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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is Ireland an insurmountable obstacle to a Brexit deal?

Just how difficult disengaging ourselves from the EU will be has come into stark contrast this week with Ireland's determination to block any deal that puts up physical or other barriers on their border with the North.

As the Guardian records, Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar,has said that he will not be prepared to back progress of the Brexit negotiations to trade talks at the summit in December without a formal written guarantee there will be no hard border in Ireland. Britain:

Varadkar’s warning was the most blunt, though the EU is likely to take the lead from Ireland when it assesses whether enough genuine progress has been made on the issue of the border with Northern Ireland, one of the three key topics which must be agreed before talks progress to trade.

“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said before his meeting with May. “We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”

Leaving the summit several hours later, Varadkar said he was not satisfied with the progress. “After 40 years of marriage, most of them good, now Britain wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after,” he told Sky News. “We have heard now for 18 months … that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. But after 18 months of the right language we need to understand how that can be achieved in law.”

“We don’t have a counter-proposal from the UK government yet which makes any sense, but we would certainly welcome one,” he said.

Earlier at the summit, Varadkar was scathing about UK politicians who had backed Brexit: “It’s 18 months since the referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

The issue of course is not just about physical infrastructure. Any barrier to trade such as differences in regulatory standards could be considered to be a problem.

This is going to be an issue that will task even the most malleable of negotiators and it will certainly threaten the Northern Ireland peace settlement. The Brexiteers cannot say they were not warned.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The impossible task facing government on Brexit

Another day, yet another warning about the mountain the government has to climb to effect a successful transition out of the European Union. This time it is the Public Accounts Committee, which is raising doubts as to whether civil servants can deliver more than 300 projects and hundreds of new laws in time for Britain’s exit from the EU. They have warned that non-Brexit-related business could be “neglected” by swamped officials.

The Independent says that much of the burden of transition will fall on medium-sized departments such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

They add that a National Audit Office (NAO) report says up to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation need to pass through Parliament before exit day in March 2019 and that Brexit officials have warned all departments there is “minimal room” to consider other statutory instruments.

Public Accounts Committee Chair, Meg Hillier said: “This document lays bare the daunting challenge faced by the Civil Service in coordinating Brexit.

“I question whether Whitehall has the ability to deliver the 313 projects and hundreds of new laws it says are needed. There is a risk that anything non-Brexit related will be neglected.

“This raises the issue of whether DExEU, Treasury and the Cabinet Office are really doing enough to ensure government departments aren’t overwhelmed, and can continue to deliver the vital public services we are all relying on, alongside a smooth exit from the EU.”

It is not just the negotiations that are going badly, so is the government's preparations at home. Time for a rethink surely.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Do the Tories understand what needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis?

We will have to wait for the budget of course, before we can fully evaluate whether Theresa May's promise to personally solve the UK's housing crisis is going to deliver, but proposals hinted at in this article appear to me to fall well short of what is needed.

The Independent say that the chief measure will be the Chancellor will free up housing associations to borrow millions of pounds more for housebuilding. He will do that by taking housing associations’ debt off the balance sheet, with the goal being that they have a stable investment environment to build more homes.

In fact that move is being forced on him by an Audit Office ruling that housing associations count as public sector bodies and that their borrowing counts against the public debt targets. The Welsh Government are already taking a bill through the Assembly for the same reason.

Unless the budget allocates substantial sums of money to help fund a massive increase in the building of social and affordable housing, puts into place arrangements to help small builders overcome red tape and access finance, and simplifies planning rules then it is unlikely that the Prime Minister's crusade will the impact she hopes.

Do the Tories really understand what is needed to start tackling the UK's housing crisis. The devil is in the detail.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Consequences

Wales may have voted to leave the EU but did those who formed that slim majority fully understand the possible consequences of their actions?

The latest potential outcome could have a devastating effect on the Welsh car industry, with Aston Martin’s Chief Financial Officer warning that leaving the EU without a deal could prove “semi-catastrophic” for the car manufacturer and force a temporary halt to production:

Aston Martin selected the Ministry of Defence’s St Athan site in the Vale of Glamorgan as the location for its second UK manufacturing plant. Earlier this year it stated it was on target to start production of its new SUV, the Aston Martin DBX, in 2019.

At present, cars approved by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) can be sold across the EU. If a deal is not agreed to allow this arrangement to continue after Brexit production will have to stop until new certification to sell vehicles abroad is secured.

Mark Wilson set out his concerns to the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee:

He said: “[For] Aston Martin it is far, far simpler than it is perhaps for Honda and some of the other larger international players. We are a British company.

“We produce our cars exclusively in Britain and will continue to do so and without VCA-type approval it really is quite a stark picture for us.”

He warned that if this type of approval was not carried over there would not only be “significant costs” but “the semi-catastrophic effects of having to stop production because we only produce cars in the UK”. Mr Wilson also stressed the need for clarity so the company could plan where to invest.

Let us hope that the UK Government are listening.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Theresa May and George Orwell

I don't know if Theresa May is a big reader, or even a student of political literature. Personally, my predilection has always been towards political biography.

