Category Archives: Theresa May

May Days in Britain

It is hard to envisage sympathy for a person who made a name as a home secretary (prisons, detentions, security and such) taking the mast and banner of her country before hopeless odds, but inadequate opponents will do that to you.  Vicious, venal and underdone, the enemies from within Theresa May’s own Tory ranks resemble the lazily angry, the fumingly indulgent.  These are the same men, and a few women, who managed to derive enormous satisfaction from a Britain pampered and spoiled by EU largesse but questioning of its bureaucracy and demands.  Patriotism has an odd habit of making one jaundiced, but manic self-interest will also do that to you.

May remains British prime minister after a botched effort to overthrow her within conservative party ranks.  She faced the unenviable situation of being stonewalled in Europe and by Parliament itself.  President of the European Council Donald Tusk assured May that the deal for the UK leaving the EU is not up for renegotiation, “including the backstop”.

The border with Ireland – soft, hard, or middling – is proving to be a rattling affair.  Should it go “hard”, Britain will find itself trapped.  As The Irish Times noted, “It evokes genuine fear, not least in those who live near the Border or rely on trade for their livelihoods or count themselves among the silenced majority in Northern Ireland who voted Remain.”

As for Parliament, May has ducked and weaved in putting the deal to its irritable members, thereby depriving MPs a hack at sinking it.  May fears, rightly, defeat over a proposal that has satisfied few.  What is now being run in certain circles is the idea of “indicative votes” which might throw up various Brexit models (Canada-styled; Norwegian adapted).

The May plotters, however, showed the skills and talents of marksmen who end up shooting themselves in a fit of drunken enthusiasm on a poorly planned hunt.  The leadership challenge on December 12 served to demonstrate a good level of incompetence, amplified by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.

The fact that May received 200 votes against 117 to stay on as PM was not enough for the righteous Rees-Moog, who spoke as if some inscrutable victory for the rebels had been attained.  “She said in 2017 she would lead the Conservative Party if she had the support of the parliamentary party.”  It was clear that a third of members voting against her suggested she did not. “So if she honours her word she will decide in the interests of the party and the nation she will go.”

This all seems to amount to a stay of execution.  May survives, but faces daggers on a daily basis.  Home Secretary Sajid Javid is nipping at her heels in the hope to land a blow.  Welfare Secretary Amber Rudd has made it public that she likes the idea of a UK-EU arrangement along the lines of Norway’s relationship with the union.  Naturally, as with so many such ideas, the EU response is automatically assumed.

The idea of a second referendum, long seen as the ultimate betrayal of the Brexit result, has received more than a decent fanning.  Vast swathes have changed their mind since the populist up swell of 2016, goes the view of conservative Dominic Grieve and New Labour’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell on Good Morning Britain, a bastion of rusted reaction few can match on British television.  The panel, as ever, was on the hunt for the elusive idea of democracy in Britain, and found wanting.   The Remainers remain desperately confused.

If there is a good reason to be suspicious of a second referendum, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s endorsement of it would be one.  Frankly Tony, whose rule was characterised by long spells of deception and arrogance (remember the Iraq War?), had a singular contempt for democracy that should not be forgotten. He is now spending time slumming in Brussels in the hope that people will take notice, advocating for a second people’s vote.  Should parliament be unable to reach agreement on each of the forms of Brexit being put forth, he suggests, “then the logical thing is to go back to the people.”

To Blair can be added May’s own de facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington and chief of staff at 10 Downing Street Gavin Barwell.  The latter has supposedly discussed the issue of a second people’s vote with Chancellor Philip Hammond and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd.

May is having none of it.  “Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum.” To do so “would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver.”

Brexit is the great exercise of imperfection, an experiment that the EU would like to quash just as many in the UK would like to see reversed.  It has been disheartening and cruel; it has divided and disturbed. It has also demonstrated levels of marked mendacity fitting for countries British citizens tend to mock.  Facts have become fictions; fictions have been paraded as exemplars of truth.  The dark spirits have been released, and they are not going to be bottled any time soon.

National Interest or Personal Interest: Theresa May’s Spat with Tony Blair

The war of words between Tony Blair and Theresa May over the last few days is quite revealing – not of Blair’s known position regarding the Brexit mess, but because the Prime Minister’s rant showed her weakness.  Her position is unsustainable and the last thing she wanted was unwelcome comments from an ex-Prime Minister.

She had, after all, just come back from Brussels yet again, carrying no hope from the EU negotiators, but then she had offered no new ideas to put on the table.  The agreed withdrawal text was ‘the best deal’ she could get, and Parliament had been refused the chance to vote against it – a vote she had promised then taken away.

The spat started with Tony Blair speaking on BBC’s Today programme* prior to a speech he was due to make later that day.  His predecessor John Major, had already publicly given his support for 2 options: another referendum (the Peoples Vote) and revoking the Article 50 withdrawal.  Blair had also backed the People’s Vote.

There is currently no majority in Parliament for May’s deal or any other, including crashing out of the EU with no deal at all. Blair said there could be majority support among MPs for a new EU poll if Parliament ended up “gridlocked”, and certainly more MPs are saying so.  He added that “he admired Mrs May’s determination but suggested that, with so many MPs opposed to the backstop and other parts of the deal, this was becoming a weakness and she must realise she was “in a hole… and there is literally no point in carrying on digging”.

All very reasonable but this did not please Theresa May.  She issued an explosive statement, demonstrating just how touchy and vulnerable she’s feeling.  She said the ex-PM’s backing for a second referendum was deliberately sabotaging her bid to make EU leaders compromise on the Irish backstop.  To quote:

There are too many people who want to subvert the process for their own political interests rather than act in the national interest.  For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.  We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.

There are three points to note here. First, ‘her bid to make EU leaders compromise…’  After all this time and months of negotiation, her government has not abandoned its arrogant and self-important attitude towards the EU, something many of us find embarrassing.  How many more times does the EU have to say ‘no more negotiations’ before they will be believed?

Secondly, her government’s ‘responsibility for this decision’.  The decision is no decision.  Brexit MPs and supporters have never produced a genuine plan for Brexit.  It has been about nothing but leave the EU and its regulations.  What happens then is not their problem.  On May’s side there has been a complete failure to enable Parliament to come up with any ‘decision’.  That is her problem, and indeed her responsibility.

Thirdly, according to the Independent, ‘Mr Blair is understood not to have visited Brussels for several months, and it is unclear what prompted the timing of Ms May’s attack.’  Blair, of course, defended his position, being somewhat better at that than May (he’s had a lot of practice), saying that if Parliament cannot come to a clear decision, it is logical to go back to the people.

May suggests that Blair’s latest comments are in his own interests.  It is true that Blair has relentlessly popped up to pontificate about the current state of affairs, and that most of those occasions could be seen as self-advertisement and very much in his personal interest.  (On the other hand, the Prime Minister may not be doing all this in her personal interest, but it’s certainly focused on the interests of the Conservative Party and its survival.)

Blair ignored the people and the national interest when he joined President Bush’s military games.  I and millions of others will find it difficult to ever forgive him for the damage done to Afghanistan and Iraq and their citizens** (and, Mr Blair, please don’t forget that somewhere in the dusty back rooms of the International Criminal Court is a case still to be heard against you for war crimes).

Word has it that whenever he criticises Jeremy Corbyn or suggests a more ‘centrist’ party, Labour membership increases. Sadly, that is now probably balanced by the number of members leaving because of Labour’s very weak position on Brexit.  People joined Labour because of the social reforms promised in the Labour manifesto.  They saw an end to the disastrous Tory ‘austerity’ ideology.  How on earth Labour thinks it can deal with Brexit and deliver on its pledges is beyond me – and anyone else.  Nor would the EU be willing to start negotiations all over again, regardless of Corbyn’s internationalism and negotiating skills.

So, where Brexit and the national interest are concerned, I have to admit Blair is right, and I never thought I would say that.  But then, over the last two years I have had to revise my opinion about several, mostly right wing, MPs who are doing their best to protect the UK from Brexit and the chaos that May’s predecessor David Cameron and her government have caused.

Blair and his predecessor John Major (who sensibly kept out of politics until Brexit reared its head) were largely responsible for the Good Friday Agreement, which not only brought an end to most of the violence in Northern Ireland; it resulted in the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  For trade, traffic and people that border has become almost invisible.  It is in the national interests of both the UK and the RoI to keep it that way, regardless of what Brexiters and Northern Ireland’s DUP MPs claim.  The border issue is the very large and unavoidable hole in the Brexit road.

For Blair and Major, their legacy will include the Good Friday Agreement.  For the politicians of that time, it is something to be proud of, something worth protecting.  And if the negotiators could achieve that, then surely peace could be made between Leavers and Remainers without trashing the UK in the process.

Theresa May’s legacy, on the other hand, will be ‘the hostile environment’, a policy that shames this nation and its people.  And the last two years under her leadership, with her ministers’ inability to negotiate in any real sense with the EU, is also deeply shaming.  Even worse, they have blamed the EU for their failures, accusing them of bullying (Brexit Minister No. 1, David Davis, and blackmailing and bullying (Brexit Minister No. 2, Dominic Raab) while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt likened the EU to the Soviet Union. This is no way to negotiate your way out of one of the biggest threats to this country’s stability.

Shame, embarrassment, humiliation and unwise rants against a former Prime Minister – what more could Theresa May add to her ‘legacy’ and its place in our history?

* You can hear the whole interview here, starting at 2:19:52

** An estimate of 2.4 million Iraqi deaths from the invasion and the following years of violence and unrest.

In Contempt of Parliament: The Legal Advice of Brexit

It is attrition, suffocation and contortion.  While Theresa May’s Brexit program, weak, compromising and cobbled as it is, endures that bit longer, her opponents from within and without government have been essentially undercutting her on various fronts.

Foppish and solutions-free Boris Johnson does so from the perspective that the May program as it has been agreed to with the EU so far is a case of Britannia surrendering to the wickedness of the Continent.  He prefers, according to Sir Roger Gale, “the grievance to the solution”.

In the Commons, Johnson persisted with his motif of imprisonment and punishment for the sceptred isle: that the bureaucrats across the channel were cooking up a terrible fate for Britain were the backstop not to be removed from any arrangement. “They will keep us in permanent captivity as a momento mori, as a reminder to the world of what happens to all those who try to leave the EU.” Britain would be hostage to Spanish claims on Gibraltar, the French purloining of its fish and bankers, and German pressing for concessions on the free movement of EU nationals.

Opposition parties assail the prime minister from the perspective that the entire campaign for Brexit, and government behaviour since, has been a tissue of irresponsibility and lying.  They are often not sure which, but they are chancing it.  Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is, however, playing a double game. Being himself sympathetic with the Leavers, he can only, as of this time, trash the Chequers proposals with indignant scrutiny.  Before his fellow parliamentarians, Corbyn insisted that May’s plan would cause a severe case of economic shrinkage: some 4 percent, precipitating the loss of £100 billion over the course of fifteen years.

What exercised the House of Commons on this occasion most, however, was a historical incident of singular rarity.  Members from Labour and the DUP were permitted by Speaker John Bercow to submit an emergency motion to find the government in contempt.  The motion carried.

The May government had not done itself any favours in that regard, equipping opponents with the bombs to duly situate under their chairs.  As if channelling her former self as home minister, the secretive May refused to release the full legal advice behind the Brexit deal that may yet be doomed.  A circulating rumour (for much, in these shadows, remains rumour), is the fear that the backstop might keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union indefinitely.

The government defence proved to be stock standard and would, in most instances, have worked: to release such a report would expose vulnerabilities in negotiating positions ahead of further talks with the EU, thereby rewarding the very individuals deemed enemies by many in parliament.  Besides, argued transport secretary Chris Grayling, himself a former lord chancellor, it remained “a central part of the principles of our legal system that the advice provided from a lawyer to their client is treated as confidential.”

Such is the dire, panicked state of British politics at the moment than even old principles of legal propriety, including that of professional privilege, should be seen to be broken in the higher national interest.  Parliament, as the people’s arbiter, must be informed, and not releasing the attorney general’s legal advice failed to comply, according to the parties behind the contempt motion, with the Commons resolution of November 13.  That resolution stemmed from the principle that legal advice on the Brexit deal would be published in its entirety.

Attempts to placate opponents were duly made. The first was the release by the government of an overview on Monday covering the gist of the attorney general’s legal advice.  Then came the appearance of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in the Chamber. He expressed a willingness to answer questions put to him, but this proved a minor sedative to the proceedings.  A three-line whip, deployed by Conservative MPs in an effort to shield the government, also failed.

Cox’s responses conceded various government weaknesses in their negotiations with the EU.  He would have preferred, for instance, “a unilateral right of termination” over the Northern Ireland backstop.  Additionally, he would have also liked to see “a clause that would have allowed us to exit if negotiations had irretrievably broken down.”  But such frankness was to no avail, and Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, was compelled to accede to the wishes of the opponents, with the full advice set to be published on Wednesday.

Contempt matters are ancient things, the sort referred to a privileges committee.  But the focus here will be less seeking sanction against any relevant minister, including Cox, than the vote on December 11 in a house that is already faltering.  The government, surmised shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, “has lost its majority and the respect of the house”.  At this point, the deal in this form will be scuppered, leaving a drawing board bereft of options.  Those filling the void will do so with a formula so repetitive it has become traditional: extol the scenario of total collapse, or embrace the fiction a world outside Europe that can act as appropriate replacement for British trade and power.

The Saudi Arabian Model: Blueprints for Murder and Purchasing Arms

It reads like a swaying narrative of retreat.  A man’s body is subjected to a gruesome anatomical fate, his parts separated by a specially appointed saw doctor – an expert in the rapid autopsy – overseen by a distinctly large number of individuals.  Surveillance cameras had improbably failed that day.  We are not sure where, along the line, the torturers began their devilish task: the diligent beating punctuated by questions, followed by the severing of fingers, or perhaps a skipping of any formalities.  One Turkish investigator sniffing around the Saudi consulate in Istanbul saw such handiwork “like a Tarantino film.”

The result was clear enough: the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi embassy on October 2 and never came out alive.  (Even an attempt of the gathered crew of death to procure a Khashoggi double was noted.)

For aspiring authoritarians, the Saudi state is a model instructor.  First came blanket denial to the disappearance: the Saudi authorities had no idea where the journalist had gone after October 2.  On October 18, Riyadh officially acknowledged Khashoggi’s death.  By October 21, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had come to the conclusion that this had, in fact, been murder, and a mistake. “This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had”.

Then, an improbable story of a fist fight developed through the media channels. (When one has to kill, it is best to regard the enemy as inappropriately behaved when they dare fight back.)  In the presence of 15 Saudi operatives, this was all richly incredulous – but the Kingdom does specialise in baffling and improbable cruelties.

It was clear that distancing was fundamental, hence the cultivation of the “rogue” theory, with Saudi operatives taking a merry trip off the beaten path.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was happy to pour water on the suggestion. “We have strong evidence in our hands that shows the murder wasn’t accidental but was instead the outcome of a planned operation.”  It had been executed “in a ferocious manner”.

The Turkish president has, however, danced around the issue of ultimate state sanctioned responsibility.  Neither King Salman, nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have been publicly outed in any statements as either showing awareness of the killing or ordering it.  Prince MBS and his father are happy to keep it that way, severing their links with the killing as assuredly as the killers had severed the journalist’s fingers.  This is evidenced by the Crown Prince’s own labelling of the act as a “heinous crime that cannot be justified”.

The Saudi Public Prosecutor has also decided to move the case from one of accidental killing (fist fights will do that sort of thing) to one of planned murder.  A bit of cosmetic housecleaning has been taking place (another authoritarian lesson: look busy, seem engaged with heavy concern): 18 people have been arrested and two advisers sacked by the Saudi state.  The Crown Prince, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, has chaired the first meeting of a committee established to reform the country’s intelligence services.

This authoritarian blueprint also implies a staying power in the face of other states who see Saudi Arabia as cash cow and security partner.  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a rich appetite for foreign arms, a point not missed on the weapons makers of the globe.  Some attrition is bound to take place: certain countries, keen to keep their human rights credentials bright and in place, will temporarily suspend arms sales.  Others will simply claim disapproval but continue leaving signatures on the relevant contracts of sale.

Some ceremonial condemnations have been registered.  Members of the European Parliament voted upon a non-binding resolution on Thursday to “impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.”  Germany, temporarily concerned, has suspended arms sales to the House of Saud, with Chancellor Angela Merkel deeming the Khashoggi killing “monstrous”. Canada’s Justin Trudeau briefly pondered what to do with a lucrative defence contract with Riyadh worth $12 billion, only to then step back.

The Canadian prime minister did acknowledge that the killing of Khashoggi “is something that is extremely preoccupying to Canadians, to Canada and to many of our allies around the world” but has not made good any threats.  His predecessor has become the ideal alibi.  “The contract signed by the previous government, by Stephen Harper, makes it very difficult to suspend or leave that contract.”  Cancellation would lead to penalties which, in turn, would affect the Canadian tax payer.  How fortunate for Trudeau.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States remain the three biggest suppliers of military hardware to the kingdom, a triumvirate of competitors that complicates any effective embargo.  Which state, after all, wants to surrender market share?  It’s a matter of prestige, if nothing else.  President Donald Trump’s reaction is already clear: a suitably adjusted lid will be deployed to keep things in check till matters blow over; in the meantime, nothing will jeopardise a $110 billion arms deal.  Business with a theocracy can be patriotic.

