A pulse in the eternal mind



The Brexit talks are stuck in the mud, the Cabinet are squabbling and Conference is coming up. Time to take control. Time, obviously, to hire a church in Florence and make a speech to Europe.

By all accounts, it was a very long speech (https://blogs.spectator.co.uk>Coffee House) and boring enough to send even Eurocrats to sleep. Not that there were many. Davis, Johnson and Hammond sat in the front row and the rest was mostly media. The Mayor of Florence was courteously present, and wore a sash, which was the most interesting event of the day. The cost to the taxpayer of this unnecessary jaunt has not been disclosed.

The Prime Minister said almost nothing she had not said before. The most important difference was that the combativeness had gone. (Well, it hadn’t worked very well, had it?) Europe was informed that we now wanted a two-year transition period after March 2019, during which we would remain in the single market and customs union and be subject to the ECJ.

Since the UK must have a transition period to avoid complete meltdown and this is the price the EU puts on it, that is only an admission of the obvious. However, it is the first time the Prime Minister has been able to accept the obvious, so it’s a step forward.

She also expressed herself willing to pay into the EU budget during those two years so that “our friends” would not be out of pocket because we’re leaving. The sum of £18 billion has been mentioned. So far, so sensible, but it doesn’t bite into the amount we owe from past commitments. May was ambiguous about this, saying we will honour them. Which of them? All of them? Small but vital words are missing. We might honour just a few past commitments that we feel like stepping up for.

And she made a concession on the rights of EU citizens. It is embarrassing that it had to be made at all. She undertook to write legal protections for them into the exit treaty; this is so that their rights could not subsequently be changed by a malign British government. But, crucially, she did not say what rights. The Government has laid out its proposals for EU citizens’ rights after Brexit and the EU considers them insufficient. So there isn’t much point offering to write them into law.

On the Irish border, the third of the three issues on which agreement has to be reached before the talks move on, the Prime Minister said nothing new. She cannot, because the government has no idea how to solve this problem now that the EU has dismissed its fairy border as a nonsense. She committed herself, again, to squaring the circle, and hoped the EU would help us out a bit.

The careful warmth with which the EU has welcomed Mrs May’s speech is reminiscent of the tone of doctors around a sickbed. The patient has moved a limb: ah! the patient is still alive! May has done the minimum that could have been done to prevent the talks from dying of inertia – but a week ago it wasn’t certain there would be even that much deliverance. A week ago, we were reeling from Boris.

His 4,200-word article in the Telegraph (16 September) came out of the blue; the Prime Minister had not been consulted about it. That in itself was a sackable offence, according to several senior Westminster figures. A seriously aggravating offence was that it was published six days before her speech in Florence. Also, of course, Boris’s ideas on Brexit are not the Prime Minister’s, and the article was entirely about Brexit, insofar as it was not about Boris.

Why did he do it? He’s been quiet for a long time, and one assumes it was not by his choice. He likes limelight, and got it. For days the story was Boris, Boris’s article, Boris and the £350 million, when it was supposed to be about Theresa’s forthcoming speech. She was in Canada by then, talking up a trade deal with Trudeau, after which she was at the UN. But then Boris had to go to New York too, at which point she collared him and made him fly home with her, to attend a Cabinet meeting whose agenda had suddenly expanded.

The initial consensus was that he had miscalculated, and had had to back down. But there was no agreement as to what he had wanted. To be noticed, naturally. To destabilise, almost certainly. But, to be Prime Minister? “He is behaving and speaking and acting strangely,” remarked Irish politician Phil Hogan, the EU’s agriculture commissioner, to the Standard, and ITV’s Robert Peston said, “I cannot shake off the notion that his recent behaviour is that of someone who just wants out – and perhaps even he does not quite know why.”

These commentators may be off the mark, but they nail a quality that is strange in the article, a sense of a man not fully certain where he is going, or what he wants, or even who he is. It is an extravagant and noisy piece, fizzing with ego, the authentic voice of Boris. It is chock-full of misleading and untrue statements. It is a fanfare for a fantasy, and the fantasy is the glorious future the country will have after Brexit. But it seems to be not quite under his control. It lurches. There is a hint of madness in it. Every now and then the fantasy breaks down and reality asserts itself. It can’t be acknowledged, of course, so it presents itself in disguise.

