Political sketch: Chancellor runs out of places to hide

When the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls, George was left eating his own words.

There were times during the Chancellor's Autumn Statement when Dave looked as if he had no idea what George was going on about and there were times when George didn't seem so sure either.

The end of the world as we know came in a speech that you could see came through teeth so gritted that ice-bound drivers would have been envious. It was all meant to be so different.

Just 12 months ago George promised that although we might have to dive into the brown stuff and swim a few lengths, we would be out of the ordure with a cup of tea and a biscuit by 2015, ready to reward him with sacks full of votes at the general election. Earlier today he revealed he had only been joking.

The day started well enough for the Chancellor but it was clearly a sign of things to come that it was deemed safer to drive the 150 yards to the House of Commons from the Treasury than face the more dangerous chance of bumping into a voter.

As he took his seat he was joined, with some apparent reluctance, by the other three members of what we now know is called the "quad", who apparently bear most responsibility for our present state of affairs.

Most embarrassed appeared to be the PM closely followed by his Deputy Nick, who usually manages to look disconnected from any of these occasions. Jammed between Nick and Dave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and bruiser-in-training Danny Alexander, who still looks as if he has taken the wrong turning on a school trip.

Having leaked every bit of less than disastrous news from the Statement over the past week, the Chancellor knew he had run out of places to hide. When he moved into Number 11 he had been happy to take praise for establishing the Office of Budget Responsibility to give independent views on Government policies. These were the ones who would enhance his reputation by confirming Plan A was not only the right one, but also that it was on course. But that was before he decided he had to build an extension on to it.

And so it was the OBR which did for him by confirming borrowing would be massively up -- and growth substantially down.

His own side, seeing their own prospects of re-election receding, took the view that if they shouted loud enough they could drown out the bad news. This encouraged Labour to turn up the volume even further by repeating it.

As the Chancellor's voice moved inexorably up the Richter scale his body slumped even further onto the Despatch Box and the other members of the quad adopted the embarrassed look of those on the bus when a drunk gets on.

They seemed particularly pained when George, having already warned that the good times had been out on hold, added to the general misery by announcing he was extending the retirement age to 67 from 2026, which had more than a few MPs reaching for their calculators.

And on the eve of the biggest public sector strike in years he decided to follow up his appeal to them to reconsider with the announcement that, following their present two year pay freeze, he would be restricting future pay rises to 1 per cent. At least that cheered up his side.

As George finally subsided into his seat, the Speaker took the muzzle off Ed Balls and let him at his opponent. Ed took some pleasure in sticking George's words of a year ago up where they would cause most hurt. "Britain needs a new Chancellor or a new plan", said Ed, happy to point out that the Government will now borrow billions more than Labour had planned.

Earlier in the day the opinion polls showed that despite the dire news, Labour's lead over the Tories is still just 2 per cent, and that a large slice of the public continue to blame Labour for our present predicament.

Just one certainty. All MPs will be employed until 2015.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.”