The French angle has been reserved and coldly non-committal.  “Weapons exports to Saudi Arabia are examined in this context,” claimed foreign ministry deputy spokesman Olivier Gauvin, meaning that his country’s arms control policy was made on a case-by-case basis.  For France, keeping Riyadh in stiff opposition to Tehran’s regional ambitions has been a matter of importance in its Middle Eastern policy for decades, a point reiterated by President Emmanuel Macron in April.  And the Kingdom pays French arms exporters well: between 2008 and 2017, Saudi Arabia proved the second biggest purchaser of French arms (some 11 billion euros), with 2017 being a bumper year with licenses coming to 14.7 billion euros.  Riyadh can expect little change there.

Britain’s Theresa May, in the tradition of elastic British diplomacy (condemnation meets inertia), has insisted that her government already has the appropriately stringent rules on arms exports, another way of shunning any European resolution that might perch on human rights.  Such strictness evidently does not preclude the eager oil sheiks of Riyadh, though Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt did suggest the Khashoggi killing, should it “turn out to be true” would be “fundamentally incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly.”  Such actions are bound to be symbolic – much money has been received by the British arms industry, with earnings of £4.6 billion coming from sales to the Kingdom since the Saudi-led war on Yemen began in 2015.  Sowing death, even if through the good agency of a theocratic power, is lucrative.

The fate of Khashoggi, cruel and ghastly, seems a piddle of insignificance in that light.  “Brexit,” urged Philippe Lamberts, MEP and leader of the Group of the Greens, “must not be an excuse for the UK to abdicate on its moral responsibilities.” That abdication, on the part of Britain and its arms competitors, took place sometime ago.

Barely Breathing: May’s Gasping Premiership

The Boris Johnson storm, beating away at the British Prime Minister’s doors with an ancient fury, has been stayed for the moment in the wake of the Conservative Party Conference held at Birmingham last week.  While the potential usurper batters away on the domestic front with red faced enthusiasm, Theresa May faces the impossible sell: convincing the European Union that the divorce Britain is initiating will still entail some form of faux conjugal relations.  In this, she must also convince the forces of the remainder group that she has a solution that is not the worst of all worlds, a form of permissive molestation that will yield some benefits from the Brussels machinery.

In the background, protests abuzz in an effort to turn the ship away from its current course for March 29, 2019.  The referendum of 2016 that led to a Brexit, goes this line of argument, was attained by audacious cheek, a fraud couched in populist sentiment.  London remains ground zero for the resistance (wasn’t it always?), with its mayor, Sadiq Khan, holding the fort in insisting for a second vote.  The UK, he argued, was trapped between cripplingly dangerous options: “a public vote on any deal or a vote on a no-deal, alongside the option of staying in the EU”.

Khan’s views function as vain hopes in search of a mind changing miracle.  Expressed from London, they might as well sound like the tinny sounds of a capsule lodged in the red earth of Mars.  “People didn’t vote to leave the EU to make themselves poorer, to watch their businesses suffer, to have the NHS wards understaffed, to see the police preparing for civil unrest or for our national security to be put at risk if our cooperation with the EU in the right against terrorism is weakened.”

European leaders, anxious that the EU compact is being gnawed at from within, have also been muttering approvingly for a change of heart.  Keep voting, seems to be this view, till the minds change, a recipe less for democracy than managed thought.  Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went as far as to tell BBC Radio 4 last month that, “We would like the almost impossible to happen… that the UK has another referendum.”

Johnson did have a good go at stirring the pot, and delegates and those gathered at the Tory Conference – some 1,500 – were not disappointed.  “If I have a function here today it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence.”

As usual, Johnson was short on what exactly to do.  The hearts would beat, throb even, and the mind would catch-up.  After the wrecking ball, what’s there to do?  “Our diplomatic strategy,” he observed, “was focused on the EU.  That made sense in the 1970s. It makes much less sense today, when 95 percent of the world’s growth is going to be outside the EU.”  This has become a stodgy mantra – the world as Britain’s eager oyster waiting to be prized over, pearl and all.

May had certainly been struggling to contain the Johnson bull in the china shop, whose message is to “chuck Chequers”, which was nothing more than a “cheat” that, should it be enacted, would “escalate the sense of mistrust.”  It is a point that has noisy traction. Patrick Robinson, writing in The Telegraph, suggested that the “Chequers plan is not a ‘compromise’ or a negotiating position.  This was the public face of a ploy to keep the UK inside the EU by tying our hands on rules governing foods, food, the environment, the workplace and much else, and maintaining the supremacy of European law in our country.”

In this, he has found common ground from the EU technocrats, who are also none too keen on the prime minister’s distinction between the “common rulebook” for goods but not services, designed to prevent the creation of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  As a wary Donald Tusk of the European Council explained in Salzburg last month, “The suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market.”

May claimed last Tuesday that she had a new policy about immigration in a post-Brexit Britain.  Critics were quick to point out she did not.  Instead of upstaging Johnson, Home Secretary Sajid Javid found himself left in the lurch.  “Boris,” claimed Charles Moore, “was boosted by her hostility, and people listened to his wide-ranging speech.”

Then came the Wednesday speech, made in the aftermath of Johnson’s show which, by her own admission, made her “cross.” She was attempting, while taking a swipe at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, to appeal to those wishing for “a party that is decent, moderate and patriotic.” There would be no more fiscal conservatism in the Cameron-Osborne mould.  The political sectarians would be shunned.  And she could deliver all these promises with weak jokes and an awkward robotic dance.

While quantifiable figures on sentiment must be treated with studied caution, one poll conducted for The Observer in the aftermath of May’s concluding conference speech suggested that the prime minister had shored up her position. A small 17 percent pitted for Johnson; double that number preferred May.  Washed out and barely breathing, the pulse has returned.  Time, however, is running out.

