A crisis over Gibraltar is no way to begin long Brexit negotiations

Chris Moncrieff
Chris Moncrieff

Gibraltar has become the first crisis hotspot as the Brexit negotiations get under way – scarcely before the ink has dried on the letter Theresa May wrote triggering Article 50 to set the wheels rolling.

But the political hotheads should all cool down and stop running ahead of themselves.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, have made clear that the UK has no intention of giving up The Rock to Spain unless the inhabitants of Gibraltar say they would prefer to live under Spanish rule - an outcome that is highly unlikely.

And Lord (Michael) Howard, a former Tory leader, has daringly gone a stage further by saying that May would be as firm about Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher was over the Falklands - a comment that has been regarded as saying there would be a willingness to go to war over the issue.

Needless to say, their opponents have accused the Tories of sabre-rattling. This is scarcely the best way for these long and difficult Brexit negotiations to start.

Let us hope everyone calms down before things get out of hand.

• The grumpy behaviour of the Parliamentary Labour Party towards Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons is damaging the party and is disconcerting to their leader. They should snap out of it.

You might think Corbyn’s position could scarcely get any worse now that the New Statesman magazine, long regarded as the Labour Party Bible, has launched an attack on him and his leadership.

Corbyn has been the target of brickbats from all quarters, yet he soldiers on manfully. But his position could be immeasurably improved by a change in attitude by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

At the moment, during Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons, they largely sit there stony-faced, not offering even a squeak of support for their leader. An occasional cheer wouldn’t go amiss.

They seem to have no idea what a negative effect it must have on Corbyn to have such grumpy “supporters”.

The worst culprit is probably Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who sits alongside Corbyn on the green benches. He just sits there like a pudding, betraying not a blink of emotion. Although these two men are not on the same wave-length politically, Corbyn has twice legitimately been elected leader and certainly deserves the support of his deputy at the very least.

It is beginning to look as though he is deliberately hostile towards the leader he should be backing. No wonder the Labour Party is in such dire straits.

• Was the Tony Blair Government guilty of illicit dirty tricks against the late Dr Ian Paisley, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland?

It has been alleged by Lord Prescott, Labour’s former deputy Prime Minister, that Blair told him Paisley’s phone had been tapped by the security services.

Paisley was regarded as a major stumbling block in the quest for the Good Friday Agreement, but he later became “onside”.

Even so, it was and is a strict convention that MPs should not be monitored in this way.

No wonder his son Ian Paisley Jr, now also an MP, is urgently seeking answers to the questions raised by Prescott.

• What happens when an allegedly unstoppable force collides with a so-called immoveable object? We may soon find out.

Virtually on a daily basis, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demands a second Scottish referendum on Independence North of the Border. But on each occasion, Theresa May insists this is the wrong time for any such move and that Brexit must be completed before such a referendum can even be considered.

My money is on May to come out on top in this unremitting struggle: she holds the aces as the senior partner, so to speak.

But none of that will deter the tireless Nicola from persisting in her demands.

It is a simple fact that the entire United Kingdom is seeking to quit the EU as a single entity and that if Scotland did leave the UK, that would make the Brexit negotiations, already difficult and complicated enough, almost impossible.

But whatever the merits or demerits of their case, the Scots will not readily back down.

So be prepared for a war of attrition.

• The cascade of Scottish Nationalists into the Commons at the last general election has brought with it some of the most gruff-sounding MPs that anyone can remember, making life virtually intolerable for ministers trying to answer their questions and reporters trying to understand what they are saying.

All this seems to validate P G Wodehouse’s comment that it is not difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grudge.

One of the worst “offenders” is Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudon) who creates consternation on the ministerial benches and in the press gallery when he rises to speak.

Some years ago, there was a diminutive Labour MP Robert Woof, from north-east England, whose accent was so pronounced that it was virtually unintelligible to anyone outside Geordie-land. When he opted to speak, shorthand writers on Hansard, the official report, threw up their hands in despair, as did newspaper reporters in the press gallery. If Woof had been senior enough to announce the declaration of war, nobody would have noticed.

It did not help, either, that he often got his words wrong. Once he used the term “hospitalise” in a speech before it (alas) became a “legitimate” word. The editor of Hansard told him they could not use it, and could Mr Woof provide them with an alternative?

Mr Woof was not having any of this. He marched into the editor’s office and came out triumphant, punching the air. “They are using it,” he cried, “but are putting it in invertigated commas...”

• Is the incessant use of the term “Brexit” - even though it is a cleverly coined word - driving you bonkers?

One exasperated correspondent has written to a national newspaper, pleading for a Brexit-free Holy Week. That would be a blessing, but it isn’t going to happen.

For myself, I am getting so obsessed about it that I am inadvertently using the word “Brexit” when I am talking about breakfast.

Alas, I am afraid we have got not months, but years of it ahead. I shall soon require counselling.