Friday 14 June 2024

The experimental laboratory of post-Brexit politics

When the election campaign began, I remarked that it had the strange quality of feeling both long overdue and prematurely announced. Now, just three weeks in, it feels as if it has been interminable, and it is still only half way through. Those things are linked, because the reality is that politics had been in campaign mode for many months before the election.

Against that background, it’s hardly surprising that the media have piled attention on to Nigel Farage ever since his belated and self-important “emergency announcement” that he would stand in the election, and take over formal leadership of Reform UK. That’s not to imply that this should not have been treated as a significant development but even if it hadn’t been, and even if Farage wasn’t so adept at media manipulation, it’s hard to criticize reporters for latching on to it given that the campaign as a whole is really quite boring. The only other outlet for their skills is filing stories on Rishi Sunak’s increasingly egregious errors of judgement.

That gives them plenty of work but, other than that, the journalistic pickings are slim. Focus group-tested slogans are repetitiously ground out on the basis, apparently, that because voters tune in so briefly and infrequently, politicians must ensure that, at any given moment, they can be heard giving their key messages. Even Farage’s supposedly anti-Establishment shtick is wearisomely familiar. A career politician parachuted in to a place of which he knows little and cares less, his shop-soiled iconoclasm is as tired and grubby as his raincoat. As for his key message, there’s no danger of missing that. Once he told us that all he wanted was to leave the EU, and to have an ‘Aussie-style’ immigration system. Now he has that, but here he still is, still going on about immigration. But actually that’s not his key message. His key message is: look at me, making the Conservatives and ‘the Establishment’ panic.

That transparent neediness may be repellent, but is at least recognizably human – even if its ‘make Daddy suffer/ remember me’ roots present little psychological mystery - compared with Sunak’s robotic insistence that he “has a plan” for “bold action”, which makes even the poor old MayBot seem like a better candidate for the Turing Test. Meanwhile, the strained, wooden earnestness with which Keir Starmer promises that “change” is coming resembles nothing so much as a man in the ‘before’ image of a laxative advert. It's true that the other party leaders are a bit more dynamic, and Ed Davey, in particular, is hitting some authentic notes of seriousness along with appearing to genuinely enjoy some amusing stunts. In some ways it is easier for them as they get less exposure, so the repetitions are less obvious, and, in any case, they don’t face quite the same pressure to ‘look Prime Ministerial’.

Beneath the boredom

Beyond all this lies a deeper issue. If this campaign is boring, then it is because the main parties are determined to avoid discussing the really serious problems this country faces, and the unpalatable choices that it has to make. Their refusal to talk honestly about economic policy has been made quite forcibly by Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, although it’s worth recalling that he said the same during the 2017 and the 2019 elections. Perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. It’s not clear that the media, still less the general public, have much appetite for political honesty, for all that they bemoan politicians not providing it.

The same may be true of the related refusal to talk much about Brexit, which has also been widely remarked upon, and which I’ve discussed previously*. This was on display this week in the Tory manifesto, which followed very much the lines I anticipated in that post, but even more strikingly in Labour’s which said even less than I'd expected about the subject (N.B. I have written a separate page discussing in detail what each of the party manifestos says about Brexit). 

However, in one way, this is in itself an illustration of one of the biggest flaws in Brexit. For what it shows is that, across huge swathes of policy, and especially those policies that electors most care about, EU membership was largely irrelevant. The policy issues being discussed now are very much the same as they were before we left the EU or would have been had we stayed in. The idea that our national politics and sovereignty had somehow been made irrelevant by Brussels was always nonsense. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the taboo about discussing the new problems that Brexit has added to those familiar policy issues has added a new layer of dishonesty to political discourse.

The dishonesty of Nigel Farage

This dishonesty most certainly extends to Farage and his Reform Party. He simply disowns Brexit as having been betrayed by the Tories, as if it happened despite him, and could have been done in some better way by him. But this ignores the fact that at the last election he gave his support to the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson had negotiated, as well as voting for it, as a Brexit Party MEP, in the European Parliament. It ignores the fact that the subsequent ‘Canada-style’ trade agreement was the outcome he favoured and, as I mentioned earlier, it ignores the fact that immigration is now subject to an ‘Aussie-style points system’ which he used to say he supported. He is as responsible as anyone not just for Brexit, but for Brexit in the precise form it took.

Moreover, whilst he now wants to make this an ‘election about immigration’, his ‘net zero’ immigration policy is utterly dishonest in refusing to accept what its economic consequences would be. The reason why the Tories have never come anywhere near meeting what used to be their immigration caps, and recently oversaw such an increase in net migration, isn’t because they lacked hostility to immigration. Quite the contrary. It’s because, in government, they were forced to recognize that the consequences of significantly reducing it would be impossibly damaging. The stock anti-immigration argument that labour shortages can be met from domestic unemployment founders on the reality that there are simply not enough unemployed people to do so, and that, even with better training, there are not enough people with, or able to acquire, the right skills, and this is going to get worse as the population ages.

Similarly, the reason the Tories didn’t simply follow Reform’s policy of dumping the small boat arrivals ‘back in France’ wasn’t because of any lack of desire to do so but because, when they embarked on such a policy, they found that it simply isn’t possible. Yet it remains Reform’s policy, and their website even states that the UK is “legally allowed to do this under international treaties”, which is essentially untrue. It is a position that can only be advocated by those who do not have to take responsibility for practical delivery. In this, Farage and Reform are every bit as dishonest with the electorate as the ‘Establishment politicians’ they affect to despise.

Worse than that, over immigration in particular, the Tories and the various parties Farage has fronted over the years have co-conspired to stoke grievances. One of the most incisive Conservative commentators, John Oxley, recently wrote that “for twenty years or so the Tory Party has been trying and failing to find an answer to Farage”. That attempt has included repeatedly making undeliverable promises about immigration to head off the Farage challenge, with the invariable result of feeding that challenge when the promises are not kept. Brexit is the same story, writ large.

This is a large part of the reason for this week’s reports that public trust in government and politicians is at an all-time low, and whilst the Tory-Farage death dance is central to that, Labour can scarcely be exonerated. At least and since Gordon Brown’s ‘Mrs Duffy moment’ of 2010, which has haunted them ever since, they too have  basically accepted the analysis that immigration is at best a necessary evil to be avoided so far as possible by increasing the domestic labour supply. The potential difference, at this election, is that they at least seem to grasp that there is an alternative strategy, based on increasing investment and productivity, as Rachel Reeves’ recent Mais Lecture, amongst other things, makes clear.  Whether they can deliver this in government, especially given the growth constraints entailed by their Brexit policy, remains to be seen. The kinds of measures they envisage, such as planning reform and a very diluted form of Bidenomics, don’t look to me to have enough firepower, but they might get lucky if global factors fall in their favour.

At all events, what is crucial is that it will now be Labour which faces the realities being in government imposes. That won’t be the case for the Tories, who are set to enter the world of Brexitist fantasy.

The Conservative implosion

What is now emerging as the key sub-plot of this election – given that the broad overall outcome seems almost assured – is the battle for the post-election meaning of British conservatism. I anticipated, back in February 2023, that this would occur, assuming the Tory Party lost the election. What I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which the party would so visibly fall apart prior to the election (this also means that whereas in my previous post I wrote about the election being “quietly” about Brexitism, it is now much more noisily so). As both a cause and a consequence, this has emboldened Farage to launch what he now admits is an attempt to take it over, with the first step being to ensure that an almost certain defeat becomes an electoral wipe-out.

Whether or not he, himself, becomes the leader of what emerges from the fall out, then it will be a Brexitist party. That is, in brief summary: it will have commitment to Brexit as its bedrock value; will espouse ‘Brexit 2.0’ policies, most notably ECHR derogation and of course anti-immigration and anti-refugee measures; will prize ‘true belief’ over evidence and rationality in policymaking; and will embrace the vicious nostalgia, which I’ve written about before, of a return to an imagined, sanitized past of social order and mono-culturalism, in which there is no climate crisis and no ‘wokery’.

It is important to understand that this means not just expunging the last remnants of ‘one nation’, ‘pragmatic’ or ‘liberal’ Toryism, but also a rejection of Sunak’s brand of pro-Brexit but fiscally orthodox and ‘globalist’ Conservatism. Notably, one of the few things the Tories have done since 2019 which Farage approved of was Truss’s ‘anti-Establishment’, ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget. The Brexitists want Sunak to lose, and to lose big.

Farage is able to be quite open about this, to the dismay of Tory Brexitists like Andrea Jenkyns, who has been squealing this week about the unfairness of Reform standing a candidate against ‘true Conservatives’ such as her, with the aim of ‘destroying the Conservative Party’. It seems to escape her that for years, and even in the actual statement she made, she and her fellow ‘true Conservatives’, in their various factions, have laid the ground for this with their endless denunciations of their own party. As the internet meme has it, she evidently didn’t expect the leopard to eat her face.

Meanwhile, other Brexitists think, to use a different ‘big cat’ analogy, that they can ride the tiger, with Jacob Rees-Mogg proposing (£), not for the first time, an electoral pact between the two parties. Suella Braverman has gone even further in calling for the Tories to “embrace Nigel Farage” to “unite the right”, to the extent of seemingly suggesting a formal merger. That’s unlikely to happen before the election, but it can’t be ruled out that Farage will do some kind of deal whereby Reform stands down its candidates in seats held by Tory Brexitists, with or without reciprocation, in the hope of then taking over a compliant party.

