Brown's comeback

In all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists

Gordon Brown's Labour Conference speech was never going to be the 'make-or-break' point which many commentators were trying to engineer, but he certainly used the opportunity to take on his critics and win back the public. 

Progress's editorial (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3379) in its conference edition of the magazine argued that the crucial thing the Prime Minister should do in his speech was to take responsibility for the government's mistakes in the last year, and the 10p tax debacle in particular. So it was good to see that he admitted early on in the speech that it was indeed a mistake and that taking the side of hard-working families will be a priority henceforth. It wasn't as explicit an apology as Tony Blair made over the 75p pension rise in 2000, but it was welcome nevertheless.

We also suggested that the PM should use his speech to argue that the government can no longer make the changes to Britain it seeks by governing by central dictat and that there needed to be a new contract between citizen and state. There was a reference to the changing role of the state when Gordon said: "Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone." It was a shame, however that he didn't go much further than that.

There were other elements which suggested he'd listened to people's concerns. For instance it was a good move to pledge that as families have to "make economies to make ends meet" so the government too "will ensure that we get value for money out of every single pound" of taxpayers' money. Though he didn't go as far as we did and suggest that the size of Whitehall should be cut by a quarter or that the number of government ministers should be whittled down, but I guess he needs as many members of the PLP on the payroll as possible at the moment...

Progress has long campaigned for greater UK commitment to expose and act on the human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur, so Gordon's reiterated plea from last year's conference speech that the words 'never again' should not become "just a slogan" and should be instead "the crucible in which our values are tested" was welcome. But as in so many areas of government, the fine words of a speech are barely translated into practice when the stage set is dismantled. Let's hope that this year sees more action from our government in putting pressure on those regimes which think they can transgress international law without fear of retaliation.

I wasn't so sure whether the more populist measures in the speech might be storing up problems for the future. For example, while I can see why those suffering from cancer will see real benefit from the pledge to not charge for their prescriptions, won't this simply create even more inconsistency in an already byzantine system of charges and how do we respond to patients with other potentially life-threatening illnesses? More popular on the doorstep by far would have been to agree to abolish hospital car parking charges and telephone charges.

I also wasn't convinced that the move to charge migrants for use of public services will work in practice and doesn't it send the wrong signal at a time when our economy will increasingly rely on migrant labour? Are we ready to charge them for the use of schools and surely not for emergency health care?

But in all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists pore over the detail in the weeks to come, it may well provide the starting point for a wider debate about the direction of the government and party.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”