Brexit: an inevitable botch


To be fair to the unreconstructed remainers, if the referendum had gone the other way, I would not have given up campaigning to leave the EU. And I'm pretty sure that Farage and all the hard core leavers would have continued their campaign.

We'd have been in a situation similar to that in 1975, when the result took leaving off the agenda, but didn't settle the question. It took until Maastricht for Euroscepticism (as it then became called) to build up a head of steam, but in the meantime people such as myself hadn't gone away. We were just biding our time.

Thus, if the remainers want to set up a new single-issue political party, in the wake of James Chapman, who are we to object? We had Ukip, for what good it did us, so if the remainers want to go through all the toil and trauma of setting up a minority party, we can only wish them God speed.

To my mind, the remainers are an irrelevance. The problem we have is our own side, the "Ultras" who are set on making such a mess of Brexit that we could end up back in the EU in all but name, by default – a means of mitigating the damage caused by leaving.

The scenario in this case involves the post-Brexit EU-27 producing a much overdue treaty, in which they formalise their "Europe of circles" with the eurozone at the centre and rest forming an "outer circle" along the lines of the Spinelli/Bertelsmann "Associate Membership" – even if they gift-wrap it in a different name.

To a traumatised UK, the associate membership (or "economic partnership" if you like) can be made to look sufficiently different from full EU membership to make it saleable to a majority, including those who have turned away from Brexit and are looking for a new start.

Doubtless, we would have to go through the process of another referendum but, after a botched Brexit and the recession (if not depression) that follows, who is there amongst us who could be confident of the "no" proposition carrying the day – especially if the "colleagues" roped in the Efta/EEA members to their newly-formed outer circle.

The ultimate irony of the current situation is that, with the talk of transition and the prospect of us being unable to make a clean break from the EU for a number of years, the one sure way of securing a permanent "divorce" is to go for the Efta/EEA option. Efta membership is legally and practically incompatible with membership of the EU.

What so few people realise is that Efta/EEA never was an easy option, and there were going to be many loose ends to tidy up as well. Simply, this option was the only way we could secure a stable deal within the two-year timescale afforded by Article 50.

Even then, what I had in mind was a delay of at least a year before invoking Article 50, to give us time to make soundings to the Efta members and secure an agreement in principle that we could re-join Efta – the timing to coincide with our leaving the EU.

Since we are already a contracting party to the EEA Agreement, there would then be nothing to stop us negotiating with the EEA (through the Council, the Joint Committee and the Parliamentary Committee) to produce technical protocols and annexes to the Agreement, to cover our immediate administrative needs brought about by our EU withdrawal.

Even fewer people realise the extent to which opting for Efta/EEA takes the pressure off the Article 50 process, leaving – as I explained last year the bulk of the technical negotiations to be conducted with the EEA Joint Committee.

Had we gone for the year's delay in invoking Article 50, and made a good start with the Efta talks, would have had, in effect, three years to work out the technical details of our withdrawal, taking us out by June 2019.

In that context, the greater damage has been done by the "Ultras". Their antipathy to the Efta/EEA option has blocked us from taking the most effective and secure route to leaving, plunging us into uncertainty, where none of protagonists seem to have the first idea of what to do next.

Even worse, we have the likes of MPs Heidi Allen and Marcus Fysh who Pete so neatly dissects. With these people in positions of influence, alongside a legacy media which has completely lost the plot, there is little chance of the government coming up with a credible alternative sometime soon.

In fact, apart from the Efta/EEA option, there never was a credible option for leaving the EU. Any attempt to craft a "bespoke" agreement outside the EEA framework is going to bog us down in detail and absorb more time than we have.

By this measure, there is nothing the remainers can do to harm Brexit which the "Ultra" faction of the leavers haven't already done, with the unwitting assistance of the useful fools, such as Allen and Fysh, from both sides of the divide.

What we also tend to see is a conjunction of interest between the extremes of the argument, both seemingly wanting to sabotage a sensible Brexit plan for their own particular reasons.

It is here that Chapman's suggestion of a new party gets interesting. He wants to call an anti-Brexit party the Democracy party – obviously unconscious of the irony - arguing that Brexit is a "catastrophe" and pushing for a new referendum to get us back in the EU.

Those who would have it that Brexit is the problem, though, have got it badly wrong. There are good reasons why a well-managed Brexit could be beneficial. It is not the idea which is damaging, but its poor execution.

To that extent, we would use our own political party to guide us through Brexit – a centralist party of national unity that is prepared to put country before party and work to a stable, ideology-free Article 50 settlement, alongside a trade deal that is as close to the EEA Agreement as we can get it.

As time has gone on though, it has become more and more apparent that neither the government, parliament nor the media are up to the task of defining or shepherding us though the Brexit process. The think-tanks have shown no ability to fill the gaps, and academia – traditionally the intellectual resource to which governments turn in time of need – has retreated into a self-referential miasma devoted to applauding (and rewarding) its own "brilliance".

Rarely have all the instruments of what the pundits like to call "civil society" simultaneously failed to step up to the plate, and deliver answers for the most complex challenge of the century (so far). Restoring its capabilities is not going to be easy and nor will it be quick.

Many of us, therefore, are slowly coming to the conclusion that a chaotic Brexit is an inevitability. As do our military in the early stages of a war tend to lose their battles as part of their learning process, it seems that the civil equivalent must do likewise. It must make a mess of the Brexit process – from which it too must learn or die.

In in the meantime we get to see Foreign Secretary Johnson jailed – as Chapman is suggesting he should be – then not everything is lost.

Richard North 11/08/2017 link

Brexit: election special


09:54: The noise to information ratio has dramatically increased as the broadcast media go into prattle mode. With only two seats to declare, the verdict of the people is now clear, so I will wrap up coverage and return for my normal posting schedule. Thank you to those many readers who stayed with me through the night, and thank you all for your continued support, financial and moral.

09:20: Barnier is offering an emollient message (tweet): Brexit negotiations should start when the UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let's put our minds together on striking a deal. Meanwhile, all the media prattle is starting over, about remaining in the Customs Union. It's painful to listen to, as the pundits line up to parade their ignorance.

09:12: We're now on 647 seats declared. The Conservatives have 316 and Labour has 261. SNP is on 35 and the Lib-Dems have 12. Mrs May has not given any indication that she will resign. If she goes, it will have to be the men in grey suits. Uncertainty reigns.

05:00: We now have 600 out of the 650 seats declared and the final result is still in the balance. Labour have gained 29 seats overall and the Conservatives have lost 12. The SNP have lost 20 seats, while the Lib-Dems gain four. Amber Rudd, incidentally, keeps her seat in Hastings.  

Meanwhile, a watery light is breaking though the curtains into my office, I think it is time for a short break. I'll pick up the threads again when I've had some sleep. By the time I wake up, politically we'll be living in a different nation. 

04:45: Latest BBC forecast gives the Conservatives 318 seats and Labour 267. SNP get 32 and the Lib-Dems grasp 11. Ukip gets no seats at all, having lost Clacton, but - much neglected - the DUP get 10. That effectively gives Mrs May (or the new Conservative leader) command of 328 votes in the House. This is a working majority and is enough. The Conservatives will be able to form a government on the strength of this.

However, and obviously, Mrs May's authority is shot.She may not even have enough time to form a new government before she is deposed, and few "big beasts" will want to stand alongside her. On the other hand, the men in grey suits may go for that "period of stability", or even pull a caretaker out of obscurity to hold the. The one thing, though, none of us bargained on was, on the Friday morning, that we'd be talking about Mrs May's successor.

04:30: State of play: 535 of 650 seats declared. Conservatives have 244 seats, with nine losses. Labour has 227 with 25 gains. It is generally agreed that the Conservatives will fall short of an absolute majority. But, with the DUP's ten seats, they could form a government. It will be an extremely fragile government though, and one that will have no mandate to take a hard line in Brussels.

Mrs May's position as prime minister is now extremely fragile, and there will undoubtedly be manoeuvring to replace her. We may well be looking at another general election later this year, with no possibility of predicting an outcome. The great danger is that Brexit is put on hold, allowing a new government to row back on the referendum result. 

Everything is now up in the air, with no way of telling which way things will develop. There are far too many variables.

04:21: Alex Salmond loses his seat to the Conservatives, after 30 years in Parliament. 

04:16: Latest Labour gains from the Conservatives: Lincoln, Croydon Central and Warrington South and Reading. They take Leeds North West from the Lib Dems. Wever Vale goes to Labour with a near five percent swing (4.7 percent). Conservatives hold Thanet South, with the Ukip vote dropping from 16,026 (Farage) to 2,997. 

04:00: Latest projection from Sky News: a range from 315 to 325 in the upper range. With 471 seats declared, no definitive forecast can be made. Essentially, we are looking at a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives failing to gain an overall majority. 

It's going to be up to the Ulster Unionists to hold the balance of power. They will be in a powerful position to dictate the shape of the Brexit settlement. For the nation, I take this as a win, the best possible outcome from a scenario that did not hold a great deal of promise.

03:30: Mrs May retakes her seat (no surprise) and more or less concedes a hung parliament, calling for "a period of stability". Latest BBC projection gives 322 votes to the "May Team". Paul Nuttall gets 3,308 votes in Boston, down from  14,645 in 2015 - a humiliating snub. The Tories take the seat with 27,271 votes - a 19.8 percent increase, compared to the 26.1 percent drop for Ukip.

03:20: Labour gain expected in Canterbury, a seat held by the Conservatives since 1918.

03:16: Labour gains Bedford, Cardiff North and Stroud from the Conservatives, and East Lothian form the SNP. In all, with 331 seats declared, Labour have gained 16 seats. Conservatives overall have lost four seats, with the SNP gains keeping the party alive. SNP is taking a beating.

03:10: Lib-Dems take Bath from the Conservatives with a 17.6 percent swing. The Conservatives drop back two percent. Corbyn returns to Islington with the highest ever vote for his constituency. "Politics has changed" he says. He calls for May to go.

02:56: Conservatives lose Peterborough to Labour and Bristol North West. Vince Cable gets Twickenham. Ben Gummer, the "rising star" of the Conservative Party, loses to Labour in Ipswich, on the back of redistributed Ukip votes. Rudd is asking for a recount.

02:46: Nick Clegg out! Labour gain with 21,881 votes to 19,756. Alexander Johnson at Uxbridge keeps his seat, with a reduced majority.

02:42: Sky New projection: Conservatives seats range from 308-328, with a mid-point of 318. The complexity of the voting patterns preclude any tighter prediction.

02:35: Labour gain Midlothian from the SNP - the second Scottish gain for Labour, showing the traffic isn't entirely favouring the Conservatives. The Conservatives gained 13.5 percent but Labour got a 6.2 increase against 16.2. But the Tory swing wasn't enough to give them a seat.

02:30: Now 145 seats in. Labour up six and the Tories down one.  The Tory losses to Labour in Britain are being balanced by Tory gains from the SNP - a dynamic which will likely strengthen through the morning. At this stage, we could end up with the Ulster Unionists holding the balance of power. That could have a huge effect on the Brexit negotiations, as the Irish will insist on a "soft" Brexit in order to keep the border open. This would mean that we would have to go for an Efta/EEA option.

02:03: The story of the night is the collapse of the Ukip vote, with the demolition of the idea that the votes were going to drop into the lap of the Conservatives. Despite Mrs May donning the clothes of the Ukip hard-liners, significant (if variable) numbers are going over to Labour - enough to skew the results in Labour's favour. And news just in, Labour gains Battersea, ousting Jane Ellison. 

01:44: Swing to Labour in Putney. Justin Greening holds with a reduced majority. Talk also that Nick Clegg is out at Sheffield Hallam. Coming up to 50 seats, the traffic is "in the direction" of Labour, providing an early conformation of the generality of the exit poll. There is no way Mrs May can spin this as a success. In fact, she will be luck to survive this as prime minister. With luck, this puts her "no deal" back on the shelf. 

01:32: Tooting held by Labour, with a substantial increase in votes of 12.5 percent. This compares with a drop of 8.8 percent in the Conservative vote (compared with 2015). This not a Ukip effect here. It's a straight swing from Conservatives to Labour.

01:09: An interesting result from North Swindon. Conservative holds with 29,431 votes, an increase of 3.3 percent (up from 26,295 in 2015). But Labour gets 21,096, increased by 10.6 percent (up from 14,509). Ukip is down 12.5 percent (8,011 votes in 2015 to 1,564 this time). There is no way we can say that the Ukip vote is flowing to the Tories. 

01:09: Wrexham just in - a Tory target, held by Labour, ostensibly worse than predicted by the exit poll. Sporadic discussion on various channels is confronting the effect of the election on Brussels and the negotiations. If this is as bad as it is beginning to look, Mrs May will need to seek a time extension and put the negotiations on hold, pending another election in the autumn, when the Conservatives again will need to pitch for the "strong and stable" leadership that they haven't had from Mrs May.

01:03: Doing a catch-up, we have 15 results in, with ten seats going to Labour, which has taken 50.3 percent of the vote, with an overall swing of 9.2 percent. The Conservatives have taken five seats, again with an increased swing of 7.6 percent. This is a direct reflection of the collapse of the Ukip vote, which has dropped 13.5 percent, currently standing at a mere four percent. 

00:58: Another observation: given the right wing media's hysterical calls for the nation to rally round May, they have clearly lost any moral authority. Nobody has taken a blind bit of notice of them.

00:44: Brief (I hope) outage. Not happy. Back online, I hope.  Results coming in are consistent in one thing - Ukip vote heavily down, but redistribution is not uniform. That makes a mockery of all those pundits who held that Ukip was not having an effect. I was writing about the "Ukip effect" in 2005, but the pundits were not on the ball.

23:25 Overall turnout high - said to favour Labour.

