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Michael McDowell: Will Tory MPs put seats ahead of Britain’s interests?

London’s hostility towards Ireland is tragic and pointless for Britain’s future

As the Tories’ infighting to succeed Boris Johnson intensifies and as their dirty internecine war of mutual disparagement gathers pace, I have to say that I find it remarkable that the UK secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, who initially led the popularity stakes among Tory grassroots members, should pull out of the contest almost before it started.

If an MP is sufficiently capable and ambitious to become the UK’s defence minister and now publicly indicates a desire to remain in that post to “keep this great country safe”, one wonders why he would not also feel attracted to becoming prime minister where he could have far greater influence over defence policy and defence budgets. Wallace, a former army officer and security minister, seemed to have very good Tory credentials, even if he was a Remainer – a position quickly followed by his becoming organiser of Johnson’s first (failed) bid for the Tory leadership.

Perhaps there are valid private and personal reasons for turning down the chance to move into Downing Street. But if there are, we simply don’t know them.

In any event, the Tory party is now host to a most inelegant scramble to get to the base of a very greasy pole. The party’s right wing is determined to stop Rishi Sunak from winning the race. He is even being labelled “the much-lamented socialist chancellor” – a farfetched sobriquet – by his erstwhile cabinet colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg (the master of extreme unction), and other rivals’ spindoctors have also applied the “socialist” tag.


Tax cuts

His opponents are promising tax cuts, as I predicted here last week before Boris resigned. Some want cuts in income tax, some corporation tax, some social insurance cuts, some indirect taxes, and some undoubtedly will promise all the above.

But presumably most MPs are asking themselves the primordial political question: “Who is most likely to save my seat?” Tax cuts now will have little effect when the forthcoming winter of economic discontent sets in. They may sound good in the short run but unless a new Tory leader “cuts and runs” to the country, economic realities will have to be faced. You can’t cut all taxes and give pensioners and low-income earners handouts sufficient to offset inflation and fuel and energy poverty – not to mention big increases in defence spending.

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Is the priority to pretend to unite the Tory party or to rebuild voter confidence in marginal constituencies? Leadership rivals are spinning the line that Liz Truss is “mad”, citing her days in the Liberal party fold where she marched shouting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out, Out, Out!”

From Ireland’s point of view, a lot will depend on the extent that the ultimate winner has to make Europhobic commitments to the hardliners in the party. Truss and the other Boris groupies who stayed with him in the bunker are not a very attractive slate of leadership prospects for Iveagh House and Merrion Street.


But Truss has shown a cynical side to her character by registering the “Liz for Leader” domain name a full month before Boris finally resigned. Maybe she will be just as flexible as Boris was in ditching the DUP to make some form of peace with the EU.

Anglo-Irish relations have turned into permafrost in recent times. The contrast with the cordial and constructive sense of shared purpose which I witnessed accompanying Bertie Ahern to numerous meetings with Tony Blair in the years 1999 to 2007 is truly depressing. From Gordon Brown to David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson, the descent from indifference to outright hostility in relations with Ireland is tragic. Worse still, that descent is utterly pointless for Britain’s long-term interests.

The Belfast Agreement serves Britain’s long-term interests. It also serves Northern Ireland’s long-term interests, responding to changing demography in the North and creating the prospect of regional prosperity that flows from membership of the EU single market and the UK market.

Should we be surprised Tory hardliners and diehards are so hostile to the Belfast Agreement? Michael Gove 20 years ago described it as a “betrayal” of Britishness. One hundred years ago, Tory diehards at Westminster railed against the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an ignominious “betrayal of Crown and Empire”.

Unless Tories want to remain permanently behind the curve of Britain’s post-imperial history, they will have to face the reality that history is surely on the side of those British politicians who can look forwards rather than backwards.

Does the Tory party have the vision to choose a leader that can truly lead Britain? Or is SDLP MP Claire Hanna’s quip that Britain’s post-Brexit “uplands” are proving “gas-lit” rather than “sun-lit” just the depressing Tory truth?