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UK Government is broken. But where is the solution?

UK Government is broken. Rudderless, the nation is heading into a maelstrom as politicians fight over deckchairs with no sign of anyone able and willing to take command, to attempt to avert tragedy. The UK is beginning to feel like a failed state

There is such turbulence that Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader, can seriously suggest that it is possible he could become prime minister, describing the “governing” (my quote marks) Conservative party as being in a state of civil war while Labour is weakened by “suppressed civil war”.

Theresa May, prime minister, has a cabinet riven by division and is unable to sack Boris Johnson as foreign secretary despite his campaign to undermine her position, whatever that might be.

David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU, has Ollie Robbins, top sherpa in the Brussels negotiations, moved from his department to the Cabinet office where Robbins will report directly to May. In Brussels this is seen as a result of tensions between Davis who as felt he was being “cut out of the loop” by the close relationship between Robbins and May. Davis’s authority in the negotiations now looks even weaker.

May is taking charge but it is extremely unclear that she has a plan, let alone one that would lead to a consensus in her cabinet and party. Perhaps she will surprise us all with her speech in Florence at the end of the week.

There are two groups with clear and reasonably coherent policies: the hard brexiteers who want to be completely out of the EU to do business of Word Trade Organisation terms and those, only a few in parliament, who want to plead with the EU27 to be allowed to withdraw the Article 50 notice and remain in the EU on existing terms.

In between there are dozens of ideas of what the future might hold. Many of these are wishful thinking — we will strike a special arrangement withe the EU for trade and passporting for services, while not being  subject to  the European court or free movement rules, or we can more or less carry on as we are by having a Norway-like agreement.

Unless the UK can present the 27 with a coherent plan which would command a stable majority in Westminster the talks are doomed. We cannot expect the 27 to suggest a deal when we have no idea what we want. There is a real risk the 27 will simply say good riddance to a troublesome neighbour.

The referendum offered voters a binary choice: stay in or get out.  It was the wrong question asked by politicians who voted for a non-binding referendum but also promised to the to abide by the result. They simply failed to consider the possibility that they could commit the county to huge constitutional change on a vote of 37 per cent of the electorate most of whom thought they were voting for different things.

Keir Starmer, David Davis’s shadow in the Labour party, is making an attempt to find a way through the conundrum, but the opposition is divided too and its rebels voted with the Conservatives on the EU exit bill. If they had voted with their party line the Government would still have won with the support to DUP members from Northern Ireland.

But how stable would the arrangement between the Conservatives and DUP look if faced with hard border controls in Ireland? A majority in Northern Ireland (as in Scotland) voted remain, but their politicians chose to be bound by the UK vote. The future of the UK remains uncertain. Vince Cable wants to get around the referendum vote problem by having a second referendum on whatever agreement is on offer – that must depend on getting an agreement.

In England grassroots pressure is largely absent after the referendum vote which the Alf Garnetts took as a licence to shout out their views. Most people simply avoid taking about Brexit for fear of division in their communities. Theresa May’s general election showed that the UK is more or less divided down the middle, but has not made clear what are the dividing lines.

In times of threat charismatic leaders have, in the past, emerged  but it is hard to see anyone currently in Westminster filling that role now. Yet it is urgent that the uncertainty is ended to eliminate the uncertainty which is bound to cost the country dearly.

The signs of the removal vans moving into Canary Wharf and the City are already with us. If we don’t get some certainty soon they will be joined by the low-loaders transporting factories away. We need to get realistic and find someone who can lead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs May, the woman ‘on another galaxy’, looks less and less able to lead the country

Every day Theresa May looks less and less like a person able to lead the United Kingdom to success inside or outside the European Union.

She is presenting the country with no vision, just a slogan — “Strong and stable leadership.” Well, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a strong leader in Turkey and the Kim dynasty has given North Korea stable leadership. Is that what we want.

Perhaps Donal Trump suggested to Mrs May as he squeezed her hand: “You can make England strong and stable again.” Goodness knows where the slogan came from but it cannot disguise the lack of vision.

She says she is confident of a good Brexit agreement but yesterday, after the apparently disastrous meeting with EU president Jean-Claude Junker on Thursday, she was returning to her “no deal is better than a bad deal” line.

