Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The political minefield on the road to Brexit

Brexit produces a whole load of weird conundrums, confrontations and contortions, doesn’t it?

The Supreme Court has given Parliament the right to decide on the triggering of Article 50, as it was agreed by 8 votes to 3 that it requires a statute and cannot be waved through by Theresa May using Royal Prerogative.

Those supportive of the Gina Miller case like to regale us with stories about the constitution (uncodified) and The Civil War and the Witan of the Anglo-Saxons and God knows what else.
They were affronted and astonished that the government even dared to appeal the original High Court judgment. The argument for parliamentary sovereignty in this case was so glaringly obvious that even a child could understand it.

Rather strange, in that case, that three of the learned justices on the Supreme Court actually dissented. They must be pretty thick. Maybe they never saw those three-line memes summarising the case on Twitter?

Anyway, after all the hullabaloo, you’d think Theresa May would be quite frightened, wouldn’t you? Brexit is back in the hands of MPs. And they tend to be more inclined to Remain than Leave.

Her plans for wrenching the UK out of the EU must surely now be on hold?

But wait a second. What’s this?

Most MPs will exercise their sovereign right to block Brexit by allowing it to proceed.

That’s because they know that the real decision was taken last June, when the British public (disastrously, but democratically, in my opinion) made their views known and voted out.

As former Labour minister Yvette Cooper has said, to oppose Article 50, you’d need to take a Trumpian view of the democratic process. Remember how the newly-installed US President wouldn’t commit to accepting the November poll if it had gone against him? We growled at him for his blatant contempt for the democratic process.

In the referendum of 2016, it was made quite clear by both campaigns that we were taking a permanent and irreversible decision. A group of Labour MPs, however, say they are planning to defy their hapless leader Jeremy Corbyn and vote against the A50 bill in Parliament.

Some argue that they represent constituencies which voted Remain and they are simply giving voice to the views of their local residents. But if that logic were followed, there would be a very interesting turn of events. Over 60% of UK seats voted for Brexit. So the majority in Parliament for quitting the EU would actually be larger than the majority achieved among the general public.

Of course, the consensus is that MPs and the unelected Lords don’t have the bottle to block A50. But they are determined to amend the bill and attach some brakes and CCTV cameras to Theresa May’s runaway Brexit bandwagon.

This position is perhaps represented best by the intelligent and persuasive MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna. He bravely says that he won’t let his constituents’ living standards be undermined by May’s perverse attachment to a hard break with Europe.

But what can he and other MPs do in practice?

Pass amendments which set out a whole range of pie-in-the-sky objectives for the negotiations?  If I were May, I would actually be happy to accept one or two of these, knowing that they would mean little in practice. Until we get into the negotiating rooms with the representatives of the EU, we have no idea what ideas will fly and how much ground they’re prepared to give.

One scenario is that May goes into the talks and tells Parliament that she did her best to achieve their goals, but it was impossible. Sorry, guys. Tried my hardest, but what can I say? Here’s what I came back with.

Another option is that she fights amendments in the House of Commons and House of Lords tooth and nail. If she loses on some minor points, she doesn’t break much of a sweat (see scenario one). But if she is in danger of losing on something major – an amendment which seeks to guarantee continuing access to the European single market, for example – she turns it into a vote of confidence in the government.

A third possibility is that if things get out of control (Nicola Sturgeon plans 50 amendments) and the timetable were slipping – or she suffered a major defeat in the Commons – she would ask for the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  Jeremy Corbyn has already kindly offered to facilitate the required two-thirds majority to call a general election, which he apparently relishes.

I would say she has plenty of options and all the cards are stacked in the Prime Minister’s favour. Her opinion poll ratings are generally very good and they are rock solid on Brexit.

The one thing which would lead to her having to concede various amendments would be the thought that Article 50 might actually be blocked if she didn’t accept them. But the MPs won’t block A50 and she knows it.

The Labour Party is in a pickle.

It’s like a tenant who desperately needs a flat and has put down a deposit. They are then being told by the landlord the property is rat-infested and doesn’t have a working toilet. There’s no other apartment available in town and they’ll be sleeping on the street if they don’t sign on the dotted line. But they’re convinced they’ll persuade the owner to pay for all the repairs and throw in a new IKEA sofa.

