Friday, 14 January 2022

Will Truss press the re-set button?

The Brexit process has been going on for so long now that its recurrent phases have taken on the predictability of seasons. Currently, we’re in one of the ‘will there, won’t there be a deal?’ periods, marked as always by windy rhetoric from the UK and strained patience from the EU. Also not for the first time, this is taking place against a background of political turmoil and questions about whether the Prime Minister can survive.

This time, these are not directly connected to Brexit yet they do relate to it. For one thing, it was Brexit which provided the route for Boris Johnson to come to power at all, so his premiership can be counted as one of its many costs. For another, the ‘partygate’ fiasco is a product of his endless dishonesty as well as ‘anti-ruleism’ both of which are the skeins linking his scandal-ridden administration and Brexit. And, for a third, at least some Brexiters are ludicrously suggesting that it is a ‘remainer’ plot, partly because some remainers are ludicrously suggesting it could put an end to Brexit.

Truss’s contradictory signals

Against this increasingly baroque and unstable background, Liz Truss has taken over (£) the now hardy perennial of a threat to “invoke Article 16” if the EU doesn’t accede to her demands in the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Even if this was designed for domestic consumption, it undermined reports that she is adopting a “warmer tone” (£) to the negotiations than Frost. Perhaps British politicians still haven’t cottoned on that the UK press is read abroad.

Yesterday evening, following talks during the day, she hosted Maros Sefcovic for dinner at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s stately home, although if that is the first prize offered in her charm offensive one wonders what the second is – two dinners with her, perhaps? Joking aside, this invitation does mark a departure from Frost’s approach and briefings beforehand suggested that a ‘re-set’ was in prospect, but that is hard to square that with the continuation of the Article 16 threat. At the very least, there’s no realistic way to re-set relations with the EU without also re-setting the promises to the ERG, which at her first chance Truss has failed to do.

The talks continue today so presumably there will be some statements later, although they are unlikely to be dramatic. It will, though, be significant if Article 16 is or isn’t mentioned. Maintaining the Article 16 threat is strange for three reasons. First, because, no matter what the more unlettered Brexiters seem to think, it doesn’t open the door to anything much except further talks with the EU and certainly doesn’t allow the UK to scrap or unilaterally rewrite the Protocol. Second, because acting on the threat would be likely, if not immediately then fairly soon, to entail some degree of trade war with the EU and some degree of diplomatic and economic pushback from the US, so as a threat it’s either self-defeating or unconvincing. And, third, because, unless all the reports to this effect are wrong, Boris Johnson had already decided not to act on this threat, thus provoking David Frost’s resignation.

Stick or twist?

Decoding what is going on in this ongoing Pontoon game is difficult and probably pointless. It could be that, perhaps because of Frost’s resignation, Johnson has changed his mind again. It could be that Truss is freelancing, perhaps with a view to cementing her own leadership chances if Johnson prevents her from following through on the threat. It could be a continuation of the persistent myth that ‘hard ball’ tactics will extract concessions from the EU at which point the UK climbs down on its most extreme demands – in this case an end to any role for the ECJ in Northern Ireland. It could be Truss playing to the ERG gallery. It could be that neither Truss nor Johnson really knows what they are doing, and just keep repeating the old familiar lines as if eventually they will make sense, or that ‘something will turn up’. It could be some combination of any or all of these.

At one level, all this can be viewed as part of the seemingly endless clown-show politics of Brexit and, certainly, as I argued in a recent post, part of the interminable internal fractiousness and factionalism of the Tory Party. But this is not a cost-free spectacle, and I see real difficulties ahead whatever the outcome, an outcome that must come soon – in weeks, if not days – whatever other political dramas are happening.

If, as common sense would suggest, the UK accepts a deal which involves, perhaps, a fudge on the ECJ – as implied in some recent reports (£) - as well as the already substantial accommodations on border checks and formalities offered by the EU, then I don’t think that the ERG and other hardline Brexiters are likely to sit back and take it. That is especially so given that Truss’s recent noises about Article 16 have suggested that the fundamental tenet of the NIP, Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods, is unacceptable, thus raising their expectations high.

The ERG already despise Johnson, and if he presides over any kind of ‘climbdown’ they will very likely move to finish him off, something not difficult in his weakened state. If that happens, there will be no need to shed tears except for the fact that if they succeed it is all but inevitable that his replacement will be elected on a more hardline prospectus, and so the whole saga over the NIP and Article 16 will start anew.

On the other hand, if Johnson (perhaps in anticipation of just such a scenario, or for other possible reasons discussed below) does now push things to a crisis with the EU, it will be by far the worst of the Brexit process to date, eclipsing the rows over the Internal Market Bill and the unilateral extension of NIP grace periods (with one immediate consequence being the resumption of the EU’s legal action over the latter).

How high a price are we going to pay for Brexit?

Whilst the hard line Brexiters are unlikely to care, it’s not clear how much more Brexit-induced damage Britain can soak up on top of all the problems of the pandemic and the growing energy and cost of living crisis. New analysis shows how, as EU trade recovers from the pandemic, the UK recovery lags behind. Manufacturers report and warn of the “soaring costs” of Brexit red tape, and an associated shortage of staff with the skills to deal with it, whilst industry is also bearing the costs of decoupling from the EU carbon market. The UK share of EU-funded science grants is slumping. The City of London is undergoing “a slow puncture” (£). And this is just a selection of this week’s damage reports.

It’s not, as is fatuously being discussed by Brexiters (£), that the government has ‘won the Brexit war but lost the peace’, it is that all the false claims made about the benefits of Brexit are gradually being found out. Brexit isn’t suffering from a failure to control the narrative. It’s simply suffering from failure. Do we really want to add the costs of a trade war with the EU? Nor would the costs be simply economic. If Article 16 is finally invoked, the reputational damage the UK has suffered as a result of Brexit and, especially, of the way it has been done, will be significantly added to, leaving the UK even more isolated from, and peripheral to, its natural friends and allies in the EU and the US at a time of growing tensions with, in particular, Russia and China*.

In her recent, and peculiarly hubristic, speech in the US, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt spoke as if with Brexit the UK had embarked on some world-leading, globally significant project to which the US and others needed to respond. Tellingly, embedded within it was a call to reject responses that, by implication, she realised were those most likely to be in her listeners’ minds:

“Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community. Or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished.”

For whilst, despite the paranoia of some Brexiters, there has been no interest in punishing the UK, the overwhelming view of its international friends is both to mourn Brexit and see it as self-harm. How could it be otherwise? As Michael Cox, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE, put it last year:

“Going it alone while taking regular potshots at the EU … might appeal to the gallery. But this does not change the simple fact that [the UK] now confronts an increasingly challenging international environment made up of an America in whose eyes it is now much less of an asset … a European Union which no longer trusts it … and a China too powerful to be pushed around or lectured … [A]s critics have been quick to point out … if the English were misguided enough to leave the biggest democratic and economic club in the world in which the UK had played a key role, whose members quite literally begged for it to remain, and through which it had amplified its voice in Washington, there would, in the end, be a price to pay. The only question remaining is how high will that price be and for how long will the UK be paying it?”

