Friday, 22 October 2021

A government that has lost its way

When I was at school – it must have been about the time that Jim Callaghan was (not) saying “Crisis? What crisis?” – I once received a damning report on my term’s work. “He seems to have lost his way”, it read, before adding witheringly “and what is worse he does not appear to care”. It is a verdict which could very well apply to Boris Johnson and his government.

After the complexity and drama of last week, this has been a fairly quiet one for Brexit news, for all that the Brexit-related (£) supply and labour crisis persists, with fresh reports almost daily including those of a “tsunami of unmet [social] care needs”, and the evidence of damage to trade mounts. At the same time, soaring energy prices threaten the viability of businesses, whilst the domestic energy market is in disarray (£). And ominously, but all too predictably, there are the increasingly worrying Covid developments. Not so much a matter of ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ as ‘Crisis? Which crisis?’

Against that background, the process of ‘getting Brexit done’ continues. Negotiations about the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have resumed between officials and although we can expect them to be punctuated with leaks and, possibly, angry statements, the relative calm will probably endure for a week or two more as they continue. In the meantime, commentators have been trying to make sense of what happened last week and to predict what it may lead to.

A fair summary, at least of those things that I have read, is that no one really knows. And I think it’s also fair to say that anyone who does claim to know is deluding themselves. Clearly there are two main dimensions of uncertainty: will the UK continue to demand significantly more than the EU have offered on the NIP, especially as regards expunging any role for the ECJ, and, if so, how will the EU react?

Has the EU’s patience run out?

As regards the latter, Tony Connelly of RTE, almost always a reliable guide, suggests that the EU is not in a mood to compromise further, and that patience has pretty much run out both in terms of Brexit in general and in terms of anger at British bad faith. A similar sentiment can be found in an editorial in France’s Le Monde, which bemoans the fact that “the nightmare of Brexit” continues despite the agreements that have been signed. Unsurprisingly, Dominic Cummings’ remarks last week about how the government never intended to abide by what it agreed in the NIP are given as evidence of that bad faith. It would be wrong to say that they were decisive, in that this bad faith has long been recognized, but coming at this particular moment they have crystallised that recognition and made the EU even less likely to concede more to the UK.

Whilst France is widely understood to be especially resistant to further compromise, Connelly’s report suggests that plenty of smaller member states, such as Greece and Romania, are similarly disenchanted with the UK’s approach of – as I’ve argued many times on this blog is its hallmark – constantly coming back for more, whatever concessions are made. The German press, too, is scathing. Writing an opinion piece in Die Welt, Stefanie Bolzen, its long-term and Anglophile UK correspondent, also cites Cummings’ comments in her critique of Johnson’s dishonesty and use of “shock tactics”, and urges the EU to respond with its own “hardball” approach if the latest proposals are not accepted.

Bolzen and Connolly both refer to how the crisis over Poland’s challenging of the jurisdiction of the ECJ serves to make EU concessions on its role in Northern Ireland even less likely. It’s an important point, especially within the context of a British polity and media which have never taken much interest in the internal dynamics of the EU and now, more than ever, seem to imagine that “Brussels” is constrained only by lack of goodwill or desire to thwart Brexit from simply granting the UK whatever it wants.

Will the UK persist with the ECJ demand?

In fact, even without the Polish crisis, the UK’s latest demand betrays the perennial Brexiter failure to understand the nature of the EU (or any other) single market, in this case that it has to have an ultimate and sole arbiter of its laws. If it did not, then commercial activity would become impossible as economic actors would have no definitive means of redress when laws are broken. Thus given that for some purposes, notably goods trade, Northern Ireland remains in the single market some role for the ECJ is inevitable there. If for no other reason than this the NIP is, despite Frost’s insistence, different from a ‘normal’ trade treaty. Indeed, although it has trade implications, it is not really a trade treaty at all; it is part of, specifically, the Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement.

Whilst, as discussed by Gerhard Schnyder, various models have been touted to ‘fudge’ the governance issue, all ultimately entail some recourse to the ECJ. So if the UK really insists that this violates sovereignty then it is hard to see any room for compromise. Some, such as former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton (another long-term Anglophile, by the way), believe that Britain is intent on conflict with the EU not so much as a result of some principled stance on ‘sovereignty’ but to scapegoat the EU for all the problems of Brexit. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, as acute an observer of Brexit as any, argues something very similar. I’m actually not so sure, in that I think that Johnson (shallowly) and Frost (through belated but genuine conversion) actually believe the ‘sovereignty’ line, and certainly that many of the Brexit Ultras pushing behind them to ensure the purity of the revolution do, as an article of – literally – faith.

One small indicator of this is the apparently absurd report (£) that Brexit Ultras including Iain Duncan Smith are pushing to ensure that Northern Ireland be included in the proposal to make it legal to sell goods using imperial units only, rather than using both metric and imperial (or metric only) units as required by the EU. This of course is not possible under the NIP because of it still being subject to EU law in this matter. Yet whilst this is indeed absurd (as, for that matter, were the ‘Metric Martyrs’ cases brought against traders for using imperial units only), it’s a longstanding and iconic issue for a certain segment of Brexiters, as I discussed when the proposal first appeared in Smith’s TIGRR report. Some even regard it as having played a pivotal role in the process than led ultimately to Brexit, and a campaign for pardons of those convicted was launched just this summer, showing that it is still a live issue.

From outside this segment of the Brexitosphere this seems quite ludicrous. There’s almost no one who wants to sell or buy goods in imperial units only. By extension, the idea that it matters whether the right to do so is shared by Northern Ireland seems even more trivial. Strikingly, it is the exact opposite to the EU’s approach in its proposed changes to the implementation of the NIP, which focusses pragmatically on the real and pressing concerns of Northern Irish businesses. But from within that segment, it is a matter of genuine concern and grievance, and is a specific example of why the continuing role of the ECJ is anathema.

Of course, as explained in my previous post, it is wholly unjustifiable for Johnson and Frost to suddenly claim that the ECJ’s role is a paramount issue of principle, given that they long accepted it without demur, but it’s important to understand that it derives from things which do matter for a noisy part of their core constituency. I think one of the biggest mistakes that remainers, or erstwhile remainers, have made over the years is to have under-priced the potency, for others, of things that they think ludicrous.

Whatever the motivation of the new demand, the hardening opinion in the EU (£) - not just in the countries already named but also in the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, for Johnson’s Britain has few, if any, friends any more - will hardly be mollified by seeing some of the things being reported in the British press. In particular, the suggestion that “government insiders” believe that even if agreement is reached in the current NIP talks there will still need to be further re-negotiations (£) will surely dismay the entire EU, as well as British people with any sense and, perhaps especially, Northern Irish businesses. Not only was it precisely to avoid such instability that arrangements for Northern Ireland were agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it also underscores that the British approach of always asking for more is indeed firmly built in to government thinking.

