EU Referendum

EU Referendum: an open letter to Dominic Cummings


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Dear Dominic

You have been prominent in the media recently, slated as a key figure in the development of an effective "no" campaign, and your role in the newly-formed "Exploratory Committee" has been well advertised.

As such, you are in a position to have a significant impact on the shape of the "no" campaign, to which effect it is extremely helpful and generous of you to air your initial views on your own blog on aspects of the campaign. In particular, you pose two questions – firstly as to whether there might be not one but two referendums, and then you ask whether it is necessary for the "no" campaign to produce an exit plan.

Since you have aired these issues in public, in the interests of openness and fair debate, I will answer your points on this blogpost. Because of the complexity (and importance) of the issues, it may take me a couple of days to complete this one post, especially as I intend to take into account any relevant comments of my readership – which is also entitled to express a view.

When the piece is complete, I will also send you an e-mail with a link, and if you wish, I can also send you a copy in any other format, should you want to circulate it further. It would help then to have a considered response, published out in the open, but I will not hold you to that. You are undoubtedly very busy.

However, I will state that, in my view, there are no more important a questions in relation to the forthcoming "no" campaign than, firstly, whether we should have an exit plan, and then, secondly, the nature of that plan (and, indeed whether there should be one or several plans).

Upon the outcome of this issue will depend my attitude to the campaign lead, and my degree of involvement in the campaign. I am sure many of my 10,000-plus readers will also be taking a keen interest in the outcome, and none of us will want to expend much energy on a campaign if it is doomed to failure from the outset.

With that in mind, I will address first the issue of whether the "no" campaign should have an exit plan, to which effect, if I understand you correctly, you are veering towards the view that we should not have one. To quote you on the matter, you wrote:
There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue. No10 is dusting off its lines from the Scottish referendum. Perhaps they can be neutralised.

Different people have different ideas about the best way to leave. For example, some people suggest we should leave the EU but simply remain in the Single Market while we negotiate a new deal. Others have different ideas. Global rules set by the World Trade Organisation provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade. But none of this is the real point. We are not a Government. We can't negotiate anything. A NO vote as a simple matter of law does not mean that we leave the EU tomorrow. A NO vote really means that a new government team must negotiate a new deal with the EU and they will have to give us a vote on it. If you want the EU to keep all the power it has and keep taking more power as it has for decades, and you're happy paying billions to the EU every year instead of putting it into the NHS – then vote YES. If you want to say "stop", vote NO and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal. If the country votes YES, we've lost our chance to change anything. We may not get another vote for decades, after we've had to bail out euro countries and had another few decades of the EU's useless and inhumane immigration policy. If the country votes NO, we can force politicians to get us a better deal.
The key points which I take from this (which I assume is the expression of your opinion) is that we – i.e., the "no" campaign - is not a government and can't negotiate anything. Therefore we can't dictate terms, which are basically up to government. Instead, therefore, you propose an alternative, essentially arguing for a fear-based (i.e., negative) strategy, of scaring people into voting "no", essentially because, if they do not, they'll not get another chance in decades.

I trust that I have properly and accurately conveyed the thrust of your argument – if I have not, please do get back to me and I'll make the necessary adjustments. But, on the assumption that I am correctly conveying the flavour of your stance, if at this point I say: "with the greatest of respect ... ", you will know exactly what that means.

Some long time ago – in March 2011, to be precise - I wrote a piece about what I called the Stokes precept. It was named after the Conservative MP Richard Stokes, who contributed to a debate in the Commons on 15 October 1940 (at the height of the London Blitz) on war aims. These at the time (and were to continue to be) an extremely contentious issue, whence Mr Stokes argued that that you cannot campaign solely on a negative. You have to give people something positive to aim for. 

Arguably, it was the failure of Churchill to offer a positive vision for his war aims (resolutely refusing to discuss them, or permit a formal statement) that lost him the 1945 general election. And here you are suggesting that we fight on a negative basis, a strategy that, in my view, will ensure we lose.

What in fact I am arguing for is three things, what I've been calling a three-legged stool. I put this up on the blog and any effort spent in reading it would be well rewarded. It goes through the argument in detail, for an exit plan and other components of what should form the "intellectual case" needed to underpin our campaign.

