Friday, 13 May 2022

For all the bluster, Johnson and the Brexiters still have no realistic answer to the 'Northern Ireland border' question

Last weekend’s results of the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) elections marked a significant moment both in the history of Northern Ireland and also in the Brexit process. That does not mean, as the front-page headline of last weekend’s Sunday Times had it – in line with many other reactions – that Sinn Fein’s victory “reignites Brexit tensions”. In fact, it is almost the other way around. The election result, with all the tensions it brings for Northern Ireland, is the latest manifestation of the ongoing fallout of Brexit. Just as Brexit is causing a ‘slow puncture’ of the economy, so is it gradually, and not always predictably, shifting the tectonic plates of politics. That is most evident in Northern Ireland.

The problem is Brexit

To say this was all but inevitable is not the wisdom of hindsight. In June 2016, two weeks before the referendum, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major spoke at a joint event in Londonderry/Derry, and Major’s words captured exactly what Brexit would mean: “All the pieces of the peace process jigsaw would be thrown into the air and no one knows where those pieces would land”. It was prophetic both in the certainty of the disruption it predicted, and the uncertainty of how that would play out. Meanwhile, Blair pointed out the core issue, which has been present ever since, namely that border checks would be needed either between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Needless to say, their warnings were derided by the Brexiters, none more so than those of the DUP. Nigel Dodds, then the Deputy Leader, called it “irresponsible nonsense” that was “dangerous and destabilizing”. Similarly, the then DUP Leader and First Minister Arlene Foster called the ex-PMs’ intervention “disgraceful” and then Northern Ireland Secretary and keen Brexiter Theresa Villiers said it was “highly irresponsible”. These condemnations were wrong then, and it is even more obvious now that Blair and Major were right.

Roll forward to 2019, when Boris Johnson came up with what he was to call his ‘oven ready deal’, and a great triumph for the negotiations led by David Frost, of which the key new element was a Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) that created an Irish Sea border. Once again Blair and Major warned of its destabilizing effects on the peace process, and that it would divide the United Kingdom. This time round, the DUP agreed. Yet David Trimble, the former leader of the Ulster Unionists, who had played a key role in the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA), pronounced Johnson’s deal “a great step forward” that was “within the spirit” of that agreement (he has since changed his mind). Crucially, in the House of Commons Johnson said his deal was “fully compatible with the GFA”.

Since then, what was already set to be a debacle has been worsened by the fact that Johnson’s government doesn’t accept the deal it agreed. Indeed, almost from the day Johnson signed up to it he and other Ministers denied that it entailed any sea border checks and, when that became impossible to deny, refused to implement key parts of the NIP and insisted that it must be, at the very least, substantially re-negotiated. Meanwhile, the DUP (and other unionist parties) want it to be scrapped altogether and for that reason will not participate in the power-sharing executive, making devolved administration impossible.

Bogus arguments about the GFA

There’s obviously much more that could be said about this back history (see, for example, Tony Connelly’s recent blog) but just from what I’ve provided here it’s obvious that the NIA election result represent an outgrowth of what Brexit set in train. It seems clear that the British government will now seek to use this result to re-intensify demands on the EU to change the NIP and, even, to threaten to change it unilaterally in defiance of international law. As this happens, it is important to recall that a majority of the seats in the NIA are held by parties which support the NIP, and also that the most recent opinion polls show that the NIP has the support of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland (Brexit itself, of course, did not have majority support there). That isn’t to deny that there is significant, deeply-felt and, indeed, justifiable opposition to it, which is putting significant strains on the GFA, but Brexit, and especially hard Brexit, meant that would be true under any arrangement – that was the whole point of the Blair-Major 2016 warnings.

The opposition to the particular arrangement Johnson agreed to inevitably comes (mainly) from unionists but, again, he was warned of that at the time and went ahead. It is that which gives the lie to the government’s current posture that the NIP has to be reformed in order to uphold the GFA. It always knew that the DUP and other unionists were opposed to it, but signed anyway. Why, if it is incompatible with the GFA?  It simply makes no sense now to claim that to be compatible with the GFA it must have the consent of both communities. Indeed in the very same passage that Johnson declared in the Commons that the NIP was fully compatible with the GFA, he criticised the idea “that it is thought necessary for one side or the other in the debate in Northern Ireland to have a veto on those arrangements” (i.e. the NIP) and said that the Brexit referendum itself mandated them. The consent mechanism was and is a majority vote in the NIA rather than a cross-community mechanism and, as the current situation shows, there is no automatic unionist majority in the NIA.

Nor can the justification be that the government didn’t understand what the NIP would mean in practice, and so it was only when its measures came into force that it realized it ‘violated’ the GFA. For one thing, the details of exactly what it would mean were spelt out at the time in the government’s own impact assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP. For another, the government was denying the meaning of what it signed and planning to avoid what was entailed within days of signing the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, long before it came into operation. That is further illustrated by the fact that the initial extensions of the grace periods on some checks were agreed in order to allow businesses to prepare for them. Why do so if the checks were in principle incompatible with the GFA? Moreover, attempts by Brexiters to have the NIP declared legally incompatible with the GFA have twice failed in the courts (there is an appeal to the Supreme Court under way).

The politics of the phrase “in all of its dimensions”

In fact, the government’s reason for invoking the GFA is a geo-political one. It has been emphasised primarily because, at least since the election of Joe Biden, it has been made abundantly clear that the US will not countenance changes to the NIP unless they are agreed by both the EU and the UK, with the reason given invariably being the need to uphold the GFA. As a result, since at least March 2021, when the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited the US, the UK government has been pushing the line that its objections to the NIP are, indeed, that it undermines the GFA (for more detail, see my blog from that time). This remains the line being taken now, in Conor Burns visit to the US this week.

The ‘code’ that has emerged for this is for the government to speak of “upholding the GFA in all of its dimensions”. Apparently anodyne, it is meant to suggest that whilst accepting there can be no land border the UK also rejects a sea border, implying it is the EU’s insistence on this that undermines the GFA whereas, in fact, it was the UK’s preferred approach, to which the EU agreed. The idea, absurd as it seems, appears to be that this formulation will lead the US to support the UK as it, too, supports the GFA and that Biden and other US politicians will somehow not notice this linguistic trick to get out of the NIP. As diplomatic manoeuvres go, this one would be transparent to a gullible and not especially attentive five-year old.

