Jun 102017
 

As usual, the speech by Liberal Democrat party leader Tim Farron at the National Liberal Club after the General Election received little media coverage. The full transcript (see Mark Pack’s blog) is well worth reading. Here is the last part of it:

Nick Clegg is a giant of British politics, a friend and a hero to me and to countless others. Not only did he lead our party into government for the first time in generations, he did so in the most difficult of circumstances and for the most noble of reasons.

Our party paid a political price for joining the coalition government, but it is nothing compared to the price our country would have paid if Nick had not shown the steel and determination to do the right thing when it was needed most.

In 2010 our economy was on the edge of a precipice. Because of Nick Clegg it survived and flourished.

Theresa May called this election expecting it to be a coronation. She took each and every one of us for granted in the most cynical way possible. Like David Cameron before her, our Conservative Prime Minister rolled the dice and put the future of our country at risk out of sheer arrogance and vanity.

And now in her diminished state, she reaches out to the right to form her own coalition of chaos. Theresa May has done the opposite of what Nick Clegg did. She put her party before her country. She has been found out. She should be ashamed.

We will now have a government that is weaker and less stable at a time when we are about to embark on the most difficult and complex negotiations in our history. Theresa May promised strong and stable leadership. She has brought weakness and uncertainty. If she has an ounce of self-respect she will resign.

The Tories have taken our country for granted too many times. Whatever happens in this coming parliament, the Liberal Democrats will fight for you, your family and for your community.

And if Theresa May, or any other Conservative, approaches the Liberal Democrats and asks for our support to deliver their agenda, let me make our position clear: no deal is better than a bad deal.

There will be no deals, no coalitions and no confidence and supply arrangements. If the Government puts a Queen’s Speech or a Budget in front of us, we will judge it on whether or not we think it is good for the country – and if it isn’t then we will not support it.

This parliament faces a challenge greater than any for generations – Brexit. And yet, both the Conservatives and Labour went to great lengths to make sure this election was about anything but.

Their plans were paper thin. Their ambitions built on little more than platitudes. Now they must lay their cards on the table. Brexit is about to get very real – and its consequences will be felt by every single person in this country.

One thing that is clear from the result of the election is that the mandate Theresa May sought for her extreme version of Brexit has been rejected by the British people. It is simply inconceivable that the Prime Minister can begin the Brexit negotiations in just two weeks’ time. She should consider her future – and then, for once, she should consider the future of our country. The negotiations should be put on hold until the government has reassessed its priorities and set them out to the British public. The British people have a right to expect that our Prime Minister will explain to them what it is that she seeks to achieve.

Meanwhile, the negotiations had been due to begin on 19 June – the same day as the Queen’s Speech, in theory. This seems to be unlikely now.

Speaking on German radio, Commissioner Gunther Oettinger said the EU stands ready for Brexit talks, “but the next few hours or days will indicate if the other negotiating party can even begin talks because without a government, there can be no negotiations.”

Theresa May’s speech after returning from sharing her intention to try to form a Government with the Queen was as delusional as the promises of the Leave campaigners. Shortly after saying that she would be staying in power with the help of the 10 DUP MPs, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that they would enter talks to explore ‘how to bring stability to our nation’. Earlier in the morning, she had said that it would be difficult for Theresa May to continue as Prime Minister.

Since then, the world has been trying to work out what the DUP stands for. This is perhaps the most authentic analysis. In particular, “The DUP’s key concern is the effect of Brexit on the Irish border. Although the party is very pro-Brexit, they none the less want to allow travel and trade between the two parts of Ireland to continue unimpeded.

On 29 March 2017, Theresa May set the 2-year clock ticking on negotiating the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. It would have been less risky to have done so after having had a General Election but she decided to do it the other way around.

Ironically, the 27 other EU Member States are now more united and in a stronger negotiating position than the UK Government. Moreover, they have already put all their cards on the table (based on the broad intentions stated by Theresa May). The General Election result was a clear rejection of the ‘hard Brexit’ she had proposed.

Even with an agreement with the DUP, the Conservatives would have a tiny majority in Parliament. The chances of getting anything like a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ through Parliament as Theresa May had been proposing would seem to be remote. We should be grateful to Gina Miller’s Best for Britain campaign for contributing to preventing a Tory landslide. The question now is what all these pro-EU MPs should do.

Various things are on the horizon now for the Conservatives.

Having announced a deal with the DUP before she had actually negotiated it, Theresa May is now almost obliged to promise them whatever they ask for – including staying within the EU Customs Union to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a poor negotiation strategy – one we should hope will not be applied in negotiations with the EU.

