Finding out about the British Brexit referendum result was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was following the Irish football team around France and we had taken a small detour to Ghent. We had found a barge to rent on AirBnb and when we arrived there it was huge. It was soon turned into the flagship of the joint Irish/Lebanese Naval Force (there was a Sean, Cathal, Abdallah, Jad and Maher aboard). When Abdallah announced first thing in the morning they had voted to leave I literally couldn’t believe it. We had drunkenly gone to sleep pretty early the night before, after a long day’s drive, confident that the polls were all correct in suggesting a Remain win. I immediately viewed it as a watershed moment for Western politic and have maintained a healthy distrust of polls since.
Trump being elected was a lot less shocking. I do concur with the view that there was a similar pattern of middle class voters disillusioned with mainstream politics who viewed drastic change as a positive. I didn’t believe he would ultimately win but I advised my brother (who enjoys a punt) to back him at 3/1 a few days before the election ( this was before James Comey came out and said that Hillary Clinton was still under investigation by the FBI - a moment many think had a major impact on the final result).
These two results could have marked the beginning of epochs of change in their respective countries. Brexit, in particular, was seen as a dramatic departure that would change the face of the European Union forever. I may be guilty of engaging in a little hyperbole here, but not more so than the British press in the days following the election.
However in recents months both Trump and Brexit momentum have definitely stalled. The key question in this article is which will collapse first. There is still a major chance that Trump will successfully complete his term as President and may even get re-elected if he chooses not to return to the simpler task of selling golf holidays to wealthy pensioners. Similarly Brexit may turn out to be unheralded success that Nigel Farage has crowed about for a number of years. I don’t think this is likely.
Trump came to power on a wave of radical promises, including the memorable ‘drain the swamp’. However the swamp is fighting back. It looks to me like Trump has sent the last twenty years surrounding himself with sycophants and yes men. He seems to have a very binary view of the world and has so far proven himself to be very incapable of subtlety and nuance. These are two qualities that are crucial when you are the leader in a democratic country. The emphasis here is definitely on democratic. He is a self professed admirer of Putin and seems to wonder why he can’t simply sign off on laws the way Vladimir can.
The allegations of collusion with a foreign government are mounting. Every day it seems a new accusation or piece of evidence comes to the attention of the public (and the potential prosecutors). His supporters scream ‘fake news’ any time there is a major story from a broad variety of media outlets. They saying goes there is no smoke without fire and currently the Trump administration, in particular a number of his key clientele, are suffocating. I predict Trump will ultimately survive these allegations after lengthy, multiple investigations but his administration will suffer greatly. To be a little bolder I predict he will not get the backing of the Republican party (and will either announce his intention not to run again before this goes public) or run as the first ever incumbent, Independent Presidential candidate (someone may correct me if this isn’t legally possible).
Brexit is stumbling on without a clear mandate. I have no doubt that if the Referendum was re-run Remain would win. The Conservatives, and Theresa May in particular, are living on borrowed time. There may even be an early election called if the DUP pull the plug. This could result in a Labour minority government or the Brexit doves gaining the upperhand in the Conservative party. I think a very diluted Brexit will take place with the freedom of movement and access to the market intact albeit with a different title and an added layer of political spin. There may be a few caveats to please the hawks and this will be gained through some sort of divorce bill that is a lot lower than the sixty billion pounds that has been bandied about.
Events are moving so swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic that predictions can’t remain static but in the end I see Trump and Brexit being constrained by Realpolitik to the extent that little changes substantially. This would be quite appropriate for two campaigns that were distinctly lacking in substance. Maybe the real lesson we can take from the last year is that vision and bringing people together leads to lasting change, not divisive soundbites...
ps if anyone is interested I’ve posted a picture of the finest Irish/Lebanese vessel the world has ever seen….
A lot has happened in last few couple of weeks that could have an impact on how (if?) Brexit takes place. To be honest nobody really knows yet what will ensue, so the below are just some suggestions on how certain events have shifted the underlying dynamics.