It is in this context that the superficially rather bland official response from the US to the NIA elections should be read. In emphasising the importance of re-establishing the power-sharing executive as a core part of the GFA it implied a desire for the DUP – the only stumbling block to this outcome – to do so. Equally important is what it did not say and, in particular, the fact there is no mention of either the NIP or the EU. That doesn’t preclude US support for further changes to the way the NIP is implemented but the fundamental political reality is that the US, certainly under Biden, will never support the UK against the EU in this matter, and in particular will not do so against Ireland. Moreover, as the EU has shown consistently since 2016, it, too, will not accept anything that Ireland does not accept.

This therefore means that there is no possibility of the UK resolving the NIP unilaterally or not, at least, without becoming something close to being a pariah state. That is not changed by the Ukraine War, as some Brexiters imagine, partly because, whilst important, the UK isn’t a big enough player as regards the war, and partly because, if anything, the war makes both the US and the EU even keener to uphold the rules-based international order, which means sticking to international agreements. Already this week Biden has warned the UK not to act unilaterally, as has the Irish Taoiseach, and Maros Sefcovic re-emphasised that any changes will have to be bi-laterally agreed with the EU within the overall framework of the NIP.

In that respect, the EU has already made substantial concessions to the UK, most especially as regards securing supplies of medicines to Northern Ireland, which the UK has this week again rejected. It’s possible that even greater concessions could have been made had the UK government not squandered all trust through its conduct since, at least, David Davis disowning the phase 1 agreement within days of it having been reached in December 2017. The subsequent threats to illegally break the NIP and the extension of the grace periods without agreement made things even worse. The consequence is that the EU has good reason to suppose that, under cover of being trusted with even greater flexibilities, what the UK would actually do would be to cease to operate any border at all.

The same old question: where’s the border?

And that is what the EU won’t give up on, because it can’t. There has to be a border. This is something which the Brexit Ultras have never been able to understand or accept, even though it is the inevitable consequence of their own desire to leave the single market and customs union. That is: they want to have a different regulatory and tariff regime to that of the EU. Fine - but where, then, does this regime begin and end? The answer can only be at a border. But there is no place to put this border as regards Northern Ireland which is politically acceptable to everyone involved. This is exactly where the “in all of its dimensions” formulation falls apart if it is taken to mean neither a land border nor a sea border. For, in that case, where is the border to be?

The UK government still has no realistic solution to this, after years of trying to find one, for a very good reason: there is no solution. Brexiters went all around the houses trying to find ‘technological solutions’ to having an Irish land border and they did not materialise because, as Sabine Weyand, then the EU’s Deputy Chief Brexit negotiator, pithily observed in 2019 “they do not exist”. If further evidence is needed, it is that if they existed then they could be used to do away with the sea border, but they haven’t been.

Indeed, the failure to create a seamless sea border through technology amply justifies why the EU insisted in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement that a ‘backstop’ be in place unless or until such technological solutions were available for the land border. Brexiters rejected May’s deal because, despite their claims to the contrary, they knew that there were no such solutions and therefore knew that the backstop would very likely end up being permanent. Their ‘solution’ became the ‘frontstop’ of the sea border that they never truly accepted and now disown.

Now the ‘solution’ has become, rather like the non-introduction of UK import controls, simply to act as if Brexit hadn’t happened and not to have a Northern Ireland border at all. Both are unsustainable in the long term, not just because of the EU’s need to maintain the integrity of its market but because, as Brexiters seem incapable of grasping, because of the UK’s need to maintain the integrity of its market. In any case, the decision about the Irish Sea border (unlike import controls) is not a domestic one, precisely because the government signed an international treaty which created it. This bad faith, and all that has flowed from it, is the not very heavily disguised sub-text of the EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic’s call on the UK, following the NIA election results, to “be honest” about the NIP.

What will the UK government do now?

There is little sign that the UK government will heed this call. It’s true that this week, after meeting the party leaders in Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis put out a statement calling for all the parties to participate in the devolved institutions, and noting that negotiations with the EU over the NIP were the responsibility of the UK government and shouldn’t preclude that participation. So that was a clear reproof to the DUP for its refusal to do so until the NIP had been completely re-negotiated (and, in effect, scrapped).

Beyond that, however, government policy remains opaque. For well over a year it has been threatening the use of Article 16 and, more recently, that has morphed into the threat to unilaterally disapply much or all of the NIP by changing UK law. Most recently, it was rumoured that a Bill to do just that would feature in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday of this week, but it did not. Yet, on the same day, it was reported that ‘next week’ Liz Truss will produce such a Bill, with the support of the Prime Minister. As noted above, this has already produced a flurry of warnings from the US, EU and Ireland, as well as the decision to send a heavyweight delegation from the US Congress to London and probably a special envoy from the US President to Northern Ireland.

At a certain point – perhaps already reached or passed – this posturing of endless threats with no action becomes laughable. Presumably it reflects sharp divisions within the government about how to proceed and, almost certainly, Johnson’s own indecisiveness. After all, one of the reasons behind Frost’s resignation was supposedly that Johnson had backtracked on using Article 16. Yet the subsequent idea of unilateral disapplication, which he apparently now supports, is far more extreme.

If this threatened legislation is announced, as now looks very likely, it would be a significant escalation, damaging to relations with both the EU and the US. However it’s important to understand that it still won’t be a decisive moment. It will take time for any legislation to pass, and when it is passed there’s likely to be a (long?) period in which Johnson threatens but does not necessarily invoke its provisions. In the meantime, the EU is likely to take some action – perhaps re-starting the legal cases over the grace period extensions, amongst other things – but negotiations are likely to continue, and I think an immediate full-on trade war is unlikely despite what some reports suggest (£). So the same dynamic of threats and possible backdowns of the last year or so will continue, albeit in an even more sour atmosphere.

