Len McCluskey: Bombardier-Boeing debacle stands as evidence of the insanity of a no deal Brexit
Gavin Robinson, the DUP MP for East Belfast, didn’t go as far as was trailed by his local media when he asked in parliament whether business secretary Greg Clark had made any approach on the Bombardier crisis. He asked for a ministerial statement on the situation, but his pledge to tell the government it needed to “step up to the plate” didn’t materialise.
News of a Bombardier-Airbus deal gives no room for complacency. There is much work to be done before we can be sure jobs are secure. It’s time DUP MPs proved they are worth every penny of the £1 billion Theresa May shook from that mysterious magic money tree in order to cling to power.
They need to work with Unite to fight for the jobs of Bombardier’s 4,500 Northern Ireland workers, and the thousands more in the firm’s supply chains. Because the Airbus deal could take more than a year to be approved, Boeing won’t sit idly by and the threat of 300 per cent import tariffs on Bombardier planes remains.
We need to hear a public reminder to ministers that the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement means the DUP can, and will, remove the props holding this government in its unsteady place if ministers don’t utilise all leverage at their disposal to protect jobs.
The extra funding for Northern Ireland over two years will be used, according to DUP leader Arlene Foster, to boost the economy and invest in new infrastructure, among other measures. Unite is the biggest union in Northern Ireland and I welcomed this investment for our members in one of our poorest regions, although I believe it should be found for all our nations and regions. Many of our members there supported the DUP at the general election. But they did not vote to prop up a government that fails to defend jobs and stand up to the corporate bullying of Boeing.
Westminster’s austerity has destroyed Northern Ireland’s economy, with workplaces decimated and thousands of manufacturing and other jobs lost. There was no additional money when Michelin, Gallaher and Bombardier shut sites and shifted work elsewhere two years ago.
Supporting Unite in our campaign to protect our members’ jobs would be unequivocal evidence that the DUP will put that money where its mouth is. If anyone can raise the stakes and speak for Bombardier workers now, it is they. Because, as one Unite member said at our recent lobby of parliament: “If those jobs were lost, it would be beyond devastating for our community – it would be catastrophic.”
Justin Trudeau has reportedly told Donald Trump that he will block Canadian air force purchases of Boeing aircraft if the US imposes the duties. We still don’t know what Theresa May said to Trump, but it’s clear that pleading with him to lift the tariffs will achieve nothing.
And what prospects for her government even contemplating sanctions on Boeing, when the transport secretary Chris Grayling refused to so much as engage with his shadow, Andy McDonald, about the role of the company in the financial engineering of Monarch during the parliamentary debate on the collapsed airline?
Asked why the government had made no criticism of Boeing’s role in the loss of 2,000 jobs in Luton, Grayling could only boast of the operation to bring home Monarch’s stranded customers, as if he’d been part of an heroic effort to rescue them from a terrible natural disaster.
If Grayling had provided support for Monarch, as Germany did with Air Berlin and Italy with Alitalia, at least to avoid sudden administration, he would have earned our members’ support.
But surely the Bombardier-Boeing debacle stands as evidence of the insanity of a no deal Brexit? It shows up the asymmetrical trade relationship with the US, as does the crushing setback for the government in one of the only areas it is has seen progress in during the EU negotiations: post-Brexit agricultural tariffs.
The agreement, which would have seen the EU’s WTO quotas for international agricultural products reduced, with Britain taking a share after Brexit, was swiftly rebuffed by the US. It’s a painful setback for the UK’s ambitions to achieve a favourable trade deal with the Trump administration.
Monarch’s collapse too, for all Grayling’s denials that Brexit was a factor, was at least in part due to other carriers, initially interested, being unwilling to bid for it amid deep uncertainty over the future of the Open Skies agreement. It’s a volatile sector at the best of times and, Monarch’s tangled funding arrangements aside, the weak pound pushing up fuel prices was another nail in the coffin.
With deadlock in the Brexit negotiations, the predatory behaviour of Boeing and a protectionist ‘America First’, a failure by the government and its DUP allies to actively defend UK manufacturing jobs, even by demonstrating a preparedness to ditch a trade deal with the US altogether, will signal that any ambition ministers have for a coherent industrial strategy is effectively in tatters.
But we know there never was a coherent industrial strategy. And we don’t need to look over this precipice. There’s a government in waiting, one with a vision for the UK and the values needed to stand up to bullies, to protect our members’ jobs and deliver a Brexit that works for everyone.
As Jeremy Corbyn said, if Theresa May can’t lead, she should leave.
Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite the union
This article first appeared in Tribune magazine