Friday, June 16, 2017

Macron throws UK a lifeline

French President Emmanuel Macron has dropped a thinly veiled hint to the United Kingdom electorate that the exit from the European Union need not be a given and the door stood open for a change of heart.

German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble chimed in on cue. “If they want to change their decision, of course they would find open doors,” he said in an interview.

Macron, still bathing in his twin triumph in presidential and parliamentary polls was meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, hanging on by her fingernails after her election went horribly wrong. Interestingly, she did not rebuff the invitation outright, choosing instead to stick to her prepared address.

But as I said, Macon and Schäuble were not speaking to her, but to a UK electorate more divided than ever over Brexit. Despite their overtures, prominent Remainer, Sir Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the Independent newspaper, drew little comfort from the development.

He points to the fact that both the still ruling Conservatives and the resurgent Opposition Labour Party have Brexit as part of their official policies, and that an opinion poll taken before the election showed that support for Remain had sunk from its level of 48.1 per cent at last year’s referendum to 45 per cent.

First that opinion poll: It was taken in the wake of a steady drumbeat from the Brexit dominated Government Front Bench that the issue was settled; it was all over and that nothing could halt the advance to the EU exit. Given that, it is not surprising that some disappointed and disillusioned Remain supporters felt like throwing in the towel.

However, that same poll showed just 47 per cent would still vote to Leave, down from 51.9 per cent at the referendum — a bigger slide in support for Brexit than for Remain and indicating a small but significant number, around eight per cent, were now considering their options.

On Sir Andreas’ other point: That at the General Election 80 per cent of those voting chose one of the two main parties that support Brexit. This skates over any consideration of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s actual commitment to the cause.

Through most of the campaign he tried to ignore the issue, preferring instead to concentrate on domestic policies such as re-nationalisation and education reform. He did say that if he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations he would not leave without a deal — a certain degree of ambivalence which suggests that if the deal were not good enough; not in the country’s best interests, he would consider his position.

We should also consider the question of whether the mood of the electorate has changed, and might change further.

Of course there will always be the rabid, UKIP-supporting Brixiteers who would rather sing about Britannia ruling the waves as the ship of state sinks beneath them, but there are others, who bought the false arguments that the UK would be better off outside the EU with more money for the National Health Service and an opportunity to widen the country’s trading interests.

These are people who might be regretting their initial decisions — the eight per cent who might like to change their vote, but see no opportunity to do so.

They should take heart. There is two years to go before the UK has to fall through the trapdoor. In a 650-strong Parliament run by a minority Government there will inevitably be by-elections, disagreements between partners and factions on the way forward. There will be anything but the stability May so fervently desires.

We must continue with the negotiations demanded by the Brexit referendum, but as Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron has long maintained, that vote was for a journey, not a destination.

The people of the United Kingdom deserve a chance to vote on the terms of exit when they are fully known and understood and not obscured by flag-waving nationalists. There must be a second referendum.  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

What does the DUP demand of May?

One of the most surprising results of the arrangement between the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland following the indecisive General Election was the speed with which it was put together.

Apparently it took just a telephone call between Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster to cement the relationship. Contrast this with similar situations in the past — in 1974 and 2010 — when days of negotiations and horse trading were required before an outcome was reached.

While the DUP has much in common with May’s Conservatives, most importantly for her a desire to leave the European Union, it is inconceivable that it would not just give away this position of strength. The speedy resolution suggests only one thing — whatever the DUP wants, it will get.

As it happened I was present at the genesis of the party, on a hot midsummer night in 1970 when Ian Paisley swept aside the sitting Ulster Unionist Member for North Antrim to enter the British Parliament.

As a journalist covering the event, I duly reported that Paisley had put his win down to the “hand of God” at work in the electorate.

Its early name of the Protestant Unionist Party was changed to give it wider appeal and it gradually overhauled the Ulster Unionists, who had dominated Northern Ireland politics for decades.

Paisley remained at the DUP’s head for more than 35 years and while the hardline stance to power sharing with the province’s Catholic minority has softened, other positions — anti-same sex marriage, dismissive of climate change, opposed to abortion, opposed to international family planning programs — remain in place. It has in the past campaigned against the liberalisation of homosexuality laws.

Perhaps the greatest concern is over the future of the delicate power-sharing arrangements that have brought peace and a degree of prosperity to Northern Ireland for the past quarter of a century.

Should anything in the DUP’s demands concern major changes to this arrangement then a return to the ‘The Troubles’ — the sectarian violence that plagued the province for a generation from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, would be more than possible.    

Sunday, June 4, 2017

UK’s chance to pull back from the brink

Later this week Britons will vote in an unnecessary election they did not want, called by an opportunistic Prime Minister who thought she could turn a modest majority in the House of Commons into a landslide.

Theresa May had checked the calendar and realised that if the Parliament had run its full course, she would face the electorate just months after having pulled the United Kingdom from the European Union when the results of that disastrous decision where beginning to bite home.

May’s Conservative Party would have been destroyed in a 2020 election and she knew it.

Instead she reasoned that by putting that date back a couple of years Britons would have time to get used to their new situation and she would be in a position to pull off yet another victory, cementing her place in history as the Prime Minister who delivered Brexit and survived.

It is a measure of May’s monumental arrogance that she truly believes she can do it — but this is not about an election in 2020 or 2022. Later in the week there is an opportunity to reflect on the course the nation is taking under the current leadership and consider whether that course is the wisest one.

I would encourage a vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, or in constituencies where it would do more damage to the incumbent Conservative, support for Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats.

The best possible outcome would be a Labour minority Government, supported by the Lib-Dems on condition that the country has another chance to consider the terms on which it will exit the EU once the negotiations under Article 50 have been completed.

The referendum result of last year resulting in a 3.9 per cent majority in favour of leaving the EU must be respected and if he becomes Prime Minister, Corbyn must see it through, but Britons deserve a second vote when the facts of exit are confirmed and not obscured by nationalist slogans and jingoistic flag waving.  

It is not without some soul-searching that I urge this outcome against a party of which I was once a supporter and a member. When I was a boy Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister. I was born on the same day that Churchill, in a speech in Switzerland, advocated a “United States of Europe” as insurance that the continent would never again be plunged into a ruinous war.

And I was in the press gallery in Westminster when Edward Heath put his career on the line in a decision over whether the UK should except the terms negotiated for EU entry. “Without a vote in favour this Government cannot reasonably continue”.

Now I look at the current front bench — Johnson, Hunt, Leadsom, Davis — a medley of mediocrity, talent-challenged timeservers led by an opportunist with an inflated ego who would rather bring the country to ruin than consider compromise.

Electing Corbyn will certainly be a leap in the dark, better that than a plunge into oblivion.