So could there be a Brexit re-set?

That last question, both as regards international relations and economics, is the crucial one now. We are where we are, as the political cliché has it, and what matters now is not so much to bemoan the past as to start trying to put matters right, the prerequisite of which has to be honesty. In an ideal world we would have a leader with the wisdom, insight and integrity to do this but instead we have the “unfathomably inadequate” Johnson who, reportedly, is “only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”. It’s hardly an auspicious basis to meet the needs of the nation. Cometh the hour, cometh the man isn’t usually thought of in the terms which, on that account, Johnson would rise to the challenge.

That challenge isn’t just one for Johnson, but for Brexiters more generally. In a sense, it is no different to when a person makes a series of catastrophic decisions against the advice of friends and family. It may be too much to expect such a person to admit all of their follies and recant them. Most people are too proud to do that, at least until they reach the proverbial ‘rock bottom’, and, for all the damage done, Brexit Britain has some way to go before that. Perhaps until then nothing can change for the better, but perhaps at least some Brexiters can be led to draw fresh conclusions from their apparent recent realization, discussed in my previous post, that their project has not worked out as they expected. It may be that they continue to ascribe that to Brexit ‘not having been done right’ but, even if so, they, too, need to recognize that ‘we are where we are’.

This is obviously an easier ask of the softer parts of the leave voting public than it is of the Brexiters, but it does need to include at least some of the latter, even if not the ‘Ultra Ultras’ I discussed in that previous post. At a minimum, it means them acknowledging that Brexit has significantly undermined UK trade and UK business generally, and that extensive regulatory alignment is necessary. It means accepting that the NIP has been signed and that the EU proposals for its reform are reasonable, and could be augmented by Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary alignment (which would also be helpful for GB-EU trade). It means seeking to deepen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes up for its five-year review.

All of this seems to be where Labour Party policy is heading, and whilst it is nowhere near enough to satisfy, let alone delight, many erstwhile remainers, it’s a lot better than what we currently have. So Keir Starmer might be, or become, someone to tell the nation some home truths about Brexit, but we are probably a long way from an election which it’s not clear that Labour would win anyway. And much damage will be done before then if the Conservative government refuses to undertake a ‘re-set’ over Brexit.

Perhaps it is simply impossible for it to do so given the intransigence of the ERG and others, and the lurking influence of Nigel Farage. It’s certainly impossible to over-state the rabidity of the core pro-Brexit vote as shown, for example, by the extraordinary articles on the Brexit Watch section of the Conservative Woman website, reading which would make you think you had plumbed the depths of madness – until you read the comments beneath them. Of particular note is the almost messianic appeal of David Frost, apparently betrayed “at the very moment of his triumph”, whilst Truss is regarded as suspiciously “malleable”.

Yet, for all that, there are still considerable numbers of Conservative MPs and voters, represented most notably in cabinet by Rishi Sunak, who, whilst certainly pro-Brexit, would just like to see an end to the endless aggravation it has caused. In particular, those whose support for Johnson was predicated on his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ are likely to push for, or reward, a re-set, of which the most tangible outcome would be a settlement of the NIP row. It is, admittedly, the puniest of pegs on which to hang any hope for common sense to prevail.

Less optimistic scenarios

If such a re-set is the most optimistic – or over-optimistic – scenario, then a full-on crisis over the NIP would actually be the second best. For all the damage it would do, it might conceivably be a route to that ‘rock-bottom’ moment when, after these five long years and more, the Brexiters might, perhaps, be forced to face up to some truth.

Some may think that the intense political crisis currently engulfing Johnson make it more likely that this is the route he will go down, as a distraction. I think such ‘dead cat’ diagnoses are very rarely realistic and, in this case, would be more like to add to his problems than distract from them, compounding the sense that he is beleaguered at home and abroad. Even if it delighted one wing of his party it would alienate others, and even those in the first camp would quickly be disillusioned when they saw that nothing had been resolved by using Article 16 (if this does come to pass, by the way, they will then demand an even more extreme act e.g. completely reneging on the NIP: remember, the Ultras have never accepted it in its entirety).

Instead, the most likely scenario, which is actually the worst, is one in which Johnson seeks to keep his leadership afloat, and his party more or less together, by a partial climbdown so as to do a deal over the NIP, whilst not really accepting it as a final resolution and almost immediately re-commencing complaints and demands for fresh changes. So neither crisis nor re-set, but his usual approach of getting through the moment to see what turns up (the approach, pretty much, that led to the NIP in the first place). In this way he would seek to partially satisfy the ERG wing and partially satisfy the ‘pragmatic’ wing.

It would be opportunistic, dishonest, destabilizing for Northern Ireland, and damaging to the UK’s interests, of course, but these would hardly occur to Johnson as being problems if they enable him to prolong his grip on power.

The lies that bind us

Indeed, if I am right that that the pre-requisite for dealing with the damage of Brexit is honesty, we could hardly have a worse Prime Minister than Johnson, who is not so much pathologically dishonest as apparently unaware that honesty is even a thing. Yet it is important not to over-state the significance of single individuals, both in general and in relation to Brexit. If, or – as seems increasingly likely – when, Johnson is replaced, his successor will be bound by the same, structural, constraints. Most obviously, these are to do with the nature of the Conservative Party and the power of the Brexit Ultras. More fundamentally they arise from the dishonesty built in to the entire Brexit project.

 

*For a more detailed discussion of post-Brexit Britain’s international standing, and especially its current relationship with the US, as well as many other aspects of the current Brexit situation, see this week’s excellent post on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker blog.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Brexiters now worry about the judgment of history

There is a line, attributed to the mathematician G.H. Hardy, that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God, that’s all in the way of business, but if he says he doesn’t, one can take it he means what he says”. What, then, of the claim that “the hopes of those who voted for Brexit in 2016 have not been realised”? Or that the introduction of the first substantive phase of UK controls on imports from the EU, which started on 1 January, “threaten to wreak havoc on Britain”?

Coming from remainers, such sentiments would no doubt be dismissed as business as usual, but in fact the first is from an article in the Telegraph by Nigel Farage (£) whilst the second is a headline from the Brexiters’ other house journal, the Daily Express. More generally, recent weeks have seen increasing numbers of Brexiters voicing disappointment or concern about the realities of Brexit, a trend given fresh impetus by David Frost’s resignation with its lament for the government’s failure to “deliver on the opportunities [Brexit] gives us”.

However, that certainly doesn’t mean that they have actually faced up to these realities, still less that they have recanted on their support for Brexit. These are not, in fact, Archbishops declaring their atheism. So what should we make of what they are saying? And why does it matter?

