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Brexit, or cloud cuckoo land?

As the Tory leadership contest enters the final stretch, neither candidate vying to take over as UK prime minister appears to have a workable Brexit plan, writes Manal Lotfy from London

Manal Lotfy , Thursday 27 Jun 2019
UK PM candidates
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In mediaeval myth, Cockaigne is an imaginary place of extreme indulgence and comfort where physical treats and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval life does not exist.

This myth is the root of the modern-day phrase, “cloud cuckoo land”, a term oft used in politics and cultural debate to describe a state of absurdly, over-optimistic fantasy, or an unrealistic idealism where everything is perfect and easy to achieve.

This optimism is the name of the game in the UK at the moment. There are two candidates ready to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May later next month, and both are promising milk and honey. But, of course, one is over-promising his way to 10 Downing Street, and that is former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

In his most detailed explanation of his plans so far, Johnson told the BBC that May’s Brexit deal was “dead” and insisted a new deal could be struck in time to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October.

Nonetheless, he argued it was “common sense” to “prepare confidently and seriously for a “no deal outcome”, as this was the best way of securing concessions from the EU.

He also claims the EU would agree to a Brexit transition even in the event of no deal, something Brussels has tirelessly refused.

His timetable to reach a new deal with the EU left many astonished, wondering if he is opening the door to a no deal Brexit, simply because reaching a new deal in two months is mission impossible.

With the substance of his Brexit plan under scrutiny, Johnson insisted his “positive energy” coupled with the threat of no deal and the withholding of the £39 billion divorce payment could persuade the EU to back down in key areas, saying he would engage in “creative ambiguity about when and how” the divorce payment is made.

As the Tory leadership frontrunner revealed his Brexit blueprint, he was warned he faces a mutiny from Tory Remainers.

Former Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke warned that he would be willing to join forces with Labour to vote down the government if Johnson tries to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. He also accused Johnson of “talking nonsense” about Brexit.

Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said that a dozen Tory MPs were prepared to deploy the “nuclear option” and collapse the government in a vote of no confidence.

Other Tory MPs described Johnson’s approach as “have your cake and eat it”.

May warned elements of Johnson’s Brexit plan were unworkable, saying it would be impossible to have a Brexit transition if Britain leaves without a deal by 31 October.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox undermined another element of Johnson’s plan by warning that it may be impossible to continue with tariff-free trade with the EU in the event of no deal.

Johnson’s supporters defended his vision. But his foes are calling him delusional.

Max Hastings, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, wrote in The Guardian about Johnson, who was Brussels correspondent to the Daily Telegraph during Hastings’ years, “I have known Johnson since the 1980s, when I edited the Daily Telegraph and he was our flamboyant Brussels correspondent. I have argued for a decade that, while he is a brilliant entertainer who made a popular maître d’ for London as its mayor, he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”

“There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth,” he said.

It is a devastating verdict, and one that many share.

A major Conservative donor has suggested Johnson would use the position of prime minister to “maraud around”.

Taxi tycoon John Griffin, who has given £4 million to the Tories over the past six years, said Johnson needed to come clean and explain the circumstances of a furious row with his partner, Carrie Symonds, and why the police were called to her home.

“We deserve an explanation about that row, and he has to handle it properly. He can’t assume that we are going to support him when he has not explained every detail,” he said.

His comments follow demands from Johnson’s leadership rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for the former London mayor to answer questions about his past behaviour amid growing concerns about his character.

The story of the altercation between Johnson and his girlfriend emerged after a neighbour called the police over concern at a late-night fight in her flat. Other neighbours confirmed the argument had taken place and said they had been concerned by its intensity.

Johnson’s troubles could be a game changer in the race to replace May. But his rival, Hunt, needs to have a waterproof Brexit plan.

This is not the case. The foreign secretary says there is a prospect of doing a better deal with the EU and he is in favour of changes to the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May and thinks it is possible to get them made by 31 October.

Hunt also wants changes to the Irish backstop — the insurance policy, agreed by the UK and the EU, to avoid an Irish border checks and other infrastructure.

He says he has had “conversations with European leaders” who “understand that the backstop will not get through parliament”, adding that “they may not have understood that before”.

However, his vision and demands are not realistic, and are similar to demands made by May that the EU refused.

In his Guardian article, Hastings refers to the Washington columnist George Will, who observes that Donald Trump does what his political base wants “by breaking all the china”.

In Britain, both candidates are eager to please the Tory political base, but the price could be very costly, as with no credible Brexit plan, Britain could face a turbulent and difficult time.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Brexit, or cloud cuckoo land? 

 

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