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

Merry Christmas


This time last year, we didn't even know the date of the referendum. But it was my firm conviction that Mr Cameron would not be so unwise as to go early. Thus I wasn't even anticipating that we would have the contest this year, much less that we would win it.

Last Christmas, though, I had another preoccupation, building for Booker a 1:72nd scale model of the Flower Class Corvette, HMS Poppy, in honour of his uncle, Commander Neil Boyd, RNVR, who captained the ship through the greater part of its tumultuous history. 

The build actually started it in late August 2015 as a Christmas present for that year. But, having discovered that the ship had undergone extensive modification, it became clear that it was not going to be completed on time.

When we were then confronted with an early contest, building had to wait its turn while we concentrated on the fight. But, with prodigious effort, from July onwards, I managed to finish it – all but a few touches – by the end of November.

By arrangement, I will deliver the model in the New Year. For the moment, though, Booker will have to make do with the same thing he had last year – a colour photograph. But at least it's of the finished model.

Now is not the time to rehearse the events of the last year - we'll do some retrospectives over the next few days – but I need to record a bitter-sweet moment, the death of a doughty campaigner, Christina Speight who died on the morning of 5th September at St Mary's Convent and nursing home.

Unlike my good friend, the much-missed Peter Troy, at least she lived to see the historic victory before succumbing to a chest infection in July. Although in Ukip days, we had crossed swords occasionally, in her latter years she had been a great supporter of the blog and a generous donor to the Leave Alliance campaign.

Speaking of donors and supporters, I must also record my thanks for the generosity of those who contributed to the upkeep of this blog, and to the campaign. They kept us in the fight, when others had done their best to freeze us out and silence us.

But for those donations, we would be struggling to he heard. As it is, we are still the premier anti-EU blog, dedicated to a successful Brexit. Especially with the help of those donors who have generously committed to a monthly payment, we are very much in the game, and on top of our game, ready to continue the fight into the New Year in what will undoubtedly be a decisive period. For better or worse, history is being made.

For the moment, though, all I have is the pleasurable duty of wishing all my readers, supporters, friends and relatives a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from me and the redoubtable Mrs EU Referendum on this the 13th Christmas of this blog.

Richard North 25/12/2016 link

Brexit: say no to Nuttall


On this blog, we very rarely write about Ukip these days. After all, we are primarily concerned with Brexit and, since the referendum, very little of the party's activities have had anything to do with that pressing issue.

As to the new leader, his greatest contribution since being elected by the rump of a disintegrating party has been to appoint Gerard Batten – the Article 50 denier – as their lead Brexit spokesman. This is as sure a signal as anything that the leadership has descended into the land of the fayries.

Entirely predictably, therefore, we are seeing Nuttall - with the same mindless dedication to stupidity for which he deserves to become famous – set his face against continued membership of the Single Market, churning out the same-old, same-old mantras, with which we've become so wearily familiar.

But now this crass individual is calling in aid the pre-referendum situation, arguing that "almost every leading campaigner for or against Brexit" made it clear during the referendum that "a Leave vote would involve leaving the single market".

It is on that slender "authority" that Nuttall claims legitimacy for his party's current stance, bleating dismally about "something similar to the 'fax democracy'", with remainers "seeking to foist on us an exit in name only".

Setting aside our wonderment at how someone can live as long as this man and know so little, I need to record my growing dismay at the utter fatuity of this tiresome mantra. If it is given its head, it will have us locked into the EU, defeating the aims of the Brexiteers.

The point which eludes these anti-marketeers is that the one thing which will absolutely ensure a clean break from the EU is membership of Efta and continued participation in the EEA. Practically and legally it is impossible to retain EU and Efta membership.

Moreover, we have long argued the need for an interim solution, for which Efta/EEA is eminently suitable. If this option is rejected, the need for an interim or transitional arrangement remains just as powerful, and thus creates the greater danger, of which Nuttall and his supporters seem oblivious.

Without the Efta/EEA solution, Mrs May and her team will be looking for transitional arrangements which will, perforce, involve a succession treaty which keeps us actively involved in elements of the EU treaties. In effect, there is a danger that Nuttall's action will keep us within the Union and prevent a clean break – the exact opposite of what he wants.

The even greater danger is that a prolonged transitional agreement, which keeps us within the orbit of the EU, gives time for the "colleagues" to organise a new treaty which can offer the UK "associate status" which, as an idea, is not going away.

Andrew Duff, still pushing his theme, wants to convert Brexit into an EU-UK Association Agreement, the effect of which would be to put us in exactly the same position that we would have been, had we not won the referendum. Having to deal with this danger is one thing.  But having also to deal with the likes of Nuttall glorying in his own ignorance is intolerable. 

One can quite understand the "remainers" pre-referendum briefing against the Efta/EEA option, for precisely the reason that it presents such an attractive alternative to EU membership. But to have the self-appointed claque of "leavers" join in and support the "remainers" was the height of stupidity. For Nuttall now to demand that we should repeat this stupidity, and claim it as legitimising his actions, is the height of folly.

Thus, while Christmas is supposed to be a time of goodwill and cheer to all men (and women), in the case of the anti-marketeers, we are making a serious exception. These people are as dangerous as they are stupid. They would destroy their own dreams, and take ours with them.

Our huge problem though is their almost impenetrable stupidity, and their resistance to acquiring knowledge. Anyone supposedly in the "leave" camp who is still prattling on about "fax democracy" and actually believing this inane propaganda is beyond salvation.

Sadly, under the leadership of Nuttall, that makes the official Ukip (but not necessarily all its members) as great a threat as the most potent "remainer". Perversely, anyone pushing for continued single market participation is a potential ally.

Therein lies yet another danger. To the point of tedium, we have argued for Efta/EEA as an interim solution. We have always regarded it as the least-worst option, with the safeguard that, at any time, as an Efta member (if they will have us) we can walk away from the EEA with one year's notice. The danger is that, in the hands of the "remainers", this could become a permanent (or semi-permanent) solution.