Denial and desperation

In general terms, that things should have reached this point was almost inevitable. On the one hand, much of the damage and failure of Brexit was predictable. On the other hand, as I’ve argued many times, the most committed Brexiters are so invested in the idea of being betrayed and of victimhood that no actual Brexit would have satisfied them. Taken together, this meant it was almost guaranteed that the idea that ‘Brexit would have worked but it wasn’t done properly’ would develop.

What was also almost inevitable was that some Brexiters would simply continue to deny the damage. So although many of them at least tacitly accept that UK-EU trade has by definition been permanently depressed by the introduction of new barriers, others still refuse to do so  an example this week being the high priest of Brexiter economists, Professor Patrick Minford. He makes the economically illiterate claim that “[civil servants] said that actually we'd be damaged because we're making trade with Europe harder – which is not really true. Because there's no reason for having a border with the EU making it much harder to trade with the EU; there are no tariffs because we've got a trade agreement”. It seems he has still not grasped the significance of non-tariff barriers to trade, nor spoken to the many businesses struggling with the new import controls, at least some of which will either go out of business or cease to import from the EU.

That, in turn, will impact upon prices and consumer choice, and that is more than a matter of the metropolitan middle-class being unable to find cheap chorizo (it being an article of Brexiter faith that working-class people only eat tripe and faggots, just as they never go abroad for their holidays and rarely visit, still less live in, London). To what extent remains to be seen, although the Express’s talk of “havoc” is likely to be alarmist. More likely, as with Brexit economic effects in general, the impact of import controls will be one of gradual degradation, with each year life in Britain getting a little worse and a little more constrained than it would otherwise have been.

This will be compounded as the successive stages of import controls are rolled out over the coming months. However, when that gets mixed in with pandemic effects and energy price rises, it will mean that there is no great moment of revelation that Brexit has failed, just the steady accumulation of a realisation – as is already happening, including amongst a large minority of leave voters – that this is so.

One way that some Brexiters seek to head off such an assessment is not so much by denying as by downplaying the damage caused, principally by pointing to the aversion of worst-case scenarios (or of trumped-up, hyperbolic versions of such scenarios). Thus when border controls do not cause visible queues at borders, as has largely though not entirely been the case this week, the suggestion is that this means everything has ‘continued as normal’. But this ignores the invisible effects of goods not shipped because the necessary paperwork is not ready, or orders cancelled as the new costs and complexities become clear. It also ignores the way that where trade flows do ‘continue as normal’, they do so with the higher costs embedded within them, costs which are ongoing and which have wider impacts, whether that be in terms of higher prices, reduced competitiveness, reduced funds for investment, or less employment than would otherwise have been the case.

In this way, the old battle about Project Fear is still being fought, as if the case for Brexit were made by the avoidance of predicted damage rather than the need to show positive outcomes. A particularly egregious example this week was an attempt by Conservative journalist and commentator Harry Phibbs in Conservative Home to discredit various predictions, going back to the referendum, about this damage.

It is such a mish-mash of cherry-picked evidence, quotes and assertions that it would take literally hours, possibly days, to disentangle and evaluate the validity of the claims he makes about the warnings that were made and their context, and the validity of his claims about what has actually happened. I did consider doing it, but it is just not worth the effort. In any case, much of it rests on a simple misunderstanding of treating heuristic forecasts of what would happen ‘if everything else remained the same’ as if they were predictions of what would happen regardless of anything else that might change.

Yet, for all its inadequacies, it is of interest for two reasons. Firstly because it shows the desperation of the Brexiters, in the face of their increasingly discredited project, that they need to rely on the argument that it hasn’t been as bad as some said it might be. A similar desperation is shown by the continuing reliance on the now stock lie that Brexit enabled the early rollout of Covid vaccines, as implied by Phibbs and repeated this week by, amongst others, the former Chair of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott.

The other point of interest is how, with a couple of exceptions, Phibbs’ list is all about the economic costs (or not) of Brexit. This is important, because it once again falsifies the other Brexiter argument when those costs are pointed out, which is that their project was never about economics but simply about regaining sovereignty. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this is entirely untrue and their proposition was, rather, that the (supposed) regaining of sovereignty would yield economic benefits, or at least would have no economic costs.

The new critique, aka the same old promises

That latter point is an important one, because it is the key to understanding the present raft of alarmed commentaries amongst Brexiters about what has (not) been delivered. For these all entail a recognition of precisely the fact that sovereignty was promised not just as an end in itself but as something that would have benefits. Thus, with denial and downplaying of damage now being threadbare arguments, and forced to confront the lack of such benefits, Brexiters are now once again promising that great things are, or could be, just around the corner.

This bounty is, unsurprisingly, to be realised by a combination of global trade deals and a bonfire of regulatory red tape, as argued again this week by, amongst others, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Hannan. Alongside these promises and, again and significantly, in the ferociously pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, articles by its Associate Editor (£) and Chief City Commentator (£) have warned, respectively, that the government is “squandering Brexit opportunities” and that “time is running out to prove that Brexit is not a historic failure”. Note, again, that all these supposed opportunities are economic, underlined by the way that Farage’s piece suggests that “supply-side reform could add 2 per cent to our GDP”. Whatever Brexiters – and, for that matter, some commentators on Brexit - sometimes say, their project has consistently made economic claims, relies in large part for its support upon those claims, and can legitimately be judged in terms of those claims.

Indeed, it is only a few months ago, at the time of the Tory Party conference, that Johnson made the claim that rising real wages was a key part of what the new post-Brexit model of the economy would deliver. In that regard, it is of note that the latest figures show that, even as he said this, real wages were static, and are set to continue to plateau or even fall in the coming years. It was in any case an opportunistic claim, designed to head off criticism of labour shortages, and little has been heard of it since. As always with Johnson, it was just a ruse to get through an awkward moment rather than a serious or sustained commitment.

However, this latest spate of commentary about the unfulfilled promises of Brexit does not mean that Brexiters have wised up to its realities. What the likes of Farage, Duncan Smith, and Hannan are engaged in is a rear-guard defence of their project which, whilst to a degree accepting that it hasn’t delivered, is also a doubling-down on the fantasies that it could, with one more push, be delivered. And, moreover, that if the government were sufficiently committed to Brexit then that final push would be forthcoming.

A conundrum for Johnson

For Johnson and his government this emergent criticism presents a conundrum. He can hardly admit that the Brexit that has been delivered is ‘disappointing’ since he is the one who delivered it, and is thus reduced to bathetic claims about re-instating crown marks on beer glasses and the use of imperial measurements on market stalls, which even Brexiters can see are pretty lame achievements. And whilst the government may sing the same tune as its Brexiter critics about future miracles in trade and deregulation it is constrained both by its continuing failure to deliver them and by the fact that a good section of its voter base, notably in the ‘red wall’ but also amongst its traditional farming and business heartlands, don’t want them. Moreover, no one believes what Johnson says anyway, for the sound empirical reason that he never tells the truth.

