keep them occupied, since they can no longer deal with real news.

At least there seems to be some sense amongst Tory MPs that this current obsession is inappropriate, with one "senior" but unnamed MP openly calling on Johnson to "get a grip".

I do like the comment of another MP – this one asking not to be named – who says: "They’re children. Ideologues and self-obsessed fools". Who knew? But then, I suppose it's a question of better late than never. Did anyone really think it was ever going to be any different?

Yet another MP, who also speaks anonymously, says that the prime minister must shoulder the blame for internal rows at such a pivotal time for the country. The view from "a lot of colleagues", it seems, is that we are witnessing the end of hope in Boris as a second-term PM.

"He has left a vacuum at the centre of government and that is being filled by Cummings, who does not like the Conservative party, and his girlfriend, who lives above the shop. It's like the script from a bad soap opera".

In time, this will work its way through the system, and we will see some sort of resolution. But, even if Cummings is on his way out and decides to go back to his bunker in County Durham, any changes will have the air of shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. When the prime minister is fundamentally incompetent, he is beyond help.

With that in mind, I think Starmer has hit the nail on the head, describing the scenes in No 10 as "pathetic". He adds: "I think millions of people will be waking up this morning scratching their heads, saying, 'What on earth is going on?' We're in the middle of a pandemic, we're all worried about our health and our families, we're all worried about our jobs, and this lot are squabbling behind the door of No 10".

Meanwhile, back in what passes for the real world (and even that is debatable), Barnier has been looking for a level playing field (pictured), proving that, contrary to all rumours (totally unfounded, of course), it is possible for a Frenchman to have a sense of humour.

But, behind the humour, the reality is less happy. We're another day into the negotiations, and another day closer to that endlessly flexible deadline, and we seem to be no further forward.

When it can lift its eyes above the local squabbling, the Downing Street spokesperson acknowledged that "significant gaps" still remain between the two sides and then offers that classic statement of the bleedin' obvious: "time is in short supply".

And while the principals are playing their games in London, tales of woe from Northern Ireland continue to make headlines, one of the latest to do with the VAT regime.

Thousands of businesses in Northern Ireland, so the story goes, are set to be hit by new costly tax rules from next year as the government's post-Brexit (they mean TransEnd) customs policy will lead to additional levels of bureaucracy in order to adhere to EU law.

The system, which will be forced upon firms will require businesses in Northern Ireland to enter a complicated dual-VAT regime, which means they will have to collect the sales tax on behalf of both the UK Treasury and EU tax authorities.

The protocol, we are told, means that UK authorities will apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland. This will lead to new administrative processes for traders, including new electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information, for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

It is going to be a while, I suspect, before the full implications of Johnson's "fantastic moment" are realised, but already I am seeing diverse reports of traders in GB and elsewhere giving up on Northern Ireland, as the systems are seen to be too complex to be worth bothering with.

Even now, it doesn't take much to stoke up a riot in Belfast, so it is not entirely untoward to wonder what sort of a place Northern Ireland is going to be in a few months' time. If we do see an upsurge in violence, that is not going to play well for the Johnson administration, and Mr Biden may take an exceedingly dim view of proceedings. Johnson had better hope that the PSNI can deal with any disruption, and that he doesn't have to call in the Army – what's left of it.

Another thing that may catch Johnson off-guard is the possibility of an undesirable development in Canada, where premier Justin Trudeau has cast doubt over the UK securing a trade deal with his country by the 31 December.

Trudeau says that Britain is struggling to conclude an agreement rolling over the terms of the existing EU-Canada deal, and rather unkindly suggests that London does not have the "bandwidth" to get it done on time.

Canada, we are told, is the largest of 15 EU deals that the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, has yet to roll over, with less than 50 days to go until the transition period ends, and we can no longer take advantage of the EU's trade deals with other third countries.

Exports to this Northern Hemisphere neighbour are worth about £10 billion a year, while the total trade at risk from failing to complete the outstanding rollovers is about £80 billion. Mostly, the processes are relatively straightforward, but some are evidently not. And if Canada is supposed to be one of the easier ones, there is a possibility that we're in for a more difficult time than predicted.

The big deal of the day, though, is whether Mr Hancock's miracle vaccines, which will be produced in the Pfizer plant in Belgium, will be caught up in the expected border disruption in the new year.

Hancock, however, is claiming that the vaccines can be flown in, to circumvent any problems.

What he doesn't say though is whether his team, which has "a plan for all eventualities" has thought through the implications of transporting packs which have to be held at -80ºC, in pressurised aircraft. We may be seeing a use for the A-400Ms, if they can get enough of them in flying condition.

That this is even an issue does, of course, point to uncomfortable times ahead, and with Kent set to become the "toilet of England", the media is going to have a busy time of it, once it can start refocusing on the real world.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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