But there are other actors at work. Astonishingly, four Tory MPs, including Jenkyns, have accepted £5000 donations from the backer of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party in exchange for signing up to its key pledges, including a commitment to leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). What is astonishing isn’t so much that they have done so in defiance of the Tory Party HQ. That is just a further sign of the collapse of the party, and it may be that other MPs will do the same thing. Rather, it is astonishing because Fox, of all people, is being spoken of by Jenkyns as taking “a grown-up approach” in contrast to Reform’s divisive ‘sabotage’. Equally bizarrely, at the same time Jenkyns is using images of her with Nigel Farage on her campaign literature, violating her own party’s code of conduct as well as aligning her with the party whose conduct she condemns. Her spokesperson sought to explain it by saying that “Andrea is above all, a patriot”, but more obvious nouns are all too readily available.

How much of this will burst into an even more open conflict before the election remains to be seen. The Conservative manifesto launch on Tuesday promised to lower immigration, and made very vague reference to the European Court of Human Rights (not even the Convention), implying any future judgments it makes in relation to the Rwanda policy might be ignored. But this just underscored the trap the party is in. Such positions alienate more liberal conservatives, putting the ‘Blue wall’ seats under greater threat to, especially, the LibDem challenge, whilst being nowhere near enough to satisfy Brexitists. Even before it was published, they were threatening to produce a ‘rebel manifesto’ if the official one doesn’t shift the opinion polls (which seems unlikely). Yet the fact is that, even if Sunak were to commit to ECHR derogation, the Brexitists’ hallmark policy, they wouldn’t be satisfied, and would demand something else. This is part of what makes it Brexitism – it is exactly the same pattern of behaviour the Brexit Ultras showed as regards Brexit itself.

The laboratory of post-Brexit politics

All of this is just a small taste of the maelstrom that is going to engulf the Tories assuming they lose the election. It won’t involve most of us, except as spectators, but voters in the current election can shape it. Firstly, the greater the scale of the Tory defeat the more intense will be the crisis of the party. In this sense, it will be important whether or not voters conclude that since a Labour victory seems guaranteed, they need not bother to vote or, alternatively, that they vote Tory so as to deny Labour a ‘blank cheque’ (a line the Tories are starting to push hard). Secondly, although it would not deny him any post-election role, if Farage loses in Clacton that would be an important symbolic failure, and would, in some hard to predict ways, shape what then happens to the Tories.

As for that, there’s every chance that what will emerge will be a party with an appeal so narrow as to be unelectable, but it can’t be assumed that this will be so. I don’t see Farage as very likely to lead it to success, whatever happens in Clacton, not least because he is now such a familiar face, and one about whom most people have now made up their minds. But a fresh, younger leader might capture the public imagination and, as the EU parliament elections have shown, it also can’t be assumed that right-wing populism only appeals to older voters. If, by 2029, a stodgy Labour government has failed to make any real dent in not just the economic malaise but the wider sense of national distress, a victory by such a party can’t be ruled out. What may well be a huge Labour majority now could easily dissolve with disaffected voters deserting in multiple directions, and a ‘National Conservative’ government emerging from the wreckage without needing a huge share of the national vote.

Admittedly, it is quite absurdly speculative to be talking about the 2029 election when the present one has not yet even been held. But I have a strong sense that even though this election campaign is quite boring, it is also an extremely significant moment in British politics. Or, rather, that its boringness arises from its significance. Before the campaign is over, we will have the eighth anniversary of the referendum, and we are still living through what it has unleashed. Part of that is actually a desire for politics to be more boring, and Starmer’s ‘end the chaos’ message speaks effectively to that. Part of it is a fear, born of the trauma of Brexit, of going anywhere near a big idea. The country pressed the reset button in 2016, and far from solving any problems it has added to them. Most people have little appetite for turning the machine on and off again now.

Yet for others the opposite is true. For some of them, and Farage is certainly one, 2016 was a moment of high excitement, which nothing before or since has given them. They would love to press the button again, and have the thrill again. For others, Brexit has proved a horrible disappointment, and its supposed betrayal one more grievance to add to their list, leaving them ready to angrily jab the button - again and again and again.

So, stale and uninspiring as it may be, underneath that, this election campaign is an expression of post-Brexit politics and is setting up the shape of its next phase. Its underlying drivers are by no means unique to the UK, as shown by the European Parliament elections and, especially, the fall-out from them in France, where there is set to be an open conflict between nationalist populism and liberal centrism. But the dynamics of the conflict are distinctive in the UK, precisely because of Brexit, which is also the reason why Brexitism is a distinctive version of populism. Here, the 2016 referendum already openly enacted that conflict and, narrowly but inescapably, the populists won.

When populists win, their policies can’t deliver what they claimed for them, and that is what happened with Brexit (to the extent that the latest figures show that just 15% of people, and only 31% of those who voted to leave, think that the benefits of it outweigh the negatives). But, in this case, the populists won not simply an election, with the result reversible at the next one. Their policy was not a time-limited domestic one, but an open-ended international re-alignment. What happens when such a policy fails is largely uncharted water, and with this election the UK is starting to map it out. That makes it interesting, at least as an experiment in the laboratory of political science, though disconcerting for those of us who are the lab rats.

 

*In another previous post, I mentioned in passing that Brexit would play a role in the campaign in Northern Ireland, especially for the unionist parties. It’s not a topic I feel qualified to discuss, but there is a very informative expert analysis by Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University on the Comment is Freed Substack.

Friday 31 May 2024

Quietly, an election is being held on Brexitism

In last week’s post, I suggested that we would not hear much about Brexit from the two main parties during the campaign, and so far that has been true. As such, there’s not much more that can be said about their silence, although it shouldn’t be forgotten just how remarkable it is. Apart from anything else, the fact that the Tories are not making much of what was their flagship policy in the last election is perhaps the most damning tacit admission of Brexit’s failure there has been.

However, the word ‘tacit’ is a pointer to the fact that viewing this election solely through the prism of the overt silence about Brexit, infuriating as it may be, is to miss much that is of importance. In particular, for all this overt silence, even in this first week we have seen that there is a covert, but real, discussion underway about, if not Brexit itself, then Brexitism.

Stability is Change

At the most general level, that is evident in Labour’s repeated attacks on ‘Tory chaos’ and their slogan that ‘stability is change’. It was mocked by David Frost last week for its ‘Orwellian’ resonances, but he probably did so because he understands all too well what it implies. For it is a reality that the post-2015 Tory governments have been characterized by instability and, in that sense, that a change is needed to create stability. And that instability is absolutely inseparable from Brexit. The churn of five Prime Ministers since the referendum and, with that, endless changes in ministerial office and of policy direction simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Boris Johnson might have become PM had Brexit not happened and, had he done so, would probably have ended up resigning amidst scandal, as he did. However, his actual path to office was built on Brexit, and his manner of governing, including during the pandemic, grew out of Brexit. Similarly, it was Brexit which caused the wholesale departure of so many non-Brexiter Tory MPs in 2019, and which led to Cabinet posts being conditional on fealty to Brexit rather than competence (Frost’s own otherwise inexplicable elevation being a good example).

As for Liz Truss, her election to the party leadership was predicated on her out-Brexiting the Brexiters, whilst her rapid downfall showed the consequences of doing so. As I recorded at the time, the mini-budget which precipitated that downfall was, in content and execution, the apotheosis of Brexit, whilst her cultism and fanaticism were the embodiment of Brexitism. Rishi Sunak was supposedly the competent and technocratic alternative to both Johnson and Truss, and sometimes, especially as regards the Windsor Framework, he lived up to that. But in other ways he oscillated between technocracy and populism, and in the end it became clear that this wasn’t just weakness or indecision but, as I put it in a recent post, that “his plasticity is not the shiny cover for some deeper core of belief or purpose, it is just all there is to him”.

That has become even more obvious since, but the fact is that, even if it had a far more substantial and adroit politician at the helm, the current Tory Party is unleadable, and it was made so by Brexit. Again to quote myself (I do so only because, having assembled this Brexit record, I might as well use it), during the leadership election which Truss ended up winning:

“When this strange summer ends, it will not herald the end of the period of political instability any more than the events and crises of the summer are peculiar to the season. This isn’t a holiday that has gone horribly wrong, it’s the latest instalment of a reality there is no taking a break from. That political instability began with the 2016 referendum. Having a new Prime Minister is not going to finish, but is a part of, this post-2016 story. I don’t mean that there were no political problems before, but that since then there has been a particular sort of instability and for particular reasons.”

Decoding the campaign

So when Labour presents the last government as one of instability and chaos, that codes, and no doubt many voters decode it to mean, a critique of what Brexit has done to the Tory Party and to the country. A ‘vote for change’ is, at least to that extent, a vote against those particular consequences of Brexit. It is also what lies behind this week’s endorsement of Labour by 120 business leaders, using the same language of a change from instability and inconsistency.

This reflects not just the damage that Brexit has done to businesses but the way that Brexitism has seen the Tories embrace anti-business stances far removed from their erstwhile status as ‘the party of business’, just as they have forfeited their supposed reputation for supposed economic competence. This in turn has enabled Rachel Reeves to say that Labour is now the “natural party of business” and, notably, she conjoined that with the policy of seeking a closer relationship with the EU. For, limited as that policy may be, it is way beyond what the Tories could deliver given the ferocious opposition to such a rapprochement from the Brexit Ultras.

Likewise with Labour’s insistence, much on display this week, that it will ‘put country first, party second’. That might conceivably carry the implication that Brexit was foisted on the country by Tory attempts to see off UKIP. But if that is too much of a stretch, it at least implies a critique of the ferocious infighting amongst Tory sub-groups, most of which grew out of the search for Brexit purity, have Brexit as the touchstone of faith.