The Tories Failing to Regain a Majority
The 2017 British General election will go down as a disaster for the Conservative Party. It is incredibly rare for an incumbent government to voluntarily call an election when they have a majority without the shadow of some scandal in the background (for example in Malta this year the ruling party, Laborista, called an election but this was due to alleged corruption scandals). Theresa May’s line that she needed a mandate from the people now seems arrogant and utterly misguided. While I never believed an enhanced majority would provide her team with more leverage in the negotiations, losing the majority has certainly made her position more challenging.
May is now political cannon fodder. The British were never negotiating from a position of power and I can see the knives being sharpened for her in both the Remain and Leave (Soft and Hard Brexit) factions of the Conservative Party. My view is that she will remain as the token head until some leaked agreement or article is deemed ‘disastrous’ enough for a heave. The reason that this didn’t happen in the initial aftermath is no one really wanted to take over a party that quickly after a horrific defeat and facing into the their most serious international negotiations in forty years.
If this does happen and a Davis or Johnson becomes leader the key factor will be whether this is a smooth transition internally or a General Election is called or forced. If this occurs I think the EU negotiators may lose patience and begin to force through a number of measures. These will not be generous to a seemingly fractured and rudderless United Kingdom.
The DUP Becoming Westminster Kingmakers
I am no fan of the DUP but what an incredible election they had. In March their leader looked to be on her last legs (take note Theresa) and Sinn Fein and the Nationalist’s rise seemed inexorable. Fast forward four months and the DUP now hold a majority of the Northern Irish seats in Westminster, have obliterated their only Unionist rivals (the UUP) and are now in a position of massive leverage by entering an informal agreement to prop up the Tories.
Their position in Brexit is almost laughable. They fought for Brexit (including some dodgy funding dealings) to promote their British solidarity. However they are now seen as proponents for a soft Brexit with as minimal a border as possible. The pragmatist in me does see the logic in this. A smooth, hassle-free Brexit will certainly quieten the voices calling for a Border poll. In terms of real impact though, I don’t think they have as much leverage as the media have suggested. While they will certainly bang their drums publicly, it would be almost political suicide to pull the Government, with the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn (read IRA sympathiser) led replacement looming.
Macron Gaining a huge majority in the French Assembly Elections
Now this is a politician who did need a mandate. While his presidential success was a major talking point in the global media and political circles , it was deemed by many as more a vote against Marine le Pen than it was as a vote for the former banker and junior minister in the Socialist Government. In a similar fashion to the American political system, the assembly have a lot of power to pass through (and veto) legislation. Macron’s party, En Marche, did not even have a presence in the last assembly. To go from 0 to 350 out of 577 seats is an absolutely phenomenal result. Naysayers will point to the dismal turnout of 42%. However low turnout is a bit like an own goal in football, when it goes in your favour people simply remember that you scored.
Macron is now in a position of power and ,until his cuts to public expenditure bring a million protestors to the Parisian streets in 2019, has the backing of the majority of the French people. He will now seek to impose his will on the Brexit negotiations. He believes in a harsh deal for the British, that will effectively scare other countries away from considering an EU exit. Below are some of the quotes he made, prior to his presidential success in March;
“I am a hard Brexiter” and (European negotiations with Britain prior to the Brexit referendum) “created a precedent, which is that a single state can twist the European debate to its own interests. Cameron was toying with Europe and we agreed to go along with it, which was a big mistake.”
With Angela Merkel facing a German election in late August, I expect Macron to become a key figure over the next few months. As a former Banker he may well believe that London’s difficulty is an opportunity for Paris. Relocating a few major banks to Paris would further add to his impressive Presidential start and what better way to go about this than through tough talks with little quarter given to their historic rivals.
While I would like to be proven wrong, I can’t see the British decision to leave the European Union now being reversed. In hindsight the decision to call an election by the Conservative Government seems foolish at best. They will now be negotiating from a position of enhanced weakness, facing an emboldened French maverick and a distracted Angela Merkel. Their best policy would be to stop making brash, jingoistic public claims about not being bullied and to keep their heads down and try to make substantial progress. The calls for Theresa May’s head will rise in volume from her former friends in the British press when she agrees to pay a substantial ‘divorce settlement’. If she can end her tenure with a lot more clarity on what Brexit means , accompanied by some substantial progress than she will have taken at least the first step to political redemption.