Brexit: forever cursed

Tuesday 12 November 2019  



News of yesterday was, of course, Farage's "unilateral" concession to the Tories, with a promise that he would not put up candidates in seats won by them in 2017, thus standing down 317 of his own hopefuls.

This, apparently, was not a negotiated pact, and there is no public quid pro quo from the Tories. Farage says that he was swayed by Johnson's Sunday video message, promising that the transition period would not be extended beyond the end of 2020, and the government would strike a "Super Canada Plus" trade deal.

But if Farage – as he insists – is acting to stave off a Corbyn victory, then once again he has failed to think it through. It is not the seats which the Tories won in the last election that count. With or without Farage's intervention, Johnson will probably win most of these anyway.

More importantly, there are the Labour marginals, which the Tories must secure in the coming election if Johnson is to secure a working majority. Yet Farage intends to front candidates in all of these seats.

If we use the Ukip results in the 2015 general election as an indicator of the Farage Party performance, we can see that his candidates could still do serious damage to Johnson's electoral prospects.

For instance, in England, the most vulnerable target seat is Kensington where Labour has a majority of 20 over the Conservatives. Ukip didn't stand in 2017 but it took 1,557 votes in the 2015 election. That level carried over to 12 December could make the difference between victory and defeat, especially as the Lib-Dems are also eroding the vote of the leading pair, without taking enough to win the seat.

Next in line is Dudley North with a Labour majority of 22. In 2017, Ukip did stand and took 2,144 votes. But in 2015, it took a whopping 9,113 votes. Using that as a comparator, the Brexit Party would almost certainly give the seat to Labour this time round.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is another vulnerable seat, currently held by Labour with a majority of 30. The Tories have been pushing hard in this seat but were deprived victory in 2015 when Ukip took 7,252 votes. The party didn't stand in 2017 but if the Brexit Party takes over in 2019, it could again keep the seat in Labour hands.

In Crewe and Nantwich, a slightly different situation applies. In 2017, Labour took the seat from the Conservatives by a margin of 48 votes, with Ukip scoring 1,885. In 2015, Farage's party took 7,252 votes and the Conservatives kept the seat, which could suggest that Ukip was soaking up Labour votes. 

However, 5,000 more people voted in 2017 than two years earlier and, while the Tories added over 3,000 votes to their tally, Labour piled on a massive 7,000 votes, indicating that it was the increased turnout that made the critical difference.

Moving on to Canterbury, this seat was a Labour gain in 2017, with a majority of a mere 187. Ukip did not stand. Notable then was the collapse of the Lib-Dems, who lost nearly 2,000 votes on their 2015 showing, along with the Greens who lost nearly 2.5K, while turnout was more than 3,000 up. Ukip in 2015 took 7,289.

This seat thus illustrates how the complex interactions of small party votes and turnout can affect the overall result, and it is not entirely clear that Ukip is the king maker. But the presence of the Brexit Party in 2019 can only muddy the waters.

Barrow and Furness also presents an interesting picture. A traditional Labour seat, under pressure from the Tories and Ukip, in 2015 the combined effect of both parties reduced Labour's majority from over 5,000 to a vulnerable 795. Ukip took 5,070 votes.

In 2017, with turnout up by more than four thousand and Ukip falling away to sub-thousand levels, the Tories piled on nearly 5,000 votes. Labour did less well, adding just over 4,000 votes, with the Lib-Dem and Green votes largely static. With that, Labour's majority was reduced to 209. Had the 962 Ukip votes gone to the Tories, Mrs May would have gained another seat.

Keighley in West Yorkshire, just up the road from me, is another interesting case. But here, one of the figures to watch is the turnout. In 2010, it was nearly 48K and the Tories took the seat from Labour with a majority of nearly 3,000. In 2015, turnout increases by another 2K and, while Ukip takes over 5K (up from 1,470 in 2010), the Tories keep the seat, with a majority of just over 3K.

In 2017, turnout is up to nearly 52K, 4,000 additional voters compared with 2010, and the Tories add nearly 4K to their 2015 showing. But, with Ukip dropping back to just over 1K, Labour adds 5K-plus to its score, just enough to take the seat with a majority of 249. If the Brexit Party comes in with a high vote in 2019, it looks pretty certain that Labour will keep the seat.

So far, we've looked at seven seats, all of them vulnerable to the "Ukip effect", which could rob the Tories of their local victories. But there are many more.

A particularly fascinating example is Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire. In 2010, it was a Labour-Lib-Dem marginal and it is currently held by Labour with a slender majority of 441. In 2015, Labour took 19,448 votes to hold the seat, up against the Tories who were way behind on 10,628 votes. Significantly, Ukip got 10,150 votes, almost beating the Tories to second place.

Ukip also stood in 2017, but its vote shrank to 1,885 while the Tories soared to 20,844, quite obviously hoovering up the Ukip votes. But, as turnout also increased by 2K, so did the Labour vote, just beating the Tories. A Brexit Party intervening in the 2019 race will certainly make things interesting.

And then there is Stroud. Yet another Labour marginal, the margin by comparison with the others is a relatively healthy 687. In 2015, however, it was a Conservative seat attracting 27,813 votes against Labour's 22,947. Ukip got 4,848 votes, just short of Labour's majority of 4,866.

Come 2017, with Ukip barely scraping past the thousand mark, the Tories climbed to 29,307. But the turnout also increased by 3,000 and the Greens lost just over a thousand votes. Labour crept ahead to win the seat with 29,994 votes.

Bringing to ten, the sample of seats we're looking at, we have Bishop Auckland, a Labour seat that in 2015 boasted a majority of 3,508 at a time when the Tories scored 12,799 and Ukip revelled in 7,015 votes.

In 2017, with Ukip not standing, and an increase in turnout, the Tories climbed to 20,306, within hailing distance of Labour's 20,808. The Lib-Dem vote only dipped slightly, making obvious that there had been a huge transfer of Ukip votes to the Tories. The Brexit Party could definitely cost Johnson the seat this time round.

Overall, one has to say that the so-called "Ukip effect" is not always clear-cut, but in the seats we have looked at, it seems mostly to favour Labour. By that token it is fairly safe to say that the Brexit Party definitely has the potential to damage the Tories on 12 December.

But often neglected – to the point of being ignored by many pundits, and certainly not taken into account in the opinion polls - is the effect of turnout. In some seats, we are possibly seeing the combined impact of turnout plus the "Ukip effect", and in some cases, the voting pattern is influenced by the ebb and flow of votes for other minority parties and the Lib-Dems.

In marginals, where the seat might turn on a few hundred votes, or even less, this makes for an unpredictable mix. But it will be made that much more unpredictable by Farage's announcement yesterday. In a way, the careless concession is typical of a man who doesn't do detail, and tends to act "off the cuff", rather like Johnson.

Thus, in an uncertain world, the one certainty is that the drama of the Brexit Party isn't over yet. Unsurprisingly, Farage is being urged to pull candidates out of every marginal. If he doesn't, and his party's intervention does deprive Johnson of an expected victory, one can quite imagine that, in some quarters, his name will be forever cursed.



Richard North 12/11/2019 link

Brexit: a no-choice democracy

Monday 11 November 2019  



This is the way it goes. The Tories cobble together an attack piece in time for the Sundays, claiming that Labour policies will cost £1.2 trillion, and achieve some success in placing the figure on the front pages of a few sympathetic newspapers.

