04 July 2019
Johnson or Hunt?
By John Watson
It is mishmash time down at the farm and as the pigs run around their enclosure mud gets mixed with feed, feed gets mixed with straw, and straw gets mixed with excrement. What a mess, but it is no greater a mess than the discussion about who should next lead the Conservative Party and thus become Prime Minister, where the different threads are getting hopelessly muddled. Yes, Johnson’s private life is over-complicated. Hunt’s, by contrast, seems exemplary. Interesting for the moralist no doubt but have no possible relevance to the point at hand. Since when has marital fidelity been a guide to political ability?
All right, then – honesty. The figures used by Boris and the leave campaign were a hopeless exaggeration. You cannot trust what he says. Hunt, by contrast, is methodical and logical. Another point to Hunt, but so what? Since when has honesty been a good test of political leaders? In fact standing up to the EU on one side while keeping the Commons under control on the other will require a bit of duplicity. Machiavelli would have handled it well.
Nearer to the mark is political competence. Hunt is logical and competent. Whatever mistakes you think he made as Secretary of State for Health, his partnership with Simon Stevens and the length of his tenure both point to considerable administrative ability. Boris has disorder written all over him. Definite point to Hunt.
Then what about vision? Boris’s vagueness makes you suspect that he is hoping to get through on a wing and a prayer. That isn’t Hunt at all. You can bet that his calculations are exact and that he will follow them to their logical conclusions.
By all the orthodox tests of quality it should be Hunt and in ordinary times he would be the obvious choice. But these are not ordinary times. Brexit has to be sorted and although one’s instinct might be to go for the best administrator or the person with most determination and consistency of vision, we have just tried that approach. The most damning thing said about Hunt is that he is “May in trousers” and there has to be a huge risk that if he is chosen the present state of affairs will continue indefinitely.
That is not a particularly alluring prospect, so let’s look at the alternative – a negotiation by Boris backed up by a real deadline of 31 October. How does that look? There are two questions. What are the prospects of Boris getting an improved deal? And what happens if he doesn’t?
These questions are linked. We know the new deal will do serious damage to the British economy and particularly the manufacturing sector. That is what keeps us awake at night. What about the other side, though? Which demons stalk Mr Juncker’s room in the small hours when he has unwisely mixed EU claret with too much soft cheese?
The first is reciprocal damage. We will sell fewer cars to the EU: they will sell fewer cars to us. Or rolled steel or wine or agricultural products, or lots of other things. After a particularly big helping of cheese, he will worry that we might sell into other markets, but in reality it will be a long time before we develop these successfully. In the short term there is a loss of sales both ways and, although the EU exports more to us than we do to them, the trade is more significant in terms of our economy than it is to theirs. He can therefore reflect that it will do more damage to us than to them as he drifts back to sleep.
The second issue is Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement hinged on the abolition of a hard border and the Irish made no border controls a firm red line. No doubt they thought they were being clever. How much better their red line fitted the EU agenda than merely saying, as they could have, that they would cooperate to keep border controls at a minimal and non disruptive level. How brilliantly that set the stage for the backstop, trapping the UK in the Customs Union indefinitely. But in the case of a no deal Brexit, what happens? The UK is likely to say that because of the Good Friday Agreement it will not man the border at all but will merely expect commercial importers to submit some form of return. That would be a leaky arrangement which would allow goods to be smuggled in to the UK without duty but that is something which we could probably live with. It is much more serious for the EU who will see Ireland becoming a staging post for international goods wishing to enter the EU’s marketplace. So what are they going to do about it? Put Irish troops on the border? Or French ones, or German ones? Only the other day France and Germany were asking Ireland whether it could cope and you can see why.
Then there is something more general. There are parts of the May Withdrawal Agreement which makes sense for everybody, in particular the arrangements for UK nationals now resident in the EU to be allowed to stay there, and vice versa. What if the UK decides to give rights unilaterally? Will the EU really decide not to do the same? Just how will that look to the more decent members?
That’s a few things to begin with and I’m sure you can think more. They bite at two levels, however. The first is that they will put considerable pressure on the EU to compromise – at least as to certain aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement. The second is that if Britain does leave without an agreement, these points will have to be solved very quickly. A European politician said last week that if we left without an agreement we would be back wanting to negotiate within a month. Too right we would – but so, I think, would they.
The trouble with this argument is that it involves a lot of risk. Perhaps there are political reasons why the EU would have to appear uncompromising in its approach. Perhaps the unemployment will be more than we can take. No one likes taking risks at this level but when you think that the alternative may be to go on as before, trying to wring concessions out of the EU in vain attempts to placate hardening public opinion, Boris begins to look the better option.