23:17: Sunderland (Houghton & Sunderland South) confuses. Labour, Bridget Phillipson: 24,665 - 59.5 percent (+4.4); Conservative, Paul Howell: 12,324 - 29.7 percent (+11.2), Lib-Dems, Paul John Edgeworth: 908 - 2.2 percent (+0.1); UKIP, Michael Anthony Joyce: 2,379, 5.7 percent (-15.8). UKIP polled 8,280 votes in 2015. It appears some, but not all, went to the Tories.

23:10: First result in: Newcastle Central - two percent swing to Labour. Labour, Chi Onwurah: 24,071 - 64.9 percent; Conservative, Steve Kyte: 9,134 - (+24.6 percent); Liberal Democrat, Nick Cott: 1,812 - 4.9 percent; UKIP David Muat: 1,482 4.0 percent.   Turnout 37,094 - 67 percent. Ukip nosedives: did 5,214 (14.9 percent) last time.

23:00: Times front page out: "May's big gamble fails".

: The exit poll does not cover Northern Ireland. The Irish vote could deliver ten or more seats to the Conservatives. Talk of the mainland vote, suggesting that the Ukip vote hasn't gone to the Tories. ITV pundit, talking of the Scottish vote, says "no-one saw this coming!" The big loser - apart from the Tories - could be the polls.

22:49: And the Lib-Dems are saying "no coalition". It's too early to speculate on this ... all the exit poll does for the moment is make sure we stay up a little longer. Right now, I'd like to see an uncensored interview with David Cameron. 

22:44: Out of interest, Lord Ashcroft's final estimate gave 373 seats to Conservative seats - an overall majority of 96. If turnout were to match that of the 2015 election, his model estimated 364 Conservative seats, or a majority of 78.

22:38: With no results in at all, there's talk of another election later in the year. Great speculation on which Tories are going to lose their seats. Rudd is said to be in trouble.

22:07: Off to a stonking start with a BBC exit poll which has the Tories losing their overall majority. They take 314 seats compared with Labour's 226 (up 34) and with the SNP taking 34 (down 27). The Lib-Dems get 14, the Welsh 3, Greens 1 and Others 18. Ukip is slated to get no seats.

The loss-making Guardian puts the "others" at 138 - accurate to the last. Margin of error is said to be 20 seats.

Richard North 09/06/2017 link

Brexit: UK suffers most


Mrs May was in York University yesterday evening, alongside but not confronting Jeremy Corbyn as they continued with this charade that passes for a general election campaign.

Of what the Prime Minister did say, very little was memorable and, of that, we'd mostly heard it before, leaving the media thin pickings. The news agency Reuters was thus left to reiterate Mrs May's defining position, telling us that she was confident that Britain could get a good deal in the forthcoming negotiations, but would be prepared to walk away without an accord on departure terms if necessary.

In terms of the precise quote, we have her saying: "I've said that I think no deal would be better than a bad deal. Now I'm confident we can get a good deal with the right plan for those negotiations, because I think a good deal is in our interests and in the interests of the rest of the EU".

She then adds the money quote, saying: "But we have to be prepared to stand up for Britain. We have to be prepared to go in there, recognising that we're not willing to accept a bad deal".

At this stage in the campaign, with less than a week to go, it is too late to expect any fundamental change in position so, for better or worse, we're stuck with this from the Conservatives – and this alone will be enough to induce some people not to vote for this party.

Not voting for the Conservatives, though, does not necessarily mean transferring to Labour, and some may even consider returning to Ukip – where there is a candidate standing.

I even briefly considered that possibility, until I saw the leaflet which came thought my letter box yesterday. It did not mention the European Union anywhere in the text, and there was only one short sentence devoted to Brexit: "Challenge the Tories on Brexit and demand that Brexit really does mean EXIT".

That simply isn't good enough for a party that came into being to fight for our withdrawal from the EU. It has lost its way and is no longer part of the fight.

Meanwhile, almost completely ignored by the legacy media (for the moment) is a study on the effects of Brexit on the German and European economy, commissioned by the (German) Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy from the Ifo Institute in Munich.

One of the key findings suggests that Brexit "will definitely be much more expensive for the UK than for Germany", although the precise costs will vary according to the nature of the final agreement. In the event of an EU-Korea style of agreement, the Institute calculates that real GDP in the UK will decrease by 0.6 percent, compared with 0.1 percent in Germany and 0.11 percent in the EU 27.

In the worst-case scenario, losses in the United Kingdom would be 1.73 percent of GDP over the long term, Germany would lose 0.23 percent and the EU 27 would average a 0.26 percent loss. In four "hard" Brexit scenarios modelled, the UK's relative loss is at least five times the EU average. In the "soft" Brexit scenarios modelled, it is at least four times as high.

From the point of view of Germany, therefore, its economy is relatively untouched by Brexit, while the UK comes off worse across the board. One might suspect, therefore, that any attempt by UK negotiators to suggest that there will be equality of misery will not be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, there are distinct variations in effect throughout the EU. Among the large EU members, Germany is the country which suffers the largest losses in all scenarios, both in percentage and absolute terms.

Where Germany's GDP drops in one scenario by 0.24 percent, France gets away with a drop of 0.2 percent, while Italy and Spain take a maximum hit of 0.15 percent.

However, a number of smaller EU Member States who are relatively badly affected. In all scenarios, Ireland suffers slightly more negatively than the UK itself. Malta and Cyprus, two countries traditionally strongly united with the UK, would also lose significantly. The Scandinavian countries, and the Benelux countries, above all Luxembourg, would lose above average amounts.

Within different sectors, there are also graduations in effect. In Germany, pharmaceutical, motor vehicle and machinery industries would lose the most, in the worst case respectively by 2.9, 1.0 and 0.6 percent.

In the financial sector, Germany could gain slightly, but the potential value-added effects are small in all scenarios. In the best case, the increase is 0.7 percent (around €500 million). Other service sectors tend to be losers, although the negative effects are very close to zero.

In the UK, though, the Institute thinks that the industrial sector is likely to suffer long-term damage. In some sectors, such as in the motor vehicle or aircraft construction, these sectors might experience falls between two and ten percent. In the case of easily substitutable metal products or chemicals, the losses could be even more pronounced, in the worst case, up to 18 percent. In the food sector, losses of five percent can be expected.

The UK's service sector would also suffer from Brexit. Interestingly, though, the financial and insurance services would not suffer the most. These are protected by strong comparative advantages. In the wholesale sector, in the field of engineering, and in certain business services, losses could amount to seven percent in the worst case.

Through this study, though, the Germans are looking at long-term effects. And while these are bad enough, over the short-term they could be considerably worse.

Furthermore, the Institute deals with non-tariff barriers by attributing a notional 15 percent ad valoram penalty. It does not factor in delays and disruption to trade, or the effects of regulatory barriers (such as in the pharmaceutical sector), which force relocation of enterprises, or which prevent trade altogether (as will be the case with meat exports from the UK unless there is substantial investment in Border Control Posts).

From this stance, therefore, the German study is under-estimating the effect of a "no deal" scenario, where the UK's "Team Brexit" walks away from the Article 50 talks.

Perhaps it is because of the unreality of such a scenario that there seems to be so much difficulty modelling it, and thus putting a realistic figure on the cost of walking away. But even from the current, limited survey, the EU can take assurances that they will be substantially less damaged than the UK.

That in itself could make the EU less responsive to the UK, and thereby make a "walk-away" that much more likely, as the EU negotiators fail to respond to UK pressure.

Certainly, the survey doesn't entirely support the argument that a "good deal" is necessarily in the interests of the rest of the EU. In fact, what the EU takes as a good deal may be very different from the UK's ideas, which means that the two sides could end up talking past each other.

On the other hand, if she took on board the survey, Mrs May might realise that she needs to step back from her facile mantra. The indications are that the EU will be entirely indifferent to her "walk-away" threats, and unconcerned by the prospect of the slight economic damage that might be caused.

"UK suffers most", needs to be her watch words. It would help better to shape the negotiations.

Richard North 03/06/2017 link

Brexit bullshit


In a classic example of the power of prestige, the BBC is quoting the head of Ireland's customs authority, who is stating that [only] up to eight percent of freight crossing the border will have to be subject to checks after Brexit.

This is Revenue Commissioner Liam Irwin who has been giving evidence to the Irish parliament's finance committee, whence he said that the authorities would try to minimise customs controls but they are required under EU law. On that basis, he argues that this would mean checks on 6-8 percent of freight, mainly on documents but with a "small number" of physical inspections.

Furthermore, Irwin says, checks would not happen at the border but at "trade facilitation posts" which would be "10 or 15 kilometres back from the border". He adds that there would also be some form of random, or risk-based, customs checks carried out by mobile units.

In the Commissioner's view, customs declarations would be made electronically and most transactions would be immediately approved. There would not be a return to a pre-1992 situation when there were customs posts at the border.

Bizarrely, the man then goes on to admit that Irish customs authorities are not currently in "any form of discussion" with the UK, which rather negates his earlier comments. At best, these could only be considered aspirational, dependent on the nature of the agreements on customs cooperation between the UK and the EU.

Not least, when it comes to customs declarations, the ability process these depend intrinsically on the degree of cross-border exchange of data which, in turn, will depend on UK conformity with EU data protection rules. This is currently open to question.

Then, Mr Irwin seems to be neglecting entirely the problem of conformity assessment, to which extent he must be presuming that the UK and the EU will be able to conclude a mutual recognition agreement (MRA). Without such an agreement, one would expect physical inspections (and specialist testing) of goods coming into Ireland from the North vastly to exceed a mere eight percent.

And this, of course, does not take into account the cross-border movement of livestock, agricultural goods and foodstuffs, which must be subject to veterinary or phytosanitary checks before they can even be submitted for customs clearance. For live animals, inspection rates can be 100 percent, while the rate might vary from 10-50 percent for the physical inspection of foodstuffs.

There is a way round this – what amounts to the "Swiss option". But this would require the UK to comply fully with EU animal health and food law, and all other relevant law, as well as carrying out full EU-style checks on imports from third countries.

For these sectors, the net effect would be the same as if the UK had never left the EU, with the proviso that the "fax law" jibe would come true. The UK would have to comply with EU law, with no direct input in its making – notwithstanding that many of the standards underwriting the law originate at global level.

What precisely businesses will have to plan for, therefore, depends on the level of agreement between the UK and the EU – nothing of which can be taken for granted. When it came to Irwin's presentation, it was perhaps just as well that Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty questioned whether talk of an invisible border was "fantasy land stuff" as nowhere in Europe had such arrangements.

Despite that, Michel Barnier was in the European Parliament yesterday for a debate on Brexit, when he urged businesses to "move fast" to prepare for Brexit in under two years. They should not count, he says, on long transition periods to cushion the impact of Britain leaving the European Union.

"We might be working on transitional measures post-Brexit, on a phasing-out period and a phasing-in towards the new relationship, but the real transition period is now, before exit", he said. "I would like to recommend all economic players, all economic operators, to make use of this period, so that the day of this exit, probably March 2019, is as orderly as possible".

However, notwithstanding my earlier piece, this report would have it that very few have made firm decisions, and cannot until they see what kind of new trading relationship can be agreed. Putting clothes on that assertion, we see a report which tells us that 98 percent of Irish companies have no plan in place to deal with the consequences of Brexit.

This sort of finding is very much in accord with my experience working for trade bodies. Invariably, when new regulations were introduced, business owners would leave it until the last possible minute before taking steps to comply.

There is every reason to believe that we will see the something of the same dynamic with Brexit. Most will delay taking action but those who do act – such as BNP Paribas, the latest bank to announce that it is moving staff out of London - will assume the worst.

Such companies cannot be faulted. There is a good business case for assuming the worst, especially when confronted with the sort of institutional ignorance and unwarranted optimism exhibited by the likes of Irwin. His claims seem to be much of the same order as assurances on Singapore's safety after the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula.

The unwarranted optimism looks even thinner when one sees this survey conducted by Deloitte, which suggests that very nearly half of German enterprises support the idea of completely excluding the UK from the EU Single Market if it does not adhere to the four freedoms.

Nor is this by any means the first time we have seen such sentiment, which reinforces the premise that Germany is not going to roll over and demand an easy ride for the UK just so that we will continue buying BMWs.

If this needed any more emphasis, we need go no further than Angela Merkel who was addressing a G20 trade union event in Berlin yesterday. She took the opportunity to remind us that everything from just-in-time auto supply chains to the free movement of workers and even their pet cats and dogs will be thrown into question by Brexit.

While Britain would be free to change rules to its own advantage after leaving, she said, the EU would have to take steps to preserve a level playing field. "If the British government ends the free movement of people, that will have its price", she said.

"That's not malice", she added. "(One) cannot expect to have all the good sides and then say there will be an upper limit of 100,000 or 200,000 EU citizens, no more, or just researchers, but please nobody else. This will not work".

The fact that so many areas of policy have for decades operated under EU rules meant that the disruption following Brexit could extend into wholly unexpected parts, she warned. "Currently, the 250,000 pets, cats and dogs that travel from Britain to the continent or the other way around each year are managed within an EU framework," she said. "Now they'll need veterinary certificates - things we don't even remember".

So, in Berlin if not Dublin - the penny is finally dropping: border controls mean more than just customs checks. Belatedly, the Financial Times is waking up to the impact Brexit will have on food safety, albeit addressing only a fraction of the issues we rehearsed in January. Give the paper another year and it might start to catch up, whence the rest of the legacy media can copy its errors.

It was, after all, the Financial Times which invented the €100 billion "divorce bill", only now to have Barnier confront Nigel Farage in the European Parliament after the former Ukip leader claimed that Brussels was trying to "bully" Britain by seeking this amount.

Dismissing the allegation that it was a "ludicrous ransom", Barnier pointed the simple truth that has evaded Farage and most of the legacy media: "There is no figure for a financial settlement between Britain and the European Union yet", he declared.

Said Barnier, such a figure "can only be established once both sides agree on a common methodology of calculations, taking into account the date of exit". The amount will depend on the methodology we adopt and the actual date of the UK's exit. It is not (me) who will set a figure", he added.