By mid-Sunday, Labour has counter-attacked, deriding the Tory costings as a "work of fiction". Nevertheless, the £1.2 trillion figure has been lodged in the public consciousness and left to stew for the first part of Sunday. Labour's profligacy with public money, the message says, makes the party unelectable.

Johnson seriously needs a distraction of this nature, as his Brexit policy is falling apart in front of our very eyes. Under pressure from Farage, it seems that he has committed to getting "the fantastic new free trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020". Thus, he confirms, "we will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020".

This comes from Johnson's Sunday night "Twitter video" proving beyond doubt that the man is a complete idiot. He burbles about a "fantastic deal" that means "we can take back control of our money our borders, our laws, as soon as we come out of the EU".

"And of course", he says, "it enables us to do a big free trade deal with our EU friends and partners. And I want to stress that that will be a straightforward free trade agreement with no political alignment".

But this "straightforward free trade agreement" is "on the model of a Super Canada Plus arrangement", which is anything but straightforward. Furthermore, the actual EU-Canada agreement (CETA) took eight years to conclude.

But just to demonstrate how deeply he is embedded in his own fantasy world, Johnson tells us: "Look at how quickly we got a new withdrawal agreement done it took us less than three months" – an assertion of jaw-dropping proportions.

Apart from the fact that the bulk of the withdrawal agreement is unchanged from the draft brokered by Mrs May – with only the Irish protocol having undergone any substantive changes – the actual changes are a reversion to the previous deal agreed by Mrs May until it was scuppered by the DUP.

For Johnson to claim his process took "less than three months" puts him in the land of the fayries, where unicorns graze and cuddly white lambs gambol in perpetual sunlight. The man is barking mad.

Then to use as an example something that took the best part of a tortuous three years, as the basis for a claim that we can conclude a comprehensive trade agreement in so short a time, is to put him on another planet.

Even then, Johnson is asserting that this could be done by the end of 2020, a mere eleven months. But this will be a mixed treaty, so it will have to be ratified by all 27 EU Member States, including some of their regional parliaments.

And although there are provisions for treaties to take partial effect before ratification, the parties really need to leave about six months for the process. This means, effectively, the treaty must be concluded by June, leaving a mere five months for negotiations.

The most likely consequence of this insane timetable is that we drop out of the EU without a fully-formed deal and fall back on the EU's contingency arrangements. The best we could hope for is a "bare bones" treaty, limited to tariff-free arrangements and nothing much else.

Effectively, as we have remarked so often before, in terms of our trading relationship with the EU, this is so close to a no-deal exit as makes no difference. If Farage and his followers want WTO terms, that is exactly what they will get.

The problem though is that is what Johnson is promising, whether or not Farage is demanding it. It is his own personal default position, which he will execute if he wins a big enough majority in the election. With that, Farage effectively gets what he wants, so there is no need for him to take on the Tories with a full slate of candidates.

Despite that, the legacy media rather seem to be missing the point (as always). The Telegraph, for instance, is getting worked up about Farage's activities, running an editorial with the headline, "Nigel Farage risks losing everything with his great election gamble".

It argues that Farage now risks jeopardising the very achievement he has spent a political lifetime trying to bring about. And, while he can't win the election, and will be lucky if he wins any seats, Johnson can lose it. If that happens, the Telegraph says, there will be another referendum because Labour, the only other party likely to be in a position to form a government, is committed to one, albeit only after yet another renegotiation.

Somehow, though, I would have expected something more than this superficial analysis, even if it is rather difficult to second-guess Farage. While it is true that his party could damage the Tories, following its decline in the polls, there is probably less danger of that than there has been. There is even a possibility that support for the Brexit party could collapse.

Apparently, we will know of Farage's intentions today when he announces his plans in Hartlepool, but even if he agrees to stand down most of his candidates, it will make very little difference to Johnson's own declared plans. This is the point the legacy media seems to be missing. With or without Farage, Johnson seems to be heading for disaster.

On the other hand, Corbyn is more of an unknown quantity than even his policy ambiguities would suggest. He has said he will pursue a renegotiation if his party is elected to power, but he has been very thin on the detail. Also, he has not attempted to convince us that he could force the EU to take part in new talks, so his policy could be still-born before it gets off the ground.

Should the EU refuse to entertain a renegotiation, we are truly in uncharted territory, as Corbyn has not given the slightest clue of how he would react. He hasn't even indicated that he is aware that there is a problem.

Once again the Telegraph pitches in, this time giving space to Liam Fox to write that it is clear that anything other than a Tory victory "will perpetuate the stalemate and dither that has characterised the painful political period since the referendum".

It is not too hard to agree with this, as there is a high level of uncertainty attendant on a Corbyn victory. But that puts us, the voters, in an invidious position. We either go with Johnson who will most certainly lead us to disaster, or we choose Corbyn to take us to an uncertain destination, the outcome of which is difficult to predict, which will probably lead to disaster.

For those who are troubled by such prospects, a visit to Nick Cohen's latest column would confirm their worst fears.

He presents us with the choice in this election of #NeverCorbyn or #NeverBrexit, with the vote crossing party lines. Those who think Corbyn would be a disaster (which includes some high profile former Labour supporters) must vote for Johnson, even though they may loathe him and be unenthusiastic about Brexit. Those who believe that Brexit must be stopped at all costs are left to vote for Corbyn, even if they abhor his train-wreck policies.

According to Cohen, we must experience the horrors of either a Johnson or a Corbyn government before we have enough voters to turn against them, although that rather leaves the question hanging as to what alternative we would then choose.

This is where politics turns round to mock us. We are presented with extremely unattractive choices, with potential outcomes which no rational person would voluntarily accept. It is said that democracy is about choices, but there must be – and most certainly is – more to democracy than this.



Richard North 11/11/2019 link

Brexit: horns of a dilemma

Sunday 10 November 2019  



Just short of a year ago, Liam Halligan published in the Telegraph an article headed, "'No EU-UK deal? It is not the end of the world', says WTO chief".

Setting the scene, Halligan told us that, if Britain failed to strike a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU ahead of March 2019 (when we were due to leave the EU), UK-EU trade reverted to WTO rules. "While some claim this would be a disaster, not least parliamentarians determined to frustrate Brexit", wrote Halligan, Azevedo disagreed.

This was Roberto Azevedo, current director general of the WTO. Through the filter of Halligan's writing, he told us: "About half of the UK's trade is already on WTO terms – with the US, China and several large emerging nations where the EU doesn't have trade agreements", which led us to the "money quote", where he said, "So it's not the end of the world if the UK trades under WTO rules with the EU".

The interview was much touted by no-dealers who used it as justification for their stance, even though the following week Azevedo clarified his remarks saying of the UK-EU negotiations, "Whatever happens, this is not going to be a situation where all trade stops, and there is a collapse in terms of the economy as a whole - that for me would be the end of the world".

"But", he added, "it's not going to be a walk in the park. It's not like nothing happened, there will be an impact. It will be a very bumpy road, and maybe long as well".

As to the original interview, I'm not even sure that Halligan quoted Azevedo correctly, where he supposedly asserted that "the US, China and several large emerging nations didn't have trade agreements with the EU". That was not true and I can't imagine Azevedo saying this.

In July, however, when Farage has adopted the no-deal mantra as his own, asserting that we need a "clean break", we saw Prospect magazine belatedly join the debate, bringing together three key figures from the WTO, including Azevedo and Pascal Lamy.