Tory Kafuffles: Boris Johnson, Brexit and Suicide Vests

The next blow in Boris Johnson’s chapter of political suicide has been made: a piece in the Mail on Sunday which supplied him ample room to take yet another shot at the ghostly British prime minister, Theresa May.  There was nothing new in it; everybody knew what Johnson’s views were, and the position he had taken since hyperventilating over July’s Chequers statement on Brexit was simply reiterated with the usual reckless prose.

May’s Brexit deal, scribbled Johnson with an almost boorish predictability, was tantamount to wrapping “a suicide vest around the British constitution” and handing “the detonator to (EU chief negotiator) Michel Barnier”. (He failed to mention that he has been as indispensable as anybody else in adding to that wrapping.)

While the EU had played the role of playground bully, the UK had been unacceptably “feeble” in response, a truly pathetic counterpart.  May might have sought a “generous free trade deal” with the EU in the aftermath of the divorce; instead, Britain was effectively saying to those in Brussels, “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”.  “We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500lb gorilla.”

Johnson’s very public falling out with his fellow Tories after resigning as Foreign Secretary continues to play out the ailing nature of the May government in very public fashion.  Cabinet ministers have had to take very public stances to back the prime minister.  Current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sounded trench bound in waiting for the barrage, calling on colleagues to keep firm behind May “in the face of intense pressure”.

Former army officer and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat found himself falling for the old trick that such provocation requires stern correction.  “A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand.  The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes.  Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain.  Some need to grow up.  Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.”

Brexit, and in a sense, the broader miasmic effect of the Trump presidency on political language, has supplied a release of military metaphors, spells of doom, and imminent calamity.  Decorum has come to be seen as the enemy of honesty; opponents are just stopping short of lynching each other.  For Alistair Burt of the Foreign Office, the language used by Johnson was not merely “outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful”.  “If we don’t stop this extraordinary use of language over Brexit, our country might never heal.  Again, I say, enough.”

The issue with Johnson has certain similarities to another Westminster country thousands of miles away, and one still insisting on retaining the same British monarch as head of state.  Australia resumes parliament with a new prime minister after a needless bloodbath initiated by party functionaries hypnotised by pollsters and number crunchers.  The plotters there were also claiming that the governing party had gone vanilla and soft on the hard political decisions.  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been all too centrist when he could have done with a few lashings of decent, hard right ideology. The result: Australia’s first Pentecostal leader.

Johnson’s overall popularity in Britain is on par with May, a statement of true depression and deflation.  But where he has traction is in the ideological, stark-raving mad stakes, a point that May’s aides know all too well, given their efforts to compile a 4,000 word “war book” on the man’s sexual proclivities in 2016.  Unlike other European states, sexual prowess, evenly spread inside and out of marriage, is seen as an impediment to high office.

Johnson certainly has his own cheer squad within the Tories.  Tory Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen acclaimed Johnson’s appeal and how he “speaks truth unto power”; Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggested that his detractors were merely “terrified by his popular appeal”.  Were he to become leader of the Tories, and prime minister, “he’ll deliver a clean and prosperous #Brexit.”

Others are playing the middling game.  Home Secretary Sajid Javid merely called for more “measured language” to be used, because that was evidently “what the public want to see.”  On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Javid was making sure about booking a seat in any future cabinet that might have a new prime minister.  “I think there are much better ways to articulate your differences.”

Johnson is a spluttering John Bull, foolhardy and all, and his supporters like that.  Irresponsible, destructive, a true political malefactor and dressed up public school boy charlatan, he is genetically programmed to disrupt rather than succeed, to undermine rather than govern.  His world is not that of figures and sober appraisals, the desk job assessment, the compiler of facts.  Those are best left to the hard working empirical types of industry and a hard day’s work.

Even his personal life has not been immune from the all-consuming circus that is the Boris show.  His announcement last week that he and his wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, would be divorcing, was seen as a political calculation, timed to eliminate any prospect of scandal in the event of a leadership challenge to May.

His opponents, however, have an eternal hope that he will self-destruct, stumbling into a back-end swamp where he will perish as quietly as possible.  Johnson’s barbed comments, came foreign office minister Alan Duncan, marked “one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics”.  Making them spelled “the political end of Boris Johnson”.  Unlikely; should Johnson conclude his political career anytime soon, he is bound to be as destructive as the vest he claims May has wrapped Britain in.

Marching for Peace: From Helmand to Hiroshima

I have just arrived in Hiroshima with a group of Japanese “Okinawa to Hiroshima peace walkers” who had spent nearly two months walking Japanese roads protesting U.S. militarism.  While we were walking, an Afghan peace march that had set off in May was enduring 700km of Afghan roadsides, poorly shod, from Helmand province to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. Our march watched the progress of theirs with interest and awe.  The unusual Afghan group had started off as 6 individuals, emerging out of a sit-in protest and hunger strike in the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, after a suicide attack there created dozens of casualties. As they started walking their numbers soon swelled to 50 plus as the group braved roadside bombs, fighting between warring parties and exhaustion from desert walking during the strict fast month of Ramadan.

The Afghan march, which is believed to be the first of its kind, is asking for a long-term ceasefire between warring parties and the withdrawal of foreign troops. One peace walker, named Abdullah Malik Hamdard, felt that he had nothing to lose by joining the march. He said: “Everybody thinks they will be killed soon, the situation for those alive is miserable. If you don’t die in the war, the poverty caused by the war may kill you, which is why I think the only option left for me is to join the peace convoy.”

The Japanese peace walkers marched to specifically halt the construction of a U.S. airfield and port with an ammunition depot in Henoko, Okinawa, which will be accomplished by landfilling Oura Bay, a habitat for the dugong and unique coral hundreds of years old, but many more lives are endangered. Kamoshita Shonin, a peace walk organizer who lives in Okinawa, says:

People in mainland Japan do not hear about the extensive bombings by the U.S. in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they are told that the bases are a deterrent against North Korea and China, but the bases are not about protecting us, they are about invading other countries. This is why I organised the walk.

