Richard North, 17/04/2021  

Firmly in the category of "nothing makes sense", we see the latest YouGov poll give the Conservatives a commanding lead of 43 percent, with Labour's share of the vote slipping to its lowest level under Keir Starmer yet, at 29 percent – a gap of 14 points.

Johnson, the poll tells us, continues to lead in the "best Prime Minister" stakes. A third of respondents (34 percent) say he would make the better head of government. Only around a quarter (26 percent) favour Keir Starmer. However, over a third (36 percent) are undecided, more than the percentage supporting Johnson.

The poll was, of course, presaged on the question of a general election "being held tomorrow". But any election is a long way off. When there is a contest in the offing, the margin between the two main parties tends shrink. At the moment, mercifully, people don't have to engage.

Nevertheless, with endless talks of "Tory sleaze", we're almost back to the dying days of the John Major government – except that Johnson is no Major and, more to the point, Starmer is no Tony Blair. Even if he was, the Labour party has not been tamed and continues on its path of self-destruction.

That, possibly, is enough to explain the current gap between the parties. It could suggest that the electorate is taking the view that, no matter how bad the Tories are, Labour is inestimably worse. The only consolation for Starmer is that, in April last year, the gap was 24 points. But then he was on the way up. Now he is going down, and has been since December.

Almost certainly, Johnson is also benefitting from the relative success of the vaccination programme, which is also apparently delivering a Brexit "bounce" as voters compare the performance of the EU Member States and the Commission.

What doesn't seem to have affected sentiment are the indications of the damaging effects of Brexit on Britain's exports, with the latest data from Eurostat painting an unhappy picture.

According to this source (via Reuters), in the first two months of the year, EU imports from Britain dropped 47.0 percent year-on-year, to €16.6 billion. Exports to the UK declined only 20.2 percent to €39.8 billion. This brings the EU's trade surplus with Britain to €23.2 billion euros for the period, up from €18.6 billion in the same period of 2020.

These latest figures, obviously, are too late to register for the YouGov poll, but it is unlikely that their earlier publication would have made any difference. Nor indeed is the Northern Ireland situation having any discernible impact on voting sentiment, despite the recent rioting and the egregious failure of the Protocol.

On the face of it, Johnson won his election on the platform of "get Brexit done", on which basis one might expect the government's performance in this sphere to be registering prominently in voter's concerns. Instead, the issue has disappeared, almost without trace, barely registering from day-to-day in the legacy media and not at all in Westminster politics.

Interestingly, the Radio Times carries a long article complaining that the BBC has airbrushed the "remainer" argument out of the picture.

Worse still – according to former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger – portraying those who still believe that Brexit would be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK as "undemocratic extremists". They are, Rusbridger says, allowed a voice "only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners".

It might help, though, if the BBC could break away from the dreary binary position of remainers versus Brexiteers, to acknowledge that it is not Brext, per se, that is doing the damage, but Johnson's version of it. But then, the BBC never has been able to manage nuance in this department, and without a lead from Starmer, the bigger complaint is that – like the rest of the legacy media – it has almost completely abandoned the subject.

Here, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the death and funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh has given the media the perfect excuse to abandon Brexit, although any issue at all seems to be more important. In fact, away from the overkill of the headline stories, trivia has taken over as the main preoccupation of the media.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph has just about managed to drag itself away from its in-depth coverage of Colin the Caterpillar vs Cuthbert, Curly and Wiggles, and similar pressing matters, long enough to offer a stilted piece on the outcome of talks between Frost and Maroš Šefcovic over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Talks between officials on the implementation of the new customs arrangements have been going on for a couple of weeks, and "good progress" has been made in that technical work, according to the Commission, although both sides are stressing that significant differences remain and that any breakthrough is some way off.

As to the latest meeting, we are told that this "took place in a constructive, solution-driven atmosphere", which is diplomat-speak for confirming that the parties were restrained from ripping each other's throats out.

But the essential point conveyed is a warning from the Commission to the UK government that any further unilateral action over the Northern Ireland Protocol would be "unacceptable". "Mutually agreed paths towards compliance are key", the Commission says.

Meanwhile, the Commission is warning that it will continue to pursue legal action against the UK "for as long as necessary" over post-Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland.

Illustrating that the UK is not really taking this issue seriously, we learn that border control posts at Northern Ireland's ports will not be ready before 2023 - despite a date of June 2021 having previously been given.

This was disclosed to a Stormont committee by Department of Agriculture permanent secretary Denis McMahon, who has put the projected date of completion at January 2023. Officials will not have final options ready until October 2021 and the Northern Ireland Executive will need to grant approval before any work gets underway. Construction is then expected to take "more than a year".

Perhaps, though, the delay is not such a bad thing. Separately, we are told that cross-border trade in Ireland "has increased dramatically" in 2021. Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO) suggests that in February the value of exports from NI to the Republic of Ireland almost doubled compared to the same month last year. They rose from €145m to €283m, with the Republic's exports to NI up by almost 40 percent from €168m to €232m.

On a year-to-date basis, NI exports to the Republic of Ireland are up 52 percent, with trade the other way increasing by 28 percent. If this continues, and we see a permanent realignment of trade flows, the chances are that there will only be limited need for BCPs at NI ports.

With over 400 financial firms in Britain having shifted activities, 7,400 staff and a combined £1 trillion in assets to hubs in the European Union due to Brexit, with more pain to come, it is interesting to learn that Dublin is the biggest beneficiary of the relocations.

Dublin claims 135 relocations, followed by Paris with 102, Luxembourg 95, Frankfurt 63, and Amsterdam 48. Never let it be said that there are no Brexit benefits. But, so far, Teflon Johnson sails above it all, awash in a sea of trivia.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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