5 things about this week (11 April 2019)

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2019

Is this the way Brexit ends, not with a bang, but a whimper? Last night the EU27 agreed to the UK’s plaintive request for another extension to Article 50, deferring our departure for the second time, this time by six months, to 31 October.

Of course, it’s way too soon to say Brexit has ended. It’s still just about conceivable that the Conservative-Labour cross-party talks will throw up some compromise that can attract 320+ MPs. Nor is it impossible that we won’t still crash out.

But the big thing which happened was this: the EU once again decided not to force the issue. No ultimatum — pass the deal or prepare for no-deal — was delivered. Instead, the EU has gone out of its ways to leave the British with every available option still.

We can revoke, or legislate for a second referendum, or call a general election, or pass Theresa May’s deal, or take our no-deal chances. It’s our call. And if we don’t do any of those things in the next six months, chances are the EU will give us another breather.

I don’t think the EU is being daft. Far from. They must know that taking the pressure off (and also signalling preparedness to do so again in October) means there is even less chance of Theresa May’s deal passing; her hopes of it passing depended on there being an ultimate, crunch moment, when she could scare up a majority by forcing a Hobson’s choice on MPs of her deal or no-deal.

Instead, MPs now know there’s every likelihood of the EU allowing more road to kick the can down, so they can safely put off the day of reckoning in the hope that time will somehow resolve things. And every month, every successive election, we get further away from that June 2016 mandate, it loses its power to enthral MPs.

Will Brexit happen? Perhaps. It’s hard to put it stronger than that. Quite a whimper.

**

Speaking of Brexit, I spoke of Brexit — at last! — with my co-host Mark Pack on our latest Never Mind the Barcharts podcast. After six episodes of skirting round it, I was finally able to get a few things off my chest about my issues with the Lib Dem approach to Brexit…

That the party was the original champion of an in/out EU referendum — the very thing many Remainers lambast David Cameron for initiating — and yet has ever since refused to take responsibility for the outcome (after all, even a People’s Vote would need a Leave ‘deal’ to compete against).

There is something very Lib Dem about always proposing process solutions to knotty issues: a referendum here, a Royal Commission there, constitutional reform everywhere. When I was in local politics, a favourite trick to avoid coming down on side or the other of a contentious issue was to complain about the consultation process instead: it allowed you to take a strong line, without committing. I’m not saying process doesn’t matter: it absolutely does. The problems happen when it becomes your end, not your means.

Anyway, you can listen to Mark and me discuss Newport West, Brexit shenanigans, and the latest Lord Ashcroft polling on the gaps for new parties here:

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The traditional news media by and large has not had a good Brexit. Not just the hard-right, tabloid press, like the Mail (‘Enemies of the people‘) and Telegraph (‘The Brexit mutineers‘). Broadcasters have also struggled, most particularly through their quest for balance leading to false equivalence (perhaps I’m jaded from hearing Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s utterances treated far more seriously by Radio 4’s Today Programme than they merit).

Stung by the criticism, some are now pushing back. An example went viral last weekend. It featured Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewing Conservative Leaver, John Redwood — you can see a minute-long clip here. Mr Redwood makes the claim that “most of the public now actually supports no-deal”; Mr Guru-Murthy jumps in, “That’s just not true, there’s no evidence for that”.

Their exchange left me uneasy. The facts are the easy part: Mr Redwood is wrong. Polls sometimes show a plurality of voters preferring a no-deal Brexit (ie, it’s the most popular option); but to the best of my knowledge none suggests even a bare majority, let alone “most”, of the public supporting it.

But I had two problems with Channel 4’s approach. The first is that, while Mr Redwood’s claim was inaccurate, it’s not an outrageous lie: no-deal is a popular option, occasionally the most popular option with the public. (Whether those who prefer it fully understand the dire consequences is a moot point, not relevant here.) For sure, correct it. But this is not the hill I’d choose to die on.

Secondly, and more importantly, was the manner of Mr Guru-Murthy’s rebuttal: simply repeating “that’s not true” is not a good way to challenge an interviewee, as it leaves the audience none the wiser who’s right unless you are able to prove your case, live on air (which doesn’t happen here). Basically, we’re being asked to choose a side, but not on the basis of any evidence presented by either Messers Redwood or Guru-Murthy.

I don’t have an easy solution. Interviewees will sometimes exaggerate their case in a live interview, whether by design or accident (only they can say). Interviewers should be able to call them out on it, but won’t necessarily have the facts at their fingertips to be able to prove the interviewee wrong in real-time.

It’s a dilemma. My best suggestion would be for interviewers to challenge the assertion and ask for evidence; and then move on by saying “we’ll fact-check it later” and broadcast their conclusions.

**

RIP Bill Heine, the Headington shark’s auteur, one of the few indisputable landmarks east of Oxford’s Magdalen Bridge. It’s in my old council ward, though I met Bill more often at BBC Radio Oxford, where he was a much-loved and distinctive voice.

The Labour council at the time went to great pains in the mid-1980s to have the shark removed, but ultimately it was Michael Heseltine who ruled it could stay. You can read all about it on Stephanie Jenkins’ wonderful all-things-Headngton website.

Bill died of aggressive leukemia — you can read his final article for the Oxford Mail, published just a couple of days before his death, here.

Headington was (and, I expect, still is) replete with celebrities. Those I met in my door-knocking days included Peter Hitchens (very polite to me), sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss (“I’ll vote for you over the bloody socialists”), Claus Moser, Lady (Isaiah) Berlin (she wished me luck), David Marquand (once my boss), and Anne Diamond (met her kids, never her). I miss it.

**

I’m listening to Ian Dunt’s Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?, an admirably clear-sighted analysis of all the problems the UK was likely to face during Article 50 negotiations — and has.

And if you’re not yet sick of Brexit, I’d also recommend The Times’s Red Box Politics Podcast, particularly these two episodes:
Could you have done Brexit better?, not least for its contributions from Chris Wilkins, Theresa May’s former speechwriter — including his point that Theresa May’s fate was sealed the moment she created Liam Fox’s department of international trade, which necessitated quitting the EU Customs Union, from which so many other problems flowed.
Brexit Tamed Live Part Two: The History, with Phillip Collins, Sarah Baxter, Daniel Finkelstein, Iain Martin and David Aaronovitch looking at the UK’s fractious history with the EU.

Finally, I’m really pleased David Olusoga’s fascinating A House Through Time is back on BBC2, this time focusing on the 200-year history of 5 Ravensworth Terrace, a Georgian townhouse on Tyneside. I snooped it on Rightmove and it’s clear the current owners have done an amazing job of renovating it.

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“That’s not the right one, is it?” Milo learning early the disappointment of cover versions

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"That's not the right one, is it?" Milo learning early the disappointment of cover versions

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