Sunday 18 August 2019

John Downing: 'Warnings are ignored as no-deal rhetoric raises the risk. For Johnson, it's now all about an election win'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA
John Downing

John Downing

As things stand British dog, cat and ferret owners can bring their pets on holiday to mainland Europe, provided they have "a pet passport". If the EU and UK conclude a Brexit deal that is not expected to change - but with a no-deal outcome it will.

Sometimes, it's the smaller things which alert us to what is really happening. Hence the focus on the impact of Brexit on pets and schoolchildren, for example.

As to the schools, the London newspapers carried details yesterday of the likely impact of a no-deal Brexit on education. Schools may have to close, food for pupils' meals could run short and exams may be disrupted, an internal UK Education Department memo warned.

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You can add those to a heap of official warnings that various official UK institutes have delivered in recent weeks. On Friday, the Bank of England governor issued a tough warning about the impact of a no-deal Brexit, saying that food and petrol prices would rise "instantly" and "very big" industries would struggle to remain profitable.

But Boris Johnson's strange mixture of bluster, spoof and "boosterism" continues apace. Every other day he has garnished his no-deal warnings with announcements of big government spending and yesterday it was the turn of the health sector with a €1.8bn extra funding pledge.

The posh word for the new UK PM's Brexit stance is "panglossian" - that strange ability to be optimistic irrespective of the circumstances or mountains of evidence to the contrary all around you. Mr Johnson is today on "Day 12 in Downing Street" as the rest of us realise it is 87 days and counting to the Brexit deadline of October 31 - and all the while that no-deal rhetoric increases in volume.

Yesterday the Brexit Minister, Stephen Barcla,y publicly told EU leaders the Withdrawal Agreement must be revised or no-deal Brexit "is coming down the tracks". He said EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had told him in a discussion last week that he is bound by instructions from the commission member governments not to reopen the divorce deal done by Theresa May on November 25 last.

Mr Barclay had argued the "political realities have changed" since the task was set. He said 61pc of MEPs have changed in the election in late May. "Such a fundamental shift illustrates the need for a change of approach," Mr Barclay wrote in a British Sunday newspaper.

"Mr Barnier needs to urge EU leaders to consider this if they too want an agreement, to enable him to negotiate in a way that finds common ground with the UK. Otherwise, no-deal is coming down the tracks," he added.

Strange that the London government suddenly is setting such store by the European Parliament, an institution it more usually disparaged, or worse. Stranger again, that it should equate a change of MEPs with a change of the parliament's view of Brexit. London will soon find that there is no such change of heart in the new European assembly.

Boris Johnson has continued to talk up his desire to take the UK out of the EU by October 31, as part of his "do or die" commitment. He has publicly clashed with EU leaders, but avoided meeting them, while saying the Irish backstop to prevent a hard Border must be abolished, and insisting a new deal can be achieved before the deadline.

But Brussels has refused to reopen Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the PM that the backstop was "necessary as a consequence of decisions taken in the UK". When Mrs May announced the UK would leave the EU single market and customs union as part of Brexit, there was no other option.

Yet another spin-off from no-deal Brexit, this time relating to transport, emerged in that leaked education document in London. Citing the risk of mass queues and disruption at Dover, the document says: "Risk of travel disruption could result in school and early years settings closures, pupil and staff absence, and exam disruption."

The document also raises the spectre of panic buying of food. In the event of scarcity, the Education Department will try to advise on school menu changes.

Already, we have had that depressing statistic from the British Freight Transport Association, that every additional minute a truck is held at customs in Dover can equate to some 20 miles (32km) of extra truck queues behind it.

The whole south-east of England risks becoming a giant truck park. Let's recall that a study published in November 2017 found that about 150,000 Irish vehicles use the so-called "landbridge" each year. They carry about three million tonnes in annual volume, two million in exports and one million in imports. Queues at Dover are very bad news for Ireland.

Labour's opposition education spokeswoman, Angela Rayner, said the document showed the potential disaster a no-deal Brexit would have for schools and nurseries. "By the government's own admission, head teachers may be left unable to feed their pupils or forced to close their doors entirely," she said.

A separate leaked government document suggested security issues could surface within a fortnight of a no-deal, triggering "consumer panic". The government's own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, has also recently warned that no-deal would increase borrowing by £30bn (€33bn) per year and plunge the nation into a recession. When you look at things like that, you would have to conclude that Boris Johnson needs a Brexit deal just like everyone else. But then again this is about Tory politics - not economics or even logic - as Brexit has always been and continues to be.

What Boris Johnson wants more than anything else in the world is to win the next general election as his parliament majority is now down to one MP since last Thursday's by-election defeat in north Wales.

When will that general election be? He says not until after he has delivered Brexit on October 31.

But as UK MPs, across all parties, look for ways to thwart a no-deal Brexit, Mr Johnson could face a no-confidence motion as early as September 5, when parliament returns. Still, his Brexit enforcer, Dominic Cummings, revealed last week the government could lose that confidence vote and still call an election for after the October 31 deadline. That would make no-deal Brexit a fait accompli.

Before then, it is likely that Mr Johnson will in fact meet three of the EU heads of government at a G7 leaders' summit in Biarritz, France, on August 24, in spite of his preconditions. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall as he talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Irish Independent

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