Oxford For Europe
20 June 2021
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After he finished in Cornwall, the Prime Minister came campaigning in Chesham and Amersham. Perhaps he might as well have stayed home
This is a pretty sophisticated electorate that knows what a fraudulent prospectus is, & they have a very low opinion of Boris Johnson… they consider him to be a charlatan
We thought we could win in Chesham and Amersham. Labour didn’t campaign very much. In Batley and Spen, we will have a presence – we’ve got councillors there. But we’re not going to be able to, frankly, pour in the resources that we put into Chesham and Amersham. Voters are far smarter than people give them credit for. Liberal Democrat voters may well notice that this is a Labour-held seat with the Tories in a close second, and they’ll draw their own conclusions. But that shouldn’t be stitched up in a back room by party leaders.
There is growing, extensive and incontrovertible evidence that the government is disrespecting parliament, telling untruths to parliament and bypassing parliament. That is wrong. Period.
Bargains at C&A?
In a week of big news perhaps the highlight was the pasting the Tories had in Chesham and Amersham. Sarah Green’s stunning victory owed much to local issues, to threatened changes in planning law and to the disappointment over the non-ending of lockdown. However I would like to think that it is first and foremost an awakening to the reality of just what our government stands for. In their blind pursuit of Leave voters in the Red Wall, the Tories have learned that they should not forget those people whom Theresa May chose to dismiss as “citizens of nowhere”. I can speak with feeling, having met some of them while canvassing in the constituency.
Labour’s poor showing has sometimes been put down to dissatisfaction with the leadership. I would like to think that this is not the case, and we shall see shortly. The bargain between Lib Dems and Labour was perhaps more in the form of a nod and a wink than anything more formal, but if there was one, all credit to both sides. Credit also to Sir Ed Davey for his now openly permissive attitude to tactical voting next time round, on 1 July. Then perhaps Batley and Spen will give the Tories their second lesson in humility in the space of a month.
And just in case we had any doubts as to how toxic the Tory brand has come, John Bercow has joined the voters of Chesham and Amersham in turning his back on it. This will of course be portrayed by party as an act of betrayal, or as a ‘Woke’ individual showing his true colours. The truth is he is following in the footsteps of many courageous and principled former Tories such as Sam Gymah, Dominic Grieve and Philip Lee. All have made their decision at personal cost, demonstrating that these really are not normal times.
I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will be pleased with the G7 summit, because it delivered everything that he wanted: some good headlines; some nice photos; and even a row with the French over sausages. That just shows how narrow the Prime Minister’s ambition for Britain really is. It is why this was never going to be a Gleneagles-style success, and why the Prime Minister played the role of host but not leader, of tour guide but not statesman. On those terms, this G7 was a success, but on any other, it was a failure.
We recognise the particular responsibility of the largest countries and economies in upholding the rules-based international system and international law.
“An international agreement is not an a la carte menu from which you can choose what you like and ignore the rest. Once you sign off on it you have to implement it properly and fully. Global Britain is not going to work unless we are seen to live up to our commitments.”
Kim Darroch, former UK Ambassador to the US.
No surprises in Cornwall
Last week I was in Cornwall and had the dubious pleasure of getting caught up in the security surrounding G7. However one of the best things about the G7 conference was that at least the security was successful, there were no unpleasant surprises and as many delegates left Cornwall intact as had arrived. In addition it has to be said that there was an agreed communiqué, unlike the 2018 G7 in Canada where President Trump managed to sabotage any attempt at consensus. However, as might have been predicted, on most of the key areas including climate change, allocation of vaccines, China and the Middle East, what was agreed went nowhere near what was being called for by those in the know.
From the UK government’s point of view there can have been only disappointment. Boris Johnson saw this as a one off opportunity to play at being magnanimous host to all the key leaders of the democratic world. Frankly, he blew it. He could not resist the temptation to grandstand about his growing manufactured dispute with his EU neighbours. At the end of the day this is what finished up making the headlines. It most certainly did not have to be so.
The turning point was perhaps when Johnson asked Emanuel Macron, apropos of the Northern Ireland protocol, “How would you like it if the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?”. Perhaps he was remembering only too well the sausage wars from the TV series Yes Minister. As any event, he got the response he should really have expected, i.e. that this was a poor analogy, there is after all Paris and Toulouse are in the same country and there is no sea between them. This perfectly reasonable riposte was interpreted both by Johnson and Raab as offensive, in effect saying that Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom. That was never said. Would Johnson have become cross if someone had said that London and Glasgow are in different countries? I think not – ask any football fan, especially this week. And whatever we might think about it, Belfast is not Birmingham or Glasgow. Johnson himself has recognised and copper-fastened that by signing a treaty which places it in a different customs territory from the rest of the UK, i.e. from the island of Great Britain. Macron was stating a simple geographic fact.
So is Johnson being naive or was he deliberately planting this question in order to give him an opportunity for some vacuous grandstanding and flag-waving, and to please readers of the Daily Express? If he was doing this he was obviously placing short-term gratification of a domestic audience ahead of his place on the world stage, because he was immediately demeaning himself in the eyes of the world. Rafael Behr and Chris Grey speculate that his only wish is to play to the domestic audience, and the rest of the world comes a poor second.
