Brexit: the darkness descends

Sunday 15 September 2019  

According to the Financial Times, the johnson has "decisively shifted" away from the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May's withdrawal agreement.

The paper seems to be relying for its information on "Number 10 officials" who are telling it that the johnson team has drawn up detailed plans under which a deal would be secured at the October European Council.

The johnson, we are then told, is planning to force this new deal through parliament in just ten days - including holding late-night and weekend sittings. And this, in a somewhat circular argument, is taken as a further sign of Downing Street's determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU.

Padding out these remarkable assertions, the FT calls in aid "officials in Dublin and Brussels" – anonymous, of course – who claim that there are "signs of movement" from the johnson as it searches for a compromise on the Irish backstop.

Even though we learn that both sides "remain far apart", some of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats" come to the rescue, telling us that talks last Friday in Brussels between the Commission and UK negotiators "had been more productive than previous meetings".

An EU diplomatic note says that the UK seems willing to revert to some of Mrs May's arrangements on preventing animal health checks at the Irish border. But this same note says the UK is even "considering" keeping Northern Ireland aligned with future EU rule changes – something which has been comprehensively rubbished over the last few days.

Gradually, then, the FT "scoop" unravels. Diplomats are cautioning that "important points remained unresolved", and sorting the animal health checks "would be only part of the solution for avoiding a hard Irish border".

Not only that, we see the same complaint rehearsed, of which we have heard so much of late: the UK has yet to make written proposals. This leaves EU officials "worried" about the lack of time left to secure any new agreement before 31 October.

All of this, inevitably, renders the FT more than a little insubstantial. The paper can do little more than hang its Will o' Wisp story with the johnson meeting in Luxembourg tomorrow, allowing an inference that this is all part of the progress towards a deal.

For the rest, this castle of conjecture is used as a base for an elaborate plan crafted by Nikki da Costa, the johnson's head of legislative affairs. She, apparently, has told colleagues that, if a deal emerges from the next European Council, it could be passed into law before 31 October.

But that, of course, rests on the surmise that a deal will emerge – which is very far from a given. In fact, taking everything that we have learned over the past weeks, we are no closer to a deal than we have ever been.

Needless to say, the slender basis of the FT report does not deter The Sun from indulging in its coprophagic tendencies. It copies out the substance of the FT claims with not the slightest attempt at critical appraisal.

On an entirely different planet, though, is the Sunday Mirror which has the johnson set to deliver a "tongue-lashing" to Juncker on Monday, telling him: "Don't you dare offer me a Brexit extension". Gearing up for "a fiery showdown", it plans to warn the Commission president that it will reject it out of hand if he does.

We will doubtless be pleased to learn that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will be on hand to hold the johnson's coat "when things get heated". It plans to say "in uncompromising terms" that it intends to defy parliament's demand to reject no-deal and extend our EU membership by three months. It will then tell Juncker: "Forget MPs' Surrender Act. I don't want, won't negotiate and won't accept another delay".

With that, we are told, the johnson is to set the EU a deadline of the October European Council to strike an agreement. If that deadline is not met, we will leave without a deal on 31 October. This fictional account, however, is nothing compared with the Mail on Sunday, which delves into comic-book territory for its front page report (pictured).

It has the johnson likening himself with the Incredible Hulk. It tells us that if negotiations break down, it will ignore the Commons vote ordering him to delay the UK's departure, adding: "The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets".

One wonders if it is possible to get any lower in terms of rhetoric, especially when it comes with a heavy dose of self-delusion as the johnson claims that "a huge amount of progress is being made" on the supposed negotiations.

To back that up, we are led to believe that "No 10 strategists" have devised a "secret plan" – so secret that it is known only to the johnson and three key advisers - which they claim will allow them to ignore the Benn Act without breaking the law. Baldrick, no doubt, was heavily involved in formulating this "cunning plan" before it was passed over to the Incredible Hulk for execution.

From here, it's beginning to look as if the madness that has infected the political classes has now spread to the media which – if one is to take the examples cited – has abandoned any pretence of adult reporting and commentary. Instead, we are getting a diet of fictional dribble. Mostly, there is not the slightest attempt to stand up the stories published with simple little things like evidence.

Where these reports are seeking to deal with topical events, though, The Sunday Times wallows in Cameron retrospectives, preferring the easy bait of an ex-prime minister's memoirs to the labour of actually delivering hard news on what may be a pivotal week in the progress of Brexit – once the Hulk has finished ripping Brussels apart.

Even the Observer succumbs to this temptation, offering us as its lead headline, a quote from ex-PM David Cameron: "Johnson is a liar who only backed Leave to help his career". As before, Cameron also digs into Michael Gove, calling him a "foam-flecked Faragist" whose one quality was "disloyalty".

I must say, I cannot remember when I last saw a serving prime minister described as a "liar" on the front page of a Sunday newspaper – if at all – much less being called that by one of his predecessors. And rarely has one seen a former prime minister be so acerbic about former colleagues.

That the johnson is a liar is so much part of the political territory though, that it passes without challenge – such a pretty pass has our politics come to. But between the lies of our prime minister in office and the fantasy renditions of the media, we are entering a new realm of madness where reality has gone on an extended holiday.

Amongst other things, this coverage confirms that politics is a nasty place, populated by small-minded, self-interested people who seem to have little concern for the greater good. Perhaps it was always like that, and the stress of Brexit has made it more visible, although I would venture that we are breaking new ground – or plumbing new depths.

Whatever the actuality, we are being blindsided by a partisan media which has long given up retailing objective news, and by politicians who seem to have lost any touch with reality. And here we have the ultimate contradiction: in an era of information, the darkness is descending.

Richard North 15/09/2019 link

Brexit: agendas galore

Saturday 14 September 2019  

Throughout the years of our troubled relationship with the European Union, there has been no shortage of narratives describing the many negotiations in which we've been engaged, from the first accession talks to the high-octane intergovernmental conferences that led to the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties.

If you know where to look for them, there are also details to be had of the conduct of the various WTO rounds, and of the accession talks which brought new members into the EU.

With our accumulated knowledge, it is possible to get sense of how the Union conducts itself in negotiations. And, while it is fair to say that Article 50 negotiations have unique elements, they are still bound by Treaty law – specifically Article 218 (TFEU) which dictates how they must work.