It is obvious that the underlying issue is that which has dogged the entire Brexit process, namely the unresolvable political problem of the ERG and like-minded MPs. They will never willingly accept the realities of what Brexit means for, in this case, Northern Ireland and they are too strong simply to be told to do so. Thus, instead, the government keeps trying to appease them with threats of action against the EU, but can’t ultimately buck the realities. The result is this enduring limbo in which, if there is any discernible policy, it is the asinine one that if enough time passes then ‘something will turn up’. It’s even just about conceivable that we end up in the extraordinary situation where, in 2024 when the consent vote is due, the NIA endorses the continuation of the NIP whilst the UK government still insists it must be virtually scrapped.

There is a way forward

The strangest part of all this is that whilst, given Brexit, there is no truly satisfactory solution, there is a relatively simple way forward, which is compatible with the NIP and has been offered by the EU. It is for a UK-EU ‘Swiss-style’ Veterinary Agreement on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) regulations, which would massively reduce the border checks needed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and, indeed, between GB and the EU). It’s true that this wouldn’t overcome the most hard-line Unionist objection to having any sea border at all, although the DUP actually advocated it at one stage, and it would surely bring things to the situation that David Trimble accepted to be in the “spirit of the GFA” (because that situation had included a sea border), and offer unionists a reasonable accommodation of their grievances.

So what is the obstacle to this approach? In the first instance, the answer is the ludicrous obsession of Johnson and Frost with ‘sovereignty’ at all costs, making May’s hard Brexit of leaving both single market and customs union even ‘harder’ by refusing all forms of regulatory alignment. This meant that even though, in practice, UK and EU SPS standards were the same, the UK would not commit to their continuing alignment. So, for the entirely dogmatic reason that the UK ‘could’ change standards if it wanted, even if in practice it didn’t want or need to, the EU’s offer of an SPS agreement was rejected.

To the extent this had any rational basis (not that it was strong), it was that a future trade deal with the US might or would require SPS divergence from the EU. But, leaving aside the contentiousness of that, there is currently no prospect at all of a US-UK trade deal, and were one ever to emerge then the UK could at that point diverge (with the consequence of re-instating SPS checks, of course) because the EU have said that an alignment deal could be temporary.

A government that can’t get real

At some point Brexit Britain needs – or ought – to get real about Brexit as a whole and especially about the NIP. That would mean, first, disavowing all of the nonsense still being peddled about it by the Brexit commentariat, egregious examples this week being Daniel Hannan’s frankly childish and factually flawed diatribe against EU ‘vindictiveness’, and a similarly unhinged analysis from Allister Heath (£).  It would mean ignoring David Frost’s now weekly outpourings (£) mis-explaining why he agreed the NIP along with increasingly idiotic proposals for how it should be scrapped. It would mean ignoring the likes of Rees-Mogg regurgitating the updated version of ‘they need us more than we need them’. And it would certainly mean replacing Suella Braverman with a better-qualified Attorney-General rather than following her patently dud legal advice. Probably anyone who had studied law for five minutes at the University of Wikipedia would be an improvement.

Collectively, these and similar people seem intent on repeating all their mistakes of the last six years, only this time worse. They have self-evidently failed, as some of them half-admit.

Fundamentally, getting real would mean recognizing that the core problem isn’t the NIP, still less the NIA election results, but Brexit itself. And whilst it is certainly too much to expect this government to undo that, they ought at least to take responsibility for having made things worse by the insanely dogmatic form of Brexit they insisted on. However, precisely because of the internal politics of the Tory Party, that is very unlikely to happen. A few years ago, something like SPS alignment would not necessarily have been impossible to get the ERG to accept but, now, having been appeased at every turn, they would certainly regard it as unacceptable backsliding.

The consequence is either the continuation of something like the present impasse, with Northern Irish politics paying an especially heavy price, or the government finally carrying out its threats to renege on the NIP, for which we will all pay a heavy price. Not least of those prices is the sheer shame many of us feel for having a government so morally and intellectually bankrupt that these are the only scenarios in realistic prospect.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Brexiters are losing the post-Brexit narrative

A few weeks ago I wrote about what seemed to be an emergent ‘admission-yet-denial’ phenomenon amongst Brexiters. It was prompted by Rishi Sunak’s remark that the damage done by Brexit to trade with the EU was “inevitable”, whilst simultaneously brushing it aside as if unimportant. This phenomenon is also illustrated by recent statements from Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost, and, taken with other developments, it denotes an important stage in the failure of the Brexiters’ project.

Rees-Mogg’s banjaxed border

As regards Rees-Mogg, in my last post I mentioned without much discussion his confirmation that the introduction of import controls would, yet again, be delayed.  It deserves more comment, because it marks not just a further postponement but the first clear indication that the government will never implement controls to the full extent that the EU has on imports from the UK. Like Sunak’s remark, this entails an admission of just how costly the terms of trade agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) really are, yet without any corresponding acknowledgement that the TCA, and Brexit in general, are at fault.

This was made explicit by Rees-Mogg in talking about the costs of import controls to businesses and consumers. Whilst suggesting that because of the general economic situation now was the wrong time to introduce these new costs, the timing is irrelevant to the fact that the controls are indeed costly, to the extent of £1 billion annually. Similarly, his idea that it is a tribute to Brexit that the UK’s import controls need not be as extensive as the EU’s was an implicit admission of the costliness of EU import controls to British exporters. These and the many other costs of post-Brexit trade are quite as much “an act of self-harm” as the import controls that Rees-Mogg described in just those words.  

It remains to be seen just how much it is going to cost to introduce the supposed new high-tech systems that are going to create what the government claims will be the UK’s world-leading border. It also remains to be seen whether this will be introduced on time – or, much more likely, for how long it will be delayed – and whether it will be functional. Rees-Mogg’s latest announcement specified the end of 2023 for the ‘Target Operating Model’, with 2025 already set for the implementation of the full Border strategy. The track record of such IT projects in general is hardly an encouraging one, and especially discouraging is the post-Brexit Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) which has experienced repeated outages, including that which contributed to the huge Easter queues at Dover and other ports.

