Richard North, 02/09/2019  
 


Insofar as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had a coherent Brexit policy, it was that which he articulated on 24 July in his first speech as prime minister in office.

Summed up, he rejected the Withdrawal Agreement brokered by Mrs May's government and demanded that Brussels should re-open negotiations for a new deal, a precondition of which was that it removed the "anti-democratic" backstop. Given "the remote possibility" that Brussels refused to negotiate, we were then to prepare to leave without a deal.

This was further amplified in Johnson's statement to the House of Commons the following day, when he declared his readiness "to negotiate in good faith an alternative, with provisions to ensure that the Irish border issues are dealt with where they should always have been: in the negotiations on the future agreement between the UK and the EU".

Whatever has passed formally or informally between HMG and the EU, there is no published communication – in any form - which sets out Johnson's statement as an official government proposal to the EU.

Rather, we have been seeing something akin to diplomacy by megaphone, and it was only last week that Johnson's Brexit "Sherpa", David Frost, was dispatched to Brussels to meet senior EU officials "to discuss alternatives to the plan agreed with Theresa May".

The development came amid a buoyant mood in Number 10. In the wake of talks between Johnson and the leaders of France and Germany, we had the prime minister in office talking about a willingness to "get this thing done", telling us that this was what "our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel want".

Brexit, we were informed, was now regarded as an "encumbrance", with the reminder that Brussels tends to "come to an agreement right at the end", heightening anticipation in some quarters that a deal was in the offing.

Yet, before this weekend, the signs were in the offing that no progress had been made. After a meeting in Helsinki with UK foreign minister Dominic Raab, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney declared that "nothing credible" had come from the British government as an alternative to the backstop.

Although any changes proposed by London could be the basis for a discussion in Brussels, above all else, they had to be "credible". Said Coveney, "It can’t simply be this notion of 'look we've got to have this backstop removed and we'll solve this problem in future negotiations', without any credible way of doing that". That was "not going to fly". The Irish government would not allow the backstop to be removed without a viable alternative.

It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that Barnier should have written his piece yesterday but, in so doing, the European Union's chief negotiator has demolished any pretence that Johnson might have a credible (or any) Brexit policy – or, at least, one that encompasses any form of renegotiation.

As I wrote yesterday, as far as the EU is concerned, the backstop stands, the Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated and, if the prime minister in office insists on the UK leaving the EU on 31 October then, on the face of things, it will be without a deal.

That, in fact, is now the full extent of Johnson's policy – a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. And even if, by some strange happenstance, the MP collective manages to pass a law requiring him to apply for an extension to the Article 50 process, there is nothing to say that the European Council should agree to any request. One might even expect the Council to take the view that, with no credible alternative on the table, there is nothing to be served by prolonging the agony and giving the UK extra time.

And there, in a sense, comes the rub. With the collapse of Johnson's Brexit policy making a no-deal a racing certainty, it would not be unreasonable to expect a fairly high degree of media reaction. But the latest Guardian editorial is still relying on Johnson's latest "50-50" estimate of a successful deal.

A good comparison might be a scene in a crowded restaurant, where an ashen-faced chef pops his head round the service door to announce that the kitchen is on fire. There is a brief pause while someone looks up to acknowledge the announcement with a casual "right oh", whence all the diners resume their eating, drinking and talking, as if nothing had just happened.

At the time of writing, the BBC and others were mainly concerned with the launch of the government's £100 million "get ready for Brexit" advertising campaign, while the Independent was homing in on a spat with Michael Gove about whether "food prices may go up in the event of a no-deal Brexit as the EU's chief negotiator cast doubt on hopes of an agreement with Brussels".

Developing my "chef in a burning kitchen" theme, the Independent's rendition of Barnier's action is rather like Captain Sully of US Airways Flight 1549 being reported as "casting doubt" about reaching Seattle, just after he'd lost both engines to a bird strike.

Altogether, what we are seeing is that continued detachment from reality that has dogged the politico-media nexus since before the referendum was even called. The whole issue of Brexit is continually dragged down by their inability to focus on important (or even relevant) matters, and a determination to be distracted by personality politics and trivia.

Thus, while the wreckage of Johnson's Brexit policy lies unmourned in a widespread debris field  centred on Number 10, we learn that a substantial order has been placed by the government for "get ready" branded mugs and T-shirts in a campaign that shares its name with a song by the Temptations and an album by New Order.

But then, we are where we always were. We have politicians and a media which can't be bothered to come to terms with the intricacies of the European Union, or the basics of Brexit, yet somehow we expect them to come to grips with the Efta/EEA option, and the complex process needed to adapt it to the requirements of the UK.

This is a nexus which, years after the "Norway Option" was open to debate, still trots out the same tired mantra about "pay, no say". And when it comes to the EEA acquis, it blathers about "fax democracy" without even pretending to know how EEA law is made. This is a nexus which, if you gave its denizens personal tuition for the next decade, would still have trouble understanding how the EEA worked.

However, this weekend really has brought us to a new low in the emerging train-crash which they call Brexit, where the prime minister in office's flagship policy crashes and burns and the media barely notice, while the politicians prattle on regardless.

Typically, the best we can expect of our amateur political and media classes is that they treat EU politics as they do everything else, as an extension of their narrow, closed-minded, foetid Westminster politics. Currently, this obsession has Johnson threatening to remove the whip from any rebels who vote to block a no-deal Brexit and ban them from standing as  candidates at the next election - as if there could be anything else but a no-deal outcome.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg  in The Mail on Sunday is calling the rebels "deceitful" and "underhand", declaring them as "being too frightened to call a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson because it would lead to a crushing defeat of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn".

In delivering what are described as "provocative comments", though, Mogg's print version differs significantly from his online offering. In the former, he tells us that the government of the day "must be allowed to deliver on the manifesto it put to the people and on the back of which it was elected alternatively".

Apart from minor details, like the Johnson administration never producing a manifesto, that – pretty obviously – this manifesto was never put to the people, and that the "government" was never elected by the people, Rees-Mogg is spot-on, but only in having illustrated for us his personal reality, the one in which he alone actually lives.

"This government" he asserts, "is poised to reap the benefits of Brexit for which the nation voted". The people, he says, "expect nothing else, and power, the fount of sovereignty, flows from them".

What the people might expect and what they are going to get, though, are turning out to be completely different things. At the start of what we are told is "sure to be a tumultuous week at Westminster" (with no mention of Brussels), we confront a train-wreck policy that is certain to deliver only one thing – a no-deal Brexit. And the media hasn't even noticed.






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