UK’s sham­bolic Tories lead the way to Brexit chaos

The most unim­pres­sive set of Bri­tish politi­cians for 60 years could dam­age the econ­omy of Ire­land as well as their own, writes Colm McCarthy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - COMMENT -

THERE should be no Schaden­freude, joy in an­other’s mis­for­tune, any­where in Europe, es­pe­cially in Ire­land, about the de­scent into dys­func­tion in West­min­ster. The Brexit process can­not be man­aged solely from Brus­sels, it must also be man­aged by a united and fo­cused gov­ern­ment in Lon­don. The week’s events must be driv­ing Bri­tain’s Euro­pean coun­ter­parts to dis­trac­tion.

Last March, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment re­leased a re­port on the eco­nomic im­pact of Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union on Bri­tain her­self and on the re­main­ing EU-27 mem­bers. The re­port was pre­pared by econ­o­mists at the Brus­sels think-tank CEPS and there have been sim­i­lar stud­ies from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the USA, the OECD in Paris and nu­mer­ous other re­searchers in­clud­ing the ESRI in Dublin.

These stud­ies can­not model the pre­cise form which Brexit will take, since this re­mains un­clear. But, mak­ing a va­ri­ety of as­sump­tions, the stud­ies are agreed on some key con­clu­sions. The most neg­a­tive eco­nomic im­pact will be on the UK it­self, fol­lowed by Ire­land and then by nearby Bel­gium and the Nether­lands, which have big trade ex­po­sures to the UK. All of the EU27 will see some neg­a­tive im­pact but it will be quite mi­nor for many. The harder the Brexit, the big­ger the neg­a­tive im­pact all round.

Aside from a few Leave cam­paign­ers in Lon­don, there is no sup­port from econ­o­mists for the Brex­i­teer view that this could be a win for Bri­tain. The like­li­hood is that the EU-27 will be worse off, but per­haps not by very much if a se­ri­ous dam­age-lim­i­ta­tion deal can be sal­vaged. For Bri­tain, the stud­ies sup­port the con­clu­sion of mu­si­cian Bob Geldof dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign that the Brexit vote was a griev­ous act of self-harm, at least in eco­nomic terms. Peo­ple are en­ti­tled to be scep­ti­cal about a con­sen­sus among econ­o­mists but they should note that the de­gree of con­sen­sus in this case is un­usual.

Eco­nomic pol­icy choices are con­tentious, shrouded in mea­sure­ment un­cer­tain­ties and their as­sess­ment hardly an ex­act science. But when the in­ter­na­tional ex­perts who have done the care­ful stud­ies al­most all seem to agree, take note: this does not hap­pen too fre­quently.

One of the un­suc­cess­ful can­di­dates for lead­er­ship of the Tory party, af­ter David Cameron’s post-ref­er­en­dum res­ig­na­tion in the fate­ful sum­mer of 2016, was Boris John­son. He was ap­pointed for­eign sec­re­tary by the last-woman-stand­ing, Theresa May, af­ter the Tory party knife-fight of a lead­er­ship race. A year later, Leo Varad­kar was cho­sen to lead the Fine Gael party af­ter a rather more el­e­gant con­test for the suc­ces­sion to prime min­is­te­rial of­fice in this coun­try, the one most at risk, af­ter Bri­tain, from the con­se­quences of Cameron’s folly.

As with John­son, the de­feated can­di­date, Si­mon Coveney, was ap­pointed for­eign min­is­ter. It is in­struc­tive to com­pare the per­for­mances of these two lead­er­ship as­pi­rants in deal­ing with the chal­lenges posed by Bri­tain’s EU de­par­ture as for­eign min­is­ters in their re­spec­tive coun­tries. John­son has openly chal­lenged the prime min­is­ter’s stated po­si­tion, the agreed po­si­tion of the cabi­net, and sur­vived in of­fice. Si­mon Coveney, in con­trast, has ar­tic­u­lated the evo­lu­tion in the Irish Gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy on Brexit in lock-step with the Taoiseach, and has done a thor­ough job in ex­plain­ing all of this in the UK me­dia, most re­cently in a well-con­structed Daily Tele­graph opin­ion piece last week.

If John­son was Irish for­eign min­is­ter he would have been fired by now. The Irish Gov­ern­ment looks co­he­sive, fo­cused, wrestling with an un­in­vited pol­icy dilemma with all hands on deck, led by both win­ner and loser in the Fine Gael lead­er­ship con­test.