Returning to the vexed question of trade, it isn't only the Germans who are going to be playing hardball – not that this was ever the case. The Irish Times is gloomily recording that a prominent French farm leader has lobbed a proverbial grenade into the upcoming Brexit negotiations by calling for the re-establishment of a hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This is Christophe Hillairet, a council member of Copa, Europe's largest farm organisation. He expressed fears that the UK would sign agreements to import food from Commonwealth countries after Brexit.

Raising the prospect of the internal border becoming a back door into the single Market, Hillairet warned that the only way to stop these imports finding their way into the Republic and the wider EU was for strict border controls to be reintroduced.

"Ireland is a big problem but for the French farmer we will need to have a hard Border between the North and the Republic as otherwise we will have a lot of products that will cross from North to South. That would be very dangerous for our producers", he told the Agra Europe website.

That once again strikes at Irwin's "fantasy land stuff", not made any better by a timid and dismally unimaginative report from the Institute of Government. While it recognises that free trade areas are "just one tool for boosting trade" and "other options may be much more effective in achieving trade policy objectives", it fails to offer any serious detail on those "other options".

Cutting through the bullshit bonanza, though, is the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which has the Scientific Advisory Council of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs writing to economy minister Brigitte Zypries warning that the Brexit process risks "unnecessary damage to economic relations".

The Council concedes that the mutual economic contacts are so important that it is necessary to conclude a "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement" but considers that the conclusion of such a treaty "will hardly be possible" by the planned exit date in 2019.

The Council's economists, therefore, advise Zypries to push for an intermediate step towards a free trade agreement, seeking to ensure that London joins Efta in parallel with Brexit. This, they say, would minimise disruption.

Interestingly, this follows an unrelated intervention by Liechtenstein's foreign minister Aurelia Frick, who is telling us that Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway could be part of the EU's deal with the UK after it leaves the EU.

"Solutions to soften the landing should be available to us", she said ahead of a meeting with Michel Barnier, who then promised that he would keep Efta/EEA States not only informed but consulted about the Brexit negotiations.

The UK has not yet triggered a clause in the EEA treaty, notifying the EU that it intends to leave the EEA. If it neglects this formal obligation, the clause will likely be triggered by the EU, said Dag Werno Hotler, deputy secretary general of Efta (notwithstanding that there is no expulsion clause).

Frick and her colleague, Norway's EU minister Frank Bakke Jensen, said they were "open-minded" about the UK re-joining Efta. "But the initiative would have to come from the UK. For the moment, the question is not on the table", the ministers said.

Once again, therefore, there is rustling in the undergrowth. Cut through the media bullshit and the colossal ignorance afflicting the establishment and there is sense to be had.

Richard North 18/05/2017 link

Brexit: the phony war continues


Just occasionally, one can have sympathy for journalists covering events such as Corbyn's leaked manifesto and having to pretend one is in the least interested in it.

Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter and one-time junior agriculture minister had it right in an acerbic comment to the BBC about being 20 points behind in the polls and the need to "get real", salvaging enough MPs from the wreck of a campaign to form a credible opposition in the next Parliament.

Bradshaw is one of those MPs who, on the face of it is fairly safe, with a 7,183 majority at the 2015 election, increasing his share against the trend. But his is a seat which saw the Ukip vote increase from just short of 2K in 2010 to over five thousand in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote and a swing to the Conservatives, Bradshaw is actually vulnerable.

As to Corbyn's manifesto – well, who does care? But the irony is that his plans to nationalise the railways, energy and the post are made that much easier by Brexit – not that any of the disinterested hacks actually realised this. Perhaps this was Corbyn's coded message, saying he was in favour of leaving the EU – but if it was, no one noticed.

It's a pity though that Corbyn didn't add water to his list of renationalisation – not that it should be nationalised as such. Water was never owned by the national government which, in order to sell it off, expropriated municipal assets, stealing them from their rightful owners. The companies were never the government's to sell, and should be returned.

Apart from making wealthy Singaporean hedge fund owners even more wealthy, privatisation does not seem to have achieved much else. With talk of another drought in the air, the Guardian reports that customers are being asked to save water, but more than 20 percent of water is lost before it reaches homes and leakage levels are not declining.

Data from the water industry regulator Ofwat shows more than three billion litres of water leaks every day, a level unchanged for at least four years and just seven percent lower than the level in 2000.

Meanwhile, the Brexit action moved to Dublin where Michel Barnier was accorded the rare honour (unique for a non-head of state) of addressing the joint houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament) on the Brexit negotiations.

That is not to say that he actually conveyed anything new. He reaffirmed that Brexit changes the external borders of the EU and promised to work with the Irish "to avoid a hard border", but went nowhere towards telling his audience how this would be done.

One worries a little, though, when the man says that "Customs controls are part of EU border management" and that, "They protect the single market. They protect our food safety and our standards".

Strictly, they don't protect food safety. In the litany of protections, these "official controls" are veterinary and phytosanitary checks which are entirely separate and must be completed before relevant products are submitted for customs clearance.

If Barnier can't get this small but important detail right, then one wonders just how much a grip of the detail he really has, and whether he fully understands which is involved when the Irish border becomes the final frontier between the EU and the outside world.

The absence of such details are lending a surreal aspect to the Brexit non-debate, and crucial technical issues are placed "on hold", and what little discussion there was has evaporated. Beyond looking for "flexible and imaginative solutions", we're no further forward in finding a solution for the Irish border problem, especially if it has to "respect the integrity of the EU legal order".

Unsurprisingly, therefore, we got a nervous comment from Gabriel Fagan, chief economist of the Irish Central Bank. He states the obvious, that the Irish economy is particularly vulnerable to any new tariff or regulatory barriers with the UK, which may arise as a result of Brexit.

He warns that within 10 years of a "hard Brexit", the number of people employed would be 40,000 fewer, compared with a no-Brexit scenario. Some small and medium-sized Irish businesses are "likely to be among the hardest hit".

Yet all we actually got from Barnier was "motherhood and apple pie" sentiment, with the man telling us that, "if we put things in the right order, if we negotiate with mutual respect, without any aggression and naïvety, and if we are open to finding solutions, there is no reason why our strong Europe cannot maintain a strong relationship with the UK".

One notes the insertion of the word "naïvety" and wonders whether this was directed at Mrs May or her "Ultras", but if this was another coded message, it possibly conveys much the same as Junker was trying to tell us about the demeanour of Mrs May and her residence on other galaxies.

Today, Barnier is to visit an Irish dairy cooperative in the border areas of Ireland. Maybe we'll get more detail from this, although I somehow doubt it. Until the UK general election is over, we seem to have moved into a new phase of the phoney war.

Maybe it's just as well that, at this point, David Cameron should intervene to urge Mrs May to stand firm against her "Ultras". Campaigning in Crewe yesterday, he suggested that if she won a big majority she would be better equipped to fight for a "soft Brexit" – whatever that means.

"This is one of the most defining elections I can remember where it's so important that the Conservatives win and win well, so Theresa can negotiate that Brexit deal and stand up to people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels", he said.

Perhaps, though, Mrs May has already made her mind up on this, having just appointed former European Commission official, Peter Hill, as her principal private secretary official.

Hill, who worked in Peter Mandelson's cabinet in Brussels when he was trade commissioner, has served as director of strategy at the Foreign Office since 2013. He is said to be one of the few people in the top ranks of British government with experience of trade negotiations. It is thought that his appointment will reassure critics of the Government's current stance on Brexit.

Others are also taking comfort from the indication that Mrs May is favouring candidates who support a "soft Brexit" agenda, blocking people such as Daniel Hannan and David Bannerman, Tory MEPs who are looking for a new home to replace the Brussels gravy train.

But, where one door opens, another slams shut – this one in the face of Sara Roebuck, who is doing a double masters in European politics at Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics.

She recently attended a careers event in Brussels with her university class to discuss job prospects at institutions like the European Parliament or the European Commission, only to be told that getting a job with European Union (EU) institutions will be "out of the question" after Brexit.

Instead, advisers at the EU department that recruits public servants told the 24-year-old she would have to obtain French nationality in order to have any chance of following that career path.

One hopes that the mention of French nationality was related to Sara Roebuck's current location in Paris, otherwise there is the fear that, with no British counterbalance, the French are going to take over running the EU – except that many already believe they do.

But this is very much a sign of things to come. What little influence the UK exerts in les couloirs of Brussels is likely to be further diminished, yet there is probably not going to be any compensating increase in global bodies until we've established a greater presence (with all the financial costs that that implies).

It would be nice to think that, already, the FCO (together with the Department for International Trade) are planning a massive uplift in recruitment, to staff posts in global institutions, although there is no sign of that happening yet. In fact, if we are to believe what we are told, the UK is going to have trouble recruiting enough people to match the team put up by Brussels to negotiate Brexit.

Perhaps if Mrs May continues to keep it vague, it will at least minimise the pressure on human resources and, when we go under, there will be fewer redundancy notices to hand out. There must be some reason for the prime minister's silence on Brexit – and this is more logical than most.

Richard North 12/05/2017 link

Brexit: the media wot dun it?


Sunday saw a very strange story in the Observer, described by Lost Leonardo in a masterful put-down as "Carole Cadwalladr's strange fever dream". Cadwalladr's thesis is that Britain's vote to leave the EU was not a legitimate expression of the popular will - a culmination of years of condescension and neglect from an increasingly discredited political class.

It was instead the result of a right-wing plot peopled by billionaires and "data scientists" to target and subtly coerce a small but significant number of credulous Facebook users to shuffle to the voting booths on 23 June and mark the box labelled "Leave the European Union" with an "X".

That, wrote Lost Leonardo, "may sound like the backstory for one of the lesser Bond films (maybe something from the Pierce Brosnan era), but Cadwalladr would have us believe (I'm sure that she believes) that 'it were the big data wot won it'".

This one is going to run and run, but just to prove that a stopped clock is occasionally right, we have the Telegraph traducing the effects of social media. It can generate a lot of heat and light, the paper says. "But it does not uncover any new information, move the story on, and it rarely influences anyone beyond a small group of hardcore activists".

Our own experiences of using social media during the referendum campaign, where we did our own social media advertising to test the waters. The experiment was not a success. And, as a codicil, when we recently stopped promoting posts on Twitter, we experienced a substantial increase in the hit rate.

Nothing of this is conclusive, but the Cummings claims that "big data" won the referendum need to be taken with a pinch of salt of a size that would match the annual output of Cheshire.

And also casting doubt on the "big data" thesis are researchers from King's College, London in the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power.  They have done an analysis of legacy media coverage during the official campaign, concluding that it was the UK's most divisive, hostile, negative and fear-provoking of the 21st century.

This, they say, was partly due to the rhetoric and approaches of the campaigns themselves, but was encouraged and enflamed by a highly partisan national media.

Remain set the campaign agenda early on – focusing on the potential damaging economic consequences of Brexit, seeking and publicising endorsements of staying in the EU from domestic and international politicians and institutions. Leave, however, successfully undermined the economic warnings of Remain by questioning the campaign leaders' honesty, their expertise, their motivation, and by presenting the whole economic narrative as a cynical strategy to frighten people into voting for the status quo.

As a consequence, they say, Remain lost many of the benefits normally associated with agenda-setting. Indeed, by the latter part of the referendum campaign Leave had managed to turn Remain's ability to set the agenda into a liability, by characterising the authoritative figures and institutions that supported Remain as self-interested, dishonest and unpatriotic.

What the researchers do recognise, though, is that national media coverage represented only one factor influencing people's decision to vote in the referendum.

Many people, they say, would have made up their mind before the campaign began. Others were undoubtedly guided by the views of their family, friends and colleagues. Others were swayed by digital communications sent directly to their email inbox or to their social media feed.

All these things must be true and it surely must be the case that the leave campaign started in 1975 when the "no" side failed to win. It intensified when John Major foisted Maastricht on us, creating a movement which gave rise to Ukip. The attempts by Blair to take the UK into the euro further motivated the resistance and James Goldsmith with his Referendum Party put the idea of a referendum on the map.

What then set the seal on the issue was the establishment's contempt for democracy in its handling of the European Constitution and the cynical pretence that the Lisbon Treaty was simply a "tidying up exercise". The response inexorably forced David Cameron into promising a referendum in his 2015 manifesto and, by then, the die was cast. The referendum was there to win, or lose.

However, the parasitic Dominic Cummings and his partner in crime, Matthew Elliott, decided that direct digital communication was the way forward. With resources furnished by their billionaire sponsors, their official Vote Leave campaign spent millions on buying up "nearly a billion targeted digital adverts", accounting for approximately 98 percent of their spend – with minimal popular support.

As Joshua Carrington pointed out in the New Statesman, however, the Vote Leave campaign wasn't nearly as clever as it thinks it was. Their techniques were nothing special – just expensive and unproven.

Nor was Vote Leave on its own. Digital communication was equally important to Stronger In, which employed Tom Edmonds, joint director of the Conservatives' 2015 digital election campaign, and Jim Messina, who was campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012. Both sides were playing the same tunes.

In terms of performance, both sides were lacklustre. On balance, Stronger In was more inept, which probably saved the day. Despite Cummings's best attempts to lose us the game, "Leave" managed to prevail.

According to King's College, the legacy media, including broadcast outlets, played at least three crucial roles: directly influencing the public, indirectly influencing the public, and influencing the campaigns themselves. In terms of direct influence, mainstream media still reached almost the entire UK population on a regular basis. In fact, during the campaign itself, most national print circulations and online readership rose.

It is likely, the Kings researchers think, that the legacy media generated much of the news that was "liked" and "shared" on social networks – indirectly influencing people through sharing and via online discussion. Moreover, the media strongly influenced politicians and campaigners who, in turn, fed into the campaign.