Nor will the bellicose noises about the possibility and perhaps even desirability of Britain fighting a trade war with the EU from Matthew Lynn (£) and others have gone unnoticed in the EU’s attempt to work out whether anything will placate the Brexiters. It may be tempting to dismiss the reports cited as being in the rabidly pro-Brexit Telegraph and Express, but readers in the EU will no doubt be aware, and I have certainly observed, how over the last few years ludicrous propositions from the Brexiter fringes have very often gone on to become government policy.

The domestic risks of a fresh crisis

I’m still not persuaded by the idea that there is domestic advantage for Johnson in continued confrontation with the EU, let alone a trade war, if that is what it morphs into. At the very least it would be an approach fraught with risk.

Johnson may believe, as some commentators do, that his party’s popularity is unassailable, and it’s true that most opinion polls show a remarkable continuing level of support despite the ongoing supply and labour crisis which might have been expected to dent it. But there is quite a bit of variation in the polls, which might suggest that his support is fragile. In particular, an acute piece by Matthew Parris in The Times (£) is right, I think, to suggest that if voters “join the dots” of the wide variety of crises – not all to do with Brexit – they may suddenly flip to seeing a wider picture of a government which is incompetent and seriously out of its depth over everything from food shortages to energy supplies, and from NHS waiting lists to its handling of the pandemic.

Adding a political crisis over the NIP and, especially, an economic crisis of a trade war with the EU - and, make no mistake, it would be a significant crisis, with ramifications for business viability, consumer prices, investment and sterling - might stoke up the angry support of Johnson’s core vote, but the rest of it could peel away very suddenly. Even without such crises, their continuing possibility is damaging, particularly for investment, and it’s hard to see businesses, already battered by Brexit, the pandemic and global supply problems evincing much enthusiasm for Lynn’s suggestion that they should now start ‘wargaming’ for a trade war. How much more damage can the already bruised and bloodied body of the British economy soak up?

Nor is the issue just one of adding a new crisis on top of others. It matters that it would be a specifically Brexit-related crisis. For, again outside of the hard core of its supporters, the government is rapidly running out of excuses for why Brexit hasn’t, as promised, been done. That matters because getting Brexit done was, by a long way, the most important issue for those deciding to vote Tory in the last election. More generally, it is getting more and more difficult for leave voters, a quarter of whom now think that Brexit is having a negative impact on the country, to think that they got what they were promised in 2016. Even the long-planned ‘Festival of Brexit’ is, apparently, going to drop the word ‘Brexit’ from its title (£), to the anger of Brexit Ultras. The new name for the festival is, provisionally, ‘Unboxed’, although one feels it cannot be long before that is replaced with ‘Undone’ or perhaps just ‘Unhinged’.

The dangers arising from old promises being broken is the more acute because of the new promises being made. The ongoing and likely to be long-lasting HGV driver shortage is a key example. As discussed in a recent post, the government has switched from saying this is nothing to do with Brexit, to admitting that it is and hence doing a little – but nowhere near enough – to address the problem with temporary work visas, to saying that it is a benefit of Brexit as it will increase drivers’ wages. This might have the advantage of giving the government multiple ‘lines of defence’, but has the effect of making each of them less plausible.

Thus when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a temporary suspension of the post-Brexit ‘cabotage’ rules last weekend it was another acknowledgment that Brexit is a factor in the problems, yet was a puny response to the problems whilst immediately being attacked by domestic drivers as undercutting their pay and conditions so that they are now threatening strikes. Meanwhile, to the extent that HGV driver wages are now rising, it is causing new crises as bus drivers (£) and refuse vehicle drivers quit lower paid jobs to join the freight sector, whilst the system for testing new HGV drivers is in chaos. This is all happening because, rather than plan a serious policy for what would happen when freedom of movement ended, the government insisted all Brexit problems were ‘Project Fear’ and now makes responses based on gimmicks and temporary headlines.

A government trapped by its own dishonesty

The cabotage example illustrates that the government can’t claim Brexit is going well on either the ‘old’ criteria (it will be beneficial or at least cost-free), because otherwise why make the change, or the ‘new’ criteria (it will be tough but will be good for domestic workers) because the change undercuts domestic workers. More generally it can’t anymore say the supply and labour problems are nothing do with Brexit, because of the tiny steps it has taken in a few sectors, yet nor can it honestly admit that Brexit is going badly which would be necessary to take the substantive and substantial steps needed to address the problems across the entire economy.

This is not just about Brexit in the narrow sense of this or that practical consequence, but in the wider sense of it having bequeathed a government and a form of governing which are irredeemably dishonest, first and foremost about Brexit itself. The tangle of contradictory lies is now so dense that it is impossible for this government to escape it, even if it were minded to. It’s commonplace to talk of the government gaslighting the public, but perhaps where post-truth politics ends up is with a government that has gaslighted (gaslit?) itself.

So, again, to add a really serious new Brexit crisis over the NIP on to this would be politically risky. On the one hand, the swirl of lies and half-truths may be believed by some of the public, and confuse enough more people into concluding that it’s impossible to know what the truth of Brexit is. On the other hand opinion may crystallise into an angry recognition that the public has been comprehensively conned by Brexit. Since either is possible, it is a risk the government may take.

So what now?

As I said at the beginning of this post, neither I nor anyone else knows what is going to happen. And that, actually, is the nub of the problem. The UK is drifting, with no discernible strategy in any of the things it is doing. Worse, it is bereft of political leadership, with about the only thing that almost everyone - supporter or adversary, at home or abroad - agrees upon about the Prime Minister is that he, too, is irredeemably dishonest.

Thus it’s possible that Johnson is planning a trade war with the EU. It’s possible he will fall into such a trade war without planning to. It’s possible he will invoke Article 16 in the hope of getting more concessions from the EU but without matters escalating so far as a trade war. It’s possible he is planning to do a deal with the EU on more or less the terms offered. These are all possible within the ambit of the ‘madman theory’ strategy I discussed at length last week, but they are also all possible if there is no strategy at all.

So what if it’s not so much that Johnson is deliberately keeping the EU guessing as to his intentions, but that he doesn’t actually know himself? That he, too, does not know what is going to happen next? In some ways that is the most plausible possibility since, after all, the Brexiters have never had any facility for, or interest in, planning, with Johnson especially cavalier. As he flails around between incoherent speeches and painting holidays, apparently oblivious to all the crises surrounding him, it’s not hard to think that, as my schoolmaster once wrote of me, he has lost his way and what is worse does not appear to care.

Friday, 15 October 2021

The moral turpitude of Brexit brinksmanship

As has been expected for some months, the autumn crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) began in earnest this week. Its outcome is difficult to predict, but has the potential be pivotal for UK-EU post-Brexit relations. There is some time to run before we get to that point, though. Indeed it is perfectly possible that the current phase will still be going on in time for the second anniversary of Boris Johnson’s election victory, won – it should not be forgotten - on the then dishonest and now discredited slogan that he would “get Brexit done”.