So in para 2 we get:

“They [the Brexit-sceptics] think that the Brexit bill will simply get lost in a House of Commons crevasse or buried in some interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal proceedings. They think that we will simply despair of finding our way out of the EU and sit down on the floor and cry – like some toddler lost in the maze at Hampton Court.”

The image of the Cabinet sitting on the floor of the House in tears is wonderfully funny but also, I’d have thought, too close for comfort. For they are lost, and it is a maze, and often there doesn’t seem to be a grown up in sight. As for Jarndyce v Jarndyce (Bleak House), he would have been wiser to avoid it. It was a case in Chancery concerning the inheritance of a vast estate, went on for generations, was “so complicated that no man alive knows what it means,” and by the time it was settled the entire estate had been swallowed up in legal fees.

Moving to para 4, we find:

“Those 17.4 million people – they weren’t fools, you know. They weren’t stupid. They weren’t as bad as some would have you believe.”

What? Yes, he is saying it. Or the second person inside his head is.

The 17.4 million leads him to talk about the “mandate,” and this leaves a dangerous thread hanging. What exactly was that “mandate” for? It’s at this point that the first big lie is told. “Before the referendum, we all agreed on what leaving the EU logically must entail…”

No, Boris, we did not, and that is exactly what the fuss is about.

[It entailed] …“leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the European Court of Justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws.”

There is so much that’s untrue here that one doesn’t know where to begin. So one reads on, with a mental shrug. And comes to:

“This country still has chronic problems, and at least some of them have been exacerbated by the rigidities of EU membership.” This statement is followed by: “Our infrastructure is too expensive”; “successive governments have failed to build enough homes”; “our vocational training is… not inspirational”; “we do not conduct enough basic research in science”.

These failings, he concludes, are the cause of our low productivity. But none of them is the fault of the EU.

The pervasive dishonesty of the article is laced with exultation at what Britain has done to impede Europe and with slurs on the loyalty of youthful Britons who paint stars on their faces. Sometimes he seems to have lost his bearings completely, as when he describes the UK diaspora as “a pulse in the eternal mind.” But in the middle of all it is the lie for which he became famous: the £350 million.

It never was £350 million, it is not even £250 million if you subtract from it the subsidies the EU pays for agriculture and other sectors in the UK economy, but still Boris pulls it back brazenly into the ring as the sum which “we will take back control of.” And “it would be a fine thing… if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This time it wasn’t just Farage who backed away. Most of the media shouted “Liar!” and the head of the UK Statistics Authority rebuked Boris for misuse of official statistics. Boris was unapologetic and there was a high-level spat.

So, again, what did he want? Murmurs before May’s speech became articulate later: he’d wanted to derail the version of Brexit that was in the speech, and he succeeded. She wanted the Norway option, keeping the UK in the single market; in the speech she rejected it. She wanted a transition period of up to five years: in the speech she asked for two. Downing Street denies all of this – naturally. The weakness of the Prime Minister cannot be admitted.

But on Sunday 24th the Telegraph reported that Boris was in open revolt over the compromise. He wants the UK not to accept rulings from the EU during the transition period, and to be able to sign trade deals. That means leaving the customs union.

There is war in the Cabinet.

The party conference starts in a week’s time.

You are specifically considered a person liable to removal


When the Lords began to debate the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which the Government feared it might try to sabotage, Theresa May exercised her right to sit on the steps of the throne and observe. Her expression said, “Don’t you dare.”

They did dare, but it availed them nothing. The miserable scrap of legislation to which our future was consigned got through unamended in the only place that mattered. The photograph of the Prime Minister perched on the regal step went round the globe and told the story of what Britain under her government was becoming: tense, watchful, repressive, interested solely in the outcome, never the proceedings.

A few weeks ago Dr Eva Joanna Holmberg, a Finnish historian married to a UK citizen and working on secondment from the University of Helsinki, received a letter from the Home Office. It said, “You are specifically considered a person liable to administrative removal under regulation 23(6)(a) as you have failed to evidence that you are exercising Treaty rights in the United Kingdom.”

