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Is Boris boxed in?

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TRUSTING Boris Johnson – as his last two wives and a substantial pack of ex-girlfriends might ruefully agree – is not without its risks. As a former squeeze told The Sun last year, “any sensible girl should stay away from him. You’ll get the cheery persistence, then the conquest, but when he’s bored he won’t care about you in the slightest.”

For the last few weeks, Boris has beamed his cheery persistence in the direction of swooning Brexit Party voters, and some sort of conquest appears close at hand. But Brexiters would be wise not to take any more permanent steps like moving in with Boris or rescuing a puppy together. Boris can only be trusted to do what’s best for Boris, and hard-line Brexit fans are only useful to him for a brief period when his interests and theirs are aligned.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is as simple as it is utterly disingenuous. The right is split between the Brexity Conservatives and very Brexity BXP supporters. Since his election as leader, Boris’s every move has been designed to persuade BXP voters that Boris means Brexit. While Labour languishes at 24% in the polls, their middle-class support devoured by the unambiguously pro-EU Liberal Democrats, the PM calculates that he can win a substantial, possibly an overwhelming majority in an election if BXP support is driven down to around 10%.
The BXP voters Boris is wooing didn’t all start out as Tories. Brexit appeals to many socially conservative working class Labour voters, and Boris’s Sturm-und-Drang, do-or-die message on the EU has been underpinned by strong campaign lines on the purported end of austerity, the NHS, and crime (see this column, 16th August). In winning Brexiters over, Boris doesn’t mind alienating liberal Conservatives. The prize of simultaneously destroying Labour and the BXP is worth losing some (but probably far from all) of the Tory voters who might confuse guacamole with mushy peas. Liberals can go and be liberals elsewhere.

This bold strategy was showing results. Look, by way of example, at the result in the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election. Throughout that campaign, BXP were polling around 23%. By 1st August, their share had fallen to 10%. And that with a Tory candidate convicted of fiddling his expenses.

Whatever he says publicly, Boris Johnson is well aware that economic chaos would be as bad for Boris as it would be for everyone else. He has no intention of crashing Britain out of the EU without a deal. Instead, the plan was to force Parliament into a ‘betrayal of Brexit’, call a ‘People v. Parliament’ election to take place on or before the European Council summit on 17th October, and win it with a convincing majority. Then, unbeholden to zealots on his backbenches and rid of the spectre of Farage, he will both keep his promise of leaving on 31st October and utterly shaft the hard Brexiters by agreeing on a deal very like Chequers, but with a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Stage 1 of Boris’s strategy went largely according to plan. His disruptive, Trumpian gambit of announcing a largely meaningless (it removed four days of sitting time) prorogation of Parliament had its desired effect of bringing the crisis to ahead. Boris goaded the opposition into passing a law to prevent (or such is its intention) a no deal Brexit. As a final offering on the altar of Brexit purity, he sacrificed his majority in a hecatomb of distinguished rebels.

Stage 2 –clearing the decks in Parliament with an election– is proving less straightforward. Tony Blair shrewdly warned Jeremy Corbyn that Boris’s poll is a massive elephant trap for Labour, which could see the party destroyed. For once, the Lenin-capped loon listened to good advice. After howling for an election for two years, Corbyn changed his mind immediately upon being presented with the opportunity to have one. Boris was reduced, in response, to yelling “you big girl’s blouse” from the despatch box.

Boris’s anger was unsurprising. His strategy is a political blitzkrieg. It has to be done quickly, and before BXP voters have the time or acuteness of wit to realise that they are being played for suckers. Corbyn, conversely, needs to drag Boris into a Stalingrad stalemate, sucking his energy and persuasive power away from campaigning. He will try to force Boris to go cap in hand to the 27, asking for a further adjournment of Brexit.

That, Boris will never do. He will tough it out, knowing an opposition can’t remain credible for long while ducking an election. The PM has weapons left in his procedural arsenal, which include amending the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 with a one-line bill; contriving a self-inflicted vote of no confidence; even taking the nuclear option of resigning and inviting Corbyn to try to form a Government commanding the confidence of the House (which he can’t). We will go to the polls before 31st October.

Of course, as 2017 proved, any election campaign is unpredictable and dangerous. Some of Boris’ aura of invincibility has, amongst the commentariat at least, slipped away. Sacking the 21 Tory rebels –stalwarts like Ken Clarke and Nicholas Soames amongst them– made him look dictatorial and extreme. His Cabinet will scare off some intended converts from BXP and Labour by looking ideological and entitled; the nation will not soon forget the image of Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging across the Government front bench with the demeanour of someone who has been left waiting slightly too long for a club servant to bring him crumpets.