The arguments were sound enough, including a take-down of the GATT Article 24 mythology, and to have three towering figures from the world of international trade make a case should have meant something. But the article passed with scarcely a ripple, leaving Farage to pursue his no-deal obsession, untroubled by mere facts or argument.

This is the nature of the Brexit debate, such that it is. The noise-makers prevail, their positions fixed and entirely responsive. And, as Pete observes, the infection has spread to the election campaign, turning it into a nightmare parody which only superficially resembles the real thing.

Inevitably, the anchors in this parodic episode are the opinion polls, which serve as talking points – even if their limitations and frailties are well known. Latest into the fray – giving today's Observer its lead – is a survey by Opinium which has Labour gaining three points in a week to reach 29 percent, cutting the Tory lead to 12 points after that party dropped one point to end up with 41 percent.

Significantly, some 66 percent of Labour Leavers now plan to vote for Corbyn's party, up nine points on the previous week, while 48 percent of Labour Remainers are also planning to vote for the party, again sharply up on last week.

This, of course, gives some hope to Labour supporters that their party is closing the gap – and very much still in the fight. But, if you drop by the Telegraph website, the Janet Daley column gives the impression that it's all over bar the shouting, as she writes that: "The major Opposition party is no longer functional. The governing party – whatever your view of it – is the only credible one that can be supported".

In truth, neither party is credible and public hostility to the election seems to be building, even if this is not directly reflected in the polls. But what certainly is showing – in the Opinium poll – is a continued decline in Farage's three-man party, which is down three points to six percent (one fifth of its showing at the European elections).

On top of that, we now see Arron Banks writing for the Mail on Sunday calling for leavers to unite, for fear of losing Brexit altogether.

To that effect, the MoS tells us Farage has been in secret talks with the Tories. Amazingly, not only will Farage stand down a number of his candidates, he will also accept Johnson's withdrawal agreement – thus ostensibly abandoning his "no deal" position which any amount or argument has failed to shift.

The price, however, is one which effectively restores that position. Farage is said to be demanding of Johnson that he negotiates changes to the political declaration and, crucially, ends the transition period in December 2020, rather than extending it to the end of 2022.

We haven't been given any details as to the changes required to the political declaration, but since it is currently Johnson's position that he will not extend the transition period, it would appear that the two leaders are not that far apart. If they agree to agree, Farage effectively gets his no-deal without having to put up a raft of candidates.

The key date will be 14 November, when candidate nominations close, which gives just a few days for a deal to be reached. But then, we have the polls to consider. The MoS has also commissioned its own, this one from Deltapoll. Remarkably, it too has the Tories on 41 percent and Labour on 29 percent, exactly the same outcome as the Observer's Opinium poll.

By coincidence, Farage's party also drops to six percent, in this instance having lost five points – its support having nearly halved according to this poll. And that may give Johnson the idea that Farage is a busted flush and he need not bother with a deal.

Back with the Telegraph though, John Curtice casts doubt on Farage's claim that he can win over Labour voters that the Tories can't reach.

Farage's greatest appeal, it seems, is to former leave voters who now believe that we should go for a no-deal exit, a view held by 74 percent of Brexit Party voters but only 34 percent of Conservatives. Curtice thus thinks that Johnson's best bet is to persuade those leave voters that his deal really will represent a "clean break" with Brussels.

Since, without extending the transition period to 2022, that is effectively the case, Johnson should have no problem doing that, but for the effect it might have on voters who think that Johnson has genuinely brokered an agreement which takes no-deal off the table.

Johnson, therefore, is on the horns of a dilemma. To gain the support of the Faragistas, he must convince them that his agreement really means "no-deal" – which indeed it does – while he must convince the "moderates" who would be minded to vote for him that he is planning an orderly exit.

His best bet, from an electoral point of view, would be to avoid talking about Brexit, diverting attention onto other issues, such as the cost of Corbyn's spending plans, estimated by the Tories at £1.2 trillion – a figure dominating today's headlines.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Farage is bringing Brexit back into focus, raising issues which are not to the Tory leader's advantage. If he makes a deal with Farage, he is essentially admitting that he is going for a no-deal Brexit, and if he doesn't, he will be fighting Farage for "no-deal" voters, which means he will have to convince them that he will deliver what they want – or end up with a split vote.

Some might say that this is a classic example of chickens coming home to roost. Without a coherent position on Brexit, Johnson has laid himself wide open to electoral blackmail, in a game he might have difficulty winning. And, from potential ally, Farage might prove to be his executioner.

I think this might be called nemesis, but for the fact that Corbyn's £1.2 trillion-worth of unelectability might save the day for the Tories.



Richard North 10/11/2019 link

Brexit: pantomime politics

Saturday 9 November 2019  



I don't know why anyone should be surprised that Johnson should be out of his depth when it comes to his own withdrawal agreement, and whether traders have to fill in customs declarations when they send goods across the Irish Sea.

In technical areas, he has consistently shown his ignorance of finer details, from bananas to kippers, and he has never taken the trouble to keep himself informed. This is a man who flies by the seat of his pants and gets away with it because his supporters have suspended their critical faculties for far too long.

Now we are lumbered with this man, who has set himself up as the champion of Brexit. And we even have Arron Banks apparently falling out with Nigel Farage. According to the Telegraph, the former "bad boy" and his side-kick Andy Wigmore, are looking at teaming up with the Conservatives to use the clout of their Leave.EU website to urge people to vote Tory, rather than for the Brexit Party.

Banks believes it is "insanity" to be standing candidates in Bath, Winchester or Newbury. "Why", he says, "would you do that, why would you try to actively let Liberal Democrats into Parliament. It is crazy". Wigmore takes up the theme, adding: "We recognise that Boris is the only option, we recognise that we have a very powerful tool in our social media".

He continues: "We have been very supportive of what the Tories have been doing, we have become an echo chamber for a number of their key policy statements". According to Wigmore, "We have that huge reach - we are going to make sure our voters and supporters know the risk that if you don't vote for Boris then you are going to let Corbyn and the Lib-Dems in and then Brexit is over".

Whether the Leave.EU team is of any use to the Tories remains to be seen – the outfit has a chequered history which would deter most established political parties from admitting any association. But these are strange times, and normal rules no longer seem to apply.

Nor is this the only "hit" that Farage has taken from Leave.EU. In a piece published today by politics.co.uk, Alex Andreou writes of a "detailed plan" for leaving the EU, "which Nigel Farage's Leave.EU signed up to in January 2016". Andreou cites the opening paragraph of this plan, which states:
Leaving the EU will have significant geopolitical and economic consequences. But we believe it is unrealistic to expect a clean break, immediately unravelling forty years of integration in a single step.
And on that basis, he claims that "We all instinctively know that politicians shift the goalposts when it suits them, but it is rare that they do so as quickly or as blatantly as the leader of the Brexit party". "It is rarer still", Andreou continues, "to be able to pin down precisely the extent, based on indisputable documentary evidence".

However, I rather suspect that Andreou is adding two and two and making five. What he has done is pick up my post of 8 January 2016 (months before the referendum) when I announced that, following several meetings with Banks and Wigmore, I had agreed to work with Leave.EU as a consultant for the duration of the EU Referendum campaign.

As part of the package, I wrote, Leave.EU had decided to adopt Flexcit as their formal exit plan, subject to a rebranding exercise which I was then working on. This became The Market Solution.