In all, therefore, there were multiple influences in place and there is no evidence whatsoever to support any thesis that puts one technique or group above another. The official campaigns were messy, scrappy, ill-focused and both reliant on lies and misinformation. Either or both could have lost it and, in our view, Vote Leave very nearly did.

The Kings researchers write that the rancorous, bitter way in which the referendum campaign was fought (by the official campaigns) was both reflected in, and enhanced by, the media coverage. The majority of media organisations that could take sides – i.e., excluding public service broadcasters - did so, often uncompromisingly.

Their partisanship was then played out in much of their coverage – both in their selection and framing of news and in their editorials, leader columns and their choice of front-page stories. Eventually the campaign became framed as us-versus-them, pro-establishment versus anti-establishment, pro-immigration versus anti-immigration, nationalist versus internationalist.

In reality, it always was an anti-establishment vote. Only latterly did Vote Leave wake up to that, and too late to marshal sentiment that had been building for decades. The campaign was a mirror, not a megaphone, with the self-congratulation that came afterwards entirely unwarranted.

Thus the Kings researchers remark that much of the acrimony, partiality and suspicions of dishonesty that characterised the campaign has remained. The consequences of the campaign are still being played out, and will continue to be throughout the period that Britain negotiates its departure from the EU and beyond.

They conclude that the implications of a divisive, antagonistic and hyper-partisan campaign – by the campaigners themselves as much as by many national media outlets – is likely to shape British politics for the foreseeable future. And, with that, we could not possibly disagree.

Richard North 11/05/2017 link

Brexit: "insurgents" on the run


One of the dreams of political chaos theorists was that Le Pen should win the French presidential election, adding to what has been seen as a populist trend set by the EU referendum and Donald Trump's victory.

But anyone who was really expecting Le Pen to take the presidency will have been severely disappointed. The establishment choice, Emmanuel Macron, has stormed to victory, crushing his opponent with 65.5 percent of the vote against the challenger's 34.5 percent, giving him an unassailable 31 percent lead.

However, before getting too triumphant, this compares relatively poorly with the performance of Jacques Chirac who, in 2002 beat Le Pen père with 82.21 percent of the vote, against 17.79 percent. And that was on an 80 percent turnout, compared with the 74 percent this time round.

On the back of Ukip's collapse and an imminent Conservative victory, the order of things seem to be re-asserting themselves. Oddly enough, it is the demise of Ukip which is giving the Conservatives their chance.

We see the Telegraph reporting that the party's collapse could help the Tories capture 45 seats, the reversal of the Ukip effect that we identified in 2005. In 2010, we estimated that the effect had cost the Tories 41 seats, very close to the level that they are now expected to recover.

That actually has been the real impact of Ukip, not in gaining seats but in splitting the vote and weakening the Tories, thereby exerting the leverage that eventually led to David Cameron conceding a referendum.

Now, it's almost as if we're back to "normal" politics, and not only in the UK. Throughout Europe, after the Dutch failed to give Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) its breakthrough and the Austrians robbed Norbert Hofer of his victory, the "insurgents" are on the run.

The Guardian certainly seems to think so, quoting Michiel de Bruin of BMO Global Asset Management, who comments that the win "sends a clear signal that anti-EU populist parties are unable to secure a power base across the political landscape in continental Europe".

The only thing, of course, is that politics are not back to normal. Brexit is real and casts a shadow over the entire European "dream". Mr Macron and his partner-to-be Angela Merkel will have their work cut out, isolating the UK and containing the "contagion".

At 39 years of age, Macron becomes France's youngest president and is set to join Angela Merkel as the other half of the Franco-German "motor", ready to do battle with les rosbiffs over Brexit.

The French return to orthodoxy, by a significant margin, means that any hopes of disunity amongst the main players in the Brexit "theatre" will have reduced. And, if as expected, Merkel retakes the chancellorship in the autumn, the UK will be confronting a powerful orthodoxy which is unlikely to grant it many concessions.

During his presidential campaign, Macron had warned that Brexit negotiations would be "no walk in the park", pledging to protect the Single Market and the ECJ. At his victory party in the grand central courtyard of Paris's Louvre Museum, to the strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, he delivered a victory speech in which he spoke of "rebuilding our Europe" and working to "rebuild ties between Europe and its citizens".

Juncker perhaps summed it up for his "colleagues", posting on Twitter that he was "happy that the French chose a European future". European Council president Tusk, on the other hand, congratulated the "French people for choosing Liberty, Equality and Fraternity over tyranny of fake news".

Predictably, though, Arron Bank's Leave.EU delivered a different message. It tweeted that the French people had once again "rolled over" just as they had done in 1940 – except this time they saved Germany "the bullets and the fuel". The tweet attached a picture of a newspaper cutting from 1940 reporting the surrender of France to the Nazis.

Picking up on the same theme, former Ukip leader Farage tweeted: "A giant deceit has been voted for today. Macron will be Juncker's puppet".

Therein lie the extremes – the great divide. Much will depend on the extent to which Mrs May and "Team Brexit" can distance themselves from this sort of rhetoric. But, either way, a milestone was passed on Sunday. For better or worse, we know where we stand.

Richard North 08/05/2017 link

Booker: tackling the immigration riddle


Although immigration was high profile during the referendum campaign (or the latter part of it), it has not been as prominent of late with the so-called "divorce bill" taking the headlines.

Nevertheless, Booker has chosen this subject for this week's column, picking up some of the issues that have had less coverage than perhaps should have been the case.

The greatest problem with immigration, Booker writes, is that it is so much more fiendishly complicated than is usually allowed for. For a start, of course, the problem is worldwide, as so many people want to move from poor countries to those that are richer and safer: Africans and Middle Easterners to Europe, eastern Europeans to western Europe, Mexicans to the US, Asians to Australia.

From a British point of view, the cry may seem understandable that we should "take back control of our borders". In recent years, more people have poured into these islands than all those who did so between 1066 and 2010. Even official projections show that within a decade or so, our population may top 70 million (up from 56 million 30 years ago). We all know about the stresses this is already imposing on housing, schools, the NHS and wages.

But when it comes to what might be done about it, there are two reasons why it is so important not to resort to crude and emotive over-simplifications.

One is the undoubted fact that much immigration has been hugely beneficial. Without immigrants at every level, so much of our national life would be the poorer: from the City of London and foreign doctors and nurses in our hospitals to the staffing of our care homes; from hard-working eastern Europeans picking fruit and veg or serving in our restaurants to Albanian car washers and those proverbial Polish plumbers.

The first difficulty is trying to devise a system that could distinguish between immigrants who are welcome and useful and those who are neither. These, for instance, include criminals we cannot deport, the Romanian gangs who seem to dominate cashpoint fraud, even the Roma beggars on our streets.

They also include those from the Asian sub-continent who have established alien enclaves in our cities, not least those men from the more tribal parts of Pakistan who played a dominant part in the wholesale abuse of young girls in towns such as Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford.

But the second huge problem is that so much immigration is not covered by EU laws but by a thicket of other international rules, such as the UN Refugee Convention, our legacy obligations to citizens of the Commonwealth and, above all, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as interpreted by judges both in Strasbourg and Britain itself.

More than half of our immigrant population comes from outside the EU; by far the largest group, 3.5 million, are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And 18 percent of immigrants are currently entering under the "family reunion" Article 8 clause of the ECHR, which can allow one immigrant who has arrived to bring in many more members of his family. Even when Britain leaves the EU, this will remain.

The truth is that no country in the world has yet found a workable way to meet all these pressures. The solutions offered all seem to be riddled with holes, from President Trump's absurd Mexican wall to the much-touted Australian points system, which has given that country an immigrant population of 27 percent, more than twice as large as our own.

In many ways, Britain's problems are not as grim as those faced by other European countries, where immigration has become a heated issue, such as Italy, Greece, France, Hungary, Germany and Sweden. But if we do seem to have a particular problem, accounting for the massive surge in the past few years, this is chiefly because our economy has been doing comparatively so well.

It is this, not our benefits system, that in the past two years alone has attracted record net immigration to our shores of more than 600,000. And the irony is, Booker concludes, that the one certain way in which those numbers could be dramatically reduced would be for our Brexit negotiations to fail so badly that our economy would no longer be a magnet for them.

Obviously that is something none of us wishes to see. But if Brexit can somehow leave us with the access to our largest export market and the thriving economy we are promised, we will still be left with a problem far more intractable than most discussion of this issue has so far allowed for. Strangely enough, the latest figures from the ONS show that EU net immigration marginally exceeded non-EU immigration (year ending September 2016).

In the post-referendum period, however, it is also the case that EU immigration dropped by a significant amount and it is reasonable to expect a continued fall while the uncertainty remains.

There are, for instance, reports of the number of EU nationals registering as nurses in England has dropped by 92 percent since the referendum. A record number are quitting the NHS.

If this becomes a continuing trend, we could end up with a long-term drop in EU migrants without any formal action being taken. We could even have the perverse situation where the UK kept the freedom of movement channels open but nobody came to the party.

The corollary of this, of course, is that proportionately – if not in absolute terms - immigration from the rest of the world goes up. As Booker indicates, only one part of the problem is solved.

Should the UK economy remain stable, however, the job market will continue to pull migrants into the country. And, with 37 million visitors coming to this country each year, policing our borders isn't going to get any easier.

And therein lies the real issue. The UK has a tradition of open borders which long precedes our membership of the EEC. As I recalled in a previous blogpost we were signing up free movement deals with our European neighbours back in 1946 and it seems hardly likely that, post-Brexit, we will be erecting a Mexico-like wall on the lines advocated by Mr Trump.

Basically, free movement is and has been since the end of the Second World War, an important part of the UK economy, comprising in the main tourism, services and education provision. Interruption of that flow could have repercussions that go way beyond the effects on the jobs market.

If the truth were told by the more extremist "kippers" though, their main concern is not white immigrants from European countries but coloured Muslims – mainly from Pakistan. But this is a prejudice that dare not speak its name, so Farage chose to make the "non-racist" pitch for shutting down freedom of movement from the EU.

But since this is going to have only a marginal effect on the overall problem – and was never really the real problem anyway – Brexit in many ways is a distraction from the broader failure of the UK to manage its borders, even where it had powers to do so.

I think we all recall the ongoing scandals concerning the UK Border Agency and the fact that Theresa May announced that it was to be abolished in March 2013, after it had been declared "not fit for purpose". Four years on, there is no evidence that border controls are any better and there is no good reason to believe that Brexit is going miraculously to increase the competence of HMG.

On that basis, long after we have left the EU, and can no longer blame it for our failures, immigration is going to be as much a "riddle" as it is now. But then, Ukip will be long gone leaving a vacuum in the public discourse. And if we're not going to solve the problem, we're going to have to find a whole new set of things (and people) to blame.

I suppose, at least, that the change in the rhetoric might be refreshing – until that too begins to pall. Then, perhaps, we might get down to analysing and addressing the real problems.

Richard North 07/05/2017 link

Brexit: the end of Ukip


It was Churchill, as we are recently reminded, who said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Something similar could be said of Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. She has to be the worst possible person to lead us through the complexities of Brexit, except for all the others.

Corbyn, quite obviously, is a disaster area but, in the nature of things – as we know it – Labour is the only other party which has (or used to have) a credible chance of forming a government. So it is basically May or Corbyn. In other words, it can only be May.

That much comes over from Lord Ashcroft's latest focus groups, from which he offers us this commentary:
The widespread feeling in the groups, even among many former Labour voters, was that Mrs. May was by far the best person to speak for Britain in the Brexit negotiations, not least because the alternative was unthinkable: "I can't imagine Jeremy Corbyn sitting with 27 EU leaders on the other side"; "Labour would kind of pander to what other people want and kind of mess it up in the end".
On the other hand, if we don't entirely trust May (or the Conservatives) then we keep our options open and vote Ukip with the intention of holding their feet to the fire.

The dynamics are such that the activities of Ukip have had a real and measurable effect on the electoral prospects of the Conservatives, effectively by acting as the party's "Jiminy Cricket" conscience. An effective party could continue to perform the same role.

But that was to reckon without Paul Nuttall, the idiot's idiot, who appointed Gerard Batten as his Brexit spokesman – the man who has believes that Article 50 is a "trap" and argues that we should immediately repeal the ECA and walk away from the EU.

A vox pop on the BBC news, speaking with an elderly voter in Boston - formerly a stronghold of the party – said it all. "They don't seem have any idea of how to do Brexit", he declared of Ukip, having admitted to supporting the Conservative Party in Thursday's local government elections.

That, for the moment, seems to be the epitaph of the Party – one which was seeking under the leadership of Nuttall to reinvent itself as the slayer of Labour, yet mistakenly put issues cast as "Islamophobic" at the top of its agenda in a contest that Mrs May was calling the "Brexit election".

Thus, the Party which came into being in the first place to fight for our withdrawal from the European Union has, when it comes to the crunch, no ideas of how to manage the process. It has written itself out of the script.

Yet, we can hardly pretend that we didn't see it coming. In December last, we were making it plain that Nuttall was a waste of oxygen, and so it has turned out to be. As the Guardian gleefully tells us, he has presided over an electoral collapse with every single councillor facing election having suffered defeat.

By no means all the blame, though, can be placed at door of this hapless man who is currently the party leader. Nigel Farage who, since he engineered the removal of Alan Sked as the first leader of the party, has turned it into his own private fiefdom. And, under his control, Farage – and Farage alone – has prevented to party developing intellectually to the point where it could offer a credible exit plan for the situation we now face.

Thus, we have an exit party with nothing to say about our exit, leaving a wreck which is no longer capable of serving any useful purpose.

Perversely, though, there is probably no time in our recent history when we have needed Ukip more – or a party which can fulfil the role it was set up to undertake. As Bruno Waterfield writes in The Times, we have in Mrs May a fantasist almost on the scale of Paul Nuttall himself.

Her allegation of "a sinister Brussels conspiracy against her in the general election could not be more absurd or untrue", he writes, adding: "In the absence of any real opposition, the prime minister has conjured up a bogeyman and, one suspects, a convenient alibi for when things go wrong".

