There was a good reason that Liam Fox departed in disgrace from the Ministry of Defence six years ago: he had shown himself to be utterly untrustworthy and devoid of principle, as well as allowing his pal Adam Werrity access that no-one in that position should have enjoyed. There was considerable scepticism when Theresa May recalled Fox to the cabinet last year, and recent events have merely underscored that.
Of all the issues that must be dealt with as part of the process of the UK leaving the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been one of the most obvious and pressing. At present, there are no checks, no customs points, no barriers of any kind between the two: indeed, the only sign that one has passed from one into the other is the change in speed limits from miles to kilometres per hour.
Belfast to Dublin rail services no longer make lengthy stops at Dundalk and Newry; there are no Police or passport checks. Trade is frictionless, and most on the island of Ireland like it that way. But the Westminster Government has been dragging its heels in addressing the issue of what will happen with the UK outside the Single Market and Customs Union, and the Republic still inside.
So as soon as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reminded everyone that this issue needed addressing, he was roundly abused by the UK’s anti-EU press, and up popped Fox to try and not merely trivialise the issue, but attempt to turn it into a bargaining chip. This was duly reported yesterday by Sky News: “No decision on the Irish border after Brexit will be made before talks move on to trade, Liam Fox has announced”. There was more.
“The International Trade Secretary put himself directly at odds with the Irish Government and raised fresh fears about negotiations moving on to phase two by December … we can't get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state - and until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult … We're still in the position where the EU doesn't want to do that”. So it’s all someone else’s fault.
But Fox ought to know that it’s not happening in that order, not least because the Republic, as an EU member state, not only has a veto, but is more than likely to use it if the border issue is not addressed. And as Sky News’ Mark Stone observed, “If he sticks by this, and the EU doesn't move either then it is certain that 'sufficient progress' on divorce won't be given in December. So trade talks won't begin - disaster for business and citizens”.
This cavalier behaviour also seems to miss the border issue being tied up with the Northern Ireland peace process. The whole thing is very delicately balanced - and the UK Government has known the issue has to be addressed since the referendum result was announced. Yet here we are with a clueless amateur allowed into the cabinet, and given licence to speak on behalf of that Government. This is very dangerous indeed.
The border issue should be sorted by next week. Fox is suggesting that the Government not only won’t meet that deadline, but that it doesn’t care. That’s not good enough.