Dr Holmberg telephoned the Home Office, was referred from one phone line to another, and in the end hired a lawyer.

The Home Office had sent out 100 such letters to EU citizens, telling them they must pack their bags and leave within a month. It subsequently admitted its mistake and is said to have reimbursed the letters’ recipients for the legal expenses many of them incurred. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened. Stories of similar letters being sent to EU citizens who were unwise enough to apply for the right to remain in the UK had been surfacing ever since the Brexit vote.

To say it was a “mistake” is not an explanation. How could such a mistake have been made in an organisation that understood the law as it currently relates to EU citizens? They have a right to be here until March 2019. Everyone in the building must know that.

Clearly the letters had already been drawn up, and one presumes they were sent out when someone pressed the wrong key on a computer. But doesn’t anyone check what goes out? And for what contingency were they drawn up? The language is not just bureaucratic and inhuman: it is chilling. The “specifically” is truly frightening. This is no way to address the citizens of a friendly country who have been working here and paying their taxes. This is the way you might address a population you wish, if possible, to remove from the face of the earth.

There is much about the Home Office that is baffling. Why, for instance, when it has long had the power to send EU migrants home after three months in the UK if they do not have a job, has it never done so? I heard a Government spokesman repeatedly dodge that question from a BBC interviewer last week. I was unaware the Home Office had that power. So, I would bet, were most people. Is it conceivable, I wondered, that the Home Office was unaware it had that power? Is it possible it knew it had it but was unable to exercise it? (Why?) Is it – a darker thought, I have them sometimes – possible that it knew it had it, could have exercised it, but chose not to? Again, why? – but the answer in this case is surely not innocent.

Again, how can it possibly have believed the number of overseas students who overstayed their visas to be in the region of 100,000 when it turns out to be roughly 1% of that? 100,000 was indeed the estimate of the National Office of Statistics, and how that office came up with such rubbish is another good question, unless it got it from the Home Office in the first place, which, given that the N.O.S. is a Government entity, is entirely possible. If it didn’t, and since the number of overseas students is part of the Home Office’s core business, you would have expected it to find the figure rather high and check it, wouldn’t you?

But no, you would expect it to know. Why did it have to accept a figure from the National Office of Statistics? Why didn’t it have its own records?

And here we come to a curious and important point, which probably also explains the failure to send unemployed migrants home after three months. The Home Office doesn’t keep records of immigrants entering the country. It relies on guesswork and something called airport surveys, presumably supplemented by the Tarot.

The courts, which do know how to count, say that approximately 48,000 overseas students have wrongly been sent home without completing their courses – “in some cases sacrificing a lifetime of earnings and borrowings from a poor family” (Vince Cable, quoted in The Independent, 27 July).

And since the Home Office has proved so hysterical about numbers of overstaying students, so inept at policing unemployed immigrants and so clueless about who is allowed to be here and who is not, would you expect it to be a reliable witness about the effect of immigration on wages and employment? No, and you would be right. When Vince Cable was Business Secretary, he saw no less than nine academic studies which showed that the effect of immigration on wages and employment was negligible (The Independent, 6 Sept.)

The studies were suppressed by Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time. “The results were inconvenient,” said Mr Cable.

What is it with Theresa May and the Home Office? Other ministers are given a department, serve for a few years at the head of it, and then move on. Theresa May has not moved on: she has taken the Home Office with her. Her refusal, as Prime Minister, to budge on the inclusion of overseas students in the immigration total, her silence on the true numbers who overstay their visas, her continued suppression of the reports Vince Cable saw, are only a few indications of how completely she has identified with the Home Office’s goals and culture.

She is extremely reluctant to distance herself from her former Department, however incompetent its behaviour and however thuggish its methods. When she moved to Downing Street she took her two Home Office policy advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, with her, and only the debacle of the general election campaign forced her to part with them.

It is as if she found something in the Home Office that complemented her personality. In its repressiveness she found reassurance, in its narrowness comfort, in the rigidity of its categories of inclusion/exclusion a certainty that steadied her. For she needs steadying: she vacillates, which is why she has to be inflexible.