The full horror of that meeting between the two negotiating teams, as reported by a German newspaper today, is relayed in the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. Take your pick: both interpretations are similar. Junker is despairing of reaching an agreement with May who he regards as being on another galaxy.

To gain any credibility Mrs May must give us her vision of what she would like to be the outcome she will seek from the negotiations. This is not giving away negotiating power: it is what every negotiator has to do to get support, whether it is from a country’s voters or a trade union’s members.

Of course, the aspirations are higher than the eventual result is likely to be. That’s what negotiations are about: finding a compromise in the best interests of both parties. And it is easier to do if you don’t antagonise those on the other side of the table.

There is the argument, put forward by Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian that Mrs May wants lot more Tory MPs so that she can tell the Brexit fundamentalists to piss off and let her get on with making a good deal. If that increase came as a result of former UKIP voters switching to the Conservatives the theory would not wash at all.

At present she is simply appeasing the fundamentalists by promising the possibility of no-deal. This is not leadership and it looks very unstable.

 

 

 

 

 

As May antagonises EU negotiators voting Tory risks a no deal Brexit

As the election campaign gets underway it is becoming increasingly clear that Theresa May cannot be depended upon to deliver a soft Brexit. She seems set on antagonising the very people she will have to negotiate with.

After the Wednesday evening meeting between May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and their entourages, an EU diplomat said of the British side of the dinner table: “They are in a different galaxy.”

A report on the Brussels news website, Politico.eu, makes dismal reading. It starts:

EU leaders expressed mounting alarm Friday that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and her team are in a dangerous state of denial about the consequences of leaving the bloc.

The worry over Britain’s unrealistic expectations was a main topic of discussion at background briefings all across Brussels’ European Quarter on the eve of an extraordinary European Council summit on Brexit.

The unnamed diplomat also told Politico:

… May and Juncker each seemed to dig in. “She toughened her tone,” the diplomat said. “So Juncker toughened his.”

By 7.30am on Friday, the morning after the meeting, Juncker apparently phoned German Chancellor Angela Merkel to brief her. Within hours Merkel was cheered in the Bundestag after saying (Evening Standard report):

“We need to know how Britain sees its future relations with usto know how Britain sees its future relations with us.”

Mrs Merkel said she had “the feeling that some in Britain still have illusions on that score”.

She added: “That would just be a waste of time.”

Mrs Merkel insisted, once Britain leaves the EU, it will be an outsider and “will not have the same rights or be in a better position than a member of the European Union”.

“All of the 27 members of the European Union and European institutions are agreed upon that,” she said, to applause.

She stressed Germany will push for the impact of Brexit on Germans and other European Union citizens living in Britain to be as minimal as possible, and for co-operation on security issues, like fighting organised crime and terrorism, to remain close.

“Let there be no doubt: Brexit negotiations will demand a lot from Britain and Europe,” she said.

May seems to be attempting to ride two horses — to attract those who last time voted UKIP and Conservative hard Brexit supporters and to promise those in her party who voted “remain” that she will negotiate a minimal Brexit.

The result is the almost plaintive call by Merkel to know how Britain sees its future relations with the EU.

For those who normally vote Conservative and want the UK to remain as close to Europe as possible the risks in giving May a renewed mandate are too high.

The choice is not between a Conservative government or a Labour one. It is between a Conservative administration to a coalition of Labour, SNP, other nationalists, Lib Dems, Greens. While Labour is likely to be the largest party in a potential coalition, other parties would almost certainly insist that it choose a new leader to be prime minister.

On polling day we will not be faced by a chose between May and Corbyn as  prime minister — we will be choosing between hard and soft Brexits.

To achieve a soft Brexit will require tactical voting on a scale never seen before in the UK. It will mean traditional Conservative voters holding their noses and voting Lib Dem, Green and, yes, even Labour. If you believe in a soft Brexit that is the choice to be made.

An untrustworthy prime minister

Mrs May is not trustworthy. That much we know after yesterday when she U-turned on her promises to abide by her pledge not to call an election before the natural end of this parliament. Why we don’t know.

She said it was because of the opposition to her Brexit plans by the Labour, Lib Dems, the Scottish Nationalists and the House of Lords in parliament. But there are suggestions that the real reason is that she want to get the hard Brexiteers off her back so that she can deliver a soft Brexit.

Or, it could be, that she still has no vision of what Brexit means and is ruthlessly seeking power to do whatever she eventually decides she wants.

