Are We Heading for a People’s Vote?

Call me a fantasist but I have a sneaking feeling, maybe it’s wishful thinking, that the UK – and with it Gibraltar – may yet avoid crashing out of the European Union. I remember the mood of despondency among my GBC colleagues when the result of the Brexit referendum came through the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 and it started to sink in that despite Gibraltar’s 96% vote to “remain” the UK as a whole had voted, narrowly, to leave. I shared my newsroom friends’ trepidation, but nevertheless a tiny voice in my head said: it can’t happen – surely MPs will come to their senses when they realise what exiting the EU means?

I’m not sure that’s what’s occurred but it’s looking increasingly likely that the House of Commons will reject the withdrawal agreement that prime minister Theresa May brought back with her from Brussels and in so doing, put paid to the Gibraltar Protocol and associated Memoranda of Understanding that have so occupied our minds in recent days.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and Northern Ireland’s DUP, on whom the Conservatives rely to govern, have said they’ll vote against as will around a hundred Tories, unless Mrs May and her whips can persuade them otherwise before next Tuesday’s “meaningful vote”. The prime minister is trying to drum up support for her deal with voters hoping they will urge their constituency MP to support it, but the initiative seems to have backfired, with critics describing it as a desperate move. An online poll by The Times and the Sunday Times suggests that three of every four readers would like their MP to reject the Brexit deal.

With the country facing a possible “no deal” scenario, the idea of a second referendum is gaining currency. At the weekend another minister resigned over what some sectors of the British media are taking to call the “Brussels agreement”. (Not, I daresay, because it’s as unpopular as its 1984 namesake was in Gibraltar, but you never know!)

Sam Gyimah, the science and universities minister, who’s tipped as a future Conservative leader, stepped down saying the plan is not in the national interest and that voting for it would mean the UK surrendering its voice, its vote and its veto. Mr Gyimah asserted that the public had no idea what Brexit meant before the referendum and that the only way of legitimising the UK’s departure was to hold a second vote. His resignation brought to seven the number of government ministers who’ve quit since the draft withdrawal agreement was made public in mid November.

Meanwhile Labour appears to be edging closer to adopting a second referendum as policy. Ideally the party would like to force an early general election, but shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer says if that fails Labour will seek parliamentary support for a people’s vote instead. In that eventuality he considers voters should be given the choice of staying in the EU. Sir Keir is among a group of shadow cabinet members, who include deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd, that is pressing Jeremy Corbyn to prepare to campaign for a second referendum.

And that’s not all.

The LibDems and the Green Party both want a people’s vote. A cross-party group of 17 influential MPs from constituencies that voted both Leave and Remain in the referendum have signed a letter calling on “all party leaders and parliament to trust the people with the final say so we can face the future united”. They say the people must be given “their rightful seat at the table”. And on Monday two petitions with over a million signatures calling for a second referendum were handed in at 10 Downing Street. Even Theresa May, for whom the mere mention of a second referendum was once taboo, now openly cites it as one of the options, alongside “her” deal and “no” deal.

Locally, the GSD opposition has said it would welcome a fresh referendum and chief minister Fabian Picardo is also beginning to talk about the possibility of having one. On Viewpoint last week he said that if it comes to a second vote, people should hold their noses and vote remain once again even though the institutions of the EU have behaved “abominably” towards Gibraltar.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the outcome would be reversed. For all we know the Brexiteers would win again, but somehow I don’t think so. Nearly three quarters of a million people demanded a Final Say when they marched through London in October and opinion polls consistently indicate that the electorate wants another opportunity. A YouGov poll published last Sunday showed support for staying in the EU at the highest level recorded by the company since the 2016 referendum: 55% compared with 45% for leaving.

Holding a second EU referendum would be controversial and fraught with difficulties. But for Gibraltar, as much as for the UK, it might just be the best way out of the Brexit quagmire.

(First published as an opinion piece in the Gibraltar Chronicle of 5 December, 2018)

 

With the Brexit dust settled, where does Gibraltar stand?

So, now the dust has settled where does Gibraltar stand?