Yet all of this does not explain the obsession with immigration, which, after all, is only one of the Home Office’s concerns. It does not explain why nine academic studies had to be suppressed because they were inconvenient.

On 16 March the London Review of Books published an illuminating piece by David Runciman, “Do your Homework.” It is partly an essay and partly a review of a biography of Theresa May.1 It said some remarkable things:

[May] “takes a position and then she sticks to it… Many of the positions she adopts are ones she has inherited, seeing no option but to make good on other people’s promises.

“…She came into a department that was pre-committed by the Conservative manifesto to bringing immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’… Her colleagues, including Cameron, didn’t seem to have thought about whether this was a realistic target and assumed that if it wasn’t it would have to be fudged. May had no intention of fudging it, to the increasing consternation of the people who had landed her with the task. It is far from clear she believed it was a good policy. That wasn’t the issue. It was now her policy and she would see it through.

“…Unnervingly, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that her embrace of a hard Brexit, prioritising control of immigration over membership of the single market, is her way of finally completing the task.”

Those paragraphs explain a great deal, but not all. You may, if you believe immigration is at a dangerous level, sacrifice everything to bringing the numbers down; but if evidence emerges that the danger and the damage have been greatly exaggerated… then why go on pretending that the situation is worse than you know it to be?

The Home Office is paranoid: that is apparent. That is why it is so ready to believe nonsense. It’s not hard to see how in a large organisation there would be opposing currents, sections working in ignorance of what other sections were doing, and so on. It’s not impossible to see how, collectively, a sort of willed paranoia could develop.

But Theresa May is an individual. An individual, surely, is not capable of willed paranoia, which is a conscious desire to believe oneself to be persecuted while knowing one is not.

Why did she suppress those studies?

To whom were they “inconvenient”?

We ought to know the answer. She was running the Home Office when she put them in a locked drawer. Now she’s running the country.


1 Theresa May: the Enigmatic Prime Minister, by Rosa Prince. Biteback, Feb. 2017


The height of pavements


In the spring Theresa May called a general election she didn’t have to call, because she thought it would consolidate her power. She needs to be in control of things. She miscalculated, and lost her overall majority. She shored it up again with a hefty bung to a Northern Ireland party mainly known, on this side of the water, for its bigotry. She doesn’t really care, as long as she hangs on.

Now the selection of MPs to sit on a little-known House of Commons committee is due. It has nine members. Before it was dissolved prior to the general election, five of these were Conservative, three Labour and one SNP. The numbers at the time reflected a Conservative majority. The Conservatives no longer have a majority. They are clinging to power thanks to their grubby deal with the DUP. Obviously the composition of the new Committee must take account of this. Mustn’t it?

But Theresa May needs to be in control.

The obscure committee whose membership comes up for consideration this month is the Committee of Selection. It does what its name implies. It nominates the MPs who will sit on the House of Commons select and standing committees. Commons committees review Government legislation and they are powerful. One of them, I notice, is the Committee on Statutory Instruments. It is in its remit to “draw to the special attention of the House” any Statutory Instrument as to which “there appears to be doubt about whether there is power to make it,” or that “its drafting appears to be defective.”

A statutory instrument is secondary or delegated legislation (an Act of Parliament is primary legislation), and it offers Government a quick means of getting business through the House: there is less debate, less scrutiny. Statutory instruments are not very democratic but, as the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, remarks in an outspoken lecture, Ceding Power to the Executive (2016),1 it is not in the interests of democracy to get clogged up with matters like the height of pavements, either.

But now we have Brexit, a very tight time-frame and an obsessionally-controlling Prime Minister. And a Bill has come before the House for its second reading which, short of a declaration of war, could not be more important.  It is the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, otherwise known as the Repeal Bill, of which the first clause is, “The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”

This repeal will drop the UK into a legal abyss, because it renders null all EU legislation which is incorporated into British law, and there is very great deal of it. The remainder of the Bill is therefore devoted to closing up the abyss. The first step is to transfer or copy all the relevant EU law into UK law. Roughly half the Bill is taken up with detailing how this is to be done (it is complicated; there are many categories of EU legislation and they have been incorporated into, or given effect in, British law in different ways).

