So here's a story about how Jacob Rees-Mogg's nonsense can travel halfway around the world before the fact-checkers have got their boots on. But it's not about fake news or Cambridge Analytica or anything like that. It's about how Brexit supporters talk misleading gibberish with a particular manner intended to mislead the public.
On May 10th, Mogg went on the Daily Politics and said this:
"If you are in a negotiation for a free trade agreement, you can maintain your existing standards for ten years under WTO rules. So we have ten years from the point at which we leave the European Union to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU which would mean we can carry on with our zero tariffs."
— Jim Cornelius???????? #FBPE #WATON (@Jim_Cornelius) May 12, 2018
It's not clear quite what he meant by this. Experts in the field are confused by it. Peter Ungphakhorn, who spent twenty years with the WTO secretariat, can't make head or tail of it. Steve Peers, who is professor of EU, Human Rights and World Trade Law at the University of Essex, is similarly nonplussed. Lorand Bartels, reader in International Law at Cambridge and senior counsel at Linklaters, is also baffled. It is a particularly confused bit of nonsense.
As best as they and other trade experts can figure it out, Mogg is probably trying to refer to Paragraph 5 of Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is the precursor agreement to the WTO. How do they know? Well it's certainly not because of his description of it, which has little connection to its contents. Piecing together what's happening here is like trying to solve a murder mystery game constructed by five-year-olds. It's basic, but then also so unpredictable as to make it difficult.
Mogg specifically mentions ten years. That's useful, because if he didn't it's quite possible no-one could have even comprehended his legal argument enough to refute it. Paragraph 5(c) of Article XXIV refers to plans for the formation of a customs unions or free trade agreement "within a reasonable length of time".
A separate WTO document explaining the text states that the reasonable length of time "should exceed ten years only in exceptional cases". So this seems to be the provision Mogg is referring to. We have pieced the clues together and found a weapon.
Mogg seems to be in a muddle about what the ten-year window is for and to whom it applies. In the clip he says it refers to standards, but this provision has nothing to do with standards. Presumably he means tariffs, which is the context of the discussion, but it is hard to tell.
The ten-year period is for an interim agreement between two negotiating partners as they set up a free trade agreement or customs union. People have these agreements because they usually want to change their trading arrangements slowly.
But this is of little help to the UK in Brexit negotiations. For a start, the interim arrangement requires that you have a "plan and schedule" towards an end-state. It doesn't just freeze-frame your status quo for a decade while you work out what you're doing. And if it did, Mogg would be the first one to complain that we were still strapped to EU rules. Even on his own terms, the argument makes no sense.
Secondly, the provision is for forming a customs union or free trade agreement, not leaving one. Given that no details are included about how you do leave one, it doesn't seem to offer any protections.
This part of the agreement is quite wishy washy and lawyers can get up to all sorts of mucky stuff with it. Maybe some smart alec could claim that once Article 50 is over the new period would function as the start of trade talks and have to encapsulate and yet simultaneously ignore all that came before it.
Good luck with that. Experts in this area of international law are clear that it does not do anything like what Mogg is claiming. Certainly if your policy is to try to rely on this provision for your country's economic security, then you might want to significantly rethink the way you're going about things.
But it doesn't matter. Mogg can churn this stuff out quicker than people can read the impenetrable legal text on the WTO website, talk to legal experts, critique it and then complain on Twitter. And he does so in a manner that has a practiced confidence and calm to it.
Watch that clip again. A normal viewer who is not particularly invested in this debate would come out of it thinking that everything is fine, the consequences of our current course of action are minimal and all those experts in the House of Lords don't know what they're on about. In fact, it is a man flapping a non-existent piece of paper in the air as he demands we drive the economy off a cliff.
This is how they mislead the public. They smother them in nonsense - the type of nonsense so technical, jargon-filled and tedious that no-one in their right mind looks into it - and then tell them, with a soft smile and a posh accent, that everything will be OK.
It is telling that a political movement which defines itself through the will of the people should be so accomplished at misleading it.
Royal events bring out the worst in everyone. Monarchists turn into babbling mystics, as if they were discussing a magic ritual rather than a trumped-up Hello magazine photoshoot. Republicans turn into bores, banging on about the same old argument they've been making for the last 20 years.
Even otherwise normal people become quite curtain-twitchy. What happened to Meghan Markle's dad? Will he come or won't he? Who will walk her down the aisle? Will her mum do it instead? If not, why not?
No-one seemed to ask the most prescient question: Who cares? Maybe her mum wasn't up for it? Maybe someone with no experience of public engagements was a bit put off by appearing in front the entire planet. Maybe they don't get on. It is none of our business.
There is a kind of tawdry public laundry at these events, where any privacy is eradicated and the messy personal lives of people involved are treated like legitimate matters of public concern. Did they know what they were getting into when they chose to enter the royal family? Yes. Is it still grim to watch the facile, busybody spectacle roll along? Yes it is.
But spare a thought during this period for the smallest, most hard-done by minority: reluctant constitutional monarchists. They have few allies and no safe tribal grounds to hide away in. They baffle royalists and are condemned by republicans. They are horribly embarrassed by all the wedding nonsense, but don't even get to demand, intuitively, that we should just scrap the whole thing. They have to grin and bear it.
Reluctant monarchists come from a variety of different schools of thought. For many of them, the question about the head of state isn't really about what would you like, but what you'd like less. They often don't support the royal family, it's just that they can't see any acceptable alternative. No-one wants a president. Just imagine a Labour or Tory careerist being put up as head of state.