Putting all that together, one can be pretty certain Brexit is not going to be settled over a "working lunch" on Monday in Luxembourg between the johnson and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with Michel Barnier in attendance. This is simply not the way the EU does business.

Essentially, if the principals meet – as with the johnson and Juncker – it is always to cement the final details of a deal that have already been settled by the "sherpas". It is never the case that the principals sit down to thrash out a deal de nuevo. They are there to seal the deal.

Certainly, Juncker does not seem to be expecting much, having indicated that he is "pessimistic" about the chances of finding an alternative to the Irish backstop. He also warns the johnson that a no-deal would cause "chaos", describing Brexit as the "climax of a continental tragedy".

Neither is Leo Varadkar in any way convinced that the EU and the UK are on the verge of a breakthrough, the Irish premier observing that the gap between the two sides was "very wide".

In the context where numerous EU sources have been saying that there have been no credible proposals from the UK, it is unsurprising to find Varadkar affirming the EU's willingness to explore alternative arrangements, but suggesting that what the EU is seeing "falls very far short of what we need".

Thus, as Deutsche Welle rightly remarks, these doubts put a dampener on the johnson's latest comments that it is "cautiously optimistic" about reaching a deal.

The prime minister in office elaborates, to say, "We are working incredibly hard to get a deal", adding that, "there is the rough shape of a deal to be done". He maintains that he will not be deterred by "shenanigans" at Westminster, and is still intent on taking the UK out of the EU by the 31 October deadline.

Once again, though, this just looks to be the usual bluster from a man who is losing credibility by the day – not that he had much to start with. Perhaps wisely, therefore, even the johnson's own office failed to support him, with Number 10 sources playing down hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying there was still a "long way to go".

Doubtless, that must have reflected the DUP's response to yesterday's report in The Times where the paper claimed that the DUP might be willing to allow Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

This scheme looks more than a little fraught, as its current iteration seems to provide for the devolved legislature having a veto on future EU rules applying in the region. According to Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, this would give Northern Ireland a veto over how the single market operates, which is unlikely to be accepted by Brussels.

In the final analysis, though, the argument looks largely academic. Putting it to bed was DUP leader Arlene Foster, who rejected any idea of an arrangement which involved creating a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. She insisted that the UK must leave the EU "as one nation", dismissing the report in a tweet saying: "anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories".

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that the story "goes against all of what has been said in recent days" and dismissed it as "bad journalism".

Speaking of anonymous sources, the Guardian was keen to quote the tweet of a Telegraph journalist, quoting one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats", this one saying that "Unless Boris Johnson has a magic rabbit in his hat, I have no idea what they will talk about. His problem is he can't show his fellow leaders a majority for whatever he is going to ask".

In like vein, the anonymous source continued: "We don't know what he is going to offer us. If we are serious about getting this done, this is our last play. Is the EU willing to waste its last play on a half assed plan?"

Less anonymous are comments by David Cameron about former colleagues Johnson and Michael Gove, whom he accused of "leaving the truth at home" during Brexit and of behaving "appallingly" during the EU referendum campaign.

In a publicity interview to promote his memoirs due out next week, he is particularly sour about Gove, whom he calls "mendacious" and even refers to him as a "wanker". As for the johnson, he breaks from the convention that former prime ministers do not criticise their successors, saying that he lied during the referendum campaign, refusing to say he trusts him as premier.

This is all par for the course, and adds to the general sourness over Brexit which ostensibly seems to be going nowhere.

The one sign of movement is perhaps not one the johnson might want to see, coming from newly appointed trade commissioner Phil Hogan. He predicts that the EU will give Britain a Brexit extension next month if London requests it, claiming Britain may soon have a prime minister who will scrap Britain's plans to leave.

Here, there is a hint of where the "colleagues" eventually see their salvation – given substance by Matthew Parris in his Saturday column, where he calls for "moderate" leavers and remainers to coalesce around another referendum.

That would certainly bring all the recent strains together, where we have seen a straightforward withdrawal blocked, now leading to an enforced extension with the promise of a general election following which the victor commits to a new referendum, presumably giving remain the victory it so much desires.

If this represents the writing on the wall, then one can see in the johnson strategy – such that it is – a determination to frustrate these blocking moves, signalling an ideological fight to the death. This has gone beyond normal politics, with the two sides deeply entrenched over an issue of immediate practical importance, where neither side can afford to give way.

The reality, though, is that there are not so much two sides but three. In the UK, we have the warring "remain" and "leave" tribes, but the "Brussels tribe" must be regarded separately, with its own distinct agenda. Hogan aside, it might be Brussels – under the influence of the EU Members States – which eventually pulls the plug.

Given the sentiment in Germany, the eventual motivation could simply be a desire to move on. There must be a limit to the amount of time and attention the Europeans can give to Brexit and if, as we might see, the French are comfortable with the management of the practical aspects of a no-deal Brexit (pictured), there is nothing to stop the EU casting the UK adrift.

When the johnson goes to Luxembourg on Monday, therefore, it may find it is dealing with an agenda it doesn't control and, while it may eventually deliver an outcome which it seeks, the overall consequences may not be to its liking. It may also ensure that its tenure in the office as prime minister ends abruptly at the next election.

But then, one might observe that, greater love has no man…

Richard North 14/09/2019 link

Brexit: the tribal divide

Friday 13 September 2019  

It's almost as if Brexit was now being handled by disparate tribes, each residing on different planets, with absolutely no communication between any of them.

On this side of the divide, we have the leader of the Johnson tribe – a serial liar – who is earnestly trying to convince everyone that he didn't lie to the Queen, even though three of Scotland's most senior judges are convinced he did.

Elsewhere, representing the planet Brussels, we have the new president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, warning that there could be no Brexit agreement without a Northern Ireland backstop and then complaining that no new proposals had been received from the UK, at least nothing that is legally credible and workable.

But his really entertaining intervention came on his comments about a possible extension. There we have the Westminster tribe desperately trying to make the leader of the Johnson tribe go begging for one, only to have Sassoli say he can't have one anyway, except in "overriding circumstances" such as a general election – which the Westminster swamp-dwellers have twice refused.

The forthright Sassoli grandly declares that all the European institutions are at one in their support for a common position, although he reminds us that, when it comes to an agreement, the European Parliament will have the last word.

Picking up on the scheme already rejected by the leader of the Johnson tribe, he says that the EU is willing to go back to the original proposal of having a Northern Ireland-only backstop, but that is the limit of any concessions. If there is a no-deal departure, that will be entirely the responsibility of the UK. But there can't be an agreement without a backstop, he says. "There won’t be one".