Some in Theresa May’s party already seem to be preparing to replace her. With all this going on, not to mention the possibility of another General Election after summer, it does not seem useful to start negotiating with the EU27. With the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens in Parliament all against Brexit, if they are joined by pro-EU Tories on a vote-by-vote basis, mathematically, the only way in which Brexit could happen is if Labour formed an alliance with the Tories.

Meanwhile, the Article 50 clock continues to tick. As long as a new Government is not formed, the Brexit negotiations will need to wait. And perhaps that could be an indefinite wait, in the absence of a strong and stable Government.

Let's make June the end of May

May 302017
 

I was born and grew up in London. I used to love it. I still love London’s theatres but many other aspects are no longer what they used to be – at least for me.

The beginning of the end

I think the decline started long ago, when both schools and parents stopped teaching children any values and focused instead on mechanical learning and testing. It accelerated when David Cameron decided to call a referendum on EU membership purely to try to settle a split within the Conservative party. More recently, Theresa May’s strong and stable promise to leave both the Single Market and the Custom’s Union with the sole objective of reducing immigration seems set to make the UK an even less pleasant place to live or even visit, let alone do business with.

UK Government – consistently clueless

All we know about the UK position comes from:

  • Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech (17 January 2017), setting out the UK’s negotiating objectives;
  • The UK Government’s White Paper (2 February 2017) on its “vision” for a new partnership with the EU; and
  • Theresa May’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk (29 March 2017) triggering the start of negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The two-line European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 does not say much, supposedly to avoid tying Theresa May’s hands in the Brexit negotiations. Apart from this, we had heard for six months that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and lately that she wants to “make a success of Brexit”. The wishful thinking of the Leave campaign that a UK outside the EU would be able to have its cake and eat it was continued by David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox as Ministers. Personally, I found this extremely amateurish and clueless.

All this waffle has already caused a lot of uncertainty for anyone or any business based in the UK and for UK citizens based elsewhere in the EU. The pound is still worth 10% less against the euro than it was on the day of the Referendum. That is before any Brexit negotiations have even started.

The EU27 negotiating position

Unlike Theresa May, the EU27 (ie, the group of European Union Member States other than the UK) and the European Commission have decided to be completely transparent about the Brexit negotiations. Perhaps ironically, the UK Referendum result and the election of Donald Trump in the US have led to greater unity between the other EU Member States (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted yesterday).

Apart from the timeline, here is what we know so far about the EU27 negotiating position:

The clear line is that “sufficient progress” needs to have been made on agreeing these principles with the UK before discussions on other areas would begin.

The future of the UK?

The Leave campaigners claimed that the UK would be better off trading with countries other than the EU. In case you had forgotten what they told us, here is the leaflet put out by our local Conservative MP at the time of the UK Referendum last year.

The Leave campaigners conveniently failed to mention how long it might take or that the UK could not negotiate trade agreements with countries outside the EU until after the UK has left the EU. They also forgot to say that the UK would not be the 5th largest economy in the world without its EU trade. The UK already fell behind India soon after the Referendum because of the 10% drop in the value of the pound.

Another thing the Leave campaigners didn’t mention is that the UK would need to recruit a lot more civil servants to carry out the tasks currently carried out by the “unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels”.

Could the General Election on 8 June change this?

From these UK and EU27 negotiating positions, you can already see where the areas of disagreement are likely to be if Theresa May wins the predicted landslide majority on 8 June. Given Labour’s plan to control immigration, the destiny of the UK probably would not be very different if they win either.

The Government had already predicted the economic consequences of a Leave vote in its pre-Referendum leaflet. It had not predicted the dramatic rise in hate crime fuelled by the anti-immigration rhetoric of populist politicians or the collapse of the NHS when its tens of thousands of non-British staff decide to leave the UK to work somewhere they feel welcome. If most people really vote for either Conservatives or Labour, as the opinion polls are predicting, all this seems likely to become the reality.

With this perspective, I don’t really see that the UK will have much of a future – or at least one that I would still want to be part of.

Of course, there are the consistently anti-Brexit political parties like the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP. For them to do well, a lot of people in the UK would need to vote as recommended by the ‘Best for Britain’ tactical voting campaign led by Gina Miller. I really hope they do. Otherwise, the UK will become a country where, as Tagore observed in his Nationalism in the West speech in 1917:

“… the people are hospitable but the nation has proved itself to be otherwise, making an Eastern guest feel humiliated to stand before you as a member of the humanity of his own motherland.”

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