Electricity bills set to soar to £500 a month in October, in my own area West London the electricity grid has hit capacity and a ban on building new homes is in prospect to 2035, rail strikes with no end in sight, with nurses and teachers to follow and the possibility of a general strike to come…
Health and social care services in England face “the greatest workforce crisis in their history” and the government has no credible strategy to make the situation better, Fresh research by the Nuffield Trust shows the NHS in England is short of 12,000 hospital doctors and more than 50,000 nurses and midwives..
And what is the response? A zombie government and two leadership contenders in a bidding war to appease the Tory electors with tax cuts; Truss with £30 billion unfunded, Sunak trailing her and now wobbling, proposing a £.4.3 billion VAT cut on household fuels bills saving an average of £160 a year.
This literally is no way to run a rail road never mind a country. At least it makes Northern Ireland no longer look so uniquely bad. By sadly dying at such a time David Trimble has reminded some national commentators of an example of good leadership that should be followed. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write.
In the Times, David Aaronovitch writes that Trimble… performed the duty of leadership that Blair this week called the most difficult of all: telling your supporters they were wrong about a cherished belief and needed to think again.
He contrasts this with the “ fratricidal “ Ed Miliband who pandered to a left tradition sidelined by Blair that sent Labour crashing to three disastrous defeats; and Cameron who almost casually introduced the Brexit referendum to dish his right wing,
Good politics is about persuasion above all, not garnering cheap applause for colourful sloganising. Last weekend the frontrunner for the Tory leadership achieved this headline in the Mail on Sunday: “Truss: I’d send MORE migrants to Africa.” The Truss campaign clearly thought doubling down on a policy described as immoral by the Archbishop of Canterbury and as unworkable by every single authority on refugees and asylum policy was a vote-winner among Tory members.
Then on Tuesday Rishi Sunak said he now supported removing VAT on fuel bills despite having earlier described it as “disproportionately benefitting wealthier households”. The wrong policy now endorsed for the worst reason — the very opposite of good politics.
In the Guardian Martin Kettle identifies a major theme ignored by the candidates, which was dear to Trimble’s heart; and notes the irony.
Just when Trimble, the Ulster Unionist with the hinterland who thought around corners, decided to become a Tory to emphasise, in part, his break with the fundamentalist and zero-sum politics of Northern Ireland, so, at the same time, the Tory party made the opposite break with its own more pragmatic past and began to embrace a fundamentalism of its own, making it more than ever like a British version of the DUP.
So, when Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss began their first debate on Monday by each praising Trimble as a political giant, do not be taken in. Neither Sunak nor Truss is a Tory in the sense that Trimble understood it. Neither of them shows any inkling of being interested in Northern Ireland, in the mishandling of the Brexit process there, or the wider dangers that threaten the UK’s union. These are not the only subjects that have been almost totally ignored in the leadership race – not least by most of the press, which was never even remotely interested in Northern Ireland anyway – but they are certainly among the most important.
There was much to disagree with in Trimble’s politics. He got a lot of things wrong, though he got the one big thing right. But when Trimble adopted a hard political line, or behaved unreasonably, it was almost invariably as a means to an eventual compromise end, not as an end in itself. Particularly in Truss’s case, and increasingly in Sunak’s, the hardline attitude is all that there is.
All is not lost. Although the digouts are not quite forgotten, Bertie Ahern the great fixer is riding to the rescue, to break the deadlock over the Protocol. He has a lesson for them all, to which Newton Emerson is typically alert.
First, the Government should meet the new British prime minister “under the terms of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement, at intergovernmental level”.
His second proposal is to compile a report on the protocol from all the business groups in Northern Ireland and present it to London and Brussels. Stormont parties should be encouraged to contribute to the process.
The report should be used to broker amendments to the UK government’s Bill to disapply the protocol. This would water the Bill down, yet also give it some legitimacy, forcing the UK and EU closer to terms.
The report should be ready by the new prime minister’s appointment in early September and the amendments should be passed by the Westminster party conference season in October.
Restoring Stormont should happen sooner. The former taoiseach said the DUP had a point that imposing the protocol on unionists went against the idea of “powersharing” in the Belfast Agreement. However, imposing the protocol Bill against the wishes of a majority “isn’t powersharing either”.
Ahern therefore concedes a vital point of principle to unionists which the Dublin government should adopt. My reading is not that Dublin and London can strike a bilateral deal but that all parties should no longer treat legalism like a brick wall. Dublin should make clear to the EU governments and the Commission that peace and the GFA are more important than any threat to the single market. This would be a major shift in position.
At his best Ahern makes Sunak and Truss seem like high school debaters.
And there could be a bonus in how Trimble’s legacy is being picked up if it’s followed. The Unionist cause could be treated with more respect.
The spirit of 98 still lives.
Photo Sunak, Truss courtesy Sky News
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London