Sadly, the two unconnected marches shared one tragic cause as motivation.

Recent U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan include the deliberate targeting of civilian wedding parties and funerals, incarceration without trial and torture in Bagram prison camp, the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, the dropping of the ‘Mother of all bombs’ in Nangarhar, illegal transportation of Afghans to secret black site prisons, Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and the extensive use of armed drones. Elsewhere the U.S. has completely destabilised the Middle East and Central Asia, according to The Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a report released in 2015, stated that the U.S. interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone killed close to 2 million, and that the figure was closer to 4 million when tallying up the deaths of civilians caused by the U.S. in other countries, such as Syria and Yemen.

The Japanese group intend to offer prayers of peace this Monday at Hiroshima ground zero, 73 years to the day after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city, instantly evaporating 140,000 lives, arguably one of the worst ‘single event’ war crimes committed in human history. Three days later the U.S. hit Nagasaki instantly killing 70,000. Four months after the bombing the total death toll had reached 280,000 as injuries and the impact of radiation doubled the number of fatalities.

Today Okinawa, long a target for discrimination by Japanese authorities, accommodates 33 U.S. military bases, occupying 20% of the land, housing some 30,000 plus U.S. Marines who carry out dangerous training exercises ranging from rope hangs suspended out of Osprey helicopters (often over built-up residential areas), to jungle trainings which run straight through villages, arrogantly using people’s gardens and farms as mock conflict zones. Of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, many to most would have trained on Okinawa, and even flown out directly from the Japanese Island to U.S. bases such as Bagram.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan the walkers, who call themselves the ‘People’s Peace Movement’, are following up their heroic ordeal with protests outside various foreign embassies in Kabul.  This week they are outside the Iranian Embassy demanding an end to Iranian interference in Afghan matters and their equipping armed militant groups in the country. It is lost on no-one in the region that the U.S., which cites such Iranian interference as its pretext for building up towards a U.S.-Iran war, is an incomparably more serious supplier of deadly arms and destabilizing force to the region. They have staged sit-in protests outside the U.S., Russian, Pakistani and U.K. embassies, as well as the U.N. offices in Kabul.

The head of their impromptu movement, Mohammad Iqbal Khyber, says the group have formed a committee comprised of elders and religious scholars. The assignment of the committee is to travel from Kabul to Taliban-controlled areas to negotiate peace.

The U.S. have yet to describe its long term or exit strategy for Afghanistan. Last December Vice President Mike Pence addressed U.S. troops in Bagram: “I say with confidence, because of all of you and all those that have gone before and our allies and partners, I believe victory is closer than ever before.”

But time spent walking doesn’t bring your destination closer when you don’t have a map.  More recently U.K. ambassador for Afghanistan Sir Nicholas Kay, while speaking on how to resolve conflict in Afghanistan said: “I don’t have the answer.”  There never was a military answer for Afghanistan.  Seventeen years of ‘coming closer to victory’ in eliminating a developing nation’s domestic resistance is what is called “defeat,” but the longer the war goes on, the greater the defeat for Afghanistan’s people.

Historically the U.K. has been closely wedded to the U.S. in their ‘special relationship’, sinking British lives and money into every conflict the U.S. has initiated. This means the U.K. was complicit in dropping 2,911 weapons on Afghanistan in the first 6 months of 2018, and in President Trump’s greater-than-fourfold average increase on the number of bombs dropped daily by his warlike predecessors. Last month Prime Minister Theresa May increased the number of British troops serving in Afghanistan to more than 1,000, the biggest U.K. military commitment to Afghanistan since David Cameron withdrew all combat troops four years ago.

Unbelievably, current headlines read that after 17 years of fighting, the U.S. and Afghan Government are considering collaboration with the extremist Taliban in order to defeat ISKP, the local ‘franchise’ of Daesh.

Meanwhile UNAMA has released its mid-year assessment of the harm done to civilians. It found that more civilians were killed in the first six months of 2018 than in any year since 2009, when UNAMA started systematic monitoring. This was despite the Eid ul-Fitr ceasefire, which all parties to the conflict, apart from ISKP, honoured.

Every day in the first six months of 2018, an average of nine Afghan civilians, including two children, were killed in the conflict. An average of nineteen civilians, including five children, were injured every day.

This October Afghanistan will enter its 18th year of war with the U.S. and supporting NATO countries. Those young people now signing up to fight on all sides were in nappies when 9/11 took place. As the ‘war on terror’ generation comes of age, their status quo is perpetual war, a complete brainwashing that war is inevitable, which was the exact intention of warring decision makers who have become exceedingly rich of the spoils of war.

Optimistically there is also a generation who are saying “no more war, we want our lives back”, perhaps the silver lining of the Trump cloud is that people are finally starting to wake up and see the complete lack of wisdom behind the U.S. and its hostile foreign and domestic policies, while the people follow in the steps of non-violent peace makers such as Abdul Ghafoor Khan, the change is marching from the bottom up.

Okinawa to Hiroshima Peace Walk (Photo by Maya Evans)

Stomping in Britain: Donald Trump and May’s Brexit

What a rotten guest, but then again, that was to be expected.  Ahead of his visit to Britain, there was some indignation that US President Donald Trump should even be visiting in the first place.  Protesters were readying their assortment of paraphernalia in anticipation.  Walls of noise were promised.  Trump, on the other hand, was bullish after his NATO performance, which did a good deal to stir and unsettle partners and leaders.  On leaving Brussels, his singular account was that all partners had, in fact, agreed to a marked rise in defence spending.