Many members of these factions are actually indistinguishable in their beliefs from UKIP’s descendant, Reform UK, as shown by the ease with which Lee Anderson changed party and, just this week, by departing Tory MP Lucy Allan’s endorsement of the Reform candidate in her constituency. It is the existence and conduct of these factions which makes the Tory Party unleadable, ensuring that any leader it may have must either kow-tow to, or tip-toe around, their sensibilities, in the process rendering any regard for the ‘national interest’ secondary.

At the same time, at least part of what lies behind the now almost robotic Tory insistence that they’ve ‘got a plan’ can be read as an attempt to rebut the accusation of chaos. The way that they (and, to an extent, Labour) incant this mantra presumably means that it appeals to focus groups. To some extent perhaps it always would have done, as it’s not unreasonable for voters to expect politicians to have plans for the country. But it is now so relentlessly regurgitated that it suggests such focus groups are revealing a real desperation for a sense of national direction. As such, it can only reflect a perception, which is in fact accurate, that far from providing such direction, Brexit has set the country adrift, a perception which Sunak is at pains to nullify.

Service without a smile

All this is about ‘high-level’ or general messaging, but the covert discussion of Brexit and Brexitism is also already discernible in ‘nitty-gritty’ campaign issues. The early part of this week was dominated by the Tory proposal to, and Sunak put it in precisely these terms, “bring back national service”.

This isn’t the place to discuss what might be the merits of such a policy, if properly constituted. But what is relevant here is its connections with Brexit. One was very direct, in that the estimated £2.5 billion need to fund it is supposed to come partly from that hardy perennial of ‘cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion’, and partly by winding down the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ which was supposed to replace EU funds and to be central to the post-Brexit ‘levelling up’ strategy. What then of that commitment and that strategy?

That aside, it is a very ‘Brexity’ policy, in being designed to appeal to the kind of ‘I want my country back’ nostalgia associated with Brexit and, more pertinent to the current election, to wavering Reform voters. For all that commentators like Nick Timothy (£) have bemoaned the “hysteria” of those ignoring that the proposal isn’t for universal military conscription, Sunak’s very framing of it as ‘bringing back national service”, as if it was the restoration of the old system, shows that this was its intended resonance.

As such, it was intended to win votes (it’s possible of course, given his record, that Timothy doesn’t understand that election campaigns are intended to win votes), and the votes it is intended to win are those of the demographic that most supported Brexit. But there is a subtle distinction to be drawn between policies aimed at this demographic because of its age per se, most obviously this week’s pension pledge, and have no particular connection with Brexit, and those which are aimed at Brexity voters. The pension pledge is made to older voters because they are older, whilst things like the national service proposal are aimed at voters of potentially any age, albeit that they are more likely to be older.

In particular, just as Brexit invoked nostalgia for a world war that few voters could remember, so does ‘national service’ invoke a memory of something few voters have actually experienced whatever their age. It also invokes what for its target audience seems to be an idealization of the 1950s as a time of supposed social order and cohesion, lurking behind which is, undoubtedly, a hostility to immigration and multi-culturalism. In that sense, too, the national service policy has a Brexit resonance.

Yet this policy also shows the impossibility of trying to satisfy such voters, just as Brexit did. For, in practice, the full-on re-introduction of compulsory military service of the sort those voters hanker for is impossible, and unwanted by military leaders, and what is actually being proposed falls well short of it. It isn’t even a proposal for an immediate policy, but for a Royal Commission which might lead to it. The result was that the announcement was ridiculed by Nigel Farage, and is unlikely to influence the voters it was aimed at, whilst its presentation in terms intended to invoke old-style military conscription will further alienate younger and more liberal-minded voters.

Fiasco

All of this further added to the sense of a Tory campaign which, so far, seems to be inept at the most basic level. The proposal came from nowhere, with the government having, just before the election, dismissed the idea. As a result, even Conservative MPs were caught unaware, and the details of what it meant, whether it would be compulsory (and, if so, how it would be enforced), and of how it would be organized, were clearly being developed on the hoof during the media interviews that followed.

In short, it was a fiasco, which reinforced Labour’s high-level message that Conservatism and chaos are now conjoined, and undermined Sunak’s message of his ability to deliver a plan. In this, it was also consistent with what post-Brexit governance has been like under the Tories: performative announcements with no substance and no coherence. In this particular case, since the Tories don’t anticipate winning, there isn’t even an expectation that the policy ever will be implemented. Perhaps this is why Sunak presented it in the most lacklustre, almost defeated, manner imaginable.

At all events, this episode seems to show that, post-Brexit, the public appetite for such ‘Brexity’ initiatives is quite limited, and that they are liable to incite ridicule or cynicism even from those they are ostensibly aimed at, as the distinctly mixed reaction of Mail readers shows. Even The Conservative Woman, the go-to site for reactionary comment, was scathing in its assessment, albeit that some of the reasoning was even more bizarre than the proposal itself (and the comments below are a veritable feast of derangement). In less reactionary circles, it was simply seen at best as under-developed and at worst as ludicrous.

It is almost certain that there will be similar episodes in the campaign, in the form of various kinds of ‘anti-woke’ policy proposals from Sunak. Another of this week’s topics, the proposed crackdown on “rip-off degrees”, inevitably described by the media as “mickey mouse degrees”, had at least the tang of this. Perhaps the most extreme, and by no means unlikely, possibility is that the Tories will unveil a proposal to leave the ECHR. It obviously remains to be seen what proposals emerge and how they play with voters, and that will tell us much about support for Brexitism. That matters, because central to Brexitism is the idea that the referendum provided not just a majority for leaving the EU, but betokened that there was a ‘silent majority’ for the full gamut of populist Conservatism.

Gove off

There’s another quiet defeat being inflicted on Brexit and Brexitism, exemplified by Michael Gove’s announcement that he will not stand at the election, joining the voluntary exodus of, especially, Tory MPs. Many of them, including Gove, were pro-Brexit and it is worth recalling how Brexiters told us that the great thing about their project was that it would mean that, if the people did not approve of what those making the rules governing them had done, they could vote them out. Of course, some retirements are bound to happen at elections, especially of older MPs. But it is striking that this flood of departing Brexiters are not giving voters the opportunity to express their judgement, still less to hold them accountable for Brexit.

That applies especially to Gove, who at 56 is hardly at the end of his working life, and yet is abandoning a political career during which his support for Brexit was a major feature. For Gove was not just any pro-Brexit MP. He was a co-convenor of Vote Leave, chaired its campaign committee, and played a prominent role in the campaign itself. Most of the comment on his political retirement was valedictory, if not sycophantic, but two pieces, one by John Harris in the Guardian and the other by Ian Dunt on his Striking 13 Substack provided more critical, but also more nuanced, assessments.

Both pointed to the way that Gove’s apparently reasonable manner belied his role in creating a Conservatism that has become ever more extreme and immoral. He was always on hand to give a respectable gloss to the disgraceful, and to defend the indefensible. That was certainly his role in Brexit, and made him in some ways the most dangerous of its leading advocates. Personally, I have always found his oleaginous, faux-polite, faux-intellectual manner grating and unconvincing; his strained urbanity signaling, quite as much as concealing, a spiteful, faintly peculiar, and possibly slightly disturbed personality. However, there is no doubt that, to many, that manner carried the weight of authority, and he repeatedly used that during the referendum campaign.

Although his role in that is now often remembered for his infamous dismissal of experts, I think his greater significance, and greater sin, was to give the impression that he, himself, was possessed of great expertise. Thus, for particular example, with unshakeable self-assurance he pronounced that: “There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave we will stay in this zone.” 

It was a line calculated to imply what he and other hard Brexiters subsequently denied, that Brexit did not mean leaving the single market (for what else could the mention of Iceland mean?) and did not preclude having a customs union with the EU (for what else could the mention of Turkey mean?), and as such was an effective foil to many of the remain campaign’s economic warnings. And whereas even those who admired Boris Johnson recognized he was not exactly on top of the details, Gove, the politician who supposedly could master the minutiae of every brief, with his pompous but crisply certain manner, could surely be assumed to know what he was talking about.

This isn’t a minor example of Gove’s Brexit mendacity. The persistent smudging of hard and soft Brexit was a central part of what enabled Vote Leave to win. And the subsequent dismissal of soft Brexit as a betrayal of Brexit was a central reason why, after the referendum, Brexit was not undertaken in a form that might, just about, have been acceptable to a broad swathe of leave and remain voters, and which would certainly have been far less damaging than the Brexit which was actually enacted. Gove played no small part in all of that. As he slinks off the political scene, his place in history as one of the most despicable of the ‘guilty men’ of Brexit is assured.

The coming verdict on Brexitism?

There are many reasons why it would be preferable to have an open and honest discussion of what Brexit has done, and what to do about Brexit. But the fact that it is not happening in that way, at least as yet, does not mean it is not happening at all. As I put in last week’s post, Brexit is lurking in the shadows of this election and, in a way, that is where it belongs. In other words, the way in which Brexit, in the literal sense of leaving the EU, has morphed into a more diffuse Brexitism means that this election can be seen as a judgement on Brexitism even without there being much focus on Brexit itself.

That probably only applies to England, and perhaps to a degree in Wales. The dynamic of the election in Scotland is completely different, being much more about the SNP's problems, and especially the SNP-Labour battle, than about the Tories or Brexitism. Northern Ireland is different again, with Brexit and its consequences likely to play a more overt role in some respects, especially for the unionist parties, but Brexitism and the issues discussed in this post are probably less relevant.

