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UK Politics – Irrational Exuberance Gives Way to Despair? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

euflgWith two separate defence orientated commentary pieces planned over the next two days before your scribe takes his leave of writing absence for seven days by heading off to the back to back Air Power Conference, Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough International Air Show events allow me a ‘final’ few words today on the unfortunate mess that is the UK political scene today.

Heaven only knows what ‘Martian’ landing in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster would make of it all except possibly calling for back-up! Conservatives trying to find a new leader at the same time as Labour is trying to rid itself of one and while all this is going on Government has been left in limbo. What a mess!

First of all today though, allow me to add a little to what I have previously said in regard of the Brexit vote. I am, just as the other 48% of voters that apparently chose to tick the ‘remain’ box on the plebiscite ballot sheet, hugely disappointed with the end result. Nevertheless, despite the obvious havoc that the decision Brexit vote has wreaked on the whole system of governance and the potential pain that it might also bring to the economy in the short to medium term, the bottom line for me is that I can and will live with it. We will survive this very large high risk period change and weakened as we may well be in the eyes of the rest of the world, if we manage to secure a strong well-led government in the weeks and months ahead who knows what, with a little bit of hard work and effort, we might be able to achieve outside of the EU.

I was taken to task early last week following the last Brexit comment that I had made by a former senior Cabinet Minister who shall be nameless and who thought that I was being rather naïve and that rather than trying to dampen down the flames of despair as I was that perhaps I should have been asking ten political questions that needed to be answered by Government with some degree of urgency. Before I list these, I should say also that he also took the trouble to remind me that the British electorate have been constantly misled and lied to by politicians only interested in their own advancement. He went on to say that they have been supported in this by large parts of the media that wanted a referendum on EU membership to satisfy either their proprietors’ financial interests or their editors craving for power without going through the demanding and difficulty process of actually standing for election. I agree with pretty well all the above statements and, having made similar accusations over the years myself, I would be foolish not to. Now for the posed the questions:

Does the British Government want Britain to remain in the Single Market?

Will the Government be applying to join the European Economic Area?

If the answer to both of these questions is in the negative will the British Government be imposing tariffs on goods coming from the EU equal to the Common External Tariff to be paid by British exporters selling goods into the EU? If not why not?

What is the British Government’s immigration policy in respect of immigrants from the EU?

What is the British Government’s policy in respect of EU citizens currently resident in the UK?

When will there be an announcement by the British Government in respect of future immigration from the EU?

Will the British Government guarantee that funding for agriculture and regional policy currently received from the EU will be matched pound for pound by the British Government?

How much exactly of the saving from no longer making payments to the EU budget will be spent on the NHS? On other domestic priorities?

What will be the Government’s response to a request from the Scottish Parliament for a Referendum on the question of Scottish independence?

Given the continuing uncertainty and consequential instability caused by the announced delay in triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will the British Government set out a timetable for the date by which it expects Britain to no longer be a member of the EU?

This is all well and good and although not exactly as well intentioned as they might appear, there is little wrong in asking at least some of the above questions. But in doing so the basis would have to assume that those being questioned within Government had a prepared and detailed plan in existence in case the plebiscite vote decision had been, as it turned out to be in the end, to get out of the EU. Clearly no such strategy exists – they either just never thought that the vote would be ‘out’ or did not have the will to do it.

To attempt to answer any of the questions above without a clear and agreed strategy or policy would of course be as dangerous as it would be ridiculous. That no policy appears to exist is I agree contemptuous but there we are. The above questions pay little if any respect to those in the EU of course and who also need to have a say in how an UK exit needs to be done to ensure that it doesn’t damage the rest. Yes, we should have had some kind of agreed strategy and legal knowledge of what such a decision entailed. Such is the arrogance of politics today, such is the stupidity as well. Smaller and less wieldy though the European Economic Community certainly was and also that we had after all only been part of it for two years, I rather doubt that had the result of the Wilson Labour government referendum of 1975 been the reverse of what it was (Voters backed continued membership) that an exit plan existed either.

Back in the real world of today and in regard of those calling for another plebiscite and even a General Election that might re-decide events I would say sit tight and await events. Holding another plebiscite is though out of the question in my view.

At this point such is the quagmire that I previously warned of there can be no surety about anything including whether we actually manage to leave the EU. I hope too that Scottish Parliament takes a rain-check as well awaiting to see what the next moves are for the whole of the United Kingdom. As to those talking of raising a legal challenge to the authority of those people who went to the polls and that led to the ‘out’ vote being decided I would say that nothing can challenge the democratic right of the people. Tier challenge is apparently based on whether a Prime Minister has the right under the UK constitution to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and that in their view only Parliament can decide. Well, I might remind that, that until recently, a Prime Minister backed by his Cabinet could take us to war without a vote. In any case, I had thought that there was no written constitution in the UK although I readily accept that statutes and laws passed by Parliament are considered to be the highest form of law, that Common law is developed through the courts and that the rest of what we may regard as being a ‘Constitution’ is effected through unwritten practices that have developed over time in order to regulate and govern.

