Theresa May suf­fers de­feats on Brexit. Trump’s for­mer lawyer pleads guilty. Philip­pine jour­nal­ist charged with tax fraud.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Hamish McDon­ald

Like the Black Knight in Monty Python who fights on de­spite hav­ing his limbs sev­ered – “’Tis but a scratch” – Bri­tish prime minister Theresa May pushed her Brexit agree­ment in the House of Com­mons this week to­wards what looked like a com­ing de­feat in the vote on Tues­day.

Be­fore she rose to de­fend her agree­ment with the Euro­pean Union – to re­main in the Euro­pean cus­toms area un­til the end of 2020 while ne­go­ti­a­tions con­tin­ued on a per­ma­nent ar­range­ment be­yond – she suf­fered three de­feats on the floor of the par­lia­ment. MPs voted down her at­tempt to re­fer a wran­gle over dis­clo­sure of her at­tor­ney-gen­eral’s full ad­vice on Brexit to a com­mit­tee. They de­clared her gov­ern­ment in con­tempt for re­fus­ing to ta­ble the ad­vice. They re­solved that should the Brexit agree­ment be voted down par­lia­ment would control car­riage of new ne­go­ti­a­tions.

That last vote meant May lost the sup­port of 26 of her Con­ser­va­tive MPs and the 10 North­ern Ire­land union­ist MPs.

The diehard Brex­i­teers among the Tories see May’s agree­ment as a half­way house likely to be­come per­ma­nent in or­der to avoid a hard land border in Ire­land. “We are go­ing to be rule-tak­ers; we are go­ing to be a de facto colony,” said for­mer for­eign sec­re­tary Boris Johnson. “And out of sheer funk we are en­sur­ing we will never, ever be able to take ad­van­tage of the free­doms we should have won through Brexit.” When At­tor­ney Gen­eral Geoffrey Cox’s ad­vice was tabled on Wed­nes­day, it bol­stered their case: May’s agree­ment could leave Bri­tain half-in, half-out, in­def­i­nitely.

They want to crash out on March 29 when the two-year tran­si­tion from no­tice of EU with­drawal ends – de­spite new ad­vice from the Bank of Eng­land that this would leave the Bri­tish econ­omy 9.3 per cent smaller by the 2030s than it would be if Bri­tain stayed in the EU. May’s com­pro­mise is the least bad op­tion to re­main­ing, with the econ­omy only 2.5 per cent smaller.

In­ci­den­tally, ap­par­ently in­flu­enced by for­mer Lon­don high com­mis­sioner Alexan­der Downer, Aus­tralia’s Coali­tion gov­ern­ment wants a hard Brexit as soon as pos­si­ble, so it can ne­go­ti­ate a free trade agree­ment with Bri­tain – re­gard­less of the ef­fect on West­ern unity and not men­tion­ing the dev­as­tat­ing blow free trade agree­ments with Aus­tralia and other New World economies would de­liver to Bri­tish agri­cul­ture.

Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour op­po­si­tion has said that if May’s Brexit deal is voted down, it will put a mo­tion of no-con­fi­dence in her gov­ern­ment to try to pre­cip­i­tate elec­tions and per­haps a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit. The prospect of Cor­byn so­cial­ism might re­turn even the hardest Brex­i­teers to the fold. Mean­while an ad­vo­cate gen­eral in the Euro­pean court has ad­vised that Bri­tain could re­voke its no­tice of with­drawal uni­lat­er­ally any time be­fore March 29.

Xi shot the tar­iff

Eight, nine, nine-and-a-half, nine­and-three-quar­ters… Don­ald Trump blinked in Buenos Aires last Satur­day night dur­ing his sup­posed show­down with China’s Xi Jin­ping over trade, and sus­pended his threat to es­ca­late tar­iffs on im­ports from China for an­other 90 days.

With no joint state­ment is­sued, each side drib­bled out bits of what the two lead­ers had agreed. It wasn’t much. Trump said Xi agreed to lower tar­iffs on US-made cars – or was it to abol­ish the tar­iffs? No one was clear. Xi had agreed to out­law non-med­i­cal pro­duc­tion of fen­tanyl, the pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oid caus­ing over­dose deaths in Amer­ica – then it turned out it was il­le­gal in China any­way.

The 90-day sus­pen­sion of the rise to 25 per cent in puni­tive tar­iffs on about half of im­ports from China, and ex­ten­sion to the rest of China’s ship­ments, started on the day of the meet­ing, De­cem­ber 1. Ex­ist­ing tar­iffs of 10 per cent stay in force. China had said it would lift im­ports of US farm prod­ucts and ma­chin­ery, but was clear about the re­tal­ia­tory tar­iffs it im­posed on $US110 bil­lion of im­ports from the US.

The real nub of US–China trade fric­tion – forced trans­fer of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty as the price of en­try to China’s do­mes­tic mar­ket, cy­ber spy­ing, and state­spon­sored ef­forts to seize lead­er­ship in mi­cro­pro­ces­sors and other tech­nolo­gies – was kicked fur­ther down the road.