This is, of course, where we see not only different planets but divergent orbits. As far as we are aware, the Johnson tribe is still committed to eliminating the "undemocratic" backstop, despite not having an alternative to keep the Brussels tribe happy.

Backing up Sassoli is Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of a moon called Luxembourg which orbits Brussels. He says there is no reason at the moment for EU-27 to grant another Brexit extension to the UK. But he does concede that, when there are concrete reasons, the Brussels tribe will discuss whether we will give a new mandate or a new extension. At present, though, everything is up in the air.

Top dog Michel Barnier thinks the Brexit situation "remains serious and uncertain".

The Johnson tribe leader had decided the UK would leave the EU by 31 October 2019 at the latest. And to confound his tribal elders, he wanted to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement by demanding the withdrawal of the Irish backstop, as well as serious amendments to the political declaration – all the time saying that he was ready for an exit without agreement if his "requests" were not accepted.

Barnier also notes that the Westminster swamp-dwellers have rejected such a scenario and have passed a law the object of which is that, if the Johnson doesn't return by 19 October, at the latest, with an EU agreement, then he will be obliged to request an extension of the negotiation period until 31 January 2020 – which others in the Brussels tribe seem reluctant to give him.

Unfortunately, Barnier is unable to say objectively whether contacts with the government of Johnson tribe will be able to reach an agreement by mid-October. The EU is ready to work constructively with the Johnson government, and to consider "all concrete and legally operational proposals that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement".

All he can be certain of is that the European Council will meet on 17 and 18 October. This, he says, will be the moment when the European Union will have to "take note of the situation" - assuming that the parties haven't found an agreement. At the moment, though, Barnier has "no reason to be optimistic".

The Times, however, reports that there might be a solution in the offing. The DUP, it appears, is expressing a willingness for Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

To suggest that this would serve as a substitute for the backstop, though, might be a little optimistic. There is the whole raft of Single Market legislation to consider, to say nothing of the flanking measures such as employment and environmental standards, as well as the vexed question of VAT. But, never mind, hope springs paternal in Brexit la-la land.

At some time though, the music is going to have to stop, whence the EU tribe will have to make some hard decisions. At the moment, its official stance is that there can be no re-negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop. That prohibition lasts until 31 October, whence there is room for a further extension for the specific purpose of allowing limited talks – possibly after a general election.

Nevertheless, Barnier is not ruling out a no-deal, reminding colleagues of their duty to prepare for it. But even in a no-deal scenario, he says, the fundamental issues and priorities raised by Brexit, and which are settled in the withdrawal agreement, will still have to be resolved.

That brings home something which the Johnson tribal leader really doesn't seem to have taken on board. With his mantra of getting Brexit "done", and getting it "over the line", he hasn't realised that all the issues that were addressed in the Withdrawal Agreement will be waiting for him if we drop out of the EU without a deal.

Furthermore, it is painfully clear that the EU is not going to entertain negotiations on a free trade agreement until outstanding issues have been settled. The 31 October "deadline" therefore, is something of a chimera. If we do drop out, it will mark simply a change in the status of negotiations, leaving the UK in a weakened position as it will lack leverage.

Still, though, the Johnson labours under the illusion that the threat of a no-deal does give his tribe some leverage. Barnier rather scornfully dismisses this, remarking, "as if this would make us change our principles". If it happens, the no-deal exit will be watched by the "colleagues" with a mixture of pity and concern, but mainly pity – as they observe a once-proud nation making a bloody fool of itself.

Here, the Westminster swamp-dwellers are intensifying the noise-level on the no-deal outcome, some of them arguing that they need to see the end of the prorogation so they can get back into the debating chamber and blather about Operation Yellowhammer.

The irony of them getting excited about a no-deal just now clearly escapes them. It was in January 2017 that Mrs May was talking about a no-deal being better than a bad deal, and that surely was the time to start discussing the implications of that scenario. Had there been an intelligent debate at the time, with a better appreciation of the consequences, history could well have been different.

As it is, the swamp-dwellers are missing the point – as they so often do. Locked into their visions of food and medicines shortages, and queues at the Channel ports, they still haven't cottoned on to the main impact of a no-deal Brexit – the collapse of exports to EU/EEA member states.

Still we're getting Muppets such as Liam Halligan talking down the effects, and still retailing the tired old claim that we already trade with the rest of the world under WTO rules. Everything in Halligan's foetid little world is "project fear" and there is no down-side to a no-deal Brexit.

Yet, in a post-Brexit environment, the immediate downturn in export sales is more than sufficient to trigger a technical recession which, unlike previous events, will not be cyclical. Export substitution is likely to be slow and uncertain so losses could well represent a permanent loss of capacity. None of this is a necessary consequence of Brexit, which always had the potential of the Efta/EEA option. But, as Jeremy Warner points out, all we've managed to do over the last three years is destroy the middle ground. It's now either a "clean break" Brexit, or remain.

For this, the diverse players should be truly damned. The inability of the political classes to handle Brexit is one of the great stains on our recent history, and one which will take us generations to expunge. And the worst is probably yet to come.

Richard North 13/09/2019 link

Brexit: a conflict of outcomes

Thursday 12 September 2019  

One should recall that, before the shock ruling of the Scottish Inner House on the prime minister's advice to HM the Queen on the prorogation of parliament, the Lord Ordinary had already dismissed the petition.

This was Lord Doherty, who had ruled on 4 September that the advice given in relation to the prorogation decision was a matter involving "high policy and political judgement". This, he said, "is political territory and decision-making which cannot be measured against legal standards, but only by political judgements. Accountability for the advice is to Parliament and, ultimately, the electorate, and not to the courts".

The ruling was not dissimilar to that of the English High Court where the panel headed by the Lord Chief Justice similarly decided on a "line of separation" set by the courts, as to whether the issue was one of "high policy" or "political" or both.

In the circumstances and on the facts of the present case, the three judges ruled that "the decision was political", adding an intriguing rider that purpose of the power of prorogation was not confined to preparations for the Queen's Speech. It could even "extend to obtaining a political advantage".

Furthermore, they ruled, even if the prorogation in the present case had to be justified as being to enable preparations for the Queen's Speech, the decision how much time to spend and what decisions to take for such preparations was not something the court could judge by any measurable standard.

