No EU breakthrough for ‘no backstop’ Boris Johnson yet – John McLellan

What with all the game-playing that’s going on, making reliable political predictions is impossible, says John McLellan

Emmanuel Macron welcomes r Boris Johnson to the Elysee Presidential Palace. Picture: Getty
Emmanuel Macron welcomes r Boris Johnson to the Elysee Presidential Palace. Picture: Getty

Fists aloft, the snatched picture of Prime Minister Boris Johnson punching the air on his arrival back at Number 10 looked like triumph, but reliable evidence that a breakthrough has been achieved in the Brexit negotiations with the European Union? Not so much.

Presumably he is confident the UK government can demonstrate an effective electronic system of customs checks for the Irish border within 30 days, as requested by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, but it’s remarkable that the focus has been entirely on the abandonment, or not, of the Irish Backstop and not on any other elements of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by ex-Prime Minister Theresa May.

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Maybe this is because the WA relied heavily on a 21-month transition period in which the finer detail was to be thrashed out, but it included elements like the continued role of the European Court of Justice to settle disputes which were and are hard for staunch Brexiteers to stomach.

Yesterday the likes of David Davis and Sir Bill Cash were quick to send out reminders that their unhappiness didn’t end with the backstop, but if it comes down to it Mr Johnson’s advantage over his defeated leadership rival Jeremy Hunt was always that the hardliners were more likely to accept something similar to the original agreement from him than a Remainer.

But those concerns might never be put to the test because they rely on the EU’s stamp of approval for the UK’s border proposals and with its priority being the absolute protection of the integrity of the EU’s customs borders, there is nothing to suggest it will be satisfied with whatever the UK government proposes. That being the case, in 30 days’ time Mr Johnson will be able to blame the EU if No Deal is the outcome, and by then there will only be about 40 days before Exit Day on 31 October.

David Frost, the former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association and now Mr Johnson’s Europe adviser, is said to be planning meetings with European countries after next week’s G7 meeting of world leaders to discuss backstop alternatives, 
so every impression is being given of strenuous efforts being made, but amidst all the gaming and conspiracy theories, making a reliable prediction is impossible.

Adding to the turmoil is the Scottish Government Expenditure figures released this week, with SNP deputy leader Keith Brown announcing that under independence the £12.6 billion gap between Scottish spending and tax income could be reduced to £5.4bn to comply with EU membership rules within three years. How the increased taxation or slashed public spending that represents would make even a No Deal Brexit situation better is not entirely clear.

Perhaps the only answer is just to hunker down until the All-Clear, whenever that might be, and judging by the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre’s latest statistics, that’s what’s happening. The number of homes for sale in the last three months fell 6.3 per cent.

Religious privilege?

The All-Clear can’t be sounded just yet for the three religious representatives on Edinburgh’s education committee after the divisive issue of stripping their voting rights was put out to a consultation some three months after it was first raised.

Green Party councillors who made the demand spent Thursday’s Council debate trying to justify their intentions, desperately arguing they were not attacking any religious community and it was just about the principle of unelected committee members having a vote.

But in the absence of any prior discussions, how else were those communities, particularly Catholics and Jews who have experienced significant discrimination within living memory, expected to view it other than as a threat? In seeking to remove any group’s decades-old rights without any consultation whatsoever exposed both the Green Party’s naivety and arrogance and the game was given away by one Green councillor who described Conservative support (disclosure: including me) for the faith communities as “defending entrenched privilege”. If that’s not an attack, what is?

A report is expected by November, but it has now been widened to examine how young people and other adults can be involved in the decision-making progress, and the Churches have welcomed the opportunity to have a proper discussion. Whether they will be happy with the outcome of something in which they are now just one element remains to be seen.

Songs of sex and misery

A religious group which takes more than its share of criticism is the Free Presbyterian Kirk and although not specifically identified in the new Scottish Opera adaptation of the Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves, it’s not hard to work out which church forms the backdrop to one of the most intense shows in this year’s festival season.

Sometimes a bit of misery can do you good, make you appreciate what you’ve got and all that, and this production premiered at the King’s on Thursday night certainly lays it on thick: mental illness, promiscuity which turns to prostitution, murder, body-snatching plus a bit of industrial health and safety and medical ethics to boot. Phew…. and when you know in the first five minutes that the heroine has already been sectioned, you know it isn’t going to end well.

Throw in some powerful duets during full-blown sexual intercourse – more than once – set in the context of a hypocritical Hebridean Calvinist community and you begin to get the picture. There are no plans to stage the show in Stornoway.

North Bridge memories

A new event this August was a reception and panel debate for the Journalists’ Charity (disclosure: I’m on the Scottish board) staged in the ancestral home of this newspaper, now the recently refurbished Scotsman Hotel.

Aside from the many lively discussions about the future of the industry, many conversations amongst the old Scotsman and Evening News hands were those trying to work out where on earth everything used to be. The Marble Staircase, Walnut Hall and front office are easy, but the rest of it has doors where there used to be walls and walls where there used to be corridors, but for those who worked there the sense of the place is still the same and new owner G1 Group (more disclosure: I know G1 chief Stefan King from school) has done a splendid job in maximising the potential the building always had while retaining its character.

Hopefully we’ll be back next year.