Richard North, 17/09/2019  

"The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets", the johnson told the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

Yet all it took to break the mould was around fifty ex-pats shouting nasty things, like "Bogg off Boris", for the self-declared superhero to run away from a press conference with Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel, giving a tolerable impression of the Invisible Hulk.

However, the entertainment quotient of the prime minister in office of the United Kingdom being humiliated by the prime minister of the second-smallest country in the European Union, should not be allowed to obscure the outcome of the johnson's earlier meeting with Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker for a working lunch in Le Bouquet Garni, buried deep in the medieval quarter of Luxembourg City.

After all the weekend hype, a flavour of that meeting comes from a Commission press release issued shortly after the event. Terse almost to the point of frigidity, it is characterised as much by what it didn't say as what it did.

Totally absent from the release was any reference whatsoever to the term "negotiations". The aim of the "meeting" had been to "take stock" of the ongoing "technical" talks between the EU and the UK and to discuss the next steps.

As for the meat – what little there was - Juncker recalled that it is the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that were compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.

Unsurprisingly, the president underlined "the Commission's continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop". And then came the killer line: "Such proposals have not yet been made".

For the future, we were told, the Commission will remain available to work 24/7 but, far from the October European Council being the great watershed, all we get from Juncker is that it will be "an important milestone in the process". The "process" of what isn't specified, but we do learn in passing that the EU-27 "remain united".

Only in the Downing Street statement was there any reference to a "deal", as in the johnson expressing his "determination to reach a deal with the backstop removed, that UK parliamentarians could support".

Interestingly, the johnson also reiterated that he would not request an extension and would take the UK out of the EU on the 31st October. That much had been correctly signalled over the weekend, although I doubt there was any of the lurid "tongue-lashing".

This release also made no pretence of the meeting being a negotiation. As with the Commission press release, the meeting – described as "constructive" – was characterised as the leaders taking stock of "the ongoing talks" between the UK's team and Taskforce 50.

The leaders, we are told, agreed that "discussions" needed to intensify and that "meetings would soon take place on a daily basis". It was also agreed that "talks" should take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, and "conversations" would continue between Juncker and the johnson.

The absence of any reference to "negotiations" is significant. We are not seeing any negotiations, not in any formal sense from which a deal can emerge. All we have are "talks", "meetings" and "conversations".

From reading between the lines, these are directed at exploring whether the fabled "alternative arrangements" can be agreed, which will replace the Irish backstop. That is the only "deal" to be had, an issue the "colleagues" have already conceded as long as the UK comes up with a credible alternative.

The problem, sources tell the Irish Times, is not the pace of talks but the absence of content and of new proposals from the UK. Officals say they are bewildered by the johnson's repeated insistence that progress is being made.

And there comes the rub, as trenchantly articulated by Xavier Bettel. In his solo press conference – which provokes the Telegraph front-page headline: "Luxembourg laughs in Johnson's face" – Bettel complained that the johnson had not tabled firm proposals for an alternative to the backstop.

"We need more than just words", the Luxembourg prime minister said, going on to say: "I hear a lot, but I don’t read a lot. If they [the UK government] want us to be able to discuss anything, we need it on the written side". The only written text at the moment, Bettel observed, was the existing withdrawal agreement.

For the record, if there was any laughter, as the Telegraph asserts, it could hardly have been in the johnson's face. Rather, it could only have been to the rapidly departing back of the Invisible Hulk as it scuttled off to the UK ambassador's residence for a soft-focus interview with the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg.

Artfully cut with the events of the day, the interview managed to conceal from BBC viewers the full extent of the Hulk's humiliation, as he engaged with the BBC political editor rather than the nasty continentals.

Declaring that the UK would "exit with no deal on 31 October", if the EU "refused to bend", the johnson was nothing if not elusive when discussing the backstop replacement, claiming that "there's a limit to how much the details benefit from publicity before we've actually done the deal".

Here, it was not so much Quasimodo's "bells" as "the shape". The "shape of it", the "shape it is", was the thing. "The shape of it is all about who decides", the johnson said.

As to the extension (not), the johnson saw "no point whatever in staying on in the EU beyond 31 October". Thus, it declared, "we're going to come out. And actually that is what our friends and partners in the EU would like too. And I think that they've had a bellyful of all this stuff".

Giving an insight into the johnson brain, we learned that the Juncker meeting lacked "a total breakthrough". Nevertheless, the johnson admitted that "a huge amount of work is now going to be done to sort it [a deal] out, but it was "a little bit" more optimistic than it had been at the start of the morning, "but not much, just a little bit".

It was "cautiously optimistic" but not counting his chickens. "It is absolutely vital, it's absolutely vital for people to understand that the UK is ready to come out with no-deal if we have to", it said.

From all this, the "take" of the Independent is that the johnson's proposals are so secret that they are not going to be revealed until the EU and the UK have done the deal. One wonders even if the EU is going to be made aware of them until after they have agreed them – another cunning Baldrick plan to stop the "colleagues" rejecting them.

And if there is a hint of the surreal here, that is precisely because the johnson seems no longer to be dwelling in this world. It talks glibly of "a deal" and of "negotiations" when actually, the former is not on the table and the latter aren't happening. This is a fictional edifice of its own creation.

How the johnson will manage to circumvent the extension requirement of the Benn Act, it doesn't say – even when pressed. But we do know that it has left the EU frustrated. This must be so as the Financial Times says so, with Brussels "surprised by the lack of detail" put forward by the johnson.

And so the game goes on. As it stands, we are still headed for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, although such is the utter fantasy land occupied by the johnson that even this could be bluster. The countdown continues and what happens next is anyone's guess.

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