Summary: Boris has again lumbered into view to complicate further the Tory party’s view of what might happen because of Brexit. After checking that the Parsons Green bucket bomb had not killed anyone he decided to let his long piece in the Saturday Telegraph run. Boris was once for Remain and changed to Leave because he could see his political chances were much better there. If the DUP supported a hard Brexit they would be badly damaged within Northern Ireland were a soft or non-existent border with the south is widely demanded. By playing this card again he risks bringing down the Tory government. He would not be forgiven very easily by so many of his colleagues.
When Boris Johnson dropped his bombshell on 15 September, most were surprised that he had resurrected the most derided claim of the Leave campaign, that leaving would repatriate £350 million per week which could be used for the NHS. That claim was again laughed out of court yet again although Boris, predictably, claimed he had been misrepresented. If you read that article (see here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/15/boris-johnson-vision-bold-thriving-britain-enabled-brexit/)you can see wasn’t misrepresented at all.
His piece in the Telegraph argued for a much harder Brexit. Recently the Tory cabinet had been sliding towards a softer Brexit. Coming as it did, less than a week before Theresa May’s speech in Florence, Boris’s move was widely understood as an attempt to steer the Tory party to the right. That would stop Theresa May from simply making the speech she had promised, developing on the Lancaster House themes, probably moving the Brexit path further towards the centre.
Many see this as Boris on manoeuvres. The fame he had achieved during the Brexit campaign had faded. You might have thought him too busy in the Foreign Office, worrying about North Korea/Putin/Trump/Iran/Syria/Yemen. Despite his notorious laziness he still managed to find time to write 4000 words, emphasising patriotism. He had forgotten that Samuel Johnson had said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.
Yet this is much more than simply about Boris wanting to raise his profile and reposition himself as the leader of the right of the Tory party. With Theresa May under siege with her flaky majority things are very difficult for her. Her position is much like her being locked in the toilet on the last train home while the carriage is full of rowdy drunken hooligans (i.e. Tory MPs). Boris is shamelessly trying to exploit Theresa May’s weakness to his own advantage.
Boris’s approach to Brexit has a lot of support on the right of the Tory party. He may or may not have the support of Michael Gove (this appears to change daily). Given Michael’s enthusiasm for political long knives Boris probably can’t rely on it!
She daren’t sack Boris because that could easily lead to an outright attack on her leadership. Yet she dare not let the Tory party lurch towards hard Brexit because she would never get that through Parliament. The Tories are only in government because of the support of the DUP.
Within Northern Ireland DUP support has been declining progressively in recent years (see: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/09/05/might-northern-ireland-trigger-another-british-general-election/). A hard Brexit deal would lead to a hard border between North and South in Ireland. If this was a consequence of DUP support for that policy they would be decimated in the polls and they know it.
The DUP understand that they are not really that important at Westminster. Their power base is entirely in Northern Ireland. Their extreme right-wing views on same-sex marriage and abortion as well as other things have meant their support is slipping anyway. Amongst the young the historical tribalism of Unionism and Nationalism is much less important. Unionists increasingly see Sinn Fein as being a forward-looking party for the young.
If Theresa May in Florence goes back on her intentions to reset the Brexit negotiations presumably in a way that reflects the view of the Tory cabinet then the future of the support the DUP offers her government will become increasingly problematic. That would lead to a General Election, and very probably a Labour majority. That would be easier for Labour as their will be no time to get a new Tory leader in place, particularly as there are few senior Tories who command much support. They know they cannot let Theresa May lead the party into another election given how badly it has gone for the Tories ever since.
Summary: The Great Repeal Bill relies extensively on the use of secondary legislation to bypass parliamentary scrutiny of the great majority of laws being repatriated. On the most cursory reading of that Bill it will be disastrous for Parliamentary democracy. It will bypass Parliament almost entirely in a way that Henry VIII (and indeed Jacob Rees Mogg as leading candidate to replace Theresa May) would heartily approve of.
The Great Repeal Bill relies heavily on use of the so-called Henry VIII powers to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. It basically allows government ministers to decide when any law can be changed in a whimsical way without Parliament’s approval. Think about George Osborne changing substantially the tax credit rules.
Even Tory MPs are up in arms about this. Dominic Grieve, the Tory MP noted in the Evening Standard “Worryingly, it seeks to confer powers on the government to carry out Brexit in breach of our constitutional principles, in a manner that no sovereign Parliament should allow.” The Government wants us to trust them to get it right! Given that we don’t trust them to get anything right what chance here?