It has long been obvious, and Dominic Cummings confirmed this week, that, even whilst proclaiming that slogan, the government never regarded the NIP as a settled or legitimate arrangement. Indeed, from the outset, its fundamental provision of creating an Irish Sea border has been denied by numerous ministers, up to and including the Prime Minister, and ever since they have been chipping away at it. And within just two weeks of the NIP becoming operative Johnson was already threatening to invoke Article 16.

The critique that it is an agreement negotiated and signed by the government, whilst wholly justified, cuts no ice with Frost, Johnson or Brexiters in general. For those interested in why this is so, I’ve prepared a separate page on this blog, so as to avoid having to keep repeating it. For now, the point is that this latest crisis grows directly from the dishonesty and incompetence of what Johnson’s government did before, during and immediately after the 2019 election. It is a crisis of some complexity, hence this long and rather dense post.

The NIP row resumes

The summer holiday hiatus was set to be broken when the EU made its formal response to the UK’s July Command Paper* on Wednesday of this week. Its contents, which had been widely trailed in the preceding days, offer substantial compromises to the UK in terms of reducing border checks and customs formalities. There may be questions of whether they are as significant as is being claimed and reported, and an Institute for Government summary shows there are many gaps between the UK and EU positions. Still,  they go a long way to meeting previous UK demands, and would seem to deliver pretty much everything that businesses in Northern Ireland have been asking for. Notably, the proposals were very much framed by the EU as a response to these practical problems on the ground, rather than to the UK’s demands as such.

Although the government has said it will consider and negotiate with the EU on these proposals, before they had even been formally revealed David Frost had already effectively (though not quite in terms) indicated, both in a Tweet last weekend and then in a speech in Lisbon on Tuesday, that they were not acceptable. As so often before, Frost threatened to ‘invoke Article 16’ but, as ever, gave no hint of understanding what would come afterwards, or why he imagines that it would do anything to resolve matters. Porcine and graceless in delivery, and littered with patronizing and insulting asides, it was exactly the anti-diplomacy that Frost, whether through ambition or genuine conversion to Brexitism, has made his specialty.

The speech isn’t worth detailed discussion – Frost’s crude and self-serving narrative about why the agreement he negotiated only two years ago is a crock hasn’t evolved beyond that which I’ve analysed at length in the past. It was full of all the familiar Brexiter canards (listed in the new page mentioned earlier), and replete with the mixture of aggression, passive aggression and aggrieved victimhood that has characterised Brexit throughout. As Rafael Behr stingingly put it, it “was a whinge disguised as a hymn to national self-determination”. Its intellectual anchoring, if so it can be called, as with his Brussels lecture last year, is Edmund Burke’s outmoded eighteenth-century understanding of sovereignty, notable if only for being even more superannuated than Brexiters’ nineteenth-century understanding of trade.

What was important in the speech is, first, that, unlike the Command Paper, which was light on detail, it was accompanied by a full legal text of what amounts to an entirely new agreement.  This has been sent to the European Commission, and although it hasn’t been published it clearly isn’t a finesse of the existing NIP but a complete replacement. And, second, Frost put a new and strong emphasis on completely removing the role of the ECJ from the NIP.

There is some sophistry, as usual, about whether this is a new demand. Frost points out that it was mentioned in the Command Paper, and that is true, but it was only in passing. It certainly hasn’t been emphasised as a problem until now. The more important point is that not only was the ECJ’s role written into the NIP, it was part of the government’s own 2019 proposals for what became the NIP**, which also included explicit recognition of the need for regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and which envisaged regulatory alignment “over a potentially prolonged period of time”.

In other words, almost all that Frost now objects to, including the ECJ’s role, was at one time not just agreed to but proposed by the UK. This also means that the suggestion that the government’s own preferences were thwarted by the remainer parliament is false.

And even if there’s a case to trigger Article 16 on the (anticipated) grounds of the diversion of trade which is occurring (which is questionable, since it’s arguably not “anything beyond what could have been reasonably anticipated”) it cannot be argued this is so as regards the role of the ECJ. For that has not created a single practical problem and is highly unlikely to do so. It is only now coming to the fore as a purely ideological demand for theoretical ‘sovereignty’. Perhaps more significantly, it is a demand that the government must know the EU won’t accede to (at least in substance: a fudge is conceivable).

Why ‘hardball’ diplomacy is the problem not the solution

It is entirely unsurprising that, if not this, then something like it would happen. As I’ve outlined numerous times on this blog, the Johnson-Frost approach is not that of ‘normal diplomacy’, seeking concessions and offering reciprocal concessions, but one of ever-hardening demands, with each concession given seen as a sign of EU weakness and a demonstration that the ‘madman approach’ is working. The ultimate aim of this approach – more usually applied to nuclear warfare - is to secure all your negotiating demands under threat of being ‘mad’ enough to ‘press the nuclear button’ if the other side does not agree to them, regardless of any damage you, yourself, suffer as a result. It very much resembles the way the ERG came to dominate the Tory Party.

To say it isn’t normal diplomacy would not, of course, be regarded by Frost and Johnson as criticism but as praise. That’s because what is missing from their understanding is that their approach really doesn’t work very well. It’s true that the ERG got their Brexit, but ever since they have complained that it isn’t real Brexit. It’s true that the government got its trade deal, but it was defined not by what the EU had conceded but by what the UK had excluded itself from. And it’s true that Johnson got Theresa May’s “hated backstop” removed from the NIP, but only by replacing it with something he now professes also to hate.

The other side of the coin is that not only the Johnson-Frost approach but that of May and David Davis before it has entailed enormous costs to trust and goodwill with the EU, and it is actually this which has created so many of the problems which the UK government now complains of. The very fact that the EU was determined that an arrangement for Northern Ireland be agreed in advance of any trade deal and as part of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement was partly because, from the outset, the Brexiters downplayed or denied the Irish border issue. And when in December 2017 the phase 1 agreement on what that arrangement would be was reached, David Davis immediately disowned it as not being legally binding, making it all the more important for the EU to create a watertight agreement that the UK would not wriggle out of. What else to do, when the UK had demonstrated that it could not be trusted on its word alone?

Subsequently, the ‘hardball’ tactics of threatening to illegally break the NIP with the Internal Market Bill reduced trust even further and threatened (rather than, as the Brexiters imagine, facilitated) the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Now, the EU’s insistence on a role for the ECJ in Northern Ireland arises at least in part because it does not trust the UK with a more flexible, and therefore high-trust, arrangement.

In another tweeted comment this week, Cummings sneered at those bemoaning his admission of the UK’s lack of good faith in negotiating the NIP, saying “cheating foreigners is a core part of the job”. That may sound hard-headed in his geek-macho universe, but in reality it just makes it impossible to be trusted in a world where trust is typically needed to get you all of what you want. So the problem with the hardball approach isn’t that it is ‘nasty’ or ‘unconventional’, but that it is counter-productive in terms of producing the outcomes the government claims to seek. Far from being worldly-wise, it’s worldly-dumb.

