Monday 11 December 2017

A battle of wills between May and Davis is a Brexit accident just waiting to happen

Britain's new Prime Minister, Theresa May. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Britain's new Prime Minister, Theresa May. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Gerard O'Regan

'Brexit means Brexit,'' said Theresa May in the authoritative, self-assured tone favoured by a politician enthralled at suddenly achieving high office.

Yet on closer scrutiny, it seemed as if she was trying to convince herself that there is a surety about the future which is simply not there.

The reality is that she now has to manage a group of very right-wing Tories who, for ideological and other reasons, are determined to play Russian roulette with the British economy. That's going to be quite a task.

As one observer astutely put it: "She was trying to sound a little gung-ho, but it had all the enthusiasm of somebody clapping with one hand.''

Her own conflicted views on Brexit suggest that she is torn between the emotional tug of the UK going it alone, while deeply aware that membership of the Brussels club helps pay more than a few bills for the British public.

Her dithering approach to this dilemma was best reflected in the recent referendum when she was tagged 'a reluctant Remainer'. But now that she is in the hottest of all the hot seats in UK politics, decision time on a whole host of issues will come sooner rather than later.

And only time will tell whether her decision to appoint a triumvirate of Brexit heavy hitters to key cabinet jobs was a stroke of genius or a move which will eventually haunt her premiership.

On this side of the Irish Sea, we need to track carefully the words and actions of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, international trade secretary Liam Fox and, most of all, David Davis, the man now with the title 'Brexit secretary'.

Contrary to popular opinion, Boris Johnson may be the least of our worries; the caricature of the buffoonish and gaff-prone former mayor of London masks an intelligent and perceptive politician. In fact, he may not be all that sound on the Brexit question, which could be of benefit to Ireland.

It's not that long ago that he believed Britain's future lay within the bosom of the European Union, before personal political ambition and sundry other matters, wooed him over to the 'Leave' galaxy.

However, his capacity to cause personal offence may prove his undoing. The signs are that US president Barack Obama is still deeply angry over the taunt that his family links in Kenya mean he resents Britain because of its colonial past.

Given his portfolio, Liam Fox will be central to any discussions between Ireland and our nearest neighbour, if we are to try and wangle some special trade deal, which will not cause a rumpus with our EU partners.

In that role, he is as yet an unknown quantity. But in the lineage of the Tory party he would be considered possibly more right-wing than Margaret Thatcher.

We can therefore assume that he will have little emotional empathy with the position of the Republic of Ireland in a newly realigned Europe.

David Davis is cut from the same cloth as Fox and will also have little instinctive sympathy for the Irish south of the Border. He has for many years been the Conservative Party's 'hard man' in favour of Brexit.

Basically, he wants to do some sort of deal with the EU and get out as fast as possible.

Such is his hurry to wave a final goodbye to the Germans, French, Italians etc that he is already proclaiming that "independence'' will be achieved by 2018.

Davis says he would like formal exit negotiations to be triggered early next year. But whether or not the steady-as-she-goes, risk-averse, new prime minister will want to move so fast remains intriguing.

It all points to a number of heavy personality clashes - driven by ego and the taking of fixed positions - within this new cabinet.

A battle of wills between Theresa May and David Davis may well be a big-time political accident waiting to happen.

One way or another, this government will be fraught with tension, once a very short honeymoon period ends. As of now, the momentum is towards a 'hard Brexit'. Davis, for one, will not be happy with anything less than a formal break with the EU, with total and complete control over immigration into the UK residing with the British authorities.

Meanwhile, we had some fanciful comments about Enda Kenny's alleged lack of success earlier this week in getting Angela Merkel to acknowledge our 'special position' in the current scheme of things. A German-Irish meeting of minds, of course, was never going to happen at this point in time.

The reality is that the Chancellor does not even know herself how matters are going to pan out over the coming months, never mind further down the road.

Like us all, Europe's most powerful woman is still trying to read the body language coming from Downing Street.

Maybe we will have to wait until we see Theresa May clapping with both hands. That will be a sure sign the Brexit ship has started to sail - if sail it will.

Irish Independent

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