Specifically, I argue, we must have our negative case (as you have set out - although it needs much more). We then need a "positive" vision - a picture of what a post-exit Britain might look like - effectively conforming with the Stokes precept.  But then, as I have written God knows how often - and in detail in Flexcit, which you really need to read - no plan will be successful if drafted without reference to the capabilities and intentions of the enemy.

In this context, again and again we see - in practice and in terms of declared intent - that the pro-EU side intends to rely mainly on fear. More specifically, it is using FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt - powerful tools which act in favour of the status quo.

Therefore, in addition to our negative pitch, and our positive vision, we need a FUD neutraliser. When the enemy argues that leaving the EU is a terribly dangerous venture, we have to counter by illustrating that leaving the EU is a perfectly practicable proposition, entirely reasonable and safe. That is the purpose of an exit plan. It is not to second-guess the government. It's primary purpose is to demonstrate to the wavering voter that leaving the EU is possible and safe.

Elsewhere, I have painted a picture of people on the bank of a river, looking at an island in the middle, in which is situated a utopian village. To motivate them to go there, I argue, you must make the case that to stay where they are is not optimal (or even very bad) and that the island is a perfect destination. But you are not going to convince people to make the crossing if the waters are crocodile-infested and those who attempt to swim across face certain death. You must provide a sturdy boat and a seasoned crew.

Thus do we complete our three-legged stool. We have our case for saying "no" – why we need to get out. We paint a rosy vision of what it would like to be out, and then we reassure people that it is safe to cross over into the promised land.

Putting this another way, this is basic motivational theory. I won't give you a specific link because there are hundreds which say much the same things. In essence, in order to get people to change (in this case, vote "no" in a referendum when they are inclined to vote the other way), you first have to establish the need. People need to be convinced of the need to change.

Secondly, you must identify the reward – the reason why the risk is worth it. Then, thirdly, you must remove the barriers to realisation. In this coming referendum, the most important barrier is fear (or FUD, if you like). That's what makes an exit plan essential. And I really do mean essential – not an optional extra, but a core part of the "no" campaign's intellectual trinity. Without it, I would argue, a campaign is unlikely to succeed. 

Before leaving the matter there, however, I must return again to your idea that the detail of an exit plan is best left to government, because we, the "no" campaign, are not in a position to execute such a plan. What, in effect, you are saying is that the development of an exit plan should be left to those in the position to execute it.

You might care to pause to consider this argument for, if it was valid, it would negate much of the rationale for the think-tank industry that inhabits (some might say infests) London. Part of the necessary process of advocacy - often adopted by think-tanks - is not only to propose a course of action, but suggest to government the means by which it should be achieved. 

It is by no means unusual for government then to borrow ideas from those think-tanks (or other bodies), in order to execute their policies. One might even observe that the whole idea of the European Union came from outside agencies, as indeed did the methodology for making it happen.

An important part of making an idea happen, therefore, is to suggest (sometimes in some detail) how it might happen. This is another good reason why a exit plan should be produced independently by the "no" campaign, with the added advantage that in the event of success and the Government is forced to negotiate our exit, the plan can be used as the yardstick against which its performance can be measured. If it delivers a less advantageous deal than we suggest is possible, we have reason to ask why.

Finally, to conclude this part of my letter on this issue of whether we need an exit plan, I must refer once more to the activities and intentions of our enemies. In this context, one sees Sir Mike Rake, in his persona as President of the CBI openly taunt the "no" campaign on its failure to coalesce around a credible exit plan. Thus, he said at the May speech to the CBI annual dinner:
No-one has yet set out a credible alternative future to EU membership. The current alternatives are not realistic options – little or no influence and the obligation to comply with EU principles whilst still paying most of the costs.
Sir Mike is not the first or only person to make this point. In November last year, we saw Juergen Maier, chief executive of Siemens UK, note that, "It is perturbing that those who claim that Britain would be better off out have not put forward a detailed alternative for what 'out' means".

In the wake of Sir Mike's speech, we saw this theme picked up by a leader in the Observer and, by reference to the Business for New Europe (BNE) site, we can see this developing into a major attack point for the "yes" campaign, which will increasingly be used against us.