It is never healthy for a democracy (or a nation) to have any one party which is overly strong and, as we head for something which could end up looking like a one party state, we desperately need an effective opposition. In the absence of Labour, Ukip could have filled the vacuum on Brexit, except that it has vacated the field and has no capacity to stage a recovery.

One of its erstwhile supporters, Arron Banks, says he is to launch his own political movement in the autumn, after the general election – one with "radical policies and direct democracy".

When I first met the man, we discussed the chequered history of wealthy businessmen who thought they could apply their skills to politics, only to sink without trace. And that is most likely the fate of Banks. His grip on politics is about as inept as was his handling of the leave campaign and, if he thinks he can rely on Farage to launch his movement (as appears to be the case) then his ambitions are doomed. He needs to stick to insurance.

Meanwhile, we have a dangerous political vacuum, and one that is not going to be filled any time soon by a Ukip substitute. There isn't time to start a new party and build up a support base that will have any effect on the Brexit process.

The one weapon we have at our disposal, however, is the ability to pin the responsibility for any failure of the Brexit process on Mrs May and her Conservatives. She (as Waterfield indicates) will want to pin any blame on the intransigence of the "colleagues", but the success or otherwise will actually depend on her actions and of the conduct of her "Team Brexit".

By shadowing her moves, analysing them and – if and when appropriate – apportioning the blame correctly – we can make sure that there is an electoral penalty attached to failure.

By 2022, we can assume that – after the expected collapse of the Labour Party in this general election – Corbyn will be long gone. The party will have had five years to stage a Blair-like revival. It will therefore, we trust, be in a position to mount a credible electoral challenge.

And while Mrs May and her troops are riding high at the moment, a failure to manage the Brexit process could (and most likely will) have a devastating effect on the country. With the blame laid at Mrs May's door, this could ensure her defeat in the 2022 general election and the Conservatives out of office for a generation.

In terms, a week may be a long time in politics, but five years is the mere blink of an eye. Making it clear to Mrs May that she is on notice and that a terrible revenge awaits any failure should have, at the very least, a tempering effect on the wilder excesses of the Tory "Ultras".

For the moment, we must reconcile ourselves to the prospect of a major Tory victory in June, and a struggle to keep the Brexit process on the rails, with no help from Ukip.

There is sadness in that observation though. There were good people in Ukip and they deserved better leadership than they got. And we as a nation deserve more from our political process then we are getting. If we cannot find a way of making it work better, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

Richard North 06/05/2017 link

Brexit: Theresa May the wrecker


Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it just did. Mrs May declared war on Brussels.

After calling on the Queen to dissolve Parliament, the prime minister then addressed the nation from her makeshift lectern in Downing Street to accuse the EU of trying to influence the result of the general election by maliciously leaking the content of her Wednesday dinner discussions.

In what is being called an "aggressive and unusual speech", she tore into some EU leaders and officials, and said Britain would not allow the "bureaucrats of Brussels run over us".

"Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press", she said, adding that "the European Commission's negotiating stance has hardened" and threats against Britain had been issued by European politicians and officials. "All of these acts", she claimed, "have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June".

However, given that UK newspapers had released some snippets on the dinner, and details had been featured on the front page of the Sunday Times, I'm struggling with the idea that this was set up to damage May's electoral prospects.

Within the full text of the speech, though, we see Mrs May reverting to type, with her telling us: "We continue to believe that no deal is better for Britain than a bad deal".

But "we want a deal", she says. "We want a deep and special partnership with the European Union. And we want the EU to succeed". And then the paranoia emerges:
… the events of the last few days have shown that - whatever our wishes, and however reasonable the positions of Europe's other leaders - there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed. Who do not want Britain to prosper. So now more than ever we need to be led by a Prime Minister and a Government that is strong and stable.
But this is not just paranoia – it is quite obviously an over attempt to milk the anti-Brussels sentiment for electoral purposes. Rather than defuse an already tense situation, she is ramping up the rhetoric in a way that can bode no good at all.

The essence of what Mrs May is telling us is that the election is a choice between her and Jeremy Corbyn. With her, we get "strong and stable leadership" and "an approach to Brexit that locks in economic growth, jobs for our children and strong finances for the NHS and the country's schools". With Corbyn, we a hung parliament and a coalition of chaos .

And for this, it appears that she is prepared, effectively, to destroy relations with the rest of the EU and thereby ensure that we end up with the "no deal" scenario.

Meanwhile, away from this strange new galaxy inhabited by Mrs May, most Tories and almost all of the media, we had Michel Barnier addressing the remaining residents of planet Earth, telling us how the EU wants to manage the negotiations. The plans comprise two parts, a recommendation for a decision and an annex, setting out the detail.

But before this message could even be mangled by transmission though inter-galactical space, Mrs May had already delivered her "election winning speech", drowning out any detail. We've now got to the stage where rationality has packed up its bags and left town, making Barnier's message yesterday's news before the day had even had the chance to become yesterday.

Before that had happened, Sky News was contemplating the toxic atmosphere and asking whether the talks were collapsing before they had even begun. Now they barely need to ask, as the atmosphere has gone from toxic to radioactive.

To be blunt, it is difficult to imagine what, if anything, can be recovered from Mrs May's intervention. We are seeing the Independent report that relations with the EU have hit a new low after this "venomous" attack on European politicians.

All of a sudden, the electoral calculus has changed beyond all recognition. While Mrs May claims that only she can bring the Brexit negotiations to a successful conclusion, she has just turned herself into the one person in the world who cannot bring the negotiations to any conclusion. Far from being a choice between her and Corbyn, she has turned the election into a choice of anyone but May.

Possibly, even probably, though, the electorate cannot change tack so fast that it can ditch May and her Tories – and in any case the prospect of Corbyn as prime minister is so uniquely awful that Hell would have to freeze over before many of us could contemplate voting Labour.

That leaves us in a bizarre, if not impossible position. From a former "remainer" and a "steady pair of hands", Mrs May is displaying a degree of recklessness that would put the most extreme of the "Ultras" to shame. Almost single-handedly, she seems intent on wrecking any chance we ever had of achieving a sensible Brexit.

Yet, most likely, in this poisonous, post-referendum aftermath, where attitudes are hardening and intolerance stalks the land, Mrs May most likely feels that this is the best way of capturing the Ukip vote and other Tory deserters, to give her a record-breaking majority.

What she may have to deal with though, is the response of 48 percent of the electorate who voted to remain at the referendum, and the unknown but considerable proportion of leavers who were looking for a rational, ordered exit. For those, a vote for May is not so very far from tantamount to national suicide.

The big question, therefore – for me, at any rate – is whether, when the implications of what May has just done properly sink in, there will be an electoral turn-round of unprecedented proportions, as voters desert Mrs May in their millions.

But there, again, we have the Corbyn factor. Never more has the nation needed an effective opposition – and never has it been less well served. This is not only a crisis of government but a crisis of opposition.

This alone may enough to allow the siren voices of the "no deal" brigade to prevail, backed by the Telegraph which has descended into a new level of madness. They will drive us back into the dark ages with their insane mantras and their populist rhetoric.

Yet, at the margins, we see JP Morgan making plans to "move hundreds of jobs from London". This is a carefully thought-out and considered move. While we are poised to vote with our pencils on 8 June, business is already voting with its feet and what is at present a trickle could become a flood.

The "wrecker" May could well end up presiding over an economic wasteland, the like of which we have not seen since the 1920s, in a self-induced orgy of destruction that has no parallel. Even as it stands, we have never seen the like of it.

Richard North 04/05/2017 link

Brexit: a temporary end to the charade


It is a small event, but to have Peter "ten minute" Lilley stand down from Parliament at this election is good news. It removes a prominent "Ultra" from the ranks of the Conservative – and if it was Mrs May's intention to dilute their ranks, she has succeeded in that respect.

There is, of course, a personal issue, as the man's unwanted intervention has not made life any easier, especially as he is regarded as something as an intellectual amongst his peers. But with him now on his way, we can perhaps remember him as one of the five MPs (including the tellers) who voted against the Climate Change Act.

Nevertheless, in the very last PMQs of his 34-year career, Lilley was not content to leave things alone, asking Mrs May whether she agreed that, if we are to secure a reasonable deal, we must accept that no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. To deny this, he said, "signals that no price is too high, no concession too grovelling to accept - a recipe for the worst possible deal".

If this signifies an "intellectual" approach to politics, though, then it is no wonder we are in so much trouble. Since no possible outcome could be worse than "no deal", then to walk away from the talks is not a credible threat. To put it on the table merely invites the "colleagues" to call our bluff – for that it would be – leaving us with nowhere to go.

Fortunately, Mrs May didn't rise to the bait. Dead-batting Lilley's proposition, she merely remarked that the only way to ensure we had "a strong hand in negotiations" was to ensure that a Conservative Government was elected on 8 June.

Certainly, that is probably necessary, although I doubt very much whether it is sufficient – there is a lot more to do before we are even close to a tenable negotiating position.

But that left another departee, the former Ukip MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, to ask Mrs May what assurances she could give the 3.8 million Ukip voters at the least election that the "United Kingdom will become a sovereign country again, living under our own Parliament and making our own laws".

Mrs May easily fielded that one, giving an assurance to "all those people who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union - and to all people across the country, regardless of how they voted" that "we want to see control of our borders, control of our laws and control of our money". And that, she said, "is what we will deliver" – even if she didn't commit herself to a timescale.

But, if these were the last ever questions that the Prime Minister will answer from this pair, it was also the last session of the Parliament before it prorogues, the MPs have to turn off the official websites, and those that wish to sit again have (briefly) to fight for their livings.

Jeremy Corbyn tried to make the most of the occasion, attempting to focus the campaign on Labour's comfort zone, turning this into an "NHS election". He failed, of course. There can be few in this country who see this as anything other than a "Mandate for May" to take with her to Brussels.

Even if Mrs May was on less sparkling form, I suspect it had nothing to do with Ukip's Brexit spokesman Gerard Batten declaring his intention to stand for Maidenhead, seeking to depose the Prime Minister.

At least Batten is standing – which is more than can be said for his leader, as the party slides down to four percent in one set of polls, while even YouGov has them on a mere seven percent.

What may have preoccupied Mrs May was then a coming meeting in No 10 with M. Barnier and Juncker, prior to the European Council meeting this weekend. But beyond knowing that the process of the UK's withdrawal from the EU was discussed, we are none the wiser. One hopes that Mrs May will be.

In another remarkable counterpoint, though, we can be absolutely assured that one person left completely untouched by wisdom is the sociopathic Mr Johnson who has been speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet, telling his audience that Brexit could usher in a "new era of trade deals".

Amongst the happy little fantasies that Mr Johnson entertains is that that he can secure tariff reductions on Scotch whisky, thereby increasing sales to India. Yet, since local and state discriminatory taxes are also applied, this would not have anything like the effect he might wish for.

Mr Johnson might also talk to existing importers who are finding that arcane labelling requirements are limiting export opportunities.

For instance, exporters were quite content to affix stickers to product packs, specifying country-specific details but then regulations changed to require details to be printed on packs before they are shipped to India. If any details are incorrect, importers are not allowed to correct them in order to secure customs clearance. The goods have to be returned to the originating country.

A similar problem currently affects the maximum retail prices which must be printed on packaging before the goods are submitted for customs clearance. However, since the price is affected by local taxes which cannot be known until is distributed for sale, the requirements are impossible to meet and become absolute barriers to the import of certain goods.

This is but a small taste of the non-tariff barriers that await us when we seek to do business in that brave, new post-Brexit world. Currently, these Indian labelling regulations are only the tip of the iceberg.

Another delight was the introduction of 100 percent sampling of containers, when earlier sampling had been limited to 5-10 percent. At one time, containers were hardly getting cleared, with disastrous effect on the sale of imported snacks and treats during the festival season.

The point here is that no sooner is one obstruction cleared then the inventive Indian authorities dream up something new to frustrate their importers. If Mr Johnson thinks that the Indian sub-continent is going to bail him out, he's sadly mistaken.

Needless to say though, adult discussion of such issues in on hold, while the idiots unite to prattle about tariff barriers which have long since ceased to have any relevance.

Softly, softly, though, banks and other businesses are preparing to move staff out of the UK, with thousands of jobs on notice to move. By no means are all these are being publicised, but high-level managers are speaking privately about plans which have moved from speculation to firm intention.

Yet, all the while, we get this pathetic little charade in Parliament, with politicians and their fellow travellers endlessly prattling about that which they know nothing. The one small mercy is that we are spared the weekly ritual of PMQs for a while, although the replacements are hardly likely to prove any better.

Richard North 27/04/2017 link

Brexit: waiting for reality


Rather as expected, the election has driven out most of the already dismal Brexit coverage, leaving us with thin pickings and very little to go on. For the moment, that's how it's going to be and there is no point in complaining.

The lack of focus, however, doesn't stop the Muppets coming out to play, led in this instance by Open Europe which is claiming that the UK doesn't need to rely on trade with the EU.

Their grasp of the issues is such that they are arguing that underdeveloped links with countries such as India, Canada and Israel can replace EU trade. The top 10 "underperforming" UK export markets have untapped potential of more than £41 billion by 2030, they claim.

So this is what London's "finest" have to offer: we can rely on £41 billion-worth of trade in 13 year's time to replace approximately £230 billion-worth of trade annually with the EU right now. With that level of genius at our disposal, we can' t possibly lose.

Not much more can be said of Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit, Keir Starmer, who has set out his party's position for the duration.

Mr Starmer tells us that there will be a very clear choice on the ballot paper in June, a choice of two visions of Brexit. Labour's approach will be based on its supposed values: internationalist and outward looking, fortified by a belief that "we achieve more together than we do alone".