I am currently reading 'George Orwell: A Life' by Bernard Crick, so the Prime Minister's speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last night seems remarkably apposite.

The Guardian tells us that Mrs. May 'accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories in the media in an extraordinary attack on its attempts to “weaponise information” in order to sow discord in the west.'

One of Orwell's themes in his later career was the misuse of information. His Ministry of Truth turned the use 'fake news' in propaganda into an art form, though the term itself wouldn't be brought into use until many decades later. In both 1984 and Animal Farm he 'weaponised' information.

And let us not pretend that these techniques are the sole preserve of authoritarian regimes. The misuse and twisting of information is common in all political campaigns. It helped elect Donald Trump and it won the referendum for Brexit.

The key dividing line between what the Prime Minister alleged last night and the practises of her own party, is the interference of a foreign power in internal democratic processes. And there is nothing new about that either.

But as important as it is for the Prime Minister to air her concerns publicly and to expose the dubious practices of Putin and his government, she was engaged in her little own information war last night.

The government is in turmoil, Brexit negotiations are shambolic and going nowhere and Theresa May and her Ministers are driving the UK economy towards a cliff edge. When faced with an audience of business people, who manage thousands of jobs and millions of pounds of investment in Great Britain PLC, one would expect the Prime Minister to calm nerves and sooth fevered brows, in other words to try and put her government back on track. Instead, she talked about Russia.

In political and propaganda terms that technique is known as misdirection. Theresa May is as guilty as anybody of weaponising information. The only difference is that, for better or worse, she belongs to us and has her hands on the levers of power. Putin is meddling in areas that are not of his concern to secure his own interests. He needs to butt out, she needs to get her act together, and quickly.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay?

The latest claims about the operation of government in Cardiff Bay are both sensational and deeply disturbing.

Allegations of a culture of a toxic culture and bullying associated with the First Minister's office by former Minister, Leighton Andrews, have been followed by verifying claims by former Special Advisor, Steve Jones.

Mr. Jones put out a statement in which he said: "Ministers were undermined by senior advisers playing power games and seeking to exert unreasonable control over government and the first minister himself," he said.

Some ministers, including Mr Sargeant, "would have their diaries unreasonably monitored and questioned, their policy proposals shelved and direct access to the first minister blocked".

"It went way beyond any 'office politics' or personality clashes," he said.

Mr Jones said at one stage he intended to resign because of the effect on his wellbeing but changed his mind when the first minister urged him to reconsider.

"Things improved for a few months, then the poison returned and it began to engulf others - advisers and ministers alike.

"It was clear that all this was getting Carl down."

One Labour AM has tweeted that he believes it to be 'reprehensible that people are using tragic circumstances to settle old scores'. And yet the only person being damaged here is Carwyn Jones.

Neither Steve Jones nor Leighton Andrews have called on Carwyn to resign, whilst both were amongst his strongest supporters for many years. I find it difficult to believe that revenge is their main motivation.

Steve Jones and Leighton Andrews were part of a tightly knit grouping in Cardiff Bay that included Carl Sargeant and at least one other Minister. They could often be seen out and about in the tea room, restaurants and pubs after close of business in the Assembly. They have a unique insight into the workings of Welsh Government.

I have no doubt about their sincerity and integrity and if the atmosphere they describe contributed in any way to Carl's death then it must be investigated as part of the independent inquiry being set up by the First Minister.

Wales is a small place. The Welsh Government is a tiny bubble of activity in which its members are under tremendous pressure and scrutiny. If devolution is to succeed we cannot afford for that government to be dysfunctional. If there is a rot it needs to be cut out.

We should not forget either the three women who made allegations against Carl. Their claims also need to be looked into so that everybody can have closure. I am not sure I have seen any statement by the Labour Party as to whether that will happen or not.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the soft coup d'grace

The Independent has a fascinating but unsurprising story in which they allege that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove sent a secret letter to Theresa May giving her instructions on how to orchestrate a hard Brexit.

According to the paper, the memo demands the Prime Minister "underline her resolve" for leaving the European Union, and sets out a date for transition arrangements between the EU and UK to end of 30 June 2021:

Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are also said to have urged the Prime Minister to ensure members of her top team fall behind their Brexit plans by "clarifying their minds" and called for them to "internalise the logic".

The leaked letter appears to make a thinly veiled attack on Chancellor Philip Hammond, who backed remain and wants a softer Brexit, for lacking the "sufficient energy" in preparing to the UK's future outside the bloc.

A senior Government source told the Mail the Foreign Secretary and Environment Secretary had conducted a "soft coup" and described Ms May as "their Downing Street hostage".

The letter, titled EU Exit - Next Steps, is marked "For your and Gavin's eyes only", a reference to the PM's chief of staff Gavin Barwell.

It states: "Your approach is governed by sensible pragmatism. That does not in any way dilute our ambition to be a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election.

"If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve. "We are profoundly worried that in some parts of Government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.

"We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of 'No Deal' because that would undermine our obligation of 'sincere co-operation' with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.

"We all want you to push your agenda forward with confidence and have your Government articulate the following..."

If this is a sign of who is really running the country then it is very worrying. Not only has Boris Johnson compromised himself and destroyed all his credibility over the false testimony he gave on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and his failure to retract it but both he and Gove's view of a no deal Brexit could plunge the country into a long recession.

Theresa May no longer appears to be in control of her cabinet. It is those now pulling the strings we really have to worry about.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

For whom the bell tolls

Like one of those fortune tellers who claim that they can predict the exact time and date of your death, the Government have determined that they will write into law that Brexit will take place irrevocably at 11pm on Friday 29th March 2019.

This is apparently an hour earlier than previously planned. Presumably, Ministers could not be certain that Big Ben's bongs would be around to toll us out of an institution that has brought us peace, stability and economic prosperity for nearly 45 years, longer if you count the years before we joined - 'Do not ask for whom the bell tolls'. What would John Donne have thought.

Quite how the Government can be so precise about this is puzzling. It's not as if the talks are going well, or that we are on course to get what we want from a Brexit deal. And doesn't the fact that they are going to inscribe the date on vellum, open up the possibility of amendments calling on the people to decide when and where we are ready (if at all) in a referendum, once they have considered all the details of any deal? I certainly hope so.

One cannot help but think that this latest caper is yet another sign of the fantasy world inhabited by the UK Government. Will Labour awaken them from their slumbers? The chances are that the official opposition will be lining up to plunge our economy into the abyss by endorsing the change to the Brexit Bill.

Perhaps we should put the fortune tellers in charge instead.

Friday, November 10, 2017

UK Government sinks deeper into Brexit quagmire

If the UK Government thought they were making progress with the Brexit talks then they would have been swiftly disabused by the latest intervention from the Irish Government.

As the Telegraph reports, Ireland is now pushing hard for concrete reassurance on the Irish border question ahead of the crucial EU leaders’ summit in December, despite UK officials thinking that this matter had been parked for the time being.

A 'leaked talking points paper entitled ‘Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland’ shows Ireland is now pushing hard for concrete reassurance on the Irish border question ahead of the crucial EU leaders’ summit in December.

The one-page paper states that in order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement peace deal, the Brexit divorce deal must respect “the integrity of the internal market and the customs union”, of which Ireland will remain a member.

It adds that it is “essential” that the UK commits to avoiding a hard border by remaining part of the EU Customs Union and continues to abide by the “rules of the internal market and customs union”.

It concludes that Britain must ensure “no emergence of regulatory divergence” from the rules of the EU single market and the Customs Union which are “necessary for North South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The hardline Irish position, which was discussed at EU’s Brexit working group ahead of yesterday’s talks, was described by a senior EU source as reflecting the “state of play” on the Irish question and reflected the “guiding principles” of the EU’s approach to the problem.

The Telegraph understands that Dublin is actually demanding that Britain sign up to some 100 EU rules and regulations, including many covering customs and agriculture, in order to ensure an open trade border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland.

Dublin’s demands present an apparently impossible dilemma to London, requiring either the UK remains in the EU customs union and accepts the rules for the entire UK, or gives Northern Ireland special status in the EU that would undermine the territorial integrity of the UK.'

Those thinking that exiting the EU would be fairly straightforward were quickly disabused of that notion. Now, as the complexities start to kick in, the UK Government is being dragged deeper into a quagmire of its own making, and nobody is willing to throw a rope to pull them out. Is a deal possible at all in the time allowed?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Theresa May teeters on the brink

Yesterday saw one of the more bizarre episodes in modern politics as journalists tracked the International Secretary's plane in real time, all the way from Uganda to the UK on social media and then followed her ministerial car from a camera on a helicopter as it travelled back to Westminster from the airport. It was the event of the day and took journalistic stalking to a new level.

The summoning of a minister back from an overseas trip so she can be handed her resignation letter is in itself unprecedented. The media attention that surrounded that journey turned it into a Monty Pythonesque circus.

The loss of two cabinet members within a week, with another one under pressure to go because of an unforgiveable gaffe and a fourth under investigation has put tremendous position on Theresa May's already precarious position. It is little wonder that metaphorical knives are being sharpened all around her.

The Independent reports that the Prime Minister faces a “make-or-break” month with Tories giving her until Christmas to turn things around. One minister told the paper that the loss of her ministers does not in itself pose a terminal threat to May’s Government, but argued that the direction of travel had to change. S/he believes that there is cumulative effect and there is a danger that May could be perceived as having lost control of events.

The paper adds that the Prime Minister's authority will be under intense scrutiny as she handles difficulties faced by other ministers. They add that she cannot be seen to be letting ministers get away with mistakes or misdemeanours, but can ill-afford to further destabilise her administration by sacking more of her cabinet.

It is a difficult tightrope to walk not least because the Brexit talks continue to stall due to the government's own cluelessness and with the impossible job facing May of balancing her cabinet to reflect an increasingly divided Tory Party adding to her problems.

Her one salvation is the incompetence of the main opposition party, who seem determined to prop up her Brexit strategy no matter how disastrous it proves to be.

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