What is lacking from their equation is a vision of an end game – something of which Ukip and most of the "leave" fraternity are equally bereft. But we are not going to win the wider argument without offering the nation a credible long-term alternative to the EU.

This, then, defines the battle lines for the coming year. The anti-marketeer's arguments have no legitimacy. We say no to Nuttall - he is doing the cause more harm than good. 

Right from the start, though, more than five years ago, we were arguing that we must furnish a positive object. That is what Nuttal's "leading campaigners" notably failed to do. It is something that still needs to be done. And even though we're in the run-up to Christmas, I get tired and angry in equal measure at having to expend so much precious energy in fighting what should be our own side. We should not have to be doing this.

Richard North 24/12/2016 link

Brexit: the wages of incompetence


The big mistake we have all been making has been to focus too much on the mechanisms for leaving the EU, with not enough given to what we want out of Brexit. Thus, it is perfectly fair to observe that, in the referendum, we voted for a departure, not a destination.

Even now, the public discourse is largely avoiding the question of where Brexit is taking us, with the end result more likely to be a consequence of our mode of leaving rather than the result a deliberative policy. Rather than defining a direction of travel, therefore, the Government seems to be devoting more effort to containing the effects of different leaving options.

Raising the issue from outside the bubble, though, is not going to be easy - although Pete has made a start. The bubble-dwellers are so behind the curve that they haven't even begun to think seriously about an end game. And neither are they temperamentally or intellectually equipped to do so.

In any event, for the next week we are going to be distracted by the Supreme Court hearing, which is going to trigger interminable comment on Article 50 and related matters, with no resolution in sight until mid-January. That will shunt discussion on an end game further down the line.

Despite most journalists having a basic education and at least average intelligence, they nevertheless seem to be making an incredible meal over the term "interim", or "transitional". We assume most of them know what these words mean, although they seem to have difficulty in translating them into practical effect.

Thus we have the likes of Simon Watkins in the Mail on Sunday whingeing about the aims of Brexit being "diluted". One by one, he writes, "the much-vaunted aims of Brexit are being diluted. The core objectives were surely leaving the single market, scrapping our payments to the EU and controlling immigration".

But those objectives were not part of the referendum which, as we all know, was confined to the question of whether we should leave the EU. There was no plebiscite on the Single Market, and many of us did not consider (and still do not consider) that EU payments were a core issue.

As to immigration, despite the recent surge on movement from EU Member States, it is still the case that more immigrants come from outside the EU – where we have the means of control but choose not to use them.

Where immigration from the EU is concerned, a post-Brexit UK that stays in the EEA (via Efta) would have the unilateral right to restrict movements, under Article 112 of the EEA Agreement. It is only the absolute determination of the politico-media nexus to remain ignorant on this issue which allows the likes of Watkins to make the point he does.

But what he and so many of the others ignore is that concessions which might be unacceptable if they were part of the final settlement may be tolerable – and even welcomed – if they were part of an interim settlement which paved the way to a stable long-term solution.

The degree to which we would be prepared to accept concessions would doubtless depend on the nature and attractiveness of the end game. But it is not unreasonable to posit that the more attractive it is, the more we are prepared to concede in order to attain it.

Ironically, within Flexcit we have long held that an option which keeps us in the EEA and thus the Single Market for the short-term is the best we can hope for. Our longer-term aim is the abolition of the EEA as we know it, with the reconstitution of the Single Market under different management, with the headquarters moved out of Brussels to Geneva.

Doubts about the practicality of this come mainly from people who have not read (or understood) Flexcit and, amongst that sub-group, there are many who dispute that the idea is at all practicable, couched in terms of the EU never permitting it.

Yet, entirely of its own volition, Brussels has ceded legislative authority over vehicle construction and safety, and on vegetable and fruit marketing standards, and is now a law-taker in these spheres. It has not made new laws here for many years.

Add to this the WTO TBT and SPS agreements, and the Vienna and Dresden agreements on standards, and we see that much more of the Single Market acquis has been ceded to regional and global organisations – to say nothing of the global nature of financial services legislation.

Totally under the horizon, we have also seen the emergence of a systematic process for standard-setting, via UNECE's WP.6, which has the support of the EU and the participation of all EU Member States. For a post-Brexit UK, this would be the obvious – and effective – forum for cooperation on standards setting, keeping the UK full in the loop on developing the Single Market.

Such matters, though, are totally above the "pay grade" of the average journalist, most of whom are still wittering about the "loss of influence" and "fax law" if we take the EEA option. The idea that Norway could actually have more influence, rather than less influence outside the EU, is totally beyond their grasp.

Eventually, we suppose, some of them will catch up – but the process is painfully slow. Issues we were writing about three years ago have still to be settled by the legacy media and many of the politicians, who seem stuck in their own laborious version of Groundhog day. At least, in the film, the loop came to an end. There is no certainty that it will do so in real life.

Perversely, we see in The Times Matthew Parris complaining that: "The British disease is now rank ineptitude", writing that, "whatever the trade or profession it seems to be considered bad form to root out the stupid and the incompetent". Significantly, though, he does not include journalism in his list of failing trades.

Then we get the likes of Nigel Jones in the Telegraph telling us that the Leave majority in the Conservative party should set aside their differences with Ukip, and working with Ukip's new leader Paul Nuttall to mount a grassroots campaign to press the Government in the direction of the EU's exit door, with a view to achieving a "clean break".

Clearly, Jones has not noticed that there is not a fag paper between the position of the Tory Right and Nuttall's Ukip, which now has Gerard Batten for its Brexit spokesman calling to ditch Article 50 and repeal the European Communities Act – exactly the stance taken by John Redwood.

As we begin to see in Nuttall another of those Walter-Mitty figures with extremely ambiguous CVs, one would have thought the best option for the Conservatives would be to put as much distance between them and Ukip as they possibly could.