Sun front page

The Sun this morning accepts the story Mrs May put to the country in her surprise statement in Downing Street yesterday. She is aiming to kill off Labour, smash the rebel Tory remainers and “Bid for a clear Brexit mandate” although there is no indication of what that might mean.

But the alternative view is given by Nils Pratley, the Guardian’s business editor, who writes:

The real question is why sterling, which hit a six-month high, reacted so strongly to an early general election.

It was because investors calculated – counter-intuitively at first glance – that a bigger Tory majority in the Commons, if that’s what follows, will mean a softer form of Brexit. This argument was best expressed by Deutsche Bank’s analysts, who reckon the election is “a game-changer” for the pound and the Brexit negotiations. A bigger majority would set Theresa May free from the “unrealistic timetable” set by the eurosceptics in her party, they argue.

Much the same view is being expressed in Brussels according to Politico.eu.

The news website says:

“The chances for a good outcome of the Brexit negotiations have just gone up tremendously,” said a senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Instead of being at the mercy of the Brexiteers, May will now get a very, very strong mandate that will allow her to negotiate a reasonable deal with the EU,” the senior official said.

So is May trying to get the Conservative “hard Brexiteers” or the “remoaners” off her back? Or is it both she wants to be rid of so that she can do whatever she likes.

Yesterday’s announcement showed a ruthlessness in power. Any lingering belief in Bagehot’s concept of the role of prime minister as the “first among equals” was shot down yesterday. There is no evidence she consulted her colleagues before her announcement. It is a decision which reeks more Lord Hailsham’s “elective dictatorship”.

The words of Mrs May as she assumed the premiership, so full of promise, now seem as hollow as her assurances there would be no snap-election. How can we believe anything she says?

She can start by laying out a credible vision of a future for the UK and its relationship with Europe and explaining how she will seek to achieve it.

Will HP Sauce cost MPs more after Brexit?

Traditional bottle with its image of the Houses of Parliament.

We have heard about the impact of Brexit on Marmite and Guiness, but there has been a strange silence about HP sauce. It got the name in 1895 after the inventor, a Nottingham grocer called Frederick Gibson Garton, heard his sauce was being served in a Palace of Westminster restaurant.

In the 1960s the association was strengthened after Mary Wilson, wife of the prime minister, told the Sunday Times: “If Harold has a fault, it is that he will drown everything with HP Sauce.” (source: Wikipedia)

At that time it was certainly available in the parliamentary eating places. I went with Bill Price, the MP for Rugby and later one of Wilson’s ministers, to get something to eat there.

Bill ordered two rolls overflowing with grated cheese, grabbed a bottle of HP sauce, opened up the rolls and poured what looked like half the bottle into them. For years after I could not eat HP sauce.

Certainly Bill was a man of unusual habits. Before becoming an MP he had been a reporter for the Birmingham Post in Leamington Spa where he was best remembered for breeding show mice in the office. Not long after he was elected I joined the Post: the person who showed me my office pointed out where Bill had kept his mice.

But that is digressing. For nearly a century HP sauce was owned and made in the English midlands.  In 1988 it was sold to a French business which in 2005 passed the sauce to Heinz which quickly moved production to a factory in the Netherlands.

Marmite owner Unilever, blamed the impact of the reduced value of the pound following the referendum for increased raw material costs, when it tried to negotiate higher prices with Tesco. Guinness is worried about the impact Brexit on border crossings between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland (Irish Times).  But I have heard nothing about the  impact on HP Sauce. Perhaps it could be exempted from import tariffs if Brexit is hard.

 

 

Article 50 notice can be revoked, says EU

Michel Barnier,

Michel Barnier, Chief EU negotiator.

A new European Union website devoted to Article 50 negotiations makes it clear that there is a way in which the Brexit notice could be revoked.

The UK cannot unilaterally withdraw the letter sent by Theresa May, but it could ask the EU to agree to revoke the notice.

The new Article 50 taskforce website (part of a larger new site) has a Q&A page including this:

Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked?

It is up to the United Kingdom to trigger Article 50. But once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Notification is a point of no return. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of notification.

In other words, the UK cannot simply say, “Oops! We made a made a mistake. We didn’t mean it. We are staying in the UK.” But the UK could say, “It has become clear that leaving the UK is not good for our country, not is it good for the other 27 members of the UK. It would be best for everyone in we could withdraw out Article 50 notice and find a way to work together to our mutual benefit.”