I’ve written several times before about the costs and risks of delaying import controls, and these will grow the longer it is before the Target Operating Model is in place. The dangers of this latest delay in terms of animal health and food safety are especially acute, as farming and veterinary groups have pointed out. Moreover, given that it now seems the government will never introduce all the physical controls originally envisaged, the money already spent by ports on preparations has been wasted, which may give rise to compensation claims (£).

These delays and changes of plan also tacitly admit another aspect of how badly the government has handled Brexit. For as well as involving an admission of the costs of the TCA, they show the incredible foolishness of not extending the transition period so as to allow time to put the new controls in place, as well as to enable businesses to prepare. For example, of the Border Control Posts required under the original Border Operating Model (now, apparently, abandoned), almost 90% were yet to be constructed and/or approved by the time Rees-Mogg made his announcement. It’s therefore worth recalling the history of the transition period both because it partly explains the current situation and because it illustrates how, like so many other things now happening, the roots lie deep in the entire Brexit process. To restrict the length of this post, I’ve written this history as a separate page. Of note within it is the role played by Rees-Mogg himself in strongly opposing having any transition period at all, not that he now takes any responsibility for the consequences.

Frost’s bizarre mental legerdemain

This brings us to another prime example of the admission-yet-denial phenomenon, as well as of refusal to take responsibility for failure, in the form of the increasingly bizarre outpourings of David Frost. Frost, placed in the House of Lords in order to be Brexit Secretary, renounced that role last December but still uses the platform it gave him in order to pontificate about how the job he no longer wants should be done.

Last weekend, in a strange attack on Peter Foster, the senior Financial Times and former Daily Telegraph journalist whose coverage of Brexit has been consistently excellent, suggesting that commentators had been consistently wrong in their predictions, Frost tweeted:

“'You will never get rid of the backstop': Done

'An FTA will take many years to do': Done in ten months.

'You'll never reach an FTA without the ECJ': we did.

'You can't leave the transition period at end-2020': we did.

'The French will retaliate over fishing': they didn't.”

Jumping to the fourth of these, as I’ve just mentioned, leaving the transition period at the end of 2020 created multiple problems. But no one said the UK “can’t” leave it then, just that it would be extremely foolish and damaging. So it has proved. On the fifth of them, Frost can surely not have missed the fact that relations with the France over fishing rights have hardly been smooth but, in any case, the fishing industry believes it has been betrayed by the deal to the benefit of the French.

Frost’s FTA boasts

Then there are the remarks about the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It’s quite true that most commentators thought it would take much longer to complete. That was partly because it wasn’t clear until the last minute whether EU law would require it to be ratified as a ‘mixed agreement’ by each individual member state or, as it turned out, treated as an EU-only agreement – so it wasn’t some indication of Frost’s negotiating wizardry. It was also because few anticipated that the UK would, under Frost’s negotiation, only want such an unambitious deal. So unambitious, in fact, that trade experts say it could have been done even more quickly than it was. In effect, it amounts to a tariff-free deal on goods, subject to rules of origin, with little on services or the removal of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) such as conformity assessment.

That this thinnish deal is seen as a great achievement by Brexiters reflects their outmoded pre-occupation with tariffs and goods trade. More specifically, it is a reflection of Frost’s own completely arbitrary claim that existing studies “exaggerate the impact of non-tariff barriers [and] they exaggerate customs costs”. Since these studies are un-named, it’s not possible to evaluate that claim, but Frost’s propensity to downplay them helps explain why the deal he negotiated is proving to be so poor for businesses now experiencing precisely the impact of NTBs and of customs costs. To put it bluntly: he guessed, in defiance of the evidence and to justify his approach, and he guessed wrong.

This is also a reason why his comment about the FTA confounding predictions of ECJ involvement is off-beam. So far as I can recall about the only person making that prediction was Nigel Farage, and it was false. An FTA, as opposed to a Withdrawal Agreement, without any ECJ role was always perfectly possible. But what that would and did preclude was any substantial removal of NTBs or liberalisation of services trade, which generally require some form of trans-national regulatory and legal oversight, and for trade with the EU could only mean some ECJ involvement. That was the price of prioritising ‘sovereignty’. So, as with the speed of the deal, its avoidance of the ECJ is a sign of how much less extensive his FTA was compared with, especially, having the “exact same benefits” as the single market and customs union or even the ‘deep and special partnership’ that had once been mooted. Hence Frost’s boasts are both an admission and a denial of his own, and Brexit’s, failure.

Frost’s backstop boast

But the most extraordinary item on Frost’s list is the first. Again, it contains at least a half-truth. It was widely predicted that it would be impossible to get rid of the backstop, because the EU had said it would not re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) it had drafted with Theresa May’s government. But this didn’t preclude doing what Johnson and Frost did, which was to resurrect, effectively, a version of the old phase 1 agreement on an Irish Sea Border – rejected by May as “something no British Prime Minister could agree to” – and implanting it not as a backstop (i.e. a fall back), but as a frontstop (i.e. from the outset) in their WA. Doing so didn’t confound predictions that the backstop could be disposed of, it simply dropped the very concession that May had obtained from the EU.

More to the point, it is precisely what he and Johnson agreed to replace the backstop which Frost has, ever since and with ever-increasing volume, been denouncing as an unworkable agreement, made only because the “Surrender Act” – as, putridly, he still insists on calling the Benn Act – tied the government’s hands, and which he says must be replaced or reneged on. So it takes some feat of mental legerdemain for him to also claim the removal of the backstop as a triumph that confounds his critics. It is as if we are expected to forget Frost’s role in creating the present situation or, more accurately, to accept his bowdlerized and self-serving account of it.

A pattern of admission and denial

The pattern, then, is clear. Both Rees-Mogg and Frost implicitly or explicitly admit to the failures of the Brexit they agreed or supported, whilst denying or ignoring that the cause is the Brexit they agreed or supported. And of course the same is true for all those MPs in the Tory Party, from Johnson downwards, and those MEPs in the Brexit Party, who signed or voted for agreements the effects of which, whether as regards import controls, the Irish Sea border, or the fishing deal, they now disown or seek to circumvent.