Against all this, Frost and the Brexiters undoubtedly believe that the very fact that the EU is now tabling proposals to revise the NIP is proof that their approach works, and indeed such claims are currently being widely made. To a certain extent that’s true by definition, because if the UK hadn’t sought to change the terms then they would probably have stayed unchanged. But it misses what I think is a fundamental point, one which is as problematic for the UK as for the EU but is complex to unpack.

The perils of ‘madman theory’

Despite the breakdown of trust, and despite the UK’s abandonment of established rules of international relations, the EU has so far continued to treat the UK as if it is in the domain of normal conduct. To use the metaphor of a previous post, it is acting as if calm and reasonable discussion with an anti-social ‘neighbour from hell’ can still work.

In that sense, the EU isn’t actually responding to the UK’s ‘madman’ approach but to an imagination that its approach is still something more-or-less conventional, and not particularly different in kind to that of other third countries on its borders. No doubt that is in part because, viewed from the outside, it’s difficult to see how far and how quickly British political culture has moved from its long-established norms. In other words, the EU isn’t treating the UK as being ‘mad’, whereas the UK ascribes its ‘success’ to the EU seeing it that way - and so continues with that approach.

This sets up a dangerous little knot. In classic ‘madman theory’, A is really sane but B thinks he is, or may be, mad, and so concedes rather than face annihilation. In the present case, what if B (the EU) thinks A (the UK) is sane – but in fact A really is mad, or at least thinks that B believes he is mad, so no concession to him is enough to avoid annihilation? If that is the situation, then It’s obvious that what is in prospect is the near-inevitability of a really serious crisis, and it will come if and when the EU reaches the conclusion that it can make no more concessions to the UK and calls time.

There are signs that this point is approaching, and if it is then ‘madman theory’ will face its final test: if the UK is simply ‘playing madman’ as a strategy then, at the very last minute, it will back down and accept the EU proposals, or something like them. If, under the toxic influence of Brexiter ideology, the UK really has become ‘mad’, then the practical outcome is annihilation.

Of course in the present context we are not talking about literal ‘annihilation’ or anything like it, and for that matter we are not talking about a single, final event. The most likely outcome if there is no agreement on the EU proposals is that the UK then carries out the threat to trigger Article 16 and there would be some reciprocal measures from the EU in terms of heightened ‘market surveillance’ as well as the resumption of legal action against the UK. In other words, despite much talk to the contrary, there almost certainly wouldn’t be an immediate trade war, although that, in some more or less extensive form, could very well follow early next year.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that if Article 16 is triggered it would mark a dramatic and serious deterioration in UK-EU relations, as well as having repercussions for UK-US relations and possible security implications in Northern Ireland. Moreover, this would be happening in the context of the UK being already battered by the worsening Brexit-related supply and labour crisis and the energy crisis, and on top of the still smouldering pandemic. More fundamentally, any eventual trade war would be highly asymmetric in favour of the EU.

What are the politics of this?

So the government now has a choice. It could – and may – accept the new EU proposals, or something close to them, claiming it as a huge victory and gaining domestic kudos for the British Lion having humiliated the EU. But Frost’s pre-emptive strike seems to suggest that he has no intention of accepting them. If that is not the case then it was a remarkably unskilled intervention, making it harder for the government to do so.

For one danger of the Frost-Johnson approach, if it is designed to extract maximum concessions by making impossible demands and then backing-off from those demands when the concessions have been made, is that it excites such high expectations from the most hard-line Brexiters that the final backing-off becomes politically impossible. There are already signs that this is exactly how Brexit Tory MPs like David Davis (£) and John Redwood are responding to the EU concessions, as of course are the DUP. In the wider, and wilder, ‘Brexitosphere’, some are actively welcoming a trade war. In this way, the ‘madman’s’ pretence at being mad can become a terrible trap in which he is forced by his supporters into delivering the ‘annihilation’ he had threatened, even if he hadn’t originally intended to do so.

If – whether as a result of this pressure or because it was his intention anyway – Johnson does reject the proposals and does trigger Article 16, then of course the government will spin it as EU aggression and perhaps gain support as a result. In a sense, that has always been the ‘hedge’ bet of the madman strategy – if it fails then the government gets rewarded for being ‘plucky Britain’ standing up to the EU.

In other words, it is possible that from a domestic political point of view, even if the outcome is economically and diplomatically damaging, it might actually boost the government’s popularity. This might be especially so if it came at the same time as significant French action over Jersey fishing licences, such as the threatened cut to electricity supplies. For the reasons discussed in last week’s post, it is all too easy to imagine Johnson prioritising an immediate surge in popularity over any amount of damage to the country whose interests he is supposed to protect.

All this can be turned round and looked at from the point of view of erstwhile remainers. Some might hope that the EU taking a tough line with the UK might finally bring the country to its senses and dispel many Brexiter delusions. That’s possible, but for the reasons just given might rebound and entrench those delusions even more deeply. Conversely, some erstwhile remainers might fear that if the EU does now get tough it might be at just the wrong moment, giving the Brexit project a fresh injection of jingoism exactly as the supply and labour crisis begins to discredit it. That too is possible, but it might be that a new crisis over Brexit would damage Johnson and the Brexiters by exposing their false claim to have ‘got Brexit done’.

So these are both equally plausible (or implausible) scenarios, but the key point to make is that whatever the EU does or does not do it will almost certainly not be informed by the effect on UK politics – though how it affects Northern Ireland will be a consideration, not least because Ireland is a member state - and still less on what it does or does not do for erstwhile remainers’ ability to discredit Brexit. Those days, to the extent they ever existed, are long gone.

The moral turpitude of Brexit

Needless to say, none of these half-baked game theory constructs has the remotest relevance to those of us who simply wish to have a harmonious and prosperous relationship with our friends and neighbours. Nowhere is that more true than in Northern Ireland, where inevitably in the background there is always the memory and possibility of sectarian violence. Watching the second part of the BBC’s Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution this week served as a reminder of the horrors of that past, and also of the extraordinarily complex and intricate mechanisms that created the Good Friday Agreement - into which Brexit has thrown such an enormous rock.

Brexit is an ill-conceived project for all kinds of reasons, none greater than its treatment of Northern Ireland. From the casual dismissal before the referendum of the implications for the border, through the cavalier signing of the NIP, through to the current use of the Protocol as a plaything to demonstrate a bizarre theology of sovereignty at all costs, this treatment shows the moral turpitude that lies at the heart of Brexit.

 

*A small aside. I sometimes see people saying that Frost’s use of the term ‘Command Paper’ is yet another example of Brexiter, or just British, arrogance, implying that it is issuing ‘commands’ to the EU. There are many sticks with which to beat Frost, but this really isn’t one of them. A Command Paper is just a paper presented to Parliament “by Command of Her Majesty” – archaic, maybe, but nothing to do with Brexit.

