Richard North, 11/09/2019  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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