We generally tend to be very critical of the Irish political system and frequently criticise our very diluted form of democracy. However, the events of the past two years and particularly the past week in the UK make the Irish political system look positively sane and sensible. If somebody had told me three years ago that the UK political system could turn out to be so dysfunctional, I would not have believed it. But dysfunctional it has turned out to be and since last weekend it has turned in to farcical comedy. To lose one senior cabinet member is unfortunate, but to lose two is downright careless.
Last Friday night I was somewhat surprised that the Prime Minister had managed to get the backing of the Cabinet for what is in effect a ‘soft Brexit’, but it did turn out too good to be true. On Saturday morning the consensus was that she had achieved a significant victory over the ‘hard Brexiteers’, but the subsequent resignations of the Brexit secretary David Davis and the foreign secretary Boris Johnson showed just how these two ‘hard Brexiteers’ viewed the ‘semi Brexit’ that Theresa May announced on Friday night. The battle is still far from won.
It is still impossible to call how this saga will unfold such are the extremely complicated and unpredictable politics of the situation. In some ways, Theresa May’s situation looks incredibly vulnerable, but she still does have the backing of the majority of the Cabinet for the softer form of Brexit that she obviously desires. If she is faced with a leadership challenge and loses to somebody like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, an early general election would seem inevitable and it would be hard to see the Conservatives win that election. Even if the Conservatives were brought back into power under somebody such as Jacob or Boris, it is not clear that they would have sufficient support to engineer the hard Brexit that they desire.
At the end of the day, pragmatism and national self-interest seem to be holding sway at the moment and this was certainly reflected in the approach that the Prime Minister adopted last Friday. Sensible people seem to realise that walking away from a certain market such as the EU would not be a very wise thing to do, particularly given how uncertain the creation of other markets would be. The current antics of Donald Trump in relation to free trade and protectionism should and probably is convincing sensible people that the notion of the UK doing all sorts of free trade deals with the US would not be as easy as it sounds. The bottom line is that free trade is good for economic growth and economic welfare. Walking away from free trade in the EU and trying to do new trade deals in a world that is shifting away from free trade might not be a sensible strategy to pursue. This view seems to be driving official UK policy towards Brexit at the moment.
If a general election were to be held and if Labour were to win, which would appear to be the more likely outcome, we would then be faced with the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Although Corbyn built his political career on an avowedly anti-EU perspective, it is likely that as Prime Minister he would drive the UK towards a soft version of Brexit, much along the lines of what Theresa May announced last Friday night, the exact detail of which will be contained in the impending White Paper. Basically, Theresa May wants a situation where the UK has full regulatory alignment with the EU for goods and agricultural products. This would in effect treat the UK and the EU as a single customs territory.
From an Irish perspective, what was announced last weekend would be the next best outcome to no Brexit at all. However, we cannot take anything for granted because anything is still possible but my long-held gut instinct that pragmatism would eventually win out remains my central view. Certainly, the financial markets remain quite relaxed despite the high-profile resignations and sterling is certainly not pricing in a hard Brexit yet. Hopefully, sanity will prevail.