It is perhaps for this reason that he has followed his earlier, failed, attempts in December 2019 and September 2020  to stop cabinet ministers using the word ‘Brexit’ with the new style guide for the civil service which advises a similar silence. For it would indeed be easier just not to mention the B-word. Although even when unspoken Brexit proves to be a lose-lose, because whilst remainers mock the national liberation that dare not speak its name, Brexiters are furious that their project is being treated as if it were offensive or embarrassing.

If Johnson would rather not mention Brexit and the promises made for it, it is because he is now reaping the consequences of having been the most prominent person making those promises. From the very first, attempts to put Brexit into practice have revealed the falsity of the claims made for it. Only from outside of government can the fantasies be sustained and that is exactly what is happening again now. It’s already clear that trade deals will have no great positive effect, if any. Meanwhile deregulation is not generally wanted by either businesses and consumers, and both what it will consist of and what benefits it will bring remain almost entirely vague.

Fundamentally, this is because the Brexiter fantasies are incompatible with the facts of economic geography: the UK sits within the economic orbit of the EU because it sits adjacent to it in space. That won’t change, because it can’t be changed. There may well be some minor ways in which divergence from the EU will be both possible and beneficial. It’s conceivable, though at this point far from clear, that this week’s announcement on the post-Brexit farm subsidies system will become one of the more significant examples. But any programme of major regulatory divergence – on data protection, say – is only achievable at such huge cost that it would require an even more reckless government than this one to undertake it.

In a somewhat similar way, the realities of immigration policy, whilst it is certainly now very different as regards EU countries as a result of Brexit, in practice reveal the limitations and contradictions of Brexiters’ magical thinking. For whereas Farage’s article criticises it for potentially allowing a net rise in migration and thus breaking the promise of Brexit, businesses find it too restrictive and, as with the new terms of trade, massively increasing rather than destroying ‘bureaucratic red tape’ and thus breaking a different promise of Brexit. Meanwhile some of those most enthusiastic about the freedom to make global trade deals are the most pant-wettingly furious when they learn that such deals may, as in the case of India, entail liberalisation of immigration. Again this illustrates the way that all kinds of contradictory promises can be, were, and still are made to make the case, and maximise support, for Brexit but are revealed as incompatible when put into practice.

So whilst Farage and Hannan and Smith and all the rest of them can, from outside government, rail about all the things that should be done – as Johnson would most certainly be doing as well, if he were outside – the government itself cannot deliver them and, at best, can only go on promising or pretending to have done so, exactly as it is doing. This is a dynamic which is built in to Brexit and will undoubtedly recur for years and probably decades. That is partly because the economic effects – actual, potential or counterfactual – of Brexit are so complex and diffuse as to be endlessly debatable. But that dynamic is rather different as regards the other main ongoing Brexit debate, that over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

Northern Ireland: a different dynamic

The NIP debate is different because, although also complex and diffuse in some ways, it has a degree of specificity and precision: there is an actual legal text, with concrete institutional arrangements that flow from it, and a concrete set of negotiations underway about that text and those arrangements. Going back to Phibbs’ attempt to discredit ‘Project Fear’ warnings, it’s telling that his ‘debunk’ of the warning that Brexit would lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the utterly risible one that “the border remains open”. For, of course, this is the case solely because the UK government was forced, virtually at diplomatic gunpoint, to accept that this consequence of Brexit was totally unacceptable and to make some arrangement to avoid it. The Brexit Ultras have never accepted that any border was necessary at all, but that fantasy could not be sustained by the government, hence the NIP and the Irish Sea border.

Clearly, as the last year or more has shown, the government itself does not genuinely accept, and certainly has continually tried to wriggle out of, what it agreed. So far, that has allowed it, a bit as with promises of trade deals and deregulation, to pretend to the Ultras that a new and perfect Brexit, unsullied by realities, is just around the corner. Part of that pretence has been that Article 16 could, and would, be the ultimate route to this nirvana. However, unlike the promises about trade and deregulation, it cannot be endlessly deferred, or even to any great extent misrepresented by PR, simply because it is the subject of concrete agreement with the EU.

We are still in limbo as to how that will play out under Liz Truss’s oversight, but the negotiations can’t drag on forever and – not least because of US pressure – an invocation of Article 16 currently looks unlikely. It’s all but unthinkable that the outcome will remove the Irish Sea border and, at that point, all the denial and obfuscation will, for practical purposes, end. So whilst it can be expected that Brexiters, and especially the DUP Brexiters (£), will continue to regard the NIP as a betrayal, and whilst it may go on being a source of friction between the UK and the EU, it is different to the more open-ended and nebulous issues of trade and regulation. A permanent segmentation of the UK single market will be the undeniable legacy of Brexit, something never proposed to voters in the 2016 referendum.

Why does this matter?

All of this matters for what happens in everyday politics and economics, but most profoundly because it is the latest stage in the political battle for the meaning of Brexit. The Telegraph headline about whether or not it will be proved an “historic failure” is an acute and revealing one. Whilst they still don’t understand why, the Brexiters do sense that their project has gone awry and they do care about the judgment of history – or at least the most ideologically committed of them do, because they genuinely believe that they initiated a ‘national liberation’.

That was always absurd, both in what it implies about EU membership and given the fact that almost half those who voted didn’t want it. Because of that absurdity, I think that remainers have never understood that the Brexiters (to emphasise, I mean the most ideologically committed, hard core of them, not their camp followers or rank-and-file leave voters – the Ultra Ultras, so to speak) do believe it. They believed it in 2016 and they still believe that it will come to be seen as true.

No doubt the most committed of them will believe it forever more, and will also forever insist that true Brexit is just one more heave away or, at least, that it would have been possible had it not been betrayed. However some, at least, realise that public opinion is beginning to settle permanently to the judgement that it was a mistake, in which case their life’s work will be forever discredited. The latest opinion poll finds that 52% think Brexit is ‘going badly’ and just 15% that it is going well. That has been the case for about three months now and, whilst it is still very early days with a lot of neutrals and don’t knows, if it persists for long, it will indeed coagulate into the judgment of history.

The Brexiters are right to think that this is what is currently at stake, and the rest of us should realise it as well. For if – and in my view when - that judgment pronounces Brexit not just a mistake or a disappointment but an abject failure and a disastrous folly, then new possibilities will flow.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Brexit returns to its roots

I decided to take a couple of weeks off blogging in anticipation of a quiet period for Brexit news over Christmas. It wasn’t the most astute of predictions given David Frost’s resignation on 18 December, but perhaps there’s some value in having had a few days for the dust to settle on that before commenting on it.

