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Brexit: a topsy-turvy world

2018-12-29 08:39:47

Matthew Parris has a very weird idea of democracy, urging current MPs to take charge of the Brexit process. They must then, he says, tell the voters that they didn't reach the right decision in opting to leave the EU.

What happens then he doesn't exactly specify but one presumes Parris wants MPs to instruct Mrs May's government to revoke the Article 50 notification in a sort of factory reset of Brexit. That then leaves it open as to whether we have another referendum, and what questions might be posed.

But what this former MP doesn't seem to get is the implications of such an action by parliament. But its critics might not that, through the progression of additional European treaties since 1975, it had never exerted itself to insist that the people were consulted. Instead, it has allowed governments to agree successive treaties, stripping parliament of its powers, and handing them to the institutions in Brussels.

Then, when at last the people get a chance to vote and, effectively, instruct parliament to recover the powers it has ceded to Brussels, Parris wants parliament to rise up and tell the people they are wrong, and refuse to comply, acting to ensure that powers remain in Brussels.

There are most certainly other ways of spinning this but there is nobody who can prevent such a view circulating, laying the foundations of a meme that will hold that the only time parliament has seriously exerted itself in the last forty years is to reject the re-acquisition of powers that they have given away.

It is hard to believe that parliament could survive intact under such circumstances. Even without disorder and civil disobedience, the contempt for the institution of parliament would be so widespread that it would have lost what little moral authority which is left to it. The compact between governors and governed will have been broken, and things would never be the same again.

Perhaps it is just as well, therefore, that Mrs May is showing no signs of backtracking on Brexit, while it is indubitably the case that parliament is so fractured that it could not muster a majority to support any particular line of action, even if it doesn't support the withdrawal agreement which it will be asked to ratify on 15 January.

Whether indeed parliament can even survive in its current form, given the profound inadequacies revealed during the Brexit process, is moot. In fact, it is hard to treat any of the instruments and institutions of government with respect after their poor performances over the last two years so and more so Mrs May's government which has the turd Redwood being given a knighthood in the New Year Honours list.

For a very long time, the honours system has been highly suspect, and one struggles to retain any respect for it. But this award stretches tolerance past breaking point. Should I ever meet John Redwood again, there are no circumstances where I could ever envisage addressing him as Sir John.

This is only one small area though where the world seems to be turning topsy-turvy. In the Telegraph - that bastion of honesty and accuracy (not) we are now seeing supposedly authored work given the cover of "anonymous comment", purporting to be written by "a serving civil servant engaged in preparing the UK for a Brexit on WTO rules after 29 March 2019".

Overtly partisan, it refers to "remainer cabinet ministers trying to scare us into swallowing the withdrawal agreement", to "Project Fear Mark (I think) III", and equating the United Kingdom "with a tinpot dictatorship where officials tote machine guns and use dummies for target practice".

This is quite unlike anything written by a civil servant that I have ever seen and, given the propensity of Telegraph journalists to make things up, we cannot avoid the suspicion that this is another piece of fakery to which big-name journals are prone.

Not least, this anonymous person conveniently supports the Telegraph line in downplaying the effects of a "no deal" Brexit. He (or she) thus asserts that "of course" no-deal preparations have been made, telling us that:
Very detailed plans have been proposed, assessed, analysed to death and finally agreed by working groups and steering groups and directors' boards and cross-Whitehall talking shops. They have then been sent to ministers for approval. And they are now being executed.
Certainly, the plausibility of the claims is very much in doubt when we see the assertion that: "The European Union and various member states have also announced bilateral arrangements for euro clearing and financial services, for visa-free tourist travel, and for aviation rights".

This is a reference to the Commission contingency plan which, as readers are fully aware, details "unilateral measures for damage limitation", which the Commission stresses "can only mitigate the most severe consequences of a withdrawal without an agreement".

When there is something as basic yet as important as the distinction between unilateral measures (which can be revoked at any time) and "bilateral arrangements", we would not expect a civil servant of any seniority to be confused about them. And anyone who does not understand the difference is not what one might describe as a reliable source.

