Saturday 20 July 2019

Martina Devlin: 'If Johnson becomes PM, his strategy will be to use Ireland as a pawn in his gameplay with Brussels'

Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace Theresa May, wants to leave in October
Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace Theresa May, wants to leave in October
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The Tory leadership contest introduces us to the term 'vanity candidates' - MPs with less chance of winning than Larry the Downing Street cat, but whose promotion chances are boosted by inclusion on the ballot.

Some of these hopefuls are indulging in hard Brexit chest-thumping as a way of building support. Their rhetoric suggests scorched earth policies such as suspending parliament to ram through a no-deal Brexit, although civil wars have been fought with less provocation.

Why do we care here in Ireland? We have skin in the game. These Macho Me-Men promise to convert the backstop into a temporary measure if they succeed to the British premiership. Failing that, they threaten that the UK will leave the EU without an agreement and Ireland will suffer collateral damage.

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Every one of the six would-be prime ministers left in the race knows the EU won't budge. Lacking the firepower to force renegotiation (although you wouldn't put it past some of them to send a battleship to dock near Calais), the strategy is to pressurise Ireland to cave in. We waive our objections to a time-limited backstop - problem solved. At least from their perspective.

The impact on Ireland is irrelevant to them because we're nothing more than a pawn in their gameplay with the EU. This is divide and conquer. The Irish Government needs to continue what it's doing and avoid rising to the bait.

Boris Johnson is streaking ahead of his rivals and is almost guaranteed to be prime minister within weeks. Neither a sex nor a corruption scandal, just supposing any were to emerge, will derail him - they'd only enhance his credentials with supporters. Their view is he may be flaky, self-regarding and inclined to sail close to the wind - but at least he's fun. And he gives Johnny Foreigner what for.

Power politics rather than international co-operation is in Mr Johnson's DNA, which appeals to British notions of empire. Consequently, the election is turning into a coronation as opposed to a contest. However, the former foreign secretary is a fire-starter - this will not end well. The only gleam of light lies in his ability to do 180-degree turns without missing a beat.

He has a difficult relationship with plain facts. His preference is for fact-light, fact with a twist, fact peppered with unfact and, best of all, fact-free. Sooner or later, this habit will trip him up but not before he reaches Number 10.

The prevailing narrative is that everyone else is unreasonable because hard Brexiteers cannot have what they want, with the Irish being particularly awkward.

It's a line supported by the DUP. The party's chief whip, Jeffrey Donaldson, was in Dublin on the same day as the first round of Tory voting, promoting the message that all would be well if only the intransigent Irish would see sense and compromise.

Speaking at the Institute of International and European Affairs on Thursday, his tone was moderate but his message hard-line. There was a "seismic problem" with the backstop and the Irish Government was driving the UK towards a no-deal Brexit, he claimed.

This is an assertion that doesn't withstand scrutiny but it's interesting that he travelled to Dublin to promote it. Perhaps he hoped to influence public opinion in the Republic. At least the DUP knew better than to let loose its Brexit spokesperson, Sammy Wilson, prone to muttering about the EU being determined to deliver a punishment beating to Britain.

A border around the Irish Sea would be a "fundamental breach" of constitutional arrangements underpinned by the Good Friday and St Andrew's Agreements, according to Mr Donaldson. But he did not address the reality that Brexit is an even greater violation.

Theresa May accepted the common sense of a sea border, allowing for regulatory alignment on the island, until the DUP vetoed it. "The red line is blood red," said Arlene Foster. But like it or not, and we know the DUP doesn't, compromise is needed and that's a sea border. Not a wobbly backstop which Britain can choose unilaterally to exit.

Meanwhile, Tory in-fighting and electioneering continues to delay engagement with the October 31 deadline, even as they insist there'll be no further extension. Europe has always split the Tories and was the graveyard of several Conservative prime ministers. So no change there. Nothing constructive can be expected until after they vote in a new leader - who will find himself in precisely the same position as Mrs May, without a majority in the House of Commons.

Inevitably, the new prime minister will be Mr Johnson, a man who doesn't answer questions or do detail if he can possibly avoid it - quizzing him is like trying to nail lemonade to the wall. If in doubt, he promises what he can't deliver - which is misrepresentation. Tory grandee John Major had this to say a few days ago when asked if the next prime minister could implement Brexit by Halloween. "Those people who are suggesting that it can be done have their fingers crossed behind their back, whistling gently into the wind and hoping for some miracle where it might be possible."

But who knows how Mr Johnson will behave when he actually has power? On the face of it, Tony Blair appeared to be a more serious politician but it's doubtful that even Mr Johnson would ever do anything as stupid as bounce his country into the second Iraq war. He is viewed as the hardest candidate for Jeremy Corbyn to beat in a general election: polls show Mr Johnson would win a majority large enough to do business. Mind you, polls can be wrong.

Give him a majority and he'll toss the DUP overboard. The party expects this, of course, ever alert for a sell-out Lundy (the governor who fled immediately before the Siege of Derry, a totemic episode in Ulster Protestantism).

Failing a majority, Mr Johnson nevertheless has the DUP to fall back on. The party doesn't trust him but Nigel Dodds et al will keep him in office (or whoever wins the leadership battle) rather than trigger an election because that represents too much risk. The DUP isn't yet ready to stop being the tail that wags the bulldog. Indeed, it's not impossible that a DUP MP might end up in the UK cabinet.

So, either a sea border or no deal are the most likely scenarios. Mr Johnson's strategy is to put pressure on the Irish Government over the backstop, meanwhile peddling a 'they need us more than we need them' fantasy about the EU-UK relationship. He is not well-placed to win concessions after a career devoted to whipping up anti-EU sentiment and, in any case, the EU doesn't believe he'd stand by any new deal he signed.

Meanwhile, Labour's position is to wait for the deluge and offer itself as a lifeboat. There's vanity in that too, of course - a lot of it about.

Irish Independent

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