Like many Asian lead­ers be­fore him, Xi was buy­ing off the Amer­i­cans with more or­ders for Boe­ings and soy­beans, which they would have bought any­way.

Fi­nan­cial mar­kets ini­tially wel­comed the truce, then crashed on Tues­day when Trump’s early-morn­ing Twit­ter-storm showed that back in Wash­ing­ton he was again un­der the in­flu­ence of White House trade war­riors: “I am a Tar­iff Man. When peo­ple or coun­tries come in to raid the great wealth of our Na­tion, I want them to pay for the priv­i­lege of do­ing so. It will al­ways be the best way to max out our eco­nomic power. We are right now tak­ing in $bil­lions in Tar­iffs. MAKE AMER­ICA RICH AGAIN.”

Trump clearly thinks the tar­iffs are a bo­nanza for the US gov­ern­ment, bring­ing in ex­tra “bil­lions” of cus­toms du­ties from the Chi­nese. They ac­tu­ally come from the US buy­ers of the prod­ucts. Thanks to a fall in China’s yuan, and stock­pil­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the higher tar­iffs, Chi­nese ex­ports to the US have ac­tu­ally risen. But Trump also said he might ex­tend the truce if a “real deal” was not ready by the end of Fe­bru­ary. Xi will keep him dan­gling.

Con­way sav­age

It’s all a won­der­ful di­ver­sion from Trump’s deep­en­ing le­gal quandary, af­ter his for­mer lawyer Michael Co­hen pleaded guilty in a New York court to false tes­ti­mony to Congress over Trump’s fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in Rus­sia.

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller had caught him out in a lie that Trump’s pur­suit of a Trump Tower de­vel­op­ment had ended by Fe­bru­ary 2016, well ahead of the Repub­li­can pri­mary elec­tions for the pres­i­dency. It turns out that ne­go­ti­a­tions, via colour­ful fixer Felix Sater, ended only in mid-June 2016, af­ter Trump had ef­fec­tively clinched the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and just as re­ports broke of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the Wik­iLeaks trove of Demo­crat emails. And as a sweet­ener, Vladimir Putin was to get a $US50 mil­lion pent­house in the new build­ing.

Co­hen’s rev­er­sal en­snares Trump, who re­peat­edly de­nied any fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests with Rus­sia. But Trump bat­tled on, ac­cus­ing Co­hen of ly­ing to get a re­duced sen­tence. He praised for­mer Repub­li­can oper­a­tive Roger Stone, who ap­pears to have tipped off Trump about the Wik­iLeaks hack, for “guts” in re­fus­ing to tes­tify to Mueller against Trump.

This lat­ter move got con­demned as wit­ness-tam­per­ing by some le­gal fig­ures, in­clud­ing well-known con­ser­va­tive lawyer Ge­orge Con­way, whose wife Kellyanne is an ad­viser in the White House. Con­way, who has called the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion a “shit-show in a dump­ster fire”, had ear­lier con­demned Trump’s re­cent ap­point­ment of the highly par­ti­san lawyer Matthew Whi­taker as act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, af­ter he sacked Jeff Ses­sions for re­cus­ing him­self from over­sight of Mueller.

It’s caused some fric­tion in the Con­way house­hold, Kellyanne has ad­mit­ted, and pres­i­den­tial son Eric Trump this week at­tacked the “ut­ter dis­re­spect” Ge­orge had shown her and “ev­ery­thing she has fought SO hard to achieve”.

Rap­pler rapped

The US pres­i­dent is still re­fus­ing dis­clo­sure of his tax re­turns, but else­where in the world abuse of tax laws is fre­quently used by au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers to try to dis­credit crit­ics with­out mak­ing it look po­lit­i­cal.

A case in point is Maria Ressa in the Philip­pines, whose widely fol­lowed web­site Rap­pler has shown what’s hap­pen­ing in Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Since he took of­fice po­lice have killed about 5000 al­leged drug users and deal­ers, and uniden­ti­fied vig­i­lantes an­other 2500 – though some re­ports put the to­tal at 12,000. Ressa turned her­self in to po­lice on Mon­day over charges that she and Rap­pler had given false in­for­ma­tion in tax re­turns.

This week a court in Manila showed some re­sis­tance to Duterte by sen­tenc­ing three po­lice of­fi­cers to up to 40 years’ jail for the ex­e­cu­tion of a 17-year-old school­boy, Kian Loyd de­los San­tos. Ev­i­dence showed the boy al­ready un­der ar­rest be­ing taken into an al­ley, where his body was found with a planted pis­tol. But it re­mains to be seen how the case goes on ap­peal and whether Duterte ex­er­cises a

• par­don to keep po­lice on­side.

Bri­tain’s prime minister, Theresa May, leaves a press con­fer­ence last week in Brus­sels.

HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Satur­day Pa­per’s world ed­i­tor.

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