Little did we think for all those many years when we have been dreaming of leaving the EU that, when the great event finally came, the driving force would be the incompetence of the major players – from ministers who don't know the basics, to MPs locked in their private miasmas of ignorance, and a legacy media which inhabits a different planet.

One can only hope that, deep within the bowels of government, there are people who do know what they are doing. But if there are such people, they are keeping themselves extremely well-hidden.

Richard North 04/12/2016 link

Brexit: reality takes a seat


Reuters have picked up and embellished the story that most of the media were running with all day yesterday, reporting that Chancellor Philip Hammond says that Britain needs to keep open the possibility of continuing to pay fees to the EU even after it leaves. 

This was after Brexit minister David Davis, in answer to an oral question in Parliament, had said that Britain would consider making payments to the EU after it leaves, if that was necessary to achieve the best possible access to the Single Market.

Hammond is cited as saying: "We have to look at any deal in the round ... and I think David Davis is absolutely right not to rule out the possibility that we might want to contribute in some way to some form of mechanism".

Despite a sharp reaction from the likes of Peter Bone and the squealing of anguish from the Brexit morons, this was always going to be a possibility – verging on certainty.

Needless to say, the loudest squeals have come from Ukip, with their new Brexit spokesman, Gerald Batten, saying: "David is already going weak at the knees. It is ridiculous to offer to pay to trade with the EU. Every country in the world has access to the single market".

But there is a lot more to this than Batten's simplistic nostrums – the man who wants to ignore Article 50 and go straight to the repeal of the European Communities Act.

As it stands, none of the Efta/EEA countries pay for market access. They pay grants in aid to help the emerging economies of Eastern and Central Europe and they pay for participation in decentralised agencies and programmes.

But there is also the question of what might be termed "legacy payments". These we deal with in Monograph 3, pointing out that, at the very least, we will have to honour the MFF commitments, which means that we will be paying a sum equivalent to our net annual payments until the end of 2020.

For that, we can barter participation in the decentralised agencies and programmes, so the net effect on expenditure will probably be neutral.

It is the next MFF programme that is going to be really interesting, when the RAL kick in and the "colleagues" demand the UK "share" of repayments, on top of agency and programme contributions. As Booker observed, with our own payments to farmers and others we could end up paying more overall than we are now.

The media far and wide, however, are casting this as a "concession", as if there was any choice in the matter. Short of a cold, hard Brexit, though, we are going to have to pay something to the EU. The only question will be how much we will have to pay.

What we are seeing in the responses is the media and politicians playing catch-up, as they are right across the board.

Only now are pundits getting to grips with the idea of a transitional deal, and the need for an end game, while many remainers, having rejected the idea of the "Norway option" before the referendum are now embracing it with zeal.

The payments issue, though, is likely to be particularly sensitive, given the rash claims made by Vote Leave and their fellow travellers. Arron Banks has called Davis's words "incredibly foolish".

Yet, the foolishness comes in failing to recognise and acknowledge that the UK cannot expect a cost free exit from the EU, and walk away from long-standing treaty commitments without offering something in the way of compensation. To refuse to accept this simply isn't practical politics.

Over the next few months, even running to years, we are going to see a lot of this – silly, shallow people like Banks, who have no grasp of the realities of international relations, making their facile statements. Meanwhile, the business of grown-up politics will have to continue, simply because it must.

That, in the end, is going to drive the outcome of the Brexit talks. The government is going to have to "concede" certain issues because, unless it does, there simply won't be a workable settlement. The pundits will just have to catch up as best they can.

But the same reality will have to drive the "colleagues". With the latest immigration figures just in, they will have to recognise that the UK government will not be able to agree a settlement that does not involve some real concessions on freedom of movement.

But then, there are no constants in this ever-changing political kaleidoscope. We heard yesterday, for instance, that Hollande was not going to stand for a second term as French president. This comes as no particular surprise but it confirms that there will be at least one new face at the table when the negotiations start.

When those talks do finally start, there will be something else at the table – something which is currently missing – a sense of reality. The parties will agree because they must agree. Meanwhile, the noisemakers will do what they do best – make noise.

Richard North 02/12/2016 link

Brexit: a Damascene conversion


So opposed to the "Norway option" was Peter Wilding, director of British Influence, that in February of this year – well before the referendum - he invited the Norwegian Europe minister, Vidar Helgesen, over to the UK to tell us how awful it was.

We got the usual low-grade BS from Helgesen, with him telling us that British Eurosceptics often say the Norwegian experience is evidence of how a country outside the EU, but enjoying the benefits of the single market through membership of the EEA, can prosper without having to commit itself to full membership.

Helgesen, on the other hand, said that this arrangement often created frustrations and difficulties, which meant Norwegian ministers and officials spent a lot of time – sometimes without success – trying to find out what was going on in EU meetings that would affect their country directly.

"We [Norway] are fully integrated into the EU single market as members of the EEA, but what we don't have is the right to vote on those regulations that are incorporated into our law when they are made by the council of ministers", he added.

On occasion, Brussels has sprung surprises that the Norwegians could not predict. The same kind of frustrations could well face the UK. "You would not have all those Brits staffing the commission where the decisions are made", said Helgesen. "Britain being on the outside would obviously not have that amount of people on the inside. You would find it more difficult, as a result, to affect the regulations".

On the back of this, Wilding roundly declared: "Eurosceptics who peddle the myth that Norway is the best [model] for a non-EU Britain are deceiving the British public. They say leaving leads to more democracy and security. This is nonsense".

In full spate, Wilding then said: "We now have the Norwegian Europe minister himself telling us to get a grip, get real and get involved in shaping Europe. Little England cannot be an option".

But now, a mere eight months later, this same Mr Wilding is so convinced of the merits of belonging to the EEA that he is preparing a legal challenge to the government to decide whether it can withdraw from it.