On this basis, and much more, its is overwhelmingly evident that the "no" campaign cannot go into this fight without a comprehensive, clearly thought-out exit plan. There is no gentle way of putting this: to argue against having such a plan is simply not a credible position.

Before moving on to address the question of whether there should be a unified exit plan, I now turn to your comments on a second referendum. In the first instance, you pose the question of whether the Government will suggest a second referendum, in the event that we succeed with a "no" vote. That raises some intriguing possibilities.

You suggest that offering a second vote would give the government the opportunity to reverse a loss in the first, so that "yes" would mean victory yet "no" would not necessarily mean defeat. European governments, you remind us, have held second votes repeatedly over the past quarter century.

On this basis, you posit a scenario where the government says: "If the public votes 'no', we will have to negotiate an exit deal with the EU and we believe that it is only right that the public has a vote on the final deal". If it did offer this option, you assert that it would be likely that Labour would do the same. You even argue that Labour might suggest this, and that the Government would feel obliged to agree.

Secondly, you ask whether the "no" side should demand a second referendum in the hope of forcing the parties to commit to one. At this juncture, I might myself suggest that, when you get round to reading Flexcit, you will note that we entertain the possibility of a referendum on the outcome of Article 50 negotiations. There is a reference to one on page 3, in the summary we so helpfully provide for people who haven't the time to read the whole document. There is another on page 123, and another on 393.

For sure, we don't make a big thing of it, not least because I have mixed feelings about the utility of a "yes-no" referendum. A "yes" vote would at least give democratic legitimacy to the agreement, but a "no" vote would present us with some problems. There does not appear to be a facility within Article 50 for the departing state to reach a provisional agreement and come back for more talks if it can't get it ratified. The outcome would mean dropping out of the treaties without a replacement agreement. This, as we will see shortly, would be disastrous. 

On the other hand – as we have observed earlier in this letter – a referendum on the Article 50 agreement would serve to keep the Government honest. If, for instance, it sought to broker a dishonest deal which meant rejoining the EU disguised as something else – which is quite possible – then a new "no" campaign could pull the plug, and warn the nation to reject the deal. 

As to whether the "no" campaign might argue for a second vote, which is a scenario you discuss, I tend towards the view that we should do so. And if for no other reason, it sets the tone for a new, independent nation. If the Government took us into the EEC (and then the EU) without a vote, it can at least commit to a fully democratic process when taking us out of the EU.

You yourself argue that, "as a matter of democratic accountability, given the enormous importance of so many issues that would be decided in an Article 50 renegotiation – a far, far bigger deal than a normal election – it seems right to give people a vote on it". I tend to agree.

However, you also argue that it makes a "no" vote seem much less risky. "If you vote 'yes', you won't get another vote for another 40 years – if ever. You should vote 'no' to Cameron's rubbish deal", you suggest. "If you vote 'no', you will force a new Government to negotiate a new deal and give you a new vote. A 'no' vote is much safer than a 'yes' vote".

With this last argument, I am not sure I agree. It seems rather too convoluted and confusing – and thus easily demolished. The question is whether the initial "no" vote is safe on its own merits. And that depends largely on whether there "no" campaign can deliver a credible exit plan. We have gone full circle.

I now turn to another of the crucial matters that you raise, the question of whether we need a unified exit plan, as opposed to the argument over whether we should have one at all. "Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around", you observe, "seems an almost insuperable task". You add, quite rightly, that: "Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions".

To address the key point, though, and to answer the question of whether we need a unified exit plan, the response has to be, most emphatically in the negative. Unlike the advocates for European political integration, we do not need to be tied to a single, monolithic plan. We can embrace and rejoice in plurality and diversity.

Whether we need a "unified plan", therefore, it the wrong question. To get to the right question, we need to go back to Sir Mike Rake, who asserted that "no-one has yet set out a credible alternative future to EU membership" – or (unspoken) a means by which we could safely arrive at that future destination.

The operative word, therefore, is not "unified", but "credible". If the "no" campaign is to offer or endorse one or any number of exit plans, they must meet one test, that of credibility.

