As I See It: Terry Murden
There was a packed house at Vesta, the Social Bite restaurant in Edinburgh’s west end, on Friday morning to hear political commentator Steve Richards’ take on current affairs at Westminster. In summary? Perhaps he could have borrowed one of Bette Davis’s famous phrases: “Fasten your seatbelts…we’re in for a bumpy ride.”
Over sausage and bacon rolls he outlined how he saw the next few weeks leading up to Brexit day unfolding, backed up by a summary of the latest public opinion by pollster Mark Diffley showing a Boris bounce, notably in England, putting him well ahead of Jeremy Corbyn, although he has arrived in Downing Street as the most unpopular PM of the seven since Margaret Thatcher.
Richards’ took us through the Commons arithmetic that could determine the future of both Johnson and Corbyn whose future is now wholly determined by Brexit. He believes that despite his lack of any meaningful majority, Johnson could win a No Confidence vote that would re-energise the Prime Minister and that if he can pull off a deal he would almost certainly call a General Election on 1 November. There are, he said, few MPs who are not expecting an election in the autumn.
In the midst of this is a possible move by Tory MP Oliver Letwin to engineer executive control. But the best defence against such an outcome is a deal with the EU. Johnson may be accused of fantasy politics, but this is a fast-moving agenda and today we’re hearing of moves towards a trade agreement with the US which would be a huge boost to morale in Downing Street and across the Tory benches.
The PM is also ramping up the pressure on the EU negotiators to agree a deal before the 31 October exit deadline. He is expected to tell the president of the European Council Donald Tusk that Britain will only hand over £9 billion of the £39 billion Brexit divorce bill if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement. Johnson will be further encouraged by a survey due out this week claiming that fewer British companies now rate an exit as damaging.
As he gets increasingly bullish towards Brussels, Johnson’s supporters detect a softening in tone from the biggest EU members. I have been arguing in this column since the end of July that an imminent German recession would encourage a more conciliatory approach from Berlin, a view echoed last week by Nigel Green, CEO of deVere Group, who said “Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy appears to be working but primarily because a recession is looming over Germany…meaning both sides need a good and fair deal more than ever.”
Green adds that “Donald Trump is expected to unleash multi-billion-dollar tariffs on the European Union’s imports, adding to the bloc’s economic worries – so the last thing they need is Britain to crash out in a no-deal scenario….It is becoming increasingly clear to all parties that it is in both the EU and Britain’s economic interests that common ground is found…but let’s be clear: the reason why Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan may appear to be gradually gaining traction is not that he is a genius strategist, it is because of the economic headwinds gathering over the EU.”
However, the biggest conundrum of all is Ireland and the infamous backstop, the insurance policy designed to make sure that the Irish border remains open whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU’s negotiations. Johnson opposes it because it would grant Northern Ireland a different status to the rest of the UK.
He has been told by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president Emmanuel Macron to find a solution by 20 September. Johnson is pinning his hopes partly on a series of proposals by Tory MP Greg Hands, though Richards told us on Friday that Theresa May’s team had looked at them and found them unworkable.
So who blinks first? Could it be economic weakness and threats from Donald Trump to penalise the EU that forces a deal through? Trump the Brexit dealmaker? We’d never hear the last of it.