Why the Daily Mail's Right Minds fails to deliver

No, it's not the politics or the 55-deck shrill headlines that disappoint.

I don't think Right Minds is for me. This isn't a tremendous surprise given my political leanings, but it's not that. I'm used to reading the Mail and being infuriated by their columnists, or irritated by their 55-deck shrill headlines about benefit cheats, gypsies and single mums, but it's not that either.

No, for once, it's rather sad to note that the Mail have gone through with something and haven't done it very well.

It's not often that the Mail are behind the curve on something, but here it is: their attempt at a multi-authored Huffington Post-style brains trust, to rival Telegraph Blogs, Comment is Free, the Spectator Coffee House and others went live today.

Already nicknamed the "Heffington Post" because of Simon Heffer's editorship, I was expecting the trademark Mail slickness to set a new benchmark for the rest of us to have to strive for. But no. It's a bit of a mess, and that's rather disappointing.

The Mail may be many things to many people, but the one adjective I never thought I'd use about it was "amateurish". There's a sticky-back-plastic cobbled-together feel of Right Minds which goes against everything the Mail stands for in terms of quality. There's a giant photo of Richard Littlejohn at the top of the page, for example, that beams out at you in that mildly terrifying way he does, but it's been blown up so much it's gone fuzzy; and Norman Tebbit's name is spelt wrong -- the sort of mistakes that the Mail just doesn't make.

The title page is littered with so many choices it's like one of those baffling restaurant menus that you end up staring at for half an hour rather than choosing something to eat. Where to begin? Where to end? Why to bother?

You're overwhelmed as a punter, drowning in a soup of content, struggling to navigate your way around the competing articles. Perhaps the idea is that you flounder around and end up clicking on stuff as you try to get your bearings; perhaps it's a case of "more is more" and they're just trying to deluge us with as much content as possible so we couldn't possibly not find something to read.

But it doesn't seem very Daily Mail to me. With the Mail the newspaper - and its staggeringly popular website about Kim Kardashian in a bikini with various less important news articles tacked onto the side - you might dislike or even despise the content, but you always have to admire the professionalism; you might not like what they're doing but you have to begrudgingly give them their dues for the standards they set. But that's not the case with Right Minds, and I find that a bit of a let-down. I'm not the Mail's biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination, but this is just rather disappointing.

That said, what did I find to enjoy? Well, I had fun with this Q and A on spiders with Craig Brown (including a rather delightful line about "Arachnid Correctness gone mad"), and, as is so often the case, the Mail's leader column provides the kind of consumer champion voice over banking that cuts right through party affiliation, backed up by this article from Alex Brummer.

I looked in vain for a "token leftie" but all I could find was Roy Hattersley, and he was droning tediously on about HP Sauce so that didn't help. Perhaps it's just the way that things have fallen as the venture starts out, but there seems to be a preponderance of men v women. The links don't really add much either -- Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, John Redwood, it's the same old usual suspects, the kind of thing that someone just starting out as a Tory blogger would put on their blogroll.

I'm sure it'll get better. And it's wrong to imagine that the "Heffington Post" will fail, because it has such huge resources at its disposal that it can't possibly fail. Doubtless a top team have been behind the scenes working out how to drive as much traffic as possible to the site, and it will boost the Mail's ever-growing website presence.

But I had hoped for something a bit more market leading, a bit less safe, a bit more worthy of admiration, even if I didn't agree with the politics.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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.