Eight against one
Johnson should perhaps have looked at the photograph taken at the start of the summit, showing him with his eight principal guests. Of these, five were representing EU countries or institutions, and two of the others, namely Biden and Trudeau, had already expressed deep concern about the U.K.’s breaches of international law in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol (Did Johnson not feel the slightest pang of guilt signing that communiqué, with its reference to upholding the rules-based international system and international law?). Biden had seen to it that a demarche was sent to the UK government in advance of the summit, something which is normally done only in relation to hostile or untrustworthy states (Johnson’s ‘Suez Moment’). It is perhaps a surprise that Trudeau added his voice, as the only other leader present from a Commonwealth country, but that in itself speaks amply of the indignation which Johnson has caused around the world.
The one person among the eight who may possibly have been neutral on the Northern Ireland question was Mr Suga of Japan. However, before Johnson is tempted to take any consolation from that fact, consider how much anger successive Japanese leaders have expressed about what they see as the betrayal of their motor industry through Brexit. The fact that Honda is now about to leave Swindon because Brexit made it unviable, and Nissan and others may well follow suit, has not been lost on the Japanese. Unsurprisingly the trade deal which Japan offered the UK is in some ways less generous than that which the UK had previously enjoyed as an EU member. So yes, 8 out of 8.
On the face of it, given the circumstances, the company he was in, and how much was at stake, Johnson placing the Brexit dispute in the limelight, when it did not even appear on the G7 agenda, seems like an insane act of self-harm. Does he really believe that his threats to torpedo the Northern Ireland protocol, which he himself signed and quoted as a triumph, could possibly be helpful? There has to be a border somewhere between Great Britain and the European single market, and Johnson himself has acknowledged that it cannot be on the island of Ireland. The Irish border is 310 miles long and its ends are about 80 miles apart, so it is incredibly tortuous, with more crossing points than the entire eastern border of the EU. There are even people living in houses which straddle it. Johnson was left no choice but to agree a border in the Irish Sea, which is what he did in late 2019. This remains the case however many times he said beforehand he would not do it and however many times he now tries to deny it.
Perhaps he is holding out hope that if he creates a situation where the only alternative is violence, then the European Union, afraid of being held to blame, will decide to draw the single market border between Ireland and the mainland EU, and it has been rumoured that this has been discussed in Brussels. This rumour may well have been started by the Tories themselves, in the hope that it would grow legs. BJ and all other stakeholders need to know that this is simply not going to happen. EU officials have said that it would be rewarding the UK for bad behaviour (“EU leaders are quite simple: they will not allow the former coloniser to force Ireland out of the internal market”). Such a step would undermine the whole ethos of the single market. It is in nobody’s interest for such rumours to be taken seriously. Going a step further, and totally in the realms of fantasy, are those like Kate Hoey, who see Ireland leaving the EU, despite the mounting evidence of what a catastrophic move that has been for the UK. Such predictions are damaging for both Ireland and the EU, they discourage UK government adherence to international law, and they create false hope in the minds of extremists on the Leave side.
However many times Tory spokesmen talk about “reforming” or “renegotiating” the Northern Ireland protocol, it remains that it is a binding treaty and that if Johnson didn’t think it was fit for purpose he should not have signed it. Nor should Parliament have voted firstly to approve it and secondly to deny itself any time to consider it.
Sausage and other chilled meats may be unimportant in themselves – after all the island of Ireland is more than self-sufficient in such products – but they could set a precedent for a great deal more, which is why the EU is sticking to its ground. It would be possible for the UK to end this crisis by the simple expedient of accepting alignment with EU SPS (sanitary / phytosanitary) standards. After all, it keeps claiming it has no wish to lower standards.
As if the problems of transit across the Irish Sea were not sufficient, the implosion of the DUP and the potential collapse of the Northern Ireland administration have made the situation there even more volatile. It is a time when we need above all a wise and level-headed government with diplomatic skills. Why do we have the opposite?
But it gets worse.
In Cornwall we had the pitiable sight of the UK as a lonely nation, excluded from what may well become a progressively stronger US-EU alliance. Instead of working to emerge from the hole which he has chosen for himself, Johnson just keeps on digging. Biden has made it entirely clear that the so-called “special relationship” with the UK will come in third place to protection of the Good Friday agreement and good relations with the EU, a much more economically powerful ally and one which has not gone out of its way to defy international law.
So what friends are left? Australia? The trade deal just agreed with Scott Morrison brings nothing but disadvantage for the UK and is being celebrated in Canberra as something exceptional. The UK government has trumpeted it as an achievement but been so secretive about the details that we have to learn about them through the Australian press. It seems now that even the 15 year adjustment period Johnson boasts about is not going to happen.
Can this country fall any further from grace? Sadly I fear our Prime Minister is just about to show us how it can.
It is not too late for a change in direction. It is time for our leaders to live in the world as it is, not the world as they would wish it to be. Perhaps the fate of the Tory candidate in C&A has helped teach them that.
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