Tuesday 20 August 2019

Editorial: 'Westminster is a circus in search of a ringmaster'

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire


If Theresa May moved significantly in the past three years, it was from no longer being part of the problem to being the problem itself. Some 28 of her ministers are reported to be in open revolt, favouring a customs union. The British prime minister has resisted this at all cost. The one point of possible consensus in a house historically divided was still being dismissed by Mrs May because it did not conform to her red-lines. Saving her party from a split once again trumps uniting the House.

Speaking on RTÉ yesterday, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said Ireland could not allow itself to be taken out of the EU because of Britain. But with two weeks to go, we are still blind to the massive security implications of a hard Border. The more optimistic still cleave to a hope that, with 70pc of the Commons vehemently opposed to a no-deal crash-out, a compromise can be found.

But Westminster is still a circus in search of a ringmaster. Thus the EU Commission has acknowledged a no-deal Brexit remains likely. Others, led by France, feel it is time to put things up to the UK and, if necessary, face the evil day sooner rather than later. Europe is, above all, tired of London's prevarication. After a very fractious EU leaders' summit some days ago, the Taoiseach is under no illusion that opinions are hardening across the remaining 26 member states.

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Today Leo Varadkar flies to Paris for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron. On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to Dublin. The engine of international politics will not be stalled any longer. But in a busy world, where all countries have their own pressing concerns, we need to assert our crucial need to avoid a return to border checks, which disappeared thanks to the border-free single market and a peace process supported by the EU. Ireland cannot rely on the UK's political leaders resolving their own difficulties in time. The new Brexit deadline of Friday week, April 12, beckons and the EU leaders are set to meet in crisis mode two days earlier, on April 10.

This is the defining test of Leo Varadkar's leadership since he took office in June 2017. He and people like Mr Coveney have operated well on the EU stage up to now. But they have been less impressive in their limited communications with the Irish people. From now on, they must be brutally frank about the risks ahead.

The reality is that the insurance policy deal, the so-called backstop, will not help in a no-deal situation. The EU leaders must protect the integrity of the single market with high product standards, which took 30 years to put in place.

Yesterday Mrs May's chief whip Julian Smith described her cabinet as "the most ill-disciplined in British political history". He also pointed out how Mrs May should have made clear after the 2017 election the UK would "inevitably" have to accept a closer relationship with the EU.

According to Thomas Mann, order and simplification are the first steps towards mastery of a subject. Mrs May eschewed both, and has neither driven nor led. The dream of "global Britain" has morphed into a rogue genie. The challenge now is to make sure Ireland does not become the collateral damage to the UK's leadership vacuum.

Irish Independent

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