ABHI Membership

ABHI Brexit Update: Sooner Rather than Later

I am beginning to wonder if this blog has not become an entity in its own right, and one that has developed sinister, Dorian Gray like properties. No sooner had I penned a couple of cheap, cheeky lines last week, suggesting that the Brexit Secretary was rather conspicuously under-employed and, there he is, stepping out of a motorcade in Brussels. He was there for talks with Jean Claude Junker. I hope it was not over lunch. Junker’s thirst is legendary and you would not want to think that our children’s futures had been signed away after a three-bottle job.

Fair play to Steve Barclay, he is back there today meeting the rather more sober figure of EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. Wherever Barclay wants to take the conversation he needs to get there fast. As someone once said, the clock is ticking and time is short, maybe impossibly so. This particular clock stops on 19th October by when the PM needs a deal to be agreed, or Parliament to agree to no deal, or else we ask for an extension to Article 50 until the end of 2020. We have explored this cul-de-sac before. Parliament will not sanction no deal and Boris will not ask for an extension. So all our Steve has to do is agree a new deal with the EU at the 17th October summit, get it ratified by Parliament in the following days, hope the European Parliament nods it through and we enter the transition / implementation period on the 1st November. Simples.

Except, of course, it is not. It is what escaped Theresa May throughout her troubled tenure at No. 10 and a solution for arrangements on the Irish border that suits all comers remains elusive. Europe, I understand, is also pessimistic about the prospects of a golden handshake next month. But it is the only way that I can see that Barclay can extricate his boss from the self-dug hole so big it can be seen from space.

The seemingly impossible task also got a whole lot harder this week, as life for Boris got a whole lot more interesting.

I am not sure I have the stomach to rehearse the fine detail of events in the Fun House, save to say they were more suited to the junior common room than the Mother of all Parliaments. The Tories are sometimes known as the nasty Party and you can see why. They were furious when the Supreme Court ruled they had acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament as early as they did, and are shouting loudly that they disagree, something I find unseemly in Her Majesty’s Government. A very grumpy Boris, summoned back from the UN in New York, shouted about it using highly inappropriate language and, when he dared to mention the murdered Labour MP, Jo Cox, all hell broke loose. Johnson has, so far, refused to apologise which has probably alienated the opposition MPs who might well have defied their own Whip to support whatever deal Barclay secures.

As unseemly as anything was the Attorney General screaming that this Parliament was a disgrace and daring Jeremy Corbyn to go for an election. He was subsequently and suitably rubbished by the media. It is hard not to conclude that there will be an election sooner rather than later now. I have always said, and maintain that it is not the right vehicle to settle the Brexit issue once and for all, but there are other reasons. Boris has thrown his majority out of the pram and commands little respect inside the House. He cannot govern as it stands. The question is about timing. Johnson wants an election immediately, mainly because he believes he can win, and his popular appeal does appear to be holding up, until this week anyway. The question will be when it comes to election time, how much damage persuading the Queen to break the law will prove to have done. It is the line the opposition will be taking and I was reminded this week by NHS Chair, Lord Prior, who was with us in Austin with the city’s Healthcare Council, that the only institution that commands more popular support than the NHS is the Queen.

Boris will not get an election immediately, his antics this week removed any doubt. Those MPs whose primary motivation is to stop a no deal exit do not want an election before the extension to Article 50 has been agreed, the seemingly most likely outcome of the Benn Bill, unless the Government can pull a flanker and simply ignore the law. But the Supreme Court ruling this week will make them wary of playing that card again too readily. Those MPs whose primary motivation is to beat Johnson at the ballot box, want him to endure the humiliation of asking the EU for another extension. Of course, when the election comes, there is no certainty that it will prove conclusive, and if that is the case, we will continue to inhabit LaLa land. I am not sure that Jeremy Corbyn is the man, and Labour has emerged from Brighton with a suite of policies the like of which made them unelectable for a generation. As I write though, there is talk of Corbyn leading a temporary Government following a vote of no confidence. Frankly, at this stage, nothing would surprise me. The only thing that is certain is more uncertainty, and I have written that down here before.

Back in the real world, the National Audit Office has marked the Government’s continuity of supply homework. B+ is my reading of it. I maintain that the approach taken by DHSC has been diligent and what I hear from you is that you are as prepared as you can be. We will only know for sure, should, if, and when the contingencies are deployed for real. With all this going on, you will not want to miss our half day Brexit event...