Frost’s exit

That said, in some ways the resignation remains puzzling. Frost’s letter to Boris Johnson indicates his dissatisfaction with the government’s general direction of travel, including failing to make use of the “opportunities” Brexit gives and the introduction of Covid restrictions. Yet his political situation was an odd one. He was not an elected, or a career, politician who was ever liable to be asked to defend government policy in general. Of course he was a member of the government, but he was brought in solely to oversee the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, which turned out to mean, centrally, seeking to significantly renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which he had previously agreed outside government when he was Johnson’s Chief Brexit Negotiator.

Thus, immediately, his resignation was taken to be a result of his unhappiness with that renegotiation and in particular with what was widely rumoured to be a ‘softening’ of Boris Johnson’s position on removing any role for the ECJ from the NIP and on invoking Article 16. This is highly plausible, and now the general view of what happened, for if it were not so then, surely, at the least, he would have brought the negotiations to a ‘triumphant’ conclusion and then resigned at a logical point, calling it a job well done. Instead, as Johnson’s response letter pointedly implied, he had left with his central task unfinished.

Yet if successful completion was denied him by Johnson’s change of heart, then why not say so in his letter? It would have been far more damaging to Johnson had he said, in terms, that the Prime Minister was undermining gaining full freedom from the EU rather than, as he did, pronouncing that Brexit had now been securely done. If, on the other hand, he didn’t want to damage Johnson then why use the resignation letter to criticize the government at all? Why, indeed, resign at a time when, on so many fronts, the government is in crisis unless the intention was to cause maximum damage? But if that was the intention, then why not turn the knife by loudly saying that Johnson was ‘caving in’ to the EU, and betraying the sovereignty of the UK?

All this assumes that Frost was acting from high principle about the ECJ, but this opens up another set of questions. If it was of such principle then why had it not been mentioned until July of this year? And, given the late arrival of that supposedly crucial demand, was it not always obvious to Frost that the ‘climb down’ was likely to happen? On the other hand, Frost’s self-evident careerism to date would suggest that he would easily accommodate a fudge on the ECJ issue. Or is it that, as a belated convert to Brexit he had, as converts often do, become a fanatic? Might it even be that this fanaticism is compatible with his careerism, and that he hopes that by resigning now he finds favour with Johnson’s eventual successor and returns to office? But, if so, that just re-opens the question of why he didn’t use the resignation to directly attack Johnson’s approach to the NIP negotiations.

Perhaps the answer to all this is that Frost is as useless at drafting resignation letters as he is at everything else. Because, despite a slimy eulogy in Conservative Home, and his own high estimation of his achievements, it’s important to recognize just what a failure Frost has been. He was the one who negotiated the NIP – the supposedly crucial difference to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – that he and Johnson later disowned. He also agreed the Political Declaration that they both disowned immediately. He negotiated the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which wasn’t, as he claims, something people said couldn’t be delivered but a thin agreement limited by the government’s own self-harming restrictions. The damage of that to UK trade has already begun, and will worsen when, from next week, UK import controls are introduced. Despite his supposedly ‘hard ball’ approach, Frost got precisely nothing from the EU that wasn’t on offer anyway. Add to that the poison that approach has contributed to the UK-EU relationship and, now, his jumping ship before the NIP talks are concluded and it makes for a record of lamentable incompetence, mediocrity and inadequacy. But for Brexit, and Johnson’s patronage, he would never have achieved any prominence at all.

Enter Truss

Given his record, it’s arguable that Frost’s resignation is a good thing for Britain. I’ve been suggesting for months that his ‘Betamax’ approach to the EU is a block to a more pragmatic policy. But whilst getting rid of him is a necessary condition for such a policy, it is not a sufficient one. It also requires Johnson to change tack, and that in turn requires him to stand up to the ERG and its associates in the media. Here again the latest events are difficult to decode. If what provoked Frost’s resignation was such a change in tack then will it be enduring given Johnson’s own pathological inconsistency and his current weakness (and, if it won’t endure, then Frost might as well not have resigned)? He moved swiftly to appoint a replacement, perhaps to forestall a head of steam building behind suggestions that someone like Iain Duncan Smith be installed. That would certainly have done nothing to re-set UK-EU relations for the better. But what of his choice of Liz Truss?

Truss has now become a committed Brexiter and, her one-time support for remain aside, is very much aligned with the deregulatory hard right, having been one of the authors of Britannia Unchained. Her Brexiter credentials – and her now soaring support amongst the Tory Party membership (£) to be its next leader – rest primarily on her record of making post-Brexit trade deals. Of course these are almost all rollovers of pre-existing EU deals, and the new deals that are in prospect are of very limited economic value whilst being highly damaging to UK agriculture. But that preference for symbolism over substance might lead to her readily accepting a fudge in the NIP talks, especially over the role of the ECJ. So despite the immediate appearance that nothing has changed in the UK position, including over the ECJ and Article 16, many well-informed commentators expect her to be less confrontational and more flexible than Frost (if it proves wrong then, again, Frost’s resignation looks pointless).

Thus one reading of Truss’s appointment is that she will be the one to deliver Johnson’s reported desire for a climbdown. Another is that by putting her at the sharp end of negotiating with the EU, Johnson is setting her up to fail. For it is notable just how many Brexiters (or Brexit converts) have found it easier to walk away from delivering the practicalities than to acknowledge their fantasies – David Davis, Steve Baker, Suella Braverman, Dominic Raab and, now, David Frost are all examples. Truss has so far had the easier and more popular of the Brexit tasks – is Johnson now seeking to rain on the parade of her threat to replace him? Or has he handed her a golden opportunity to woo the hard core Brexiters at his expense?

Also highly relevant is the appointment of Chris Heaton-Harris as Europe Minister. Whilst not a household name, perhaps not even in his own home, he has a particular fame or infamy in the Brexit saga. A longtime member and former Chair of the ERG, he was the then government whip who in 2017 wrote to every university Vice-Chancellor in the country demanding to know the names of academics teaching about Brexit and exactly what they were teaching. It was a nasty piece of Brexit McCarthyism, and it largely backfired, but it shows his commitment to the cause, as well as something of his character. He also resigned as a junior minister at DExEU (in charge of ‘no deal’ preparations) over the extension of the Article 50 period in April 2019.

Whilst it remains unclear just how central a role he will play, his new appointment, reportedly, has reassured the ERG wing that there will be no ‘sell-out’ over the NIP which they detest. But, if so, where does that leave any re-set? And, again, if there is no re-set then why did Frost need to resign? Or, if there really is a re-set, how long before Heaton-Harris resigns? And if he doesn’t, then how will the ERG remain reassured by his continued presence?

Why so many questions?