In terms of those issues, a huge defeat for the Tories in England would constitute a clear rejection of Brexitism, depending also on how Reform fare (and there’s already just a hint that Farage may once again do a deal with the Tories, though Sunak has dismissed it). That wouldn’t be the death of Brexitism – because its proponents will inevitably conclude that it happened because their policies were not sufficiently embraced or genuinely advocated – but it would be a significant set-back to it. That would be good in and of itself, and might be the prelude to even better things.

 

Please note that there will be no post next week.

Friday 24 May 2024

The first post-Brexit election

So the election is here, and it is one of the strangest there has been. For months now it has seemed overdue, yet its sudden, unexpected announcement for July makes it also seem premature. It was called by the third Prime Minister to hold office since the previous election, his predecessors having been deposed amid scandal and chaos, itself inseparable from the chaos unleashed by Brexit. If the outcome is a majority for either of the main parties it will be in some way extraordinary. For the Tories, it would mean an unprecedented recovery from months of huge deficits in the opinion polls. For Labour, it would mean recovering in a single electoral cycle from its worst defeat since 1935.

As Sunak announced it, there was a swirl of rumours that his backbenchers were about to call a vote of no confidence in his leadership, and his entire party, including the cabinet, were apparently totally unprepared for what he was to say. And the announcement itself was almost comically maladroit, as the rain soaked him and his words were almost drowned out by the sound of the ‘Things can only get better’ anthem of Labour in 1997 (apparently played by the indefatigable ‘Stop Brexit’ demonstrator Steve Bray).

It will also be the first election since the UK left the European Union, but it seems highly likely that Brexit will hardly be discussed. However, that very lack of discussion will be of significance. For it will betoken the continuing destabilization and dishonesty Brexit has brought to British politics, with the two being linked: to talk honestly about Brexit would destabilize both the main parties.

Nevertheless, Brexit will lurk in the shadows, and will continue to haunt politics whatever the election outcome. In this sense, regardless of whether Brexit features explicitly in the campaign, this election is part-and-parcel of the still-unfolding Brexit process. As the campaign develops over the next six weeks, I will discuss it in those terms.

The Brexit silence

In last week’s post, I talked about the near-silence of the Tory leadership about Brexit, arguing that this is because:

“It can’t claim Brexit to be a success, because those who do not have a foundational belief in its rightness can clearly see it has failed, whilst those for whom its rightness is a foundational belief also believe that it has been betrayed. But it can’t denounce Brexit as a failure or a betrayal, since it is the Brexit the Tory leadership actually delivered … It can neither boast of Brexit nor disown it.”

That silence, and that of the Labour Party, is already being commented on, for example by Daniel Finkelstein, who also discussed it in his Times column this week (£), but what is less discussed is that the Tories have been trapped partly as a result of just how successfully the Labour Party have neutralised Brexit as an electoral issue. They have done so partly through their own reticence about it, and partly by the extremely limited, though not entirely trivial, commitments they have made to softening the form of Brexit created by the Conservatives.

I’m very well aware that many Labour supporters, remainers, and Labour-supporting remainers are deeply unhappy with this strategy – and indeed that this is true of many readers of the blog. However, it’s not necessary to be happy about it to consider the effect it has had, possibly unintentionally, on the election and on the Brexit saga more generally.

A brief review of Labour’s Brexit strategy

As is well-known, the origins of Labour’s approach lay in the desire to regain the support of those leave voters who had traditionally voted Labour, especially in the ‘Red Wall’ seats (in the more expanded meaning that term has come to have). Arguably, the recent local election results demonstrate that this approach has been successful, but that is, indeed, much-debated, especially in the light of Professor Sir John Curtice’s influential analysis. His work suggests a much more complicated picture resulting from the interplay between voters’ positions on the question of ‘re-joining’ versus ‘staying out’ and their perceptions, mis-perceptions, and lack of knowledge of Labour’s position on that question.

However, even within Curtice’s analysis there is some support for the Labour strategy, in that it finds that:

“Among those who would vote to stay out, support for the party is twice as high among those who think Labour shares their view as it is among those who think Labour has no clear policy, and four times as high as it is among those who would re-join. … [whereas] re-joiners seem inclined to back the party in substantial numbers irrespective of where they think the party stands on the issue.” 

In other words, even though most Labour voters are anti-Brexit, the party can hang on to their votes without taking an anti-Brexit stance, and in the process make it more likely that they can hang on to, or regain, pro-Brexit voters. There are also more micro-level considerations here about ‘vote efficiency’ (£), in that Labour’s positioning on Brexit (along with some other issues) may lose the party some anti-Brexit voters in urban constituencies where it has large numbers of voters and can expect to win anyway, whilst gaining the support of pro-Brexit voters in marginal and target seats.

The impact on the Tories

Whatever the validity of this approach as regards the Labour vote, discussing it solely in those terms ignores what it means for the Tory vote. I’ve made this point before, last December, in a detailed appraisal of Curtice’s earlier analysis of the Labour vote, when he suggested that they could still win the election even if they had a far more anti-Brexit policy. That policy would, if it were to be in any meaningful way more anti-Brexit than at present, have to mean at the least seeking to re-join the single market, and at most seeking to re-join the EU.

Both then and now, I think that what’s missing from the analysis is that a shift to such a policy would have enabled the Tories not just to break their silence but to become very vocal about Brexit. Freed from the trap defined in my previous post, and repeated at the top of this one, they would have been able to talk about Brexit not in terms of its success, and not in the face of Brexiter criticisms that it hasn’t been done ‘properly’, but solely in terms of it having been done at all.

In this way, they would be able to reprise a version of the ‘get Brexit done’ line of the 2019 election, by depicting Labour as wanting to re-open all the battles of Brexit with which many voters – regardless of whether they are in favour of Brexit or not – had become so bemused and bored. What better terrain, indeed, to deploy to great effect their current, and currently rather feeble, slogan that a Labour government would mean “going back to square one”?

More than that, the Tories would have been able to regress to deploying the powerful “will of the people” line which, flawed as it was, acted as a battering ram in the period between the referendum and the 2019 election. Every single media interview with a Labour politician during the campaign would have become focused on the one question of Labour’s plans to reverse Brexit. Literally no other part of Labour policy would be mentioned. Meanwhile, every part of the Tory campaign, and every interview with a Tory politician, would have focussed solely on Labour’s Brexit policy, in the process absolving Tories from scrutiny of their government’s record and enabling them to unite their currently fractious party in way which is otherwise totally inconceivable.

More even than that, the chances of a deal between the Tories and Reform UK would have massively increased, under a ‘defend Brexit’ campaign banner. Instead, despite the attempts by Tories such as David Frost (£), such a message has no credibility. The most the Tories can credibly claim is that Labour would keep the UK ‘within Brussels’ regulatory orbit’. But since, to the chagrin of the Brexiters, the government has broadly speaking realised that there is no realistic alternative to this, that has little traction. However, if Labour had any kind of rejoin policy, a ‘defend Brexit’ message would become highly credible and, as happened with Farage and the Brexit Party in 2019 for the same reason, it is easy to envisage that Reform would only run candidates in constituencies where it would hurt Labour (instead, the important question now is whether and to what extent Reform will be able to hurt the Tories, especially as Nigel Farage has opted not to stand in the election).

In short, it is hard to see how a different Labour policy on Brexit could do anything other than reduce its chances of winning the election, or at least reduce the majority it might otherwise expect.  Whether or not it is accepted that this is the best strategy for Labour to win, it remains the case that it is one of the major reasons why the Tories seem likely to be largely silent about Brexit during the campaign. Deprived of the opportunity to ‘defend Brexit’ simply because it is Brexit, they now only have reason to talk about it if there were positive things to say. But what might these be?

Brexit boasting à la Badenoch?

If the Tories do say anything substantive about Brexit during the campaign, they are likely to follow the kind of line taken in recent months by Kemi Badenoch, possibly the only government minister to attempt to make positive claims for it. As Business and Trade Secretary, she has been able, as Liz Truss did when she had the Trade portfolio, to truthfully point to something major which the UK can now do which it couldn’t as an EU member, namely run an independent trade policy. Moreover, it is propitious ground for Brexiters because it is an area where the supposed benefits can be presented in a way which is simple to understand and yields ongoing results.

The simplicity is akin to that of the independent Covid vaccine policy, but that was a one-off and relatively quickly forgotten (of course it also wasn’t even remotely true that it was down to Brexit, but many believed it to be). Trade policy also chimes with the core ideology of many members and traditional supporters of the Tory Party. For most of them, except, perhaps, those who are farmers, the details don’t really matter: what they think of as ‘free trade’ – typically, some dated notion of it being all about tariff-free trade – is simply ‘a good thing’ (on which topic, a new report from the UK Trade Policy Observatory this week underscores the significance of non-tariff barriers to UK-EU trade).

So Sunak could try, as Badenoch has done, to woo the gullible with things like the pointless statistic that (largely because of the rollovers of previous EU deals) the UK has ‘more trade agreements’ than any other country, or with talking up the one-sided and economically rather trivial deals with Australia and New Zealand, locations which make a certain kind of voter get moist-eyed about ‘old friends in the Dominions’. No doubt it is also their memories of ‘old Eastern hands’ in the family which give CPTPP accession some of its lustre, along with the apparently hard-headed, but actually utterly stupid*, suggestion that the fast growth rates of some of the countries involved makes it a great prize for Buccaneering Britain.