What we cannot afford is official recognition of any plans which do not meet the credibility test. Even if the "no" campaign also endorses a plan which is credible, the enemy will attack the weakest link. It will adopt divide and conquer tactics, and afford most prominence to the weakest plan.

In your blogpost, you kindly refer to our plan, Flexcit, although you tell us that you need to study it more. You also state that, "Global rules set by the World Trade Organisation provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade", which is a tangential reference to a plan given a number of titles and descriptions, but which is generically known as the "WTO option" - or sometimes the MFN-based approach.

There are other options, and most (including the WTO option) are described and analysed in depth in Flexcit, and you would find their study rewarding. The sections convey essential knowledge, without which you will struggle to understand the arguments being put forward.

Although we assert that Flexcit should be adopted officially by the "no" campaign as a stand-alone plan, we are also quite relaxed about other plans being adopted. Our only proviso, on which our support for the official campaign is conditional, is that they should be credible. 

However, what is happening at the moment is that a bid is being made to have the "WTO option" adopted as the official credo of the "no" campaign. We also learn that Flexcit, for reasons which have not yet been openly declared, should be discarded. Furthermore, it is my understanding that you are involved in the process of selection, albeit that an official "no" campaign has yet to be selected (and can only be by the Electoral Commission).

But, if there is to be a contest of ideas, it is healthy that it should be out in the open, not least so that justice is seen to be done. There has been far too much hole-in-the-corner stuff, some of which has been a disgrace to the good name of Euroscepticism. Your facilitation of an open debate is thus doubly to be welcomed.

Now, against that background, I will aver that, in whatever name or guise it might appear, the "WTO option", as a plan, entirely lacks credibility. We (for I am not alone in this) would go so far as to suggest that the ideas being advocated by a number of prominent groups are dangerously flawed, to the extent that, if adopted by an official "no" campaign, they could be instrumental in losing us the referendum. Their destructive potential cannot be overstated.

To be absolutely clear on what is being discussed, though, we will reiterate our understanding that the "WTO option" is one where the UK leaves the EU without having negotiated any trade agreements with the EU, either within the framework of Article 50 negotiations, or on the margins. Instead, it relies entirely on the multilateral WTO agreements covering trade-related matters.

As to this option, I've already trashed it on this blog, I've taken it apart in Flexcit and I've held seminars and workshops explaining why it's a non-starter. But like the resignation of a Ukip leader, just when you think it's gone, up it comes again.

As you review the living dead on your blog, I note that you assert that: "Global rules set by the World Trade Organisation provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade", and we also note from another source the claim that: "Were the UK to leave [the EU], it would continue to have access to the EU's markets, as World Trade Organization rules prevent the EU from imposing unfair, punitive tariffs on UK exports".

Looking briefly at your comment, where you assert that the WTO provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade, one has to take note of the "some" qualifier as regards protection against discrimination. The point here, that you need to take firmly on board, is that the WTO rules only afford very limited protection against discrimination, and then only in respect of tariffs.

But, as the WTO site itself says, "by their very nature RTAs (Regional Trade Agreements – as is the EU) are discriminatory", and, under WTO rules, an amount of discrimination against third countries (and that would include the UK) is permitted. The WTO observes:
Modern RTAs, and not exclusively those linking the most developed economies, tend to go far beyond tariff-cutting exercises. They provide for increasingly complex regulations governing intra-trade (e.g. with respect to standards, safeguard provisions, customs administration, etc.) and they often also provide for a preferential regulatory framework for mutual services trade. The most sophisticated RTAs go beyond traditional trade policy mechanisms, to include regional rules on investment, competition, environment and labour.
The crunch issue here is the "preferential regulatory framework". Unless goods seeking entrance to the EU Single Market (i.e., British exports) conform to the regulations which comprise the framework, they are not permitted entry. Thus, the assertion that, if the UK left the EU, "it would continue to have access to the EU’s markets …", is simply not true. And - to spell it out - if it is not true, it is false.

With or without tariff issues being resolved – which are actually irrelevant to the access issue - the claim is false. Tariffs do not prevent access to a market. They simply impose a tax on entry. The actual barrier is regulatory conformity – what is known generally as a non-tariff barrier (NTB) or, sometimes, as technical barrier to trade (TBT).