How will this actually work? Let’s start with the very first clause of the Repeal Bill. It says “The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.” We will find in the Bill that “exit” is defined as “such day as a Minister of the Crown may by regulations appoint.”
This means that what is being proposed is that a minister simply gets to decide when our membership of the EU ends. There will be no way that Parliament could interfere with this. It simply needs a Minister of the Crown to make the decision. It is difficult to imagine any proposal which is so diametrically opposed to the promise of “taking back control” which was so prominent in the Leave campaign.
In fact it is probably worse than you imagine. In 18 months time most people believe that Theresa May will have been replaced as PM. On the basis of current popularity polls amongst Tory party members the most likely PM then would be Jacob Rees Mogg, the MP for the 18th-century. As a very hard Brexit supporter, and if the negotiations have got where most people believe (i.e. nowhere), Jacob simply has to say “we are out”. That will be that!
There are many thousands of pieces of legislation that are being moved under the Great Repeal Bill. In practice most of the changes that will be made by “ministers” will actually be made by civil servants and many of those will be in the Home Office. This is the same Home Office that produced the extraordinarily nasty immigration proposals that were leaked a few days ago to the Guardian.
These same civil servants will still be there in the Home Office making decisions, passing them to ministers for rubberstamping. The Home Office has for many years developed a reputation as being one of the nastier departments. Under Theresa May is became particularly vindictive and controlling. Do we really think it is safe to leave the government to do as it likes with our laws? Dominic Grieve is absolutely right in saying that secondary legislation could be carried out “in a manner that no sovereign Parliament should allow”.
Summary: The movie “Dunkirk” showed how easy it is for small old-fashioned propeller aircraft with a single small bomb to sink substantial Navy ships. Yet we hear that our brave Defence Secretary, tasked with saving £20 billion from the MoD budget is going to build another five frigates. For many years the MoD has been working hard to equip itself to fight the last war. This new program simply adds to the problems that our defences are trying to cope with.
Did you see the movie “Dunkirk”? Men who were there say it was very realistic. Did you notice that Stuka dive bombers were able to drop single bombs on fairly large Navy ships and sink them quickly and efficiently? This was all nearly 80 years ago. The Stuka was a propeller aircraft with a dive speed of only 350 miles an hour. The bomb it dropped was a maximum of 250 kg, tiny by modern standards. That was all that was needed to sink a fairly substantial ship.
Today, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the Ministry of defence was to build a batch of five Type 31e frigates. The cost will be capped at about £250 million each. No doubt our Defence Secretary will insist that they are well protected against dive bombers but any naval expert will tell you that it is virtually impossible to do that reliably. Surface capital ships are easy targets in the 21st-century with hypersonic missiles and fast torpedoes used widely.
The claim that the costs will be capped is fairly implausible. Once the contract is placed it is traditional for the MoD to ask that significant changes are made, all of which will increase the cost. The MoD is currently trying to save around £20 billion so exactly how this relatively open-ended commitment of at least £1.25 billion will help that is far from clear.
A wide range of weapons procurement programs for the MoD have already gone disastrously wrong. We have no submarines at sea because of problems. The Type 45 destroyers have serious engine problems that makes them unusable in warm seas such as the Mediterranean or the Gulf. Many other programs including the spanking new aircraft carriers is already greatly flawed and largely inappropriate for the 21st-century.
You can read more about this here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/03/16/britain-defenceless-in-the-21st-century/. What we really should be doing now to make us safe in the future has been discussed here: http://outsidethebubble.net/2017/04/10/defence-in-the-21st-century/.
Yet again the British military are arming frantically to fight the last war. They are devoting vast sums of money to weapon systems that are seriously inappropriate for the 21st-century. When will they wake up and realise just how ineffective and wasteful these programs really are?
Summary: The politics of Northern Ireland are complicated and made more so by Brexit negotiations that are not taking Northern Irish concerns about the border and trade with the South. The biggest party, the DUP, has lost support over the last year both in Assembly and general (Westminster) elections. The DUP are finding their enthusiasm for Leave out of step with general opinion in Northern Ireland. Their support for a Tory party apparently insensitive to the Northern Irish concerns will stop the DUP supporting the Tories. Labour needs to rub salt in those wounds to help the Tory/DUP alliance fall apart.
If you think English politics is complicated, it is much worse in Northern Ireland. For many years the view from the mainland of Northern Ireland politics is to simply to let them get on with it. It is far too complicated to understand. However, the larger Northern Ireland party, the DUP, is critical in supporting the Conservative party in Westminster. In the recent general election DUP won 10 seats and Sinn Fein won 7.