The problem then arises that much of the transferred law will not work, because it is linked to an EU institution with which the UK no longer has a relationship. Means have to be found, therefore, of amending the “deficient” law so that it continues to be workable. This will be done through statutory instruments. They will allow ministers to alter the legislation to make it fit for purpose, without trying to push an enormous number of new Bills through Parliament.

There are two types of procedure for doing this: in the Affirmative procedure, both Houses must approve the statutory instrument; in the Negative procedure, it becomes law without a debate or vote, but it may be annulled by a Resolution of either House (however, this has not happened since 1979). Parliament cannot amend an S.I.

The Repeal Bill sets out which categories of legislation will be subject to the Affirmative procedure and which to the Negative. This sounds obscure but it matters very much: over the “Negative” regulations, which are not debated or voted on, Parliament will have almost no control. They are known as “Henry VIII powers.” It appears that most of the legislation will be of this kind. The Bill thus hands discretion and control to Government ministers over a vast quantity of law-making.

It is estimated that about 1,000 S.I.s will need to be created.  A major revolt, which may include some Tory MPs, is brewing over the Bill, which comes to the vote on Monday night (September 11).  There is a shocking discrepancy between, on the one hand, the task the Government has set itself and the means that would be appropriate to performing that task (full debate in  both Houses), and the means the Government is actually proposing to use. Statutory instruments are very well suited to determining the height of pavements: they are not suited to determining workers’ or consumers’ rights, or overturning or curtailing major legislation formerly passed under full legal safeguards by the EU and incorporated by Act of Parliament into British law.

The Government is relying on the fact that the “Henry VIII powers” are unchallenged. The name has been much bandied about; it makes picturesque a dry and difficult subject, and it is, in its peculiar way, convincing. We all know what kind of monarch Henry VIII was, and when we read that a Henry VIII clause is one which enables the Government to repeal or amend an Act of Parliament through secondary legislation, with little or no Parliamentary scrutiny, we are not a bit surprised. An Act that Proclamations made by the King shall be obeyed was the no-nonsense title of Thomas Cromwell’s Bill put before the Commons in 1539.

Well, that’s that, then, one might conclude. We should have got rid of the things by now, of course, but we don’t always remember to throw out the rubbish. It’s part of being British.

We did throw it out, actually. The Act was repealed immediately after Henry’s death in 1547. In any case, an admirably robust Commons amended it to such an extent that by the time it came before the Lords it merely gave statutory force to matters which already fell within the royal prerogative. “What we call Henry VIII clauses were no such thing,” says Lord Judge in his 2016 lecture. “They were no more than a wish list. The King’s proclamation could not change existing laws, in particular could not alter any Act of Parliament.” (My italics.)

So why are we stuck with them? Lord Judge does not answer this, and perhaps the answer lies in the national psyche. They survived in the woodwork, but for centuries were used with extreme caution. Then suddenly, in the 20th century, something changed. “What was once a small stream of delegated legislation in 1929,” says Lord Judge, “has become an inundation. Since 1950… some 170,000 statutory instruments … have been laid before Parliament. In that time 17 have been rejected by one or other House… It is one in ten thousand, 0.01%… It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Parliamentary processes are virtually habituated to approve them.”

S.I.s have become a flood because they are so extremely convenient to Government. This is not just a power-grab, although it is that as well. It’s that there isn’t enough time. Many S.I.s come before House committees rather than the Chamber, but the committees don’t have enough time, either. “If [the Commons] worked twenty-four hours a day for every day of the year there would still not be enough time” (Lord Judge).

Thus, Brexit has landed us with yet another intolerable trade-off. This one is between time and democracy. “There is no alternative to a Repeal Bill if the Government plans to deliver Brexit”, says Joelle Brogan in a blog for the LSE website.2 “However, the expediency of the Henry VIII powers … to remedy and prevent ‘deficiencies’ in the law …does not and never should be to the sacrifice of individual rights and the rule of law.”

Individual rights go to the heart of it, for many objectors to the Bill. Corbyn focuses on workers’ rights such as paid leave, health and safety protections and parental leave. More than 70 NGOs, trades unions and charities, including Amnesty, Liberty and the Friends of the Earth, have joined a formal alliance to scrutinise the Bill. The environment is felt to be particularly at risk (Defra estimates that 80% of its activities are affected by EU law).

