Time to be counted

Detailed lowdown of what's going on in Wales

The most notable part of the Welsh Assembly election campaign so far is the exceptionally good weather. Canvassers have reported a good natured reception from electors basking in the sun, alas many of these voters still remain undecided as to how they will vote, if they vote at all, and a number have expressed a level of confusion as to what we all stand for. A confusion that is only enhanced by the huge amount of paper that has been thrown at them in many areas.

The most common comment on phone-ins is that very few people have met a real politician in the flesh, and there is a certain truth to that as the parties work out their differences on the television, radio, the internet and through letterboxes. The problem is that a large chunk of Wales does not watch Welsh TV or read a Welsh newspaper. As far as they are concerned it is 'election, what election?'

Despite all of that those voters I talk to, and I have been on doorsteps every night since the beginning of March, are anxious to engage with the politicians and take advantage of what the Assembly can do for them. Most are now familiar with the fact that there are two ballot papers and are showing signs of thinking quite deeply as to how they use this double opportunity. It seems clear to me that there will be an increased turnout but how this will impact upon the result is anybody's guess.

The absence of regular polling as in Scotland means that both politicians and media are working in a vacuum. Those polls that have been published are largely contradictory and every time I speak to an opposition politician they express genuine puzzlement as to how the pollsters could have secured the outcome they did. One senior Labour Assembly Member contesting a marginal seat told me that he could find no evidence of a swing to Plaid Cymru at all despite the fact that a recent poll shows the nationalists as being ready to consolidate their position as the second largest party. He and other Labour Party AMs repeat the mantra that their vote is solid and that the Labour meltdown forecast by many will not come about at all.

The truth is most probably somewhere in between. My experience is that there is a certain level of disillusionment with Labour and that people are turning away from them. In many instances this will result in an abstention, in many others it will translate into a vote for the dominant opposition party in a constituency. Labour will lose seats but the impact of those losses will be largely offset by gains at a regional level. It is possible that Labour will end up with no constituency seats at all in the Mid and West Wales region for example. The outcome in my view is that Labour will remain the largest party with between 24 and 26 seats.

What is interesting about this campaign is the way that David Cameron's reformed Conservatives have failed to gel with the electorate. There is no doubt that they will pick up constituency seats such as Cardiff North, but by no means certain that they will gain everything that they expect. Their little local difficulty in Clwyd West, where their candidate called for schools to teach creationism as part of science classes for example, may well be enough to allow Labour's Alun Pugh to survive what a few weeks ago seemed a certain loss. I think that on balance Plaid will just pip the Tories in the number of Assembly seats.

Prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look good. Gains by other parties will enable us to pick up one or two regional seats, whilst the constituency of Ceredigion still remains on a knife edge. Our vote will be up once more and we will increase the size of our Assembly group.

In many ways the most interesting times look to be the weeks after the election during which various parties will be vying for a piece of the action in any future coalition government. Although the presence of a limited proportional voting system means that coalitions are mostly inevitable that does not mean that all politicians and party members accept the reality of that situation. Already we have seen parties trying to limit their own options prior to the election so as to avoid losing votes. How it will all end up is not down to us but to the electorate.

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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.”