Appealing, too, though most facile of all, is the claim that Brexit has enabled the UK to achieve ‘the best trade deal the EU has ever given a third country’, as if that did not entail a downgrade from the previous terms of trade. Though, actually, that isn’t quite the most facile claim about Brexit’s trade opportunities. That title surely belongs to the virtually worthless Memorandums of Understanding signed with individual states within the US, which, except possibly for some very minor provisions, didn’t require Brexit anyway. Throw in some bogus graphs produced by the handful of economists who maintain that Brexit is good for trade and the UK economy generally, and the transposition of the truth of having an independent trade policy into the falsity that it is a net economic benefit of Brexit is easy to sell to some voters, though mainly to those who would vote for the Tories anyway (but perhaps also some who are tempted by Reform).

However, it would be much more difficult to persuade the wider public, who have already come to a different view, with only 12% thinking Brexit has had a positive effect on the current state of the UK economy (70% think the effect is negative), and only 21% thinking it will have a positive effect on the prospects of future economic growth (55% think it will be negative). Other polls show that on trade, specifically, 49% think that Brexit has had a negative impact on the ability to import goods from outside the EU, and 57% think that is so for importing goods from the EU. And on what might be the public’s biggest economic concern, 63% think Brexit has had a bad impact on prices in shops, and just 7% that it has had a good impact.

So, although trade policy may be an area where the Tories try to campaign on Brexit, if they do so it will be in the teeth of the public image of Brexit as one of practical failure, and therefore much more difficult than if Labour had given them the opportunity to re-mobilize around ‘defending Brexit’ in the abstract.

Red tape in the open air

Trade aside, the other Brexit-related campaign line the Tory Party might attempt to run is that of having ‘freed Britain from Brussels’ red tape’. This has been Badenoch’s most recent focus, with her twin announcements of the progress of the Smarter Regulation Programme, which has been running for the last year, and a new White Paper, also on Smarter Regulation. The press release covering the two was, indeed, entitled ‘Brexit freedoms used to slash red tape for business’, a typically disingenuous claim which backfired, as it led to media reports that one such freedom was going to be allowing al fresco dining. This caused much mockery since such dining is, to say the least, hardly forbidden within EU countries.

In fact, the story related to one of the items in the announcement, about possible simplifications of regulations in serving alcohol for outdoor consumption, and it wasn’t actually claimed to be anything to do with Brexit. In that sense, the mockery was misguided because the reporting was misleading. But the government had only itself to blame for choosing to badge the whole exercise in terms of ‘Brexit freedoms’, just as it previously made itself ridiculous with the consultation on imperial units of measurement.

Actually, looking down the Badenoch list, many of the other items had nothing to do with Brexit. Of those that did, one was a re-announcement of reforms to the reporting requirements relating to the Working Time Directive, which have been known about since last November (and came into force this year). These changes notably fall very short of the dreams of the deregulatory Brexiters to abolish the provisions of the Directive altogether, as it was rumoured the Truss government planned to do.

Another Brexit-related item in the announcement was a consultation on “an alternative model for UK REACH”, the post-Brexit chemicals regulatory system which is due to be phased in over the period 2026-2030. Long-term readers of this blog will know, as I’ve been discussing it since March 2020, when Michael Gove first confirmed the government’s intention to diverge from EU REACH, that this has been one of the longest-running post-Brexit regulatory sagas. Anyone working in the industries affected will be even more familiar with it and, whilst insiders have welcomed the new consultation, to posit this as some new Brexit freedom, rather than the latest stage in an utter fiasco, takes quite some brass neck.

Indeed, almost all of the announcements Badenoch made were for ‘consultations’ and ‘proposals’ on various regulatory issues. In itself, that isn’t to be disparaged, since far too many of the government’s post-Brexit initiatives have foundered on lack of consultation or due consideration – UKCA markings being an obvious example – but it is hardly evidence of the supposed ‘nimbleness’ of regulatory decision-making outside the EU that so little has been achieved so slowly. Crucially, this, along with the dull technical nature of so many regulatory issues, also shows why the Tories can’t make much of it as an electoral campaign issue. Few voters will care that, at some unspecified time in the future, some EU law on widgets may be changed.

So, again, Labour have spiked the Tories’ guns by closing off the possibility of them returning to the generalities of defending Brexit ‘sovereignty’. No doubt they will frequently mention having ‘taken advantage of Brexit freedoms’, as Sunak did in his launch speech on Wednesday, but when it comes to specifics all they have is a patchy and limited record of, frankly, rather dull initiatives which few voters will care about. If anything about Brexit and red tape has lodged in voters’ minds it will be the delays for travellers and goods that Brexit has caused.

Picardo rocks

Beyond the regulatory sphere, that same gap between the abstraction of sovereignty and its practical consequences continued to unfold in this week’s story about the negotiations over Gibraltar. I wrote about this issue in detail a few weeks ago, and the latest reports confirm, as suggested in that post, that part of the likely deal David Cameron is negotiating will involve EU Frontex officials checking passports at the Rock’s airport and ports. This would enable Gibraltar to be in the Schengen area, thus removing border controls with Spain, but could have the consequence of British citizens arriving at the airport being refused entry to the territory. This was the inevitable cue for the Brexit Ultras who dominate the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC), chaired by superannuated dullard Bill Cash, to start chuntering on about ‘sovereignty’.

Interestingly, this provoked an unusually sharp response from Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister. In it, he not only endorsed and praised Cameron’s approach, he also pointedly observed that “the ESC need to understand they are not decision makers in relation to Gibraltar”. Even more brutally, he criticised the ESC for their failure to understand the issues Brexit has created for Gibraltar and for their predilection for “asking provocative questions” rather than seeking “deliverable outcomes”, and for seeming to want “to believe everything they read in the newspapers over the evidence they are given”. Subsequently, he issued an even more dismissive rebuke to a predictably snide and silly comment from Jacob Rees-Mogg. Already Cash, Rees-Mogg et al., are beginning to look like yesterday’s men, and their fixation with ‘sovereignty’ to be, as it always was, and should have remained, the niche obsession of a few cartoonish freaks.

It's conceivable that Gibraltar will play a part in the election, since it seems that the negotiations are set to continue throughout the campaign, reflecting the fact that the Tory and Labour parties have a bipartisan approach to this issue. I don’t know how likely it is that a deal will be done in that period but, if it is, then it is easy to imagine that Ultras will erupt in fury, revealing how riven the Tories continue to be over Brexit, and how much the Brexiters loathe Sunak and are consumed by Brexit purism. Starmer, by contrast, will be able to welcome such a deal, with no dissent in his party, and have another illustration of the ‘Tory chaos’ that is set to be a central theme of Labour’s campaign.

The road back

There is certainly nothing to celebrate in the fact that we face an election in which the biggest political event since the last vote, and the biggest in recent history, looks likely to be virtually undiscussable. On the contrary, it is deeply depressing and, of all the adverse consequences of Brexit, it is perhaps the worst. As Michael Heseltine said this week, it is set to be the most dishonest election campaign he can remember, although actually the 2017 and 2019 elections were also almost entirely bereft of detailed discussion of the issue.

It is also the case that whilst Labour’s approach has had the effect of depriving the Tories of what would most aid them, the ability credibly to rally around a ‘defend Brexit’ message, it has also deprived Labour of what, in a rational polity, would be their most potent attack line. For the Tories’ flagship policy since 2016 has been an abject failure, not just in practice but in principle, yet, at best, Labour will only be in a position to attack the way that it was delivered, and that only in relatively marginal ways.

But, as the clich√© has it, we are where we are, and perhaps the political silence reflects the fact that ‘as a country’ the wounds of Brexit are still insufficiently healed for it to be discussed. That will take time, but be hastened if this election sees the maximum damage inflicted on the party which brought us to this wretched point. The road back is a long one, and its route unpredictable, but it certainly passes through a crushing defeat of the Tory Party. Labour’s Brexit stance may disappoint re-joiners, but its ruthless determination to inflict such a defeat is more than evident. That defeat is by no means assured but, this week, it has come into sight.

 

Note

*It’s stupid because even if countries have fast growth rates, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their international trade grows at the same rate and, even if it does, and does so with the UK specifically, then if the existing amount of trade with the UK is low then even a large percentage increase in it will not be large in absolute terms. The converse proposition, that UK trade with the EU matters less as the EU has relatively slow growth, is stupid for the converse reason: it is still a large amount of trade in absolute terms. And even that is less stupid than the idea that the trade with the EU is of declining importance because, over time, the EU is becoming a smaller part of the global economy (which, of course, is the inevitable consequence of global economic development), as if that meant it was becoming smaller in absolute terms.

Friday 17 May 2024

The hard Brexit addiction

Two weeks ago, when I wrote my previous post, Brexit Ultras were cock-a-hoop because they believed that the EU and Ireland were being forced to ‘pay the price’ for having refused to countenance an Irish land border during the Brexit negotiations. As a result, asylum seekers within the UK were now entering Ireland via Northern Ireland so as to escape the possibility of being removed to Rwanda (or supposedly: see the post itself for discussion).

That ebullience has turned to dismay with this week’s ruling by Northern Ireland’s High Court that parts of the Illegal Migration Act do not apply in Northern Ireland (NI) because they breach human rights law and, thereby, breach the Windsor Framework. This is likely to mean that asylum seekers in NI cannot be deported to Rwanda, although the government will appeal against the ruling. Meanwhile, to the ire of Brexiters generally, and NI unionist Brexiters in particular, a potential incentive for asylum seekers to locate in NI, rather than the rest of the UK, has been created. Suddenly we are back to the old familiar lament that "Britain is paying the price for surrender to the EU" (£).

The roots of this lie deeper than the Windsor Framework, extending to both the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the original Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Although much of the discussion of these has been to do with trade and economic borders, central to the EU’s position in the Brexit negotiations was that there should be no dilution of the GFA, and included within that was that there be no diminution of the human rights provisions contained within the GFA (matters of no small concern to the US, as well).

The UK government agreed to this, and it is worth stressing that it did so quite willingly for, at the time, apart from perhaps a few on the fringe, Brexiters, and certainly the Brexit government, were adamant that Britain had no intention at all of threatening such rights, or the GFA in any respect, and all talk to the contrary was just more ‘Project Fear’. That the EU nevertheless sought legal commitment to this intention was, as can now be seen, a sensible and necessary precaution.

Not my Brexit (as always)

Thus when former Home Secretary Suella Braverman railed this week that the Windsor Framework has “failed upon its first contact with reality”, and is operating contrary to the “assurances given” to her at the time, that is pure nonsense. In fact, on its first contact with reality (as regards human rights), the Windsor Framework has done exactly what was intended from the outset. It is not clear what ‘assurances’ she was given, or who gave them, but if she believed otherwise then she is incompetent. However, this isn’t really the point she’s making. What she actually is trying to do is to disavow the fact that she was a member of the government which agreed the Windsor Framework (and, further back, one of the Tory MPs who voted unanimously for the NIP).

In this, Braverman is following a now familiar pattern as regards the Brexit arrangements for NI (and Brexit more generally). Over and over again Brexiter MPs who voted for them claim that they were misled, for example into believing the NIP to be temporary, or into believing that there would be no sea border, and, now, over the human rights provisions it entailed. There may be some truth in these claims to the extent that Boris Johnson repeatedly misrepresented the Protocol. However, that is no excuse for such MPs not to have grasped this central part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the more so given that one of their leading figures, Iain Duncan Smith, insisted that no more time need be spent debating it. The same goes for the Windsor Framework, and especially for a government minister like Braverman.

But all of this is a smokescreen. The reality is that, from the outset, Brexiters didn’t understand or care what their project meant for Northern Ireland and many of them still do not, or affect not to believe it. Only when, as individuals, they are in government, are they forced to confront it, as they are other Brexit realities. That happened to Theresa May and, for all his huffing and puffing, to Boris Johnson when he was Prime Minister, though he left a political crisis over the NIP the resolution of which, via the Windsor Framework, was one of Rishi Sunak’s few achievements, and one of the few times he faced down the Brexit Ultras. The same thing happened to Braverman, whilst she was in office, including when, in her second stint as Home Secretary she voted for the Windsor Framework.

But some Tory Brexiters either never held government positions or, as happened with numerous Brexit Secretaries and Brexit Ministers, resigned those positions rather than accept the realities of Brexit. They could then join the Farageist extra-parliamentary chorus of how Brexit has been betrayed and could have been done ‘properly’ if only the government had ‘stood up to’ the EU. So Braverman’s reference to ‘assurances’ that have proven false is simply her alibi for what the government she was part of did, and a brandishing of her credentials to join the ranks of the betrayed.

The Tory Brexit failure

All this in turn is part of the wider picture of what Brexit has done to the Tory Party. For the most basic and most brutal truth is that what has been their flagship policy since 2016, and defining purpose since 2017, has manifestly failed. That failure was well-captured by Rafael Behr’s pithy formulation in his Guardian column this week: “Brexit was a huge bet against the idea that geography mattered to economic and security policy in the 21st century. Geography won.” Week-in and week-out the evidence of that grows, with the latest examples including its role in the delays to the opening of the Co-Op Live Arena, its role in medicine shortages, and the border delays for perishable goods imports. Conversely, the realities of geography have continued quietly to play out, for example in shadowing new EU regulations (such as those relating to plastic bottle caps) and in re-joining the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking

But we need hardly rehearse once again all the economic and geo-political damage and pointlessness of Brexit, still less to trudge through all the wearisome attempts by Brexit ideologues to disprove it, or to grab hold of some tiny shred, usually misrepresented anyway, of supposed justification. The clinching evidence of its failure is that if Brexit had been anything even remotely like the success that was promised then, as we approach the first election since leaving the EU, the Tories would undoubtedly be trumpeting that success, and making their record of delivering it the central plank of their electoral platform. Instead, they barely mention Brexit any more, preferring to grub around with endless ‘re-sets’, gimmicks about banning civil service ‘woke lanyards’, and, of course, the more serious, but still gimmicky, Rwanda policy.

The nature of those gimmicks reflects how Brexit has been a failure in a different way; a failure not just for the country but for the Tory Party itself. For whilst the causes of Brexit are multiple, there can be no doubt that a significant one was the attempt by David Cameron and others to destroy the electoral threat of the UKIP ‘revolt on the right’. In that respect, its failure has been not just abject but total. Not only has that threat regathered (or perhaps we should say re-formed), as Reform UK, requiring the Tories to continue to seek ways to negate it, but the Tory Party itself has been substantially ‘UKIPified’. In particular, a substantial part of the right, both within and outside the party, regards Brexit as a foundational belief, but believes equally strongly that it has been betrayed.

The silence of the Tory leadership

So the Tory leadership, meaning not just Sunak but the party as a governing party, is now in an impossible situation (of its own making, so weep no tears). It can’t claim Brexit to be a success, because those who do not have a foundational belief in its rightness can clearly see it has failed, whilst those for whom its rightness is a foundational belief also believe that it has been betrayed. But it can’t denounce Brexit as a failure or a betrayal, since it is the Brexit the Tory leadership actually delivered.

This situation grows directly out of the wider political climate which Brexiters, meaning not just politicians but commentators and activists, have created since 2016. They showed no interest in trying to persuade their opponents that, despite their doubts, it could be successfully delivered – remainers were just told to ‘suck it up’, which they declined to do. Yet Brexiters themselves have been the most adamant that Brexit hasn’t been successfully delivered.

So the Tory leadership now has nowhere to stand: it can neither boast of Brexit nor disown it. It has to insist both that Brexit was the right thing to do, which only a minority of voters now believe, and that it was done in the right way, something which only a minority of that minority now believe, which isn’t electorally viable. Hence the near-silence (matched only, though for quite different reasons, by the Labour opposition).

The noisy minority

By contrast, Brexiters who insist Brexit was the right thing, but was not done in the right way, have a much easier time of it, so long as they can avoid the taint of responsibility for how it was done. This is the seam of grievance that is being assiduously and very loudly mined by Reform and by many Tories. For them, things like the Belfast court ruling offer the opportunity to keep punching on the bruise that the Tory government bungled Brexit, and did so through lack of true belief in real Conservatism.

Moreover, they can propound a Brexit 2.0 agenda of leaving the ECHR, as well as even more draconian anti-immigration and anti-asylum policies, far more easily than can the Tory leadership. For, in government, the practical consequences of this agenda would be all too clear. Sunak can make noises about the ECHR, but any government actually derogating from it would encounter massive problems, not least in relation to the GFA and the NIP. Outside government, these problems can be denied, or discounted simply by proposing to violate those agreements as well.

On immigration generally, whilst the government is willing to countenance considerable damage to universities and to businesses with its recent clampdowns, it is less clear that it would be able to weather the storm caused by the kinds of restrictions its even more right-wing critics want. It is one thing for voters to demand much lower immigration, quite another if they are forced to face the reality of the consequences. Even surveys showing majority support for reducing immigration also show majority support for making immigration easier for many key occupations, especially the NHS and social care. Certainly any government actually implementing a very low immigration policy of the sort advocated by Reform UK would immediately run into huge practical difficulties and, crucially, would still be denounced by those outside government as not going far enough.

For practical difficulties do not matter outside government, and, as with Brexit itself, they can be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’, generated by a self-interested globalist elite. That is why, in these dog days of Tory government, those within the party who aspire to its future leadership, perhaps including Braverman or Robert Jenrick, can develop ever-more impractical ideas, just as Reform can.

The same goes for those, like Liz Truss, canvassing for the PopCons, or for Jacob Rees-Mogg, who this week proposed an electoral pact (£), not far short of an effective merger, between the Conservatives and Reform, albeit that Farage immediately rejected that, at least for now. Meanwhile there is talk of self-styled ‘media personality’ Matt Goodwin and self-proclaimed ‘disruptor’ Dominic Cummings each launching new, populist, anti-immigration parties of their own. If so, there will be multiple parties fishing in the same murky, but electorally fairly limited, water, leaving all of them frustrated in their pursuit of power, not least because, in the process, they will abandon many of the centre-right voters upon whom the the Tories used to rely.

Chasing the dragon

Brexit and its aftermath are the key to all of these developments, and, although it is impossible to know how they will play out, there is a good chance that they will yield a long-term fracturing of the political right. That’s something which used to be thought more likely on the left. To an extent, it is what happened when the SDP split from Labour in the 1980s, and it might have been expected in the form of an ‘Old Labour’ split from ‘New Labour’ during the Blair years, or a Blairite split from Corbyn’s Labour, or the Corbynite left setting up a new party in opposition to Starmer. Arguably, the effect, and ultimate fate, of the SDP may have inoculated the Labour Party against such subsequent splits. But the post-Brexit right, high on dreams of purity and addicted to the dramas of betrayal and purges has, perhaps appropriately, not had the benefit of the vaccine.