While accept that "outside the EU our relationship with Europe must change", Labour does not accept that Brexit has to mean whatever Theresa May says it means. They do not accept that there has to be "a reckless Tory Brexit" and then, in something of a no sequitur, Starmer adds that "we do not believe that if you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere".

The trouble is that, if you follow his speech and get past this passage, you still have 1,700 words to go before you discover that Starmer is saying not very much at all, and much of what he does say is contradictory.

For instance, he recognises that immigration rules will have to change as we exit the EU, but we do not believe that immigration should be the overarching priority – and he doesn't believe it should stop either. Existing EU immigrants, though, should be allowed to stay if they want to.

So, even though he will have us stopping freedom of movement, except where he doesn't, he still wants to retain the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union. He wants hard-fought workplace rights and the environment are protected and wants "a Brexit that brings the country together, radically devolves power and supports all regions and nations of the UK".

At least "no deal" is not a "viable option". Labour's approach to Brexit means ending this reckless approach and making it clear to our EU partners that "we will seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements as we leave the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy".

But, if this is all nice, cuddly, apple pie and motherhood stuff, as always we see no detail and no recognition of how to overcome the hurdles in trying to negotiate such a complex deal in such an insanely short period of time.

Rest assured, though, even if Labour doesn't really know what we want or, more particularly, how to get it, Parliament will at least have a "meaningful vote" whenever it is we get whatever is given to us by the "colleagues". How the vote then becomes meaningful is left up in the air, as Starmer doesn't say what will happen if the vote goes against the government.

That is not to say that the Conservatives are being any more specific about what they want, or how they intend to achieve it – but then they're not in the hot seat.

Somebody is most definitely in the hot seat is Ukip leader Paul Nuttall who, with every passing day, looks more like a parody of himself.

Currently refusing to commit himself to standing for a Westminster seat – unlike Farage and his crony Arron Banks, both of whom have definitely ducked the challenge, Nuttall will be the first party leader not to stand for a general election since the last one, which just happened to be Malcom Pearson, also a Ukip leader. Before that, apparently, you have to go back to Lord Salisbury.

In the meantime, as Ukip resolutely fails to offer a credible or even coherent template for Britain's exit, and allows itself to be cast as riding the Islamophobia wagon. Members are falling away and the poll rating is nose-diving - well into single figures which may not stop at five percent.

Whatever else, the party is over for Ukip as Tories soak up the votes, returning us to a semblance of the traditional two-party politics. Even the Lib-Dems don't seem to be getting much of a showing.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph has suddenly discovered that we will have to continue paying into the EU budget until the end of the MFF period in December 2020.

Even though we have reported this many times, in accordance with newspaper procedure, nothing exists until the fourth estate discovers it, when it takes the credit for its own brilliance. Hence the Mail is also on the case, setting out the demands that the "colleagues" will declare on Saturday's summit.

Speaking of old stories, The Times has reported on the Chinese customs fraud which we featured last month, although it has added some details about the way the fraud is carried out.

Potentially, this could coast us another €2 billion in compensation to Brussels, even if this is not being linked to the Brexit talks. Money, more than anything else, seems to be doing the talking during these negotiations.

And coming back to Mr Starmer, this is his most obvious lacuna. Time and time and time again, the "colleagues" have made it clear that there will be no progress on the Brexit talks until the money question is settled, even if it is just in principle. To be credible. Labour needed to spell out how they would handle the issue. But instead we get silence.

That silence will look all the more fragile come Saturday when the "colleagues" are due to agree their formal negotiating guidelines. Under normal circumstances, these should have kickstarted the negotiations, but everything on the British side is on hold until after the election.

With luck, the contestants will be forced to respond to Brussels, with even the possibility that some reality is injected into the debate. Failing that, we'll be looking for a bunker in which we can hide. I'm not sure I can take another six weeks of this.

Richard North 26/04/2017 link

Brexit: a historical curiosity


One of the side-effects of this referendum, it would seem, will be the next step in the decline and fall of Ukip. The party is broke, short of willing candidates and bereft of leadership.

Even their most prominent member, Nigel Farage, has done a runner, claiming he is more useful in Strasbourg and Brussels where, unlike in "easy win" Clacton, his tax-funded expenses will keep flowing.

In a move that no real political party would contemplate, Ukip is also considering having its people stand down in some seats currently represented by strongly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.

There is also "keenness" among some Ukip figures for the party to stand aside in seats where a pro-leave Conservative MP is facing a close challenge from the pro-remain Liberal Democrats, in order not to split the vote.

Ukip is said to be preparing to present such a move as a principled decision to best secure departure from the EU. However, it would also save the party cash, allowing it to focus its limited resources on as-yet undeclared target areas.

But unlike previous general elections, there is no sugar daddy waiting in the wings with his pockets full of cash, ready to bail out impoverished candidates. The most recent of the party's big donors, Arron Banks, has gone AWOL and may even stand as a rival candidate in Carswell's former seat, while fending off the Electoral Commssion which is investigating his spending during the referendum.

With Ukip entering the election campaign deprived of its one and only MPs, and facing the prospect losing its entire corps of revenue-generating MEPs, the party's influence is on the wane. And not even its best friends believe it will make up its losses by gaining even a single MPs.

Farage's aim while he plays on the "stage" offered by the European Parliament, is to promote a "hard Brexit", the pursuit of which has become the holy grail of the "kippers". This they cling onto as their "vision" of ideological purity, for want of any more creative or intelligent ideas on how to manage the UK's exit.

More than anything, it is this refusal to engage in the practical realities of Brexit that is dragging the party down into the well-deserved oblivion that awaits it. The real job of managing the process of extracting ourselves from the European Union is being left to the grown-ups, while Ukip members whinge ineffectually from the sidelines.

In the longer term, the nation is going to have to get used to a new style of national politics, where Ukip is no longer a credible electoral threat, where Labour is in what seems to be terminal decline, where the Lib-Dems are picking up the protest vote and the Tories, for the time being, are all-powerful and sweep everything before them.

Although we've been there before, in the Thatcher years, many of the new generation of political wonks cut their teeth in the Blair years, and have seen only weak Conservatives governments since, lacking any clear ideology or commitment to Conservative principles.

Yet here we are, on the brink of what looks as if it could become a one-party state, even if the future of the Tories is entirely bound up in how well it manages Brexit.

Perhaps it could have been different, had Ukip worked up a realistic exit plan and sought to set the agenda for the next decade but, despite Farage's protestations to the contrary, the party has nothing useful or interesting to say.

After this election, though, we're unlikely ever to see the likes of the scenes photographed during the 2015 election (pictured), leaving generations to come to ponder over their political history books and to learn about the historical curiosity that was once UKIP.

There again, out of the ashes, another party could rise – but the days of yellow and purple are numbered.

Richard North 22/04/2017 link

Brexit: delaying the inevitable


Given that some of them were voting for their own redundancies, you would have thought that more than 13 would have voted against a general election. But such is the obsession of the political classes with elections that, offered the prospect of a contest, 522 MPs piled in to give Mrs May what she wanted.

The immediate effect of this, however, is malign. As election fever takes hold, the political noise level increases exponentially while the information quotient drops almost to zero. Equally, the "colleagues" won't make much of a showing, knowing full well that anything they say now will fall on deaf ears.

And then we have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader of the opposition who seems unable to discuss anything of substance, except in terms of mind-blowing clichés, delivering "ten pledges to rebuild and transform Britain" which makes no mention of the EU.

Thus we have the bizarre situation where the so-called "Brexit election" will be about everything other than Brexit. And since we were getting little enough before Mrs May's Tuesday announcement, those anxious to explore the deeper ramifications of Brexit are going to be disappointed. They might just as well pack up and go home for the duration.

The irony here is that, after the election, Mrs May will claim that the vote (assuming she wins it) will give her the mandate she needs to continue the Article 50 negotiations, when it will do no such thing. The exit options will have been no better aired by 8 June than they have been to date.

This, though, is the time for ironies – witness the Guardian which has Stewart Wood tell us that: "May wants a hard Brexit without scrutiny. It’s Labour's job to stop her getting it".

Even if it was actually true that Mrs May was hankering after this suicidal course of action, it would be hard to find anyone in the real world who could deal with the idea of Labour performing as an effective opposition without breaking up into uncontrolled giggles.

But them, as the Guardian points out elsewhere, even with the best will in the world, it would be difficult for any opposition to perform effectively.

The election, the paper says, is an invitation to voters to buy Mrs May's Brexit terms sight unseen. She has declared that she wants support "for the decisions I must take", but we do not know what those decisions will be. It goes on to say:
They depend on negotiations that have barely begun with some EU partners who face elections of their own, as well as on events. All this will involve give and take. Mrs May is seeking a mandate to do something of which not even she knows the main planks, the details and the trade-offs. She wants to get parliament off her back in making the Brexit terms. This election must ensure that this does not happen.
There goes someone, an anonymous scribe, who really isn't of this world. This election – if it is to perform any function – is to get the electorate off Mrs May's "back".

What very few of the pundits seem to be doing is asking what the consequences for the Prime Minister would be if she didn't call a referendum just now.

Picking up on the very words used by our earnest scribe, we have a politician confronting the unknown where, at some time shortly before what would have been the next election, was going to be forced into making unpopular concessions to the EU. She would then have to turn to the voters and ask them to elect her party, so that she could spend the next five years in office, putting into action a programme with which her natural constituency would most probably heartily disagree.

This was a situation where, as a result of a bodged Brexit, we hypothesised, could arise the only possible circumstances where Jeremy Corbyn could actually win an election.

Any sanguine analysis, therefore, must conclude that the primary purpose of this election is to buy the Prime Minister more time to conclude negotiations before having to face the nation in a make-or-break election.

Even with the extra time, though, it is going to be difficult for Mrs May to square the circle – maintaining full participation in the Single Market while also giving the impression that she has broken free of the EU and is able to decide on immigration policy and other matters for which we supposedly sought to leave the EU.

Thus we have a politician faced with an intractable problem and it should come as no surprise that her response is to kick the can down the road. That is what politicians tend do when confronted with intractable problems.

At best, the extra time strengthens Mrs May's hand in the negotiations, reducing the pressure that comes with an imminent election. But despite that, she has only gained two years and that seems hardly enough. She could still find herself facing an incomplete settlement, having to fudge a messy transitional period that leaves us half-in and half out of the EU.

That is no more likely to be popular in 2022 as it would have been in 2020, in which case the only gain could be delaying the inevitable, when the electorate wreaks vengeance for a bodged Brexit and votes the Conservatives out of office for a generation.

That is the other side of the coin. There are few commentators who believe that this election will be anything other than a disaster for Labour, the immediate consequence of which will be the removal of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

In 2022, therefore, Mrs May could find herself up against a reformed and strengthened Labour Party under a new leader, better capable of pointing out the weaknesses of her Article 50 settlement, ready to provide a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction.

That being the case, winning this election could be just delaying the inevitable. To survive, she need to use the extra time wisely, crafting a solution that will ensure we are fully out of the EU by the time she again goes to the electorate, with a sustainable relationship which will ensure the continuation of trade and other cooperative ventures.

And there lies the final irony for, if this is to be a central part of Mrs May's plans, the very last thing she can do is reveal it at this stage. Her "Ultras" and former Ukip supporters, contemplating moving over to the Tories, must believe this is a hard lady heading for a hard Brexit. Not one of them could handle the truth which, in Churchillian terms, must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.

Modern politics, though, is more sophisticated. With the media adept at hunting down obvious lies, our leaders lie by omission rather than by commission. And that turns modern political speeches, as Sam Hooper points out, into "nothing but soulless, prefabricated word clouds designed to deliver vacuous soundbites to a cynical public".

We're going to get a lot of those in this campaign, and very little else.

Richard North 20/04/2017 link

Brexit: only the end of the beginning


In one of those flashes of insight that come when you are not concentrating on the issue at hand, it occurred to me that we've been looking at the outcome of the referendum in entirely the wrong way, inflating out expectations to an entirely unrealistic level.

The essential error we're all making is to assume that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit. But, as Mrs May is finding for herself, leaving the EU is a far more complex task than she imagined and she is not going to make it in a single leap.

There is a sort of working analogy here, if you treat government as a fly-by-wire aircraft. In the old days, the pilot's controls were directly linked to the control surfaces, so when he yanked back on the stick, things happened immediately.

In modern systems, there is no direct connection between the controls and the business end of the machine. In between are complex and sophisticated computers which treat pilots' inputs as requests, rather than directly actionable instructions. The computers take the input and then work out the best way of actioning them, even over-riding instructions if they put the aircraft in jeopardy.

This can have unintended effects, as with Air France Flight 296, an Airbus A-320 which did a low pass during an air show at over Mulhouse–Habsheim Airport in 1988. According to legend, the fly-by-wire system refused to let the pilot pull out, judging this to be an unsafe manoeuvre. Instead, the aircraft skimmed the trees at the end of the runway and crashed into the ground.

Whether or not this is actually true, the analogy stands, as we see government reacting to the EU referendum, and now in the process of working out how to action the "request".

Now, the point at issue is that leaving the EU amounts to a fundamental change in policy, over a very short period, affecting virtually every department and requiring a huge amount of labour to put it into effect. And, in short, this is entirely beyond its capability. It will not execute its instructions, simply because it cannot.

In a fly-by-wire sort of way, then, it will go through the motions of Brexit. But, in fact, the great machine of state is heading for the trees. Soon to come is that dreadful plume of smoke which attends such events, signalling another disaster in the making.

Our mistake, in this context, was to think it was ever going to be any different – our belief that the government actually had the capability to take us out of the EU in the time period allocated. This isn't possible and never was possible.

Guiding me to that conclusion is a hugely important book by Alan S Milward, published in 2002 under the title: "The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy, 1945-63", which I acquired when Booker and I were writing The Great Deception.

The author's thesis is that the UK came out of the Second World War determined to avoid entanglement with the developing plans for European political integration. He then charts the progress through the next 18 years, which is the time it took for successive governments to come terms with joining the European Community, arguing that it took that long to achieve a change of strategy.

