The Pastor problem

Rick Perry isn't the first presidential candidate to be embarrassed by a turbulent preacher.

So it turns out that Rev Robert Jeffress -- supporter and mentor of US presidential candidate Rick Perry -- doesn't just have a problem with Mormons. He's an equal opportunities hater. In a rant about Catholicism on his radio station last September he unleashed the C-word -- clearly a favourite of his -- calling the church to which a quarter of Americans belong "that cult-like pagan religion" and claiming that it derived from ancient Babylonian mysteries rather than "God's Word". "Isn't that the genius of Satan?" he asked. Not just a cult, then. A Satanic cult. And, for good measure, "a fake religion" too.

This revelation has the potential to cause even more trouble for Perry than the Mormonism row that has rumbled on for almost a week. Bill Donohue, who leads the Catholic League, called on Perry to reject Jeffress and his endorsement - something the candidate declined to do when challenged by Mitt Romney during a TV debate on Tuesday. Donohue called Jeffress "a poster boy for hatred, not Christianity".

In the last presidential campaign, Sarah Palin was forced to distance herself from an African pastor who pursued unconventional sideline as a witch-finder, while Barack Obama was put an in embarrassing position when footage emerged of his pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, saying "God damn America!" So the Jeffress row isn't unprecedented. Indeed, Donohue himself was involved in a controversy uncannily similar to the Jeffress/Perry imbroglio early in 2008.

It was Donohue's intervention that persuaded John McCain -- then the Republican front-runner -- to reject the endorsement of an Evangelical pastor named John Hagee. Like Jeffress, Hagee ran a Texas megachurch, and his views about Catholicism were just an uncompromisingly Paisleyite. He referred to it as "the great whore" that "drank the blood of the Jewish people". Doubtless there are parts of Texas where that kind of talk still goes down well. Hagee said other embarrassing things too, for example that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for "a homosexual parade" that had taken place in New Orleans shortly before.

McCain expressed himself "glad to have his endorsement" even after Hagee's remarks became publicly known. For McCain, who lacked credibility with the religious Right, having a prominent Evangelical fundamentalist in his camp was an important electoral asset, especially when facing a strong challenge from the former Baptist preacher Mick Huckabee. Until suddenly it wasn't.

So far, while distancing himself from the pastor's expressed view of Mormonism, Perry has made it clear that he still "respects" Jeffress and accepts his endorsement. A Perry spokesman went so far as to accuse Romney of "playing a game of deflection" in making anti-Mormon bigotry a campaign issue. Donohue's challenge may prove less easy to bat aside.

If that wasn't bad enough, a pro-secularism group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has complained to the IRS about Jeffress' use of his official church website to host videos supporting Perry's candidacy.The group claims that this constitutes an abuse of the church's tax-exempt status.

The "pastor problem" is a peculiar feature of modern US politics. Obama's relationship with Wright was long-standing, but other unhelpful endorsements look to be the result of carelessness on the part of candidates. It should not have been difficult for Perry's advisers to discover the hardline views previously expressed by Robert Jeffress about Mormonism, Catholicism, homosexuality and other sensitive issues, or to foresee that they might pose a problem outside those parts of the Southern States that have never mentally left the 17th century.

Given that a successful presidential campaign now seems to require that the candidate be endorsed by prominent, self-appointed, publicity-seeking Christian ministers (or at the very least, such endorsement is perceived to confer a distinct advantage) one would expect that they would be carefully vetted before being allowed to stand on stage and introduce someone-or-other The Next President Of The United States. But this doesn't seem to happen. Instead, it always comes as a great surprise to the candidate when a clip surfaces on YouTube of the pastor concerned saying something outrageous. Strange.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.