Wilding's rabidly "remainer" campaigning platform has now morphed into a "pro-single market think-tank" and has hired lawyers to argue that leaving the EU does not automatically take Britain out of the European Economic Area (EAA), in which the single market operates.

They will claim that the decision to take the additional step must be decided by parliament separately from any vote to trigger Article 50, the mechanism for exiting the EU.

British Influence has written to David Davis informing him it is seeking a judicial review of that position. It warns that the government may be in breach of the law if it seeks to take Britain out of the EEA along with the EU without clear legal justification.

"We believe the government has not understood how we leave the EEA, and has not understood that we do not need to leave the EEA in order to respect the red lines the 23 June referendum established", Wilding says. "This is not about stopping, thwarting or delaying Brexit, but getting a smarter Brexit that delivers for the UK and doesn’t destabilise the continent of Europe".

Interestingly, British Influence invokes Liechtenstein, saying that it has used some provisions of its EEA membership to limit free movement of people. Its lawyers will argue that Britain could also use these provisions to satisfy the demands of those who voted for Brexit to limit immigration.

The argument hinges on whether Britain joined the EEA as a member of the EU or in its own right. Lawyers are focusing on the case of Croatia, which acceded to the EEA nine months after joining the EU, to prove that the two entities are separate.

They will argue that to leave the EEA, Britain must separately trigger Article 127 of the EEA agreement, in addition to Article 50. Article 127, which Wilding calls "a game changer", requires members to give 12 months' notification to leave without reference to Article 50, while Article 128 says that countries acceding to the EU "may" apply to join the EEA but are not compelled to.

Actually, this argument is very thin indeed, making this a false move by Wilding. We dealt with it at length in October, arguing that the EEA Agreement was quite evidently a treaty between EU Member States and Efta States. To be a party to the Agreement, the UK must either be a member of the EU or Efta.

Failing this, the other members can invoke Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and eject the UK. Article 60(2) entitles, in the event of a material breach of a multilateral treaty by one of the parties, entitles the other parties by unanimous agreement to terminate the treaty in the relations between themselves and the defaulting State.

In practice, it would be very hard for any state to participate in the EEA unless it was either a member of the EU or Efta, as the management of the Agreement is conducted via the institutional frameworks of both organisations. That would allow the parties to terminate the Agreement on the grounds of "the impossibility of performing a treaty" (Article 61), or the parties may prefer Article 62, citing "a fundamental change of circumstances".

For once, though, we're not on our own on this. The media's all-purpose "leading authority on European law has also poured cold water on Wilding's thesis. This is Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the European council's legal service.

"The UK's withdrawal from EU will mean an automatic cessation of its membership of EEA as an EEA-EU member", he says. "In order to become an EEA member you have either to be an EU member or an Efta member". Thus, the UK would not be able to remain in the EEA unless, on withdrawal from the EU, it rejoined Efta.

The crucial point then, which would be much more interesting for Wilding to explore, is whether the UK participation in the EEA Agreement would then automatically lapse, requiring the government to re-apply, or whether we could claim continuity.

In the latter event, this could be very helpful as the UK could then unilaterally invoke Article 112 (safeguard measures) to impose restrictions on the free movement of persons – without requiring the assent of any other party.

Needless to say, a Government spokesman dismissed the challenge, saying: "As the UK is party to the EEA Agreement only in its capacity as an EU Member State, once we leave the European Union we will automatically cease to be a member of the EEA".

Nevertheless, continued EEA participation is possibly the best option for a trouble-free extraction from the EU, which makes it all the more perverse that the lunatic fringe is objecting to it, and absolutely bizarre that those who most strenuously opposed it are now supporting the idea.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Brexit were, as Booker ventured over the weekend, the most serious barriers to a smooth exit from the EU comes from the Tory eurosceptics – as well as their fellow travellers in Ukip.

Richard North 29/11/2016 link

Brexit: is Blair leaving it too late?


The reincarnation of Tony Blair is much heralded, but with mixed feelings. If he thinks his second coming is going to save the nation for Europhilia, others are taking the view that his presence will strengthen our determination to leave the EU.

Blair himself tells us he is "dismayed by the state of Western politics". But, he adds, he is also incredibly motivated by it. "I think in Britain today, you've got millions of effectively politically homeless people", he says.

He believes Brexit "can be stopped" if British voters decide the "cost-benefit analysis doesn't stack up". Such a turnaround could arise in one of two ways, both of them hinging on negotiations over access to the EU's Single Market, he thinks.

"Either you get maximum access to the single market, in which case you'll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European court's jurisdiction". In this case, people may then say: "Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?"

"alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great because, beyond doubt, if you do that you'll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring".

Brexit, he says, was 'like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house'. And while the referendum campaign was won by the leave side, even those voters would eventually look at this in a practical way, not an "ideological way".

However, while he is launching a defence of the "muscular centre", he says that the "right-wing media" would not allow him to return to front-line politics. "There are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that," he claims.

Instead, he says he is interested in providing "a service" to political leaders, in the form of a technologically-inspired platform. Quite what that means is not yet clear but we do know that he has held private talks with non-leader Nick Clegg, after having had discussions with former Chancellor George Osborne.

Yet, when he approached the current Tim Farron, he was rebuffed, the current Lib-Dem leader, rejecting the offer of a face-to-face meeting with Mr Blair. Mr Farron gave him "short-shrift" and is not interested in a closer political relationship.

Perhaps Mr Farron believes that Blair is planning a break-away party on the lines of the Social Democratic Party of 1981, when four senior Labour Party "moderates", dubbed the "Gang of Four" broke away to form a new party – only to merge with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats.

Should this happen, Farron's lacklustre leadership would doubtless be challenged, as one can envisage Blair looking to splinter off Corbyn refugees from the Labour Party, to form a new grouping using the Liberal Democrats as it hub. Tory Europhiles might also be expected to join this new "centre party", ready to challenge the Conservatives in the 2020 election.

