Walls closing in on Boris Johnson as his options run out

Business Week: also in the news was Budget 2020; fossil fuels; and commercial meltdown

UK prime minister Boris Johnson gesturing while answering questions on the proroguing of parliament. Photograph: Jessica Taylor / Getty Images

UK prime minister Boris Johnson gesturing while answering questions on the proroguing of parliament. Photograph: Jessica Taylor / Getty Images

 

UK prime minister Boris Johnson was in New York when the news from across the Atlantic began to filter through.

Standing against the backdrop of the Hudson river, Johnson was about to deliver a speech urging business leaders to invest in the United Kingdom but it’s hard to believe his heart could really have been in it when, moments earlier, Downing St had confirmed his worst fears.

The supreme court – the highest court in the land – had ruled his unconventional proroguing of parliament unlawful, null, and void. His attempt to render MPs and their attempts to block a no-deal Brexit inert had been sunk by the gatekeepers of British law.

The ruling was a disaster for Johnson who in two months in office has lost his parliamentary majority, expelled 21 Conservative MPs, and lost every vote he has faced in the House of Commons. Now, he faces accusations of having lied to Queen Elizabeth.

Despite having pinned his political future on delivering Brexit on October 31st, Johnson has won no concessions on Theresa May’s deal and is obliged by law to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he hasn’t got a deal through parliament by October 19th.

Cornered and running out of options, Johnson wants an election, but, having succeeded where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has consistently failed and united Remainers in parliament, he cannot command the two-thirds majority required and is effectively trapped at the head of a lame duck government.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in New York as well, and held a meeting with Johnson hours after the supreme court’s judgment. He later said some progress had been made, but it’s hard to know if he simply felt his counterpart had suffered enough for one day.

The good news is that events in London have significantly lengthened the odds on a no-deal Brexit, which is just as well after a report from the Central Bank warned such a scenario could make us one of the most indebted countries in the world well into the next decade.

Meanwhile, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said Brexit could push the economy into recession and suggested the Government may need to hold a supplementary budget early in the new year.

Concerns were also raised by the HSE about the supply of essential medical devices after it emerged that a “significant” number of products will not have adequate regulation if there is a crash-out Brexit.

Tourism is feeling the pinch too, with Brexit blamed for a 2.7 per cent dip in visitors coming here last month, with the total number of trips standing at 393,000.

Tax cuts as Varadkar smells an election 

Despite all the talk of looming catastrophe and pleas for prudence from various think tanks, there is an election coming and it seems Varadkar can’t resist the temptation to butter up his base with some tax cuts in next month’s budget.

Varadkar, speaking to reporters in Los Angeles where he was opening a new Irish consulate, raised the prospect just weeks after his Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe appeared to rule out cuts due to concerns about Brexit.

“We’re looking at a number of things, certainly around income taxes,” he said. “This budget will have a minimal tax package.”

Separately, Varadkar surprised many with the disclosure at the UN climate summit that Ireland is to end fossil fuel exploration, making it one of the first countries in the world to get out of oil and gas production.

The move is on foot of scientific advice about its climate impact. But the search for, and extraction of, gas will be permitted for some time as the country shifts to a carbon-free economy.

Meanwhile, the ESRI warned of a slowdown in housebuilding and has urged the Government to take a more aggressive approach to taxing vacant sites.

The institute revised down its housing completions forecast for this year from 23,500 units to 21,000, suggesting the fall-off in supply may be linked to Brexit and/or the slowdown in property price inflation.

The latest official figures suggest property prices in Dublin are now falling for the first time in seven years while price growth nationally has moderated to 2.3 per cent. The ESRI believes 35,000 housing units need to be built a year to meet demand.

While property price growth has decelerated on foot of the Central Bank’s tougher lending rules among other things, the ESRI said pressure in the housing market has transferred to rents, which are rising by over 8 per cent year on year.

The ESRI’s Kieran McQuinn said a key issue at the centre of the housing crisis is the high price of land. He said the Government’s vacant site levy, introduced this year, needed to be more “aggressively priced” if it is to solve the issue.

Maker of ‘Boris bus’ goes under

It’s most famous in recent times for building the red Boris bus – made famous during the campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum – but Ballymena bus-builder Wrights Group went into administration this week, costing 1,200 people their jobs.

One of the North’s largest manufacturers, Wrights Group had been in business for 73 years. Trade union Unite said a further 3,400 supply chain jobs were also under threat.

The Wright family said they had been covering “significant losses” at the company for more than a year, and it was impossible to maintain this. Although accounts show it had been donating significant chunks of money to Christian and evangelical charities.

A potential deal that could have saved it was scuppered after a number of potential buyers walked away from sale discussions because they were unhappy with how the Wrightbus factory lease arrangements were structured.

There was similar bad news for UK travel agent Thomas Cook which collapsed, spreading chaos through the international travel industry as hundreds of thousands of travellers were stranded.

At home, Ulster Bank’s chief executive said there will be a fresh round of job cuts at the group as it seeks to rein in costs. “The lever we’re going to have to pull is cost,” the bank’s new chief executive Jane Howard told The Irish Times.

She said she “will look across the whole organisation” to reduce expenses, but declined to give a figure of how many jobs could be cut or a timeframe.

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