For others, it's useful that the head of state role is fulfilled by someone without democratic input. As soon as you vote for them, some people did not vote for them. If someone is to function as a depository of benign patriotic sentiment, they need to be completely free of party politics and electioneering.
For others, it's a simple 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' calculation. Of all the things that need repair in this country, the monarchy comes very far down the list. They still command public support, among members of all parties, among Leavers and Remainers, among young and old, in the cities and the countryside. The Queen in particular - but also, to a greater extent than is acknowledged, her offspring - continue to conduct themselves with a visible sense of duty and restraint. They get a lot of money for their troubles, of course, but the price is a life completely and utterly controlled by institution and national responsibility. Your life is not really your own, and it is hard to think of any income which would make up for that fact.
Whatever the argument, reluctant royalists are surprisingly common. And this is basically the worst time for them. The condition of membership is not just support for the monarchy - it is also acute embarrassment at all the pomp and ceremony something like a royal wedding entails.
Reluctant royalism is a very British club. It demands discomfort, resignation and silent, simmering frustration. This club will spend the weekend neither watching the royal wedding nor ranting and raving against it. The best place for it is in the pub. Probably in the corner.
But all things told, it's a good club for the times. It is a club which asks you to like and dislike things simultaneously. It is a club which asks you to weigh up political priorities, decide which one you value most, and then accept certain sacrifices in order to preserve it. It is a club of painful compromise. And in a world where politics is increasingly spoken of as if it were something very simple, as if easy answers could be provided for complex questions, that is maybe something to admire.
Another day, another interminable conversation about two customs options which have already been rejected by Brussels, lawyers and the laws of objective reality. The British Brexit debate is trapped in an interminable and extremely tedious daydream with no pertinence to the reality of the process.
If you want a hint of what's actually going to happen, ignore the talk of customs partnerships and maximum facilitation and pay attention to something else: the backstop solution. This is the ghost of Brexit future.
It was in paragraph 49 of the December agreement the government signed. It was in the legal translation of that agreement in the form of a draft protocol in February. It remains there now. It guarantees the shared UK and EU objective of there being no hard border in Ireland. Unless another solution is found - and none currently exist anywhere on this planet - the UK will agree to "maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and customs union which support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement".
Once we sign off on that, the discussion over all the rest - customs, single market regulations, pretty much everything - can be shifted off into transition. There'll be a broad outline of the plan, whether it's soft or hard Brexit or a mix of the two. But that'll be for later. The guarantee is the key. The EU will know that whatever happens there'll be no hard border. It provides a baseline to Brexit consequences.
Every time the backstop is mentioned in an official document, the British political and media establishment has a breakdown. They were gobsmacked to see it in the February text, even though it had been clearly stated and extensively discussed two months earlier. When it is still there in the final withdrawal treaty, they'll have another breakdown. It is remarkable to see so many people so regularly startled by something which has been made clear for so long.
The government refuses to engage with the detail of the backstop and because they don't discuss it, most political journalists don't discuss it either. They're like a man stuffing debt repayment notices into a box and forgetting about them. The hopelessly inward-looking attitude of politicians and journalists means the objective legal reality of the Brexit process is being ignored in favour of a pointless Cabinet fight over nothing.
The two most interesting pieces this week on involving the backstop are from Sam Lowe, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, and Tony Connelly, Europe editor at Irish broadcaster RTE. They tell you far more than any number of news reports on Theresa May's 'war Cabinet'.
The assumption among many analysts was that the backstop acted as laundering system for soft Brexit. It strapped Northern Ireland into the customs union and single market - at least insofar as it applies to goods, but probably more broadly.
But the UK - and especially the DUP, which props up May's government - would never accept a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So eventually, the thinking goes, the government would accept that all of the UK would stay in the single market and customs union. The Irish border problem sucks in hard Brexit and churns out a soft one.
But Lowe cautions that that is not necessarily the case. He says that the Commission and Ireland point to paragraph 46, which states that the principles of the joint report "will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland". As Lowe puts it, the backstop cannot become "the baseline offer to the whole of the UK".
This is being reported by several other sources. Clearly, Brussels is not going to allow a protocol to become the default vehicle for the broader final trade deal. It'd be like trying to stuff an elephant into a pair of trousers. If Britain stays in the single market and customs union it'll be via the talks on the future relationship, in which it stays signed up to EU rules under an agreed arbitration system.
But even if the backstop doesn't provide soft Brexit as a fait accompli, it still acts as the first domino in a chain of events which seem to lead to it. A hard border in the Irish sea will never be domestically acceptable, so it follows that what is accepted for Northern Ireland will eventually be accepted for the rest of the UK.
The RTE piece - which includes the tragicomic idea that the UK government has now decided to take the joint agreement "literally", as opposed to, say, in the form of interpretive dance - suggests movement towards this position. It reports that No.10 is starting to accept that it might keep the whole of the UK "aligned" with the customs union.
Presumably some name would be thought of for this to save face - hell, it might even be 'customs partnership' - but the truth is it is a customs union. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then there's a very good chance that it is one.
The outcome of Brexit will be decided by these factors, which act like great slabs of reality closing in on Downing Street. There can be no hard border in Ireland or in the Irish Sea. The only viable solution to a hard border is continued regulatory alignment on goods and a customs union. That dynamic adds up to either a soft Brexit or a no-deal Brexit, in which the compromises it demands are considered intolerable by the hard fringe of the Tory party.
Either way, you can afford to ignore the 'war Cabinet' if you want to know what's going on. The real story is about the backstop.