ABHI Membership

ABHI Brexit Update: The Line between Conviction and Dogma

The Willard Hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, qualifies as what our American cousins might describe as “fancy-Dan.” It is all crystal chandeliers, marble floors and oak panelling. Brigades of waistcoated staff bustle along its opulent corridors with laden trays. When I lived in the city, it was a place I only went if someone else was paying. I am not sure I ever properly thanked the Irish Ambassador for one particularly sumptuous breakfast. The food is etched on my mind as indelibly as the imposing presence at the event of the late Martin McGuinness.

Earlier this year, as part of a trip to mark the 10th anniversary of my coming home, I treated my girls to a farewell Sunday brunch there. We sat on the terrace enjoying the warm, early summer sunshine, looking down towards the monuments on the Mall, whilst all around us, DC business was being conducted DC style. It was truly wonderful.

For those in my line of the work, the Willard is also something of a mecca. Its location, not much more than a block from the White House, is the critical element of this story. During his Presidency, and after a long day in the Oval Office, Ulysses S Grant was partial to a glass of brandy and a cigar. His favourite haunt, and the one to which he would repair as often as not, was the bar at the Willard. Over time, those wanting a quiet word in the Presidential ear, maybe a question best asked informally, outside the constraints of protocol, grew wise. They began to hang around the lobby of the Willard at likely hours, hoping to catch the Chief Executive’s eye and, maybe if the mood was right, share a drink, a smoke and pick up the tab. Thus, a phrase was coined, and an industry born.

Of course Presidents are busy men, their plans change, meetings overrun and Grant did not always appear as anticipated. Many a hopeful trip was ultimately fruitless. Still today lobbying remains a precarious, imprecise business, much more art than science. You can prepare as many detailed engagement plans and strategies and populate as many Gantt charts as you like, but they will never beat the goal scorer’s instinct to be in the right place at the right time, and the ability to deliver when the chance arises.

These thoughts came to mind last Monday, when ABHI Chair, Phil Kennedy and I found ourselves in the UK’s number one lobbying location – the banqueting facilities of the Palace of Westminster. Phil was there to deliver a keynote address at “Brexit – How to safeguard the NHS,” a reception organised by the admirable Brexit Health Alliance. I was there to carry his bags and intercept the journos, who, incidentally, included a film crew for the Japanese national broadcaster. Yes, really. Brexit, it seems is big in Japan. It was a fantastically orchestrated event with a compelling line up of speakers. Alongside Phil was the Chair of University College London NHS Trust, the Chief Executive of Sussex NHS Partnership, a representative from Kidney Care UK and the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation. The audience was a meticulously targeted group of MPs, with whom the Alliance was anxious to discuss Brexit. The thing was, that all the MPs were inside the Chamber. Discussing Brexit. See what I mean about Gantt charts?

And there has been a fair amount to discuss has there not? Last Sunday the PM returned from Brussels with a deal on withdrawal and some high-level musings about future partnerships. Well, she was always going to and that was always going to be the easy bit. She now has a new deadline. 11th December, the day Parliament will get its meaningful vote. There will be a lot of technical argy-bargy over amendments, much posturing and positioning between now and then, but that is the day when we will know if the deal will be ratified. And it could not be much later in the day, with the next EU summit taking place on the 13th. Actually we might not know on the 11th. The vote might not happen, especially if the situation remains as it is, with May looking at a very heavy defeat, as much as 100 votes some are predicting. Obviously delaying the seemingly inevitable is a drastic measure, but we could be in that sort of territory. I remember speaking to some very distressed Labour MPs in the run up to the 2010 general election. Facing certain defeat, PM Gordon Brown and his heavy mob were in damage limitation mode, threatening likely losing MPs with all sorts if they failed to tow the party line and promising the Earth if they did. Desperate situations demand desperate measures. This time around Tory Whips are threatening to cancel Christmas if the government loses the vote, and bring MPs back in over the holidays. They are desperately hoping that Labour will get off the fence and come out to support a second referendum, which may galvanise Tory waverers into towing the official line. The opposition has said that in the event of the government being defeated, and in the absence of a general election, a second referendum is inevitable. And, as I have told you before, there is not going to be a general election. Jeremy Corbyn (has anyone seen him? Is he alright?) has agreed to go head to head with the PM in a live TV debate. That is if the TV channels will take them. Game time was supposed to be Sunday 9th December, perfectly positioned ahead of the big vote. But now it seems that the people who run our country have concluded that a debate between the leaders of the two main political parties, on the most important issue of our lifetimes, cannot compete with “I’m a Celebrity,” “Strictly Come Dancing,” “Dr. Who,” and the series finale of David Attenborough. I really do not know what to say about that.

The government’s analysis of the economic impact of Brexit said what everybody knew it would, and we would be better off staying put. The Governor of the Bank of England said the same, as did others. Opinion polls suggested that voters now massively support a second referendum on the final deal, by 48 percent to 34, and both a no-deal Brexit and remaining inside the EU were far more popular than May’s deal. It probably did not help that President of the United States described the deal as great for the EU, and cast doubts over the UK’s ability to be able to trade with his country as a result.

Yet still the PM forges on, convinced she has long enough to persuade everyone, and she is trying to persuade absolutely everyone, that her deal is the best on offer. She tried this single-minded, it is all about me approach about 18 months ago if you remember, and failed to win an unlosable election. I do wonder if we will look back as this being the week when the tide finally turned irrevocably against her. Having the courage of one’s convictions is a commendable, essential characteristic in a leader, but the line between deeply held conviction and dogma is thin and porous. It is all very well having the strength to keep steering the chartered course in the face of mountainous seas, but when the icebergs start appearing, heading straight for them begins to look foolish.

As I write, the PM is in Argentina at the G20 summit. There she may ask Putin why he deployed nerve agents randomly in central southern England, and if he is trying to start World War 3 in the Ukraine, ascertain that Trump has still not found where the Secret Service has hidden the nuclear codes and suggest to the Saudis that dismembering those of their own citizens with whom they disagree is not, necessarily, the sign of a civilised country. She will probably consider it all light relief.

And speaking of which, I could just not resist this instant classic from the dear old Grauniad, which this week excelled itself. On page 11 of Wednesday’s print edition “Steve Bartley, the virtually unknown new Brexit secretary.” Yes, I did wonder about that too.