All this is an ironic inversion of expectations. Amongst others, Farage always anticipated the Tories splitting and, with a rampant Ukip taking dozens of seats in the Commons, he expected the "Right" to combine with his Ukip MPs to form a new centre right party to take us out of the EU.

Instead, the Ukip electoral ambitions were never realised, the Conservative Party has stayed intact (for the moment) and it is the disillusioned Europhiles who are potentially looking to form a centre-left or "progressive" party to keep us in the EU – or take us back in.

Nothing of this, though, has been declared openly by Mr Blair, whose new organisation launches in the spring. He says it merely intends to analyse why British voters chose Brexit and the populist forces that led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

On the other hand, Blair is pushing the thesis that there is a global political vacuum, and his moves to get senior Lib-Dems on side are definitely seen by some as an attempt to galvanise centre ground politics and restore New Labour thinking in the UK.

One wonders whether the recent Branson initiative might also be connected. Although there is no declared connection, the timing is deeply suspicious.

For all that, though, it may be that Blair has left it too late. If he is not intending to launch until the spring, Mrs May will by then be ready to start the Article 50 negotiations and the opportunity to block the notification will have passed (assuming Mrs May wins her Supreme Court appeal).

That leaves the alternative possibility that Blair is playing a longer game, ready to target the 2020 election, when he could present a party which stood on a pro-EU platform, arguing for rejoining the EU. If that is the case, and he really believes the referendum result can be overturned, then Mrs May could be facing a more serious challenge than anything Corbyn has to offer.

The upside is that a robust challenge could have the effect of uniting the Conservative Party, and aligning pro-anti EU politics with left and right. A win for Mrs May under those circumstances could become an affirmation of Brexit, leaving the pro-EU forces completely defeated.

If he is not too late to the party, therefore, Blair could be doing us a favour. Aligning his unpopularity with the EU, he could ensure that there is no chance whatsoever of us returning to the embrace of the EU.

Richard North 25/11/2016 link

Brexit: time is running out


There has been no neater comment on where we have got to on Brexit, writes Christopher Booker, than the two pictures on the cover of the current issue of Private Eye

The first, labelled "Then", showed that grandiose bus hired by Vote Leave, carrying the claim that, by pulling out of the EU, we could give an extra £350 million a week to the NHS. The second, captioned "Now", showed a clapped-out, windowless bus stuck in a field, going nowhere.

In Booker's view, our progress towards invoking Article 50 does indeed look ever more of a shambles. The real problem, as it has always been, he says, "is that so few people really understand the incredible complexity of what a successfully negotiated Brexit would involve".

That is certainly evident if we turn elsewhere to the Sunday Telegraph where we see an "exclusive account" of how: "Heavyweight Brexiteers among 60 Tory MPs to demand clean break from the EU".

These MPs, including seven ex-Cabinet ministers, are concerned that pro-EU figures in the Cabinet are fighting to soften the Government's Brexit position and are demanding that the Prime Minister pulls Britain out of the single market and customs union.

They say that only the "cleanest Brexit" can fulfil the country's referendum call to "untie ourselves from EU shackles and freely embrace the rest of the world".

This initiative coincides with the relaunch of the European Research Group (ERG), a pro-Brexit Tory body that claims it will produce "new thinking and policy ideas" for Britain's future after Brexit, as well as being "a constant reminder to ministers of the strength of Euroscepticism on the Tory backbenches".

As for these "new ideas", we are going to be waiting a long time, if a parallel piece in the ST is any guide. This is from Suella Fernandes, one of the 60 Tory MPs and vice chair of the ERG.

For her, we get the usual collection of issue-illiterate mantras, starting with the red herring of the customs union which was not even an issue until a few weeks ago, and was hardly – if at all – discussed during the referendum campaign.

The substantive issue is, of course, continued participation in the Single Market and here Fernandes claims that she and most of her Parliamentary colleagues took the referendum as an instruction to untie ourselves from EU shackles and freely embrace the rest of the world.

Fernandes also claims that it was "made clear in the referendum campaign" that remaining in the EU’s internal market, like Norway, or in a customs union like Turkey, "is not compatible with either of these commitments and doing so would frustrate the will of the electorate".

This is simply not true and these 60 have no more right than the lacklustre Vote Leave, Leave EU or Ukip to dictate the shape of the Brexit settlement. All of them consciously refused to adopt an exit plan prior to the referendum and, since that time, none of them have come up with any coherent ideas of how we manage the exit negotiations.

And that is the point that Booker makes in his column. None of the major "leaver" groups nor indeed the "remainers" were remotely prepared for the outcome.

The Remainers simply relied on their absurd Project Fear to ensure that the problem would never arise, but the Leavers were just as bad by deliberately refusing to work out any practical exit plan. Rather than come up with anything sensible, the "official" campaign believed they could wing it on vapid little make believe slogans such as the one blazoned on the side of their silly bus.

Five months later, with only four months to go before Mrs May invokes Article 50 and formally tells the European Council that we intend to leave, and here we are with the general debate no further forward or better informed.

All we can see is a dawning realisation by ministers that it really is turning out to be far more complicated than any of them ever realised, and that we have nothing like enough civil servants to cope with it all.

Booker reminds us that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, continues to keep her cards almost invisibly close to her chest, except for insisting that we must continue trading fully "within" the single market (because anything else would be a disaster), while staying hung up on how this could be made compatible with her wish to "control immigration".

This tension is why she added last week that we cannot be hoping for an "off-the-shelf" solution. Whatever she intended that to mean, there is only one way we can hope to achieve a deal that meets her primary requirement.

Only if, on leaving the EU, we nevertheless remain within the wider European Economic Area (EEA) can we hope to continue trading "within" the single market much as we do now.

But this would also allow us, outside the EU, to escape from the three quarters of its 20,000 laws that cover issues other than trade. It would even, under the "safeguarding" clauses of the EEA Agreement, give us limited control over internal EU immigration.