In reaching these conclusions, the judges were particularly keen to preserve the separation of powers, reflecting the different constitutional areas of responsibility of the courts, the Executive and Parliament, and thus concluded that the claim – this one lodged by the egregious Gina Miller, must fail.

In their view, therefore, the decision of the prime minister to advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament was not justiciable in Her Majesty’s courts.

When yesterday the Scottish Inner House reached a completely contrary view, it is not an exaggeration to say that this came as something of a surprise. There were, apparently, gasps of shock in the court as the Lord President, Lord Carloway – heading a panel of three judges – read out its judgement.

Conceding that advice to HM the Queen on the exercise of the royal prerogative of prorogating Parliament was not reviewable on the normal grounds of judicial review, they nevertheless decided to impose an innovative qualification of their own.

If the purpose of the prorogation was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny of the executive - a central pillar of the good governance principle enshrined in the constitution – then the advice would not only be judiciable but also, in their view, unlawful.

And if the impact of this was not enough, what followed from the ruling was the assertion that, despite Johnson's consistent claim that the sole purpose of the prorogation was to end the session and thereby bring forward a Queen's Speech, opening a new session, this was not true.

"The circumstances in which the advice was proffered and the content of the documents produced by the respondent", the judges said, demonstrated that stymying parliament "was the true reason for the prorogation". Once again, Johnson had been caught out lying.

With two out of three courts finding in favour of Johnson, however, the matter is now to go to the Supreme Court, the hearing(s) taking place next week leading to a decision expected by 23 September. Whatever the finding of this court, however, the Scottish Inner Court has done serious damage to the prime minister in office.

On the panel, Lord Brodie considered that, while the petition raised a question that "was unlikely to have been justiciable", this particular prorogation was intended to frustrate parliament and therefore could legitimately be established as unlawful.

But what came next was particularly damning. This, said Brodie, "was an egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behaviour of public authorities".

It was, he added, "to be inferred that the principal reasons for the prorogation were to prevent or impede parliament holding the executive to account and legislating with regard to Brexit, and to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no deal Brexit without further parliamentary interference".

Yet, for all that, it is far from certain that the judgement will damage Johnson's core constituency. Parliament is hardly the most popular institution in the land and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business minister, claims that voters were "beginning to question the partiality of the judges" and accusing them of "interfering in politics".

This comes from a report in the Telegraph and you would expect this newspaper to protect their boy. But, as it stands, two out of three courts agree that this is not a matter for the judiciary.

It is perhaps indicative that the Scottish judicial review was raised by 79 petitioners, 78 of whom are parliamentarians at Westminster, most of them opposition MPs. But there is something unedifying about MPs running to the courts to settle a dispute between themselves and the executive. Even if they win, they diminish themselves by having to turn to a third party to fight their battles.

The Guardian, in its running thread, relies heavily on Lord Sumption, a former supreme court judge, who had spoken to the BBC's World at One during the day. He thought the Scottish judges were "pushing the boundaries out", a clear inference that he was witnessing judicial activism. His own view was that the prorogation was "a political issue, not a legal one", and that the case could only be resolved politically.

Should the Supreme Court agree, it will do much to wind back the outrage that has accompanied this prorogation although, after its intervention on Miller's Article 50 case, one cannot assume that it will resist the temptation to interfere. To predict an outcome would be rash.

Needless to say, sundry MPs are demanding that parliament should be recalled, with Labour and the SNP leading the charge. But the Scottish court gave no order to that effect and, pending the Supreme Court judgement, the only person with the constitutional authority to get the MPs back in their places is the Queen, by way of formal proclamation.

If the Supreme Court finds that the prorogation is void, then presumably the Queen's intervention will not be needed. MPs can go back to Westminster as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, as if they hadn't already had enough excitement for the day, the chatterati are getting worked up about the "Yellowhammer" document that was released by the government late yesterday evening. Since the contents have already been comprehensively leaked, the disclosure tells us nothing new, of a report that has been vastly over-egged.

And with that, it has to be said that nothing of yesterday's events have brought Brexit any closer. If there was anything relevant, it was an intervention by France's minister for Europe, Amélie de Montchalin, who accuses the UK of breaking "the spirit" of negotiations with the EU by trying to strike "mini-deals" with individual EU member states.

"We see that in the bilateral meetings the British try to get with their opposite numbers that they are trying to organise a managed no deal", she told a news conference after meeting the 26 ambassadors to France of the EU's members, with the British ambassador excluded.

"And what the British want is to ensure that the different relationships that they have with each EU member state are recreated before the moment of separation, thanks to these mini deals", she says. "It is completely contrary to the spirit in which we’ve been negotiating. When [Stephen] Barclay [the UK Brexit secretary] or others try this in France, we say: 'We hear you. Go and talk to Michel Barnier to see what can be done at the European level'".

For her peroration, de Montchalin warned that a no-deal was now "highly possible", adding that a Brexit extension request by the UK would not be accepted under "current conditions". If nothing changes, she explained, "we have always said time alone is not a sufficient reason [for another extension]. We cannot commit today, because we have no concrete scenarios yet".

Johnson may yet get what he wants, without even trying.

Richard North 12/09/2019 link

Brexit: a period of silence

Wednesday 11 September 2019  

If I ever had any marginal reservations about the wisdom of proroguing parliament, they were entirely dispelled by the loutish behaviour of the MPs yesterday morning as Black Rod arrived to initiate the prorogation ceremony.

And even if it was a minority of the MPs misbehaving, the House of Commons these days has the remarkable ability to embrace the lowest common denominator, living down to our worst expectations. That we are rid of it for five weeks is no loss – the only regret is that it could not be longer.

But Mrs May's resignation honours list brought in by the prorogation has also served as another nail in the coffin for our respect for the political classes. This is "them" taking the piss, with Mrs May awarding CBEs to former joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – the classic example of failure and ignorance being rewarded. It is hardly surprising that our politics are so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the Brexit rumour-mill churns on, generating endless noise and very little in the way of coherent information. The latest we were dealing with was the trial balloon on the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop – an idea no sooner floated than denied by Downing Street.

Not content with the ritual denial, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP's chief whip also put the boot in, telling the BBC's World at One that the idea was "simply a non-runner", and in any event "it would contravene the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement". It's a bit rich the DUP calling in aid the GFA, but there you go – any port in a storm.

