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Saturday 21 July 2018

Brexit fiasco could do us serious harm

Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty
Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty

When Leo Varadkar recently messed up a line during one of his weekly online videos, he was heard to exclaim: "Ah, Jaysus!" Watching the news from London yesterday, our normally well-spoken Taoiseach could have been forgiven for using much stronger language.

Just when it looked like Theresa May's government was coming to its senses over Brexit, the double-whammy resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson have thrown everything into confusion again - with Ireland still the innocent bystander most likely to get seriously hurt.

As the British cabinet falls apart like a cheap suit, nobody can be sure what job any of them will be doing this time next week. Away from the Westminster soap opera, however, at least one thing is fairly obvious.

The chances of a no-deal Brexit next March have shot up dramatically, and Varadkar must start preparing for that nightmare scenario with much more urgency than he has shown so far.

Only last Friday night, the situation looked completely different. May had effectively locked up her warring ministers in the prime minister's country house, Chequers, and ordered them to agree a Brexit policy once and for all.

As if this showdown wasn't tense enough, they also had their mobile phones confiscated and were warned that anyone who walked out would find no car waiting for them at the end of the driveway.

From Ireland's point of view, the plan seemed to work like a dream. May emerged looking triumphant and announced a new proposal that would basically keep Britain in the EU's customs union under another name, minimising the risk of a physical border on this island.

In other words, the UK is now officially committed to a soft Brexit, which for us could be the next best thing to no Brexit at all.

Sadly, the dream was too good to be true. As we all know by now, at least two of the prime minister's most troublesome rivals only kept quiet at Chequers because they wanted to save themselves a taxi fare.

Brexit Secretary David Davis quit shortly before midnight on Sunday, followed yesterday afternoon by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who had privately told friends that defending May's policy would be like "trying to polish a turd".

Of course, the reaction of many people in Dublin, London and Brussels will be "Good riddance to bad rubbish". Davis may be an ex-SAS soldier who can kill a man with his bare hands, but he is also known to be lazy and useless at negotiating details.

Clownish

Johnson's clownish image had started to wear thin, and Irish government officials were shocked by how little he knew at a meeting in our Department of Foreign Affairs last November.

Even so, Theresa May is now dangerously exposed without him and Davis. As Oscar Wilde almost wrote, to lose one cabinet big beast might be regarded as unfortunate, to lose two looks like carelessness and leaves you at grave risk of a leadership challenge that could come at almost any moment.

So, how will this almighty mess be resolved? There are three basic scenarios, and unfortunately for Ireland the best one also seems to be the least likely.

Scenario one is that May soaks up the pressure and lives to fight another day. As her nickname, The Maybot, suggests, she is a cold, tough woman who has survived other humiliations such as last year's disastrous snap general election.

The problem is that even if she does carry on regardless, it will now be almost impossible for her to get a soft Brexit deal passed through the House of Commons.

Scenario two is that May falls and gets replaced by a true Brexiteer, not necessarily Johnson or Davis. It might even be the plummy backbench rebel Jacob Rees-Mogg, a dead ringer for Walter the Softy from the Beano who is actually more right-wing than Donald Trump.

Whoever inherits the keys to 10 Downing Street, any new prime minister would have a similar dilemma - there seems to be no House of Commons majority for a hard Brexit either.

Scenario three is that the entire British government collapses, poss- ibly from sheer embarrassment. That could well lead to a Labour administration led by Jeremy Corbyn who, whatever his other faults, knows Ireland better than anyone in the cabinet today.

Although Corbyn has changed his Brexit policy more often than his socks, he would almost certainly pursue a softer line, which is why most Conservative MPs will fight tooth and nail to ensure he never gets the chance.

"The Brexit dream is dying," Boris Johnson wrote in his resignation letter yesterday evening. From this side of the Irish Sea, it still feels very much like a nightmare.

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