The reason why all this analysis is so full of questions and imponderables is because Johnson’s position is now so weak, and because events around him are moving so fast. Thus it is perfectly possible that when Frost decided to resign (which appears to have been early in December) the Prime Minister was set on averting conflict with the EU, perhaps because of fears it would lead to a trade war and to opposition from the US President. At that time, the ERG were in an especially weak position because they had driven the fiasco over the attempt in late November to save one of their own, Owen Paterson, from punishment. From this, so many of Johnson’s current woes have flowed, including the loss of the North Shropshire by-election.

Yet the huge rebellion against Covid Plan B restrictions that occurred on 14 December and which was largely driven by the ERG (which now overlaps with the ‘Covid Recovery Group’) was a stark reminder of their continuing power. So by the time that Frost’s resignation got leaked to the press a few days afterwards, Johnson’s capacity to change direction on the NIP was already more constrained than it had been when the resignation decision was made. Hence, perhaps, both Heaton-Harris’s appointment and Truss’s apparently (or possibly) unchanged brief. I think that this sequence of events explains what happened with Frost.

All this points to a deeper truth. It’s not just that Frost’s resignation raises so many questions, it is that they all have one thing in common: the internal divisions and battles within the Conservative Party including battles over who will lead it next. Some might say that this is what Brexit has always been about, but I don’t think that is quite right. It is certainly true that the original impetus to hold a referendum was entirely to do with those internal divisions, and the related external electoral threat from UKIP, and it’s also plain that Johnson supported leave to advance his leadership ambitions. But in the years after the referendum, for all that those internal dynamics continued to matter hugely, what happened was that the entirety of national politics became hitched to, and in that sense transcended, the Tory Party battles.

Thus the issue of EU membership, that had hardly mattered at all to the majority of people before 2016, became the central, crucial and over-arching dividing line amongst the whole population. The virus, so to speak, jumped species and proved highly transmissible. Hence all the parliamentary battles of 2017-2019 were not solely, or even primarily, internal Tory conflicts. They were an accurate and necessary representation of the divisions that had engulfed the whole country as a result of the referendum and its result.

That national division hasn’t faded, by any means, but it’s notable that we hardly ever hear Brexiters talk of ‘the will of the people’ any more, as all pretence that this is some national ‘project of liberation’ has now been dropped. That is partly because there is now a fairly clear public consensus that Brexit has gone badly, even amongst a large minority of leave voters. But it is also because Brexit has returned to where it began, as a dog-fight between Tory factions.

It’s true that the ‘remain’ faction of the Tory Party, both in the country and in parliament, has all but disappeared since the 2019 election but instead there is a key division between the ‘deregulatory’ free market Brexiters and the ‘levelling up’ Red Wall Brexiters, and they have very different agendas. Tellingly, both of these agendas can be called ‘true Brexit’, reflecting the fundamental flaw of the entire Brexit project, namely its lack of definition, but also denying either camp the claim to represent ‘the will of the people’ in the way that, together, they did when scarifying remainers.

Johnson is dependent on both factions and, having no principles of his own to guide him, is buffeted around by each, whilst neither of them has any real loyalty to him. Indeed the newly-elected MP for Bexley voted against the government on Covid Plan B within just two weeks of taking his seat. Thus whilst on paper he has a strong majority, in practice his party is so riven that this is meaningless because there is a large enough coalition of willing rebels to defeat him in almost any policy area. So on Brexit policy – and, for that matter, policy more generally and Covid especially – he has simply lost control of events.

That has happened for many reasons, but at least one is just the latest version of the recurring dynamic whereby Conservative Prime Ministers are caught between inflicting massive damage on the UK and appeasing the unappeasable Brexit Ultras who are indifferent to all such damage. Hence, as regards the Frost saga, even if Johnson still wants to back-pedal on the NIP talks, he may not now be able to. It must be admitted that there is a certain piquancy in seeing him now exposed to precisely the political and moral delinquency which he exploited in order to gain power, and to the same, almost gleeful, disloyalty which he, himself, displayed towards his predecessors.

An “extremist rabble”

We’re about to enter the second year of ‘full’ Brexit in the sense of the end of the transition period, and there have been many excellent assessments of the how the first year has played out, including those by Bloomberg News, the Financial Times (£), and Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker (my own appears in the December print [subscription only] issue of Byline Times). As we do so, it’s important to understand that the dramas of ‘Frost out’ or ‘Truss in’ - and all similar events, of which we can expect many in the coming months - whilst important in some ways are only tangentially about Brexit.

To put it another way, all of the substantive questions and choices that Brexit Britain faces, including those arising from the NIP negotiations, in its relationship with the EU and the wider world exist independently of those political dramas. They can’t simply be a domestic matter as they were before 2016 precisely because Brexit has now happened and so, almost daily, practical matters arising from it have to be dealt with. These matters should be the stuff of national political debate, not least in advance of the scheduled 2025 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but the Labour Party is still wary of raising them, whilst the government has this week gone so far as to try to ban the official use of the very word Brexit altogether.

The absence of such debate doesn’t mean that the ongoing questions and choices won’t be addressed, but that the responses will be based solely on the outcomes of factional infighting in the Tory Party rather than on the basis of any strategic intent, still less of any sense of what might serve the national interest. In particular, what happens will be driven by Johnson’s own perception of interests on any one day and, relatedly, the extent to which the ERG fanatics are able to dictate his decisions, as well as, and perhaps increasingly, by how the battle to succeed Johnson develops.

In this sense, Brexit has returned to the ground where it was spawned, namely the dysfunctions of a Tory Party which, as the political commentator Nick Cohen put it this week, has now “dissolved into an extremist rabble that is contorted by magical thinking, heresy hunts, fits of temper and doctrinal spasms”. What happens to the rest of us and indeed to the country is, as it has always been, just collateral damage in that never-ending conflict.

Friday, 10 December 2021

Not my Brexit

The evidence that Brexit is causing mounting damage has been growing since the transition period ended, and has been catalogued in almost every post on this blog since then. It is also to be found on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker, Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downsides Dossier, the now closed ‘Keleman Archive’ of 1000 examples, the Brexit database, and a newish substack blog I have only just come across, Nick Tyrone’s This Week in Brexitland. The latest dollop of evidence comes with an excellent new report on the impact of Brexit on services industries by Professor Sarah Hall and Matt Heneghan for the UK in a Changing Europe centre.

That damage isn’t just economic. Those who believed promises of a boost for Britain’s global stature have been rewarded with at best international bemusement and at worst a country deemed untrustworthy and liable to break international law and treaty obligations. Those expecting a revivified national democracy have instead seen an illegal prorogation of parliament and a spectacular and ongoing power grab by the Executive.

