Brexit Watch — A dialogue of the deaf

The chances of anything coming from Mars, as anyone who remembers Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds will tell you, were a million to one — and we know what happened next. So perhaps Prime Minister Boris Johnson was channelling his inner Richard Burton when he told the country in July that those were the odds against a no-deal Brexit, only to do a sharp u-turn a few weeks later and say that it was now “touch and go” whether or not a Brexit deal would be possible.

This about turn rather summed up the summer weeks when the new Prime Minister largely had the stage to himself with most politicians — UK and EU — on holiday. Only Whitehall’s special advisers were denied leave as Mr Johnson’s right-hand man — Vote Leave mastermind Dominic Cummings — ordered them to work around the clock to ensure that the UK could leave on 31 October without a deal. This was definitely going to happen, the Prime Minister said repeatedly, and he was not prepared to talk to EU leaders until they had abandoned the Irish back-stop. In the event, they refused but he went to see them anyway.

Do we need a back-stop?

The Schleswig-Holstein question, you will not need reminding, was so famously convoluted that Lord Palmerston said only three people properly understood it and one of them was dead. It seems possible that the Irish backstop will become the 21st century equivalent of the famous 19th century diplomatic row. Somehow an issue that was never mentioned during the referendum campaign has become the rock on which any possibility of an amicable arrangement between the UK and the EU will founder. Discussions between the Prime Minister and the leaders of France and Germany, when they did finally happen, seemed to be a case of him repeatedly saying that the backstop was undemocratic and them repeating that something had to protect the integrity of the Union’s Single Market and so far nobody has come up with a better idea.

Vorsprung durch Technik

But there is a better idea, Mr Johnson insisted — alternative arrangements using modern technology. In July, before he became Prime Minister, Mr Johnson hailed as brilliant a 100-page report by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC), which has examined the use of, for example, mobile units away from the Irish border, AEO (Authorised Economic Operator) schemes and Special Economic Zones. Chaired by Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, the group suggested in its interim report (available at that such arrangements could be fully in place within three years after Brexit. This may be why the Prime Minister failed to mention it when the German Chancellor suggested that he had 30 days to produce a workable alternative to the backstop.

Porky pies

Buoyed by the fact that neither leader had dismissed his rather nebulous proposals out of hand, the Prime Minister then moved on to the G7 summit in Biarritz, where he had a cheerleader in the United States President, Donald Trump. A keen supporter of Brexit, Mr Trump made it clear that as soon as the UK had thrown off the European shackles he was ready to do a trade deal with Mr Johnson. This ignored earlier warnings that any future US-UK trade deal would almost certainly be blocked by Congress if Brexit affects the Irish border and jeopardises peace in Northern Ireland (back to the back-stop?).

Fortunately the notoriously short-tempered President seemed not to notice when the topic of pork pies arose during Mr Johnson’s comments on this possible post-Brexit free trade deal with the US. He spoke about trying to "prise open the American market" by removing restrictions on UK exports and, offering an example of an American trade restriction, said: "Melton Mowbray pork pies, which are sold in Thailand and in Iceland, are currently unable to enter the US market because of, I don't know, some sort of food and drug administration restriction.” These pies are exported to Thailand and Iceland, he went on, but kept out of the US by red tape. However the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association said the pies were not exported to those countries either. Downing Street said that they were — by producer Walker & Son. The company denied it.

Any European politicians listening to this bizarre exchange were presumably too polite to mention that the EU gave Melton Mowbray pork pies a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) 12 years ago. Not only can the pies be sold throughout the Union, therefore, but the name cannot be used by any other manufacturer. The protected food name scheme highlights regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed. “The EU will only give a product the PGI mark if they decide it has a reputation, characteristics or qualities that are a result of the area it’s associated with,” Defra said, welcoming the award when it was made.

Queues, fuel shortages and potential disease outbreaks

If a document obtained by the Sunday Times in mid-August proves to be correct then Melton Mowbray pork pies won’t be going very far after a no-deal Brexit, and nor will most other foodstuffs. The classified “Yellowhammer report” suggested that the UK faces shortages of fuel, food and medicine and ports such as Dover could see a “three-month meltdown”. Compiled by the Cabinet Office, the report said that businesses and the public remain largely unprepared for the shocks that will follow a no-deal Brexit. Its source told the Sunday Times: “This is not Project Fear — this is the most realistic assessment of what the public face with no deal.”

The Government immediately put up Michael Gove, the man in charge of Brexit preparations, to rebut its own report. It had, he said, probably been leaked by a bitter ex-minister (possibly true, but irrelevant as everyone was more worried about the content than the source). Furthermore, he continued, it was only a set of worst case scenarios (not true, as the document makes clear it is referring to “likely, basic, reasonable scenarios”). And finally, Mr Gove insisted, this is old stuff and we are now much better prepared (again untrue, the report was no more than two weeks old).

Despite the report citing greater risks of disease because of delays in obtaining vital medicines, up to 85% of lorries travelling to France not being ready for new customs rules and disruption to the UK’s hugely valuable financial services sector, within two weeks, attention had moved elsewhere.

Enter the Queen

Indeed the possibility of food shortages faded into insignificance as the Prime Minister’s next move was described as “profoundly undemocratic” (former Chancellor Philip Hammond), “dangerous and unacceptable” (Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson), “acting like a dictator” (SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford) and “a constitutional outrage” (Speaker John Bercow). Mr Johnson had successfully interrupted the Queen’s summer holiday at Balmoral to request that she agree to prorogue Parliament, meaning that it would be suspended barely a week after MPs return in September from their summer recess and remain closed until 14 October. At this point, they would return to hear the Queen’s Speech, setting out Mr Johnson’s domestic agenda for the months ahead.

Supporters of Boris Johnson argue that prorogation is perfectly normal when a Prime Minister wants to end the old session of Parliament and present his new plan of work. Indeed, they point out, this one is long overdue as this present Parliament has been sitting since the June 2017 election. Opponents argue that the timing is clearly meant to reduce to a minimum the days available to those in Parliament who want to take action to prevent the UK leaving the EU with no deal. It also means that a Prime Minister who has so far faced just one day’s questioning in the House would have to put up with very few more before Brexit.

More than one person has pointed to the irony of a leave campaign fought largely on the need to return sovereignty to Parliament from Brussels and one of its leading lights, Mr Johnson, then seemingly responsible for stopping MPs being able to play their full democratic part in the Brexit process. Former Prime Minister Sir John Major said he had no doubt Mr Johnson's motive was to "bypass a sovereign Parliament that opposes his policy on Brexit", and he would continue to seek legal advice. Meanwhile, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said the move was a “completely proper constitutional procedure.” The decision was also welcomed by Brexit Party MEP Alex Phillips, by President Trump and by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster.

Whatever next?

Mr Johnson’s opponents could still try to push through legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit in the limited time available; or they could put forward a vote of no confidence to try to bring the Prime Minister down. It is even possible that he would like them to do so, as he could then fight a general election seeking the support of the public against a ”Remainer Parliament”. A general election before Christmas? Not quite a racing certainty but certainly not a million to one chance.