I’m talking about Brexit of course, and the conflicting views as to whether Spain actually gained anything from its eleventh-hour strop that threatened to derail last Sunday’s European summit at which the draft withdrawal agreement and the political declaration for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union were endorsed.

On the eve of the summit, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez grandly announced that he was lifting his so-called veto on the talks taking place because he’d extracted “historic” and “transcendental” concessions that would eventually lead to the resolution of the 300 year old dispute over Gibraltar, no less.

In truth I was a little concerned as I heard him live on television, and there are reasons to be wary. If, against the odds, the House of Commons approves the withdrawal agreement, there’ll be a transition period after which negotiations will enter the “future relationship” phase. At that point Spain would indeed be able to block any trade deal. Not arising out of anything that happened last weekend, but because future EU/UK agreements require unanimous approval. Each member state, not only Spain, would thus have a veto.

Some commentators have been highly critical of what they see as a British climbdown. Writing in The Independent, Sean O’Grady says “the fate of Gibraltar – constitutional, economic and political – is now subject to a foreign power with the force of the EU behind it”. Meanwhile the chairman of Lawyers for Britain, Martin Howe QC, considers that prime minister Theresa May’s “loud and voluble protestations that she will protect Gibraltar from Spanish incursions into its sovereignty are completely worthless, because she is handing to Spain the legal power to insist on its terms for Gibraltar as its price for allowing the UK to escape from the disastrous (Irish) backstop Protocol”.

It was concerning, too, to hear European Commission president Jean- Claude Junker say that the EU was “with Spain”. If that’s true today, how much more so will it be the case after the UK leaves the club and he no longer has to carry out a balancing act between two of its members?

Nevertheless the EU declined to reopen the negotiations, as Pedro Sánchez would have liked, to insert a clause giving Spain the power to veto the application to Gibraltar of any future agreement between the EU and the UK. For all his bluster and bravado, the legally binding withdrawal agreement remained unaltered as did the political declaration.

As chief minister Fabian Picardo pointed out in his televised message on Sunday night, “Spain has had to accept a clarification which does not have the weight of legal value that it sought”. And he dismissed declarations that the Spanish premier said he’d agreed with other member states as “pieces of paper that will have no legal effect”.

My initial worries were also substantially allayed when I saw the reaction of Spain’s opposition parties and much of the press. For the PP, the agreements are “shameful” and “a historic failure”, while deploying a footballing analogy, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said Mr Sánchez had taken his eye off the ball and conceded a last-minute goal.

Most of all, Theresa May has been steadfast and resolute. “Our message to the people of Gibraltar is clear”, she told MPs on Monday. “We will always stand by you. We are proud that Gibraltar is British, and our position on sovereignty has not and will not change”. For now, that’s good enough for me.

Spain Will Always be Spain

So much for Spanish goodwill in the Brexit process.

Barely a month ago the chief minister, Fabian Picardo, told parliament that he welcomed prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s “positive approach” to the discussions that left to one side the question of Gibraltar’s sovereignty. A beleaguered Theresa May even held up the (supposed) progress over Gibraltar as an example of how she was making headway in the Brexit negotiations.

Less than 48 hours ago, however, reality bit.

Ahead of a European Council meeting this coming Sunday that’s supposed to endorse the UK/EU draft Withdrawal Agreement, the Spanish government said it would not back the deal unless it’s clarified that separate discussions over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union will not apply to Gibraltar.

Madrid objects to clause 184 of the draft agreement. This asks the EU and the UK to “use their best endeavours … to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship”. As the draft agreement states in article 3(b) that any reference to the term “United Kingdom” includes Gibraltar, the Spanish government is concerned that Gibraltar will de facto be included in any “future relationship” agreement. This would frustrate Spain’s reported intention to revive its joint sovereignty proposal once the UK has left the EU.

To its credit Downing Street immediately backed the Rock. It emphasised that Gibraltar (as well as the other overseas territories and the Crown dependencies) would not be excluded from negotiations on the future relationship and said they would get a deal “that works for the whole UK family”.