At the time, Andy Wigmore agreed to a statement, saying: "the campaign is keen to work with the best brains and opinions we can find to make sure the UK public know the truth and also the best solution for the UK". He added, "This is above party politics and above egos anyone who wants to be out of the EU is on the same side".

It turned out, of course, that we weren't on the same side. I knew that Banks was in close touch with Farage (he'd even suggested that we meet), but of what passed between them I have no knowledge. All I know was that, rather as had happened with Cummings, Banks broke off contact and ditched Flexcit (aka The Market Solution). But I don't think, even in the brief period that Banks endorsed the plan, Farage had ever taken it on board.

Nevertheless, with exposure on Twitter and multiple re-tweets, there is significant exposure to the claim that Farage once accepted that it was "unrealistic to expect a clean break", yet he is doing precisely that.

It is of some little consolation, though, that Bruno Waterfield, The Times EU correspondent, tweets that at least one senior Whitehall mandarin was looking at Flexcit as a model in summer to autumn 2016. It was, apparently, "killed off" by Treasury hostility to EEA/EFTA and Nick Timothy in Downing Street.

We were so near yet so far. Yet Andreou writes that, to date, Flexcit "is the ONLY detailed plan put forward by Leavers" (his capitals) – and indeed it was, and still is. The revised copy, although now a little dated, is still way ahead of the field, augmented by my Monograph series and, of course, the daily blogposts, closing on two million words since the referendum.

Readers can imagine how frustrating it is to see our cause represented by the "lurching and rambling Johnson, who now has a website dedicated to his "lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations".

As such, he presents an easy target for the enemies of Brexit and not only does Marina Hyde rise to the challenge, another article observes that the prime minister in office "does not appear keen to meet the public".

We saw something of this in Johnson's leadership campaign when the prize was his to lose – which had his minders keeping him away from the media and the public lest he open his mouth and spoil his own chances.

Now we have the Guardian reporting that Johnson's outriders "used to boast during the 2016 referendum that unlike David Cameron, whose slick campaign events were carefully controlled, their man actually enjoyed the rough and tumble of getting off the Vote Leave bus and in among the public".

But, it says, at the end of this first gaffe-strewn week of the general election campaign, "the prime minister has barely met a voter – aside from the Northern Irish manufacturers he addressed in a rambling speech on Thursday evening, during which he appeared to misconstrue his own Brexit deal".

At this early stage in the general election campaign, this is not the image Johnson want to convey, even if it is being projected by his enemies. But, of his fanboys in the Telegraph, even they seem to have given up praising their hero and are now doing the "attack dog" stunt on Corbyn.

And that is how this campaign is panning out. Most definitely, personality politics have taken over, with each side attacking the opposing leaders. Even though Matthew Parris wails in The Times that "voters are turned off by pantomime politics", the actual issues don't stand a chance. Even so, we're still here, and Flexcit is still the best plan in town.



Richard North 09/11/2019 link

Brexit: not in the real world

Friday 8 November 2019  



Reading the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) and the associated policy summary isn't everybody's cup of tea. But the document issued yesterday is only 12 pages long and written in plain English with relatively little jargon. And, with its references to Brexit, it is well worth reading.

Somewhat less user-friendly is the Bank of England's monthly Monetary Policy Report for November. At 49 pages, it presents more of a challenge, although it still manages to be remarkably free of the dense jargon that might be expected in such documents.

Taken together, though, the documents have important things to say about Brexit, giving an insight into the state of play and the thinking of the Bank of England (BoE) on the issue.

Starting with a statement of the obvious, we are told that, in October, the UK and EU agreed a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, the UK House of Commons approved the second reading of the Bill that translates the agreement into law, and the UK and EU agreed a flexible extension of Article 50.

Thus, sterling has appreciated markedly as the perceived probability of a no-deal Brexit has reduced and, says the MPC, "These developments are also likely to remove some of the uncertainty that has been facing businesses and households".

Moving on, we are then told that the MPC's projections are now conditioned on the assumption that the UK moves to a deep free trade agreement with the EU, although it is admitted that "some uncertainty is likely to persist". This is because the details of the UK and EU's eventual relationship "are assumed to emerge only gradually over time and the smoothness of the transition to it remains to be determined".

As for the current situation, the MPC now anticipates that GDP will emerge one percent lower by the end of 2022 than was projected in August. Three quarters of the difference is accounted for by moves in asset prices and the "weaker global environment", but the remaining quarter is partly due to changes in Brexit assumptions, brought about by Johnson's deal.

Nevertheless, UK GDP is expected to pick up during 2020 "as the dampening effects from Brexit-related uncertainties begin to dissipate", boosting business investment growth. From one percent annual growth by the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2019, the MCP expects to see 1.6 percent by 2020 Q4, 1.8 percent by 2021 Q4 and 2.1 percent by 2022 Q4.

This, however, assumes an improvement in global growth and progress on Brexit - and in particular the future trading arrangements with the EU. But, as Mark Carney, BoE governor, acknowledged yesterday, "both are assumed in the MPC's latest projections; neither is assured".

In fact, says the BoE in a separate report, "some uncertainty is likely to persist". Brexit, it observes "is a process rather than a single event" and, while the agreement sets out the broad parameters of the UK and EU's future trading relationship, "the range of potential outcomes is still relatively wide".

If there were prizes for understatement, this report would surely be on the short-list, as the chances of securing a stable, long-term trading relationship with the EU in the near future seem slight. And as long as Johnson insists on concluding a deal by next year, without extending the transition period, the chances are next to nil.

On the other hand, if Corbyn takes the prize of No 10 residency, there is absolutely no knowing what will happen. On the face of it, he will try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, and claims he will be able to wrap up Brexit within six months. Very few people, though, would have confidence in that estimate.

Either way, therefore, with nothing really resolved, one might expect little in the way of a reduction in uncertainty. And - in the event of Johnson renewing his lease on No 10 – if by the end of June he has not extended the transition period, adding the full two years allowable, we cannot rule out a collapse in business confidence.

Then, come the end of 2020, as we are precipitated into what will amount to a no-deal scenario, the most likely outcome is a deep and prolonged recession, with predictable effects on the private sector and public finances.

With that hanging over us, therefore, it does seem rather unwise for both main parties to commit to ambitious public spending promises, fuelled by massive increases in borrowing – in what seems to be an unrestrained bidding war.

Those of us schooled in traditional economics are more used to the idea of governments building up reserves in the good times, to help cope with the demands on public finances that recessions bring, at times when tax revenues fall.

For sure, under Keynesian economics, governments are encouraged to spend during recessions, and Sajid Javid's promise of a £300 billion investment spree could be just what is needed to keep economic activity buoyant when exports collapse as a result of our failure to agree a trade deal with the EU.

However, when shadow chancellor John McDonnell promises an even larger £150 billion "social transformation fund" over the next five years, on top of £250 billion for investment in green infrastructure over 10 years, and renationalisations which are expected to cost nearly £200 billion, one begins to wonder if we are inhabiting the same planet as the politicians.

Javid, for instance, is assuming that he can keep borrowing at today's low interest rates, ignoring any future inflationary effects from a botched Brexit – such as the plummeting value of the pound and the soaring costs of imports. And that is without taking account of the fragile global economy which could slip into recession at any time.

Despite that risk, Chancellor Javid assumes that the UK GDP will continue to grow, thus allowing debt to fall as a proportion of GDP. However, he promises to cap borrowing if debt interest payments rise beyond their historic share of GDP. But, on that basis, where the economy is in recession, his spending promises would never be realised.

