Richard North, 21/02/2021  

As so often with the legacy media, more effort is being devoted to palace gossip than factual reporting of any number of important issues, much of it centred on the apparent influence of Carrie Symonds and her allies, as they bid for Johnson's attention and patronage.

On the other hand, it seems to be a while since Johnson had anything to say about Brexit, so there is little high political drama to report in that respect. Presumably, he is devoting his political energies to Covid-19, possibly in the hope that he will be able to bask in the halo effect stemming from a successful vaccination programme.

Nevertheless, the rise and rise of David Frost, the relative decline of Michael Gove, and the waning influence of Vote Leave remnants, suggest a recognition in Number 10 that a crisis is building, which needs to be more forcefully addressed.

Whether it means that Johnson feels more vulnerable about Brexit is anyone's guess – but it is not delivering much good news for him. That, potentially, leaves him wide open to attacks on the subject, reinforcing the view that Starmer should be making it one of his key policy areas.

And, it seems, we are by no means alone in being disturbed by his behaviour. Labour MPs are actually "dismayed", and it's not just because of Starmer's refusal to engage. It seems that Labour high command has ordered the troops to maintain "radio silence" on Brexit for fear that criticising Johnson's flawed deal would be damaging for the party.

So far, the omerta is working. Since 1 January Starmer has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at PMQs. Interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare and none of the shadow cabinet or frontbench team have made a speech in parliament on the issues affecting UK businesses.

But this goes way beyond parliament. Not only are Labour MPs are being "asked" by the party not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament, the omerta extends to dealing with the media and posting on social media.

However, Starmer's stance is causing some unease amongst "senior party figures", with one member of his frontbench team said that attempts to "brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence". He added that Starmer was "terrified" of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.

Former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain says that Brexit has become the "elephant in the room" for Labour. It's almost as if he had been reading this blog.

Undoubtedly, this is contributing to the bizarre lack of focus in the legacy media. Schooled in "biff-bam" personality politics, without Westminster politicians engaging on the issues, this leaves journalists having to resort to old-fashioned reporting on their own account – something for which they seem singularly ill-equipped.

It is not as if they are short of material though. Latest in the long list of groups adversely affected by Johnson's "triumphs" are professional cycle racers. But, for news of their fate, once more, we must turn to the speciality press, in this case Cycling Weekly.

This has "British pros" urging the government to negotiate visa-free permits to race in EU, to get round the current 90-day limit in 180 days. Many British professional racers are either based in Europe or, with European-centric racing schedules coming up, have been left in limbo.

Countries such as Belgium, for instance, require riders to earn €80,000 in order to be classed as a professional sportsperson and be granted a special athlete visa. This leaves racer Olly Moors in the lurch, having lived and raced in Belgium for the past five years.

He currently finds himself stuck in the UK while his girlfriend, also a racing pro, has set off for Belgium ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad next weekend, her 90 allocated travel days ticking down with every passing day.

"So we're basically both on the 90 days and this would have been my fifth year living in Belgium and obviously now that there's Brexit I can't do that", Moors says. " Because of the 90-day rule it's kind of screwed all of that up really".

He would like something like extended tourist visas to be given to athletes, to allow them to go to the country and just stay put. Moors adds: "There's no UK racing scene for me as a domestic UK rider. I'm better off in Belgium because we've got a really good solid French and Belgian and Dutch summer calendar coming up".

If the fashion and other industries. Are any guide, Moors and his fellow racers will be waiting a long time before they get any response from government. The fashion industry, in fact, are at odds with culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who is accused of a "patronising" response to pleas for help.

Rather than offer anything constructive, Dowden has told industry leaders to use their "star power" to persuade Brussels and EU member states to relax post-Brexit restrictions. The leaders question whether other industries would be urged to use their "star power".

They note that while the government was prepared to pursue a no-deal strategy in order to help the fishing industry, it had offered their sector comparatively little help, despite the size of the contribution to the GDP.

Designer Alice Temperley says, "For the government to come back with this, they are hiding, they are cowards", adding: "The government likes to entertain us during fashion week when we are all invited to 10 Downing Street to meet the prime minister. But now the government isn't here to help, there is no voice, there is no guidance and there is no clarity on the situation. No one is talking about the fashion industry".

Yasmin Le Bon, the fashion model, says: "We rarely speak up for ourselves for fear of seeming uncool, but this is about more, it's about hundreds of thousands of jobs that may potentially be lost. For once we need to be listened to and for the government to work with us before it is too late".

The meat industry, though, seems to be having better luck. According to the Grocer - another example of the trade press making the running – the government is in talks with the EU over a veterinary agreement that – potentially - could dramatically reduce the number of SPS checks on animal origin goods moving into the EU.

Eustice has publicly backed the plan and the UK is thought to be seeking a New Zealand-style agreement which would recognise each other's standards as equivalent while not demanding any further alignment.

This idea has been floated before, in the hope that UK traders can benefit from the same concessions that are afforded to New Zealand, with identity checks reduced to verifying that container seals are intact and identity information corresponds with the documentation, while physical checks are limited to one percent, as opposed to the 15-30 percent applied to UK product.

It is unlikely, though, that the UK will get anything like the same concessions. New Zealand export standards are exceptionally high and the trade is in prime quality meats, with pork excluded. By far the greater proportion of exports is lamb, where animal disease incidence is low.

Very few UK slaughterhouses match NZ processing standards, while we also trade in the "rubbish" end of the market, selling older breeding animals, which are more prone to disease. The best that could be hoped for is to trim inspection frequencies to Canadian levels, of 20 percent – which has proved of little benefit to Canadian exporters.

In any case at the time of reporting, Gove was apparently leading the discussions with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. Frost's appointment as "Europe" supremo may set back any talks or even remove the prospect of any agreement.

A sign of things to come, though, is the robust response to the Commission's refusal to admit live bivalve molluscs from Class B waters, intended for depuration before consumption.

In what is being dubbed "Water Wars", ministers are looking at proposals to restrict the import of European mineral water and several food products, comprising direct retaliatory measures in response to Brussels' action on UK shellfish.

Meanwhile, elements of the equestrian industry are taking matters into their own hands, evading expensive fees and paperwork by transporting high-value mares from Ireland to the UK via Northern Ireland, instead of shipping them direct.

This was picked up by the Horse & Hound magazine on 6 February, but two weeks later is being "revealed" by the Sunday Telegraph. The paper also claims an exclusive, telling us that ministers are looking at a new "UK creative industries export office" which could help assist artists with international gigs. This, however, does not seem to be directed specifically at problems related to the EU.

Add the troubles at the ports, and fishermen in fear of losing their homes, and there is more than enough material for Starmer and his merry men to work on. But if Brexit is to remain a politics-free zone, the sense of betrayal can only build.

And if politics is no longer working, the denizens of Westminster can hardly be surprised if people start looking elsewhere for their relief.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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