The Brexit update, with shampoo

We’ll get to the shampoo, but first let’s wade through enough bullshit to get our hair nicely dirty. To wit:

The British government told a Scottish court that it would ask the European Union for a Brexit delay if it can’t reach deal by October 19. 

Why is that bullshit and why do they feel the need to talk to a court it? Because a group of Remain activists filed a lawsuit to require the government to follow the Benn Act, which says the government has to ask for the extension. The Remainers didn’t go to court because the winter nights are long in Scotland. It’s still fall–or Autumn, as they like to say in Britain–and even that far north they have enough daylight left to keep them from going to court for the sake of entertainment. No, they went because Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than stay in the EU after October 31. And he’s still saying more or less the same thing. (#deadinaditch is trending on Twitter in case you really are bored.)

How can he ask for an extension and still leave on October 31? 

Well, a government statement says, “The government will comply with the Benn Act, which only imposes a very specific narrow duty concerning Parliament’s letter requesting a delay–drafted by an unknown subset of MPs and pro-EU campaigners–and which can be interpreted in different ways.

“But the government is not prevented by the Act from doing other things that cause no delay, including other communications, private and public.

“People will have to wait to see how this is reconciled. The government is making its true position on delay known privately in Europe and this will become public soon.”

What does that means? The government seems to think it has a get-out-of-jail-free card up its sleeve. Or a get-out-of-extension card–one that will let them follow the letter of the Benn Act but avoid the substance of it.

To underline that interpretation, a Brexiteer MP, Steve Baker, said “All this means is that government will obey the law. It does not mean we will extend. It does not mean we will stay in the EU beyond 31 October. We will leave.”

On Twitter, someone who may or may not know anything is speculating that they’re counting on Hungary to veto an extension. Does that make any sense. Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t usually look to Twitter for political punditry, but I was looking at the general wise-acreness at #deadinaditch.

In the meantime, the court’s being asked if Johnson can be jailed if he doesn’t comply with the law. 

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

Just before all that kicked off, Johnson sent a proposed withdrawal deal to the European Union. We’re going to skip the details of how it was supposed to work, because the EU said it was unworkable, making the details pretty much irrelevant. In diplomatic language, they were “unconvinced” by it. In less diplomatic language, it wasn’t “even remotely workable.”

Every Brexit plan that’s drawn breath seems to have been cursed, which might tell us something about the practicality of leaving the EU. Theresa May–Johnson’s ill-fated predecessor–negotiated an agreement that the EU accepted but that couldn’t find a majority in the House of Commons. The odds of Johnson getting EU agreement to this one are roughly equal to my chances of winning the London marathon, but if he did, it just might get a majority in parliament. 

Emphasis on might

But without EU agreement, there’s no deal to bring to the Commons, so it doesn’t matter which way MPs would vote.

The main focus of any proposal these days is how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not because that’s the only issue that matters but because it might make the difference between a majority in the Commons and no majority. Everything else, important as it is, is being ignored.

Having said that, the border does matter. Opening it was a key part of ending the Troubles–the violence in Northern Ireland that ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The last watchpost on the Irish border was dismantled in 2006. The border’s been invisible since then, and the two economies have grown into each other and separating them–if it happens–will be painful. 

But an open border depends on the countries on both sides trading under the same regulations, otherwise you get stuff that meets lower standards slipping into the area where higher standards are in force. In other words, you get smuggling. Or your higher standards become meaningless. Or both. To date, no one’s figured out a politically viable way to get around that.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the Johnson plan was unworkable and unpalatable and that Johnson hadn’t listened to businesses. And Northern Ireland’s chief constable has said his force wouldn’t staff any form of border security. 

Where the plan has gained support is from the Democartic Unionist Party–the DUP, a small party that first May and now Johnson have courted because they’ve needed their votes.

The plan would have the Northern Ireland Assembly (generally called Stormont, since that’s where it meets) voting on whether to renew the border arrangement every four years. The first problem here is that Stormont hasn’t met since 2017. Like everything else involved in Brexit, that’s a complicated and interesting story, and we’re not going into it. Follow the link if you want to know more.