Nevertheless these developments don’t augur well for the Withdrawal Agreement. Not only do they put the UK on a collision course with Spain, they also risk prompting other EU member states, some of which consider the EU has been too lenient with the UK, to look more closely at the agreement’s terms before giving them the green light.

Even if they do, it’s quite possible the UK itself will not.

The proposed deal was savaged by MPs from all sides when the prime minister presented it to parliament and it provoked a rash of resignations including that of Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.

It might not even be Theresa May who’s in the hot seat for the “meaningful vote” if and when it gets to the Commons. If 48 or more Conservative MPs submit letters of “no confidence” in her a vote of confidence will be triggered among all Tory MPs. If she wins, she’ll be safe for a year. But if she loses, there’ll be a leadership contest and Mrs May will be ineligible to stand. Heaven only knows what would happen with Brexit in that scenario.

I have numerous misgivings about the Gibraltar Protocol that forms part of the draft Withdrawal Agreement.

Why, for instance, does it oblige Gibraltar to put in place a tax system aimed at “preventing fraudulent activities”, not just in respect of tobacco, but alcohol and petrol too?

On what basis are we given a deadline (30 June, 2020) for adopting certain international tobacco measures while Spain is allowed to maintain the status quo in relation to Gibraltar’s exclusion from EU civil aviation measures?

And how come there so many clauses that smack of bilateralism through the back door? One example: “Spain and the United Kingdom in respect of Gibraltar shall establish the forms of cooperation necessary to achieve full transparency in tax matters ”.

The way things are shaping up though it may all be academic. The Withdrawal Agreement and its as yet unpublished Memoranda of Understanding may never see the light of day, and we’ll be back to square one.

The UK would then have to face the prospect of a no deal or put the whole Brexit question back to the people in a second referendum.

Here’s hoping!

Non-Identical Twins

Do you know what cities Gibraltar is twinned with? Kingston, Jamaica is probably fresh in the mind as the twinning ceremony was held just a couple of months ago and attended by survivors from the two thousand strong contingent of Gibraltarians who were evacuated to the Caribbean island during World War II.

Funchal and Ballymena are sister cities of ours for the same reason. Around 2,000 evacuees spent their time away from their homeland in the Madeiran capital, while 5,000 made the journey to Northern Ireland in 1944 after it was decided that London, where they were first sent, was too dangerous.

There’s no such logical explanation, however, for our “temporary” and rather random twinning with Goole. With a population of around 20,000 this Yorkshire town’s main claim to fame is that it’s the UK’s furthest inland port, 45 miles from the North Sea. Other than its smallness and its docks it would appear to have little else in common with Gibraltar. So how did it end up associated with the Rock?

Believe it or not the answer lies in the constitutional conference that eventually spawned the 1969 Constitution. In the climate of anxiety that reigned at the time Labour peer Lord Shepherd, who chaired the conference, suggested twinning Gibraltar with a British city. He saw it as a way of reassuring a nervous population that Britain would stand by them in the face of mounting Spanish hostility. He also floated the possibility of granting the Rock the status of “Royal City”. The idea went down well, with chief minister Sir Joshua Hassan saying it would satisfy the Gibraltarians’ desire for a “special and unique civic status”.

The problem was that neither he nor Lord Shepherd fully understood what they might be getting into. Sir Joshua was reportedly under the impression that what was being offered was a unique favour, oblivious of the fact that there were already some 400 twin-town arrangements in Britain. And Lord Shepherd was soon told that Gibraltar becoming a royal city was “a non-starter”, because it might start a movement among other cities that would be hard to handle. Hopes that London could be chosen as our twin were also dashed as it was considered too big.

Instead, as reported by The Telegraph newspaper, a port city like Plymouth or Portsmouth was suggested. Neither was keen because locals saw twinning arrangements as “little more than an excuse for civic junketings”. As one option after another fell by the wayside, Goole offered itself as a ”twin”. Why you may wonder? Well, the local MP was a certain George Jeger who had personal ties to the Rock and has a block of flats named after him in Glacis Estate. Goole House in the same estate is a further testimony to the bond between the two cities in the 1960s and 70s.

A formal twinning never occurred though.