The Tory Party leadership campaign is now in full swing and it is abundantly clear not only who the Parliamentary Party believe should be the next Prime Minister and leader of the Party but also who grass roots Tories believe will do the best job. That person certainly isn’t Mr. Gove who as far as I can see on the stroke of 7am on the 30th June not only ended his chances of being in Government again but probably sowed the seeds of the end of his political career. With no chance whatsoever of being elected leader and having already achieved what he set out to do – halting chances of Boris Johnson taking over the leadership – Mr. Gove should, if he has any sense, pull out of the contest with immediate effect.

If Theresa May does win Tory hearts in the leadership contest she has already said that she has no intention of calling a General Election. Having thought long and hard about this matter and although, particularly following the experience of having had Gordon Brown as an unelected PM from June 2007 to May 2010, I believe she is correct in taking this view. Why? For a start, there is until the Parliamentary Labour Party gets its act together and finds itself a leader who can be respected by all sides of the political divide for what he or she is and stands for, and that can in the meantime provide effective opposition to the Government in power there seems little point.

Good Government requires a strong opposition in the House. It’s what, in normal circumstances, makes our system of democracy work so well. I make no statement here over who I would wish to see as being the next Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition (assuming the present leader of the Opposition is forced to stand down soon) as it is not my place to so do. But what I can say is that the nation is crying out for leadership in what is clearly going to be a very difficult few year ahead. Just think of it, maybe as many of 50% of an already shrunken civil service will be required to work on the negotiation and requirement of Britain’s decision to pull out of the EU. It is as ridiculous as it is absurd. But Government must go on and we need to get through this period of uncertainty as quickly as we can. Our industry and commerce, our allies let alone the electorate as a whole deserve better than this.

I may have had little time for Boris Johnson over the years but he got one thing right in his Daily Telegraph article today when he suggested that ‘Project Fear hysteria’ is gripping Britain and that the ‘Government’ needs to get its act together calming the situation down. I agree. Of course, it is understandable that until we see effective leadership from Government, an unlikely prospect before a new leader and Prime Minister is appointed, that this will occur but Mr. Johnson is right to suggest that the hysteria has gone too far and that it is damaging the economy.

Neither do I much like the Chancellor dropping out that Corporation Tax will fall to 15% particularly when he must surely know that neither is this a sensible statement to make at this time, is economically viable or sensible and also, that he will be most unlikely to be in Number 11 to write and present the next Autumn Statement. Sadly, Mr. Osborne lost a degree of credibility during the ‘Project Fear’ exercise and promising an emergency budget in the event of a Brexit vote was certainly not his finest hour. Other than that and despite abandoning his deficit targets, another potential move that may have been better unsaid.

Markets are thankfully behaving relatively quietly this morning although rather than anything that is or isn’t going on here in the UK I put most of that down to this day, July 4th, is the day that America celebrates its 238th birthday. As to sterling, whilst the negatives of a fall in the value of sterling far outweigh the positives due in the main to our massive trade deficit with the rest of the world and that this will be a recipe for inflation, we must allow sterling to find its own level before we get too alarmed. That will be decided by how the rest of the world sees that our Government is handling the unfortunate result of the situation that David Cameron allowed to occur. We can hardly shrug off what has occurred but we can be sensible and say that as we made the bed we must lie on it.

Adapt and change may be the best order of the day and, as I said earlier, whilst I am angry at what has been allowed to occur and particularly how it was done – what is done is done and I for one will live with the consequences for better or worse. We have little choice.

In the meantime it is very disappointing for me that the remaining weeks of Mr. Cameron’s administration will see very little in the way of decision making being made. Yes, we get Chilcot this week but presumably only because this could hardly have been stopped. What we haven’t got is a decision on increasing the future runway capacity at London’s airports and that has once again been put on the back burner for the next administration to sort out. And it seems that such is the intention to avoid anything that might damage those about to leave the Government that a decision not to discuss Trident replacement in the House of Commons before the summer recess may also now have been taken.

There is so much for Government to do that we just cannot afford to push all the necessary decision making process back into October. David Cameron may soon be leaving Downing Street but he needs to remember that every day between now and then is important. We simply cannot afford a period of impasse.

CHW (London – 4th July 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785


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