**The link is to a Twitter thread by Professor David Phinnemore of Queen’s University Belfast, a leading expert on the NIP, and contains key extracts from the relevant documents as well as further links to the documents themselves.

Friday, 8 October 2021

The Brexit three-card Monte

For years many Brexiters – and some remainers for that matter – have been saying that the vote to leave was little or nothing to do with economics, but all to do with a desire for sovereignty and ‘liberation’. I’ve consistently argued that this was a myth, and that the Vote Leave campaign was to a large extent fought on ‘bread and butter’ issues such as wages, public services and housing, usually falsely linking them to reducing immigration and to the supposed EU budget contribution.

So it’s both surprising and unsurprising that as the interlinked fuel, supply and labour crisis drags on, ‘economic Brexit’ is now back in fashion, with Boris Johnson saying that “when people voted for change in 2016 and when people voted for change in 2019, they voted for the end of a broken model of the UK economy that relied on low wages and low skills and chronic low productivity. We're moving away from that”. On this account, the crisis is just a necessary part of this transition, with wage growth as the key metric of its success.

If that is indeed so, then it wasn’t necessary to leave the EU to achieve it and there isn’t, at least for now, and despite Johnson’s false claims about rising real wages, any sign that leaving the EU will produce it. Nor is it consistent with the government’s position on public sector pay. But as Professor Gerhard Schnyder writes on his invaluable Brexit Impact Tracker blog, whatever its economic incoherence it shows “a remarkable … shift in Brexiteer discourse away from sovereignty to wages”. In particular, it acknowledges supply and labour shortages as being a consequence of Brexit rather than, as before, nothing to do with it.

In this sense it shows the government realizing that the public narrative about the crisis – which, as charted in my last few posts, has been under contestation in recent weeks - has now pretty much settled on viewing it as in part a consequence of Brexit, and responding by trying to re-appropriate it as Brexit working as it was meant to.

This isn’t just doublethink ….

However it’s more complicated than a shift in messaging. Listening to government ministers you can still hear that the supply and labour crisis is a global event that is beyond government control as well as that it is part of a considered national plan and, even, good news. So it’s not that one message is being replaced by another but that they are being run simultaneously.

Johnson, inevitably, is the master of this illogic, managing to suggest within the course of one interview that the crisis doesn’t exist, and that it exists but is nothing to do with Brexit, and that it exists but is part of what delivering Brexit means. It’s like the three-card Monte scam in reverse: rather than the gullible punter never turning up the winning card, Johnson’s trick is to present whatever card he picks as being the winner.

Many commentators, such as John Crace of the Guardian, have been struck by the inconsistency or, as LBC’s James O’Brien put it, the ‘doublethink’ entailed in simultaneously deploying these contradictory rationales. Actually, it is no surprise at all, and it hasn’t just emerged this week, although Johnson’s statements have given it much higher profile. For example, earlier on in the crisis, at the end of August, I discussed how the statement of a government spokesperson explicitly tied it to the successful delivery of Brexit employment policy: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”. So throughout the crisis this and the contradictory claim that it’s nothing to do with Brexit have been in play.

… it’s Brexit doublethink

However, the more important point is that this is just the latest example of something inherent to the entire Brexit project. Always it has relied upon, and been permeated with, inconsistent claims produced at the same time and often by the same person. This also wrongfoots (and exhausts) opponents, who carefully chase down the flaws in one claim only to be confronted with a different, and diametrically opposite, one.

The ‘sovereignty at any cost’ and ‘all costs are Project Fear’ dyad is perhaps the most obvious example, and the constant slippage between and conflation of ‘Norway’ and ‘Canada’ models of Brexit during and after the campaign is another. Further examples include:

· The UK is a big economy, so is bound to get a good Brexit trade deal AND the EU is useless at making trade deals with big economies

· The EU needs us more than we need them AND the EU is bound to punish us for leaving

· Because the EU will give us a great deal, that proves it’s right to leave AND because the EU didn’t give us a great deal that proves it’s right to leave

· The UK-EU negotiations will be quick and easy AND the EU is slow and lumbering

· Germany always tells the EU what to do AND the EU can never decide what to do because it has to get the agreement of all its members

· We will threaten the EU with ‘no deal’ to get what we want AND a ‘no-deal Brexit’ would have no adverse consequences

· We don’t need a trade agreement with the EU, WTO terms are fine AND we must make trade deals with other countries rather than trade on WTO terms

· The EU is a bully AND the EU is weak and on the point of collapse

· Brexit will make us more global AND Brexit will protect local traditions and businesses

· Brexit will lead to a glorious future AND Brexit will reclaim the past

· Brexit will change everything AND most things will go on as usual

There are undoubtedly many other examples of the same thing, and at one level they could just be seen as normal political opportunism and, certainly, as one of the reasons Brexit was supported, since the very contradictions in the case meant it could mean all things to all people. But I think that the opportunism wasn’t just a tactic to win Brexit but was inherent to the intellectual and strategic incoherence of Brexit itself: it wasn’t a coherent project which was sold in contradictory ways, but its very incoherence lent itself to being expressed in such ways.

This matters hugely, now, because it explains why delivering Brexit is proving to be such a mess. The government oscillates between totally contradictory economic and geo-political strategies because the only guiding thread of its formation was to ‘get Brexit done’ (the ‘levelling up’ agenda is a sub-theme of this, in that it is presented as being what getting Brexit done enables), and that thread pulls in contradictory directions, for example as between free trade and protectionism. Moreover, whilst Brexit could mean all things to all people as a proposal, by definition it cannot do so in delivery, since its various aims and claims were incompatible.

The object of power is power

But that is only part of the picture, in that whilst it would have made delivering Brexit an incoherent mess under any Prime Minister and government it also interacts with the particular and peculiar nature of Johnson and his government. In C.P. Snow’s classic 1964 political novel Corridors of Power, the government minister at the centre of the story remarks that “the first thing is to get the power. The next – is to do something with it”. It’s almost a truism, and it’s easy to imagine almost any leading politician saying something similar.

But it very obvious that only the first part, and not the second, applies to Johnson. He may, perhaps, be interested in his ‘historical legacy’, but seems almost completely uninterested in what has to be done to secure a legacy worthy of the name. He is certainly totally bored with Brexit (“we’ve sucked that lemon dry”, as he put it recently).

Instead, and whilst there may be individual exceptions amongst his ministers it seems to set the tone for his government as a whole, his interest is solely in having power. As one anonymous former minister reportedly put it, “the trouble with Boris is that he’s not very interested in governing. He’s only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”.

Such a political rationality – if such it can be called – does drive a certain kind of political agenda, albeit a deeply pernicious one. First, to retain power by rigging the system in his favour and by providing his voter base with the culture war forays that energise it. And second, as ‘world king’, to dole out courtly favours in the form of jobs and contracts for cronies and vengeful banishments for the disloyal.

