Monday 16 September 2019

John Downing: 'Boris Johnson is welcome to Dublin - but his visit carries some risk for the Taoiseach at a tricky time'

'Mr Johnson remains adamant he needs the no-deal threat to wrest a better agreement from Brussels at the next EU leaders' summit.' Photo: Getty Images
'Mr Johnson remains adamant he needs the no-deal threat to wrest a better agreement from Brussels at the next EU leaders' summit.' Photo: Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

'There was no police escort. The biggest danger to the British prime minister was from his wife, who had a reputation as an eccentric driver, but the roads were blessedly empty.

"Smuggling being a major local industry, the customs officials in Belcoo, no respecters of rank, required that she and the prime minister open the suitcases in her car boot, presumably to ensure she and the prime minister were not making a killing out of imported nylon stockings, then in short supply."

The above is an engaging account from an age of innocence about the UK Labour prime minister Clement Atlee crossing the Irish Border with his wife into Co Fermanagh after a private holiday in Co Sligo in 1946.

He was on his way to hold talks with then Northern Ireland premier, one Basil Stanlake Brooke, or Viscount Brookeborough, who led the North's government from 1943 to 1963.

The strange Border-crossing account is from the political memoirs of Belfast-born journalist John Cole, best remembered as BBC political editor through the torrid years of Maggie Thatcher and John Major.

That remembered day, when the UK prime minister encountered the young journalist from the 'Belfast Telegraph' at the Border, there was feverish and groundless speculation in the British press that Atlee would bring proposals to abolish partition.

Cole wistfully reflects on the sometimes naïve reporting of "those clever young men in London" who knew little or nothing about Irish affairs. As we well know, the North's political situation would remain atrophied for another 25 years and would then erupt into violent tragedy.

But the image of that slightly dotty English couple, holding the most exalted political position in the UK, wandering alone across the Irish Border is apposite today as one from a new generation of "those clever young men in London" lands in Dublin.

The increasingly embattled UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, will be welcomed to Dublin because his meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is an important happening in itself.

At this stage it is very hard to see what substantive progress can come from this meeting. Indeed, there are some dangers in it for the Taoiseach and his Government, who risk being characterised in at least some sections of the UK media as a major part in that false portrayal of "the intractable and inflexible EU response" to Mr Johnson's quest for a deal.

Mr Varadkar was wise yesterday to play down expectations. He frankly said he did not expect a breakthrough which, if it is to happen at all, will be at the next EU leaders' summit scheduled for October 17 and 18.

The Taoiseach said his meeting with Mr Johnson is an opportunity to see what common ground might exist, stressing he still believes all governments want to reach a Brexit deal and avoid a no-deal outcome.

Mr Johnson will be seven weeks in his new job this Wednesday. He lands in Dublin after a torrid week of political reverses and only 52 days from the Brexit deadline which still risks being a UK "crash-out by default" on October 31.

All signs are that he is sworn to fight on as prime minister. This is despite seeing cabinet allies quit and his "do-or-die" Brexit strategy blocked by MPs, who are equally refusing to give him the necessary two-thirds majority for the early election he wants. By now he looks like he can neither lead nor drive, outflanked by pro-EU opponents until recently on his side, and in the massed ranks of the opposition parties.

Fears of the UK and the EU splitting calamitously without a deal were further compounded yesterday when France sounded a big "non" to another Brexit extension. "In the current circumstances, it's no," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a Sunday political talk show in Paris.

"We are not going through this every three months," he added.

It helped remind us of two important points about what would amount to a third Brexit extension to avoid Ireland's worst no-deal nightmare: The UK government must seek such an extension, and Mr Johnson has said he will "die in a ditch" before he does that; and all the other EU governments have to back an extension.

Last Thursday, the prime minister suffered a reverse when his brother, Jo Johnson, quit the government and parliament citing an unbearable conflict between his own pro-EU convictions and his brother's policy. On Saturday, things got worse when Tory heavy-hitter Amber Rudd quit the cabinet and the party.

Yesterday Ms Rudd piled on the agony, saying she could no longer be part of the team heading for no-deal. "When I asked Number 10 for a summary of what the plan was for actually getting a deal, I was sent a one-page summary," she told BBC television.

Ms Rudd said she believed Mr Johnson is seeking a new deal with the EU. But she estimated that 80pc of the London effort is about preparing for no-deal.

Mr Johnson remains adamant he needs the no-deal threat to wrest a better agreement from Brussels at the next EU leaders' summit. After he leaves Dublin today he is set to make another unsuccessful effort to seek approval for his early election on October 15.

But the Westminster Parliament is effectively telling Mr Johnson to instead seek an extension should his approach fail to get a deal by October 19. If he fails to follow Parliament's direction, things could end up in court. The other bonkers option is Mr Johnson trying to down his own government to get an early election.

This appears to leave Mr Johnson with few other options but to resign. But two of his loyal ministers said on Sunday he would not do that.

"The prime minister will not be resigning. He will be keeping this government's promise to leave on the 31st," Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid told the BBC.

UK foreign minister Dominic Raab suggested one option would be for the government to challenge Parliament's potential delay request in court. "It will be challenged in the courts," he told Sky News.

"What we are going to do with that legislation is test very carefully what it does and doesn't require and that's not only the lawful thing to do, I think that's the responsible thing to do," Mr Raab said.

Despite all these woes, the prime minister and his inner circle are taking succour from opinion polls suggesting they can win the upcoming general election whatever its specific timing. Three separate polls published yesterday showed the Conservatives holding, or slightly extending, their 10-point lead over the Labour Party.

But Theresa May relied on similar hopes in June 2007. Now she's a footnote to history.

Irish Independent

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