Prior to the referendum, this government had no intention of leaving the EU, and that the result of the referendum was unexpected – for which it had done no contingency planning. For it then to cope with a complete reversal in the long-term national strategy is simply too much to ask.

What we are now seeing, therefore, is the inevitable consequence of a forced change, for which the government is unprepared, where the speed of change is beyond its ability to accommodate.

The machine of state is seen to be blundering through the brush, lacking as ex-Treasury Minister Lord Jim O'Neill asserts, "strategic perspective". In fact, it doesn't have a strategy to cover this new scenario, and it is far too early to expect one. It will be at least a decade, and more likely two decades, before the machine is comfortable with its new role.

In the meantime, it will blunder, making innumerable false moves, dragged by the gravitational force of "Europe", which will do its best to prevent us reaching escape velocity.

If one understands and accepts this, it effectively redefines the role and the priorities of the leavers. Rather than treating the referendum as the final victory, we need to be looking at it as just one battle in a prolonged war. It is to us what the second battle of el Alamein was to Churchill – not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We have a lot more battles to fight, and our Normandy is yet to come.

Given that we must expect a prolonged timescale, our task is to stop the government doing anything that would arrest our progress towards independence – locking us into a formal association with the EU, from which it is as hard to break free as was our original membership of the EU.

Here, to would be naïve to expect the EU to sit back and let events take their course. We have known for many years that the "colleagues" (or some of them) harbour ambitions for a new treaty, bringing with it more powers to manage the euro. But embedded in one version of that treaty is a form of associate membership, about which Andrew Duff is so keen.

As it stands, we are looking at two years to complete the Article 50 process and possibly another five years of transition before we finally extract ourselves from the EU – and even then remain bound, in the manner of Gulliver, by the multiple threads of EU law.

Those seven years give the "colleagues" the opportunity to work up their new treaty and if, as is widely expected, Brexit proves unduly traumatic, the associate membership could be tailored to the UK's requirements and offered as a relief from the pain of Brexit.

Almost certainly, a referendum would be required before any UK government could make this move. But after seven years of pain an uncertainty, it would be a brave man who predicted that the nation would refuse to grab what would be positioned as a life line.

The great danger is that the associate membership would merely be a back door to re-entry as a full member of the EU, reversing the verdict of the 2016 referendum. No one can predict that this would happen, but it would be unwise to rule out the possibility. And that means, of course, that the fight goes on, with the biggest battles yet to come.

On the other hand, we have the likes of Zoe Williams characterising Brexit as "so boring even Farage has lost interest". Therein lies the further danger. As the leavers rest on their laurels of their "great victory" and Ukip looks for pastures new, never more have we needed troops organised and ready for the fight.

Our immediate task must be to craft a better alternative to "associate membership" – which is precisely what Phase three of Flexcit has on offer - while gearing up to win another referendum.

This will not be cast as a second referendum, but as a fresh decision to determine the shape of our long-term relationship with the EU. This is a battle that we could find hard to win. For a start, therefore, we need that intellectual leap to redefine the 2016 referendum as our el Alamein and to accept that the hardest battles are yet to come.

Richard North 11/04/2017 link

Brexit: reflections


If there is one thing I hate more than Windows in general, it's Windows 10. And while I have it on my current laptop, I've been resisting installing it on my desktop, determined to keep XP for as long as I can – the best system so far, in my view.

However, as more and more software (and especially browsers) are no longer supported, and the system is no longer being updated – creating serious security weaknesses – I decided the time has come to make the change.

As it was, I didn't feel much like writing, after the untimely death of Helen Szamuely, so I decided to do the deed and take the computer to my local shop for an upgrade. At the same time, I took the opportunity to deliver the much-promised model of HMS Poppy to Booker (pictured) and to have dinner with Pete in Bristol, before hammering back to Bradford to face reality once more.

To my horror, though, the technician doing the upgrade decided to delete all my files (twenty years-worth of accumulated work), without telling me, so I was confronted yesterday with a computer with just the bare operating system and nothing else.

Although I do have some back-ups, not everything was covered and what I do have is spread over several systems, on different media. I have to collect all that together and reload it, as well as install new copies of all the software use onto the "upgraded" computer.

As for the lost files, Boiling Frog – who is something of an expert in this matter – advised that data recovery is possible, even from a formatted disk. And so it is proving to me, and I am now going through the time-consuming and expensive process of salvaging files, which is proceeding even as I write.

Perversely, one of the reasons I wanted to upgrade to Windows 10 is so that I could network all our home computers and thus keep a running back-up in real time. That is to be the next task, a housekeeping endeavour that is much overdue, having been on hold for far too long.

These distractions, necessarily, mean I've taken my eye off the ball for a couple of days – no bad thing as it gives the opposition a chance to catch up … even if they are months, and in some cases years behind us. It also has given me a chance to reflect on what we have been doing and where we are going.

As to what we have been doing, the few days of reflection do not change my view that we basically got it right … that the UK government was never going to conclude a successful Brexit deal inside two years and will need to negotiate an interim deal in order to buy time for a long-term solution to be negotiated.

And (so far) having turned down the best (or least worst) option, going for continued participation in the EEA via Efta, it is finally dawning on Government that anything they manage to resolve by way of an interim arrangement is going to be incomparably worse than what they rejected.

Another thing both the media and Government are beginning to realise is that all the talk of complications isn't just (or even) "project fear". In fact, the remainers largely picked on the wrong things (like the Norway option), and missed out on issues such as entry barriers for our exports – customs procedures, veterinary, etc., checks, and data protection, all conspiring to turn Brexit into an administrative nightmare.

Then we have Ed Conway in The Times providing a little sense to the egregious stupidity of Matt Ridley and his ilk, arguing that making trade deals outside the EU is not going to be that simple, while the yields will be slender and hard-won.

Altogether, the Government, egged on by the clapping seals of the ERG and the Tory Right have manoeuvred us into a position where we are headed for the worst of all possible worlds as a non-voting member of the EU for half a decade of more, while we salvage a second-rate deal with the EU and get next to nothing from the rest of the world to compensate for our losses.

That mess, though, is nothing to do with "leavers" as such. We in the Leave Alliance did our very best to bring issues to the fore, and were the only group offering a coherent, fully worked our exit plan. We have nothing to apologise for and our advice, if it had been taken, would be giving us certainty and strength where, at the moment, we have neither.

There must be those in the media – as well as Government – that find the events in Syria and Sweden a welcome distraction, taking the edge off the Brexit debate while attention is focused elsewhere.

These problems aren't going to go away though and, with the Government having positioned itself firmly between a rock and a hard place, is going to find there is no escape from the mess it has created. And nor will there be any sympathy from us. All that can happen over term is that more and more people catch up with us and realise that we were the only ones properly and intelligently to evaluate our options.

In then considering where we are going, I was much taken by Helen's comments from beyond the grave. On the value of the blogosphere. Certainly, at the time, it was perceived to be a threat to the established order, so much so that the legacy media have conspired to isolate and denigrate us.

One can see this where the media will happily give space to describe girly bloggers offering fashion or make-up hints, or other such trivial pursuits, yet have quite deliberately frozen out the independent political blogosphere. Even when I wrote for the Mail, they would not allow me to describe myself as a blogger.

It is small wonder that many of the active Brexit bloggers during the campaign lost heart at the lack of recognition, and looked to easier, more productive means of spreading the message. What they never realised, though, that the establishment fears the message and, in the absence of effective counter-arguments, choose to attack the messengers.

Thus, as they have found, the only way to get even a grudging recognition from our political élites is to change the message. But that way, they fade into obscurity, having nothing to offer while having removed or diluted the very thing that had the establishment take note of us in the first place.

Thus, for the future, I think we need to remind ourselves why we came into this business in the first place and, as Helen did, realise that we have had more influence than is often credited to us.

The referendum campaign, for instance, did not start when Cummings, Elliott and their ghastly crew bodged a jumble of lies and half-truths to get themselves into the limelight. That campaign started in earnest in 1992, gained strength from Goldsmith and his Referendum Party in 1996-7 and then solidified round the refusal to give us a referendum on Lisbon, and the lies that were attendant upon it.

Had we really understood what was happening – which now in retrospect seem to be obvious – it was people like Helen, Alan Sked – the true founder of Ukip – myself, Booker, and many more – like Edward Spalton of the CIB – unsung heroes and a few heroines like Christina Speight, who laid the foundations of the victory that was to come.

So, on reflection, in these dark days where the charlatans and opportunists gather to brag about their wondrous skills and their winning ways, I think we need to renew our faith in our own abilities and influence. As Helen reminds us, we all had a much greater part in the battle than we have been given credit for.

And, as the people who have spent most time exploring the issues and getting to understand what really is involved in Brexit, we still have a vital part to play in the battles to come.

Furthermore, the very fact that the establishment so detests independent blogs, and their authors and supporters – attests to our strength. If we had the same vapid irrelevance as girlie bloggers, doubtless we'd be all over the papers. We have the strength of the Davids against the Goliaths. All we need to do is make sure our aim as as true.

Richard North 08/04/2017 link

Brexit: several bananas short of a bunch


As reality begins to exert its grip and the obvious dawns on people that we're not going to complete trade negotiations within the two-year Article 50 period, more and more ideas emerge on how to deal with the shortage of time.

Apart from the 'oft-repeated suggestion of a transitional period, lasting ten or more years, the latest we're getting via the Financial Times is a report that, even after Brexit day, we may have to continue taking part in some of the EU's decentralised agencies. This is based on the very obvious premise that we simply don't have the expertise in some areas and wouldn’t have the time to start up new agencies from scratch.

We're also expecting the entire EU acquis to be brought onto the UK statute book for an unspecified period of time, together with the adoption of the EU's tariff schedules and special arrangements to ensure continued legislative convergence to ensure access to EU member state markets.

Thus, from the early days when the Ollivander tendency was arguing for Article 50 to be junked and a ten-minute exit plan to be implemented, we are gradually seeing a convergence with the ideas set out in Flexcit plan, most of the ideas in which were emerging over four years ago.

The essential part of the plan was (and is) a recognition that the two-year time period allowed by Article 50 was insufficient to craft a favourable, long-term deal. Therefore, we argued that we should adopt an interim plan, to buy time for something better than we could otherwise get. And, of the various options available, we chose the "off-the-shelf" idea of continued EEA participation, considered the least worst and tolerable in the short- to medium term.

Given the widely acknowledged complexity of the Brexit process, one might have thought that the idea of a careful, measured extraction from the EU might have gained some approval from the broad ranks of both leavers and ex-remainers, especially as the process has been likened to the task of a surgeon carving out a metastatic cancer from the body of a patient.

And of all the people you might expect to support such an option, Sunday Telegraph journalist Christopher Booker might be high on the list. He and I have been a working partnership for over twenty years and our work over the period on EU matters might actually give us some understanding of the difficulties in securing an orderly exit from the European Union.

To suppose that, however, is also to entertain the fiction that we live in a rational world. Sadly, though, we have impinged on a domain infested by a particular type of "leaver" who demands instant fealty to the Ollivander concept of Brexit.

This particular brand is characterised by the belief that the UK can walk away from the EU at a moment's notice, whereupon the EU will give us all we demand by way of access to Member State markets, because "they need us more than we need them".

Such is the dedication to free speech and tolerance of these Ollivadites that any deviation from the approved line is unacceptable, triggering a steady drumbeat of personal abuse at the deviant. Thus, week after week, as Booker has sought to explore the growing evidence of a "plane crash Brexit", he has attracted increasingly frenzied attacks from these self-appointed guardians of the sacred flame.

What is especially interesting is that, uniquely, the claque have decided that criticism of this all-important area of public policy is off-limits. Anyone venturing to suggest that there is anything amiss with the Government's stance on Brexit become a devotee of "project fear", a closet (or actual) remainer and even a traitor to the cause.

This has culminated in a weird piece in a minority website written by self-styled journalist Walter Ellis, who heads his work "The strange case of 'Bregretter' Christopher Booker".

Not ever having talked to Booker on this, Ellis decides that Booker, from having been the "patron saint of Leave" is now so overcome by what he terms "a fit of historical guilt" that he has become something altogether unspecified, thus allowing Ellis to ask his readers "to cut off my legs and call me shorty". 

The one substantive observation Ellis seems to make is that, "the trolls who once hailed Booker as the one who would prepare the way for a new beginning are turning on him as a traitor to the cause", a phenomenon he seems to regard as unsurprising.

Such is the dominance of these rightly named "trolls" on the Booker comments that they have become a singularly unpleasant place to be. Any attempt to confront their prejudices is bound to fail as, having been put in their place, they return the following week, with exactly the same assertions they had used previously, seasoned by unrestrained (and unmoderated) ad hominem interventions.

They appear also to be given some sustenance by the Sunday Telegraph letters column which for several weeks now, has entertained hostile letters, usually on the familiar lines that "Booker is wrong".

If nothing else, this change in demeanour by the tiny minority of readers who actually comment online on the Booker column illustrates the tendency of such readers to seek from their favoured websites confirmation of their prejudices.

Many of them have names known to us, people with their own agendas, often Ukip activists. Their strident and persistent attacks on dissenting voices ensure they have the comments to themselves, where they set up shop, roundly to condemn Booker each week. Rarely though do we see any of them on the comments for, where they might get more robust handling.

The essence of the commentary, though, is that it betrays people who are not very bright. Mostly, as the saying goes, they are several bananas short of a bunch, confining themselves to a limited repertoire of mantras, tediously repeated at every opportunity.

Not one shows any sign of understanding the central concept of Flexcit and, while many are quick to condemn the Single Market, the idea that we should organise a measured withdrawal, to minimise economic damage, is way beyond their paygrade. Anything short of immediate, unconditional withdrawal is regarded as evidence of "remainer" sympathies.

