May meets the DUP. Photo: Getty
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The one thing Theresa May could do to solve the Irish border crisis

If the Brexit talks collapse at this point, it won’t be the fault of the DUP or Brussels, but the PM.

Will the Brexit talks come unstuck over the Irish border? That's the chatter at Westminster at any rate. Driving the unease is that Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, declined the opportunity to talk it over with Theresa May on the telephone yesterday; while in cabinet, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are digging in to resist any deal that involves regulatory alignment.

The question of what happens to the Irish border is inextricably linked with what the United Kingdom wants its future relationship to be – if the government's Lancaster House objectives are followed to the letter, then that means a hard border, as the United Kingdom will have a different regulatory and customs regime which means that there will be some form of border checks, whether at sea or on the island of Ireland.

The PM has, whether through strategy or because she doesn't like consulting people, managed to keep the question of the end state away from the cabinet and British politics generally. More significantly, she has kept it away from the Irish government, too, which is why they are trying to secure guarantees on the issue now rather than later on in the Brexit process. (Not to reopen old wounds, but if May had taken the chance to address the Irish Parliament, an invitation extended to only a handful of foreign politicians in the Republic's history, she wouldn't be in this mess now.)

Is May stuffed whatever happens, doomed to be forced into a no-deal scenario by either the demands of her party and the DUP or by the Irish government and the EU27? That might be how it seems at first glance, but look beneath the surface and the opportunity for a breakthrough is there.

The most significant intervention yesterday wasn't from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson herself – when she said that if regulatory alignment is the price that needs paying for a frictionless border, that alignment must extend to the whole of the United Kingdom – but from the DUP's chief whip, Jeffrey Donaldson, when he tweeted Davidson's statement approvingly.

The DUP's parliamentary group isn't a monolithic bloc but if you think Donaldson would tweet that without first knowing how it would be acceptable to his caucus and talking it through with the rest of the party leadership, I have a bridge to sell you in Ballymena. And yes, while the theatre of the two leaders not speaking is leading the headlines, Donaldson and his Conservative opposite number Julian Smith are meeting.

Pay attention to the exact wording of what Nigel Dodds, the DUP's parliamentary leader, said yesterday: he didn't oppose regulatory alignment in the areas necessary to avoid a hard border but opposed that alignment happening to Northern Ireland alone.

May's position is weaker than it once was, but on this one she actually has considerable room for manoeuvre: she can do a deal involving regulatory alignment across the United Kingdom in the areas necessary to secure a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which she could pass using a combination of Conservative and Labour votes. It is true that the number of Brexit irreconcilables in the Tory party is big enough to trigger a confidence vote in May's leadership of the party – but it is also true that they aren't big enough to secure victory in a confidence vote in May's leadership.

So, despite her weakened state, what happens next is still very much the Prime Minister's choice. If the Brexit talks collapse at this point, it won't be the fault of the DUP or Brussels: but hers.

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

Photo: Getty
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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia