During a blissful holiday in the Vaucluse, I managed to avoid any news of this dangerously absurd Conservative leadership election – that is, other than a classic Truss gaffe.
Yes, the news that Liz Truss had said “the jury is out” on the UK’s future relationship with France most certainly struck a dissonant chord with Kate McKinley, who runs the Mourchon winery in Séguret. She informed me despairingly, also adding that President Emmanuel Macron had reacted with the tolerance that has become his lot in Anglo-French relations as long as Brexiteers rule here.
However, the jury is definitely out on Truss. She condemned herself even before assuming the leadership of the Conservatives tomorrow. As a horse racing man I think I must remind readers that dead certainties don’t always win – Ascot bookmakers were bidding 6-1 on a Labor victory the day before the 1992 election in which John Major triumphed. Nonetheless, it looks like Rishi Sunak will need divine intervention to reverse the odds now. Incidentally, it was not without interest that a week before that 1992 election, a horse called Party Politics won the Grand National.
In my opinion, both candidates are seriously wrong on many points, but especially on the fact of continuing to support Brexit when it is such an obvious disaster: among other things, it seriously erodes the tax revenues of the nation – which Truss and Sunak want to reduce further (in The Truss Affair, tomorrow!). It’s such a disaster that the one and only Jacob Rees-Mogg wants to postpone the introduction of new border controls that are part of the Brexit deal.
The unnecessary complications and bureaucratic consequences of Brexit affect and annoy more and more people, including many Brexiters.
There are endless stories of customs delays and passport renewal issues. My own contribution is as follows: to be sure to renew her passport in time for our holiday, one of our daughters was told to go to Belfast. So we decided to make it a short family visit to Belfast. Now, although Northern Ireland is feeling the pressure of the cost of living crisis, as is the rest of the UK, it is abundantly clear that through its continued membership of the customs union and the single market, it suffers less economically.
In fact, despite the disrespect due to the Democratic Unionist Party and Truss, who want to break international law and disrupt Northern Ireland protocol, I can say that I feel the majority of people in Belfast are reasonably happy with the deal this horrible Brexit government brokered and now want to tear themselves apart.
One of my first tasks on returning to London was to attend the funeral of an old friend, Jo Carey, a former Treasury official, who died aged 88.
I mention this because Jo’s career was an interesting example of how the Treasury’s attitude towards “Europe” changed in the light of experience.
Having worked on International Monetary Fund issues in the 1960s – we had been rescued by the IMF in 1967, long before the more notorious bailout of 1976 – Jo and his colleagues at the Treasury were intimately familiar with the UK’s fundamental economic problems. They were also well aware of the argument that joining the European Economic Community would improve our economic performance – which, indeed, it did.
However, the Treasury has long been wary of what it sees as the Foreign Office’s excessive “European” enthusiasm. I remember on visits to Brussels in the early 1970s, when Jo was in the United Kingdom’s representative office, how often he and his colleagues at the Treasury were wary of initiatives coming from the countries which became our European partners after our joined in 1973.
In the 1980s, Jo was the British Member of the Court of Auditors of the European Community, Luxembourg, and he was prodigious in unearthing glaring examples of misappropriation – not to say corruption – of funds to which we had of course contributed.
However, Jo and her colleagues at the Treasury knew which side the bread of the UK was buttered on, especially after Margaret Thatcher’s defense of the single market. Indeed, one of the many aspects of Brexit that puzzles our former EU partners is how we were able to leave an organization that was shaped to a large extent by the British.
Which brings us back to memories of Harold Macmillan’s great remark: “Here we are, and the question is: where are we going? Truss hasn’t shared her strategic economic plans with us because she probably doesn’t have any. And, God help us, it’s to the huge Alexander Boris Johnson, who sacked every reasonable Remainer and Rejoiner from his cabinet, that we’re left with this group.