Having settled into dinner with British Prime Minister Theresa May at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, there was a whirring buzz that the president had been busy, having given an interview to that infamous rag of reaction The Sun newspaper.  It was spectacularly poor form, featuring a series of pot shots against his host on how she had handled Brexit negotiations so far.  Not that May’s handling has been brilliantly smooth. Characterised by Tory saboteurs, confusion and ill-expertise, the British tangle with the European Union has persisted with barnacle tenacity.

This did not inspire confidence from Trump, and the Chequers agreement that May had reached with cabinet members was deemed “very unfortunate”.  For the president, a Brexit softened and defanged to keep it bound up in some form in the EU could well spell an end to a separate, post-separation trade pact with the United States.  “If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal.”

The sting was greater for the fact that May was using the dinner to pitch her case for a separate trade arrangement.  “As we prepare to leave the European Union, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do more.”  Any free trade agreement between the countries, she asserted, would create “jobs and growth here is in the UK and right across the United States.” Bureaucracy would be defeated in the transatlantic venture.

Trump, as he tends to, was operating on a different frequency, claiming that he, brilliant chap that he is, had the formula for how May might best get a workable Brexit through. If only the prime minister had listened instead of chasing her own flight of fancy.

May was not the only British politician rostered for a tongue lashing. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who reached some prominence criticising Trump’s election promise to temporarily suspend Muslim immigration to the United States, also came in for special mention.  “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad.”  Reflecting on the problems facing European cities as a result, he told The Sun that London had “a mayor who has done a terrible job in London.  He has done a terrible job.”  The mayor had blotted his copybook by doing “a very terrible job on terrorism” and, just for good measure, crime in general.

Not content at leaving it at that, Trump revealed that childish vulnerability typical in unstoppable, and encouraged egomaniacs. This had undoubtedly been spurred on by Khan’s refusal to ban the flying of a 20ft blimp depicting Trump as an indignant, orange infant, nappy and all.  “I think [Khan] has not been hospitable to a government that is very important.  Now he might not like the current President, but I represent the United States.”

Having said earlier in the week that the issue of whether May should continue as British prime minister was “up to the people”, Trump was less judicious in his liberating interview. In what could be construed as an act of direct meddling (foreign interference for the US imperium is genetic, programmed and inevitable), Trump had his own views about who would make a suitable replacement.  The blundering, now ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a person with his own conditioning of Trumpism, would “make a great prime minister.”

For those incensed by Trump’s say in the matter, it is worth noting that his predecessor was no less terse in warning, not just the Cameron government, but the British people, that leaving the EU would banish Britain to the end of any trade agreement queue.  Britain was far better being part of a collective voice generated by the EU, rather than a single power going its own way.  At “some point down the line,” President Barack Obama explained at a press conference held at the Foreign Office on a visit in April 2016, “there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done.”

Perhaps the most striking delusion that runs so deeply through the Brexit pathology is the idea the Britannia’s flag will again fly high, and that power shall, mysteriously, be reclaimed by a nation made anew.  Other powers will heed that; respect shall be observed.  What Presidents Obama and Trump have shown from different sides of the coin is that such hopes might be terribly misplaced.

Making Heavy Weather: Boris Johnson the Despoiler

There is a certain haunting similarity between the President of the United States and the now former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson.  This does not merely extend to mad, oddly positioned hair, and misshaped mullets.  Both share a philosophy of upending the order and permanent disruption, impossible for those on their putative side of politics to measure, predict or contain.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May thought that her cabinet, moulded by cabinet responsibility, would be able to go forth with the bare bones of a plan for negotiations with the European Union for Britain’s departure.  Johnson, with characteristic muddling, had signed on to the Chequers statement, but had issued public utterances about his dissatisfaction.  He was on board, but only in wobbly fashion.

Having first seen which way the wind would turn, Johnson waited for the initial resignations of the Brexit team led by David Davis to take the plunge. His resignation was intended as an improvised explosive device, timed to blow up in the prime minister’s face just before she was to address members of parliament on Monday.

The letter has all the elements of BJ the opportunist, the cad, the slippery debater.  It has no definite shape in terms of what should be done, but is filled with defiance and, dare one say it, hope. Central to the argument is a defence of the “British people”, those subjects for whom he supposedly speaks for.  “They were told that they would be able to manage their own immigration policy, repatriate the sums of UK cash currently spent by the EU, and, above all, that they would be able to pass laws independently and in the interests of the people of this country.”

He warned, with irate frustration, that the “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”  Decisions had been postponed on vital issues “with the result that we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.”

Ever chancing his arm, and interpretation of events, Johnson brought a touch of drama into the note.  The new plan proposed by May, he argued, seemed to take Britain further back since the last Chequers meeting in February.  Then, he described frustrations “as Mayor of London, in trying to protect cyclists from juggernauts.  We had wanted to lower the cabin windows to improve visibility; and even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists, we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter.”

Ever forceful with the dire scenario, Johnson insisted that the May plan would put Britain into a “ludicrous position” of asserting that “huge amounts” of EU law would have to be accepted “without changing an iota”, while shutting Britain out from influencing them. “In that respect we are truly headed for the status of a colony”.

Such imagery qualifies as both entertainment and conceit.  Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer summed up the Johnson approach in a sentence: “Boris Johnson’s whole political career has been characterised by self-promotion and spreading misinformation.”

On the issue of introducing cab design changes to improve visibility for trucks, Johnson conveniently avoided the European Parliament’s vote in 2014 requiring such improvements to be made, a point subsequently decreed by a 2015 directive.  A more complex picture to emerge from here is one of institutional lethargy and foot dragging across a range of institutions, of which Johnson’s own stint as London mayor may count as one.

The resignation has been read in some circles of British commentary as decisively damning for Johnson’s future influence over the Tories.  His stint as foreign secretary, suggested Stephen Bush of The New Statesman, was so gaffe-strewn as to erode “his standing among MPs”. Where his effect becomes different is in the realms of disruption: encouraging Tory members to press for a confidence motion in the prime minister.  A mere 15 percent of Conservative MPs are needed to sign letters calling for such a vote.