However, after talks with the DUP in Downing Street, the Telegraph resuscitates the theme, claiming that Johnson is indeed considering plans for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. He wants an all-Ireland zone for checks on most goods crossing between the north and south of the island as part of a deal that would, in theory, remove the need for a Northern Irish backstop.

It seems also that Phil Hogan, Ireland's newly-appointed EU commissioner, taking over the trade portfolio, is on the case. He's been talking to RTE, claiming that there is "movement" happening on both sides of the Brexit negotiations.

One wonders whether he's received the memo excluding the use of the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement, because he too is talking of a return to the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

In Hogan's playbook: "There are constitutional issues that are already in the Withdrawal Agreement that might have to be improved upon" if a request is for this. "Of course", he says, "we can look at it", even if the Withdrawal Agreement would not be changed in "a major way".

Of course "we" - as in the EU negotiators – can't look into it, and nor can the Withdrawal Agreement be changed in any way at all, major or minor, unless the European Council is prepared to agree to a change in Michel Barnier's mandate and then lifts its own prohibition on renewing the negotiations.

To be (slightly) fair to Hogan, though, he does say that that the EU "has said all along that it's prepared to look at additional text and additional ideas in the political declaration, but also have been very strongly saying that the Withdrawal Agreement that has been agreed remains as it is".

But he then spoils it by referring to the "caveat" of wanting to go back to the Northern Ireland-only backstop…
… which gives security to the island of Ireland, [provides for] the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, gives frictionless trade and no hard border, equally it would give Mr Johnson… an independent trade opportunity to do trade deals around the world.
No such caveat exists in the European Council decision, which rather puts Hogan out on a limb, albeit that it seems more than a little redundant anyway. Clarifying the issue somewhat, the UK government with the support of the DUP is actually rejecting the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. The arrangements under discussion seem only to apply to the movements of livestock, adding to the checks already carried out when animals enter the province from Great Britain.

For all that, something seems to be afoot, with Barnier reported to be staying on in his role as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator. Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming Commission President commends him for "an outstanding job" and says she would hold talks with him on prolonging his current position beyond 31 October.

That might just suggest that the Commission is anticipating an extension, and is preparing for a new round of talks once the block is lifted and, one presumes, on the assumption that a general election will pave the way for a meeting of minds. Overall, von der Leyen is quite helpful, saying that "Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it is the beginning of the future relationship". Someone, at least, has got the plot.

Returning to Hogan, he too has had his penn'orth, warning that if there is a hard Brexit at the end of October, it would not be the same as a "clean break Brexit". "The UK political system seems to be under the misplaced notion that actually if you crash out of the European Union you have dealt with all the issues", he says, stating that: "In fact the work only starts again, like… citizen's rights, in relation to payments to the EU, in relation to the GFA and the island of Ireland issues. The issues remain".

Hogan also warns that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it could take up to eight months before negotiations on a future trading relationship could begin. "We [would] have to get a mandate then as a Commission from the member states of the European Union to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement", he says. "That could take some time. It could take six to eight months before all member states have come to a conclusion about the mandate".

One still hopes that there is a slender chance that this can be avoided, more so since a cross-party group of MPs, including Stephen Kinnock, has formally launched a campaign to win support in the Commons for Brexit via a managed deal.

Kinnock rejects the idea of reproducing a carbon copy of May's three times-rejected plan. Instead, he wants to model a deal on the results of failed cross-party talks between May’s government and Labour, but with a consensual focus, aiming to bring a deal Johnson could negotiate with the EU and then get through the Commons.

Whether this initiative can succeed is very much open to doubt, especially as Labour continue to fudge their Brexit plans. The latest instalment has Corbyn pledging a referendum at the general election, offering a credible leave and remain option.

As is the way of things Labour, this was more or less immediately contradicted by Labour deputy Tom Watson, who wants a referendum before his party agrees to a general election. It really is remarkable how Labour are able to make such a mess of this.

With fluff on the left, and fluff on the "right" from Johnson, maybe it isn't just a period of silence we want from parliament. We could do with one of those American football things where they call "time out" and everybody stops for tea – or something.

Certainly, after weeks of the most intensive media coverage on any one political issue in living memory (apart from, maybe, the Cuban missile crisis), we are none the wiser, either as to where we are going, or what the intentions are of the two main political parties. A period of silence would not make us more informed, but at least it might give us some rest.

Richard North 11/09/2019 link

Brexit: yellow bellies

Tuesday 10 September 2019  

With what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson calls the "surrender bill" passing into law yesterday, his office issued a terse statement: "The prime minister is very clear that he will take this country out of the EU on 31 October, no ifs or buts. He will not sanction any more pointless delays".

It's impossible to say whether this is just mindless bravado but, despite the ambiguous comments of Leo Varadkar during his meeting with the Oaf in Dublin – to the effect that a deal was still possible – there is absolutely no chance of the EU acceding to the central demand of removing the backstop.

Once again we saw the Irish premier complain that the UK has no "realistic plan" for replacing the backstop. "No backstop is no-deal", he warned Johnson.

However, we seem to be getting a variation on a theme, with Johnson hinting that he might be prepared to revert to a Northern Ireland-only backstop. This is a move that would necessitate the "wet border" in the Irish Sea, previously vetoed by the DUP but now possibly feasible as the DUP no longer holds its grip on the Tories.

But this could be Johnson thrashing around as usual. Nothing formal has been produced, as confirmed by yet another source – this one Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch minister for trade. She accuses the Johnson administration of failing to table alternatives to the Irish backstop and warns of the EU's "waning patience", given the impact on European businesses of the continued uncertainty.

According to the Guardian, the lack of such proposals and the attempt by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, over the weekend to lay the blame for a lack of progress on the European Commission has confirmed to many in Brussels that Amber Rudd, was right about the prime minister's lack of seriousness in sealing a deal.

Yet another clue as to Johnson's lack of commitment to a deal comes via The Times which reports that the "Europe unit" which had led negotiations for a Brexit deal with Brussels under Theresa May has been disbanded by her successor.

At the height of negotiations over the original withdrawal agreement there were more than 50 civil servants working in the Europe unit under Olly Robbins, May's chief negotiator.

Now Mr Robbins and most of his former staff are all thought to have been redeployed to other government departments, while Robbins is shortly to join the private sector. His successor, David Frost, has been left with a core team of only four political and civil service advisers working directly for him in Downing Street.