As The Telegraph said: “Given the attitude of Sir Joshua Hassan and his colleagues to the offer of anything other than the City of London, the Commonwealth Office mandarins decided that discretion was the better part of diplomacy”. To this day Gibraltar remains untwinned with any British city.

 

Cannabis Considerations

More than thirty countries around the world have legalised the use of medicinal cannabis, from Australia to Argentina, Italy to Israel. The UK has now joined them. As of 1st November nearly 80,000 specialist doctors in England, Wales and Scotland are allowed to prescribe unlicensed medical cannabis that, in normal circumstances, would be illegal (because they contain THC, the major psychoactive constituent of cannabis – what gives users their “high”).

This is not the case in Gibraltar. Here clinicians have recourse to just two cannabis-derived medicines that, until recently, were the only ones authorised in the UK: Nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid used in the hospital to stop vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy and Sativex, a spray that may only be prescribed by a neurologist or specialist in the management of multiple sclerosis. Nabilone is neither routinely prescribed nor stocked in Gibraltar, while just five GHA patients are presently being treated with Sativex.

Should we emulate the UK and make more cannabis medicines available on prescription to more people, with more diverse conditions, like chronic pain or epilepsy?

Local campaigners say we should, and that the government ought to start by allowing doctors to prescribe CBD oil. Not to be confused with cannabis oil, which remains illegal, CBD oil contains less than 0.3% THC and is not psychoactive. It’s widely available over the counter in pharmacies and health stores but is expensive. A 30ml bottle of 2.75% strength CBD costs £47.99 in Holland & Barrett while the 5% flask will set you back £71.99. Not everyone can afford it.

There’s little doubt that legalising medical cannabis would be a popular move. An overwhelming 85% of respondents in a February 2017 survey conducted by GBC were in favour of it, while more and more people have been taking CBD oil since its use was authorised just under a year ago. Don’t take my word for it: Holland & Barrett told me that despite the cost, it’s their best selling product.

An interesting development in the UK is that, with the advent of medical legalisation, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favour of the full legalisation of cannabis. Whereas in May, support and opposition were almost even at 43% and 41% respectively, a Populus poll last month found that 59% of the British public would now support cannabis being legal for both medicinal and recreational use. Only one third of the population think the sale and possession of the drug should remain a criminal offence and an online poll calling for cannabis to be made legal for medical and recreational purposes attracted more than 25,000 signatures.

Curiously the cited GBC poll yielded the same narrow 2% difference as last May’s UK survey, with 46% against full legalisation and 44% in favour. We can’t know whether making cannabis legal for medical use in Gibraltar would result in a dramatic change of attitude towards full legalisation as seems to have occurred in Britain. But supporters of medical cannabis will be hoping the government decides to cross that bridge if and when it comes to it.

Stay the course, Pedro

Quite a few years ago, in the pre GSLP/Liberals Alliance days, the Panorama newspaper ran a front-page headline that read, “God help Gibraltar if this GSLP lot are ever elected to Government”.

It would be the perfect headline today with “PP” in place of “GSLP”, as a return to office by the Partido Popular in Spain would surely set off alarm bells locally.

Under new leader Pablo Casado the party has moved further to the right from where Mariano Rajoy left it.

Pablo Casado

Renowned political philosopher and author José Luis Villacañas says Sr Casado’s discourse incorporates several of the reactionary tenets of the Spanish right, including an emphasis on Catholicism, the secondary role of women and a stress on the unity of the Spanish nation, while for historian Antonio Elorza, Sr Casado represents the comeback of the reactionary PP typified by a heavy hand in Catalonia and repressive legislation. Emboldened, our old foe José Manuel García- Margallo has even tried to dust down his unwanted joint sovereignty proposals.

Despair not though dear reader!

The latest opinion poll by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, the Centre for Sociological Studies (CIS), suggests that the PP and Sr Casado have their work cut out if they’re to oust the socialists at the next general election, due by July 2020 at the latest. The poll has the PSOE on 31.6% support compared with 18.2% for the Partido Popular, which has Unidos Podemos snapping at its heels less than one percentage point behind. The not-so-“Populares” have actually slipped to third in the rankings behind Ciudadanos who are on 21%. Taken together the centre-left, with 48.9% support, is nearly ten points clear of the centre-right (39.2%).

Meanwhile, asked whom they would prefer as their prime minister 25.8% of respondents chose the PSOE leader and present incumbent Pedro Sánchez. 16.9% went for Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos, while Pablo Casado and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias were neck and neck on less than 11% each.

So should Sr Sánchez, who heads a minority government, call an early election? The answer is … probably not. The CIS polls aside (September’s also gave the PSOE a big lead), most others are much tighter, and one actually had the PP ahead.

And the CIS’s credibility has been questioned because the new boss, José Félix Tezanos, is a former PSOE federal executive member who was reluctant to step down when he was appointed to the CIS in June. Detractors say his methodology gives the PSOE an unfair advantage and therefore skews the results.

Nevertheless the overall trend indicates growing support for the PSOE at the expense of the PP, which may incline Pedro Sánchez to bide his time. The Catalan crisis also urges caution.

From Gibraltar’s point of view restraint is a good thing. A strengthened socialist government with a fresh four-year mandate would doubtless be welcome. But the prospect that Spain might change horses in midstream and elect a hardline PP or Ciudadanos administration, with Brexit looming, just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Stay the course, Pedro!

Give Footballing Credit Where It’s Due

Gibraltar’s magnificent results on the football pitch this month got me thinking about the battles that had to be won off it before our national team could take part in competitions like this year’s inaugural UEFA Nations League. It took 16 years and four cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for the Gibraltar Football Association to be admitted as a full member of Europe’s governing body in 2013 and another three years before it gained entry to FIFA.

On both occasions the chief minister, Fabian Picardo, praised Attorney General and GFA president Michael Llamas QC for his crucial work. After the 2-1 win against Liechtenstein Mr Picardo tweeted:

“Incredible & inspiring GFA result tonight at home in #Gibraltar. When you see our children dreaming the #GFA football dream & celebrating the goals and the win, all that long battle for membership of UEFA & FIFA led by Michael Llamas is so worth it!”

Undoubtedly Michael, whom I’ve known since childhood when our families pitched their tents in the same patch of Eastern Beach, was a key figure in Gibraltar’s legal struggles. But I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge the role played by our mutual friend, and past GFA president, Joey Nuñez. In reply to the mentioned chief minister’s tweet I described the self-effacing Mr Nuñez (hence no photo) as the “unsung hero of our success” and that is what I believe he is.

The GFA, with Andrew Perera as president, first applied to join FIFA in 1991, but that bid was rejected out of hand. In January 1997 the GFA Council applied again and it was left to Mr Nuñez, who succeeded Mr Perera that summer, to prepare and file the report in support of the application. A barrister by profession, one of his first acts was to redraft the GFA Statutes to make them compatible with FIFA requirements.

It soon became apparent to him that this was not to be an easy ride. FIFA said the GFA would first have to be admitted into UEFA where Spain, an influential member, would do everything in its power to thwart the bid. For four years Mr Nuñez lobbied, attended meetings, wrote letters and reports, gave presentations and did everything in his power to secure UEFA membership for the GFA. As he told CAS in November 2002 in the first of several witness statements to the court: “I have (since October 1997) been the person within the GFA who, at all times, has had control and conduct of the GFA’s applications for FIFA and UEFA”.

At a meeting at UEFA’s offices in Nyon, Switzerland in October 2001 Mr Nuñez says he and GFA Secretary Albert Buhagiar were repeatedly told, “that the GFA’s application for membership was dead … because of the political connotations of the GFA’s case and the political pressure placed on UEFA”.

That’s when Mr Nuñez concluded that the GFA had been left with no alternative but to commence legal proceedings against UEFA, “in order to safeguard its rights and interests … and in order to protect the future development of the sport in Gibraltar”. He approached the GSD government for financial support and was told to get the best legal representation possible to plead Gibraltar’s case. Mr Nuñez obliged, engaging the services of eminent barrister Michael Beloff QC of Blackstone Chambers, London, whom Legal 500 described as “The Godfather of Sports Law”. Mr Nuñez continued to work closely with Mr Beloff and his associate Adam Lewis QC throughout.

