Monday 19 February 2018

Post-Brexit, and post-Boris, Ireland needs Britain to get the 'right' deal

British Home Secretary Theresa May speaks at the Royal United Services Institute in London yesterday Photo: Reuters
British Home Secretary Theresa May speaks at the Royal United Services Institute in London yesterday Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Boris Johnson was the bookies' runaway favourite to be Britain's next prime minister … and then he just ran away.

The post-Brexit world just keeps giving more strange-but-true happenings and the trend continued yesterday. Seven days after the vote, the 52-year-old twice mayor of London, and leading light in the successful Leave campaign, just upped and exited the campaign to succeed David Cameron, the man he helped oust as leader of the British government.

It gave fresh impetus to the old political adage: "He who wields the knife never wears the crown." Enda Kenny's and his officials' silence about the strange political phenomenon that is universally known as just "Boris" suggests everyone at Government Buildings in Dublin will cope with their grief at his departure. The view in Dublin mirrored the view in London, Brussels and other EU capitals, that Boris Johnson was not the one to pick up the pieces of the UK-EU relationship he had helped to shatter.

Questions about Mr Johnson to the Taoiseach's spokesman drew decidedly non-committal replies. Mr Kenny had met the former London mayor "on a few occasions" and the wait-and-see attitude was more than the usual desire to be seen to be standing well back from a neighbour's business.

The prospect of the new frontrunner, the long-serving Home Secretary Theresa May, will be viewed as a better bet from an Irish point of view. She was a rather lukewarm Remain supporter, and yesterday she struck a decisive note about her approach to redefining the UK relationship with the EU and how it may happen.

Ms May signalled there should be no second EU referendum - a prospect which will continue to hang about regardless of what political principals say. The exit process, under Article 50 of the EU treaty, will not be triggered until later this year.

And there will be no early general election - something which is very probably correct given the chaotic state of the British Labour Party. In fact if you are looking for any political winners in Britain right now, consider the steadfastly pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who are reportedly taking on new members in significant numbers.

Theresa May is far from a certainty, but she is likely to be among the two candidates the parliamentary party will choose under rule to put before party members for a vote. Among her rivals will be former Justice Secretary Michael Gove. Up to yesterday he was seen as Boris's "wingman" - then enter "Mrs Gove", aka journalist Sarah Vine.

Ms Vine's apparently accidental release of an email expressing serious doubts about Boris, and advising her husband to attach strict conditions to his support, suggested all was not well. Mr Gove followed on by declaring his own candidature and expressing clear doubt about Boris Johnson's suitability to lead.

Still an expectant throng attended to hear Mr Johnson in anticipation that he would announce his candidature. He arrived with the usual drama, and managed a casual insult to Belgium, where he had spent his own early years.

Then he dropped his bombshell: "I must tell you my friends, you who have waited patiently for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me," he said.

Up to yesterday the leadership ambitions of the former Brussels-based journalist have been the worst-kept secret in British politics. Ever since he was elected London mayor for the first of two four-year terms in 2008, his profile had continued to build. Most observers believed his decision to back Leave - in contradiction of previous broadly pro-EU views, was all about a gamble to become prime minister.

Those within the Tory party felt naked ambition drove him to join the Leave campaign, against the best interests of the party. Some, like former prime minister, John Major, had dismissed Johnson as a "court jester" with no hope of leading the party, and will feel justified by yesterday's turn of events.

But back with more bread and butter issues, there is a suggestion that some delay may help deliver some necessary calm before the other EU 27 members seriously tangle with the UK on its exit terms and a new associate relationship of some kind.

The rather dark comment by Slovak EU affairs minister Ivan Korcok earlier this week before the EU leaders summit dinner in Brussels, caught a certain vengeful mood towards exiting Britain. "You are either at the table or you are on the menu," he said. Vengeance will not help Britain - and it sure as hell will not help Ireland.

At a Dáil committee Michael Noonan said quite clearly that if Britain can gain access to the EU single market, then the longer term effects on Ireland could be minimal, and might even be positive, thanks to gains from displaced UK investment and jobs.

Mr Noonan conceded that it will be hard for Britain to get full access to the EU single market without some concession on free movement of people. Given the profile of migration in the Brexit referendum that will be a hard circle to square.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker summed up the EU's tightly wound opening bid by stressing there can be no bartering the EU's celebrated "Four Freedoms": free movement of people, goods, services and capital across all member states.

"Those who want market access must accept the four freedoms without exception and without nuance," Mr Juncker said.

EU Council president Donald Tusk was pithier: "There can be no á la carte."

All of this is an opening stance not a closing position. But it makes for tough and tight negotiations.

Irish Independent

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