We’ve got to the stage with TransEnd (not Brexit) that there’s nothing new to say. Everything that possibly could be said has already been said, so any commentary these days is about picking out paragraphs from previous work, mixing and matching, and then doing a swift copy ‘n’ paste job – hoping the punters don’t see the joins.
It’s a bit like constructing an identikit picture only, instead of a box of face parts (virtual or otherwise), you have boxes of paragraphs and the equivalent of a blur tool to help merge them all together in what passes for a coherent piece. Once it’s been done, it can be left to mature, and then deconstructed, ready for recycling into another piece.
That’s definitely what the Financial Times seems to be doing, the current paragraph assembly giving this week’s variation, with the wheel stopped on “optimism” – hence the bolt-on headline which reads “why hopes are rising that EU and UK could find compromise”.
With next week’s rearrangement, we can wallow in the prospect of an imminent “no-deal”, with the same paragraphs used – only in a different order. And so the game can be played almost infinitely. No one ever remembers what the last piece said, much less the one before that. All that matters is that the system keeps on churning out timely space-fillers to give the appearance of masterful activity.
The truth, of course, is that no-one has the least idea how the transition period is going to end – with a whimper or a bang. But, with only four days left to the end of the month, it’s almost certain that there won’t be an extension – except that there are talks scheduled for 29 June, so there’s always room for a cliff-hanger deal.
There is always a possibility, though – the more cynical of us might say certainty – that the end-of-month talks have been arranged purposely, in order to give a frisson of excitement to a process that rivals paint-drying for tedium.
Right up to the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, those who can be bothered can indulge in “will he, won’t he?” speculation. Those who get it right will be able to claim the laurels of “sayer of the month”. But those who don’t play can stand aside with the special sense of superiority and pretend they knew all along, but didn’t want to spoil the game by saying so.
The safest assumption, of course, is that there won’t be a transition extension, but since Johnson probably hasn’t the first idea what he’s going to do – and is probably struggling to keep tabs on which day of the week it is (wait for Thursday PMQs), the likelihood is that a random guess has as good a chance of winning as any carefully considered analysis.
And that is without taking into account the endless creativity of the “colleagues” to invent non-existent extensions – anything from stopping the clock to inserting “leap weeks” in the calendar. We could even have a virtual, or ghost transition, where the real transition does end, but everybody acts as if it hasn’t.
This is a variation of cartoon physics, where Wile E. Coyote never starts to fall once he’s run off the edge of the cliff, until he looks down and realises that there’s nothing under him. We simply continue with the transition because no one on high tells the officials that it has ended.
One thing of which we can be fairly certain, though, is that any deal struck will be of the de minimis variety, confined largely to tariffs and quotas, linked to basic side-deals on matters such as fishing. Any idea of a comprehensive trade deal is strictly for the birds, unless that nice Mr Barnier has discovered the secret of how to unlock the parallel universe.
That, however, doesn’t stop the tabloids (of all sizes) indulging in their usual binary games, presenting Frost and Barnier as contestants, in the manner of boxers shaping up for a prize fight. But that style of reporting is as boring as it is predictable.
The worst of it is that, once 30 June is past, we have months of emptiness when there will be next-to-nothing to report. With the end-of-lockdown, the silly-season has started early, leaving Westminster politics more vacuous than usual, and the legacy media racing each other to the bottom in their endless pursuit of trivia.
As for Parliament, even when it’s there, it isn’t. I don’t even know when the summer recess starts, but when it does, there will be very few who will notice the difference. Parliamentary democracy, as we know it, has ceased to exist. When this is all over – if it ever is – there will need to be some hard thinking about the role of Parliament, and how it operates.
No one can say, though, that this problem hasn’t been a long time coming. Trawling through Cabinet files, as I have been doing, I stumbled on this one for 15 January 1976 (CAB 128/58).
This had the Lord President (Ted Short) warning that there was “increasing dissatisfaction with the way in which Parliament operated”. Members, he said, “were driven very hard, long hours were worked, and recesses were short, allowing Members insufficient time with their families”.
In particular, Short said, “there was great pressure on Parliamentary time. Debates on EEC matters were now taking up considerable time; it was difficult to fit in general debates; and, despite all efforts, the present Session was now becoming overloaded”.
New and able younger Members were frustrated by what they saw as the absence of a sufficiently constructive role.”‘Unless radical changes were made”, he warned, “there was a danger of Parliament falling into increasing disrepute”.
In his latter prediction, he was not wrong. But it’s taken a long term inability of MPs to address complex issues such as the EEC/EU, combined with “Tory sleaze” and the expenses scandal, all piled onto Brexit. Then along came Covid-19 to sound the death-knell.
When the MPs come back in the Autumn, we may possibly be in the grip of a “second wave” of Covid (although I somehow doubt it), but even if we’re not, things will not be the same amongst the swamp-dwellers. The countdown to TransEnd will be in progress, with very little input from MPs (certainly, as long as Cummings is still in charge).
But in the vacuum of external news, one falls back on one’s own resources. Having spent the best part of the day, toiling in the heat on The Great Deception one takes one’s little victories where one can find the,
When we first wrote the book, the Chapter on Spinelli and his Treaty of the European Union was informed heavily by a lengthy paper, in French, on an obscure, unofficial website. The file was undated, the paper was unpublished and there was no authoritative source identified.
It was a bit of a gamble to use it, but it told the story of how the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaties originated as one treaty. This was split to make the absorption more palatable – another part of the deception. Had the whole lot been presented in one go, it would most likely have been rejected, as Maastricht so nearly was.
At the time I was working in the European Parliament and friendly with Richard Balfe, MEP (who had worked with Spinelli). He assured me it was kosher – so I used the file. I’m glad I did, because it enabled Booker and I to tell the story in a way that no English language book has.
Working on the update. I found that the original website no longer exists, which ostensibly presents me with quite a serious problem if my source can’t be verified. Fortunately, though, with a little bit of trawling, I’ve found the paper. It’s here: