Saturday 21 September 2019

John Downing: 'As the clock ticks down to unpredictable endgame, Brexit bluster looks likely to break rhetoric-o-meter'

Regardless of whether you are directly or indirectly impacted by Brexit, if you haven't taken time to explore and assess your risk, then it might come back to bite you.. Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Regardless of whether you are directly or indirectly impacted by Brexit, if you haven't taken time to explore and assess your risk, then it might come back to bite you.. Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
John Downing

John Downing

The posh phrase for the machine was the "audience reaction indicator". It dated from an age of single-channel television innocence when a superbly awful man called Hughie Green fronted a talent show called 'Opportunity Knocks'.

The epically ghastly Mr Green used to often remind viewers that "the clap-o-meter was only for fun". He was referring to an impressive-looking big wooden box, which supposedly measured the level of studio audience applause for the novice entertainers who hoped their television debut would lead to showbiz stardom.

The fate of those would-be stars was in fact decided by a postal vote from what the redoubtable Hughie always termed "you, the viewers at home".

In later manifestations of the show, it was done by a telephone poll. There was no panel of obnoxious adjudicators, featured in such shows in more recent times, just ambitious showbiz promoters who mobilised a big vote for their charges by fair means or otherwise.

And what is the political relevance of this piece of useless reminiscence, we hear you ask? Well, the musing comes as another week opens with another crunch time for Brexit.

Yes, it's another deadline - just like the ones in March and June and October.

The only thing is that the clock is relentlessly ticking and, finally, eventually, one of these crunch weeks will be the last chance for working out a deal to avoid economic carnage.

The second related point is that this time we are talking about a cousin of that imposing television machine, what we should call the 'rhetoric-o-meter'. And a sure sign that negotiations are moving towards the Brexit endgame is that the 'rhetoric-o-meter' has been doing handstands in recent days.

So, borrowing from the late, but never great, Hughie Green, let me tell you that the 'rhetoric-o-meter' should really only be for fun. But like its forerunner, the clap-o-meter, it is part of the process and not without influence on the outcome.

But let's also remember that hardline public guff does not mean that a deal is cooking behind the scenes. And any politician who does a deal must turn quickly and aggressively to sell that same deal.

The deal that is cooking this week could see the United Kingdom staying in a customs union with the European Union.

This would allow so-called frictionless trade to continue, until a long-term EU-UK trade deal is worked out for a post-Brexit world.

That would be a boon for Ireland as it would resolve the Border crux and also secure lucrative Irish-British trade for some time to come.

That arrangement would likely continue at least until the start of 2021. But it could well continue for some time beyond that, depending on how the longer-term EU-UK talks go.

The sticking point turns around the EU and Ireland wanting to avoid a hard Border, with customs posts or regulatory checkpoints, between the Republic and the North, amid real fears this could rekindle the dormant conflict on this island.

But the UK, and particularly the Democratic Unionist Party, wants to avoid any kind of customs or regulatory distinction between Northern Ireland and Britain. Negotiators are undoubtedly exercising their political imaginations to find some kind of solution to this dilemma. But it does looks very difficult.

The EU wants its default mechanism, or backstop, in case the two sides cannot forge a longer-term deal in the next few years. This would keep the North aligned with the rest of Ireland and by extension with the EU.

Mrs May does not want Northern Ireland diverging from Britain. So, her proposal is that the whole of the UK stays aligned with the EU - in a customs union - until that long-term EU-UK deal is done.

The EU might agree to this, but each side still has its own big concerns.

The EU worries the UK might unilaterally pull out of this temporary customs union, which would reopen the Northern Irish question.

So it has been arguing that the original backstop, the so-called "backstop to the backstop", must remain in reserve.

But the UK argues that the whole point of that bigger backstop is to get rid of the Irish backstop.

And back to the rhetoric-o-meter, we find Theresa May getting stick from all sides. The DUP's Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, yesterday joined forces with leading Conservative Party eurosceptic Steve Baker, a former minister, to ratchet up the rhetorical pressure.

"If the government makes the historic mistake of prioritising placating the EU over establishing an independent and whole UK, then regrettably we must vote against the deal," the pair said in a jointly penned article for the 'Sunday Telegraph'.

The point is that some commentators speculate that Mrs May could lose about 40 of her own MPs and the 10 members of the DUP, who insist Northern Ireland cannot leave the EU on different terms to those of England, Scotland and Wales. Such loss of support would give her almost no chance of getting her deal through the Westminster parliament.

Her only advantage appears to be time. As things boil down to a choice between her deal and a chaotic no-deal scenario, there may be no time for any third option to emerge ahead of Brexit day on March 29 next year.

This means some of her MPs might hold their noses and support her.

But she cannot look to the opposition Labour Party for any kind of bailout. The Labour Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, has also taken to the rhetoric-o-meter to reject Mrs May's 'either-or' strategy as political blackmail.

"As crunch time looms, there is now the very real prospect the prime minister will struggle to find enough support for her deal to be formally approved by parliament," he wrote in an article in the 'Sunday Times'. "If a Brexit deal is rejected by MPs, that isn't a mandate for no-deal," he added.

The worrying part is that Mrs May's backbench opponents seem ready to risk a no-deal Brexit.

Labour and other opponents seem to be banking on some other scenario unfolding. That might be a second referendum. Some left-wing MPs advocate this, others want a Brexit-themed election, still others want an extension of negotiations beyond the March 29 deadline.

With forces pulling in all directions, we can only predict unpredictability.

But if a deal is not closed this week, the British government and its key counterparts in Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands will need to step up their sluggish contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit.

It is all very finely poised but heading for the endgame.

Irish Independent

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