Sunday 18 August 2019

UK's shambolic Tories lead the way to Brexit chaos

The most unimpressive set of British politicians for 60 years could damage the economy of Ireland as well as their own

SURVIVOR: Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson has repeatedly challenged Theresa May on major economic and policy issues. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
SURVIVOR: Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson has repeatedly challenged Theresa May on major economic and policy issues. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

There should be no Schadenfreude, joy in another's misfortune, anywhere in Europe, especially in Ireland, about the descent into dysfunction in Westminster. The Brexit process cannot be managed solely from Brussels, it must also be managed by a united and focused government in London. The week's events must be driving Britain's European counterparts to distraction.

Last March, the European Parliament released a report on the economic impact of Britain's departure from the European Union on Britain herself and on the remaining EU-27 members. The report was prepared by economists at the Brussels think-tank CEPS and there have been similar studies from the London School of Economics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, the OECD in Paris and numerous other researchers including the ESRI in Dublin.

These studies cannot model the precise form which Brexit will take, since this remains unclear. But, making a variety of assumptions, the studies are agreed on some key conclusions. The most negative economic impact will be on the UK itself, followed by Ireland and then by nearby Belgium and the Netherlands, which have big trade exposures to the UK. All of the EU-27 will see some negative impact but it will be quite minor for many. The harder the Brexit, the bigger the negative impact all round.

Aside from a few Leave campaigners in London, there is no support from economists for the Brexiteer view that this could be a win for Britain. The likelihood is that the EU-27 will be worse off, but perhaps not by very much if a serious damage-limitation deal can be salvaged. For Britain, the studies support the conclusion of musician Bob Geldof during the referendum campaign that the Brexit vote was a grievous act of self-harm, at least in economic terms. People are entitled to be sceptical about a consensus among economists but they should note that the degree of consensus in this case is unusual.

Economic policy choices are contentious, shrouded in measurement uncertainties and their assessment hardly an exact science. But when the international experts who have done the careful studies almost all seem to agree, take note: this does not happen too frequently.

One of the unsuccessful candidates for leadership of the Tory party, after David Cameron's post-referendum resignation in the fateful summer of 2016, was Boris Johnson. He was appointed foreign secretary by the last-woman-standing, Theresa May, after the Tory party knife-fight of a leadership race. A year later, Leo Varadkar was chosen to lead the Fine Gael party after a rather more elegant contest for the succession to prime ministerial office in this country, the one most at risk, after Britain, from the consequences of Cameron's folly.

As with Johnson, the defeated candidate, Simon Coveney, was appointed foreign minister. It is instructive to compare the performances of these two leadership aspirants in dealing with the challenges posed by Britain's EU departure as foreign ministers in their respective countries. Johnson has openly challenged the prime minister's stated position, the agreed position of the cabinet, and survived in office. Simon Coveney, in contrast, has articulated the evolution in the Irish Government's policy on Brexit in lock-step with the Taoiseach, and has done a thorough job in explaining all of this in the UK media, most recently in a well-constructed Daily Telegraph opinion piece last week.

If Johnson was Irish foreign minister he would have been fired by now. The Irish Government looks cohesive, focused, wrestling with an uninvited policy dilemma with all hands on deck, led by both winner and loser in the Fine Gael leadership contest.

The Tory party, the oldest political party in the world by all accounts and the touchstone of traditional British statecraft, looks like a rabble which has lost the will to govern. Two cabinet ministers have been jettisoned this past week, one for placing his hand on the knee of a female journalist at what appears to have been a boozy conference dinner aeons ago, the other for some freelance foreign policy indiscretions on the Golan Heights. The owner of the offended knee has insisted that she, while unimpressed, feels the minister should not have had to quit.

The Arab-Israeli conflict will not be greatly altered by Priti Patel's offer to finance some hospitals for Syrian refugees run by the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. Unfortunately for her, it has been UK government policy for 50 years that Israel should depart the Golan Heights. Priti Patel messed up and Michael Fallon, the defenestrated defence minister, should have kept his hand off the lady's knee. But Boris Johnson has challenged the prime minister repeatedly and publicly in pursuit of his disappointed leadership ambitions on the biggest economic and foreign policy challenge that his country has faced for a generation.

It is extraordinary that Johnson survives while Fallon and Patel walk the plank, an illustration of what looks like a nervous breakdown in the Conservative party. The leaked dossier on sexual transgressions, evidently sourced at least in part from the Tory party whips' office, included the whopping ''allegation'' that an unattached female minister had a fling a few years back with an unattached male MP. This is a serious criminal offence, punishable by stoning (for ladies only) in parts of the Middle East, but now apparently judged fair game to be wheeled out in the Tory faction fight over Brexit.

In a rather more consequential intervention during the week, US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross insisted that if Britain wants a new trade deal with the USA, it will have to yield on the rules for agricultural imports, which means chlorinated chickens, hormone-injected beef and genetically modified crops. This would mean a hard border, on the southern side, in Ireland, since the EU would require that these products not find a route into the EU via the Republic of Ireland.

Coveney and Varadkar have already made it clear that they are alert to the risk that the Republic could end up as fall guys, forced to erect barriers on the southern side of the border in order to maintain Ireland's compliance with EU membership. Wilbur Ross, if anybody in Britain has noticed, is effectively demanding that Mexico should build the wall and pay for it, with Ireland substituted for Mexico. The UK electorate voted to quit the EU but were not asked about either the customs union or the single market and indeed were assured by Johnson among others that Brexit did not threaten single market membership.

If Britain persists in a trade policy which shifts the costs of customs compliance south of the border, the Irish Government is perfectly entitled to resist. No such choice can be justified as compliance with the democratic verdict of the referendum, which was simply to depart the European Union.

It is saddening to watch the current condition of British politics from this side of the Irish Sea. I have just finished re-reading the wonderful autobiography of the Labour politician Denis Healey, one of many of his generation, including Margaret Thatcher, who would have kept Britain out of this appalling mess.

Britain is led by the least impressive group of front-line politicians since the Suez debacle 60 years ago.

Sunday Independent

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