As Jonathan Freedland, one of the few high-profile commentators to pick up on the full significance of Rees-Mogg’s import controls announcement put it, “in the long history of Britain’s needless, pointless departure from the EU, Rees-Mogg’s admission should count as a milestone”. Should, certainly, but probably won’t because both his and Frost’s admissions are accompanied by deceit and denial about the causes of what they bemoan. Like alcoholics hiding the empty bottles and gargling extra-strong mouthwash, they hope that no one will notice their shaking hands and vomit-flecked clothes, or remember last night’s maudlin promises, lecherous advances and aggressive diatribes.

Strawmen, sophistry and sneers

Meanwhile, a different but hardly more endearing tactic is increasingly in evidence. Again, it’s one I’ve remarked on before and it takes the form of claiming Brexit to have been a success compared with predictions – usually garbled, hyperbolic versions of predictions – of the damage it would cause. Currently this is attaching itself to the UK’s response to the Ukraine War, as in a recent article in The Times by pro-Brexit columnist Iain Martin and a boorish Tweet from Conservative self-styled “pundit” Tim Montgomerie. Both position their arguments against a caricature of remainer claims that “nothing can ever go right after Brexit” (Martin) or that “Brexit Britain would be a marginal, isolated, good-for nothing (and racist obviously) country” (Montgomerie) which they then propose to have been discredited by the Ukraine War.

It would undoubtedly be possible to find someone who had at some time made these predictions about Brexit, but they don’t constitute the standard or serious anti-Brexit argument which is that it reduces British standing and influence, rather than eliminates it. But even if they did, then all that has been demonstrated by Ukraine is that Brexit has not done Britain the harm predicted, whereas it was sold on the basis that it would be of some benefit.

Perhaps realizing this, such arguments perform a sophistic pivot to imply or claim that Brexit has allowed Britain to respond to Ukraine in a way it would not otherwise have been able to. But little or nothing Britain has done required Brexit (though the idea that it has attracts some support [36%] amongst voters, especially [54%] leave voters*). Certainly sending arms and providing training, which has made a real and important difference, didn’t require leaving the EU as shown by the fact that it preceded even the vote to leave. Britain cut tariffs on imports from Ukraine unilaterally, which it couldn’t have done as an EU member, but the EU, which does far more trade with Ukraine, announced the intention to do so two days later. The UK and EU have enacted different sanctions in different ways and at different times, but as an EU member the UK could always have set its own sanctions in addition to any it participated in with the EU. And the UK response on refugees has been feeble compared with the EU, as it probably would have been anyway.

Similarly, the associated sneering at EU countries for what they have not done – especially in relation to providing arms or cutting Russian energy imports – is irrelevant, even it is fair or true, which is highly debatable, as a justification for Brexit. It seems to be based on the false premise that EU membership would only be justifiable, and/or that it was justified by remainers, if everything the EU ever does, and everything its members ever do, is beyond reproach from a British perspective. But that is a nonsensical idea. What is plainly true is that Britain no longer has any of the substantial influence it used to exert over EU policy, including, as in this case, over policy towards Russia and Ukraine. That is the loss that Brexiters were warned of.

Losing the post-Brexit narrative

So there are several strings of Brexiter argument on display at the moment. The doublethink of admitting Brexit damage but denying its cause, or boasting of supposed triumphs whilst disowning or ignoring their consequences. The negative claim that it hasn’t been as bad as some, or a caricature of some, warnings. And false claims about benefits (Ukraine being the latest, the early vaccine rollout perhaps the earliest). There are also, of course, still the flat denials of all the damaging consequences of Brexit, as there always have been.

What is striking is how convoluted some of these arguments are, and how defensive. If Brexit had been even half as successful as it was claimed it was going to be then, by now, you’d expect that to be easily demonstrable and increasingly self-evident even to those who had formerly doubted, or at least to a growing number of them. You would also expect a growing self-confidence from Brexiters so that they would feel no need to jibe – as Montgomery does – at “remoaners”. The magnanimity of victory, even though it eluded them in 2016, would by now be theirs. There would be clear signs of Brexit at least moving towards meeting the test for its success set by Frost himself, namely that by 2031 “nobody is questioning Brexit. It was self-evidently the right thing to do.”

In fact, apart from a couple of times in mid-2021, probably attributable to the government’s promulgation of the false belief that Brexit had enabled faster vaccine rollout, opinion polls since Britain left the EU have shown a clear lead of those who think in hindsight this was wrong thing to do so over those who think it was right. Over the last six months that lead has been fairly stable at about 11%-13% (the latest figures are: right 38%, wrong 49%, don’t know 12%). On the top political issue of the moment, there’s also evidence that a clear majority of both leave (57%) and remain (78%) voters think that Brexit has made the cost of living higher. This has been happening during a time when, in England at least, few national politicians have been openly criticising Brexit and when media coverage of it has been quite muted (and, perhaps for those reasons, Brexit itself is seen as a less important issue than it has ever been in recent years, whilst still ranking higher than, for example, pensions, transport, crime or education).

At the end of January 2021 I wrote a post on this blog arguing that the months to come would be crucial in shaping the post-Brexit narrative. Fifteen months on, I think it is justifiable to say that the outcome has predominantly been to frame Brexit as having been a mistake and a failure. The evidence for that is the opinion polls and also the way that, as discussed in other posts, so many Brexiters themselves now say that it has not delivered its promises. The latter, admittedly, is not quite the same as saying it is a failure, but it is a long way from a ringing endorsement. All of this is a long way from what success would look like.

Of course, the narrative is not fixed and may change. It’s clear that Johnson is trying to use the Ukraine War for that purpose (as well as for more general political advantage). It’s very possible that the government will re-ignite the row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, perhaps as early as next week, although there are somewhat contradictory reports about that (see here and here). If so, that may shift the dial by stoking anti-EU sentiment. And, as noted in that January 2021 post, unforeseen events may change the narrative in either direction. Still, it’s reasonable to think that the narrative that settled first is likely to be hard to dislodge.

What’s more, I believe that many Brexiters realise this, and it explains the increasingly convoluted and defensive postures they are adopting. This makes it all the more important to keep reminding them, and more importantly everyone who will listen, what they did and what it has led to. Eventually, doing so will have prepared the ground to do something different and better or, at the very least, it is a necessary precondition for that.

 

 

*The question asked in this survey is slightly ambiguous, though: “With the UK outside the EU, has the UK’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine been stronger, weaker, or similar to what it would otherwise have been?” Someone might very reasonably answer ‘stronger’, not meaning that Brexit had enabled this but that a desire to show its post-Brexit relevance had prompted the UK to respond more strongly than if it had still been a member.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Six years of failure

It is now just over six years since the start of the official campaign for the 2016 referendum, years which have transformed and polarized British politics, economics and culture. What wasted years these have been. For whilst Brexit is mainly discussed, including by Brexiters, in terms of whether or not it has been as damaging as the most dire predictions, it has also had a huge, if incalculable, opportunity cost.

Perhaps these years would have been squandered in some different way, but in principle so much might have been achieved but for all the energy and resources Brexit has soaked up. And it is surely the case that, but for hard Brexit fealty being the sole criterion for appointment, many current ministers would never have got anywhere near holding government office. For example, does anyone really think that, without Brexit, we would have Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging affectedly on the front benches and in a position to write his spiteful little notes in the name of ‘government efficiency’? Would we be saddled with a government which, judged overall, a mere 18% of people now think is ‘competent’?

They have certainly been years of failure, and whilst that failure may not all be down to Brexit it is inseparable from it so that, as I’ve argued before, we need to think in terms of the ‘post-Brexit condition’. That’s not because nothing else has happened or will ever happen apart from Brexit, but because Brexit marked a decisive, historic break in national strategy (according to Brexiters, especially) for the better (according to Brexiters, uniquely) and so it is legitimate to define and judge this period, which we are only at the beginning of, in those terms.

In this (even) longer than usual post I’ll look at some aspects of where these years have now led us. It’s a good time to do so, partly because the contrast is so great with all the pre-referendum leave campaign claims, and partly because the last week or so has seen some really quite significant developments in both the economics and politics of Brexit. Anyway, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend ….

A failing national strategy

I wrote recently of the many ways in which the country the Brexiters are creating is going rotten, with so many basic services not working properly, and each week brings fresh reports of what is now in danger of becoming a national calamity. Agriculture faces a growing crisis, with implications for the availability and price of basic foodstuffs, and there is a widespread shortage of both basic and vital medicines leading to a spate of abusive behaviour towards pharmacists. In both cases Brexit is explicitly reported as one significant factor. It’s the aggregate effect of these multiple Brexit harms that defines the post-Brexit condition. To get a sense of their scope, it is as always worth checking the regularly updated Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downside Dossier.

At the more macro-level, consumer confidence is at a 50-year low, not least because of inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, whilst the Office for Budget Responsibility expects this year to see the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. Brexit is certainly in the mix of this, too, because from the moment it happened the vote to leave, largely because of the drop in the value of sterling it caused, had an impact on inflation. So, by June 2018, the vote to leave had already raised consumer prices by 2.9%, costing the average household £870, with a related sharp decline in real incomes (figure 2 of link). Once Brexit actually happened, it introduced further inflationary pressures in terms of labour shortages and higher costs of trading with the EU. The eminent economist Adam Posen this week estimated that 80% of UK inflation is attributable to Brexit.

This week also saw the publication of a major study showing that Brexit has caused a 6% increase in food prices, and of another study which confirms a dramatic fall in the number of trade, especially export, relationships with the EU (what this means in practice is that large numbers of small firms have dropped out). As Posen pungently expressed it, the UK is “running a natural experiment in what happens when you run a trade war on yourself”. The results so far, his data also suggest, show just how damaging it is.

Overall, the latest IMF World Economic Outlook published this month has the UK set to be the slowest-growing G7 economy in 2023 at 1.2% (compared with 2.4% average for advanced economies and 2.3% average for Euro area) and to have higher inflation, at an average of 6.3% over the next two years, than Germany (4.2%), France (2.9%) and Italy (3.9%) as well as the non-EU G7, and higher than the advanced economies average (4.1%) and the Euro area average (3.8%).* In other words, it’s not just Covid, Ukraine, and global energy and supply chain factors, which have affected all countries. Something particular has happened to the UK and it has a name: Brexit. Indeed the IMF’s 2022 country report for the UK identifies Brexit, along with the pandemic, as having “magnified structural challenges” facing the economy. This is why, as other major economies ‘bounce back’ from Covid, the UK does so more slowly.

Brexiters like, notoriously, Michael Gove poured scorn on the IMF and similar bodies during the referendum. However, it’s reasonable to make use of their figures if only because, for months now, Boris Johnson has been trumpeting (and cherry-picking) OECD data to claim that the UK was the fastest-growing G7 economy last year. And whilst I don’t know whether he has explicitly tied this to Brexit (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he has at some point), he most certainly has linked it to the speed of the Covid vaccine roll-out, which he and other ministers have repeatedly, and entirely dishonestly, attributed to Brexit. So if such global economic comparisons are to be made then, with more justification than the government, it’s fair to claim that post-Brexit Britain is failing to deliver its promises.

The Brexiters have no new ideas

What’s most striking about that claim is that it isn’t ‘remainer moaning’. It is pretty much what every Brexiter, from Nigel Farage to David Frost to Iain Duncan Smith has been saying for several months now. They, inevitably, ascribe it to a lack of deregulatory zeal and to the need to press ahead with ambitious trade deals. The problem, to their minds, is not Brexit but that Brexit hasn’t been done properly. But the scope for de-regulation remains elusive.

In some cases, like Solvency II reforms or gene editing regulation, it is complex, time-consuming and, actually, likely to end up in a similar place as would have been the case without Brexit. In many areas, like conformity assessment, regional aid and, most obviously, trade, Brexit actually means whole new swathes of regulation and red tape, sometimes duplicating that of the EU, sometimes restoring that which EU membership had abolished. All of this reflects Brexiters near-complete ignorance of how regulation actually works and why it is necessary. Bluntly, they simply had no idea what they were doing.