Yet, for reasons ranging from the Trappist vows both Tory and Labour politicians seem to have taken, through to media and public pre-occupation with Covid, relatively little is heard of this Brexit damage (though, just this morning, the Express seems to be catching on). Those politicians, journalists, and academic or other experts who do speak of it are ignored or traduced by Brexiters as ‘remoaners’. Brexiters themselves, perhaps unsurprisingly, are reticent to discuss what is happening and when they do the guiding theme is to evade responsibility for it. Astonishingly, the government itself, according to leaked documents, has no measure of whether Brexit has been a success or failure. For some, Brexit was simply ‘the right thing to do’ so the consequences are irrelevant. Others ignore or deny the evidence of Brexit damage. Still others just disown it on the basis that ‘this is not my Brexit’.

Businesses suffer in silence

Amongst those we might expect to be making a noise and to be heard are businesses. It is they that are bearing the brunt of the economic damage, especially those which trade with the EU. A new report this week showed that cross-Channel delays are actually worsening, and there is a lot more pain coming in just three weeks’ time when the UK begins to introduce full import controls. As with all the new trade barriers, it is small firms which will struggle to cope the most and a recent Federation of Small Businesses survey suggests that only a quarter of such firms that import from the EU are ready for what they will face. Beyond trade, almost all business sectors are suffering from labour and supply shortages.

If we hear relatively little public clamour from businesses, and where we do it is more likely to be from representative bodies rather individual companies, it is for good reason. The story of Brexit and business is a complicated one, well told by Iain Anderson, Chairman of Cicero Group, and also discussed in a Mile End Institute podcast featuring Nicole Sykes (then Head of EU negotiations for the CBI), me, and Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London. In brief, businesses have been reluctant to speak out for fear of attracting government reprisals in one form or another, and of alienating leave voting customers.

Meanwhile Brexiters have never forgiven the fact that most businesses and their representative bodies opposed, albeit not very vociferously, Brexit before the referendum, and often warned against hard Brexit and no-deal Brexit in the years thereafter. One consequence is that throughout the Brexit process businesses have tended to be excluded from government consultation unless very clearly pro-Brexit, reflecting the cult-like approach to Brexit taken by both the May and Johnson administrations. Even now, anything they say is likely to be dismissed as remainer ‘negativity’ or ‘fearmongering’ as happened over warnings about HGV driver shortages and fuel supplies. On that occasion, an anonymous “senior government source” also ominously threatened the Road Haulage Association that “we will deal with them when this is over”.

To the extent business is able to influence government Brexit policy it is very much behind the scenes, as seems to have happened in relation to this week’s news that the UK is likely to postpone introducing its independent chemicals industry regulatory system. It follows previous postponement of things like the UKCA quality mark after intensive lobbying from the manufacturing sector. Backtracking on such things is welcome, and it could even be a prelude to abandonment, but neither is cost-free. The problem is the disruption and uncertainty, as well as the lobbying effort, engendered by the original rushed timescales and the ideological symbolism of creating meaningless independence. In a similar way, a National Audit Office report this week suggested that in rushing to make trade deals the government is neglectful of consulting businesses and consumer groups and, hence, of their substantive needs.

Pro-Brexit business voices

Overall, it seems fair to say that whilst businesses may be resigned to the reality of Brexit, they continue to be critical of the way it is being done. It is certainly not ‘their Brexit’, and whilst the state is on some accounts supposed to be the executive committee of the bourgeoisie that doesn’t seem to apply to Johnson’s ‘f*** business’ Brexit regime.

But what of those business leaders who were pro-Brexit? One difficulty here is that, compared with politicians, journalists, academics and media commentators, the numbers involved are quite small. Repeated attempts to construct pro-Brexit business umbrella groups, the most sustained being the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (ABE), have made little headway. It is hard to know who such groups speak for anyway – the ABE, for example, “does not offer formal membership”, and what little is known about it is, to say the least, underwhelming.

At all events, both before and since the referendum, whenever a pro-leave business person appeared in the media you could list on virtually the fingers of one hand which of the white, middle-aged and mainly titled men heroically taking on ‘the establishment’ it would most likely be. Tim Martin (66), Sir James Dyson (74) Lord (Anthony) Bamford (76), Lord (Simon) Wolfson (54), Sir Jim Ratcliffe (69) and Sir Rocco Forte (76) just about covered the main possibilities.

So far as I know neither Sir James nor Sir Anthony – both of whom have had extensive legal disputes with the EU (£) - have ever suggested that Brexit has had any downsides. In fact Dyson this week re-iterated (£) his opposition to the EU’s approach to regulation (though since in the example he uses, his own legal case, he won and the regulation was dropped, it isn’t a strong argument for Brexit unless he believes that British regulations are infallible). To the extent that he worries that the UK may continue to align with many EU regulations, which it probably will, it’s at least possible that he will come to think it was ‘not his Brexit’. As for Sir Jim, he too hasn’t recanted, although his decisions in 2020 to shift production of the Ineos Grenadier from Wales to France and his own tax domicile from the UK to Monaco were perhaps not exactly ringing endorsements for Brexit Britain.

Amongst the other high-profile figures, their most obvious criticism has been over the consequences of ending freedom of movement of people. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons spoke in June of the need to liberalise the immigration system, with special treatment for “countries geographically closer to the UK”. Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next, has also repeatedly called for more open immigration, especially given the labour and supply shortages which have emerged this year.

They were joined last weekend (£) by Sir Rocco, Chair of Rocco Forte Hotels, who also wants a relaxation of immigration controls which are too restrictive for his, and many other, businesses which face the fact that “it is obvious that there is no ready supply of labour available in the UK to fill vacancies”. Forte has the grace to note that “I am sure that some will say I should have been careful what I wished for in supporting Brexit. I would respond that the only issue determined in the referendum result was that the UK should decide its own immigration system. As a Brexit supporter, I wanted proper control over our borders, not their virtual closure”. It’s not his Brexit, it seems.

Yet this does not go so far as to take responsibility for the fact that he used his authority as a business leader to decry those warning of precisely what he is now bemoaning. For example, writing in the Daily Mail in July 2018, he said “concerns voiced by the big business lobby are little more than scaremongering, like the claim that any restriction on European freedom of movement will badly hurt recruitment by British firms. This is untrue. My family's hotel chain hired staff from all over the world, including Europe, long before the EU was even created. We will continue to do so after Brexit, especially because so many young people from Europe want to come here to learn English. Contrary to the hollow warnings from the pro-EU campaigners, migration controls will not mean an end to European migration.”

Wolfson, too, argues that Brexit only meant the UK setting its own immigration policy, rather than being anti-immigration per se. Yet before the referendum, when it would have counted more, his formulation that we must “place our trust in the collective intelligence and endeavour of Britain’s 30 million-strong workforce” did not, at the least, do anything to challenge the centrality being put upon immigration control during the campaign.