Since much of this new investment would be directed at infrastructure projects, there are also serious questions about the ability to deliver at short notice. For instance, with construction projects the shortage of skilled labour – made up in the recent past by immigration from EU Member States – would be a major constraint.

The worst of it all, though, is that the politicians seem to be either ignoring Brexit or assuming that it will have no harmful effects on the economy that they need to take into account. They really do seem to be occupying their own fantasy worlds, which bear very little relation to possible post-Brexit scenarios.

In fact, once again – with day two of the election campaign over – Brexit seems to have disappeared from the front pages of the print media. Personality politics have even displaced news of the spending war, with several papers featuring as their lead items, the decision by "Labour veterans" to support the Tories.

A more sanguine media would, of course, be homing in on the soft optimism of the MPC report, warning that the uncertainty incumbent in the unrealistic Brexit policies of both main parties has not improved our overall position.

Together with a deteriorating global economy – and some very worrying economic news coming out of the eurozone - there is a far stronger risk of recession than is being allowed for. The BoE's growth projections could be completely off-beam, with the real-world situation rendering ambitious spending promises so much hot air.



Richard North 08/11/2019 link

Brexit: on with the charade

Thursday 7 November 2019  



I do wish Johnson would stop his nonsense about getting Brexit "done". At the very best, all we're getting is the first phase of a very long process that is going to take much longer than the prime minister in office would have us believe.

And it's not only Michel Barnier who is telling us that. The outgoing European Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker, added his ha'porth to the mix, telling the BBC's Katya Adler that he very much took issue with the Johnson's assertion that a brand-new comprehensive post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal could then be negotiated in a year or less.

"These things take time," Juncker said. "Just look at the free trade deal the EU negotiated with Canada. That took seven years".

Juncker then said he had a feeling that many UK MPs and government ministers believed negotiating trade deals was easy. But, he said, it would take quite some time to disentangle the UK from decades of forging common rules and regulations with the EU and to form a distinct and new relationship.

As for Corbyn's ideas, Juncker said he didn't think Labour's pledge was a realistic prospect, although conceded that it was for the next European Commission chief to decide if there was any flexibility to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement once again.

Strictly speaking though, we are told that the decision on whether or not to re-start exit negotiations with the UK would fall primarily to EU national leaders in Berlin, Paris and beyond. The European Commission negotiates Brexit on their behalf.

And, as we know, the "national leaders", constituted as the European Council , can't possibly re-open the Withdrawal Agreement – they have expressly ruled that out in the current extension decision, as indeed they had ruled it out before Johnson came on the scene.

However, it seems that we've got it all wrong, according to the Independent. It is relaying a claim from a commission spokesperson in Brussels, who has denied that Theresa May's agreement had been "amended" in any meaningful way. The EU had merely made "clarifications".

Nevertheless, even the Independent displays some scepticism here. The "sensational claim", it says, is at odds with Downing Street's presentation of negotiations. It also notes that Johnson hopes to get his agreement through parliament on the basis that it is not the same as his predecessor's.

The new narrative – or so it appears – is that Johnson has not achieved anything of significance. He did not get the EU to blink and "bin the backstop". Rather, in Juncker's words, they had found a new way in renegotiations to come up with exactly the same result as the original backstop. In practical terms, if not legally speaking, under Johnson's deal, Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU's customs union after Brexit.

This is the border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK Johnson had initially said he would never, ever allow.

Thus, when it was put to the spokesperson that there were obvious differences between the two agreements, and that six paragraphs of the protocol on Northern Ireland had been changed, she said there were "differing views" about what constituted an amendment. In effect, the words might be different but the overall effect is essentially the same.

The real reason for the Commission's assertions, therefore, might be that Brussels for months insisted it would never reopen the withdrawal agreement it struck with Theresa May. Thus, the Commission may be trying to restore some of its lost credibility, especially as it will be trying to enforce that latest extension decision which repeats the limitation on re-opening the new withdrawal agreement.

This is certainly suggested by the spokesperson's insistence that: "… what matters now is the latest European Council decision on 29 October which excludes any further reopening of the withdrawal agreement that we have spent negotiating for two years, and on the basis of which we granted an extension".

This commentary is almost surreal and there must have been an amount of jaw-dropping in the Commission press room. We await further "clarification" of this statement, but it does look rather as if the EU is seeking to draw a line under Brexit and make it happen on 31 January – regardless of who gets to be prime minister.

But if Brussels has been dining on magic mushrooms, there have been plenty to spare for London where it would seem that neither the Tories nor Labour have anything close to credible Brexit policies, leaving voters forced to make a choice between two unrealistic – if not fictional – options.

If this is supposed to be the "Brexit election" – even if the parties are trying to steer the electorate's attention to other matters - the false choices on offer from the two main parties make a nonsense of the entire election process. Voters are being asked to opt for one or other scenario even though neither can actually happen.

But then, since all the political parties seem to be in the land of the fayries, voters can do little other than to invest in industrial quantities of popcorn and make the most of the charade – or opt out altogether.

Whether they like it or not, though, this election campaign has the makings of a media extravaganza, with very little real contact between voters and politicians. Such was the case when Johnson travelled to the NEC in Birmingham yesterday to stage a public launch for his party's campaign.

Described as a "big rally" by the Mail, the picture (above) shows a very modest crowd. Take away the hundred or so journalists, candidates and staff and the number of genuine supporters was very small.

But it was there that Johnson unveiled the party's general election slogan: "Get Brexit Done - Unleash Britain's Potential", with the message that Brexit can happen quickly after the election if he wins a majority. In Johnson's words, "It is there. You just whack it in the microwave, gas mark - I don't know what, I'm not very good at cooking - it is there, it is ready to go. Prick the lid, put it in and then we can get on".

What the man is trying to project, though, is totally unrealistic "We get this deal through parliament and then we can get on with all of the fantastic projects in which this government is engaged, uniting and levelling up our country, giving people opportunity across our country with better education, better infrastructure and new technology". That, he says, "is what this government is all about".

Once past the actual withdrawal stage, if it ever happens, we are either in for the long haul of negotiating a trade deal with the EU, which can only give us a fraction of the market access that we have now, or we are precipitated into a no-deal situation at the end of next year. The very last thing we will be able to do is "move on" from Brexit.

The failure of Mrs May, right at the beginning of the negotiations, to go for the only option that would have given us a smooth transition - the Efta/EEA option - means that we are locked in a Brexit quagmire, where the UK's negotiators will be struggling to bring back from Brussels anything of substance – with the inevitable drag on our economic performance.

But, despite that, the politicians seem to be getting their way. A quick review of this morning's papers seems to indicate that the media has abandoned Brexit, with the emphasis turning to other matters. Allister Heath of the Telegraph wants to turn this election into a binary contest between "Boris" and Corbyn. He may get his way.



Richard North 07/11/2019 link

Brexit: a huge misstep

Wednesday 6 November 2019  



Not since 4 June 1945 when Winston Churchill unwisely compared the Labour Party with the Gestapo (one of the factors which led to the Tory defeat in 1945) has a political leader launched such an ill-considered attack on his opposition in a general election campaign.

But, if had to be anybody, it was going to be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson who today launches the Conservative Party Campaign "exclusively in the Telegraph" with a quote that takes the lead spot on the front page.

"The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn", Johnson says, "is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally… they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks".