The Tory party, the old­est po­lit­i­cal party in the world by all ac­counts and the touch­stone of tra­di­tional Bri­tish state­craft, looks like a rab­ble which has lost the will to gov­ern. Two cabi­net min­is­ters have been jet­ti­soned this past week, one for plac­ing his hand on the knee of a fe­male jour­nal­ist at what ap­pears to have been a boozy con­fer­ence din­ner aeons ago, the other for some free­lance for­eign pol­icy in­dis­cre­tions on the Golan Heights. The owner of the of­fended knee has in­sisted that she, while unimpressed, feels the min­is­ter should not have had to quit.

The Arab-Is­raeli con­flict will not be greatly al­tered by Priti Pa­tel’s of­fer to fi­nance some hos­pi­tals for Syr­ian refugees run by the Is­raeli army in the Golan Heights. Un­for­tu­nately for her, it has been UK gov­ern­ment pol­icy for 50 years that Is­rael should de­part the Golan Heights. Priti Pa­tel messed up and Michael Fal­lon, the de­fen­es­trated de­fence min­is­ter, should have kept his hand off the lady’s knee. But Boris John­son has chal­lenged the prime min­is­ter re­peat­edly and pub­licly in pur­suit of his dis­ap­pointed lead­er­ship am­bi­tions on the big­gest eco­nomic and for­eign pol­icy chal­lenge that his coun­try has faced for a gen­er­a­tion.

It is ex­tra­or­di­nary that John­son sur­vives while Fal­lon and Pa­tel walk the plank, an il­lus­tra­tion of what looks like a ner­vous break­down in the Con­ser­va­tive party. The leaked dossier on sex­ual trans­gres­sions, ev­i­dently sourced at least in part from the Tory party whips’ of­fice, in­cluded the whop­ping ‘‘al­le­ga­tion’’ that an un­at­tached fe­male min­is­ter had a fling a few years back with an un­at­tached male MP. This is a se­ri­ous crim­i­nal of­fence, pun­ish­able by ston­ing (for ladies only) in parts of the Mid­dle East, but now ap­par­ently judged fair game to be wheeled out in the Tory fac­tion fight over Brexit.

In a rather more con­se­quen­tial in­ter­ven­tion dur­ing the week, US com­merce sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross in­sisted that if Bri­tain wants a new trade deal with the USA, it will have to yield on the rules for agri­cul­tural im­ports, which means chlo­ri­nated chick­ens, hor­mone-in­jected beef and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops. This would mean a hard bor­der, on the south­ern side, in Ire­land, since the EU would re­quire that these prod­ucts not find a route into the EU via the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

Coveney and Varad­kar have al­ready made it clear that they are alert to the risk that the Repub­lic could end up as fall guys, forced to erect bar­ri­ers on the south­ern side of the bor­der in or­der to main­tain Ire­land’s com­pli­ance with EU mem­ber­ship. Wil­bur Ross, if any­body in Bri­tain has no­ticed, is ef­fec­tively de­mand­ing that Mex­ico should build the wall and pay for it, with Ire­land sub­sti­tuted for Mex­ico. The UK elec­torate voted to quit the EU but were not asked about ei­ther the cus­toms union or the sin­gle market and in­deed were as­sured by John­son among oth­ers that Brexit did not threaten sin­gle market mem­ber­ship.

If Bri­tain per­sists in a trade pol­icy which shifts the costs of cus­toms com­pli­ance south of the bor­der, the Irish Gov­ern­ment is per­fectly en­ti­tled to re­sist. No such choice can be jus­ti­fied as com­pli­ance with the demo­cratic ver­dict of the ref­er­en­dum, which was sim­ply to de­part the Euro­pean Union.

It is sad­den­ing to watch the cur­rent con­di­tion of Bri­tish pol­i­tics from this side of the Irish Sea. I have just fin­ished re-read­ing the won­der­ful au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of the Labour politi­cian De­nis Healey, one of many of his gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing Mar­garet Thatcher, who would have kept Bri­tain out of this ap­palling mess.

Bri­tain is led by the least im­pres­sive group of front-line politi­cians since the Suez de­ba­cle 60 years ago.

‘It’s as­ton­ish­ing that John­son sur­vives while Fal­lon and Pa­tel walk the plank...’

SUR­VIVOR: Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son has re­peat­edly chal­lenged Theresa May on major eco­nomic and pol­icy is­sues

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