Obviously, that is not an option that Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator, can put forward, but several leading people in the EU including Guy Verhofstadt, lead negotiator for the European Parliament, have suggested that one day the UK would rejoin. Verhofstadt wrote in the New Statesman:

I am also sure that – one day or another – there will be a young man or woman who will try again, who will lead Britain into the European family once again. A young generation that will see Brexit for what it really is: a catfight in the Conservative party that got out of hand, a loss of time, a waste of energy, a stupidity.

That process of rejoining would be long and painful. But as the disadvantages of leaving will become clear during the coming 18 months of negotiation. The failure of the Leave campaign to deliver it promises, the loss of jobs, reducing wealth, the threat to the United Kingdom, difficulty of forging new relationships outside the common market, the loss of influence in the word and the need for Europe to hang together in an unpredictable world will all become clearer.

Far better to swallow pride before we are outside the tent.

Why are Brexit fundamentalists afraid?

Fundamentalist Brexiteers are afraid. They will likely say they are not afraid. If this is true why are they,

  • fighting against an assessment of the consequences of leaving the EU with no deal, 
  • using the rhetoric of war about the future status of Gibraltar, and
  • making a huge fuss about the colour of the cover of passports?

Theresa May has said No Deal would be better than a Bad Deal. She has now softened her language to say she will get a good deal. Either way is is just basic risk assessment to evaluate the effects of all possible outcomes.

It was obvious all along that Spain would be concerned about the status of Gibraltar after the UK leaves the EU. Echoing Mrs Thather’s resolve over the Falklands can only be seen as inflaming things before talks even begin.

As for passports, who really cares about the colour although I might be a little embarrassed if I had to carry pink passport with baby blue polka dots.

Six Brexit supporting MPs on the 21 member all-party committee on exiting the EU voted against its report on hearings which included David Davis, the man responsible for negotiations with the EU, saying there had been no assessment of “no deal” since before the referendum.

The committee chairman, Hilary Benn, said:

Without an economic impact assessment of ‘no deal’ and without evidence that steps are being taken to mitigate the damaging effect of such an outcome, the Government’s assertion that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is unsubstantiated. Parliament must be in an informed position to decide whether a proposed deal is, in fact, better or worse than no deal.

To  oppose this argument suggests fear of the result. To many it looks like irresponsibility.

It does look as if the fundamentalist Brexiteers, are fearful they are losing the argument before negotiations start.

Total irresponsibility of ex-Tory leader invoking Falklands war before Brexit talks even start

Guardian headline


There is only  one way to describe Michael Howard’s performance on the BBC’s Sunday Politics  as reported by the Guardian (headline above): “Complete irresponsibility”. It looks as if he is working to ensure the hardest of hard Brexits, showing a total disregard for the future of the country. He is undermining what ever attempts Theresa May will make to get a “good deal” before she has even started.

If we are stand any chance of salvaging any from the disaster of the referendum vote moderate language and good manners are important.

Brexit or Not: A drama in IV acts

Timothy Garton-Ash, academic and journalist, is one of the most acute observers of European politics. But I hope his predications for the outcome of Brexit negotiations are too pessimistic.

He sees a story in four acts. Act I was the referendum, Act II the period up to the triggering of Article 50, We are now at the start of Act III which will conclude in two years when the UK formally leaves the EU. Act IV is the period after that when the UK is in a transitional stage seeking a long-term agreement. Act V is facing up to the consequences of leaving the EU

This is set out in a Guardian article (do read it in full) saying, rightly ,”it takes time to burst the populist bubble”. He writes:

Here is where the five-act timetable comes in. The parliamentary vote on the interim result of the negotiation in autumn 2018 will be an important moment, but it currently seems unlikely that public opinion will have swung so decisively that a parliamentary majority, including Labour MPs with heavily pro-Brexit constituencies, would actually vote to send May back to Brussels with a flea in her ear, buzzing at her to get a better deal. It’s even more unlikely that it would vote for the second referendum proposed by the Liberal Democrats.

He may well be right, but I am clinging on to the, for me, optimistic belief that public opinion will swing well before the 2020 general election. That by around September next year when the future arrangements are becoming clear, public opinion will have swung and parliament will not accept anything other than conditions fundamentally similar to EU membership or, even continued membership.