But when it comes to serious questions of government, his only response is to try to get through the next few minutes, or hours or days by presenting whatever bogus argument suits the moment. Thus the response to the present Brexit-related crisis, as to the delivery of Brexit in general, is of this sort. He probably knows, and many of his MPs certainly know, that his response is economic nonsense but, for now, it is an answer to why the country has to endure this crisis. Next week or month, it’s easy to imagine a completely different line being taken. For example, the already growing fears of inflation could lead him to say that wage control is the new imperative and, no doubt, that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to achieve it.

Northern Ireland: more of the same

Nowhere is the meeting of the inherent incoherence of Brexit and the depravity of Johnson’s approach to politics clearer than Northern Ireland. At the most general level, it’s here that the contradiction between leaving the institutions that removed borders and insisting that doing so won’t recreate borders has the most dangerous and destabilising effects.

More narrowly, it’s never been clear whether Johnson agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) without understanding what it meant, or whether he understood what it meant and never intended to honour it. Either way, it was another example of his lazily or dishonestly grabbing at a supposed solution to an immediate problem. This week David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit subbie, continued to make aggressive sounds about making major changes to the NIP under threat of invoking Article 16.

I’ve reviewed the bogus arguments about this for months now, as well as explaining why ‘invoking Article 16’ doesn’t provide a solution, and won’t repeat all that yet again. For now, I don’t see much point in further speculation – if Frost is to be believed we are only a few weeks away from substantive developments in the NIP row (as trailed in my post of a month ago, we are also about to see a significant escalation of the Jersey fishing rights dispute).

However, it is worth noting that on this issue there is also contradiction, with Johnson saying this week the problems were those of implementation and that it could work “in principle”, whilst Frost has said that not only the implementation but the actual construction of the NIP is flawed.

So again incoherent justifications are advanced simultaneously. If criticised for having agreed it, the response is that it is implementation that is the problem. If criticised for not having implemented it, the response is that the agreement is flawed. So back to why agree it? Because the remainer parliament constrained our options. So why sign it after you’d won the election? Because we didn’t expect it to be implemented so inflexibly. Pick a card, any card. Thus whilst the UK’s approach to the NIP row has been described this week as playing poker (£), its intellectual basis is the same old Brexit three-card trick.

There is also the contradiction, discussed in my last post, between the fact that it is in Northern Ireland that the supply and labour crisis is least acute, yet only here where the government insists the Brexit arrangements aren’t working and must be changed. Perhaps under the new messaging, in which the crisis is depicted as showing Brexit doing its necessary work of restructuring, we will now be told that the NIP must be changed in order to allow Northern Ireland to have its fair share of this beneficial crisis. For it now seems that success is defined as failure and failure as success.

The public verdict: Brexit has failed

As regards the wider Brexit situation, the public have a more straightforward grasp on all this, with a new poll showing that, overall, 36% think it has been a success and 52% think it has been a failure. Within that, there are significant variations between the four nations – in Northern Ireland just 18% think it has been a success and a stonking 74% think it a failure – but even in England the figures are 37% (success) to 50% (failure).

The variation in results amongst remain and leave voters is much as would be expected but intriguingly, given that the referendum vote showed no significant gender difference, they vary sharply between men (44% success, 49% failure) and women (29% success, 55% failure). I think this is the first time any opinion poll has shown anything much in the way of a gender divide over Brexit (for example, the latest poll on opinions about the main cause of the HGV driver shortage shows the single commonest explanation to be Brexit, at 35% amongst all respondents, but with no gender difference at all).

It is worth dwelling on these results. We already knew that the referendum was almost the only moment when there was a majority for Brexit, and then only in England and Wales, and that for almost the entire time since then there has been a small majority for remain. This latest poll (which of course may not be sustained) shows the majority in each constituent nation and in the nation as a whole, as well as the majority of women, think it is a failure. That is hardly surprising, considering the scale the Brexit damage catalogued in the remarkable Kelemen archive, now closed at an astonishing 1000 reputably-sourced examples. So for all the ‘will of the people’ rhetoric, Brexit is a huge national project which is being done without sustained national support or acclaim.

In the face of that it is really quite grotesque for David Frost to talk, as he did at this week, of “the long bad dream of EU membership” being over. Of course, that was in the context of the Tory Party conference, though it’s of note that 32% of 2019 Conservative voters, a not inconsiderable minority, also think that Brexit is a failure. That, too, is not surprising considering that Brexit damage now reaches deep into some of the traditional heartlands of the Tory Party in farming and business in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Indeed the party now seems decidedly anti-business in its latest stance on the labour and supply crisis (and interestingly is now even at odds with pro-Brexit business leaders). One Conservative MP, Chris Loder, who is apparently a member of the ‘Common Sense Group’, even suggested that the collapse of supermarket supply chains would be a good thing as it would mean “the farmer down the street will be able to sell their milk in the village shop like they did decades ago”. If the Tories are the party of business, then it’s business circa 1890.

Brexiters should be wary of hubris

Whatever the context of Frost’s words, there’s a serious problem in gloating over something which is so widely seen as having failed. Although this has not much dented the Tories in the polls (though that may be in flux), I continue to think that the disconnect between public opinion and what is a major and ongoing shift in national direction is going to play out in complex, unpredictable and far-reaching ways.

Frost also showed remarkable stupidity in suggesting that the New York Times report that the referendum result had “stunned the world” was some kind of endorsement for Brexit or for Britain. The reality, of course, is that Brexit has shredded Britain’s reputation and made us a laughing stock. That is obvious from a resumé of this week’s foreign press coverage of Brexit, and in cartoons as diverse as that in Germany, suggesting people visit British supermarkets to experience what life in Communist East Germany was like, to one in the Bangkok Post depicting the British lion leaping through a door marked Brexit and emerging as a dopey-looking pussycat. Indeed if Labour was really canny in attempting to tap into the fabled patriotism of ‘red wall’ voters, it could do worse than to circulate these images of what Brexit’s plastic patriots have done to us.

Frost’s remarks reveal a hubris amongst Brexiters which they’d be wise to be wary of. That was one of the thoughts prompted by watching the fascinating new BBC documentary series Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution, in that in its heyday New Labour, like Thatcher’s New Right before it, thought, as the Brexiters do, that they had redefined politics forever. In fact, not only does the ‘wheel always turn’ but, more importantly, each supposed triumph provokes and incubates surprising counter-reactions.

The other thought was a more melancholic one. Whatever one thinks of them and what they did, Brown, Blair and those around them were serious, committed, competent politicians who knew what they wanted to do and why, and, to an extent, how. For that matter, the same could be said of Thatcher and many of her ministers. It is a dispiriting contrast with the squalid and mediocre three-card tricksters, the architects and progeny of Brexit, who now govern us.

