Friday 23 August 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'We may need two general elections for voters to square the Brexit circle'

Boris Johnson is shaping up for a Brexit election which poses serious questions for Ireland

ELECTION IN SIGHT: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses for a selfie with police officers in England on Friday
ELECTION IN SIGHT: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses for a selfie with police officers in England on Friday
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

There is currently no way of squaring the Brexit circle. The two sides, the UK and Europe, and divided factions within those sides, have become so entrenched that a crash-out, no-deal Brexit looks the most likely outcome at this stage. The only way to break the logjam may be for a general election to be held in the UK, and, it follows, in Ireland.

From day one, the new Conservative leader Boris Johnson has been shaping up in the direction of an election. The most obvious pointer has been the appointment of adviser Dominic Cummings, who is something of a modern day expert on maximising votes, and Johnson will need to maximise the Conservatives' vote to win a workable majority.

Cummings is almost certain to be strategising behind the scenes right now to win a Conservative Party majority. In fact, I would say that has been the main, if not sole purpose of his appointment. The only question is,whether the election will be held before or after the Brexit deadline of October 31. I would suggest before.

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This raises a question as to whether a general election should be held in Ireland to coincide. To fail to do so raises the possibility that a version of the instability which currently exists in the UK will be transferred to Ireland later this year, or early next, should a workable majority government emerge in the UK.

All of this also raises two interesting questions: the first is, if the Conservatives win, can the DUP trust Boris Johnson? This is the age-old question of Conservative governments which has always troubled unionists in Northern Ireland. The second is, after an election here, should Fianna Fail and Fine Gael form a stable, five-year coalition government in the national interest to get the country through the Brexit process, which will be extraordinarily difficult in whichever form, no-deal or hard?

In the UK last week, Boris Johnson lost a by-election, which reduced his majority to one. The loss is being presented as a setback, which it is, but it is not a disaster. It is still too early to say whether there will or will not be a Boris Bounce.

Johnson's difficulty, on the one hand, is Nigel Farage's Brexit Party. The Conservatives would have won the by-election but for the existence of that new, single-issue party.

However, with Dominic Cummings doing his thing, the Conservatives could surmount the Brexit Party challenge in a general election. That said, should Johnson go to the country before a crash-out on October 31, Farage's pop-up operation will still pose a significant challenge to the Conservatives hoping to benefit from Labour's listlessness, particularly in the north of England.

On the other hand, the Conservatives will be strongly challenged in the south of England by more urbane Remain-supporting voters, who look likely to opt for the Liberal Democrats this time. Labour is lost, unable to make up its mind where it stands on Brexit, but could yet form a coalition with the Lib Dems which, admittedly, is unlikely under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

All of that said, under the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system, it remains uncertain but on the cards that the Conservatives will win the election, and likely as not that it will, afterwards, form a single party government.

Where will such an outcome leave the DUP? For one thing, out of leverage. And that will test the strength of the resolve of Johnson and the controlling group of the Conservatives, the ERG (and Nigel Farage) towards their oft-stated determination to preserve the union fully intact.

In short order, we will know whether Brexit is really just a nationalist England phenomenon or not. Is Boris happy to deliver a hard Brexit deal for England, Wales and Scotland, and leave Northern Ireland somewhat adrift from the UK with a border down the Irish Sea?

These remain testing times for the DUP. With a fresh mandate, and majority, Johnson may be willing to deliver a hard Brexit for Britain, but not for the UK as a whole.

Of course, there are those who would argue that, in that event, Northern Ireland would benefit from the best of both worlds: alignment with the EU customs union and single market to allow it trade into the Republic of Ireland and Europe; and continued membership of the UK, guaranteed under the Good Friday Agreement until a majority says otherwise, which would also be allowed to trade into the UK. There are those who say Northern Ireland could become, if not quite a Singapore or Hong Kong, then a thriving independent economy in its own right.

For the DUP, however, nothing can threaten its UK bond, not even the prospect of heretofore unimaginable economic prosperity. So be it. The question remains unanswered, however: will Boris Johnson place his most urgent need to deliver Brexit (for Britain) above the interests of the no-longer-required DUP? I can imagine what Dominic Cummings would say. No matter what the DUP leadership tell you right now, in their hearts that is what they most fear.

Our consumer-led opinion poll today throws up more bad news for Leo Varadkar. Last week, we reported that a minority, admittedly a strong minority, of 43pc were satisfied with his handling of Brexit. That is not a majority. A lesser minority of 27pc were dissatisfied, and a notable 22pc were undecided.

Since that poll was published, senior Government figures have taken issue with our interpretation. They seem to think that the 22pc undecided should have been excluded to present a more reassuring 60:40 satisfaction rating with his handling of Brexit.

However, in our polls, in all polls, the undecided are never excluded from questions related to individual satisfaction ratings, only in relation to party political ratings.

There are good reasons for this, which we will not go into in detail now, only to say that the 22pc undecided as to Varadkar's handling of Brexit is just as relevant as those who are either satisfied or dissatisfied. Further, the question was framed to ascertain the depth and shades of opinion on the issue.

When we set the questions, we also asked about satisfaction with Varadkar in general. The purpose was to ascertain to what extent people are more satisfied with his handling of Brexit than in general as Taoiseach. We were really surprised to discover no difference at all. There was equal dissatisfaction.

What does this tell us? Let us dwell briefly on two things: one, probably, that half of the electorate are deeply anxious about Brexit, specifically its economic effects on them personally and the country as a whole; but also that they are uncomfortable at the Taoiseach's handling of Brexit, most likely at his ever-hardening rhetoric, loose talk of a united Ireland and apparent alignment with the Sinn Fein argument for a Border poll.

He may deny that interpretation too, but he cannot deny the second takeaway from the poll last weekend: despite what many may think, there is no, and probably will not be, a Brexit Bounce for Leo. The process has been allowed to go too far, and has become far too fraught for a bounce, irrespective of the eventual outcome.

The second part of the poll published today confirms the public's unease: consumer sentiment has not fallen off a cliff, but has retracted sharply, particularly among less well-off atypical Fine Gael voters, but across the board too, even among Fine Gael voters.

Not all of this can be laid at the feet of Brexit, but much of it can. This aspect almost certainly can: there has been a nine-point drop in a year to 21pc who think they will be better off next year. And this almost certainly can, at least in part, be laid at the feet of Brexit: there has been a 21 point drop to a minority 45pc who think the country is "going in the right direction" and a reflective 18 point increase in those who think it is going in the wrong direction.

There are other findings too, which Paul Moran deals with in more detail, which speak to, shall we say, a softening in exuberance (I believe) the closer we get to a crash-out Brexit.

None of this will encourage Leo Varadkar towards an election. But if Boris Johnson goes, either before, or after (and in my view more likely before) October 31, then the case for a simultaneous election in Ireland will be made loudly and vociferously, particularly by those in Fianna Fail whom Michael Martin has, so far, managed to keep quiet.

The likelihood remains that Martin will continue to play the stability card with events so uncertain in the UK. But, as sure as night follows day, political instability will cross the Irish Sea the moment Boris Johnson has in place a majority government, with or without the support of the DUP.

This will lead to an inevitable question: with Brexit and the entirety of those dire warnings manifest and upon us, will the obvious follow-on to the green jersey argument beloved by the current Government, and mainsteam centrist parties, deliver us a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition? Specifically, the question for Leo Varadkar is whether he would allow Fine Gael be the junior partner in such a coalition.

As the UK trade expert, the sensible David Henig said in a separate Brexit-related context last week, ignoring such inconveniences would be a failure of government.

Sunday Independent

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