It's against this background that many current events should be understood, including the perhaps not very important or enduring one of the Belfast High Court ruling. That ruling is, at one level, a reminder of the mess that Brexit has created as regards Northern Ireland and of the impracticality of separating the UK from all of the international obligations that Brexiter ideas of sovereignty entail. At another level, it is one more piece of ammunition for the Brexiters to propose making an even greater mess in Northern Ireland, since their ultimate aim is to renege on the NIP and the Windsor Framework (and in some cases probably the GFA, as well), and to redouble on their fantasy of sovereignty by reneging on the ECHR (£). The more general application of that logic is, perhaps, the ultimate trap that Brexit has created: anything and everything that shows the folly of Brexit is, for Brexiters, the justification to commit even worse follies.

If that seems like political madness given the electoral system, and public opinion, it is sustained by the memory of the high of 2016 when, very briefly, the Brexiters could lay claim to embodying the ‘will of the people’ and could believe that they really were the silent majority, not the noisy minority. It was a heady moment. The hit proved short-lived and ultimately disappointing, but, for Britain’s political right, it proved to be a gateway drug, and there is not much they will not do in search of another fix.

Friday 3 May 2024

Brexit border bewilderment

I don’t suppose that there is much political interest today in anything but the local election results, about which I’ll say nothing here except that anything now happening to the Tory Party is inextricably, even when indirectly, bound up with Brexit.  And, as the length of today’s post testifies, it’s not as if there is any lack of other Brexit news to discuss. Much of that news concerns, in different ways, the issue which both defines and bedevils Brexit: borders.

Early in the Brexit process, I wrote a post on ‘why Brexiters don’t understand borders’, which touched on some of the topics which will feature in today’s post, and it concluded as follows:

“I referred earlier to a very good article in the Daily Telegraph [by Peter Foster] on the implications of Brexit for Ireland and Northern Ireland and, within it, there is a revealing sentence from an unnamed British civil servant working on Brexit: ‘It seems as if every day something new we hadn’t thought of comes up’. That could almost be the strapline (and perhaps will be the epitaph) for Brexit. At every stage in the debate, Brexiters insist that it will be easy and that those who say otherwise are doom mongers; but every time those claims meet reality there turns out to be far more complexity than Brexiters believed (or at least than they told the electorate). Borders and what they mean are perhaps central to the Brexiter mindset: it is to say the least unfortunate that they don’t understand them. It is doubly unfortunate that we are all going to have to pay a very high price for their enlightenment.”

That was written in March 2017, but it is a suitable introduction to this week’s main Brexit developments.

Bordering on the ridiculous

The ongoing saga of the introduction of import controls reached a key moment on Tuesday, when the latest phase of controls came into force – except for those which didn’t, and for those hauliers who were waived through even when they had non-compliant paperwork, and for those consignments requiring the attention of inspectors who clock off between 7pm and 7am – further adding to the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the process. I’ve discussed this exhaustively, or at least exhaustingly, for years now, most recently in last week’s post, but it is still a notable moment not least because it has brought an upsurge in media attention, including reports in the Mail, on the BBC, and a particularly hard-hitting item on ITV News, as well as questions from MPs.

Amongst these media reports, an especially informative one came from Ellen Milligan of Bloomberg because it focused on the impact of the controls upon EU exporters, taking the important example of Danish bacon exports to Britain, tracing them from pig farm to arrival at the port of Immingham on the east coast of England. This was proper, detailed reporting getting, almost literally, out into the field, and it exposed the sheer bureaucratic complexity and cost Brexit has imposed on EU firms exporting to Britain (which, of course, has a mirror image for British firms exporting to the EU). In the process, it illustrated why smaller firms simply cease to engage in such trade. A report covering similar themes, but considering the case of Polish exporters appeared in The Times (£).

Counting costs

Apart from being informative in their own right, these articles were a useful addition to the bulk of the reporting, which was more focused on the UK importers, who also bear some of the new burdens, such as having to pre-notify and declare imports. Quite what all these costs amount to is a matter of dispute. The ITV report commissioned expert analysis suggesting a figure of £2.9 billion per annum, whereas the government claims it is only £330 million. A discrepancy of that magnitude suggests that totally different methodologies are being used, but since neither figure has any published details of how it was arrived at it is impossible to judge. However, Dr Anna Jerzewska, a leading international expert on trade and customs, was asked to provide an independent evaluation of the analysis underlying ITV’s figure, and stated it to be “robust”.

One yardstick by which to judge the government’s figure is that the Times report quoted the extra costs to just one Polish haulier of fresh poultry to the UK as being in the region of £1 million to £1.5 million per year. If correct, that makes the figure of £330 million a year for the total cost inherently implausible and, whilst of course I cannot prove this, I suspect that it is based only on the direct costs to UK importers. And whilst it is impossible to know without seeing the government’s – specifically DEFRA’s – calculations, it would not be unduly cynical to think that it has chosen a methodology to downplay the costs. Apart from anything else, if the costs really are so small, then what is the justification for the repeated delays in implementing the controls?

Mounting risks

It's true that there may be other answers to that question, in addition to cost, with one possibility being a desire to avoid the bad publicity for Brexit of border queues. But whatever the answers are, the delays demonstrate irresponsibility, given that the Department for Environment, Food and the Rural Affairs (DEFRA)  itself is saying (accurately) that “a robust and proportionate border regime is vital to ensure we can protect our food system against biosecurity threats” and that “these border checks are fundamental to protecting the UK’s food supply chain, farmers and natural environment against costly diseases reaching our shores.” What, then, of the continuing elevation of the risk of those threats from the ongoing delays in implementing the border regime?

Indeed, there is much disingenuity in the entire way the government is presenting this issue (just as there is in the way that Kemi Badenoch presented the latest trade figures this week). The DEFRA announcement just referred to includes another example, suggesting that the new regime represents a “saving” because it is (supposedly) cheaper than the original plan for the post-Brexit regime. Perhaps so, but it still represents a cost of Brexit. That fact is also continually smudged when the government (and some media reports) imply that all this is not so much about Brexit as about the government’s decision to develop an entirely new Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) for imported goods, for reasons of bio-security policy.

This misleading implication is possible because it is true that the BTOM is designed to cover imports from the whole of the world, not just from the EU, and in that sense has elements which are not directly to do with Brexit. However, it would not need to include EU imports (or not to anything remotely like the same extent) had it not been for Brexit, and it is highly unlikely that, but for Brexit, the BTOM would have been introduced for rest of world imports. For, despite much misunderstanding, some of it apparently wilful, along the lines that there is no reason why imports from the EU should be any riskier now than when Britain was a member of the single market, this is not so. The government is introducing controls on EU imports, albeit far too slowly, not for the fun of it but because they are now necessary for such imports, just as they have always been for non-EU imports.

What happens now?

This story still has some way to run. Not only is this phase of controls not yet fully operational, but there are new phases coming in October, and still more next year, including the introduction of import controls on goods from Ireland. Equally, there is a time lag between controls at the borders and the knock-on effects on the viability of businesses, prices, and product availability on the shelves. More in future posts, no doubt.

Border bafflement

Meanwhile, borders also feature in another of this week’s big news stories, the row between the UK and Ireland over asylum seekers. I don’t think that in all the years I have been writing about Brexit, I’ve ever come across an issue so convoluted and difficult to unpick, especially as the story was still unfolding whilst I wrote this post. As a result, I’m still not sure if I have got the details right, and (as always, in fact) I’m more than open to correction.

Initial reports suggested that the Irish government intended to pass a law so as to be able to return asylum seekers who are entering Ireland via Northern Ireland (NI), to the extent of accounting for 80% of “recent arrivals” of such asylum seekers (ASs) in Ireland, although this figure has subsequently been questioned. Moreover, it was held that the reason this was happening was the British government’s ‘Rwanda policy’. The political context of Ireland’s announcement is the increasingly violent far right anti-immigration and anti-asylum seeker protest movement, so it can be read an attempt to appease this, rather as Britain’s Rwanda policy is an attempt to appease similar movements and political pressures in the UK.

It has been questioned whether the Rwanda policy is what is driving any increase there may be of ASs moving to Ireland via NI. Clarity is not aided by the British government’s contradictory response, with, on the one hand, a Downing Street spokesperson saying “it is too early to jump to conclusions” about whether the Rwanda policy was having this effect whilst, on the other hand, Rishi Sunak implicitly endorsed the claim that it was by saying that it shows the policy is already “working as a deterrent”. Those things can’t both be true. Moreover, if there is such an increase, whatever the cause, then unless, I’ve missed them, there is no reporting on how this is happening. Presumably it would entail ASs arriving in Great Britain and making their way to Cairnryan in Scotland and thence by ferry to Larne (which, as I understand it, requires passengers to provide photo ID). But, if so, there would surely be reports of large numbers of them doing this?

An additional complexity is understanding just what it is that the proposed Irish legislation would do. The early reports seemed to suggest it would mean legislating to deport the relevant ASs to the UK, However, it quickly emerged that Ireland’s plan was actually to legislate that Britain is a “safe third country” to which ASs can be returned in the face of a recent Irish High Court ruling to the contrary (this ruling was not, however, because of the UK’s Rwanda policy).

Whatever form any eventual Irish legislation takes, it is not obvious what would follow. On the face of it, deporting ASs who had arrived via the UK back into the UK would be no more feasible or legal than the idiotic claims by hard line Brexiters that ASs arriving in Britain from France could simply be returned en masse to France. One such is Richard Tice of Reform UK, who – like a schoolboy boasting to his friends that he has a wonderful girlfriend, but they wouldn’t know her ‘as she goes to a different school’ – insisted this week that he has ‘advice from his own lawyers’ saying this would be legal. It is an irony, though, given those claims, that the Brexiters have been so outraged by suggestions that Ireland might apply the same approach to Britain that they want to apply to France.