When it comes to weird, though, even Ellis pales into insignificance compared with Iain Martin. On his way to sneering at the Observer in what he laughingly calls "quality journalism", he comments on the "case of Christopher Booker" which he asserts is "most strange".

"Booker was, along with his associates, a robust voice for leaving the EU for many years", he says. Now he writes it will be a disaster because we are leaving the customs union and because NO-ONE WILL LISTEN TO HIM AND HIS FRIENDS, or something".

The capitals are from Martin, who then goes on to say: "Let's face it. There is a strand in the Eurosceptic movement that liked being a minority interest. There is a similarity there with music fans who like showing their alleged superiority by being into an obscure act. What they hate most is when other people start buying the records of their hitherto little-known favourites".

That is the other element of the Booker critique – the poverty of intellect that drives writers to close in on themselves and address personal issues.

The politics of Brexit are to Martin what red and green are to someone who is profoundly colour blind. He has no comprehension, not the slightest glimmer of understanding of the subject matter of which Booker writes.

And that, ultimately will be the tragedy of Brexit. Here is a fascinating, complex issue which, potentially, is set to re-energise politics – but at huge risk, imposing burdens on politicians that they are ill-equipped to deal with. But, to anything other than black and white, without not even the nuances of shades of grey, these people are blind.

Decades of immersing themselves in personality politics has atrophied their brains, leaving them with nothing of interest to say.

Richard North 28/03/2017 link

Brexit: an unknown destination


The one good thing about Mrs May finally letting it be known when she is to invoke Article 50 is that it puts to bed all those who advanced at great and tiresome lengths the view that we did not need the Article and could proceed immediately to the leaving stage by repealing the European Communities Act.

This goes back to July 2012 when Booker was calling for Mr Cameron to pursue Article 50, only to run into a storm of hostile commentary – not dissimilar to what he's currently getting.

Pitched into battle we saw the likes of Idris Francis and Ashley Mote lambasting Booker, calling Article 50 a "trap" and warning of dire consequences if it was ever invoked.

Some readers had the Eurogendarmerie storming the British Isles while Torquil Erikson told us that "any and every EU regulation and directive which has been passed into UK law would be nit-picked over and reinforced with threats of fines and prosecution".

"Any interim activity planned by the British government", he said, "would be examined microscopically for any apparent unlawful activity, and again policed with threats. It would be a logistical and administrative nightmare for the then UK government".

At the top of the dung heap was Gerard Batten, speaking for Ukip, then as now, arguing that Article 50 should not be used.

We can take some small comfort from the fact that these voices will no longer be heard, but there will be no apologies offers or admission of error. That never happens in eurosceptic land. Different voices take up different themes and the noise continues.

From the Prime Minister, however, rather than noise, we get clichés. "I am very clear", she says, "that I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom that works for everyone across the United Kingdom and all parts of the UK when we enter these negotiation".

"I have set out my objectives", she declares: "These include getting a good free trade deal. They include putting issues like continuing working together on issues like security at the core of what we are doing. We are going to be out there, negotiating hard, delivering on what the British people voted for".

What we don't get is any sense of how she intends to achieve this, up against Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has a message for us. "Britain's example", he says, "will make everyone else realise that it's not worth leaving".

This has the tabloid media spitting with indignation at Juncker's "boast", but a more sanguine assessment might be that the President, unlike the Prime Minister, has weighed up the odds of the UK walking away with a successful deal, and has concluded that they are not favourable.

If we are to believe the odious Guido the "Ultras" themselves are not rating our chances very highly, while a "government source" puts the likelihood of the UK having to adopt the WTO option at 50-50.

If that is the case, the Government ministers have no-one to blame but themselves. It would take very little skill and even less research to cut through the rhetoric and acknowledge that concluding a "good free trade deal" inside the 18 months being set aside for the talks - on top of all the other issues that have to be settled – is extremely unlikely.

All one can do is watch the Government define its own nemesis as it lurches forward into an impossible position from which there is no escape.

Sadly, though, it appears we are going to be none the wiser in just over a week when the Prime Minister sends her Article 50 notification to Brussels. We are told to expect (contrary to the advice of Ivan Rogers) only a short letter, possibly extending to two pages at most, doing nothing more than reiterating the Government's general objectives.

If that is the case, it will be a mistake, handing the initiative to the "colleagues", who will then have no constraints in crafting their response. And if, as expected, the they couch it as a series of demands, leading with the presentation of a substantial claim for financial compensation, then we can pretty much assume that we're in for a rough ride.

Mrs May has seriously dropped the ball on this, having failed to manage public expectations in a battle she cannot win. Come what may, the UK is going to have to pay a substantial sum to the EU, and make ongoing financial commitments, if it is to stay in the game. Yet, she has allowed the assumption that she will be standing firm, setting herself up for a fall.

Some theorise that, in the expectation of failure, Mrs May is looking more to the process of blame deflection than she is a successful outcome to the negotiations, in which case an unwavering stance from the "colleagues" will play into her hands, allowing the "unreasonable" EU to be cast a the villain.

Juncker is already halfway there, according to (Bild am Sonntag via Reuters), having said that Juncker said Britain would need to get used to being treated as a non-member. "Half memberships and cherry-picking aren't possible", he says: "In Europe you eat what's on the table or you don't sit at the table".

That latter phrase is being taken as an indication that the EU will be immovable on the financial issue, in which case we are already heading for the WTO option and economic catastrophe.

Would-be chief negotiator Michael Barnier certainly seems to be preparing for the worst, instructing the EU-27 that they have to start preparing now for future customs controls.

To extent to which Mrs May's "Team Brexit" is prepared for this is going to be the acid test. The precursor to many a free trade deal – as in 1997 with the EU and the Republic of Korea – is a customs agreement. It thus stands to reason that this issue will be high up on the work programme. How it is presented and the progress made may give us a strong clue as to how the technical negotiations will proceed.

As it stands, though, on 29 March 2019, we look to be leaving the EU – in good time for the Euro-elections, thus making sure that the current crop of UK MEPs is the last. In one fell swoop, Ukip loses most of its power base.

Such things, though, are mere trivia compared to the momentous events afoot. The phoney war is nearly over and we are about to enter a new phase. No one knows exactly how this is going to pan out, as we are navigating uncharted waters. But, at least, we will shortly be able to count down to our unknown destination.

Richard North 21/03/2017 link

Brexit: value for money


When in October 2013 I began the process of writing what was to become Flexcit, I quickly concluded that the so-called "WTO option" was a non-starter.

In my submission for the Brexit prize, I thus dismissed the idea, stating that a strategy based on an expectation that Britain can rely solely on WTO agreements, without securing direct agreements with the EU, would not be well-founded. Britain, I wrote, would struggle to maintain its current levels of external trade.

Of my various objections to the option, I specifically pointed out that the major problem was the proliferation of non-tariff barriers. As time has progressed, I have been writing more and in greater detail about the flaws in the option, to such an extent that you would think there was nothing left to say.

That was three years ago and so transparently obvious are the drawbacks that, had there been even a halfway intelligent debate, the WTO option would no longer be an issue. It would have been ruled out of the political discourse as too hazardous and damaging. The discussion would have moved on to more profitable and realistic areas.

But, not only has the matter not been settled, we have to suffer the low drone of ill-informed commentators such as Matt Ridley adding their ignorance to collective. Now we have a further offering, this one from Douglas Carswell, the lingering remnant of Ukip's Westminster ambitions, soon to be rejoining the Tories if some rumours are to be believed.

One would have thought that the very least our MPs could do on this issue is keep themselves properly informed, except that experience tells us that such an expectation is hopelessly naïve. Generally, we find our MPs to be the repository of ignorance, less aware of the issues than many of their constituents and often handicapped by their complete inability to learn.

So it is with Carswell who, after all this time, hasn't risen above kindergarten level on EU matters. Yet, as is common with his ilk, he feels qualified to instruct us mere mortals on what he thinks to be right. 

It would be nice to think that we could get all these people locked in a room and forced to thrash out the issues, until the matter was satisfactorily resolved. But, as we all know, the world does not work that way. MPs, in particular, defend and nurture their ignorance with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cubs.

The problem, though, is that ignorance has consequences. If – as we are currently seeing – it pervades the highest levels of government and there are no MPs capable of imposing a corrective, vital policy decision will be made on false premises. The wrong decisions will be made, with devastating consequences.

We do our best on this blog, and yesterday – with others – lodged with The Times formal complaints about Ridley's piece. None of us, though, have any expectations that the complaints will be dealt-with fairly or sympathetically. The establishment always looks after its own.

This leaves us in a frustrating void, where there are so many thing which should be on the agenda to discuss, but where we are constantly dragged back to rehearse arguments on issues that should long ago have been resolved.

On the WTO option, in my first few versions of Flexcit, I did not devote a great deal of space to it, as I thought the problems would be obvious to the meanest of intellects. How wrong I was.

Helpfully – despite publishing Ridley – The Times did at least publish a report from Marcus Leroux, the newspaper's trade correspondent, which built on the Booker column of last Sunday, on the problems facing the customs service.

This gives us a taste of what things might be like if the UK falls back on the WTO option, but the interesting thing is that, in contrast to the 500-plus comments on the Ridley piece, Leroux only attracted 16. It is as if readers simply cannot visualise the enormity of the peril they face. They do not seem to be able to cope with the idea that the entire trade system would grind to a halt, so they opt to dig their heads in the sand. 

Nevertheless, one is further encouraged (if only slightly) by another report, also in The Times, which tells us that the Government has been told that at least seven separate bills must be passed, in addition to the Great Repeal Bill, in order to set the legislative infrastructure of a post-exit UK.

The list covers immigration, tax, agriculture, trade, fisheries, data protection and sanctions, but also includes the customs regime. This would appear to recognise that the EU's UCC simply cannot re-enacted by the Great Repeal Bill and that we will need our own dedicated customs code.

Concern, however, is also being expressed at the shortness of the timetable, which also suggests that the reality of their predicament might be beginning to dawn on ministers. Something as complex as a brand new customs code might, in normal times, take five or more years to produce.

Now it has to be squeezed into a mere two years, with the added complication that cooperation with our trading partners must be built in, which will require intensive, and successful bargaining in Brussels.

Despite this, one cannot escape the impression that this is too little, too late. One fears that "Team Brexit" will be going to Brussels to experience the negotiating equivalent of the first day of the battle of the Somme, with our delegates staggering out at the end of the day wondering what hit them.

This is where the lacklustre performance of the likes of Carswell really is unforgivable. Such people are paid handsome salaries and are given generous expenses. For that, they should be giving value for money. Parading their ignorance doesn't cut it. They are public servants, paid to do a job, and the need to be doing it properly.

The same, incidentally, goes for the media. As long as newspapers claim special rights and privileges, theirs is the duty to keep their readers properly informed – a task in which they are lamentably failing. As for the BBC - don't even go there. They are a lost cause, along with the other broadcasters.

Where then that leaves ordinary people is not clear – even less so those who have devoted the time and energy as responsible citizens to keeping themselves informed. It is doubly frustrating to be treated with disdain by the public servants whose salaries we help to pay, only to find they are less knowledgeable than we are.

To this, I am not going to pretend that there are any easy answers. But it must be the case that the burgeoning "conversation" on this blog comments is attracting attention. In fact, I know this to be the case, and as long as we have here a civil and good quality discourse, it can do nothing other than grow in influence.

The essential thing here is that, collectively, there is a better sense here of the difficulties involved in Brexit than you will see anywhere else, with more detail than the entire output of Parliament and its lamentably poor succession of select committee reports.

But it is not only difficulties of which one needs to be aware. There must also be solutions on offer. In Flexcit, we have some, but that has always been a dynamic document which grows and progresses over time. To deal with the new realities, a new version is probably required, but even as we write, we are overtaken by events.

There are, however, solutions to be had. They are being explored, even if they are not being publicly aired. Some will come from this tiny haven of sanity, funded exclusively by donations from its readers, for which we are eternally grateful, powering an operation which costs only a fraction of the salary of one MP. The irony is that it should be needed at all.

Richard North 15/03/2017 link

Ukip: out for the count


In Stoke, it would be hard to imagine a better set of circumstances for Ukip to fight a by-election, says The Times: a neglected Labour safe seat, so disillusioned barely half of people even bothered to vote in 2015; a seat which voted overwhelmingly for Leave, up against a pro-Remain Labour candidate who called Brexit a massive pile of s***; a seat abandoned by a metropolitan TV historian who had been parachuted into the area but now wants to run a London museum.

Yet somehow Nuttall and his team managed to contrive a situation where Ukip's self-styled salt-of-the-earth Scouse bloke had a grip on the truth looser than Nigel Farage holding his 10th pint. 

In the event, Nuttall gained two thousand less votes than his party did at the general election, squeaking in at second place with less than a hundred votes more than the Tories. The unfashionable view of his performance is that he managed to get only 9.4 percent of the electorate to turn out and vote for him. This may be that "glass ceiling" of ten percent which prevents small parties from prospering. 

However, it was not a good result for Labour. They lost just over four thousand votes, resulting in a new MP being elected on a 38 percent turnout. That means we have an MP sent to Westminster by 14 percent of the electorate. A democratic mandate this is not. 

But if democracy is against the ropes, The Times allows their Matt Chorley to argue that the stage is set for Ukip to disappear from view. We can only hope that is true. A party that appointed Gerard Batten as their lead Brexit spokesman has nothing to offer and nowhere to go. 

A win for Nuttall would have given this silly, vain little man an undeserved platform in an institution that is already badly tarnished. Adding his voice to the collective ignorance would not have been an improvement. In fact, it could only have done harm. 

Under different leadership, there is a theoretical possibility that Ukip could make an intelligent contribution to the Brexit debate. But, since there is no prospect of testing that theory, perhaps the best thing that Ukip could do is follow the path signposted for it by The Times and disappear from view. 

If it cannot make a sensible contribution to the debate, it is better that it makes none at all. There is too much noise already.

Richard North 24/02/2017 link

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