Many MPs are angry, too, that the Bill explicitly denies any role to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, a removal which “substantively weakens the protection of rights in the UK,” says Joelle Grogan. And there are the devolved administrations, to which the Bill devotes much attention (basically, it tells them there is nothing they can do about it). Many powers which will be “repatriated” from Brussels by the Bill are devolved powers, but the Bill will not return them to the devolved administrations, it will return them to Westminster.

The battle in the Commons is under way. David Davis has reassured critics that important legislation will be debated. He points out the sunset clause of two years on the Henry VIII powers. He demands that MPs “respect the will of the people.”

Meanwhile Amber Rudd, Leader of the House, has tabled a motion that would ensure the Government has a majority on all standing committees. It proposes to change the rules so that “where a committee has an odd number of members, the Government shall have a majority.” This would effectively get around the Committee of Selection and make sure the Government’s legislation on Brexit could not be challenged by any of the Parliamentary committees.

It is reported in the Independent (September 9) that this plan was hatched immediately after May’s failure to get a majority at the general election, and that the DUP’s support for it was secretly agreed as part of the DUP deal with the Government.

The motion comes up for a vote on Tuesday evening.



2 blogs.lse.ac.uk/…/07/…/legislation-that-is-and-is-not-the-deeply-problematic-repeal-bill



A modest proposal




Goodness knows what it took, but it’s done. The Labour Party has made up its mind.

Up to a point. It still hasn’t said what kind of Brexit it wants. Presumably that is still being argued about. What it proposes is that any deal should only come into force after an interim period of up to four years. All parties now accept the need for such a period, although four years is too long for the Tories. But the important part of the Labour proposal is that during this transition things will carry on just as they are now. The UK will stay in the single market. It will stay in the customs union.

Common sense has triumphed. Two cheers for Keir Starmer, who got the policy through shadow cabinet. One cheer for Corbyn, for letting it through.

Does this sound grudging? Common sense appears to be a wonderful achievement only in the most dismal of contexts, but Labour’s performance for the past 18 months in relation to Brexit has been worse than dismal, it has been a betrayal of the electorate. If the party has now started to rise to the challenge, this is the bare minimum that is required. The great merit of it is that the first step it has taken is in the right direction. It might, Heaven help us, have been the wrong one.

Interestingly, it finds itself in step with Guy Verhofstadt, who said this week that he foresaw a transition period that would be “a prolongation of the existing situation, of the status quo.” However, the Brexit co-ordinator of the European Parliament wasn’t commenting on the Labour announcement, he was commenting on the snail’s pace at which the British negotiating position is advancing.

A transition period is a buffer, and if what is threatened comes to pass we shall be profoundly grateful for it. It grants more time before the axe falls – on businesses, EU citizens, the European Arrest Warrant and everything else that’s under the blade. It grants more time for the country to come to its senses.  However, its granting is not guaranteed. Twenty-seven member states have to say “yes” to an interim period for the UK while it sorts out its marbles. A few weeks ago this looked a near-certainty, but if Government ministers going on using words like “blackmail,” perhaps it will not be so certain. The third round of talks has not gone well.

Moreover, it’s not so simple. We can’t just say, “We would like another two years (or three, or four) please, while we transition out of the EU”, without getting the instant reply, “Transition to what?” Yes, we can probably postpone going through the departure gate, but we can’t postpone choosing our destination. Until we choose our destination, we can’t negotiate the postponement. The transition period doesn’t solve any of our most pressing problems, which are to do with the difficulty – for the Government, the impossibility – of making decisions; it just promises an easier path to implementing those decisions, once taken.

Hence the suggestions, from Starmer and others, that the Labour Party might seek to remain in the single market and customs union after the transition period is over. The suggestion is sensible, would make it much easier to negotiate a transition, and if the UK adopted it there would be far worse places we could be. The trouble with it is that, on the one hand, it would drive hard-Brexiters into a frenzy and might lead to the horrifying spectre of a Tory party led by the undead Jacob Rees-Mogg, while on the other it wouldn’t cut anybody’s mustard: it would leave us subject to the ECJ or a close imitation of it, liable to pay into the EU budget and, crucially, lacking a seat at the discussions which decide EU policy.

