Richard North, 10/11/2019  
 


Just short of a year ago, Liam Halligan published in the Telegraph an article headed, "'No EU-UK deal? It is not the end of the world', says WTO chief".

Setting the scene, Halligan told us that, if Britain failed to strike a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU ahead of March 2019 (when we were due to leave the EU), UK-EU trade reverted to WTO rules. "While some claim this would be a disaster, not least parliamentarians determined to frustrate Brexit", wrote Halligan, Azevedo disagreed.

This was Roberto Azevedo, current director general of the WTO. Through the filter of Halligan's writing, he told us: "About half of the UK's trade is already on WTO terms – with the US, China and several large emerging nations where the EU doesn't have trade agreements", which led us to the "money quote", where he said, "So it's not the end of the world if the UK trades under WTO rules with the EU".

The interview was much touted by no-dealers who used it as justification for their stance, even though the following week Azevedo clarified his remarks saying of the UK-EU negotiations, "Whatever happens, this is not going to be a situation where all trade stops, and there is a collapse in terms of the economy as a whole - that for me would be the end of the world".

"But", he added, "it's not going to be a walk in the park. It's not like nothing happened, there will be an impact. It will be a very bumpy road, and maybe long as well".

As to the original interview, I'm not even sure that Halligan quoted Azevedo correctly, where he supposedly asserted that "the US, China and several large emerging nations didn't have trade agreements with the EU". That was not true and I can't imagine Azevedo saying this.

In July, however, when Farage has adopted the no-deal mantra as his own, asserting that we need a "clean break", we saw Prospect magazine belatedly join the debate, bringing together three key figures from the WTO, including Azevedo and Pascal Lamy.

The arguments were sound enough, including a take-down of the GATT Article 24 mythology, and to have three towering figures from the world of international trade make a case should have meant something. But the article passed with scarcely a ripple, leaving Farage to pursue his no-deal obsession, untroubled by mere facts or argument.

This is the nature of the Brexit debate, such that it is. The noise-makers prevail, their positions fixed and entirely responsive. And, as Pete observes, the infection has spread to the election campaign, turning it into a nightmare parody which only superficially resembles the real thing.

Inevitably, the anchors in this parodic episode are the opinion polls, which serve as talking points – even if their limitations and frailties are well known. Latest into the fray – giving today's Observer its lead – is a survey by Opinium which has Labour gaining three points in a week to reach 29 percent, cutting the Tory lead to 12 points after that party dropped one point to end up with 41 percent.

Significantly, some 66 percent of Labour Leavers now plan to vote for Corbyn's party, up nine points on the previous week, while 48 percent of Labour Remainers are also planning to vote for the party, again sharply up on last week.

This, of course, gives some hope to Labour supporters that their party is closing the gap – and very much still in the fight. But, if you drop by the Telegraph website, the Janet Daley column gives the impression that it's all over bar the shouting, as she writes that: "The major Opposition party is no longer functional. The governing party – whatever your view of it – is the only credible one that can be supported".

In truth, neither party is credible and public hostility to the election seems to be building, even if this is not directly reflected in the polls. But what certainly is showing – in the Opinium poll – is a continued decline in Farage's three-man party, which is down three points to six percent (one fifth of its showing at the European elections).

On top of that, we now see Arron Banks writing for the Mail on Sunday calling for leavers to unite, for fear of losing Brexit altogether.

To that effect, the MoS tells us Farage has been in secret talks with the Tories. Amazingly, not only will Farage stand down a number of his candidates, he will also accept Johnson's withdrawal agreement – thus ostensibly abandoning his "no deal" position which any amount or argument has failed to shift.

The price, however, is one which effectively restores that position. Farage is said to be demanding of Johnson that he negotiates changes to the political declaration and, crucially, ends the transition period in December 2020, rather than extending it to the end of 2022.

We haven't been given any details as to the changes required to the political declaration, but since it is currently Johnson's position that he will not extend the transition period, it would appear that the two leaders are not that far apart. If they agree to agree, Farage effectively gets his no-deal without having to put up a raft of candidates.

The key date will be 14 November, when candidate nominations close, which gives just a few days for a deal to be reached. But then, we have the polls to consider. The MoS has also commissioned its own, this one from Deltapoll. Remarkably, it too has the Tories on 41 percent and Labour on 29 percent, exactly the same outcome as the Observer's Opinium poll.

By coincidence, Farage's party also drops to six percent, in this instance having lost five points – its support having nearly halved according to this poll. And that may give Johnson the idea that Farage is a busted flush and he need not bother with a deal.

Back with the Telegraph though, John Curtice casts doubt on Farage's claim that he can win over Labour voters that the Tories can't reach.

Farage's greatest appeal, it seems, is to former leave voters who now believe that we should go for a no-deal exit, a view held by 74 percent of Brexit Party voters but only 34 percent of Conservatives. Curtice thus thinks that Johnson's best bet is to persuade those leave voters that his deal really will represent a "clean break" with Brussels.

Since, without extending the transition period to 2022, that is effectively the case, Johnson should have no problem doing that, but for the effect it might have on voters who think that Johnson has genuinely brokered an agreement which takes no-deal off the table.

Johnson, therefore, is on the horns of a dilemma. To gain the support of the Faragistas, he must convince them that his agreement really means "no-deal" – which indeed it does – while he must convince the "moderates" who would be minded to vote for him that he is planning an orderly exit.

His best bet, from an electoral point of view, would be to avoid talking about Brexit, diverting attention onto other issues, such as the cost of Corbyn's spending plans, estimated by the Tories at £1.2 trillion – a figure dominating today's headlines.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Farage is bringing Brexit back into focus, raising issues which are not to the Tory leader's advantage. If he makes a deal with Farage, he is essentially admitting that he is going for a no-deal Brexit, and if he doesn't, he will be fighting Farage for "no-deal" voters, which means he will have to convince them that he will deliver what they want – or end up with a split vote.

Some might say that this is a classic example of chickens coming home to roost. Without a coherent position on Brexit, Johnson has laid himself wide open to electoral blackmail, in a game he might have difficulty winning. And, from potential ally, Farage might prove to be his executioner.

I think this might be called nemesis, but for the fact that Corbyn's £1.2 trillion-worth of unelectability might save the day for the Tories.






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