The rest, as they say, is history. The GFA was finally granted full membership of UEFA on 24 May 2013 and FIFA on 13 May 2016. Since then Gibraltar has taken part in qualifying campaigns for the European Championships and the World Cup, as well as the Nations League with the thrilling victories against Armenia and Liechtenstein. Local club sides have participated in the qualifying rounds of the Europa and Champions Leagues (who can forget Lincoln Red Imps’ famous 1-0 defeat of Celtic in 2016?).

We now have our stars: Lee Casciaro who got that goal against Celtic, national coach Julio Ribas, Kyle Goldwin and his heroics in goal, the inspiring captaincy of Roy Chipolina.

Yet none of them would have had the opportunity to shine had it not been for the dedication, courage and tenacity demonstrated by Joey Nuñez at a time, all those years ago, when the notion of Gibraltar playing competitively against the likes of Germany and Belgium would have been little more than a pipe dream. It’s high time our unsung hero’s contribution was officially recognised.

My Sound

I’ve had lots of positive feedback to my appearance as a guest recently on GBC Television’s Your Sound programme. It was great to chat to Guy Valarino about my favourite album, and my taste in music generally. Turns out a lot more people enjoy progressive rock, or ‘Prog’ as it’s called these days, than I’d realised.

One of the things we talked about was discovering new music, which I  wrote about in a previous post.

Why not drop me a line and tell me about your favourite bands and artists? I’d love to hear from you.

The Dialogue of the Deaf

Another United Nations session, another dialogue of the deaf.

At least this year members of the Fourth Committee heard a different voice from both Spain and Gibraltar. Agustín Santos Maraver was only appointed UN ambassador in August, while deputy chief minister Joseph Garcia was an eleventh-hour replacement for chief minister Fabian Picardo who travelled to London instead of New York for Brexit-related meetings.

Señor Santos’s speech must have gone down better, laced as it was with flattery. He commended the “important work” carried out by the Committee, ignoring the fact that the failure of the International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism in the 1990s simply led to a Second Decade and then a Third, with just one territory (East Timor) removed in all that time from the UN list of non-self-governing territories.

Joseph Garcia on the other hand nailed it. “The process of decolonisation has now almost ground to a halt”, he declared. At the present rate it would take the Committee 510 years to complete its work.

The Spanish ambassador’s address has been described locally as “nuanced” but it was still pretty unfriendly, containing the usual gripes about Gibraltar’s tax system and tobacco smuggling. Nevertheless Sr. Santos claimed that Spain remains open to dialogue.

Well, here was a golden opportunity to prove it and announce Madrid’s willingness to return to the Tripartite Forum that was established when his party, the PSOE, was last in power. But what does he do? He bemoans that the long-dead Brussels Process was “unilaterally” suspended by the UK. No matter that the much more recent Trilateral Forum which delivered, among other things, the Spanish pensions deal, was scuppered just as unilaterally by the previous Partido Popular government.

Thankfully, in his right of reply, the UK representative Tim Sylvester reminded him that it was Spain that withdrew formally from those talks in 2011. He also rejected the ambassador’s hostile assertion that the waters around Gibraltar “remain under Spanish sovereignty”, warning that the UK “will continue to uphold British sovereignty and use a range of proportionate naval and diplomatic responses to illegal incursions by Spanish state vessels into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters”.

The ambassador blamed Britain for the existence of the “last colony in Europe” and said this was all the more unjustifiable given that in many respects the UK is a friend and partner. Had he been minded to, Mr Sylvester could have pointed out that both countries are NATO allies, yet the Spanish government still forbids UK military aircraft from entering Spanish airspace. Justify that.

In one of his less positive nuances, Sr. Santos studiously avoided calling the Rock’s inhabitants “Gibraltarians”. We are merely the “local population of Gibraltar”, because the “authentic” Gibraltarians were the Spaniards who fled or, in his words, were “expelled” by the British in 1704.

