Tuesday, 7 March 2017

'Is politics stranger than fiction?' - the views of Michael Portillo

I was surprised, today, to find myself, while sitting quietly eating my packed lunch at a sustainable construction exhibition known as 'Ecobuild' suddenly surrounded by an audience attentively listening to Michael Portillo. A historian,  political commentator and train expert, this former 'future Prime Minister', addressed the subject: 'Is politics stranger than fiction?'. No longer an MP, he was standing in for a Lord who was 'whipped' to vote in the Article 50 debate (on starting the process to leave the EU).

Michael Portillo delivered nearly an hour of very personal views on Brexit, the EU and Trump. He was far more outspoken than politicians normally are, which added a certain 'frisson'. It felt like being a fly on the wall, hearing MPs swapping views, in the bar of the House of Commons.

He said that politics is 'stranger than fiction' because the Conservatives, who during the 1980s were polling upwards of 42% of the national vote had declined sharply. More recently they had been consistently polling around 36%. However,  they are now back with no coalition nor strong opposition: we are almost as a 'one party nation'.   Even in the light of this, Michael Portillo said that he had been 'surprised' that David Cameron had promised a referendum on the EU in the Conservative Party manifesto.  He felt that the UK had not been under real pressure to become part of an 'EU superstate' since it was protected by a) not being in the euro and b) being outside the borderless Schengen area. So he thought that David Cameron never intended to hold it, expecting a different national election result i.e. another coalition with the Liberals who would have refused to hold a referendum on EU membership. But Cameron won the general election, so he was forced to hold it. He lost by 4% and stepped down.

In fact, the pressure came from UKIP, who gained 4m votes. Their development and influence is in line with wider developments in the EU where a proliferation of political parties has fractured the old two-party systems. For example, there are now four political parties vying with each other in Spain. However, UKIP did not have any MPs and, therefore, any political power. Cameron was clearly (over) reacting to acute internal neurosis within his own party. (One must bear in mind that Portillo stood against Cameron as Conservative party leader and lost).

Portillo said that the referendum was lost by the Remain Camp because the UK and the EU countries have 'a different experience and frame of mind'.  He said that the difficulty is that the EU project is driven by a 'dangerous ideology', not by pragmatism.
  • It is ideology that insists on free movement of people (not just for workers, as one might expect). This is because free movement is what a single country has. 
  • It is ideology that created the euro because 'a single country has single currency' - not because it was a good idea that would benefit everybody.  
He sees the euro as a disaster for Spain, Italy and Greece, the economy of which has shrunk by 20%. In addition to the euro and mass migration, another big threat is Donald Trump because Trump is openly saying that the euro is good for Germany i.e. a weak euro is helping to keep German exports buoyant, resulting in full employment in Germany, in contrast to soaring levels of unemployment in the Med countries.  Being half Spanish, he admitted that it is 'a mystery' why the southern Med countries 'put up with it'....

Brexit, he said is likely to be 'hard' -  but much depends on the two things that are the main concerns of the EU and threaten to destroy it sooner rather than later a) what happens on the euro and b) levels of mass migration in the next two years. There are two views on Brexit within the EU: one is that it is best to get on well with Britain, post-Brexit.  The other, less rational, is a feeling that the EU needs to be as defensive as possible, to thwart other countries seeking escape (though Portillo doubts that other EU member states will follow the example of Brexit).  The other threat for the EU is 'a democratic deficit' partly due to all EU countries being unable to vote on the same day - due to totally different political systems, languages etc.

Portillo sees Brexit as an unavoidable 'divorce' between a country (Britain) with a totally different attitude to that of all the other countries and the EU ideology. This is due to the history of the 20th century, he thinks. Unlike almost all continental European countries during the 20th century,  British institutions and democracy did not 'fail'.  As a result, the UK does not feel it needs a higher transnational body helping it to hang together which EU countries feel they do need. The UK does not feel the same 'urge' to sacrifice its sovereignty to a transnational superstate.

Portillo seems to be saying that the EU has a real need to seek 'ever closer union' but the ideology guiding the EU project (in place of political pragmatism) is 'dangerously' destroying it. He is adamant that the euro will collapse under its own weakness and the heavy damage it has wrought in the Med countries.

Regarding Trump, Portillo does not feel that he is weak on defence - or 'partial' to Putin. He has jacked up the US defence budget by more than the entire Russian defence budget and he is urging Germany to step up its NATO contribution to 2%, which Germany is very unwilling to do.

The real drama, he says, is the forthcoming French election.  He is not predicting that Marine Le Pen will win, but 'the right wing is doing its best to facilitate her victory'.  If she wins, he says, it will make Brexit look like 'a storm in a teacup' because she wants to a) withdraw France from the euro and b) give the French people an in/out referendum of the EU.

In other words, he was telling the British construction sector not to hold its breath for a soft Brexit - though intervening events may radically affect the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

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