Commons Confidential: Carry on up the lobby

Featuring Ed Miliband's accidental coup, MPs in the nude, and flying too close to the <em>Sun</em>.

Ed Miliband’s accidental coup against David Cameron – and, by extension, Barack Obama – was as much cock-up as conspiracy. The Prime Minister’s strategic amateurism led him to recall parliament before victory was assured on the Syria vote. Miliband, on the other hand, is no peacenik. His line hardened when Labour whips found that half the parliamentary party was against war, with front-bench resignations likely to fill a minibus. The whips were instructed to inform MPs resolutely opposed to missile strikes that they had permission to miss the vote. The tactic backfired. Told he could remain on holiday, the Blaydon anti-bomber Dave Anderson defied orders and waved goodbye to the Hebrides for Westminster. Carl von Clausewitz would have recognised the unpredictability of war in parliament.
 
By the way, the government source quoted anonymously in the Times dissing Miliband as “a f***ing c*** and a copper-bottomed shit” was, I gather, an uncivil servant in the Foreign Office and not a Downing Street politico. The misogynistic deployment of the C-word was particularly undiplomatic. I’ve heard a name and so, presumably, has William Hague.
 
Tom Harris and Iain Wright are the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of British politics. A snout overheard Harris, the Glasgow South MP, complaining to Hartlepool’s Wright: “I have now seen both you and your dad naked.” Further inquiries established that the Labour odd couple share a London flat. Buy some towels, boys.
 
The Sun man Graeme Wilson exchanging Wapping for Cameron’s Downing Street should liven up the 7.03am train from Kingston to London Waterloo. Dave’s new press secretary has a house near Miliband’s director of communications, the former Mirror man Bob Roberts. Harry Hill would know how to judge the battle of the tabloid titans: “Which is better? There’s only one way to find out – fight!”
 
Feminist MPs are devising a new tactic to cover up page three topless models in the Sun. The plan is to slap “No More Page 3” stickers on the exposed chests of women in any copies in the House of Commons library. Not quite Emily Wilding Davison hiding in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census or Marjory Hume chaining herself to a statue in St Stephen’s Hall but suffragettes would recognise this as “deeds not words”.
 
The pull of TV prompted 40 newspaper hacks, including at least one Fleet Street political editor, to apply to be number six on the Sky News lobby team. Because of the scramble, it would have been simpler if those political scribblers uninterested in the job had ruled themselves out. And before anybody asks, no, this journalist did not apply. 
 
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
 
 
Westminster. Photo: Getty

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 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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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.”