For many years Sinn Fein have refused to take their seats in Westminster at least in part because to do so would require taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen. That is a step too far for them. However for many years Jeremy Corbyn and Labour has been very supportive of the Nationalist cause in Ireland. This may be the time to start calling in those debts.
There is more. And election for the Northern Ireland Assembly was held on 2 March 2017. That went very badly for the DUP and rather well for Sinn Fein. They now have almost identical numbers of seats in the NI Assembly (28 versus 27). Another 35 seats are shared amongst a variety of parties. The SDLP with 12 seats, the UUP with 10 seats, the alliance party with eight seats and two seats for the Greens.
The smaller parties are increasingly unhappy with the carve up of Northern Ireland politics between hard-core Protestant Unionism and hard-core nationalist sentiment. They are in a much stronger position to flex their 35 out of 90-seat muscle and this is what they are now doing.
For many years the DUP had a clear majority of the votes and were able to take the position of First Minister with Sinn Fein providing the deputy First Minister. With the substantial reduction in DUP support Sinn Fein are no longer prepared to accept a DUP first Minister in Arlene Foster. She is implicated in the “cash for ash” scandal that has created a £500 million black hole in the Northern Ireland budget.
Sinn Fein are particularly keen that Arlene Foster should not be restored as First Minister as she was central to the scandal. They have also made it clear that they are not prepared to go on as before and want to renegotiate.
The DUP are a pretty hard right evangelical Protestant party, against gay marriage and abortion. The Unionist vote in the referendum was clearly to Leave whereas the nationalist vote was even more clearly to remain. Overall the Northern Irish vote was strongly to remain (56% against 44% to leave).
No doubt a significant part of this result was because of the highly integrated economies and sociology of Northern Ireland and Eire. There are serious concerns that re-establishing a hard North-South border would have a variety of negative consequences.
The harder versions of Brexit would make cross-border trade and cross-border travel very much more complicated. It would also bring back memories of the very hard border that was fought over during the Troubles, brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement.
However a version of Brexit that would let the present border function much as it does today would have major ramifications. Free movement of people beyond Northern Ireland would then have to be blocked to stop further movement into the remainder of the UK. This is something that the Unionist parties would oppose very strongly.
The social and cultural ties of Northern Ireland are much more strongly and deeply felt with Scotland than they are with England. Again, any suggestion that that relationship might be harmed or blocked by the Brexit arrangements would be also very damaging to the DUP.
As is traditional with Northern Ireland issues the Tories in Westminster are not taking their concerns seriously. In contrast the EU negotiators see the Northern Ireland question as being one of the most difficult they have to deal with. They have already said that the British approach to this is long on fantasy and very short on reality. For the EU the Northern Ireland issue is much more central to the Brexit negotiations than the British side seem to appreciate.
There is no doubt that within Northern Ireland a very soft Brexit is just about all that would be tolerated. The British government, however, are basically telling the EU that it can do what it likes with the Irish border and they would blame the EU if the border becomes hard. As long as the British government continue to pursue a relatively hard version of Brexit then they simply cannot rely on the support of the Northern Irish.
The bribe for the DUP to support the Tories of £1 billion has not yet materialised. There is increasing realisation that it’s not going to come forward any time soon and that is very concerning in Northern Ireland. The DUP in particular do not want to risk another election in Northern Ireland given that DUP support has gone down so significantly. The general political climate in Northern Ireland becomes much less extreme with support for gay marriage and abortion increasing.
The lack of an agreement on power-sharing makes it highly likely that Westminster will assume control over the Northern Irish economy. Under the power-sharing agreement of the Good Friday agreement the Westminster government must act in an even-handed way. Given that the Tories depend critically on the DUP for support that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.
What is key, therefore, is that the DUP are currently supporting a Tory government that is pushing a version of Brexit that is likely to cause significant damage to Northern Ireland and be particularly unpopular there.
It is here that Labour has an opportunity to unravel the DUP support for the Tories. By drawing attention particularly to the Tory approach to the Northern Ireland border problem they will make it clear that the DUP are supporting policies that are likely to cause further political damage to their party. Only by distancing themselves from the Tories are they likely to gain any credibility with the Northern Irish electorate.
Once that happens, the Tories will find it virtually impossible to govern. Theresa May will have to resign or lead the Tories reluctantly into another general election. This is the way that Labour is currently most likely to have a chance to form the next government. For Labour concentrating on Brexit as seen from Northern Ireland problem is absolutely essential.