Boris dancing?; Nukes subplot; Istanbul attack; Timor recruits US By Hamish McDonald.

Stinging London looks for a Brexit strategy

Boris Johnson (centre) sits next to his father, Stanley (left), on a tube train in London last week after bumping into each other by chance.
Boris Johnson (centre) sits next to his father, Stanley (left), on a tube train in London last week after bumping into each other by chance.
In the manner of Julius Caesar’s description of ancient Gaul, Britain is now divided into three parts: provincial England (with Wales and hard-core Unionist parts of Ulster thrown in), the multicultural and cosmopolitan London, and the Celtic fringe of the Scots and Northern Irish majority.

Perhaps a future novelist will find sardonic pleasure in putting together a Bonfire of the Vanities saga about the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, but the mood in the Disunited Kingdom is beyond humour at the moment.

David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn were on the way out of their jobs this week. Poles and Muslims encountered a rise in xenophobic incidents. Elderly Brits and Essex types who voted “Leave” found themselves headed for rule by the kind of Tories who, rather than divert the mythical £350 million going daily to Brussels back into the National Health Service, would prefer to dismantle the NHS. Some of their county governments pondered the prospective loss of massive European Union subsidies. Younger people and Londoners, who voted overwhelmingly to remain, report a feeling of grief.

The solemn assumption is that the people have spoken and their expressed will must be obeyed. Already the speculation about what happens next is running wild. The Scots are moving to a second referendum on independence, and may ask the EU to keep their existing share of the British membership instead of going out and applying again. Banking, car-making and the aerospace industry will shift to the Continent.

Half-seriously, there’s talk of London seceding from Britain to stay in Europe. After all, the city’s then mayor Boris Johnson once suggested a London visa system to make it easier for its professionals to move in and out. Maybe a confederal Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland in, and the rest out?

1 . Boris dancing?

Before we jump too far ahead, the big question is: what’s going on inside the woolly head of Boris Johnson? His initial reaction suggested he was stunned like everyone else by the result. Three months earlier when he announced he was joining the “Leave” campaign, he seemed to be saying the referendum was just a way of screwing a better deal for Britain out of Brussels. Only by threatening a walkout do the Eurocrats unbend.

This week he was telling Brits they can keep access to the common European market, and freedom to work and live across Europe, without paying the dues or conceding reciprocal migration rights. But the much-touted Norway model shows this to be unrealistic: to get those benefits from outside the EU, it has to pay Brussels and open its borders. Such a post-Brexit arrangement would leave the British with the same things they voted against, and no voice in EU councils.

Many deduced his Brexit campaign was just a step towards winning the Conservative Party leadership − what he thought would be a futile gesture, to prove his credentials to the nostalgists. Then ambition hit the Tory camp. Michael Gove, the former education secretary sacked by Cameron for his harsh reform attempts, had seemed content to play Johnson’s deputy. On Thursday morning he turned Brutus, announcing he had “come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead” and was standing for the party leadership. Johnson had been planning to announce his candidacy later that morning. Instead he withdrew from the race. As Tory MP Nigel Evans, a Johnson supporter, described Gove’s ruthless plotting: “It makes House of Cards look like Teletubbies.”

It is highly likely Gove was prepped up by his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, who emerged as his political nanny when one of her emails leaked out on Wednesday. In it she mentioned that Rupert Murdoch and her editor Paul Dacre (who competed with Murdoch’s Sun for the most outrageous anti-EU line) “instinctively dislike Boris”. Gove faces the home secretary Theresa May as strongest rival. But can anyone believe Boris when he says he’s out?

There’s no rush to invoke the EU exit clause, which Cameron says won’t happen anyway until after a new Tory leader is chosen in October. Then it takes two years for the withdrawal to take effect. Angela Merkel is cutting the Brits plenty of slack, though François Hollande is not. He faces a presidential election next northern spring, and polls suggest his Socialists will be knocked out in the first round, leaving a second round between the conservative Republicans and the ultra-right Marine le Pen, who wants a French referendum on leaving the EU. Hollande wants the EU to be quick and tough with the British pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire described the execution of British admiral John Byng in 1757 after a lacklustre battle performance.

Maybe just talking tough will suffice, allowing the new British prime minister to retry Cameron’s exercise of going to Brussels to extricate a new deal. The referendum result is not binding on the British parliament, and as the law stands now, a decision to exit the EU would need the consent of the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh parliaments. We’ve seen the Irish and Danish governments going back for a second referendum to reverse earlier opposition to elements of EU accession. Johnson could be the one to charm his way out of the mess, once Gove or May have made it worse.

2 . Nukes subplot

One subtext of the Brexit question is: what happens to the nukes? Britain’s nuclear weapons force relies on four submarines armed with United States-designed Trident missiles, operating out of a base on the west coast of Scotland. If the Scots go independent, they want the base out.

The missile submarines are due for replacement about 2030, and a decision on the new design and procurement contract has been expected this year. The government says the cost over the life of the new fleet will be £31 billion. Reuters recently reported experts calculating the cost at £167 billion over 30 years. Shifting the base to somewhere in England or Wales would cost many additional billions, assuming a welcoming port could be found. Are these weapons necessary or legal? A “people’s tribunal” at Sydney University on Thursday and Friday indicts the nine nuclear-armed states and the 31 other nations (including Australia) that rely on their protection.

3 . Istanbul attack

As its allies hammer Daesh in Syria, Turkey is feeling the blowback with a string of suicide attacks. In the latest at Istanbul’s international airport three militants sprayed crowds in the departure area with gunfire before blowing themselves up. Forty-two people were killed and 239 injured. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said indications were that Daesh was responsible.

The attack comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved to repair two broken relationships. On Tuesday, Turkey and Israel agreed to restore diplomatic relations ruptured six years ago when Israeli forces stopped a relief convoy to Gaza, killing 10 Turkish activists. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to pay $US20 million to the families of the dead men. Then Erdoğan expressed “regret” for the downing of a Russian jet on the Syrian border, and promised to put on trial a militia member who shot one of the pilots who bailed out. Russian and Israeli tourists had been important earners for Turkey. But travellers are soft targets for terrorists.

4 . Timor recruits US

Washington is starting to notice the irony of the US urging China to follow international legal processes in resolving its maritime disputes with smaller South-East Asian countries, while its close ally Australia opts out of the international courts on its sea boundary dispute with Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Rui Maria de Araújo, was in Washington on Thursday and Friday, where he did the rounds of congressmen and met Obama administration officials including Daniel Kritenbrink, the Asia director in the National Security Council, the State Department’s Thomas Shannon, under secretary for political affairs, and Daniel Russel, assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific. De Araújo asked them to use their influence with Australia and thereby help their own case with China.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "Stinging London looks for a Brexit strategy".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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