Whatever the manifest and very evident faults of the Labour Leader, to compare him with the genocidal Stalin and his extermination of the Kulaks is huge misstep. Through enforced famine and executions, Stalin was responsible for millions of deaths, marking a terrible period in history which cannot begin to be linked with the activities or motives of UK politicians.

Yet, so far gone is the Telegraph in its adoration of its favourite son that it frames an approving news story, reporting that Johnson "has compared Jeremy Corbyn to Stalin over his 'hatred' of wealth creators as he says the Tories will 'cheer, not sneer' entrepreneurs if they are returned to power".

Earlier yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg had been criticised for his "insensitive remarks" about the Grenfell Tower fire, the nature of which was considered to be damaging to the Tories. And, although this grabs its share of the morning's headlines. Johnson's intervention is in another league altogether. Yet the Telegraph isn't even aware of the implications or the outrage which must surely follow.

Perversely, on the first official day of the general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was reported as looking to switch the election focus away from Brexit, with the Financial Times noting that Labour's election campaign plan features Brexit on only two days out of 27. The Labour leader, the paper says, wants his party to campaign on issues such as rail fares, animal welfare, the high street, dentistry, NHS funding, social care and "cycling and walking".

The strategy was considered a gamble, "given that Britain remains convulsed by strong feelings on both sides of the Brexit debate", leading one sceptical Labour MP to remark that, "It's like we want to seal Brexit in 10 metres of concrete and bury it under the seabed", adding wryly: "Good luck with that".

Johnson's comments, though, may play straight into Corbyn's hands, as the highly inappropriate comparison is bound to deflect attention from Brexit and, if a sense of outrage does build, it could deflect the parties' campaigns into personality politics and bitter recriminations.

It may be, of course, that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Johnson who, yesterday, took a serious "hit" from Michel Barnier who took it upon himself to deliver a corrective to the "fantasy Brexit" offered by the prime minister in office.

Speaking at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Barnier directly contradicted Johnson's claims that the post-exit future relationship talks would be "straightforward". Warning that they would be "difficult and demanding", he said that the UK and the EU in the summer of 2020 faced "a moment of truth" on whether to extend the transitional period.

Approval of Johnson's withdrawal agreement by the UK parliament was only the prelude to years more negotiations, Barnier said, making the obvious point that: "As long as we have not completed both negotiations [the withdrawal agreement and future talks] with the UK the risk of a cliff edge remains and we should all remain vigilant".

Stating that the current withdrawal agreement was "a necessary step" but not the "final destination", Barnier stressed that an agreement on zero quotas and zero tariffs on trade would be linked to respecting EU norms on environment, worker protection and state aid, in order to maintain a level playing field between EU and British companies. "The EU will not tolerate unfair competitive advantage", he added.

With the prime minister's official spokesman adamant that there will be no extension of the transition period, this has the makings of a front-page controversy, especially as we are reminded that MPs were promised an opportunity to vote on whether the transitional period should be extended. Johnson's spokesman now says that no such vote would go ahead because the government will have reached a trade deal by then.

So fragile is this assertion that Johnson has as much reason as Corbyn to take Brexit off the agenda, if not more so. Although Corbyn's Brexit policy continues to be incoherent, despite attempts yesterday to clarify it, Johnson has nothing to gain from having his withdrawal agreement subject to intense scrutiny through the election campaign.

Such thoughts have even attracted the attention of the great sage, Rafael Behr, who adds a typical Guardian spin to the issue, writing:
With a sustained display of incompetence, cowardice, delusion and ideological mania, British politics has created a situation so monstrous and writhing with venom that the public cannot bear to look at it. Brexit is like the mythical Gorgon that turns to stone all who meet its gaze. It must instead be stalked indirectly, using the monster’s reflection in their polished shield.

That is why the election will be only obliquely about Brexit. It will not feature rational evaluation of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. These campaigns never do. The referendum drove big red and blue buses down every social fault line in the country without arriving at a functional definition of Brexit. The 2017 election was more animated by fox-hunting and dementia care than customs unions and regulatory alignment. Even when politics appears to be about Brexit, it conspires to be about something else: jostling for position in a Tory leadership race; pro-remain guerrilla manoeuvres in the remote hills of Commons procedure.

With parliament dissolved, anything relating to the substance of negotiation in Brussels will fall off the agenda because it is a boring subject for most voters and always has been. Meanwhile, neither of the two candidates to be prime minister is going to offer an honest appraisal of why leaving has been so difficult and why it brings no material benefit to the country.
Of course, while Behr neglects to point out that it is actually his fellow hacks and commentators who find Brexit so boring – not least because they lack the competence and knowledge to report it properly - we will see the legacy media conspiring to assist the politicians in lobotomising Brexit. And Johnson's "Stalin" remarks may give them the opportunity they have been looking for.

The only thing is that, in 1945, Clement Attlee had been rather miscast. The voters looked at him, the timid, correct, undemonstrative, unaggressive ex-public-schoolboy, ex-major, and couldn't see an Adolf Hitler in him. Yet, he managed to handle Churchill's intemperance rather deftly, pointing out that the then prime minister had wanted to draw a clear distinction between Winston Churchill, the great War leader, and Mr Churchill, the leader of the Tories.

In this case, we have only the tawdry leader of the Tories, but then I suspect that Corbyn is not the match for Attlee – at an intellectual level, at any rate – while the mud sticks easier to Corbyn, a man who is on the extreme left wing of his party.

Nevertheless, it too early to judge whether this misstep is going to take off. The main newspapers had already gone to bed by the time the Telegraph dropped its bombshell, leaving no time to react. We will see today how things develop but, if this is not the excuse to drop Brexit and go personal, there will be another one not far behind.



Richard North 06/11/2019 link

Brexit: muddying the waters

Tuesday 5 November 2019  



You never know with Johnson, whether he is lying, pig ignorant or taking us for fools. Yesterday, when the prime minister in office was being interviewed by Andrew Marr, he refused to rule out an extension to the transition period past December 2020. But today, we learn that Downing Street has categorically ruled this out.

And just to remove any doubt, when work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey appeared to suggest that the December 2020 deadline would be "tough to meet", she was slapped down with brutal finality when the No 10 spokesman stated: "The government will not be extending the transition period".

In anything approaching a sane world, this news would have a devastating effect on the election debate. Johnson's government has unequivocally committed to a course of action which will ensure that the UK drops out of the EU at the end of December next year without a deal – or with only the most basic of tariff agreements.

To all intents and purposes, this puts us in much the same position we would have been if Johnson had taken us out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It just delays the process by just over a year – although we will have the "divorce bill" to pay and the rest of the withdrawal agreement to contend with.

If Johnson could be trusted, this would be manna from Heaven for Farage. He could stand down his troops and bide his time. Come the end of next year, he could then revel in achieving his aim of a "clean break" Brexit, having won the battle without firing a shot.

But this is not to be. Yesterday, Farage effectively declared war on just about everybody, but particularly the Tories, revealing to the world his collection of 600 candidates. One of them, however, had to be released when she claimed to have come from another planet, while another stood down from the marginal Dudley South seat, announcing he was backing the sitting Tory, Mike Wood.

Nevertheless, in the Methodist Hall in Westminster, 450 of Farage's prospective MPs gathered for a series of pep-talks and a training session, after each candidate had been photographed under a somewhat ambitious slogan (pictured).

