Brown's Fleet Street friends

He may have lost the Sun but Brown still has the support of the FT

As Gordon Brown contemplates the Sun's defection to the Tories and the unhappy precedent of Neil Kinnock's defeat, he would do well to turn to today's Financial Times.

Along with the Mirror titles, the FT is Brown's last genuine friend on Fleet Street. The paper's leader today proclaims:

There is life yet in Gordon Brown. Or so it seemed, as he began his speech with a combative yet uncharacteristically succinct crescendo of the achievements of the past 12 years, the vindication of Labour's fight for change.

Thanks to an influential social-democratic faction the FT has endorsed Labour at every election since 1992. It's also the most Europhile newspaper in the country and is contemptuous of the Tories' sinister alliances in Brussels.

The paper's circulation may be a modest 395,845 copies a day (though that's more than either the Guardian or the Independent), but given its wealthy readership it effortlessly punches above its weight.

Meanwhile, the Tories, not surprisingly, are jubilant after winning the support of the Sun. Eric Pickles, the party chairman, said this morning that he had shared a "private moment" with the disgraced Andy Coulson on hearing the news. It was in part the fierce criticism of the former News of the World editor by the liberal press that convinced Rupert Murdoch to back Coulson's new boss, David Cameron.

But the Sun will not be an uncritical friend to the Conservatives and it was pathetic of Lord Mandelson to bleat about the paper becoming a "Tory fanzine". It's either acceptable for newspapers to hold political views or it's not. Certainly by this logic the Mirror is little more than a Labour Pravda.

The Sun is likely to press Cameron to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty even if the Irish approve it this Friday. It will lead the calls for him to repeal the 50p tax rate. It will encourage him to drastically reduce the NHS budget. Alastair Campbell was right to contrast today's negative headline, "Labour's lost it", with 1997's positive message "The Sun backs Blair". Here the paper mirrors the public's own uncertainties about Cameron.

That the tabloid's declaration for the Tories came after a speech in which Brown pledged the sort of "tough" action on antisocial behaviour consciously designed to appeal to the Sun is a painful irony for Labour. The futility of pandering to the conservative right has been exposed once more.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.