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Sorry Brexit negotiations a sign of UK government’s feebleness

The failure on Monday of British Prime Minister Theresa May to do a deal on the first phase of Brexit — Britain’s plan to leave the EU in March 2019 — is another sign that something is wrong at the top of the government. May went to Brussels believing that a deal was near: The text had been printed and was about to be signed off and presented at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
At the last minute, it appeared that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, whose 10 MPs keep May in power, told her that they did not agree to the terms of the deal as they affected the boundary of Northern Ireland, which will be the only land border between Britain and EU member state Ireland.
The Labour opposition called this chaotic and embarrassing, which is totally right. The Irish prime minister echoed these sentiments. How could May have led everyone to believe that a deal was near, when a late phone call to the DUP showed that it was not? In short, why did she not call them before she flew to Brussels?
A friend reminded me of the famous words of Sir Winston Churchill, who said, at the end of World War I: “As the deluge subsides (he was referring to the war), we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” These places, and their churches, represent to this day all the problems that have bedeviled relations between Britain and Ireland, and indeed hold back Northern Ireland itself.
No matter what catastrophes affect the world, the boundary problems and sectarian divides of Northern Ireland refuse to go away. It is extraordinary that the British Prime Minister was not more aware of the infected sores that still afflict the body politic in Northern Ireland when she flew to Brussels on Monday. This sorry spectacle is a sign of the feebleness of the British government.
I was, for 34 years, a British bureaucrat. Every line of every paper to be signed, every party to an agreement was checked and checked again. Officials stayed up all night before important agreements were signed to make sure that nothing was missed. Every word was looked at and in several languages to see how it would sound when read out. How could such a major mistake over Northern Ireland be made in the Prime Minister’s Office?
However, the problem is not just one of a lack of communication with Northern Irish MPs. Britain seems to have lost her way in the world. Major crises have taken place recently, in which Britain would once have played a role: Zimbabwe has had a constitutional crisis following the overthrow of President Mugabe; talks have struggled on over the Syrian tragedy; in the Gulf, the Qatar problem drags on; and the Middle East peace process has certainly not been resolved.

British politicians are in denial about the mess they are in — they believe everything will work out alright because Britain is a major power, with whom other countries will fall over themselves to do business.

Anthony Harris

I have hardly heard a word from British ministers about these serious issues, in which the UK has traditionally had a voice. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, in particular is so obsessed by the Brexit game that he is not doing his job. I see the French leadership playing an active role in Lebanon and in Africa, for example: They are not forgetting who their friends are.
Last weekend there was another, domestic, example of this malaise at the top. A team of senior figures, including ex-ministers from both the right and left, who were appointed to advise the government on social mobility and social justice, resigned en masse, claiming that the government is not focusing on the serious inequalities in British society. The reason, they said, was that the government was totally preoccupied with Brexit and had no bandwidth for anything else.
The tragedy of this is that many of those who voted for Brexit did so because they felt left behind. They were generally unhappy with the way globalization had changed the British economy and the way the wealth of the country had mainly collected in the south-east, around London. However, Brexit and the uncertainty that it has caused has already damaged the economy further: Inflation is rising and inward investment has slowed.
Growth rates since the middle of last year are among the lowest in the developed world. Sterling has fallen and has further to go. As a consequence, those who voted for Brexit are going to be even worse off than before and the Social Mobility Commission has called attention to the fact that the government is doing nothing about it.
So, if Britain is not talking much to her friends — and let us not forget that the foreign secretary keeps saying that Britain will continue to be a major player on the global stage – and is turning a blind eye to the underlying reasons why voters chose to leave the EU 18 months ago, and is so overwhelmed with the challenges of Brexit, that she fumbles key passes as we get closer to the goal-line, who is leading the country? Where is the strategy to deal with the complex post-Brexit world?
It appears that British politicians are in denial about the mess they are in. They believe that it will work out alright because Britain is a major power, with whom other countries — mostly non-European of course — will fall over themselves to do business. I detect a dose of a terminal complaint and here I paraphrase John Le Carre, who in his latest novel, “A Legacy of Spies,” talks of our suffering from the incurable English disease of wanting to play the world’s game when we are not world players any more.
• Anthony Harris is former British ambassador to the UAE and career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]