Sunday 22 July 2018

Theresa May risks becoming the prisoner of her own brilliant political stratagems

Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaves 10 Downing Street, London, following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaves 10 Downing Street, London, following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

Theresa May's surprise appointment of 'The Three Brexiteers' to her Cabinet a fortnight ago was seen by some as a brilliant move. Boris Johnson, as new Foreign Secretary, David Davis as the Brexit Secretary, and Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary, were put directly under the spotlight and lined up to "sort out their own mess". They were among key figures who had driven the Leave campaign without any notion about what would happen next.

Other observers viewed these appointments as a clever insurance policy for the tricky negotiations ahead, which have an uncertain outcome. In politics it rarely does too much harm to have scope to spread the blame.

But Liam Fox's comments to the 'Financial Times' yesterday, while on a trade mission to the US, spell danger.

For Ms May the development suggests that she may have been a little too clever and ill-judged in these ministerial appointments. She could, in extremis, end up being a prisoner of her own political stratagems, all the more so since she has an overall majority of about a dozen MPs.

But it could be rather bad news for Ireland as it does not presage any smooth UK-EU negotiations on exit terms and a new relationship. This country continues to run the risk of becoming the meat in the sandwich.

Dr Fox wants maximum freedom to negotiate new trade deals around the world. He has determined that Britain should break out of the EU framework, which he believes has stifled other potential international trade agreements.

Specifically, he is urging that Britain abandon the EU customs union, which is at the core of the trade bloc. It is an area that allows the free movement of goods with no tariffs and imposes the same trade barriers at all its external borders.

Read More: Fox, the hardline Brexiteer who claims the peasants revolted against the elite

Under the customs union, the EU negotiates international trade deals and sets the same external tariffs for all member states. Dr Fox finds that inhibiting and wants shot of it soon. But the move also signals tensions within the British Cabinet between those who want 'a soft Brexit', with close associate membership, and those who want a more fundamental break.

Quitting the customs union would not preclude Britain remaining in the European single market. But it would set a decidedly sour tone for the negotiations that are to come.

And it would be not at all helpful for Ireland. Taoiseach Enda Kenny sees the "ideal outcome" of the upcoming EU-UK divorce negotiations as Britain getting full access to the single market. That would obviate the question of any tariffs on the border with the North or with Britain.

It was always going to be hard to see Britain being given full single market access, given the demands by remaining EU states that there can be no concessions on full freedom of movement of people. Migration was such an issue in the campaign ahead of the June 23 referendum that it is hard to see Ms May being able to sell compromise on that issue.

Read More: British push to abolish customs union is 'madness'

We got a taste of this last weekend when backbench Conservative MPs reacted angrily to reports of a possible compromise that would allow Britain to remain in the European single market after Brexit. The payback would be only a temporary halt on migration from the EU.

The veteran Tory Eurosceptic John Redwood said there should be no negotiation on full control over immigration. He said Britain had voted to leave the EU - not for a scaling up of immigration concessions secured by former Prime Minister David Cameron last February.

It reminds us that the coming years will bring multi-dimensional negotiations that will be complex, tough and fraught.

Irish Independent

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