Agreement, what Agreement?

At all events, Sunak has unequivocally rejected the idea of any agreement to take ASs back from Ireland, at least unless the EU agreed that the UK could return ASs to France. However, this is where things get particularly opaque, because politicians, not least the Irish Taoiseach Simon Harris, and many media reports have spoken of an already existing post-Brexit bi-lateral agreement under which such returns are possible, and Sunak seems to accept there are ‘operational arrangements’, albeit no legal obligation (£), to effect returns. The agreement referred to appears to be related to the operation of the Common Travel Area (CTA), the system, going back to 1923, although with some intermissions, whereby there is freedom of movement for British and Irish citizens across and throughout both jurisdictions.

However, despite all the references to it, no one seems to be clear about what this asylum deal actually is. The continuation of the CTA after Brexit was affirmed by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the British and Irish governments, created in May 2019 and it seems possible that this is the agreement in question, although it says nothing specific about asylum seekers [1]. It also doesn’t tally with the 2020 date given in media reports for the MoU, and although there was a CTA MoU in that year it related specifically to healthcare. The 2020 Withdrawal Agreement also makes reference, in the Northern Ireland Protocol, to the maintenance of the CTA, but again does not seem to suggest any specific agreement on asylum returns, and anyway anything that was in this Agreement would, unlike a MoU, be legally binding on the UK.

On social media, attention has also been drawn to an unsourced fragment of text which refers to the two countries facilitating the return of individuals to “their country of origin” if they have entered the CTA unlawfully. A lot of digging reveals that the source of this is a still operative, but pre-Brexit, 2011 Joint Statement by the two governments about securing the CTA’s external border, which relates in turn to the somewhat secretive and still ongoing joint Operation Gull programme which serves that purpose [2]. However, this doesn’t mean returning such individuals to the country within the CTA from which they came, it means (potentially) the country from which they originated, and it certainly isn’t the post-Brexit agreement Harris and others appear to have in mind.

Nevertheless, to the extent that there is CTA dimension to this, which is to say a specifically UK-Ireland agreement, and even more if there has been a specific post-Brexit agreement relating to asylum returns, then the parallels between UK-France or UK-EU arrangements do not hold.

Brexit aspects

So here Brexit begins to enter the story more explicitly, albeit in complicated ways. One aspect is that, pre-Brexit, the Dublin III regulations enabled, in some though by no means all cases, Ireland to return ASs to the UK (and vice versa) if that was where they had made their first application for asylum. And this indeed happened. According to Bernard Ryan, Professor of Migration Law at Leicester University, in the period 2008-2014, the UK made 1334 such requests to Ireland, resulting in 753 transfers of persons, and Ireland made 815 requests to the UK, resulting in 357 transfers. However, post-Brexit, the UK is no longer a part of the Dublin regulations (a side-issue here is that these regulations are themselves in the process of change).

Amid much confusion in media reports and social media discussions this week, Law professors Colin Murray and Steve Peers produced an excellent detailed briefing on the current legal situation. What it revealed is a complex hodge-podge of EU law, Irish law, UK law, the particular post-Brexit provisions for NI, and, indeed, the provisions, both legal and customary, of the CTA. It is well worth reading in full, but on my interpretation (which I stress again is highly tentative) there is nothing here which, in any ordinary meaning of the term, constitutes an agreement, whether relating to the CTA or not, whereby ASs arriving in Ireland from the UK can simply be returned.

Instead, as Murray and Peers put it: “Amid the tangle [of] post-Brexit arrangements, both countries appear to be talking at cross purposes”, a situation not helped by the “low trust context” which militates against them “engaging with each other in the close collaborative relationship that the CTA requires”. They don’t say it explicitly, but I assume they mean by that the context created by Brexit and the manner it was undertaken.

A second aspect is that several Brexiters have responded to the current row (£) by suggesting that it somehow means that Ireland and the EU are reaping the results of having insisted during the Brexit negotiations that there could be no land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and specifically no checks on people moving between the two jurisdictions by virtue of the CTA. They are also suggesting that Ireland is about to install such a border, though this is based on what would seem to be a misunderstanding of a report that the Irish government has deployed extra police on “frontline” duties of prevention and deportation.

Undoubtedly those now claiming a ‘gotcha’ moment (£) are those who have never understood or accepted that the Good Friday Agreement effectively precludes such a border. In any case, they are now missing the rather crucial fact that it was British Brexiters, more than anyone else, who had been adamant that the CTA would continue and, moreover, that this was their supposedly definitive rebuttal of the ‘Project Fear’ warnings issued by Tony Blair, John Major, and others, about what Brexit would mean for the Irish border.

How did we get here?

Most notably, this was the position of Boris Johnson and of the then Northern Ireland Secretary (and keen Brexiter) Theresa Villiers. It was a position founded on ignorance, to the extent that, as the Brexiters (or, at least, the ones who had to take responsibility for enacting Brexit) gradually came to grasp, the issue about the border was not just about the movement of people but also the movement of goods and livestock, and the various processes and checks needed (the same, indeed, as with the GB-EU border controls discussed above). Hence, by a long and slow route, we ended up with the Irish Sea border, with all that that has meant, including the Windsor Framework.

Along the way, discussion of the free movement of people across the island of Ireland became curiously muted. Amongst the pre-referendum warnings of the remain campaign, Major and Blair had highlighted not just the matter of customs controls but that of immigration from the EU. For example, Blair said that if there were no immigration controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland then: “It would make a nonsense of their entire argument for leaving which is all to do with the free movement of people in the European Union.”

At stake was that if there were no border checks then what would stop someone coming to Ireland quite legally from any EU country, under freedom of movement rights, then entering the UK via Northern Ireland and living or working illegally? I was not alone in thinking, in the early days of the Brexit process, that this was going to be a major question. Indeed, at that time, the government itself mooted the idea of moving frontline UK immigration controls to Ireland’s ports and airports (no one seemed to give any consideration at all to the possibility of movement in the other direction, from the UK to Ireland, whether that be of ASs or non-EU nationals residing legally in the UK).

In the event, whereas customs and other controls on goods were located across the Irish Sea, the issue of illegal immigrants from the EU was left to detection when in situ by landlords, employers, banks etc., and surprisingly little has been heard of it since. The only time it has become a matter of much public debate was not in relation to EU nationals or to asylum seekers but when it was raised in 2022, by the then British Home Secretary Priti Patel, in relation to Ukrainian refugees accepted by Ireland potentially entering the UK through ‘the back door’, under cover of the CTA. However, I’m not aware of any evidence that this actually happened, or if it did then to any great extent, nor of there being any talk at that time of a ‘returns agreement’. And so things rested until the last week or so.

What happens now?

How this current row will play out remains to be seen. Some reports have suggested that the two governments are keen to dial-down a dispute which has been “escalated out of all proportion”. I am not so sure. It arises out of what, in both countries (as in many others), is an extremely toxic politics around immigration in general, and asylum in particular, which many politicians are all too ready to exploit and exacerbate, especially with both countries facing general elections in the next twelve months.

Not the least of that toxicity is the wholly repellent dehumanization of ASs as some sort of malign parcel to be passed from country to country to ‘deal with’ or worse, according to the depraved comments of Reform’s Deputy Chair Ben Habib, left to drown. Habib later tetchily claimed to have been misrepresented, but his comments, which seemed to shock even the Talk TV shock-jock Julia Hartley-Brewer who conducted the interview, are on the public record for people to judge for themselves.

Whatever the challenges they may pose, these are people, including people broken and traumatized by suffering. And if it should be that some are ‘economic migrants’, whose asylum claims are not valid, well, they are still people and, very likely, people who have become economic migrants as a result of great hardship. Either way, they should have their claims processed quickly and fairly. Doing so does, indeed, pose challenges, as does the successful support and integration of those whose claims are found to be valid. The way to deal with those challenges can only be through concerted global action, both as regards the organization of asylum claims and destinations and as regards the multiple root causes of the need for asylum-seeking. That isn’t easy, to say the least, but it is emphatically made more difficult by nationalism and xenophobia.

This is clearly a bigger issue than the EU and Brexit, and it can hardly be said that the EU or its member states are paragons of virtue (one of the silliest of Brexiter ideas is that those who oppose Brexit see the EU, in this or any respect, as some kind of nirvana or, conversely, that its failure to be perfect in every respect is a good reason not to belong to it). But it is at least an attempt to address asylum collectively in at least one segment of the globe. One of the follies of Brexit is that it has absented the UK from this attempt, whilst another is the antagonism and mistrust it has brought to Anglo-Irish relations. By no means all the costs of Brexit, and perhaps not even the greatest costs of Brexit, are economic.

 

Notes

[1] The 2019 MoU was drawn up at a time when a ‘no-deal Brexit’ (i.e. no Withdrawal Agreement) was possible, and I wonder if the references to 2020 are because, in effect, its provisions became duplicated by the Withdrawal Agreement/ Protocol. If it should emerge that there was a MoU about asylum returns, separate to the Withdrawal Agreement, then Sunak would be right to say that it was not binding in international law, but to renege on such a MoU, relating as it would to NI, would surely have very severe reputational consequences and damage relations with Ireland, the EU, and the US.

[2] The secrecy about this arises, I assume, not because of the asylum issue but because of the still existent NI terrorism threat.

There will be no post next Friday