Such readings of Johnson ignore the beguiling force he retains in politics.  His buffoonery and populism do have retail value.  Deemed unelectable at points of his career, let alone beyond promotion, he managed to win the mayorship of London.  He was indispensable to swinging the mood to Brexit prior to the 2016 referendum.  To that end, dismissive interpretations of Johnson’s career suffer, to some extent, from a rational view that sees politics as predictable and reasonable.  It was exactly such an approach that missed, almost in its entirety, the furious rise of Donald Trump.

“Johnson,” went William Davies in the London Review Books on March 8 this year, “approaches public life as a game in which he commits sackable offences as a way of demonstrating his unsackability.”

Making him foreign secretary had served only one purpose: a restraint, and a means of minimising any potential damage to May. But his presence, his bravado and his disruptive penchant made Davies wonder whether Trumpism was, as matter of reality, a British problem. “Johnson,” he admitted, “is as close as British politics has to a Trump problem; and his seniority suggests that Trumpism has permeated our political culture more deeply than we like to admit.”  This streak of British-styled Trumpism is bound to provide Johnson more nourishment, though its duration, and depth, remain questionable.

Soft Brexits and Hard Realities: The Tory Revolt

It was meant to be an away day at Chequers in total hermetic isolation, an effort on the part of UK Prime Minister Theresa May to sketch some common ground in a cabinet that has struggled to agree on much regarding the imminent departure of Britain from the European Union.  The clock is ticking, for many ominously, with the departure date slated for March 29, 2019.

The initial signs seemed good: a consensus had, initially, been reached by all brands of Brexiter. Chief Brexit minister David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had, in principle, come on board, though there were mutterings of dissatisfaction at the PM’s new plan.  At least for a time, collective cabinet responsibility had been satisfied.

The plan focused on, in the words of the Chequers statement, a proposal establishing “a free trade area for goods. This would avoid friction at the border, protect jobs and livelihoods, and ensure both sides meet their commitment to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship.”  Such a vision free of friction would entail maintaining “a common rulebook for all goods including agri-food” with a stress on harmonising UK laws with those of the EU.  Parliament have the ultimate say on their passage. “Regulatory flexibility” would govern the issue of services; “strong reciprocal commitments related to open and free trade” would characterise UK-EU relations.

The issue of the role played by EU courts, always trouble for the fanatical leavers, would continue to play a part in so far as UK courts would heed “the common rulebook”.  A joint institutional framework would ensure consistent interpretation and application of such rules, but “the supremacy of UK courts” would be assured.

As for the issue most worrying to the market types amongst the Tories, the proposal suggested “a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if a combined customs territory.”  This would leave Britain to have its own seat at the World Trade Organisation and strike trade deals with other states, another cherry for the harsh Brexiters.

The populist element was also considered: free movement, a central EU principle, would end, but the UK would seek a principle of ensuring that UK and EU citizens would still be permitted to visit, work and live in respective jurisdictions with ease.  Large annual payments to the EU, those so heavily stigmatised during the 2016 referendum campaign, would also end, though this would not terminate specific contributions to areas of “joint action”.

It did not take long for the ruptures within government ranks to begin.  After the discomforting unity came the blood filled flood; first three resignations, all associated with the “hard” variety of Brexit lore.  The most prominent of them was Davis himself who had shown various, and variable colourings of competence during his time in that newly created position in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum.  He had been marginalised of late, the Prime Minister evidently feeling that the issue was simply too important to leave to him. More to the point, he had threatened some five times to resign since November 2017, making him seem like a purveyor of empty threats.

With Davis’ exit went deputy Steve Baker and junior Brexit minister Suella Braverman.  “The general direction of policy,” came a liberated Davis in his letter of resignation, “will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”  Parliamentary control, he opined, would be “illusory rather than real”.  The “common rule book” policy would effectively hand “control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.”

On Monday, just minutes before May’s address to members of parliament, Downing Street announced that Johnson was also making a dash for it.  His resignation letter was certainly heavy with opportunistic John Bull flavour; Britain, he charged, risked heading “for the status of a colony”.  The PM, he accused, was “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them” in preparations for a “semi-Brexit”.  “It now seems that the opening bid of our negotiations involves accepting that we are not actually going to be able to make our own laws.”

There is not much sincerity all around.  Individuals like Environment Minister Michael Gove are backing May for the moment, thinking that a streak of sound pragmatism runs through this flawed plan.  But anyone having Gove’s backing is bound to feel the sheath of a blade, if not the blade itself, at some point.

Those remaining on May’s rocked ship have become apocalyptic in a different way, suddenly seeing the EU as less problematic than their opponents opposite the Parliamentary chamber.  “If we don’t pull together,” went a Cabinet minister to The Guardian, “we risk the election of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.”  Never mind Europe, went this particular line of reasoning: Labour might just walk in.

Within British politics, May’s Friday product does not seem to be flying well, though it had taken off in a fashion.  Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, taking the Scottish angle on this, suggested that the plan had started to unravel early, though it had a kernel of good sense. “It simply underlines the fact that the UK is leaving the EU (which I wish it wasn’t) the only workable solution is to stay in single market and customs union.”

Then comes the most obvious point that would render this whole exercise drily spent and academic: Will the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his crew have a bar of it?  There is, superficially, too much of the Swiss solution to this, too much of the “give me your market” but spare me the regulatory trade-off.  Having expressed his dislike for such a solution in the past, it is clear that May is facing the toughest of sells.   The EU apparatchiks still wish to make an example of Britain, a form of deterrence against others who wish to take the exiting step in the name of reclaiming sovereignty.

But there is something striking about the latest chapter in the ever ballooning Brexit script.  The Chequers statement is a product of a person who has not only survived, but shredded the hard Brexit base within her cabinet.  With Davis and Johnson gone into the dangerous ether of political disruption, the issue is whether the positions will firm up or loosen.  Till then, and even after, few sane individuals will want May’s job.