All these things have been true from the start, because Brexit is essentially a trade-off. The Labour Party’s announcement accepts this reality, and very welcome it is, because the Tories have always refused to grasp that Brexit is anything but a cake. Thus a small, well-defined patch of clarity has appeared in an area of dense fog. Naturally it is being fought tooth and nail by the forces of fog. “Brexit betrayal!” screamed the Express on Monday, when one would have hoped the cognitively-impaired were with everyone else at the beach.

Among Remainer MPs it spells hope, of course. At last an alternative to the Government’s suicide bid has declared itself. There is a side to be on. There is a lobby to go through. This translates into leverage. There is a spring in Anna Soubry’s step.

And it’s just in time, because the show in Brussels is not a cheering spectacle.  David Davis has raised his sights but not his game; he doesn’t really have one, which is what Michel Barnier has been subtly telling him. Davis’s department has produced a clutch of policy papers covering issues that include the Irish border, the customs union, nuclear safety, data security and the ECJ. Davis is very proud of them, but he seems proudest of their number. He has got it right, for once: their number is the most impressive thing about them.

All the Brexit papers the Government has issued so far are curiously alike. They offer pockets of earnest detail inside shrouds of pious aspiration. They set forth irreconcilable aims and, instead of explaining how these can be mutually accommodated, simply ignore the contradiction. They are strong on insistence, weighty with unnecessary background and totally lacking in argument. This is what EU officials mean when they say the British documents are vague and have no substance. But they have to be like that: the Government is still trying to construct a fantasy land that will pacify its right wing while not alienating business, finance and industry, which tend to see through fantasies. And now it has to flatter Europe as well, at least on paper. It cannot resolve the conundrum it has set itself, but it has to say something. The result is many pages of empty verbiage and the compulsive repetition of formulaic phrases such as “deep and special”, “seamless and frictionless,” like prayers which might save the soul. These inane doublings run through the documents like a vein of fool’s gold.

David Davis is out of his depth. It is the most fundamental of all this Government’s problems that it cannot recruit a first-class intellect to deal with a set of issues that require a first-class intellect: it cannot because its cause is shabby and shallow and no mind of the necessary calibre would have anything to do with it. The EU, by contrast, can take its pick from the sharpest brains of a continent renowned for producing them. Someone should have thought of this before.

So there is the hapless but defiant (“Who Dares Wins”) Mr Davis, dimly aware that the depths are beyond him, the detail escapes him, and he controls nothing… what will a military man do? Evade. Distract. Force the enemy to fight on as broad a front as possible.  He demands not only that the discussion at once include trade talks, but that it move on swiftly to include everything else as well. For good measure, he demands flexibility. This does not mean flexibility in its usual sense; it is another way of asking the EU to drop its requirement that the past be settled before the future is discussed. He has been given his answer many times.

M. Barnier could have observed that if Mr Davis is not able to talk about the three things he is asked to talk about – citizens’ rights, the Irish border, the bill – there is no likelihood he will be capable of talking about anything else, but he did not. He simply said UK positions on the separation issues were necessary in order for “sufficient progress” to be made and that “we need UK papers that are clear.”

Indeed. We do. Jean-Claude Juncker also finds the UK documents unclear. He has read all of them carefully, and he finds every one unsatisfactory. It must strike him as particularly unsatisfactory is that the most urgent one, the paper on the EU bill, is not there. Mr Davis has not produced it.

This is being called negotiation.

It is becoming clearer that the Government’s true Brexit strategy is bluff. Davis is the man for that, he has the personality and the front, but the question remains, what is the point?  Since every other end but economic disaster is better served by the negotiations it refuses seriously to engage in, it looks likely that its aim is merely to survive to the next election – and, with luck, beyond. Its first hurdle, in that case, is not the 3rd, 4th or 5th round of talks, but the Conservative Party Conference.

In the light of that, the Labour Party’s modest proposal appears a triumph of statesmanship.