In still other cases, like the dismantling of employment rights which the Thatcherite Brexiters undoubtedly hunger for, it may be that Brexit makes deregulation possible, but there is no political mandate for it and little political appeal in it. In that respect, such Brexiters are reaping the consequences of having sold Brexit and won the election with the aid of nativist and, literally, conservative votes. Nor, since it will cost some of them their lives, is it likely to prove popular with voters if the government decides to diverge from new EU standards on road vehicle safety in order to prove an ideological point about ‘freedom from Brussels’.

As for trade deals, they also encounter opposition from the public and, anyway, even the dullest-minded Brexiter (a title for which there is considerable competition, even if the field were restricted solely to those whose surnames begin with ‘B’) must be starting to grasp that they offer no economic salvation.

Thus, faced with a burgeoning economic crisis, this post-Brexit government is bereft of workable ideas. Its flagship policy has proved an economic dud, but it is inherent in the government’s very formation to be unable to admit that, or to produce any policies that might ameliorate it. Having smashed up the old order, all they can do is stare in slack-jawed bemusement at the rubble around them, like a convention of peculiarly vandalistic village idiots who accidentally got control of a wrecking-ball.

To the extent they have any ideas of how to proceed, these go in two contradictory directions. One is just to not implement Brexit so far as possible. This has happened with much of the Northern Ireland Protocol and, most strikingly, in the confirmation this week of the long-trailed fourth postponement of import controls. It’s a remarkable and explicit admission that Britain simply can’t afford the Brexit trade deal that Johnson pronounced a triumph, albeit one carrying its own costs and risks, as I’ve discussed at length in previous posts (e.g. here and here).

Their other idea it is to do the same thing all over again but ‘this time properly’, the latest manifestation being suggestions this week that the government is considering unilaterally abolishing several import tariffs, perhaps especially on food. It’s an idea that goes back to Patrick Minford’s extreme version of ‘true’ Brexit, with horrendous consequences for UK farmers and manufacturers, whilst also giving away one of the main bargaining chips for striking free trade agreements.

And it's no good Brexiters saying that leaving the EU was never about economics. First, both during the referendum and since they repeatedly made claims that it would be economically beneficial, and at the very least not harmful, hence all the effort put into the Project Fear rebuttal line. Second, although at one level describable (and dismissible) as ‘just economics’, when people can’t feed their families and are fighting to get medicines it is more than that.

Dangerous political trickery

Meanwhile, the astonishingly dangerous political trick the government used to ‘get Brexit done’ has blown up in its face. That, of course, was agreeing to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which it is clear the government never intended to honour, and which it sold to its MPs as a supposedly temporary measure. Yet, at the very same time, it was sold to the electorate as part of the ’oven-ready deal’ which would put an end to all the boring Brexit wrangling. Worse still, it was signed as an international treaty with the EU, which certainly didn’t regard it as temporary, any more than does the US.

This was done quite knowingly and entirely cynically, and it’s very difficult to think of any equivalent trickery in modern British political history in terms of that combination of national and international dishonesty. Not only was it dishonest, it was actually – I don’t use this word casually – wicked in that the patsy in this trick was, and is, the people of Northern Ireland and the fragile politics of their hard-won peace. This makes David Frost’s handwringing about that fragility in a repellently self-serving and disgracefully misleading speech about the Protocol this week all the more nauseating (alas, no space here to pull it apart, but see some thoughts from me and from Gavin Barwell, formerly Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, and the highly revealing and unusual comments from a former senior civil servant which clearly contradict some of Frost’s key claims).

What Frost and Johnson so wickedly did in 2019 created a carbuncle that has suppurated ever since. If there has so far been little domestic political price to pay for this, it is only because relatively few British voters outside Northern Ireland really understand or care about it. That’s especially so of English voters, who are the Tory Party’s main concern (£). It has also created less international drama than it might have done because the EU, perhaps partly because it is less careless than Johnson and the Brexiters about Northern Ireland’s peace, perhaps from uncertainty about how to proceed with its new ‘neighbour from hell’, has trodden a very soft path so far. Just how soft can be seen via the thought experiment of imagining the outrage with which the UK, and especially Brexiters, would have reacted if the EU had announced immediately after signing the Withdrawal Agreement that it had never had any intention of being bound by one of its key provisions.

Thus of the three audiences for this confidence trick – apathetic voters, a cautious EU, and Brexiter Tory MPs – it is the latter who have been most vocal in insisting that the government keep to its promise to them, that of treating the NIP as temporary. Northern Irish unionist politicians have also done so, of course, but, unlike Tory MPs, they never pretended to support the deal. Despite his large majority, Johnson has been vulnerable from the outset to ERG obduracy, and as his hold on office gets ever more shaky that increases. And under any conceivable replacement their power will persist. “So,” as RTE’s Tony Connelly concludes his review of the current situation, “nearly six years after the Brexit referendum, the EU and Northern Ireland remain hostage to Tory Party machinations”.

Northern Ireland: a litany of failure

The essence of this current, or at least emerging, situation is, as Connelly explains, the widespread report that the British government is devising a new way to renege on the NIP, or at least the threat of doing so in order to blackmail the EU into allowing it to renege. Rather than continue with the repeated threats to ‘invoke Article 16’, this new approach would amend UK law so as to disapply the NIP. In particular, it is reported by Connelly and others that the government is considering repealing Section 7a of the EU Withdrawal Act, the legislation that enshrines the Protocol into domestic law, a course of action which is also being urged by the Brexit Ultra commentariat (£).

The roots of this go all the way back to the total failure of Brexiters to understand or accept the implications for Northern Ireland of, at least, hard Brexit. I’ve written about that many times, and summarized some of the main issues on a standalone page on this blog. But its more proximate root – and this is an important point – is that the new approach demonstrates the abject failure of the old one. That is to say, all the threats of using Article 16, which started in January 2021, only weeks after the NIP came into operation (and before the aborted EU threat to do so, since used as a justification), have now been exposed as nonsensical. Having treated Article 16 as if it were some kind of route to disapplying or unilaterally rewriting the Protocol, something all credible experts agreed was untrue, the government seems to finally have understood this basic fact.