Nevertheless, it is generally recognised that, in order to access the Single Market, goods must comply with EU rules. Conformity is the way of overcoming the NTB. But what advocates of the WTO option have not realised is that there is more to it than that – much more. Potential exporters not only have to ensure their goods conform, they must provide evidence of their so doing. This requires putting the goods through a recognised system of what is known as "conformity assessment".

We are at this point entering serious "nerd" territory. If your eyes are beginning to glaze over, all I can say is welcome to my world. It has taken me years of mind-numbing, tedious study to understand this amount of detail, and either your know it, or you don't. If you don't, you are going to make serious mistakes. And that is just what the "WTO option" advocates have done. Bear with me and you'll see why their mistakes are not so much serious as catastrophic.

And, for all that, the fundamentals are quite simple. The point about the Single Market is that border checks have been eliminated. The common rules are monitored by relevant national authorities and there is mutual recognition of standards. Thus, if you so desire, you can load a truck with grommets in Glasgow and ship them all the way to Alexandroupoli on the Turkish border, with just the occasional document check.

But the moment we leave the EU, this stops. Your grommet manufacturer may still comply with exactly the same standards, but the testing houses and the regulatory agencies are no longer recognised. The consignment has no valid paperwork. And, without it, it must be subject to border checks, visual inspection and physical testing.

What that means in practice is that the customs inspector detains your shipment and takes samples to send to an approved testing house (one for the inspector, one for the office pool, one for the stevedores and one for the lab is often the case). Your container inspection is typically about £700 and detention costs about £80 a day for the ten days or so it will take to get your results back. Add the testing fee and you're paying an extra £2,000 to deliver a container into the EU.

Apart from the costs, the delays are highly damaging. Many European industries are highly integrated, relying on components shipped from multiple countries right across Europe, working to a "just in time" regime. If even a small number of consignments are delayed, the whole system starts to snarl up.

Then, as European ports start having to deal with the unexpected burden of thousands of inspections, and a backlog of testing as a huge range of products sit at the ports awaiting results, the system will grind to a halt. It won't just slow down. It will stop. Trucks waiting to cross the Channel at Dover will be backed up the motorway all the way to London.

For animal products exported to the EU, the situation is even worse – if that is possible. Products from third countries (which is now the UK) are permitted entry only through designated border inspection posts (BIPs). Only at these can they be inspected and, if necessary, detained for testing. But, for trade between the UK and EU member states, there are no designated BIPs. Until one (or more) has been nominated and equipped trade in these products stops dead - say goodbye to a £12 billion export trade.

If the way out of the country becomes blocked, very quickly the return route gets blocked and incoming trade from the EU starts suffering. In the UK, goods from the EU are no longer delivered. Trade slows. Manufacturers which depend on imported components start struggling and then have to close. And while the naysayers talk about losing three million jobs if we leave the EU, we are looking at twice that and more – seven or eight million jobs are at stake.

At this point, you might say, how can this happen? The "WTO option" advocates will tell you that countries such as China, the United States and Australia all trade with the EU without formal trade agreements, and therefore operate under WTO rules. They don't have these problem – so why would the UK? The answer, however, is tragically simple. These countries don't rely solely on WTO rules.

What our "WTO option" advocates have done is make a very basic but fatal mistake. They're obsessed with tariffs and haven't begun to focus on non-tariff barriers. Thus, by and large, they are only looking at trade agreements dealing with tariffs - a sub-set of international agreements which are registered with the WTO. But there are many different types of agreement and many which involve trade, either directly or indirectly, which are not registered with the WTO. These, for our "WTO option" advocates, remain under the radar. To them, they are invisible.

Yet one of the most important types of trade agreement is the Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) on conformity assessment. This gets round the problem of border checks, as the EU will then recognise the paperwork on product testing and conformity certification. Throw in agreement on Customs cooperation – to ensure that official paperwork and systems mesh – and you are on your way to trouble-free border crossings.

