Articles - September 2016

Letter from London

Gonged: Parting Gifts from a Departing Prime Minister
By Roland Flamini

Up until now, the name of Martha Gutierrez Verez was unknown to the British public. But in August, the London Times identified her as the likely recipient of a medal from Queen Elizabeth in a forthcoming royal ceremony known as an investiture.

Gutierrez Verez was Prime Minister David Cameron's driver. She is among the 48 Cameron aides, advisers, and financial backers who, according to a Times leak, have been named by the departing prime minster to receive honors ranging from knighthoods for four cabinet ministers who stayed faithful to the government's position of remaining in the European Union in the Brexit referendum to nine CBEs (Commander of the British Empire), 10 OBE's (Order of the British Empire), 16 MBEs (Member of the British Empire), plus some other honors.

The former Foreign Secretary is set to become Sir Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon, who remains defense secretary in Prime Minister Teresa May's new government will also receive a knighthood. So will British oil executive Ian Taylor, a major Tory Party contributor (which, by the way means 1.6 million pounds — around $2 million -- to the party coffers and 350,000 pounds to the pro-EU referendum campaign, drops in the bucket compared to U.S. political giving, but significant in the United Kingdom).

Some departing prime ministers have given out honors in the past, but not Tony Blair nor his successor Gordon Brown, and rarely, if ever, on the scale of Cameron's valedictory largesse. The honors list is usually a strict secret until it is officially announced, but the Times leak hasn't been denied; and there is the suspicion that the leak was itself a parting gift from the government to the newspaper for its support of "Remain," the campaign for staying in.

Included in the honors list are several of the leggy, efficient, well-born women in their thirties who seemed to populate Cameron's Downing Street, including his wife Samantha's style adviser, Isobel Spearman, and Cameron's official spokesperson.

Queen Elizabeth usually confers the coveted honors — or in more familiar parlance, hands out the gongs — at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, but in reality the monarch no longer has anything to do with nominating the proud recipients. That is usually the prerogative of the government, and the process of selection is so secretive that it can sometimes seem somewhat murky. As the Times itself pointed out, the published list "looks as though honors are being used as rewards for failure." More so in the case of Will Straw, director of the much reviled "Remain" campaign which had seemed doomed and lackluster from the start, was due to be made a CBE. The Times quoted an unnamed insider as saying, "I'm surprised Larry [the Downing Street cat] is not on the list."

But what of the victors in the Brexit referendum -- the anti-EU strategists who succeeded in reversing almost 50 years of history? They received no honors; and inner rivalries undermined their efforts to take control of the Tory Party and government. Ironically, the job of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union has fallen to a former Cameron government minister who was opposed to leaving Europe in the first place.

And yet three months after the decisive referendum an air of unreality still envelopes the whole issue; Brits up and down the country still seemed to a recent visitor to be processing the information.

Opponents of Brexit are understandably angry; but what is striking is the absence of a sense of triumph, of achievement, among many ordinary citizens who, against predictions, had transformed a silly catchphrase into a reality. There are almost enough Brexit voters with second thoughts to talk of a "Take it back" movement. Harry Potter author JK Rowling was reflecting a widespread sentiment when she tweeted, "I don't think I've ever wanted magic more." No magic and no miracles. Brexit is here to stay.

So what's next? Unquestionably, the United Kingdom needs to move on, but to what, when every day makes it more apparent that no exit strategy appears to have been prepared in advance either by Cameron's government — which is perhaps understandable — or by Brexit leaders?

Commentaries by "experts" don't help much, and often seem little more than educated guesses, pious hopes, or vague assumptions. A recent editorial in The Spectator, the conservative magazine of which Boris Johnson was once editor, complained recently, "The Brexit vote might have passed, but the debate goes on: its advocates looking for signs of optimism, and its opponents muttering about Ôhard Brexit' and almost willing economic collapse."In a very serious world it all gives the impression of life at a public school going disastrously wrong because the headmaster has suddenly eloped with the Classics teacher's wife. Something Terrence Rattigan, one of whose best plays has just been revived successfully in London, might have written in the 1950s. Come to think of it, he did: The Browning Version.

Economic indicators are read as positive by one side and negative by the other. Nobody can dispute that Sterling has declined in value, but to Brexit supporters that means a boost for exports. A complacent City, hub of the U.K.'s global financial services, seems to think it inconceivable that Gulf investors will forsake London for Frankfurt, but that will surely depend on what access the City will continue to have in Europe.

The reality is that nobody doubted that economic turbulence would follow, at least in the short term. Unraveling from Europe is a monumental task that has to be addressed before a new relationship can be put in place: hundreds of European laws now in force in the United Kingdom have to be removed from the statute books, the future of thousands of Brits working in Brussels and at other EU institutions has to be resolved; conversely, the fate of thousands of European immigrants in the UK — one of the root causes of British discontent with Europe — has to be determined. Bilateral trade deals have to be cobbled up.

Meanwhile, David Cameron, the departed prime minister, is being dumped on as the chief creator of this mess, and rightly so. The referendum was the rabbit Cameron pulled out a hat when there was no public demand for it. He did so hoping it would bring right wing Tories into line. If, as has been reported, he is negotiating to write a book about the crisis, which will doubtless shed no new light on it whatsoever, he is crying all the way to the bank. His wife is expected to go into the fashion business with her fashion gurette Spearman.

He has some defenders, of course. Emily Sheffield, the deputy editor of British Vogue, calls Cameron "endlessly generous," and "an intensely hardworking, dedicated politician." She adds, "What I deplore most is the current, casual denigration of his government's achievements." But this admiration may have something to do with the fact that Emily Sheffield is David Cameron's sister-in-law.

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