Saturday 24 February 2018

Labour under Corbyn could mirror FG's 2002 meltdown under Noonan

Finance Minister Michael Noonan Picture: Steve Humphreys
Finance Minister Michael Noonan Picture: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

Any way you look at this one, it is all about Brexit. Theresa May believes she can gain more seats and can have more freedom in the upcoming EU-UK divorce talks to pursue her own agenda. She can neutralise those inside and outside her own party who disagree with her position and who may oppose the necessary messy compromises she may ultimately have to make.

The snap election is happening because Mrs May believes she can do just that. The main opposition Labour Party, led by the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn, is 20 points behind her governing Conservative Party. Labour is deeply divided and in no form to oppose its rivals.

That gives it the air of an Irish general election in May 2002 when the opposition Fine Gael, like British Labour today, had been rendered politically irrelevant for various reasons. On that occasion, voters took their ire out on Fine Gael and reduced it to its lowest level in more than 50 years.

In this upcoming British election, it is quite likely that voters could decide to likewise punish the irrelevant opposition Labour, and put their trust in Mrs May. That is central to her calculation in what seems a fair gamble.

Theresa May took power last July, after David Cameron resigned in the wake of Britain's 52pc to 48pc vote on June 23 to leave the European Union. But her overall majority of 18 MPs was slender enough to give more militant anti-EU people within her parliamentary party a deal of power. Just nine deputies going off message could curb her room to manoeuvre.

This surprise ballot on June 8 offers her the chance to win her own mandate and also strengthen her own hold in the Conservative Party, which holds 330 of 650 seats in the British lower house of parliament. Mrs May formally triggered the process for leaving the EU at the end of last month. The talks proper will formally begin in 10 days. Considerable turmoil lies ahead as the country negotiates a process which will affect every aspect of life across the United Kingdom, and in this adjoining island where the fortunes of everyone are closely interlinked.

Nobody in Dublin, in Brussels, nor in the other EU capitals, expected this development, news of which dropped when many political leaders and their senior advisers were taking an Easter break.

But by yesterday afternoon everyone was trying to fast forward and guess what a better ensconced Theresa May could do to the upcoming marathon talks.

There was a hope in some quarters that it could in fullness of time lead to something of "a softer Brexit". That hope meant a strengthened Theresa May could sell a more practical arrangement with the EU - one with fewer damaging trade consequences for many countries, not least of which would be Ireland.

Table-thumping talk from some British Tories about "walking rather than taking a bad exit deal" was the cause of some concern, not least in Dublin. In such an eventuality the World Trade Organisation rules would have to kick in making tariffs an inevitability.

In Brussels and the other capitals there is an assumption that it would be better to face negotiations with a British leader who is not looking over her shoulder at her own party colleagues. There has been a long history of this which seriously strained UK-EU relations over decades.

Yet everyone knows that Theresa May was only a very nominal 'Remain' supporter on June 23. Ferocious haggling lies ahead and Mrs May is likely to continue prioritising Conservative party interests, and those of the majority English-based population, over those of the other components of the United Kingdom.

And everything will stall now until after polling on June 8.

That includes the Brexit negotiations - and any hope of putting together a power-sharing administration in Belfast.

The likely impact on Enda Kenny's tenure as caretaker Taoiseach, and continued instability also on this side of the Border, remains to be seen. He must decide whether this is a chance for graceful exit or extended tenure.

Let's conclude, however, on a note of caution. Theresa May is 20 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn in the ratings to be the next British prime minister.

But elections are often unpredictable and campaigns can take on their own impetus. A long seven weeks lies ahead between now and June 8.

Irish Independent

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