China has a Mutual Recognition Agreement, signed in May 2014, the United States has one on conformity assessment which runs to 81 pages, agreed in 1999. Even Australia has one. All of these are outside the remit of the WTO but they are nonetheless trade agreements, and vital ones at that. But look then what the think-tank Global Britain - another "WTO option" advocate - is doing. "As an example", it writes, "Australia has no trade agreement with the EU ... ". It then goes on to cite an EU web page, which actually tells us:
The EU and Australia conduct their trade and economic relations under the EU-Australia Partnership Framework of October 2008. This aims, apart from cooperation on the multilateral trade system and trade in services and investment issues, to facilitate trade in industrial products between the EU and Australia by reducing technical barriers, including conformity assessment procedures.
What is the EU-Australia Partnership Framework, if not (inter alia) a trade agreement? The details are set out here, and we also see that it sets the framework for the all-important MRA on conformity assessment. One MRA is here, running to 110 pages, with an amendment here running to a further 20 pages.

There are, in fact, 82 agreements between the EU and Australia, of which 18 are bilateral. There are 65 between the EU and China, of which 13 are bilateral. Between the EU and the United States, there are 135, of which 55 are bilateral. As regards trading agreements, not only is Global Britain incorrect in its assertions, its authors apparently don't even read their own reports.

Such is the importance of agreements such as the MRAs that the UK would have no option but to seek deal with the EU, for which there is a facility within Article 50. But, the moment it sought such deals, it would no longer be relying on exclusively on WTO rules. It would be seeking bilateral agreements along the lines of the so-called "Swiss option".

One can say, unequivocally, that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the "WTO option". It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government would allow it. If, on the other hand, the official "no" campaign adopts it, the "yes" side will be counting its blessings.

Initially, we will be looking at a slow burn. In what is an arcane field, pro-EU analysts are almost as ignorant as our own. And there is always a possibility that mutual ignorance would cancel out pro- and anti-EU campaigns. But, with this ticking time bomb at the heart of the "no" campaign, it would be unwise to assume that real trade experts will not brief the opposition on the implications of the "WTO option". If that happens, we can expect the FUD to be lethal. The chances of the "no" side winning would quickly recede to nil, especially if the demolition took place in the last weeks of the campaign.

But now, a further question arises, as to why a number of prominent bodies (and one in particular) got it so wrong, and are so keen to reject Flexcit, even though it apparently delivers the answers – or so we would aver.

To reach an answer on why, almost simultaneously, most of London-based think-tankers have suddenly taken the "WTO option" to their hearts, one has to recall the shambolic IEA Brexit competition last year when €100,000 was wasted on a trivial piece of work, when all six finalists just happened to support the so-called "Swiss option", or variations thereof. 

But, with the case for the Swiss option in tatters and with the criticisms mounting, out it all goes as the think-tankers turn on a sixpence and go chasing after their latest hystérie du jour. That's €100,000 for a master plan that has had a shelf life of 14 months before being unceremoniously dumped.

The point that has to be made, therefore, is that the London claque is in the grip of a disease, identified back in 1896 by Gustave Le Bon in his book The Crowd. The disease is one of prestige, of which he writes:
The special characteristic of prestige is to prevent us seeing things as they are and to entirely paralyse our judgement. Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige.
When you come to consider the arguments above, you need to be sure that you are making an objective assessment, and are not clouded by this disease which leads so many people astray. I touched on this in a recent post and conclude with the observation that there is far too much at stake to allow this to have its usual effect.

There is much more to write, and some of the points you raise on your blogpost I have not addressed. But this is neither the time or place: there are some other pressing matters I must attend to. Thus, I trust what I have written so far is helpful and I look forward to a continued dialogue. Before I finally do leave this, my own blogpost, though, I will quote your own words back at you:
To those who say these discussions should happen only in private, I strongly disagree. Much about a campaign has to remain secret but these big questions are necessarily part of public debate. A decade has been largely wasted. These big things must be confronted now in parallel to establishing a professional campaigning organisation and public discussion raises the probability of the NO campaign getting things right.
I could not agree more with those sentiments, and commend you wholeheartedly for expressing them. And I will add one sentiment of my own. I voted in the 1975 referendum and, having gone out and bought a copy of the Treaty of Rome – then to read the words "ever closer union" – voted "no". This time round, I will be fighting as well as voting, and with a determination to win. For those who do not share my commitment, I have a few words of advice.

Don't get in my way.

Yours truly,