As for the Tories, Farage "blasted" them for their "conceited arrogance". After all, he said, he was there to help gain a Tory majority, or he could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. "There will be no Brexit without the Brexit Party", he insisted.

Farage is convinced that Ukip, back in 2015 when it was still a functioning party, took more votes from Labour than the Tories, and thus claims that David Cameron "wouldn't have even got a majority without Ukip".

This, of course, was the election when Ukip was going to make a breakthrough. In the event, the party lost one of its two MPs and Farage lost to a former Ukip official turned Tory candidate in Thanet South, by a margin of over 3,000 – promptly resigning as leader of the party.

Shortly before that election, YouGov had polled Ukip supporters to find out how they had voted in the previous election. Some 45 percent had voted Conservative, while 11 percent had voted Labour.

By 2017, when Ukip was falling apart – having been deserted by The Great Leader – another YouGov poll showed that 30 percent of its supporters might have stayed at home. Of those who had voted Ukip in 2015, 45 percent deserted to the Tories. Only about 12 percent went to Labour.

What little evidence we have, therefore, does not support Farage's contention that he's pulling more votes from Labour than the Tories. And those who remember the 2019 Peterborough by-election will recall that, on a turnout reduced by 10,000, the Tories lost far more votes than Labour while the Brexit Party came in a respectable second. Arguably, against a discredited Labour, Farage cost the Tories the seat.

A recent example of a poll for Portsmouth South is instructive. A Labour marginal in 2017, its MP took 18,290 votes as against the Tory who gained 16,736 votes. The Brexit Party's appearance on the scene earns it 14 percent in a Survation opinion poll, both the Labour and the Conservative share drop and the Lib-Dems creep in to take the lead.

And this is against the overall background of an ICM poll where the Conservatives are on 38 percent (up three), Labour hits 31 percent (up two) and the Lib-Dems are on 15 percent (down one). In common with other recent polls, Farage's party support has ebbed (down two), giving it a nine percent share of the vote.

For all that, the morning's newspapers seem to have wiped Brexit from their front pages altogether, with the single exception of the Express, which features a confrontation between Johnson and Corbyn. Farage doesn't get a look in, while the election of the Speaker takes pride of place in the political news.

With the gap closing between the Conservatives and Labour, the "Ukip effect", carried across to the FaraCorp party could have a significant impact on the general election result. At our most charitable, the best we can say is that Farage's determination to field a full pack of candidates can only introduce a huge element of uncertainty.

The trouble is that Johnson's determination not to extend the transition period means that, effectively, the Tories and The Brexit Party are on the same page. The only real difference between them is in timing – both are heading for a no-deal Brexit.

However, the net effect of yesterday's events could be that a hung parliament has moved that much closer, potentially bringing a no-deal forward to 31 January. Worse still, we could be looking at a narrow Corbyn victory or – if they could bear to work with each other – a Labour-SNP-Lib-Dem coalition, however unlikely that might sound.

And yet, standing back from all this, even if The Brexit Party vote collapsed – which in theory it could do – and Johnson swept in with a decent majority, enough for him to risk extending the transition period to the end of 2022, we would not be out of the woods.

When work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said that the future relationship negotiations would be "tough going", she was not exaggerating. As indeed the successive governments under May and Johnson have under-estimated the time to draw up a withdrawal agreement, so too is this government being far too cavalier about the time it will take to craft a future relationship agreement with the EU.

With the Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA) having taken eight years to negotiate, with the treaty running to 1,598 pages, it seems inconceivable that we could agree a comprehensive treaty with the EU in much less time.

Why on earth Mrs May agreed such a short transition period is anyone's guess, and Johnson did nothing to change a provision which allows for a one-time only extension which cannot be repeated, is something of a mystery. Thus do we seem to be heading for a deferred crisis, whatever the outcome of the election.

To that extent, although the election was supposed to clear the impasse, the end result looks so disagreeable that chaos will prevail, whatever the outcome. Farage is simply muddying the already turbid waters.



Richard North 05/11/2019 link

Brexit: the big sleep?

Monday 4 November 2019  



On his show yesterday, Marr asked Farage if there was any sign of the Boris Johnson team reaching out to him.

"Not at this stage, no", said Farage. "Conversations have happened over the previous few weeks. But if Boris is determined to stick to this new EU treaty, then that is not Brexit. And that’s the problem. I promise you one thing: if Boris was going for a genuine Brexit we wouldn’t need to fight against him in this election".

So the die is cast. We have consistently argued that one of the critical factors in the coming general election would be the stance taken by Farage. The received wisdom has been that, if he mounts a full-throated campaign, it could dangerously split the Brexit vote, allowing Corbyn to prevail.

That is definitely a fear being articulated by Steve Baker, who argues that Farage risks becoming the "man who threw away Brexit", a man who is "setting out" to create a "weak and indecisive" hung Parliament.

Thus does the Farage soap opera continue, after a fashion, chronicling the affairs of a man who has decided not to stand for parliament (having already failed to get elected seven times). He owns a company styled as a political party which has three officers and no members and, currently taking a mere seven percent of the vote, according to the latest YouGov poll.

Nevertheless, he seems to be setting the scene for the early stages of this general election campaign.

However, as I suggested yesterday, Farage may be over-estimating his own support and influence, and underestimating the desire of the electorate to "see Brexit done". And, on that basis, I would not be surprised to see a collapse of Farage's support as voters gravitate to the Tories, or simply stay at home.

Furthermore, although BBC early evening TV news gave Farage's decision not to stand pride of place, as the lead item, the print media has been relatively muted this morning, with only the Telegraph and the Metro featuring the man on their front pages- apart from The Sun with a short side-bar.

The Mail ran with news of the growing diabetes crisis, not even featuring any political news on its front page. In that, it matched The Times which led on gangs using top schools to traffic Asian girls, alongside a warning from "doctors" that all the main parties are lying on the NHS.

So slight was the election coverage that one would hardly have realised that Johnson was also doing the telly yesterday, telling Sky News that it was a "matter of deep regret" that he failed to deliver his promise of Brexit by 31 October.

Tucked into that interview was an admission that had The Sun reporting that the prime minister in office had softened his stance on leaving the Brexit transition period without a trade deal.

While No 10 has repeatedly insisted there would be no extension of the transition period beyond December 2020, Johnson refused to repeat his former hard line, saying only that he saw "no reason whatever why we should extend the transition period".

More worryingly, he added that, "We start our negotiations in a state of perfect alignment. So the negotiations, in principle, should be extremely simple" – suggesting that he has still failed to grasp the enormity of the task that is facing him (should he win the election, of course).

What the UK will be trying to achieve has in fact never been tried before – a situation where the parties starts off with a high degree of regulatory integration and seek to craft a deal where this is substantially reduced.

Bearing in mind that the UK will still be looking for a high level of access into the markets of EU Member States, every step away from the current status quo will carry an access penalty. One can see some very long, hard bargaining over complex issues, intensifying as the impact of leaving the Single Market dawns on the UK team.

An alert, knowledgeable interviewer might have picked this up, except that such issues are undoubtedly beyond the competence of our current crop of media stars. Even shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, prattling about renegotiating "a sensible deal" with the European Union gets a free pass.

Given the lukewarm response of the media to the weekend's election "news", one wonders if we're seeing a reflection of the sentiment expressed by Peter Hitchens in his Sunday column.