Whether or not Mrs May would regard this as the kind of "off-the-shelf" solution she now seems to be rejecting, its other immense advantage is that it would enable us, in the short time available for these negotiations, to focus on all those countless other issues that will need to be settled as part of our disentanglement from the rest of the EU system of government.

Look at the 35 different policy areas set out in the template for a treaty of accession to the EU and we can see just what will have to be unravelled in reverse, in the "Secession Treaty" that will be needed at the end of our negotiations. Only six of these 35 categories cover trade.

But our talks will also have to resolve the 29 other areas, such as what is to be done about our involvements in the EU’s common foreign and defence policies, its policies on justice and home affairs, our relations with the EU's 27 different agencies, and a whole host more – including, heaven help us, the unbelievably tricky questions of how we manage to extricate ourselves from the common agricultural and fisheries policies.

All this has so far been scarcely mentioned in the public debate, although it does help to explain why some are now suggesting that we may need to recruit 30,000 more civil servants just to cope with the myriad further issues needing to be resolved, including those ongoing financial commitments to the EU which, over a decade or more ahead, could amount to a staggering £60 billion.

The truth, Booker concludes, is that, in all directions, we are still hopelessly unprepared for what we let ourselves in for on 23 June. And the time left to get our act together is now fast running out.

And with that, the nonsense offered by the "Tory 60" is something we can certainly do without. As Pete observes, these people are dishonestly risking our global standing and flirting with recession on the basis of a delusion – a delusion that there is any credible alternative to continued participation in the Single Market, for the short- to medium-term.

Interestingly one person who in November 2014 saw this very clearly was Owen Paterson. "It is critical to remember, he said, that the economic Single Market and the political EU are not one and the same thing. We are perfectly at liberty to pursue participation in the Single Market without being saddled with the EU as a political project".

"Membership of the EEA", Paterson averred, "allows full participation in the Single Market without being in the EU, as enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. Those such as the CBI, who confuse the memberships of the Single Market and the EU are making a basic error and misleading the British people".

"We can leave the political project and enter into a truly economic project with Europe via the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the EEA", Paterson said. "We would still enjoy the trading benefits of the EU, without the huge cost of the political baggage".

And what was true then is true now. We cannot afford to be messing in the way we are doing. We need to move on. Most of all, if an "interim solution" is to be at all credible, we must define the end game. And that is something most people have scarcely considered.

Richard North 20/11/2016 link

Brexit: countering the scaremongering


In response to recent Brexit stories in The Times, some of which we have covered, a number of pundits have chosen to take the view that the newspaper is scaremongering. It is regarded, as with others, as merely continuing "project fear".

This raises the question as to what constitutes scaremongering and what is simply drawing attention to real but under-appreciated problems. There are then the instances were valid comment is being made, although the extent of problems identified is being exaggerated.

Certainly, The Times of yesterday - on payments to the EU – was probably exaggerating when it came to the payment period, but probably no far wrong when it comes to the £60 billion or so that we will have to pay the EU over term. But on this payment issue, The Times is not on its own. In early October, the Financial Times was talking about RAL and, if anything, understating the amount we might have to pay.

And now, the Financial Times has returned to the fray, enlisting Wolfgang Schäuble to spread a dose of pessimism, including an assertion that the UK would face EU budget bills for more than a decade, running up to 2030.

We have met Schäuble's pessimism before, and his role is very often to fly a kite for Angela Merkel. But neither he nor Merkel can guarantee they will survive the coming elections into the Brexit negotiations. Even if they do, Germany is only one country of 27 which will be sitting opposite us.

Thus, the Financial Times front page headline, declaring: "Berlin dashes Downing St hopes of easy path to Brexit" probably transcends mere exaggeration and belongs firmly in the realms of scaremongering. And, to no one's surprise at all, this is picked up by the Guardian which elides Schäuble's view with that of "Germany", as if they were the same thing.

Nevertheless, one cannot disagree with Schäuble's specific claim that we will probably be funding to EU to 2030 and beyond, and it is about time that the British public got used to this reality. Only if we deal with this obvious requirement will it not prove an insurmountable obstacle to the Brexit talks.

The Financial Times thus has elements of scaremongering and the truth, all rolled up into one article. But I wouldn't put in the same the latest story (at the time of writing) in The Times in the same league.

This has it that: "Brexit is too much for the civil service", with the paper relying on comments by John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, reported by Civil Service World. He says Whitehall is trying to do 30 percent too much, reflecting the growing anxiety among senior civil servants at the amount of extra work across departments being generated by Brexit.

This coincides with new figures released by government which reveal that only 38 percent of civil servants at the Department for Exiting the European Union agree that they have clear work objectives — the lowest score of any department. The Department for International Trade also recorded poor scores in the civil service people survey, which is conducted annually.

But this actually should not surprise us. For nations joining the EU, there is invariably concern about the "absorptive capacity" of their civil services, and the matter has been periodically discussed both in terms of individual states and of the EU as a whole.

It stands to reason, therefore, that there should be a similar challenge for departing states and it is so predictable that the UK would have to confront the issue that we wrote a section on it in Flexcit (see page 174).

Another problem we also predicted was having to deal with the functions carried by the EU's decentralised agencies – to which effect we devoted the best part of Chapter 5 to these and related matters. More recently (in August), we also wrote a blogpost to take the discussion further.

Compare and contrast this with an article by Labour MEP Richard Corbett, headed: "The Brexit nightmare we will soon be unable to ignore". This broaches the subject of agencies anew, written in such a way as to suggest that no-one else has ever thought of them in the context of Brexit – and suggesting there is no answer but to remain in the EU.

This, if anything, really is "project fear", but that does not mean to say that raising such problems is a bad idea. Unless we identify the potential pitfalls, we will be ill-equipped to deal with them when the time comes. What makes the difference, therefore, is that we look to raise problems in order to explore a way of dealing with them.

