Letter from London
By Martin Roche, Writer at Large
The Christian feast day of Easter falls on Sunday April 1st this year. In many European countries April 1st is also known as April Fool’s day. The tradition, the origins of which are lost in time, is that family, friends and neighbours play light-hearted practical jokes on each other. Nowadays, it is mainly confined to small children, whose parents collude in the nonsense by feigning bafflement or anger. It is all harmless fun.
The UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, the daughter of a Church of England priest, will no doubt be attending an Easter Sunday church service. It would be surprising if Mrs May did not give up a prayer for a more peaceful world and calmer political waters. It’s a prayer unlikely to be answered. Events on the global stage are no joke and potentially very harmful to all. Mrs May will be in need of a great deal of political fancy footwork. She’ll also need dependable international friends, a supportive Conservative party at home and a parliament that is broadly on her side when it comes to defending the physical security of the UK’s people.
Brexit Bill goes from Lords to Commons
After the Easter recess, the House of Lords will send its proposed amendments to the hugely complex legislation on Brexit to the House of Commons. Expect bitter exchanges, angry interventions, back-door deals, threats, shouts and tears and frequent talk of rebellion against party leaderships from Conservative and Labour MPs. From the pro-EU parties will come regular calls for the people to be given a final say in a referendum on whether to accept or reject the exit deal done with the EU. The momentum for a “final say” referendum is growing, with anti-Brexit protest marches held last week in Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Norwich and Edinburgh. Further large protests are planned for outside the Houses of Parliament this week and in May. A huge London demonstration is on the cards for 23rd June, which will be exactly two years after the British voted to leave the EU.
To add to Mrs May’s challenges, allegations have been aired of serious rule breeches by the official Leave campaign during, the 2016 referendum. No “smoking gun” has yet been found and, so far, nothing revealed that might lead to a cabinet member resigning. At present, there is no viable reason of any kind to suggest that the government itself might fall. But remember the great political truism; it’s not the event itself that does the damage but the cover up afterwards. Mrs May’s hands will be clean – she campaigned to stay in the EU – but what if one or two of her senior ministers can be shown to have been involved in breaking the rules of political campaigning? The legitimacy of the Brexit referendum would then be in question and the authority of the Conservative party gravely, perhaps fatally, undermined.
A Complex Weave of Politics
While all that is going on in London, fragile negotiations continue with the EU in Brussels. In Edinburgh and Cardiff, the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments have passed Acts that aim to ensure that key powers, in areas like farming, fishing and environment policy, now in the hands of the EU, come directly to Scotland and Wales and don’t pass first to Westminster, as Mrs May wants. The pro-independence leadership of the Scottish government, the Scottish National Party (SNP) considers it has an exceptionally strong hand. 62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU. Consequently, the SNP says it has a mandate to champion Scotland’s interests. Under the powers that devolved from London to Edinburgh in 1997, the Scots have since then been responsible for local application of EU policies covering fishing, agriculture and the environment. They see London’s plans as a “power grab” that will reduce the Scottish government’s ability to manage the Scottish economy and weaken 20 years of the devolution of power from London to Edinburgh.
Some rhetorical fireworks will explode and a few harsh words exchanged between London and Edinburgh before the issues are eventually settled, but, as with the entirety of the Brexit process, political scars will be left behind that may have profound constitutional consequences in the years and decades to come.
Nowhere is that more critically the case than in Northern Ireland. Nobody – nobody in London, Brussels, Dublin or anywhere else – has figured out how a “frictionless border” between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member, can be achieved. A “frictionless border” is a condition of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland twenty years ago. The dilemma is how can people and goods move unimpeded across the border of these two countries when one is inside the European Union, its Single Market and its Customs Union, and the other is not?
For the time being, and to allow talks on other matters to progress between the EU and the UK, the matter of the Irish border has been kicked into the long grass. Mrs May has had some recent success in Brussels and claims everything is going the UK’s way. In reality, the UK has agreed to most of what the EU wanted. There’s also now a feeling in Europe that negotiations with the UK are taking too long and distracting the EU from more important matters. Don’t relax yet, because nothing has been finally agreed and the British have to live with the long-established EU way of doing things; “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
The chemistry of Russia
For two years, Brexit has completely dominated British public life. It took one staggering recent event to drive it off the front pages. It was of course the military-grade chemical weapons attack on the streets of Britain. In the quite cathedral city of Salisbury, former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in a public area on 4th March. They remain in critical condition. A police officer who went to help was also poisoned, though has since been allowed home. The perpetrators have not been identified. The evidence points to Moscow.
The crime saw Theresa May rise to the challenge of defending the UK’s interests. She accused the Russian state of ordering or being complicit in the attack and she won the support of the leaders of all the main EU countries. After some hesitation, President Trump showed solidarity with the UK by expelling 60 Russian diplomats from the USA.
In contrast to Theresa May, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn misread the mood of parliament, of the majority of his own party and the British public.
March was Mrs May’s month. She goes into the Easter break stronger than at any time since she first came into No10 Downing Street. The vast EU cracks in her own party have, mainly, been papered over, at least for the time being. Her strong stand on Russia sees her elevated to a higher plane as a national leader and as a figure of greater importance on the global stage. Jeremy Corbyn has seen his stock fall.
Can Mrs May’s luck hold? Can she, against all the odds, survive to lead her country out of the EU, her leadership unchallenged by her own party and the biggest opposition party floundering? It is, of course, possible.
When Mrs May returns to her desk after Easter none of the problems she faced before her holiday will have gone away. Brexit, the stand-off with Russia, the fiendishly complex EU negotiations, the Irish, Scottish and Welsh matters will all still be there, unresolved.
In May, local council elections will be held in many parts of England. The Conservatives expect to do badly in London and other big cities. The real test will be how they do in the small towns and in rural England. A good result will give Mrs May a tremendous boost. A bad set of results could bring her back to earth with a jolt. Little worries MPs more than an electoral fright.
Where it expects success, Labour will triumph. Mrs May’s Conservative party will lose seats to Labour but not enough to seriously worry her. All eyes though will be on the third party of UK politics, the Liberal Democrats. For it is the party of Europe, the champions of the EU. A very good night for the Liberal Democrats will rattle the Conservative and Labour parties. More profoundly, it would be interpreted as a confirmation of growing anti-Brexit sentiment in the nation. Watch out for the morning after Thursday 3rd May. It will give you as good a guide to the next six months of British politics as any pundit. Including me.
Martin Roche is a graduate of the great and ancient University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he read politics and international relations. He began his working life on a daily newspaper in Scotland and has since written for many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in the UK and internationally. As a communications consultant, he has advised political and business leaders in over 20 countries.