Writing under the heading, "I used to love elections. But now I say a plague on all their houses!", he tells us how he has fallen out of love with the electoral process. "This Election is not designed to find leaders", he writes, "just to provide an escape hatch for those who have failed to lead. But there is, in fact, no real escape".

Pete has picked this up and I have to say that Hitchens's views are not so very far from my own. This could be the first general election in my lifetime where I have deliberately set out not to vote. But then, in a safe Labour seat, what is the point?

That said, this is not going to be an election based on a detailed evaluation of the issues. If, on the one hand, we have Farage asserting that the current deal is not Brexit, with Johnson proclaiming its "excellence", the bulk of voters are not going to spend their time poring over the withdrawal agreement, to assess the relative merits of Farage's claims.

Then, with Corbyn and his supporters adding to the noise level, and shrieking Jo adding hers, one might expect the bulk of voters to "do a Hitchens" and simply shut off the noise.

With MPs also being warned by the police not to be out on the campaign trail after dark, this election is largely going to be played out in the media, and especially on television. But with the alternative attractions of Netflix and Amazon Prime video, it is very easy to shut out the politicians and pretend that the election isn't happening.

If I'm finding it hard to watch election coverage, and the press does pick up the vibes and look to other issues to keep its readers entertained, the election could be less of an event that many of the political pundits might have expected. Ironically, for all the hype, we might just be back in the '60s when Private Eye produced its famous front page (pictured).

And if the politicians revert to type and direct all their attention to the "schools 'n' hospitals" social agenda, as we're seeing in the Mirror, as far as the EU goes, we could be in for another big sleep. Bluntly, if the politicians and the media can't be bothered to acquaint themselves with the details, there can be no surprise if the bulk of the electorate follows that lead.



Richard North 04/11/2019 link

Brexit: the last hoorah?

Sunday 3 November 2019  



With Johnson having upped the stakes by refusing an electoral pact. the Farage story isn't going away. For a while, at least, it seems set to dominate the news cycle, bolstered by a high volume of commentary on social media.

Coverage in the Mail is interesting, as it puts the onus on Farage to make good his threat of putting up a candidate in every constituency in the UK, except Northern Ireland.

Having thrown down the gauntlet on Friday, Farage admitted yesterday that the "risk of the vote being split is very real". Yet, despite that, his response was to urge Johnson to "reconsider" his withdrawal agreement and "drop the deal because it is not Brexit".

Vying with the prime minister in office, Farage also made his own contribution to raising the temperature, warning Johnson that if he refused to budge, his FaraCorp machine would spend the next six weeks ensuring every home in the UK was aware that his deal is a "sell out".

This, it appears, is Farage's idea of "common sense". He has given Johnson a two-week deadline for the two parties to strike a pact. But even the Mail admits that this now looks "incredibly unlikely". Nevertheless, he insists that Johnson drops the deal, arguing that, "as weeks go by and people discover what it is you will have signed up, they will not like it".

But not content with taking on the Tories, Farage has "fired a warning shot at Jeremy Corbyn", saying he intended "aggressively" to go after Labour-held Leave-backing seats in areas like the east Midlands, the north east of England and south Wales.

These, he said, were "absolutely among our top targets" as he attacked Labour's plan to hold a second referendum. Labour's proposal, he insisted, to pitch a Brexit deal negotiated by Corbyn against Remain at a second ballot would represent a "complete and utter betrayal" of Leave voters.

According to the Mail, Farage thinks it is a "nonsense" to suggest that such areas could vote for Johnson. He believes his own party poses a very major problem to Labour.

Surprisingly enough, the Labour-supporting Observer has not responded too kindly to this, choosing for its assassin the waspish Nick Cohen to deliver its own take-down.

The headline tells much of the story, proclaiming: "The more Nigel Farage plays Brexiters for fools, the more they seem to like it", with the sub-heading: "Even while being lied to, core supporters have an unshakeable faith in their leader".

I am not in the best position to disagree with those sentiments after my piece yesterday on groupthink yesterday. And it is as much the FaraCorp supporters as Farage himself that become the target of Cohen's wrath. As for those supporters, he says:
…if there is any meaning in the vapid word, "populism" can be defined as the willingness of voters to be lied to. The louder they scream "all politicians are liars", the harder they fall for the big lie from their chosen demagogue. Political scientists define devoted supporters of Farage, Trump and Corbyn as "low-trust" voters, who believe nothing they hear on the news. And yet they turn as trusting as children when their great leaders lead them on. In the case of Brexit, they are easy to lead and to fool.
Sadly, much the same could be said of the other parties' core supporters, in the context where the only healthy response to the blandishments politicians is a strong dose of cynicism. The situation has gone way past mere scepticism.

But Cohen does have a point: it is not so much what people disbelieve. It's actually what those same people are prepared to believe. We see sensible people who are quite rightly extremely suspicions of the things they are told by Corbyn, Johnson and squeaking Jo, but whose brains seem to turn to mush when Farage spoons out his brand of tosh.

Adored as he might be by his gullible fans, though, Farage continues to fail in making an impression on the polls. In a YouGov survey for The Sunday Times, his FaraCorp staggers in with a mere seven percent, having lost six points since 30 October.

This poll, incidentally, gives the Tories 39 percent (up three points) but has Labour closing the gap with 27 percent, gaining six points. ComRes has even worse news for the Tories, putting them on 36 percent as opposed to Labour on 28 percent – a mere eight-point gap – compared with its 19 October poll.

Here also FaraCorp doesn't do particularly well, coming in on ten percent after a drop of two points. In the 2015 election, Ukip peaked in some polls at just over 15 percent, so Farage has a way to go before he matches his own pre-referendum performance.

From the look of it, Farage will need to try even harder, as Johnson seems to be launching his own counter-attack, revealing his "fast and furious" plans to wrap up his deal by Christmas if he wins decisively in the general election.

Oddly enough, that would make absolutely no different to when we leave as there is no chance of the European Parliament giving its consent in time. The last plenary starts on 16 December, the same date that MPs would be progressing the WAB in Johnson's scenario. There MEPs would have dispersed for Christmas before the Bill gained Royal Assent, leaving it to January before a vote could be held.

In propaganda terms, though, Johnson's ploy could put greater pressure on Farage. The polls seem to suggest that voters who support Brexit (and many who don't) want to see the whole thing over, so Johnson's catch-phrase of "let's get it done" has some traction.

Farage's intervention, on the other hand, would quite evidently delay matters, especially as the fool has sponsored an advert (segment pictured), which perpetuates his stupidity of calling for the Withdrawal Agreement to be junked and for us to go straight to negotiations with the EU on "a simple free trade agreement".

If the Tories themselves had any intellectual coherence, this idiocy would give them the opportunity to tear Farage apart. As we remarked earlier, it is extremely unlikely that the EU will react to a no-deal Brexit by sitting down to negotiate a free trade deal.

However, the very fact that Farage is being seen to delay Brexit is inviting hostile comment on social media – even from avowed supporters – while he is self-evidently struggling in the polls. It may be that he has been too clever by half, and we will see his supporters fading away.

This could be particularly important as The Sunday Times is claiming that remain parties themselves have finalised an electoral pact aimed at thwarting Johnson. With Farage setting terms which the Tories cannot accept, their best way out is to do their best to crush the interloper.

You never know, and it is unwise to predict. But it could just be that this election is Farage's last hurrah. Certainly Pete has got the man summed up. "What Farage is doing", he writes, "is inexcusable and unforgivable".



Richard North 03/11/2019 link
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Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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