HARD POUNDING GENTLEMEN
“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The Brexit Endgame is approaching, with prospects all round ranging from unpalatable to disastrous so Dr Johnson’s remark seems appropriate, certainly in Ireland’s case.
Boris Johnson (no relation) was sworn in as Britain’s new Prime Minister on July 24. He has hit the ground running – after a fashion – reaffirming, as he entered Downing Street, his intention, expressed during the Tory leadership contest, that he will take Britain out of the European Union by 31 October, with no deal, if that is what it takes. Any delusions that Johnson had merely been electioneering, and that, when the “reality” of office dawned he would backtrack rapidly on this and his other recent rhetorical utterances were soon dispelled. Over the succeeding two days he handpicked a Cabinet stuffed with like-minded Brexiteers and/or pledged Johnson loyalists, and brought in as chief adviser the mastermind of the 2016“ Leave” campaign, Dominic Cummings. Michael Gove, in tandem with Cummings, will be the Brexit enforcer.
In his first speeches Johnson has reiterated and played up an intransigent image, painting himself as a man in a hurry – as indeed he must be if he is to achieve his end in the ninety odd days remaining. He has already signalled where the blame will lie if he fails – with Europe, for failing to negotiate, and with Ireland for intransigence over the Backstop – something now declared by Johnson to be dead in the water , even if time limited. Also the Remainers – the domestic fifth column. His remarks have been addressed almost entirely to his base, and, though he did include a litany of “one Britain” targets across the socio economic spectrum when entering Downing Street, there were no details given as to how any of these promises would be paid for, beyond the predictable assertion that, in the event of no deal, the pay-out of €37 billion agreed with the EU for Britain’s departure would be withheld and thus available.
There are some disturbing echoes here of Trump’s utterances and performance. Indeed arguably Johnson’s remarks outside Number Ten were a sugar coated version of Trump’s Inauguration speech with language similar to Making America Great Again (look at the penultimate paragraph) and the pledge to reverse the years of self- doubt since the referendum. Several commentators have observed that, in effect Johnson’s ploy is to act as if 2016 was yesterday and the revelations since of what Brexit entails has simply not occurred. Whatever about Johnson being no Trump – some analogies are being drawn – he is certainly no Churchill, whose spirit he invokes, though in one sense there IS a similarity of circumstance. Churchill came to power at a time of great peril for Britain. Johnson has taken over as Britain faces its worst crisis since World War Two. The difference is that the current crisis situation has been self-inflicted.
Whither now? From the point of view of the Zealots now running Britain (who beforehand would have thought Johnson a Zealot?) the benign scenario is that in the last analysis the EU, whether Johnny Foreigner in Brussels, Berlin, Paris or Rome, and the Irish closer to home, will come around and give Britain a better deal, allowing it to achieve some form of Manifest Destiny, and/or restore some of its lost position in the world. This belief is underpinned by the notion that “They” need us more than “We” need them, and also that “We” are the victims! Classic stuff!
Should the united front of the EU Twenty Seven hold firm, the gung –ho Brexiteers would be happy to see Britain make a clean break and leave on the basis of “No Deal” and to hell with the consequences for country or party. The negative effects on the British economy – and people- of doing this are downplayed or rubbished. Consequences, after all, are for common people! Also to hell with the substantial “Remain” majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is increasing clear that Brexit is predominantly an English nationalist phenomenon (with some DUP hangers-on).
Not a very promising vista, yet there is one consideration, which should not be overlooked. Johnson is a politician, who has achieved his great ambition. He has now nailed his colours very firmly to the mast. But he must be well aware of the unhappiness in Parliament and the Commons majority against a No Deal; he simply does not have the numbers to force any controversial measure through. Given that he has so far staked all on one throw in the coming three months, should he fail to deliver on an improved deal (the scapegoats are already fingered), rather than compromise (which would doom him), he might have no option but to play the nationalist card and engineer an election, hoping that a mix of “ My Country Right or Wrong,” claims of betrayal and intransigence from the EU and an abhorrence and fear of seeing Jeremy Corbyn coming into power, might see him win out.
There is still, clearly, some sand left to run. The EU position, reiterated in reaction to Johnson’s opening salvo, is that there IS a deal on the table, the product of two years negotiations involving and agreed to by the May government and acceptable to the EU Twenty Seven, but thrice rejected by the British Parliament and that this agreement must figure in any discussions. This deal includes provisions specifically to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented peace on the island of Ireland after decades of violence, by providing for the avoidance of a physical border in Ireland, through if necessary the Backstop guarantee. Any negotiations that might occur will have to incorporate and address the Good Friday Agreement. We seem set for some type of Johnson-style shuffling pavane around this; though how soon? The European Institutions take a break during August, and while this is not set in stone, it would take some considerable evolution in the UK’s position to convince the EU that it was worthwhile to crank up the machinery before September. Nevertheless, to be watched.
Meanwhile (Dr Johnson again) the Government here has woken up to the potential nightmare of No Deal. In the Brexit Contingency Plan, a lengthy paper published early last month an attempt was made to guesstimate the dire consequences for Ireland of Britain crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a deal. It painted a sombre picture; Ireland and her economy would be affected and widely felt across all sectors.
The three headline points: In the first year economic growth in one of Europe’s most successful economies would be hammered, with the growth rate estimated to be 3% less than otherwise. There would be a headline deficit of up to 1.5% in GDP in the year producing deterioration in the General Government Balance of up to €6.5 billion. Unemployment in the most exposed sectors is estimated to increase by 50-55,000, a whopping 38% increase on the current figure of 131,000. The paper observes that “a no deal Brexit will have profound implications for Ireland on all levels.” A masterpiece of understatement.