The next chapter in Blair’s pursuit of wealth

New reports reveal that he has registered a “Mayfair bank” with the FSA.

It's not great timing for the man who was once credited with being a master of spin. After a week of speculation around Tony Blair's decision to donate the proceeds of his memoir, A Journey, to the Royal British Legion comes news that the former premier has set up a Mayfair investment advisory firm.

The company, Firerush, was apparently set up to manage the finances of his consultancy firm, Tony Blair Associates (TBA), but, as the Bloomberg report points out, Blair has hired former investment bankers -- including an ex-Lehman Brothers employee -- and has registered the firm with the Financial Services Authority (FSA). A spokesperson has denied, however, that the outfit will operate as an investment bank.

Whether it's a bank or not, it's a sign of the continuing expansion of the Blair empire (he is now said to be worth about £20m -- oddly, the Labour Party is apparently in debt by the same amount, according to John Prescott). How far the former Sedgefield MP has travelled from such petty, parochial issues. He is now able to swan between seven homes, various high-paid positions and lucrative public speaking fees.

Blair still has a few defenders, but surely their cause can't be helped by this latest twist in the tale of endless wealth accumulation. But why is it so ugly to behold? It is cynical (though understandable) to question the motivation for his charitable donation -- a consequence of his wealth. And there are no rules to say a former premier cannot go on to financial success after leaving office.

But, in Blair's case, there's that sense -- just as there was when he was in office -- of a gulf between the external presentation and the inner reality. He gives a highly publicised donation and, on the quiet, registers an investment vehicle in Mayfair. He makes occasional but well-documented appearances in the Middle East and, again, almost silently, receives cash from a South Korean oil firm.

It's the sense of duplicity that stinks.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.