An insider claims that there is no team at all in the Cabinet Office working on a potential deal and that the Europe Unit's offices have been converted into meeting rooms.

Quite how Johnson thinks he's going to get us out of the EU on 31 October, therefore, remains something of a mystery. If he can't broker a new deal – and the evidence is that he isn't even trying – and parliament won't let him leave without a deal, he does seem rather short of options.

At least he has the comfort of seeing the much-detested Speaker Bercow announce his forthcoming resignation and, with the prorogation taking effect at the close of business, the prime minister in office will no longer be troubled by the mewling of parliament for five weeks or so.

The latter is perhaps just as well as the soon-to-be-rested MP collective has left a couple of poison pills to keep him entertained – a demand for information on the Yellowhammer report and the proroguing decision, and the second refusal to permit a general election.

Amid mass abstentions, 293 MPs voted for Johnson's motion, while 46 voted against (pictured). This left the soon to be departing Speaker to declare that the majority did not satisfy the requirements of the fixed term parliaments act. The event provoked a sour comment from Johnson: "Once again, the opposition think they know better", he said, as he raged against "yellow belly" Corbyn.

One presumes that, when the MPs return, they will then be disposed to support a motion for an election, probably via a vote of no confidence from Jeremy Corbyn. And it is on the grounds that the European Council will probably grant an extension, in the hope that an election will somehow break the logjam and produce a result.

The great fear, though, is that an election will resolve nothing. Although the polls currently put the Tories ahead, a delayed election with Johnson having conceded an extension leaving the UK still in the EU puts Labour in the lead with the prospect of a hung parliament and a Lib-Lab coalition.

Under those circumstances, we could then possibly see another referendum which – as Pete points out would probably resolve nothing as well. Even if the remainers won a majority, the leave supporters would be no more inclined to accept the result than did the "people's vote" fraternity .

In no scenario imaginable, writes Pete, does the genie go back in the bottle. We are looking at years of political instability, violent protest, fragile governments and a divided, fragmenting nation. Remaining brings no closure and is not a remotely sustainable answer to the current dilemma.

The question though is what it will take to bring this developing nightmare to a close. We would like to think that the MP collective could come back after their break, energised and full of enthusiasm for the Norway option. EFTA4UK needs some money to write to MPs and peers, reminding them of the option and, if we achieve nothing else over the next five weeks, re-opening the debate would be a major step forward.

At least there is some element of rationality to work with as YouGov reports that 52 percent of respondents believe that leaving the EU without a deal would not represent a "clean break" and there would still be a lot of issues surrounding Brexit to sort out.

From the look of it, we have something to work with.

Richard North 10/09/2019 link

Brexit: a paucity of proposals

Monday 9 September 2019  

One important thing to emerge from Amber Rudd's resignation are her comments on the Marr show, reinforcing points made in her resignation letter about Johnson's approach to a deal with the EU on Brexit.

With a candour that has so far been missing from the Conservative front bench team, she told Marr that there was "no evidence of a deal" and, furthermore, that there was "no formal negotiation taking place", just "a lot of conversations".

This very much ties in with my piece last week where I pointed out that, procedurally, the EU was not in a position to undertake negotiations with the UK. Informal discussions are one thing, but a round of negotiations is a formal thing, carried out to strict protocols, where the proceedings have legal relevance when it comes to the interpretation of any subsequent agreement.

To that extent, one wonders why Rudd's comments are even news. No end of senior EU figures have repeatedly declared that negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened and one should recall that the European Council Decision of 11 April which extended the Art 50 period to 31 October specifically excluded using the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The only area of discussion permissible in this context is in relation to the amendment or expansion of the political declaration, this having the potential for modifying the implementation of the backstop.

Yet, despite the obvious, the media simply cannot help itself, chasing after the non-existent "talks" and reporting on them as if the meetings between UK and EU officials had any substance.

A typical example of this delusion-fest comes from the Financial Times which is intoning that the "EU talks over Brexit" have "stalled", asserting that it has only taken "two weeks, and several dispiriting negotiating rounds in Brussels", for the EU's cautious optimism about Johnson's Brexit intentions to "evaporate".

Trailing in the wake of the Guardian and the Telegraph, both of which have covered the story, it takes a clutch of three FT journalists to tell us that Johnson's Brussels envoy has been using his "face time" with the EU team to take existing offers away rather than putting new plans on the table.

Tucked into the report, however, is a little squib that tells us that all the changes proposed "concern the EU and UK's planned future relationship, rather than the text of its exit treaty", reaffirming that which should be obvious to anyone following this issue – that there are no substantive (or any) talks on the Withdrawal Agreement. In short, as Rudd so rightly complains, there is "no formal negotiation taking place".

Interestingly – also on yesterday's Marr show – the chancellor, Sajid Javid, sought to contradict Rudd claiming that there had been "numerous meetings in Brussels" and "numerous bilateral meetings with EU member states". He himself had had "a number of meetings and discussions", the prime minister was "going to Dublin tomorrow" and there were "more meetings in Brussels next week".

It maybe here that Javid doesn't actually know the difference between "negotiations" and "conversations". That would not be at all surprising as we have long been used to the startling ignorance of senior politicians. However, nothing he is saying is incompatible with Rudd's observations. "Meetings and discussions" are not formal negotiations.

Nevertheless, Javid, speaking for his administration, insists that "we want to have a deal, we absolutely want to have a deal", the tone so emphatic that he might actually believe what he says to be true. But if that is the case, the ignorance of the "top deck" may be even more profound than we had realised.

The clue here is in Johnson's oft' expressed aspiration of doing a deal at the "summit" in Brussels on 17 October, invoking memories of past glories when Thatcher weaponised her handbag and carved out a last-minute deal on the rebate.

So embedded in the Tory consciousness is this narrative that it serves as the preferred template for all high-level dealings with the EU, reinforcing the belief that the preferred modus of the "colleagues" is the eleventh-hour deal.

If that is the case – and the argument for it feels persuasive – then we have a serious problem. Johnson has simply failed to understand that the Article 50 process is not a peer-to-peer, intra-institutional affair along the lines of a budget framework negotiation or an intergovernmental conference.

Rather, the Article 50 process is a formal negotiation between external parties bound by the Article 218 procedure which simply does not allow for the free-booting deal-making that Johnson has in mind. If he thinks he can turn up in Brussels on the 17th, swinging the proverbial handbag, he is going to be very disappointed.