To that extent, the "head-in-sand" approach of the Brexit zealots - who dismiss concerns about potential difficulties and airily suggest that Brexit can be agreed on a rainy afternoon in Brussels – is just as unhelpful as the stance taken by those who would exaggerate the difficulties of leaving, or invent problems that don't exist in the real world.

Into that category storms the Daily Mirror which headlines the claim that a £100billion black hole will emerge in the Chancellor's budget over the next five years due to "mediocre" growth and low tax revenues.

Even then, in the same story, we have former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell backing up John Manzoni, warning that the civil service is not ready for the challenge of Brexit. He has told the House Magazine that Brexit was "a tougher task" than any he faced head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011.

Asked if Whitehall was prepared for the task, he said: "There's a very simple, short answer to that, which is No. Brexit imposes a lot of extra requirements on the civil service. They're not perfectly ready".

To conclude, though, I can't resist commenting on the news that Ukip has been accused of misspending £385,000 of EU funding on its own general election campaign and to bolster its Brexit drive ahead of the UK referendum.

Although they deny any wrongdoing, Ukip has always sailed close to the wind on its spending of EU funds, and it was back in 2003 that I proposed to Farage a challenge-proof scheme involving the creation of a think-tank in Brussels to provide a critique of the EU. But, as the current claim shows, Farage chose to fritter away the money on endless and ultimately fruitless attempts to get him into the Westminster parliament.

Yet now is the time, more than anything, when we need information to guide us on Brexit, and to counter the scaremongering. How ironic it is, though, while that Ukip is to appeal to the ECJ in an attempt to block demands from the European Parliament that some of the money is repaid, we are having to produce our Monograph series unaided – exactly the function the Brussels think-tank would have been performing.

Yet the obvious counter to scaremongering is information. It's a pity that Farage and I could not have agreed on this.

Richard North 18/11/2016 link

Brexit: the great betrayal?


To judge from the most recent media coverage, the great Brexit soap opera seems to have taken something of a hit from Greg Clark. Speculation on the "hard Brexit" has almost evaporated after he spelt out the Government's intentions so clearly that even the average hack could understand what he was saying.

It is now so obvious that the Government has no intention of taking us out of the Single Market that the Telegraph has actually noticed,and has Jeremy Warner noting that Mrs May's conference speech was throwing a bone to the Brexit zealots, but never promised us a hard time - something everybody but the media noticed at the time.

But that leaves the semi-employed Farage speaking on his LBC show, warning of the risk of a "great betrayal" of Britain's vote to leave the EU.

Farage's complaint is that the Single Market represents: "Every single thing that we voted to get out of in this referendum". With Lord Mandelson, Tony Blair, and Tory MPs like the Nadhim Zahawi telling us we must stay part of it, he's " just beginning to wonder and to worry, are we on the edge, perhaps, of a great betrayal".

"Whichever side you voted in that referendum", he said, "17.4 million people voted for us to leave … it was the biggest exercise in democracy ever in the history of this country". He then tells us that: "If Brexit doesn't happen, there is going to be political anger that has never been seen in this country".

Not for the first time, though, the former Ukip leader has got it spectacularly wrong. The "political anger" of which he speaks might well emerge, but the trigger is more likely to be a failed Brexit which crashes the UK economy.

There is no question, of course, that the majority voted to leave the European Union but, as Lord Mandelson rightly observed, the electorate has not given the Government any specific mandate as to how we leave. But there are no prizes for guessing that, other than the zealots, there is no desire to see the economy wrecked in the process of leaving.

On the other hand, if Farage and his friend Arron Banks had produced an exit plan before the referendum, and linked it with their own campaign, they might have some cause for complaint when the Government goes its own way.

The same could be said of Vote Leave, but hat organisation rejected the very idea of an exit plan, arguing that this should be left to government. Its supporters have even less cause for complaint than Farage.

The reality of the pre-referendum scenario, though, was one of anarchy. There was no exit plan endorsed by the official leave campaign or Ukip because the various factions could not agree amongst themselves as to what the strategy should be.

So it is today, with varying shades of "hard" being promoted, ranging from unilateral repeal of the ECA and no negotiations with the EU – rejecting entirely the use of Article 50 - to a Canadian style deal that removes us from participation in the Single Market, but allows us to negotiate a "better deal".

Then, as we have tried to point out many times, the term "free trade agreement" covers a multitude of sins, so even amongst those looking for this option, there is no unanimity. Check with any group and you will find differing and sometimes contradictory expectations, all sheltering under the same portmanteau description.

Moving on from the referendum, however, there is another factor to take into account. The question on the ballot paper was whether we should leave the EU. But that vote has now been cast. Those who voted to leave have no proprietary rights. They have not acquired exclusive rights to determine how we should leave. That is a matter for government, representing the entire nation – leavers and remainers alike.

Thus, it is more than a little presumptuous of the likes of Farage to complain about "betrayal". He had plenty of time and opportunity to work up an exit plan – and was strongly advised to do so, more than a decade ago – but didn't.

Then, in this post-referendum period, everyone has a right to offer opinions as to how the exit negotiations should be handled. No one group has any rights to dictate what the approach should be. That includes Parliament, which lost its right to dictate events when it handed over the decision on the EU to the people.

A further point that has to be considered is what actually constitutes leaving, with the secondary question of how the leaving process should be phased.

As to the first point, we've had freedom of movement (i.e., visa-free travel) with most of Europe since 1946 - over a quarter of a century before we joined the EEC. And, if Farage did his homework, he would know that participation in the Single Market is not incompatible with immigration control.

When even Guardian writers are beginning to recognise that we can participate in the Single Market without being in the EU, Farage is not only wrong to talk about "betrayal" – he is being absurd.

And that goes without factoring in the timescale. Given that we have undergone a process of political and economic integration over the last 43 years, it is not credible to expect that we should extract ourselves completely within the space of a couple of years.