Friday, 1 October 2021

Denial deepens (Great) Britain's Brexit crisis

As the Brexit-related national crisis discussed in my previous post continues, including ongoing petrol shortages at garages, Brexiters are undecided as to what to make of it. Their boilerplate argument is that the crisis is nothing to do with Brexit, but something affecting countries around the globe including EU members, although this flies in the face of the evidence of how the single market gives logistics firms the flexibility to avoid shortages (£) and, hence, the lack of empty shelves and petrol queues.

Yet arch-Brexiter Allister Heath, Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, claims that “the Brexit-hating global elite is watching Britain’s chaos with glee” (£), which would hardly be possible if that chaos was not specific to Britain and related to Brexit, although Heath seems to be unclear whether it is or not. To be charitable, this contradiction might be explained by his claim that Britain is being “held to a higher standard” because of having had the temerity to defy global bureaucrats by becoming a self-governing country (sic). But, if so, that contradicts the longstanding Brexiter claim that such self-government is the global norm. Nor does it sit easily with all the breathless talk of ‘Global Britain’. But perhaps all this is to look for logic where none exists.

One way that, to the extent it is acknowledged by Brexiters at all, they explain the distinctively deep nature of Britain’s crisis is in terms of ‘panic buying’ as the cause, including the suggestion that it would not have occurred but for media reporting of minor shortages of petrol. Such is the diagnosis of ERG ‘Spartan’ MP Andrew Bridgen, based on the somewhat underwhelming evidence that it is what is said by “friends of mine” – a club to which it is hard to imagine a jostling queue for entry.

This doesn’t quite fit with the Brexiter stereotype of how stoical, unflappable Brits differ from their emotional and ungovernable continental neighbours, but it’s a truism that people won’t panic buy if they don’t know there is anything to panic about. However, it is ultimately absurd unless we want a media which does not report any shortages unless they are so widespread as to be calamitous, and also imagine that, especially in an age of social media, people won’t learn of them by word of mouth anyway.

In any case, it doesn’t tell anything like the whole story about why panic buying is happening in Brexit Britain.

Brexit-specific reasons for ‘panic buying’

Panic buying is well-known in many social sciences as a stock illustration of ‘the (collective) irrationality of (individual) rationality’, because for individuals hearing of actual or predicted shortages it is rational to buy, and yet the collective effect of them doing so is irrational in making the shortage worse or the prediction self-fulfilling. In that sense, this latest example is no different to many that have happened before. But it has two other features which are more or less related to Brexit, and therefore we can expect it, if not in relation to petrol then something else, to recur.

Brexit and trust

The first is that for several reasons, not all related to Brexit, public trust in what the government says is very low and so its messages of reassurance are likely to be ignored. Boris Johnson is perhaps a uniquely dishonest Prime Minister and, curiously, that is understood quite as much by those who support him – to some of whom it is actually part of his appeal – as those who do not. He sets the tone for a government which is cavalier with the truth and also more than usually addicted to performative symbols rather than substance and competence, and to campaigning rather than governing. That leadership and general tone are very much characteristic of Brexit and are some of the general threads that link the Vote Leave campaign to this Brexit government.

More specifically, this is a government explicitly constructed on the basis that Brexit, if even mentioned, must never be criticised. The refusal until this week of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to even acknowledge that Brexit is a factor in the fuel crisis is all of a piece with this, as is the ongoing refusal of other ministers to do so. Even more so was the attempt through anonymous ministerial briefings to blame the situation on “diehard remainers”. Thus the public, the majority of whom had already made the connection with Brexit, might sensibly conclude that the government would be minded to suppress any bad news which was associated with it and to use it as an excuse for yet more culture warfare against remainers. This, of course, is just part of the wider Brexiter attempt, mentioned above, to deny the role of Brexit in the supply crisis in the face of numerous objective reports to the contrary in the international media, the denial as much as the crisis itself being what is making the UK a laughing stock abroad.

The reality of post-Brexit fears

The second feature is a deeper one. If people believe that, generally, supply chains are fragile and liable to fracture then they are right to do so. That has become much more so in recent decades with the rise of extended transnational supply chains and of the use of just-in-time management techniques throughout them. There are arguments, not just on nationalistic grounds but on those of security, sustainability and environmentalism against those developments. Nevertheless, they have occurred, and unwinding them would entail costs, both in the prices and the ready availability of a massive array of goods, including locally out-of-season or ungrowable produce.

For example, overall about half of the UK’s fresh fruit and vegetables are imported from the EU, with sharp seasonal variations so that, for example, 90% of lettuces consumed in the UK in January come from the EU. For most such produce (some fruits are an exception) almost all of what is imported comes from the EU where it is not domestically sourced – distance matters for trade in general, but especially so for perishable goods - and for the most part it arrives on refrigerated HGVs via roll-on, roll-off ferries. As such, it is highly vulnerable to any delays or difficulties in transportation, both of which have been made more likely by Brexit and will become even more so if ever the UK becomes ready to apply full import controls.

If changing this way of organizing the economy was what people had wanted to do, it would have been a massive undertaking, but it would not have needed Brexit. As with the case of rewards and conditions for HGV drivers, discussed by Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times (£) this week, or of those for workers in general, we could – and many would say should – have done it anyway. Crucially, Brexit was never proposed as something which had this motivation or would have these effects. On the contrary, any suggestion it would do so, even to a much lesser extent than has in fact now happened, was shouted down as Project Fear.

So, with almost no discussion and very little time for preparation, Brexit dropped an enormous rock into what were already complex, fragile and highly calibrated mechanisms of domestic and international supply chains, making them even more fragile. Thus for this reason, too, the public are wise to be, as it were, on a hair-trigger to panic buy because if those supply chains collapse things that we have taken for granted for decades will fall apart, and things can get very nasty indeed. As we have seen this week, the consequences are not just a shortage of ‘avocados in Waitrose’, as prolier than thou Brexiters sneer, but can very quickly include funerals cancelled and old people left alone and soaking in urine because their carers can’t get the fuel to reach them.

Recurrent crises are likely

Given these things, we can expect the coming months, if not longer, to be characterised by intermittent recurrences of supply crises and panic buying, whether over particular goods or more generally. Even without that, we can expect continued price rises to the extent that the additional costs of trade created by Brexit are passed on from companies to consumers, as well as because of the rising cost of energy. Business groups are now warning of an ‘autumn storm’ of shortages and escalating costs (£).

The exact shape and extent of this is impossible to predict because what is going on is not so much an experiment – which would imply some deliberate and carefully managed process – but a blindfolded exploration of what happens to a country which is highly integrated into the international economy when it becomes less integrated, or integrated on different and largely unknown terms. Indeed, it is for that reason that currency markets are now treating sterling as if Britain were a developing country,

Apart from some of the more eccentric Brexiters, such as John Redwood, there is little appetite, and in any case no possibility, of the UK becoming a largely self-sufficient economy. So the most likely outcome is that richer people will be able to meet these rising costs and to preserve stockpiles against supply disruptions (the reason petrol is such a politically potent case is because stockpiling is very difficult). Going out to a restaurant, say, will become a bit more of a rare treat and a bit less of an everyday experience. People will have to get used to waiting for, say, new kitchen installations until the parts and labour are available. Some of these are ‘first world’ problems, perhaps, but the Brexiters never suggested that leaving the EU would mean ceasing to be such a country.

