That memo against the Pope is no joke

Benedict XVI, his visit, and an aggressively secular mindset in Whitehall.

There is widespread confusion over the extraordinary Foreign Office "brainstorming" memo entitled "The ideal visit would see . . .", and it has caused huge diplomatic tensions between the UK and the Holy See, which have enjoyed unprecedentedly strong relations in recent years -- until now.

People think it is a joke. That is to say, that it was written as a joke. This is not surprising, given the range of suggestions, which include a form of contraception named after the Pope, the Pope opening an abortion clinic, and the Pope overseeing a homosexual wedding.

In fact, I am reliably told by a senior Whitehall source: "This was not written as a joke. It was meant to be a serious brainstorming by various people [and was] designed for a meeting. I know it is hard to believe, but it is serious."

In which case, the memo says more about the mindset of what one official calls the "aggressive secular fundamentalism" that is entrenched in the Foreign Office than it does about the papal visit, which, for all the Vatican's faults, remains a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I deplore the sick culture of child abuse that has been unearthed in the Roman Catholic Church. And I will upset some Catholic friends by saying that I have some sympathy with the view that the Pope should show leadership, take overall responsibility and "resign" over the issue.

Even before that grotesque scandal was reported, I didn't have much time for a Pope who is into Gucci shoes and iPods.

However, much work has been put in by the British embassy in the Vatican -- and by ministers who should not be blamed -- to improve relations with the centre of a religion followed by millions. In an age when interfaith recognition is vital, that is very important work indeed.

That this memo has been setback, caused by the childish and frankly idiotic provocations of sniggering officials with too much time on their hands, is an embarrassment to Britain. Secularists should offer faiths the same freedom of thought that they hold so dear.

I will be returning to this subject.

UPDATE: A query I submitted to the Foreign Office about whether or not the document is a joke has not had a response (2 May).

 

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.