For us mere mortals, though, what is doubly disappointing is the poverty of aspiration and the paucity of intelligent proposals. The very best that Johnson is aiming for seems to be a weak version of the Canada FTA, which will not go anywhere near meeting the UK's needs in its trading relationship with the EU.

Were the Tories able to break out of their lightweight, superficial appreciation of EU politics, and the broader history of our relationship with the Community, stretching right back to the early days of our applications to join, they might understand that, when it comes to exploring alternatives to membership of the EEC/EU, we have been there before.

Beyond the mere FTA relationship, the concept of an association agreement has been thoroughly explored, the like of which would not have been dissimilar to the EEA relationship enjoyed by Efta states.

But of very special interest is an idea that emerged after de Gaulle's first veto when in 1963 Harold Wilson came up with an innovative suggestion at a meeting of socialist leaders at the Swedish prime minister's country retreat in Harpsund.

At a time when the UK was a founder member of the European Free Trade Association (Efta), with seven members as opposed to the six of the EEC, he advanced that the Six should join Efta as a single unit to form a greater, Europe-wide free trade association.

Another version of this idea was being floated in 1965, the so-called Münchmeyer plan, inspired by a German industrialist, which again would allow Common Market members to join Efta, creating an expanded tariff-free zone – a mechanism Wilson thought to be the easiest way of lowering tariffs between Efta and the EEC.

Wilson actively discussed the plan with Danish prime minister, Jens Otto Krag, at Chequers in 1965, and references were made to it in a House of Commons debate in June of the same year, where it was said to have "strong support in some European countries, particularly Germany".

If the plan ever had its moment, it soon passed but, in principle, it bears a passing relation to the idea advanced in Flexcit, where the Efta states plus the UK could join together with the EU to form an expanded free trade area, under the umbrella of UNECE – perhaps pulling in other European countries and even, in time, the Russian Federation.

As of now, though, we are bogged down in the mire of tired, derivative ideas and "patches" such as the backstop, with the French government threatening to veto a further Article 50 extension, revisiting the narrative about the lack of progress in the recent talks.

Nevertheless, there is clarity in the French approach with foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian complaining of the lack of realistic proposals being put forward by Downing Street as an alternative to the Irish backstop. "It's very worrying. The British must tell us what they want", Le Drian says, warning that the EU's patience was waning. "We are not going to do this [extend the deadline] every three months", he adds.

As we go round in ever-decreasing circles, now would perhaps be as good a time as any to come up with something innovative, as a positive contribution to the debate. Any such initiative will, of course, energise the naysayers who will come storming out of the woodwork to tell us that, whatever it is we have in mind, it is impossible. But if a paucity of proposals is getting us nowhere, a little positivity can surely do no harm.

Richard North 09/09/2019 link

Brexit: leaving it too late?

Sunday 8 September 2019  

One of the comments which grabbed my attention this weekend was in the Observer article reporting on an opinion poll which showed that the Tories had extended their lead over Labour to ten percent, despite a "chaotic week".

The money quote came from Adam Drummond, the head of political polling at Opinium, the organisation that had produced the poll result. Reviewing the fragility of the data contributing to the poll, he concluded that: "We're facing unprecedented times in Westminster, and it's very difficult to predict what will happen in the next few days, let alone further beyond".

That is not only true now. It's been true for a while, making intelligent commentary on this blog increasingly difficult to deliver. The noise level is so high that it is swamping whatever coherent signals there might be, while the conflicting viewpoints and events create such extremes that one can scarcely reconcile the opposing arguments. There is simply no common ground.

It is tempting under these circumstances to stand back and let the noise-makers do their worst, holding off until coherent signals re-emerge and it becomes possible to offer a sensible commentary. But the danger here is that if one takes time out and lets the roller coaster thunder down, it is too easy to lose the thread altogether, never to pick it up again.

Then there is the question of loyalty to a growing readership. After the summer dip, which happens every year, hit rate is reaching new records, occasionally touching a daily level close to 75,000. This makes us a serious player, even if most of the legacy media want to pretend we don't exist, but it brings with it a responsibility to deliver.

For all that, while one accepts that this torture must eventually end, there is no obvious end point, or even a scenario which could be taken as a consensus position that would give a sense of closure. As a result, there are those who would like to press the reset button, taking us back to pre-23 June 2016, whence we could revert to "normal" and pretend nothing had happened.

Sadly, the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme conveys the greater truth on this matter: Humpty-Dumpty sat on the wall; Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall; all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again.

What has been done cannot be undone – there is no turning back. Even were it politically feasible to resume our membership of the EU, I cannot see any means by which the UK could ever take a functional part in the affairs of the Union.

We are thus left to choose a different path, or have one chosen for us. But the problem here is that the no-deal scenario being pursued by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a non-solution. His insistence that we should get Brexit "done" and see it "over the line" is vacuous sloganising which has little relevance to the real world.

However, compared with the ambiguity of the Labour position, the siren call that we should "just leave" comes over as a model of clarity, matched only by the Lib-Dems who are equally unequivocal, albeit from the opposite point of view.

That we have ended up with unrealistic binary options, having lost the middle ground of the "soft" Efta/EEA option, represents in my view the greatest failure of the political system. And for all those such as Cummings who sneeringly told me I "didn't understand politics", one has to say that had we followed the Flexcit strategy, we'd be out of the EU by now, having saved billions, with our political system still intact.

As it is, we have today's newspapers seriously talking about the prospect of committing a prime minister to prison for disobeying parliament, with no sensible resolution to Brexit in sight. We could do with being wrong more often, pursuing options that actually work.

In the meantime, as we watch the Conservative Party disintegrate, with Amber Rudd resigning from the Cabinet and the Tories in protest at Johnson's handling of Brexit, I suppose we will have to wait until we hit rock bottom, whence we might finally be able to agree on what must be done.

But with angry clashes in Parliament Square yesterday, requiring police intervention and occasioning multiple arrests, there is reason for concern that we've left it too late. The rifts developing in society may not be susceptible to healing.

Richard North 08/09/2019 link

Brexit: Boris is broken

Saturday 7 September 2019  

From the point of view of the opposition, the so-called rebel alliance, denying the Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson his election makes sound tactical sense. Corbyn has certainly avoided an obvious trap and seems to have everything to gain from letting Johnson stew in his bunker.