What about the workers?

As regards the labour shortages, there may well be wage increases though that is not yet clear, and if so rising prices may cancel them out. There is now an increasingly common expectation (£) that we will see the return of ‘stagflation’ – inflation with no economic growth. At all events, the government’s reaction to the HGV driver crisis shows what its approach to labour shortages is going to be. Obviously a few temporary work visas are going to have almost no effect, and whilst ‘deploying the army’ may give a certain sort of Brexiter moist feelings of excitement where none should be, it isn’t a sustainable solution either. More generally, the Home Office continues to refuse industry pleas to add the numerous occupations facing a recruitment crisis to the Shortage Occupation List, just as it did last year when all 70 of the occupations the Migration Advisory Committee recommended adding to the list were rejected.

Instead, the government (though not, perhaps, Johnson himself) continues to believe in the Brexiter shibboleth that domestic labour is sufficient for the economy’s needs, notwithstanding the fiasco of the now abandoned ‘Pick for Britain’ scheme and despite, as David Smith of The Times acutely explains, the absence of anything resembling a coherent labour and employment policy (£).

So, apart from simply ‘leaving it to the market’, there is likely to be a renewed push to make the unemployed – no matter for what reason, be it caring for relatives, precarious health or even irredeemable unemployability – work, and for people to work to a later age. Already we have seen suggestions that prisoners be used to work in the meat industry, and this week Justice Secretary Dominic Raab opined that they could undertake a range of jobs, including HGV driving. It can only be hoped that such novice truckers will be more skilled than the van driver who ran into the back of Nigel Farage whilst vainly searching for petrol this week.

It won’t be a pretty sight to see people, metaphorically speaking, flogged, into the fields but it is the logical corollary of the Brexiter belief, much on display in the fuel crisis, that the UK’s labour needs can and should be met by British workers.  It will be especially distressing for Lexiters to see where their naivety has led, but delightful for Tory Brexiters like Raab, Patel and Kwarteng who have long denounced the idleness of the British.

The latter doesn’t, by the way, mean that ‘this was always the plan’, as is so commonly and so tediously claimed on social media about each and every development in the Brexit saga. Anyone who still thinks there was ever ‘a’ plan for Brexit really hasn’t been paying attention over the last few years, or credits the bumbling, incoherent public face of Brexit – the Helmers and the Habibs, the Redwoods and the Rees-Moggs, the Bridgens and the Bones – with a hidden competence that flatters them considerably beyond what objective reason, or even the most generous charity, suggests is warranted.

The Northern Ireland difference

There is a very bizarre contrast between the government’s approach to Brexit in general and to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) in particular. The general approach is to insist that Brexit is having no adverse effects, despite the supply crisis, and that nothing about it is up for discussion, still less change. Yet the NIP, which is in many respects protecting Northern Ireland from Brexit problems, including that of fuel shortages, is treated as an unworkable disaster which must be completely renegotiated. Relatedly, whilst playing down or rejecting any suggestions that the new Brexit barriers are impinging on EU-GB trade, those same barriers are represented as devastating for NI-GB trade.

If there is a sense to be made of it, it may lie in the lingering unionism of the Tory Party and within that guilt about Johnson’s abandonment of Northern Ireland’s unionists in order to ‘get Brexit done’ and perhaps even fear that it will augment the boost to Scottish independence that Brexit has in any case provided. Be that as it may, what has been created by Johnson’s Brexit is something akin to a controlled trial in which the effects of hard Brexit in Great Britain can be compared with the effects of the (relatively) softer Brexit in Northern Ireland. The emergent differences in these effects are very clearly chronicled by Professor Gerhard Schnyder on the Encompass website.

All this might be taken to bolster my recent suggestion that David Frost’s ‘Betamax’ approach to the NIP makes the time ripe for it (and him) to be jettisoned, not least since layering a political crisis with the EU on top of the economic crisis seems foolish for a government that claims to have got Brexit done. But the contrary possibility, outlined by, amongst others, Baroness Jenny Chapman who leads on Brexit for Labour in the House of Lords, is that Johnson and Frost will escalate the NIP row into such a crisis by following through on their threat to invoke Article 16 in order to distract from the economic crisis.

If so, it would be deeply irresponsible, and designed solely to whip up the support of the Tories’ leave-voting base and the Brexiter press. That is hardly likely to deter Johnson if he calculates it would be an advantage, but I continue to think it would be a miscalculation. The latest polls show a very sharp change in public opinion over the summer about whether Brexit has been going well (18%, down from 25% in June) or going badly (53%, up from 38% in June) since the end of the transition period. The core leave vote might well see escalating conflict with the EU as a sign of Brexit going well, but that’s unlikely to be so for most voters, including many Tory voters. Indeed it is amongst leave and Tory voters that the sharpest falls in thinking Brexit is going well are to be found.

The first Brexit winter approaches …

How the government proceeds over the NIP will become clear in the next few weeks, and how that plays out will depend on many factors, including the EU’s reaction. Crucially, what matters is whether the supply crisis continues or even deepens in the run-up to Christmas as is being warned of, as well as what happens with the Covid pandemic, which is far from over. Nor should it be forgotten that although the Brexit saga seems to have been dragging on forever, we are still only in the first few months of actually living with Brexit, and there are key elements, such as import controls, which haven’t yet been implemented. A baby conceived as the transition period ended is still only the tiniest of infants.

Yet, having dreamt of Brexit for so long, and having promised so much for it, Brexiters already want it treated as ancient history and Johnson is positively bored with it. As Treasury Minister and long-term Brexiter Simon Clarke put it this week when asked about how Brexit related to driver shortages, even to raise the question is apparently to “take us back into a negative conversation”. But enacting a massive change to the entire direction of the country on the back of a tiny, and fleeting, majority, and in the face of deep hostility from a substantial minority, whose concerns were not just ignored but jeered and sneered at, was never going to work like that.

At the very least, the onus was on the Brexiters to show that they could make their project a success. As we approach the first winter of Brexit reality, it is telling that not only is no such success in evidence or in prospect but that they don’t even want to talk about it anymore. Perhaps that at least shows a degree of political sense, if not any contrition.

What is far more surprising is that, despite the opportunities it presents for Labour, discussed in my previous post, and despite the fact that a miniscule 3% of Labour voters think Brexit is going well and a whopping 81% think it is going badly, Keir Starmer’s party remains almost equally unwilling to do so (£). I suppose they don’t want to threaten the commanding lead in the opinion polls that their policy of Brexit reticence has bestowed them. Oh, hang on