We are already seeing financial businesses, games companies and others moving jobs to Europe. Manufacturing companies will have, by September next year, a clearer picture of the what if any tariffs they will face and the impact on supply chains. All business have to make long-term plans and their arrangements must be made before Garton-Ash’s Act IV.

At the same time the Health Service and employers in most sectors of the economy will see continued loss of skilled staff unless the prospects for life and work in the UK look good.

The crucial question in 18 months time will be whether the framework for a deal to be settled in a transitional period is good enough to satisfy most of the public and enough MPs to give Mrs May her majority. I think it unlikely that she would go to the house with no deal – that would inevitably mean being sent back to negotiate again unless the EU was so fed up with whole process it says, “enough”.

We should not worry too much about whether the Commons is given a vote. If it really wants one it will get it: the alternative would be a motion of “no confidence”.

An alternative at this stage would to revoke the Article 50 notice (my preferred outcome). The legal discussion about this option would become meaningless: it would be a political issue. We might be lucky and the EU would agree that membership continued although there would be a severe loss of influence and, probably, the rebate.

To continue beyond this stage, into Act IV, without a clear picture of what would emerge at then end of a  transition period would only result in continued uncertainty and a draining away of global confidence in the UK, or what would be left of it.

 

 

Time to start fighting to withdraw May’s Article 50 letter

A Guardian headline this morning, “Believe it or not, Nigel Farage can now be an inspiration for remainers” is intended to provoke. It is not that but Johathan Freedland’s opinion piece under it that makes me angry.

He writes:

Why shouldn’t remainers draw inspiration from those who refused to accept the 1975 referendum ratifying Britain’s entry into the European club and agitated tirelessly for a second vote? Surely the dogged persistence of a Nigel Farage, Bill Cash or John Redwood is a model for the 48% to follow.

My 75th birthday was six days ago. I don’t have the time to play such a long game.

Freedland continues:

…that still leaves the possibility of an even harder Brexit – and pro-Europeans’ task now is to resist it. Admitting that several rooms are on fire doesn’t free you from the obligation to stop the entire house burning to the ground.

In practice, that means limiting the damage. It could mean arguing for greater access to European markets, even if that entails some jurisdiction by the European court of justice. Or urging new immigration rules that don’t seal up the border to all outsiders.

He completely ignores the possibility that many, including myself are fighting for – revocation of the Article 50 notice. It would be messy, nasty but we have a democracy where people have the freedom and right to change their mind.

The argument that the deed is done and there is no turning back has no strong basis. Yes the British Government and those seeking a Commons vote during the Supreme Court hearing assumed an Article 50 could not be withdrawn.

It is only the European Court that can decide whether or not that is true. A case seeking to clarify this is underway in Dublin.

The man who drafted the clause, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, believes it [revocation] is possible. Sky news reported:

Lord Kerr said: “You can withdraw the notification (Article 50) that she (Theresa May) is going to submit in March.

“Legally it would be perfectly possible to take it back.

“Politically of course, our partners might not be too thrilled if they’d wasted 18 months, 20 months negotiating with us, but I suspect it would be possible to get political agreement where you carry on as before.

“That looks at present an extremely unlikely contingency, but it is there as a possibility.”

As he points out it would become a political rather than a legal question.

Matt Kelly, editor of the European,  The New European this week speaks for me when he writes:

If people start losing their jobs, their homes, if food prices soar, if the quick trade deals they promised us fail to materialise, the will of the people may change.

And when (no need for ifs on this one) the real cracks start to show in political parties as riven by conflict over Europe today as they have even been, the charade that prompted this whole debacle will be daylight clear, and the will of the people may change.

And if the will of the people changes, it will find a way – as it always does – to be heard.

The how of a reversal is harder to define just now. But obstructing that will of the people would be nothing short of anti-democratic.

Article 50 is, definitely, NOT irreversible. Donald Tusk says so. Lord Kerr, who wrote the article, says so. The price of a reversal will be a political one. We believe that’s fair. It’s politics that got us into this mess, and if politics has taught us anything in the last twelve months, it’s this: Nobody knows anything.

Stay angry. Fight Brexit.

I am angry. It is urgent as I don’t want to fight to my dying day, which seems to be what Johnathan Freedland advocates. It is about the British Isles being a place fit for future generations.