But it was Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts, who put the rebel action in perspective, saying: "We need to make sure that we get past 31 October, and an extension to article 50. We were in agreement that the prime minister is on the run. Boris is broken. We have an opportunity to bring down Boris, to break Boris, and to bring down Brexit – and we must take that".

Going back a bit, one recalls during Johnson's leadership campaign how keen his minders were to keep him out of the public eye in case he made an unforced error. But now the man is occupying the office of prime minister, it is not possible to keep him under wraps. And as the man blunders through his days, the more the public see of him, the less they like him.

As they follow Napoleon's edict of not interfering when your enemy is making a mistake, the rebels also might be signalling a certain maturity in their approach, as they eschew what might be seen as short-term gain in order to play the longer game. But whether they've happened on a winning play is anyone's guess. There are too many variables to be able to predict an outcome.

Crucially, low-information voters are going to respond very differently from the political nerds, and there is already a counter-play in progress. But that does not stop just about everybody feeling sick to the teeth with the whole Brexit soap opera and wanting it to end.

That is where a tactical game – for all its merits – may eventually backfire. The fight is very rapidly narrowing to the binary option of no-deal or no Brexit, with the extension turning out to be little more than a sideshow. And if the coming electoral contest – when it comes – ends up as a re-run of the referendum, then nothing is really going to be resolved.

In the interim, what is keeping people guessing is the shape of Johnson's next move. Unable – on the face of it – to deliver his promised no-deal Brexit, and refusing to countenance applying for an extension, his current position is that he will have to come away with a deal on 17 October.

However, what have been revealed as Johnson's plans for the Irish border have been so comprehensively savaged by the EU that he isn't even in the same galaxy when it comes to agreeing a replacement for the Withdrawal Agreement – assuming that was on the agenda, which it isn't.

It looks therefore as if we've just been treated to another dose of Johnsonian delusion, which seems to be getting more bizarre by the day. And if we look at his situation dispassionately and rule out a no-deal exit, an extension and also a new plan, then he really does seem to have run out of options. Perhaps we need the men in white coats to come and take him away, or the men in grey suits to deliver a loaded revolver and a bottle of whiskey.

All it needs now is for some wit to prepare a Johnson-specific clip of Downfall, having the prime minister in office installed in the No 10 bunker, waiting to be rescued by Steiner's counter attack. It really is getting to the point where nothing more can usefully be said until the Oaf is removed from the scene and something akin to normal politics is restored.

But even that idea now seems close to fantasy. It isn't just Boris that is broken. The whole political system seems to have gone that way.

Richard North 07/09/2019 link

Brexit: a no-deal election?

Friday 6 September 2019  

After three days of frustrating bafflement since the resumption of parliament after the summer break, there may now be enough clues to give an insight into the current intentions of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson regarding Brexit.

Initially, it was my supposition that very early on, he would seek to engineer a vote of no confidence in the expectation that the combined opposition parties would be unable to produce an alternative government, leaving him to choose a general election of his own timing.

With parliament safely dissolved, that would leave him to run down the clock to a no-deal Brexit – thereby neutralising Farage's single issue party - whence he could go to the country with a "leave" majority behind him and win a working majority against a fractured opposition. The polling date would be set for after Brexit but soon enough to avoid the adverse effects from walking out without a deal.

Unfortunately for the prime minister in office, the key players have seen through this ploy. The MP collective has ganged up on him to limit his ability to run down the clock, while Corbyn has denied him a general election, leaving him trapped in the Downing Street bunker with no forces at this disposal.

The only thing left for him is now to concede what amounts to a restraining order in return for a pre-Brexit general election on 15 October, which he will seek on Monday. His hope is that, despite the less favourable conditions, he will be able to win a no-deal mandate with enough time to repeal his current constraints.

The opposition parties, having apparently taken no-deal off the table, can hardly deny him his election without looking weak. They will probably believe that the "humiliation" of his current position will reduce Johnson's electoral appeal, giving Corbyn a free run at the premiership, despite the fragmentation of the opposition message.

Absolutely crucial here will be the role of Farage. If he sticks by his promise not to contest Johnson's candidates, and puts up a robust fight against Northern Labour seats, he can pull away enough Labour votes in key marginals to open the way for the Lib-Dems, thus depriving Corbyn of his winning margin.

And although a no-deal is an anathema to the chattering classes and the metropolitan élites, the average voter is sick to the back teeth of Brexit and just wants to see it over. Johnson's message of preferring to die in a ditch rather than prolong the agony will have considerable appeal to the rank and file. The strength of his position is not to be under-estimated.

Thus, we are looking at a strong possibility of a no-deal general election. On the one side will be Johnson with his band of anti-EU Brexit warriors, offering the pure and beguilingly simple "get out now" message. On the other, we will have a mixed bag of competing opposition parties.

Some, like the Lib-Dems, will stand on an outright "revoke" platform. Labour may plump for the second referendum, but will almost certainly blur their message in an attempt to keep their Northern voters on-side.

That may be enough to give Johnson the game, even though he may lack a clear majority of the electorate. Like the man running from the bear, he doesn't have to beat the bear. He just has to run faster than the man next to him.

The one thing that could scupper his game is the opposition parties exercising a self-denying ordinance, and refusing to take the election bait on Monday – when Rees-Mogg has confirmed a vote will be held. And this is a distinct possibility if the Telegraph is to be believed.

Interestingly, if Johnson's administration doesn't get its vote before parliament closes down next week, it will be caught by its own prorogation and will be unable to mount an election before the October European Council.

In theory, Johnson would then be bound by the "restraining order" and be forced into a fate worse than dying in a ditch – extending the Art 50 period to the end of January, assuming the Council will give him the extension.

That would put him in a very different electoral position, having to fight a November election – psychologically the worst time of the year to have a contest – with all the uncertainty of the delay and having breached his "do or die" promise. Not a few voters will be expecting him to take the corpse option.

Alternatively, Johnson's team may be looking for a way of circumventing his restraining order, looking at legal advice that will tell him that the bill requiring him to extend Art 50 will need Queen's consent – which he will obviously withhold. And then there is the idea of the government launching its own vote of no confidence.

Chasing after either of these ideas may prove to be a forlorn hope but recent experience warns of caution. It ain't over until it's over, and you can never judge what a trapped feral animal will do, especially if you have it penned in a ditch.

Richard North 06/09/2019 link

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