Looming large is a by-election in Stoke, in which the populist right-winger Paul Nuttall is challenging Labour on behalf of UKIP. Every Labour MP who makes a statement saying they’re prepared to block Brexit will be helping to fuel Nuttall’s ugly politics in the Labour heartlands.

It confuses us and frustrates us. It confounds us and it frightens us.

It’s Britain on the road to Brexit.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why foreign policy will be Trump's downfall

Predicting Trump’s trajectory is hard, because the territory is uncharted. A rogue rocket has launched from Cape Canaveral with a nuclear warhead on board and we’re hoping that when it crashes and burns, it doesn’t take out downtown Orlando.

All the famous checks and balances built into the American political system? The ones designed to stop tyranny and to act as a firewall against the agenda of a power-hungry megalomaniac? They will be tested to the full by Donald J Trump, believe me.

Part of the problem is that no one – from the founding fathers onwards – could ever have predicted anyone quite like this man claiming power. The political establishment and the constitutional experts might have imagined a calculating crook or an ideological extremist assuming the presidency. But the pussy-grabbing, China-baiting, tweet-firing freakshow that is Trump? He’s just not in the instruction manual.

It’s beyond question that it will all end in tears.  The only issue is whose tears?  If the lacrimal flood is limited to Donald himself, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief. But let’s not kid ourselves. This guy will cause a lot of collateral damage along the way.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that foreign policy and security will be Trump’s ultimate undoing.

It seems inevitable there will be moves to impeach him at some point, but the wheels grind slowly and the GOP will be largely supportive in what might laughably be described as Trump’s honeymoon. The President’s domestic policy will be offensive and retrograde, but in many respects this is where he is most in line with the agenda of House and Senate Republicans. They all love nothing better than taking away hard-earned workers’ rights, attacking women and restricting access to healthcare.

Trump is on much more problematic ground with his erratic personal behaviour on social media and his tendency to make foreign policy on the hoof. I foresee a crisis with a foreign power precipitated by his trigger-happy Twitter account or some inane (or perhaps insane) announcement he makes off the cuff in a press conference.

The Chinese leadership will be watching closely. The issue of Taiwan and their so-called ‘One China’ policy is a red line. So is their sphere of influence in the ocean territories disputed with Japan, South Korea and The Philippines.

The issue of Russia and kompromat and the lovefest with Vladimir Putin is not going to go away. There’s only one thing worse than seeing someone fall head over heels with the wrong guy. And that’s dealing with the aftermath when their relationship implodes.

While many of us are sickened by the closeness of the lovebirds right now, things could easily be turned on their head overnight. Why? Because Trump doesn’t have one inch of loyalty to anyone except himself. What he says on Tuesday, he happily contradicts on Friday. And by Monday, he’s forgotten he ever said it.

There is a lot of commentary about the fact that Trump seems hostile to the intelligence community and doesn’t like to be briefed. My hunch is that the spooks won’t share anything of substance with him anyway, even if he does start granting them an audience.

As the guy doesn’t read anything, I would just dress up some reports from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and tell him that it’s a briefing. Would he know any different? It would be a risky strategy, for sure, as ideally you’d want the President to be on top of world events. But this is not a normal situation and it would surely be even more risky to share detailed classified intelligence.

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to ‘known knowns’ – things we know we know. Then there were ‘known unknowns’ – the things we know we don’t know. But there was also his third, and rather scary, category of knowledge called the ‘unknown unknowns’. These are the things we don’t know we don’t know.

In every presidency, stuff will turn up that we can’t imagine yet.  ‘Events’, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan quaintly described them. How will Trump react? Will there be one 3am tweet too many?

In the UK, the ‘men in grey suits’ come to tell a Prime Minister it’s time to go. There’s not really any provision for the men in white coats.

The 25th Amendment of the US Constitution does, however, allow for a President to be declared unfit for office by the Vice-President and senior cabinet members. Star Trek aficionados will recognise this as the right of the Chief Medical Officer on board a Starfleet vessel to declare the Captain incapacitated.

If it happens, expect it to happen suddenly without warning. Because I fear it will only be invoked to prevent an international crisis of catastrophic proportions. And time will probably be of the essence.