This even contradicts the Telegraph's own report on the Commission's plan, although it matches the amateur analysis produced by the likes of Mark Wallace in The Sun.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph is clearly untroubled by such glaring defects and has confidently published an "exclusive" news report with the headline: "Civil servant accuses ministers of 'Project Fear Mark III' over no-deal Brexit".

And here we have the distilled claims of this "civil servant", who writes: "Every day there is some fresh claim in the press backed up by people who should (and perhaps really do) know better that we must accept whatever outrageous terms we are offered by an intransigent EU because we are not prepared for no deal and it would be a disaster.

"If true", claims this source, "it would be a terrible indictment not only of this government but also of our civil service. And it is absolutely untrue, as anyone who, like me, has been involved in Brexit work for the past two-and-a-half years in Whitehall will tell you".

Bluntly, this is not credible stuff and coming from the Telegraph as it does, there is no reason to believe it even if many gullible readers are willing to absorb it uncritically.

Whether or not we are able to cope with a "no deal" Brexit is not in the gift of the UK government, as arrangements are entirely dependent on the European Commission and EU Member States. And since it is the declared intention of the commission that "all relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date", there are inevitably going to be severe constraints on the free movement of goods.

As the Commission so bluntly puts it: "Contingency measures should not replicate the benefits of membership of the Union, nor the terms of any transition period, as provided for in the draft Withdrawal Agreement".

So transparently is the Telegraph clutching at straws though that it adds to its report on the civil servant the intelligence that the Government has awarded three contracts worth 107 million to for emergency ferries to transport critical goods such as food and medicines in the event of a "no-deal" Brexit.

The contracts, we are told, are with Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne freight and relate to the transport of goods on routes in and out of Poole, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Immingham and Felixstowe.

Any such provision though can only have an extremely limited effect. As I have reported recently, government sponsored research has firmly concluded that there are no alternative options for the purpose built Dover ferries and for the Freight Shuttle trains.

If there are blockages on the Dover Port/Channel Tunnel corridor, there is nothing available that can handle the volume of traffic that will be displaced. And while some mitigation measures can be taken, there is no possible way of by-passing the EU's official controls which require sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks at points of entry to EU Member States.

Painting a more realistic picture, therefore, we see in The Times a longer version of the Telegraph report which has the Department for Transport preparing for "severe congestion" between Dover and Calais and "significant disruption to the economy from customs checks".

I do get seriously weary of this amateur level of reporting, where journalists insist on labelling border checks which include sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks carried out by veterinary and other officials as "customs checks". But in this topsy-turvy world, not even The Times is capable of professionalism in framing its reports.

That same lack of professionalism is evident in the detail of its report which tells us that the funding will allow 3,700 extra lorries carrying up to half a million tonnes of cargo to cross between Britain and Europe each week. Whereas the average load of a truck crossing the Channel is ten tonnes, this would have them carrying 135 tonnes each.

The paper goes on to say that this is equivalent to about ten percent of what now travels across the Straits of Dover, but where the weekly average of trucks coming through the corridor is 80,000, this actually amounts to less than five percent.

Clearly, this will hardly touch the problem, especially as these are not going to be extra lorries but will represent traffic displaced from the corridor seeking alternative routes. A DfT spokesman describes the emergency ferry provision as: "a small but important element of the DfT's no-deal planning". But if all the DfT can do is provide for five percent of the traffic then we are in very serious trouble.

And in the picture, where you can see two of Dover's seven double-deck ramps in action, you can see why. This one port, with matching facilities at Calais, has more capacity than all of the other ports combined, it can turn round loads in a fraction of the time, and the ferry runs are significantly shorter.

Just one of these days we might get to the point where there is a UK newspaper capable of producing an accurate and intelligent report on Brexit issues but the greater likelihood is that will have to discover the impact of a "no deal" Brexit for ourselves, if it happens. The media are not up to the job, and even when they try, they are not to be trusted.