All in all, rather a strange way to go about wooing someone to the negotiating table.

And the UN hasn’t covered itself in glory either.

It has not responded to repeated requests that it send a visiting mission to Gibraltar.

It has not told us what changes, if any, are required to the 2006 Constitution in order to secure Gibraltar’s removal from the list of non-self-governing territories. And there is silence on our delisting.

“It’s almost as if the United Nations does not want to work with us”, Joseph Garcia lamented.

As I say, the dialogue of the deaf.

When I interviewed Sir Joshua Hassan as a rookie reporter in the mid 1980s the UN had for the umpteenth time adopted its annual consensus decision on Gibraltar. He brushed it aside. Every year they meet, every year they talk and every year they publish more or less the same text, he said. Then they forget about it until the following year, when they do it all over again.

Maybe we should be just as relaxed about remaining on the UN list.

Our Star Striker?

No wonder the chief minister was chuffed. For the first time, the prime minister was among MPs and other guests present at a Gibraltar government reception during the UK’s party conference season. As the Conservatives’ annual get-together was getting underway in Birmingham, Theresa May herself popped round to pledge the Tories’ support for the Rock in the approaching Brexit endgame. Cue oohs and aahs from the floor.

Introducing her, Fabian Picardo said his team had instantly got to work with Team May after the EU referendum. “We knew that Theresa May had our back”, he enthused. She was Gibraltar’s “champion” and “star striker”. Centre-forwards may traditionally wear the number nine shirt but Downing Street’s most famous denizen was “our Number 10”, and that was the number emblazoned on the back of the GFA jersey Mr Picardo gave her.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt got one too

It must have been music to her ears. With Boris “Chuck Chequers” Johnson snapping at her heels and the British press openly speculating about her likely successor (Mr Johnson favourite at 4/1) the prime minister was, to her relief, among friends. It reminded me of the scenario facing her predecessor David Cameron when he visited Gibraltar just days before the 2016 referendum. By then there had been a surge in support for the Leave campaign, which was slightly ahead in the polls, and attending a mass rally of flag-waving, pro-Remain Gibraltarians would have been the ideal antidote to the doom and gloom surrounding him at home. Regrettably it was not to be. Campaigning was suspended following the murder that same day of Labour MP Jo Cox. Nevertheless it’s a racing certainty that Mr Cameron would have expressed his government’s support for the Rock.

Theresa May did so too. “We back Gibraltar alongside the United Kingdom”, she said at the reception. “And as we go forward together, as Brexit becomes that reality when we leave the EU, as we forge global Britain, Gibraltar will be part of that global Britain alongside us, ensuring that you too in Gibraltar have a brighter future”.

Fine words that go down well in a public gathering. But let’s reflect on them in the sober light of day. With Brexit less than six months away, no one’s any the wiser as to what “global Britain” will look like nor, indeed, whether it will benefit Gibraltar to be a part of it. And if Brexit results in a hard border with La Línea it’s hard to imagine a brighter future. Ask any businessman.

I was disappointed by the prime minister’s references in her address to Gibraltar’s “interests” rather than its “wishes”. It’s usually Spain that, presumably thinking it knows them better than us, speaks about safeguarding the interests of the Gibraltarians (see the 1980 Lisbon Agreement for instance). The UK, on the other hand, is committed to respecting our wishes, as stated in the preambles to the 1969 and 2006 Constitutions.

Also surprising was Mrs May’s apparent uncertainty about for how long Gibraltar has been British. “I think it’s 300 years the UK and Gibraltar have stood shoulder to shoulder?” she inquires of Mr Picardo, who nods. It’s not rhetorical; check the video on YouTube. Hardly the most convincing way to go about reassuring a concerned community that your commitment to them is rock solid.

Remember too that the prime minister chose not to specifically mention Gibraltar in her March 2017 letter triggering the Brexit process, despite having privately been urged to do so by our chief minister.

“Gibraltar is rooting for Theresa May to succeed. The British family of nations needs Theresa May to succeed”, Mr Picardo declared in Birmingham.

For all our sakes let’s hope his confidence in her is well founded.