Gordon Brown addresses activists Glasgow in March 2014 speech ahead of September's referendum on Scottish independence. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Gordon Brown to step down as an MP at the 2015 election

Plus: more news from inside the Palace of Shame.

Maggie’s old chancellor Nigel Lawson spends much of his time lounging in the south of France when he isn’t emitting hot air in London, denying the floods were linked to climate change. Fortuitously my spy was in the plush restaurant Roux, a short stroll from parliament, when Baron Lawson of Blaby, as he has grandly become, sauntered in. Lawson was a guest at a right-whinge soirée hosted by the chain-smoking Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a sort of free-market Taliban. Lord L ordered a glass of claret and revealed a striking disdain for a parliament in which he’s a member for life. Roux, Lawson opined grandly, was the best restaurant “within walking distance of the Palace of Shame”. Unelected lawmakers claiming £300 an appearance bring down the tone of the place, eh, Nige?

Gordon Brown, whispered one of his friends, is to step down as an MP at the 2015 general election. The announcement, when it comes, will be as unexpected as the Sun backing the Tories, but Brown’s departure will still excite headlines. The former PM will have clocked up 32 years in parliament, including three as prime minister and five since he left Downing Street. Thatcher and Major both quit as MPs at the next general election. Heath stayed for the longest sulk in history. I’ve come to the conclusion that Blair made the right call by disappearing immediately. Ex-premiers get in the way. Accused of back-seat driving if they utter a single word out of place in the Commons, they’re also called lazy if they avoid making speeches.

Esther McVey, Cameron’s ruthlessly ambitious pet Scouser, was disappointed to be passed over when Dave the Sexist put Sajid Javid, a male banker, into Maria Miller’s shoes. Newspapers regularly wrongly describe her as state-educated, the FT among the guilty. Javid was, although he sends his own kids to private schools. McVey was privately educated but her alma mater, Belvedere in Liverpool, joined the state sector as an academy long after she’d left. McVey is happy to leave the mistake uncorrected to give Cameron’s toffocracy a northern rough edge.

The next chair of the Labour Party, Ucatt’s follically challenged Jim Kennedy, who will sit in the hot seat during election year, is a dead ringer for the slaphead Harry Hill. Kennedy had difficulty persuading a couple in Cheltenham that he wasn’t the TV Burp presenter. When his profile rises as the Labour chair, I wonder if Hill will be mistaken for Kennedy? Perhaps not.

MPs are unhappy at the continued Disneyfication of the Palace of Shame (copyright Lord Lawson). Tour guides are doing fewer trips for constituents to show more ticket-buying tourists where Charles I was sentenced to death. One veteran MP, 20 years in harness, grumbled he’d have to buy an umbrella to hold aloft and chaperone voters himself, discovering for the first time parts of the building off his usual route: office to chamber to bar.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Getty
Show Hide image

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.”