Thus we also find the media gradually coming to the realisation that Brexit is a process, not an event. If we have restored the nation to a position of equilibrium within twenty years, it will be a minor miracle. In fact, we will always have a dynamic relationship with our European neighbours, so we will have to learn to live with a fluid and ever-changing situation.

With that, it would be useful – some might say essential – to have an organisation such as Ukip, outside the longer-established parties, monitoring the government's performance and offering sensible advice where needed.

Long ago though, Ukip vacated the field, so Farage himself has no mandate nor any obvious qualifications to offer the government advice, over and above any other grouping. That his party is so weak in this respect, is in itself an act of betrayal. Never more has an active, relevant watchdog been needed, and never since its creation has Ukip been so irrelevant.

The next time Farage talks about betrayal, therefore, he needs to be looking in a mirror.

Richard North 02/11/2016 link

Brexit: shambles at the top


It was our view, right from the very start, that Theresa May appointed the "three Brexiteers" with the idea that she was setting them up to fail. It's also been no secret that the three didn't get on with each other.

The story in the Telegraph yesterday doesn't really break any new ground when it tells us that Liam Fox and Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson are "locked in feud" over who controls Britain's foreign policy. In truth, it would be a surprise if sweet harmony reigned.

What is new is that the Telegraph says it has evidence of this disharmony, which comes in the form of a "terse letter", effectively demanding that the Foreign Office be broken up. It confirms the existence of a "bitter Whitehall feud" over who controls key parts of Britain's foreign policy.

Johnson is understood to have firmly rejected Dr Fox's demands and "Whitehall sources" claim that the Prime Minister is "unimpressed with this sort of carrying on".

One wonders whether this "tension" is responsible for the unexplained deletion of the recent news story put up by Dr Fox's department. But if Foreign Office and Dr Fox's department of international trade are already at loggerheads, that might also explain the Sunday Times story which is telling us that Brexit "will be delayed until end of 2019", relaying the warning from "ministers" that Whitehall is "not ready for talks".

The sources are unnamed "City sources" which could just as well mean that the Sunday Times is fabricating (or exaggerating) the story. Nevertheless, what we're getting is that Britain could remain in the EU until late 2019, the reason being that, despite great political pressure to stick to an earlier timetable, the new Brexit and international trade departments are not ready to deal with the negotiations.

Also being cited are the French and German elections, with the suggestion that Britain might not invoke article 50 until France has voted next May or even until after the German poll in September.

This makes complete sense, of course, and is brought into focus by the comment of an unnamed "City insider" who has told the Sunday Times: "You can't negotiate when you don't know who you're negotiating with". A Cabinet Minister (unnamed) has also confirmed to The Sunday Times that there were "some challenges" in the French and German electoral timetables.

On the domestic front, however, any perceived delay presents the Prime Minister with considerable problems, as we see from a tweet from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He has his staff write: "Brexit must mean end to free movement, out of single market & taking back our territorial waters. Anything less would be betrayal".

Back to The Sunday Times and we now switch to "another source", also unnamed. This is not even a "senior source", so it could be the tea lady or chauffeur who has had "discussions with two senior ministers". That exchange again tells us something we already knew, that: "They don't have the infrastructure for the people they need to hire. They say they don't even know the right questions to ask when they finally begin bargaining with Europe".

But as an indication of the sort of problems that are afflicting the heart of government, we get "another senior government insider" - unnamed. This one says that there is also uncertainty about preparatory talks with EU leaders. "I'm not sure they are going to be ready", the anonymous source says. "There is an issue about these preliminary talks - no one even seems to know what the substance will be".

Davis and Fox are spending the summer recess setting up their new fiefdoms, but The Sunday Times says Davis has so far recruited less than half the 250 staff he expects to need. They are working in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.

Fox, we are told, is looking to recruit up to 1,000 trade policy experts but currently has fewer than 100. His team is temporarily housed in the business department. Its permanent home "could be anywhere", says yet another insider.

Yet, for all that, the story has all the gravitas of Whitehall gossip. There is no evidence, no documentary corroboration and no one, apparently, is prepared to put their names to the story. Nevertheless, from the direct experience of how long it takes to write up an exit strategy, it stands to reason that ministers and civil servants alike are having difficulty getting their acts together. And if the deleted news story is an indication of their grasp of the issues, we're in dire trouble. 

The only surprising thing is that anyone should be surprised, although The Sunday Times appears to be. In an editorial, it starts off by saying: "How simple and straightforward Brexit seemed just after the referendum. We would trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and Britain would wave goodbye to the European Union two years later".

The thing is that only the profoundly ignorant or the wildly optimistic could ever have been under the impression that leaving the EU was ever going to be "simple and straightforward". To have a major British newspaper suggest that it might have been is worrisome.

And even without the Whitehall "gossip", we've always felt that we have good cause for concern about the lack of preparedness. Furthermore, it seems, the "reckless Brexiteers" are about to get in on the act, throwing a strop because reality is taking its toll. These are the Tory "eurosceptic" backbenchers who, as Booker observed two weeks ago are causing more trouble than they're worth.

Now, The Mail tells us, these troublemakers are planning to launch "at least two cross-party groups to pressure the Prime Minister into announcing a strict timetable for leaving the European Union", apparently having the nerve to complain that Mrs May has "failed to set out a clear 'road map' to the UK's eventual break".

It is interesting that the politicians and the whole London think-tank industry – which devotes its entire time to telling government what it should be doing - has gone AWOL on this, completely devoid of original or realistic ideas.

Nothing at all coming out of the intellectual desert in the capital gives us any confidence that anyone has got a grip on the issues, while the "leaver" community – as fragmented as the "three Brexiteers" - remains all at sea. They are making such a mess of things that, by contrast, even the EU is beginning to look efficient.

Richard North 15/08/2016 link

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few