That said, if an election took place today, with the vote shares indicated in the most recent polls, the Tories could expect to win a 90-seat majority. The cheery persistence Boris Johnson has shown as PM will lead to conquest. He will then nip over to Brussels, agree on an Andrex-soft Brexit and do to the hard Brexiters exactly what he did to the last two Mrs Johnsons. He doesn’t care about the Brexit Party or the ERG in the slightest.

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Damaged pipe found to be the cause of the Afon Lliedi disappearance

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A DAMAGED sewer pipe is now thought to have halted the flow of the Afon Lliedi in the Llanerch area of Llanelli on 16 August.

Natural Resources Wales officers have been on site continuously in shift pattern monitoring the dam and the pumps they had installed to pump water around the hole and back into the river channel downstream.

Coal Authority officers attended the incident early on Tuesday (Aug 17) morning and found that the hole was not a sinkhole as had previously been suspected.

After receiving confirmation that the site was stable, NRW officers investigated and found that a damaged pipe was at the base of the hole that was taking the water flow. After working with Welsh Water colleagues, it was confirmed that the pipe is a sewer pipe.

Ioan Williams, NRW Duty Tactical Manager for South West Wales said: “By pumping the river flow downstream and beyond the hole, our officers on site have been able to restore a good level of flow to the Lliedi. I’m very grateful to them for their quick and effective work.

“We will carry out a fish assessment of the river see if further fish have died due to a lack of water flow. We know that approximately 50 fish had died before we installed the dam and pumping equipment, and we expect that our actions have limited further damage to fish and other aquatic life in the Lliedi.

“Although unusual, a pipe such as this could well be capable of removing a large majority of river flow when the river is in low flow as was the Lliedi. Once the repair is in place, we will monitor water levels in the river.”

Discussions are ongoing between NRW, Welsh Water and Carmarthenshire County Council on the best way to repair and protect the damaged pipe and on when the closed bridge can be reopened. Once repaired, the dam and pumping equipment will be dismantled which will allow the natural flow of the river to resume.

The pumps and lights are expected to be operating overnight and are due to be removed on Wednesday 18 August.

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A question of power

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by Matthew Paul

For anyone who stood as a candidate for ChangeUK in 2019, and watched over the course of the six-week European Parliament election campaign as mild enthusiasm on the part of the British public cooled into vague embarrassment before crystallising into disgust, it’s nice to see the Remoaners on the rebound. Brexit is back in the news, and causing big trouble for Boris Johnson.

“But Brexit”, you exclaim, “is done! Didn’t we have a General Election to sort that out? Didn’t our MPs vote for an oven-ready deal, back on 20th December last year?”

They did, but if the deal was supposed to be oven-ready, Boris left the plastic bag full of giblets inside and it is causing a terrible stink. Those unpalatable entrails are the ongoing and irreconcilable tensions between wanting our own laws and trade arrangements, and  maintaining an open border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The United Kingdom is one single market; Wales cannot exclude or impose tariffs on goods from Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, and vice versa. This was the case for nearly three hundred years before the UK joined the EEC in 1973; when it did join, UK citizens swapped one single market of (then) 56 million for a single market that grew to ten times that size. The advantages of this, to our exporting economy, were obvious. 

Leaving that wider single market creates a problem, which is also obvious. There is a land border between the UK and Ireland, which international law (the Good Friday Agreement) says must remain open. If the UK uses its freedom from EU tyranny to strike new trade deals and to remove ‘foreign laws’ around food safety and product standards –which was the whole point of Brexit– it compromises the integrity of European product standards by allowing chlorinated chicken etc etc to pass, unchecked and untaxed, into the EU.

There is no reason why the EU should put up with this, and throughout Brexit talks the Commission made it clear that retaining an open border in Ireland is non-negotiable. There is only one straightforward alternative: a customs border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. In June 2018, Theresa May was leaning in that direction, but this proposed solution –breaking up the territorial integrity of the UK to protect the integrity of the EU single market– was so detestable to the Spartans of the ERG that they passed a law specifically to stop May from doing it.

Fast forward to December 2019, and the same Spartans, cowed by Boris’ ruthless public execution of the 21 Remainers who rebelled against his Government’s Brexit policy, followed the PM like sheep through the Ayes lobby to endorse his oven-ready deal with an Irish Sea border as its defining characteristic. Boris said at the time that this would not create paperwork for businesses exporting goods from NI to the rest of the UK. He lied: the deal dictates that the UK keeps the NI/ ROI border open, implements the EU customs code in Northern Ireland, and obliges exporters to fill in declarations on goods going between NI and the rest of the UK.

Perhaps Boris just thought no-one would notice, even though everyone did. Perhaps he thought the EU would quietly back down on imposing the customs code. If this was the Government’s plan, it reinforces the impression that the Government is incapable of planning past lunchtime. The EU continued to insist stoutly on the terms of the deal being honoured. Finding himself well down in the game, Boris kicked over the card table. He presented the House of Commons with the Internal Market Bill, section 45 of which gives the Government power simply to ignore or override the Northern Ireland Protocol, to allow seamless trade and consistent regulation between all constituent parts of the UK. 