The next problem is that the Irish government and Sinn Fein have said the proposal would give the DUP veto power over whether to renew the agreement. To make sense of that, you need to know the structure of the Stormont assembly. In a country deeply split between Protestants and Catholics, it seemed to make sense to set up a mechanism that allowed a relatively small number of delegates to say that a bill is sensitive enough to need a two-thirds majority if it’s to pass. In a perfect world, this would keep either side from bulldozing the other.

You probably haven’t noticed this, but this is not a perfect world. For Johnson’s plan, it means that either of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, could block a renewal or the border arrangement. Since Sinn Fein wouldn’t (it would mean aligning Northern Ireland more heavily with Britain and breaking its integration with Ireland), that leaves the DUP alone with veto power. 

The DUP has used the two-thirds rule to block same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. I don’t know what Sinn Fein has used it for. 

The DUP and Sinn Fein have the same number of delegates in the assembly. They’re ringed by eight smaller parties that float around them like the dust of broken moons. Nobody has a two-thirds majority.

Or–well, move that into the past tense, since the assembly’s stopped meeting.

The EU has called on the British government to publish the complete text of its plan, because the Irish prime minister says Johnson has misled parliament over the impact it would have. So far, the government has published a no more than a summary. 

The EU gave Britain a week to come up with new solutions to the problems it says are inherent in the current plan. 

And now, at last, the shampoo: Johnson had planned a quick tour of Europe to hold meetings with assorted Important People, but everyone who matters told him they’ll be washing their hair and won’t have time to meet with him. So there are scheduling problems. 

Is anything else happening? Well, yes. It’s gotten lost in the mayhem, but it looks like Johnson will try–again–to suspend parliament on Tuesday. To prepare for the queen’s speech. Which is what he said last time. It’ll be interesting to see if Madge (as our neighbor likes to call her majesty) is as agreeable as she was last time he asked. If he doesn’t get her agreement, he can’t suspend parliament. Since she asked for advice about sacking a prime minister the last time he asked her for a suspension, a person could reasonably get the impression that she’s not happy with the current one.

Madge, here’s how it works: You take him to the returns desk and explain that he doesn’t fit. Or he shrank in the wash. Or the color turns out not to match the rug. They’ll ask if you’d like to exchange him or if you want your money back. They’ll be nice about it. You’re the queen. They don’t usually see queens at the returns desk. Of course they’ll be nice.

If, on the other hand, you ordered him online, you’ll need the box he came in. If he doesn’t fit, just bundle it around him as best you can.

Anything else happening? Of course. It never ends. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru–not a small fringe group but the party that came second the most recent election–just held its conference and is calling for a referendum on independence, holding out the prospect of joining the EU. Its leader, Adam Price, said, “The UK as we know it could cease to exist in a short few years.” 

He has also called on the UK to pay reparations for–I’m paraphrasing or I’ll be up all night typing–looting Welsh resources.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the EU parliament’s Brexit steering group, somehow got his mitts on a leaked script given to a Conservative MP by his or her party. The Guardian wrote that it “instructed them to attack the EU as ‘crazy’ if it rejected [Johnson’s] proposals.” 

He went public with it. 

Who could resist?

And finally, Johnson’s announced that he’s scrapping Theresa May’s commitment to keep EU rules on the environment, working rights, and safety standards. It’ll make it easier to negotiate a deal with the US.

That’s all we’ve got as of Friday night. I’m going to bed before anything else can happen. If I’m asleep, it didn’t happen.

*

Update: Saturday morning’s paper (that’s Oct. 5) reports that Johnson says there’ll be no delay to Brexit. Government lawyers say he’ll follow the law and ask for an extension. Online stories say the law “only imposes narrow [duties]…which can be interpreted in different ways.” He may be negotiating with Hungary to get it to veto an extension.

What happens next? Good question.