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View from Dublin: Still in the eye of a storm of a no-deal Brexit


Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson

Trouble is brewing with Brexit - real trouble. The Revenue Commissioners know it. That is why they have gone ahead and appointed 500 new staff for new customs duties, despite the March Brexit deadline being missed.

The Irish Government knows it too. The way Brexit is going, we will either be in a no-deal crash-out by Christmas, or remain totally unclear about what will happen by the end of this year.

Other European governments know it too. That is why Dutch foreign affairs minister Stef Blok insisted last month while on a visit to Dublin, there will have to be border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He said he stood with the Irish but "European borders have to be protected".

The statisticians know it. Official figures show the British economy contracted sharply in April as manufacturing slumped with the end of Brexit stockpiling.

Irish exporters know it. In a recent survey by Enterprise Ireland, 40% of Irish exporters said they had been negatively affected by Brexit while the figure for the food sector was 60%.

Lots of people don't know it, or know but don't seem to care. Count in this group a large swathe of the six candidates bidding to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and by extension Prime Minister.

The media is going to enormous lengths to decipher the subtle differences between the lot of them on Brexit. It doesn't matter. Several, including favourite Boris Johnson, are capable of saying one thing now and something completely different once they land in office.

While speaking in Dublin at the Pendulum Summit in January, Mr Johnson was asked why he had gone along as a Cabinet minister with the principle of the border backstop, only to totally reject it months later. It was a "convenient fiction", he said.

How many more convenient fictions are being written right now?

Michael Gove is unlikely even to get a sniff (so to speak) at Number 10. The candidates have made all sorts of bizarre promises and threats in an election campaign that looks increasingly reckless.

One leadership candidate (Dominic Raab) talked of suspending Parliament to drive through his vision of a no-deal Brexit. Some candidates are openly talking about reneging on British financial commitments to the EU, irrespective of the overall withdrawal agreement. This means advocating that the country welch on its debts to the EU.

Yet, amid all of this madness there is a strange calm in Ireland about Brexit. Consumer and business sentiment surveys show that we are still very conscious of a possible bad Brexit on the horizon yet household spending continues to rise.

There is some disbelief about what will happen with Brexit and it is very worrying. The disbelief is based on the idea that having failed to leave at the end of March, Brexit may not ever actually happen. The benign scenario goes something like this. There will be a new Tory leader/Prime Minister who will most likely be a hard Brexiteer. Once in Downing Street this person will try to renegotiate a better Brussels deal and fail.

They will, however, baulk at a no-deal Brexit when the time comes or if not, they will be stopped by the British Parliament from crashing out without a deal.

This will most likely trigger a second referendum in which people will vote to call off the whole thing. Or alternatively, Brexit will just fizzle out without a second referendum.

But there are other scenarios which are less benign for Ireland. The next leader of the Conservative Party will be decided by the membership of the party who are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit and willing to, if not dying to, leave without a deal.

The average age of a Conservative Party member is 57 with 40% of them over 65. They are concentrated in the southern half of the country. Of the 120,000 Tory members, nearly 60% of them live in Eastern England, London, the South East and the South West. Around 85% of them do not want a second referendum.

The next Prime Minister will be the person this group believes has the best chance of seeing off Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in a general election. So, it will be a hard Brexiteer.

This all points towards a no-deal crash-out. If the British parliament stops the government from crashing out without a deal, the Tories will be terrified of being crushed in a general election as much by the new Brexit Party as by Labour.

Even if a second referendum became the preferred option, there is absolutely no certainty that such a referendum would bring about a different outcome.

Who knows even what the question would be? Already candidates for Number 10 are lining up to make extraordinary promises about what they will do in office.

They want to abolish the top rate of tax, spend billions on new infrastructure and slash income taxes. Of course much of this is vacuous electioneering but it is setting a tone and expectations around what happens next.

Irish business is in the eye of this storm as much as ever. It really is time to be worried.

Belfast Telegraph