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An antelope in Manchester

Barbara Wesel
October 2, 2017

The Conservative party conference could prove to be disastrous for UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is eyeing her job, and appears to be doing his best to undermine her.

The Brexit Diaries.en

A party conference is a trial for any prime minister at the best of times. It lasts for days, the delegates tend to get drunk and it's a hotbed for intrigue. The main question before this Tory meeting in Manchester was of course: Will she or will she not survive it? And the onslaught from her colleagues was relentless. Why did May look so pale and unconvincing before a gray backdrop in Florence? Why indeed does she look so gray, tired and exhausted these days? It may be her jackets. May should have watched Angela Merkel survive her near disastrous election victory in vivid red and friendly blue. Avoid gray at all costs, the stylists say, it makes you look … gray.

As for the ritual Sunday morning politics show on the BBC, it was a train wreck. Presenter Andrew Marr drew not one but two apologies from the prime minister for her election debacle in June. He relentlessly skewered her policy U-turns and drove her into a corner over Brexit. What about her promised transition period? It's not a transition, it's an implementation, said May. To implement what? And why did the pound drop on her watch? Why did living standards fall? What would happen if Brexit negotiations fail? Would planes still fly? Theresa waffled. Finally the interviewer snapped: "Look me in the eye and tell me the truth!" No, really Andrew, that's asking too much.

But where does that leave her? "I've started to feel sorry for Theresa May. It's like watching a dying antelope heave itself across the plain, forlornly dragging its wounded leg behind it," wrote Michael Deacon in the Telegraph newspaper. Time to call the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

For whom the bell tolls

The major source of strife among the Tories of course is Boris Johnson. The foreign minister is like a teenager testing his boundaries. And not only does he bait May over Brexit, he also loves a provocation abroad. On his trip to Myanmar in January, the minister got a tour of the famous Shwedagon temple in the capital, Yangon. Because his hosts were extra friendly, he was allowed to strike the big bell. And there, out of the jumble of Boris' posh education, it was revealed over the weekend that parts of Kipling's poem "Mandalay" came bubbling to the surface.

Boris Johnson in Myanmar
Johnson's remarks in Myanmar came to light over the weekendImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Zeya Tun

But the verses did not stay where those dusty poems from one's school days belong. Boris lustily began to recite the ode to past colonial glories that culminates in the line: "The temple bells they say, come you back you British soldier." The British Ambassador was quick to intervene, calling it "not appropriate." Johnson, whose remarks were captured on camera by a British film crew, appeared confused.

His political friends say Boris wants to make one more go at Downing Street. If he cannot unseat May this time, he will reportedly step down as foreign minister and seek a lucrative job in London. So far, he has managed to effectively spoil the prime minister's Brexit speech in Florence. And on Sunday he did his best to undermine her party conference by publishing further red lines on Britain's looming divorce from the EU in the tabloid "The Sun."

The question most frequently asked in interviews with leading Tories of late has been: "Can you sack Boris?" Fellow ministers Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond agreed that this should in theory be possible if he cannot keep his mout shut - which everybody knows he will not do. To be continued.

Hard truths

Sometimes reality painfully interrupts the dreams of Brexiteers. When the leading law firm Baker McKenzie studied the impact on the UK of leaving the EU without a trade deal in place, they concluded the economy would shrink by 40 percent and overall WTO tariffs and other barriers would cause the country to lose 20 percent of its worldwide exports. The car industry in particular would be hit hardest, with a decline in EU exports of 8 billion pounds ($10.6 billion, 9 billion euros), followed by consumer goods. And even the most comprehensive trade deals with third countries like the US, China or Canada would only result in an increase of 25 percent in trade against the projected overall loss.

New cars on a lot in the UK
If the UK fails to negotiate a trade deal with the EU, the British auto industry will be particularly hard-hitImage: picture alliance/dpa/G. Fuller

What special a trade deal with Washington could mean became apparent last week. The US slapped huge tariffs on the Canadian aerospace company Bombardier for presumed state aid. The Canadians have a factory in Northern Ireland and 4,000 jobs are at stake. British Trade Minister Liam Fox reacted furiously and threatened retaliation against US giant Boeing. This is how trade wars begin and one wishes the government in London all the best.

Pig ears in China

Environment Minister Michael Gove is one of the original Brexiteers always looking on the bright side of life.  At a fringe event in Manchester he found consolation in extolling the great export chances for pig ears. After leaving behind the onerous regulations of the EU, which insist on pigs' ears being pierced for ID tags, the UK could leave its pigs untagged. And whereas some countries are not that interested in pig ears, they are a delicacy in China. And they command higher prices when unpierced. Bright new export opportunities are beckoning. Is this how making a pig's ear of Brexit is supposed to work? 

Also happened:

Tory delegates were greeted by a big and noisy Anti-Brexit demonstration in Manchester. Just to remind them of the other 48% in Britain.

And the last words belong to an unnamed Tory who squeezed the whole dilemma of his party into just two lines:

One could not have said it better.