M’learned friends, blanching at the idea of tearing up treaties, were the first to cry foul. The government’s top lawyer, Sir Jonathan Jones, walked out of his job in despair. On Wednesday Lord Keen –the Government’s law officer for Scotland– resigned too, rather than adopt the intellectual contortions necessary to support the Bill. Even Robert Buckland, the likeable if impressionable Lord Chancellor, who previously mounted a sorry-faced hostage-video defence of Boris’s prorogation of Parliament and would be about as likely as the woolsack he sits on to rebel against Government policy, is shuffling uncomfortably. It’s not just the Remoaners, either; unless dark Lord of the Sith Michael Howard, and former Attorney-General and basso-profondo Brexithorn Sir Geoffrey Cox are now to be classed as Remoaners. 

Some of the pearl-clutching over the sanctity of international law is misplaced. As De Gaulle observed, “Les traités, voyez-vous, sont comme les jeunes filles et les roses: ça dure ce que ça dure.” The EU regards any emanation of international law that questions the acquis Communautaire with withering contempt, and owes zillions of dollars in WTO fines for breaching international law with state aid to Airbus. 

It comes down to a question of power, to a clear-headed assessment of whether or not you are going to win, and to whether the prize to be gained offsets the reputational damage of reneging on international obligations. Tearing up a treaty signed only months before is crass and looks weak. Kicking over the card table when you’re losing isn’t a great move if the other player then shoots you dead.

If the Government really wants to scare people about the effects of the Coronavirus, it could do worse than loop videos of Boris in December compared to Boris now. The hoo-ha over the Internal Market Bill is one more unforced mistake; the thickening miasma of incompetence and bad judgement is weakening this Government like a nasty dose of the Covid. On Tuesday, Boris fiddled with his phone through PMQs while Ed Miliband –Ed Miliband!– cut the hopelessly depleted Prime Minister to bits in front of a drolly amused House; Boris put up less resistance than a bacon sandwich.

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Opinion: The Big Question Facing Kier Starmer – Jonathan Edwards

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In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis the election victory of Sir Kier Starmer as Labour Leader didn’t achieve the column inches one would normally expect.  As is customary, I would like to wish Kier well in his role.  I can not claim to know him as a person having only conversed on a few occasions, however I have respect for his debating ability, his considered tone and his eye for detail.  I consider him a serious politician.

The challenges he faces are enormous of course.   Labour have now lost four Westminster elections on the bounce.  His decision making must quickly shift from efforts to unify his party to the far more important task of presenting a credible challenge to the Conservative party at the next Westminster election.

Labour has a defining choice to make, and this decision will have far reaching consequences for all political parties operating in the British State.  On the one hand, Labour could revert to its usual tribal inward-looking tendencies.  However, essentially this would mean writing off the next election as a part of a wider rebuilding strategy aimed at the 2029 election.  A stark admission as it would mean Labour having been out of power at Westminster level for twenty years at best.

Alternatively, Kier Starmer could acknowledge that Labour on their own will not be able to challenge the Tories for power at the next Westminster election.  This path would then require Starmer reaching out to all the other opposition parties in Westminster apart from the DUP.  I am talking about more than just coordination of parliamentary activity in Westminster.  In a first past the post electoral system we are talking about the need for non-aggression pacts, and a joint programme of government.  I would go as far as to suggest that the government itself would need to be a unity administration delivering on the agreed programme.

Parliamentary boundary changes makes the task even more pressing.  Whatever one thinks of his opportunistic politics, Boris Johnson has succeeded in unifying the right of the political spectrum.   However, the centre and left have a host of parties vying for support.  In a political system based for two horse races, the end result is brutal as we saw in December.

What sort of programme could Plaid Cymru, SNP, Green, Liberals, SDLP, Alliance and Labour unite around?  There would be little difficulty in agreeing a progressive economic and social policy platform.  A proportional voting system would be a must to enable all parties to compete equally in subsequent elections.  The big challenge for me seems to be the constitutional question when it comes to Scotland and Wales.   For Plaid Cymru and the SNP there would need to be a commitment for a fully Confederal system leaving only foreign affairs, defence, and macro-economic policy reserved – the sort of settlement promised by Cameron and Brown on the eve of the Scottish independence poll.  This should be supported with House of Lords reform into an elected Senate of the Nations of the British State.   Both Wales and Scotland would also require the statutory right to hold independence referenda at time of their own choosing.  This should be uncontroversial as it is the policy of the Labour Welsh Government.

This is the very simple choice facing the new leader of the Labour party.  Does he want to be Prime Minister, or effectively a plumber performing a re-patching job on a tired and insular party.

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