In fact, as I noted in my previous post, Brexiters on the free-market right were not, in general, especially bothered about immigration. But they chose to ‘ride the tiger’ of a project which had as one of its central selling points, if not the central point, profoundly anti-immigration sentiment. Within that same central narrative, softness on immigration, and opposition to Brexit, was associated with the self-interest of the “big business lobby” referenced by Forte. Moreover, in the post-referendum drive towards hard Brexit, it is undoubtedly the case that continuing freedom of movement was critical to the argument that soft Brexit would not honour the referendum result. Yet, far from questioning hard Brexit, both Forte and Martin made the case for an even harder ‘no-deal Brexit’, whilst Wolfson suggested that no-deal would cause only “mild disruption”.

The consequence of how Brexit was sold and then executed, whatever they may have wanted or expected, was to make it virtually impossible for the post-Brexit immigration regime to be a liberal one and, certainly, this government isn’t going to deliver it. So, in the absence of any suggestion that they now recognize they made a mistake in championing Brexit, the position of Forte, Wolfson and Martin would appear to be that of ‘this isn’t my Brexit’. It is a position shared by many of those, such as former Brexit Party MEP June Mummery, who regard what has been delivered by Brexit as a betrayal of the fishing industry. Indeed, following the complaint of one enthusiastic leaver about the airport queues he now experiences, “this isn’t the Brexit I voted for” has become shorthand to denote those who, whilst still supporting Brexit, rue some of its consequences.

Johnson and Frost: it’s not our Brexit, either

That some of the most committed Brexiters would regard what got delivered as, at best, unsatisfactory and, at worst, as betrayal was baked into Brexit from the beginning, of course, because what it would mean was never specified. So it’s not a surprise that they are now saying that it isn’t their Brexit or (which is slightly different, as it also suggests that their Brexit was real Brexit) that Brexit hasn’t been done properly.

What is far more surprising, not to say downright grotesque, is the fact that Boris Johnson and David Frost, whose Brexit it actually is, also consider that Brexit hasn’t been done properly, at least as regards the Northern Ireland Protocol. And they, too, suggest it is not their Brexit but, rather, the one forced on them by remainer MPs in 2019 and by the EU taking advantage of their temporary weakness (the golden rule for understanding Brexiters is that they are never responsible and are always the victims).

That has been their repeated complaint for months now, and it looks very much as if their attempts to negotiate a different Brexit to the one they agreed, signed and said was a triumph will now drag into the New Year. That may still bring a triggering of Article 16, although the fact that it has not yet been used, whereas in the summer the implication from Frost was that it would happen very quickly if UK demands weren’t met, suggests a degree of caution on the part of, presumably, Johnson. That may be as a result of the clear messages from the EU that it would make a robust response and/or because of US pressure, including the delayed removal of steel and aluminium tariffs. If that caution holds, and Article 16 isn’t used, we can expect years of being told that, yet again, the Brexiters didn’t get the Brexit they wanted because of EU bullying and US meddling.

History will judge?

This idea that Brexit hasn’t been ‘tried properly’ resembles, as I and many others have frequently remarked, the claims of some apologists for communism. It’s a slippery argument but at least has the merit of acknowledging that things haven’t gone as promised. But, again like some apologists for communism, they have a different trick in their book which is to say that it cannot be evaluated on present appearances or achievements but only in the (very) long-run. Be patient, comrades, our great cause will be proved right by the onward march of history.

It’s a trick that has already been deployed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who suggested it might be 50 years until the success or otherwise of Brexit is known. Lord (Digby) Jones, the buffoonish former head of the CBI who declared that “there’s not going to be any economic pain” from Brexit, subsequently suggested a timeframe of 100 years for judgment. This week it has surfaced again in an article on the Conservative Home website by Ryan Bourne of the CATO Institute (formerly Head of Policy at the Institute for Economic Affairs and, apparently, though all information about the group’s membership seems to have disappeared, at one time part of Patrick Minford’s Economists for Brexit).

Bourne argues that it is premature to gauge the economic effects of Brexit, and also wrong to conflate Brexit with whatever the Johnson government does or does not do, because the real issue is the possibility that British institutions will prove more economically liberal and more likely to create permissive regulatory regimes than those of the EU. Bourne believes this will be so, but suggests that whether it proves to be the case will only be known in the long-term, which he implies to mean something like 30 years.

Needless to say, this is sophistry of the highest order, arising solely because it has become impossible for any half-way serious person to argue that Brexit has been an economic success so far, or even that such success is imminent. So, conveniently, we are told to defer giving our verdict for a few decades. But Brexit was never proposed to the British people as something which might, perhaps, in many decades be a success but then again might not. Had it been, far fewer people would have voted for it than did – almost certainly too few to have won the referendum. Moreover, if Brexiters had really been serious about the long-term nature of their project, they would not have pushed so recklessly to ‘get it done’, treating all extensions, whether to the Article 50 process or the Transition Period, as treachery rather than careful preparation for an epochal change.

Avoiding accountability

It may be that in 30, 50 or 100 years there will be a consensus view but, in the absence of some decisive ‘Berlin Wall’ moment, it’s equally likely that Brexit will continue to be contested. Indeed we can already see how Brexiters have created the conditions for never having their project judged at all.

For when forecasts are made of Brexit damage, they invariably dismiss them as ‘just predictions, no one can know for sure what will happen’. But as soon as there is actual data about Brexit damage they say ‘ah, but this cannot be proved to be the result of Brexit’ - most notably, so far, because of the pandemic, but 30 years on there will be any number of other reasons to give, and it will get ever-harder to disentangle Brexit from them. Meanwhile, any time that anything good happens to the UK, or on any occasion that the EU experiences difficulties, they will say that this ‘proves’ it was right to leave.

In this way Brexiters protect themselves in a hermetically sealed bubble where both prospective and retrospective scrutiny is ruled out. It will always be either too early to say or too late to know. It is this which is the real significance of the ‘history will judge’ test. For Brexiters, it at worst defers and at best avoids accountability for what they have done. If nothing else it ensures that those who advocated Brexit will be so old, and so distant from having had any power or influence, as to be totally unaccountable for what they promised and what they did.

Take the high-profile pro-Brexit business leaders mentioned above: in 30 years’ time the youngest of them will be 84 and the oldest 106. Amongst the political leaders, Johnson and Farage will both be 87 whilst veteran Eurosceptic Bill Cash will be 111 years old. If we apply the Digby Jones time frame of 100 years, they will all be long dead. And if, by chance, some of the more youthful Brexiters are still around, or some miracle – or horror-film nightmare - of cryogenic storage preserves, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg to face the music, well, they will always have the first and last-ditch evasion of responsibility available. Yes, they may conceivably admit, it was all a ghastly mistake, but only because what was done was ‘not my Brexit’.

 

I will be taking a break from blogging for the rest of the year. My review of Brexit since the end of the Transition Period will be published in the December print edition of Byline Times. And if you haven’t read it, or are stuck for a Christmas present, you could always buy my book Brexit Unfolded. How none got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) published by Biteback earlier this year and available from all good booksellers.