Along the lines of my previous post, this could be called a ‘we told you so’ moment although, also in line with that post, the government is not learning from its mistakes but compounding them by proposing an even more absurd policy. In fact, in its essence, this new approach relies upon the idea which also informed the eventually aborted illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill as well as one of the suggestions about how Article 16 could be used for the specific purpose (£) of ending ECJ involvement in the Protocol.

As discussed at that time at length by Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at Cambridge University, this underlying idea is the “facile” one, endorsed by the Attorney General and arch-Brexiter Suella Braverman, that the sovereignty of the UK parliament means that it can pass laws that somehow trump international law and treaty obligations. (Elliott also explained this at the time of the Internal Market Bill proposals, in an elegant essay which eviscerates the Brexiters’ entire concept of sovereignty.)

It’s not necessary to be an eminent lawyer, or even a lawyer, to see that this is nonsense: if it were true, no international agreement would have any legal standing at all. However, it seems clear that it is what informs the government’s thinking because when the new approach was first hinted at, by Jacob Rees-Mogg at the EU Scrutiny Committee a couple of weeks ago, he made exactly the point that the UK had the “sovereign right” to override the Protocol (£). (In passing, it is shocking that literally none of the Labour members of the committee turned up to this meeting, nor did the official SNP member, which is part of the wider story, for which I’ve no space here, of Labour’s near silence about the damage of Brexit.)

In any case, apart from its legal fatuity, it’s politically naïve. Domestically, there is bound to be substantial opposition from the House of Lords, and perhaps some Tory MPs, as there was to the Internal Market Bill clauses. Even more importantly, the international repercussions will be huge. It’s not only a matter of the non-trivial damage to the UK’s reputation. There is also the potential, at least eventually, to end up with a trade war with the EU (£) and diplomatic rupture with the US. Already the UK’s conduct over the NIP is costing it dear in terms of the continuing refusal of the EU to ratify UK membership of the Horizon Europe science funding programme in retaliation.

It is especially irresponsible in the context of the Ukraine War, playing into Putin’s hands by undermining the Western alliance against him. The government’s thinking seems to be that the war will actually make the EU more likely to yield to this new threat. It’s a shabby idea in itself, relying on others to put up with our behaviour because, unlike us, they are too responsible to give succour to Putin. And it may not be realistic, anyway. It seems to rely on the government’s illusion that it is somehow the leader of the Western alliance, whereas from an EU perspective the UK is an important, but secondary, player to the primary EU-US-NATO. Keeping the UK sweet by indulging a new tantrum probably won’t be a priority, especially after all the years of British antagonism and dishonesty. Moreover, it’s entirely inconsistent with Johnson’s reported desire (£) to “re-set” relations with France following Macron’s election victory this week.

Trapped in lies and denial

It remains to be seen whether the government is going to push ahead with this new approach – the consensus of knowledgeable commentators seems to be that it will, but that nothing will happen until after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. But, as with the latest postponement of import controls and the possible continuation of accepting the CE conformity assessment mark (ludicrously described in the Express this week as a ‘Brexit masterstroke’), the continuing ructions over implementing the NIP show the depths of the folly of Brexit in general, and the Brexit the government chose to agree to in particular.

What all three, and much else in the Brexit saga, share is a bull-headed denial of what hard Brexit means for customs and regulatory borders, and what they in turn mean for Northern Ireland, allied to a bone-headed concept of sovereignty. And so it goes on, year after year after wretched year. All the fantasies, lies and denials that permeated the dreadful referendum campaign six long years ago are still running into the rock of the realities of international trade and international relations. The government has no solutions because it has never been a government in any real sense of the term, just a vehicle for precisely the fantasies and denials of that campaign.

In consequence, its responses to the multiple and growing crises it has created veer between the ludicrous and the contemptible, dragging a bitterly divided country, the clear majority of which thinks Brexit was a mistake, ever deeper into poverty, decline, misery and disrepute.

 
 

*Barely, if at all, reported, perhaps because balance of payments scarcely features in UK political discourse any more, are the IMF’s latest projections for the current account balance (Table A10, p.153). Expressed as a percentage of GDP the UK deficit in 2021 was -2.6% with a forecast of -5.5% in 2022, then -4.8% in 2023 (advanced economy averages -0.7%, -0.1% and 0% respectively). It’s worth recalling the furore caused before the referendum when the then Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned of his concern that Brexit could test the UK’s reliance on “the kindness of strangers” to fund its current account deficit. At that time, the UK deficit was understood to be -3.7% (now adjusted to -3.6%) considered high by international standards (the advanced economy average was a surplus of +1%).

Friday, 22 April 2022

Sometimes, 'we told you so' is all that can be said

I don’t have time this week for my normal long post, but in any case last Friday's largely continues to cover the current political situation, dominated as it is by Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking, lying, and refusal to resign over them. It is a scandal described by the eminent, and generally measured, political historian Professor Lord Hennessy as “the most severe constitutional crisis involving a Prime Minister” that he can remember, with Johnson “the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life”. Yet neither the Tory MPs and party members who made him their leader, nor the voters who elected him, can say that they were not told what he would be like.

It is, as ever, worth recalling that Johnson and Brexit are as inseparable as a dog and its vomit. Yet even if the Prime Minister ends up being toppled by Partygate that will only remove the dog from the metaphor. That aside, this week’s Brexit news has been a case of fresh reports of the ongoing slow puncture effect so long warned of. Yet another firm departing Britain for the EU, this one the largest employer in leave-voting Newark, with the loss of 110 jobs. The realisation that EU regional development funds won’t be fully replaced, this time in leave-voting Wales. The realisation, reported in the leave-supporting Telegraph, of the high cost of post-Brexit pet passports (£). A Kent MP bemoaning the weeks of traffic chaos in her county, as if it had nothing to do with the Brexit trade agreement she voted for.

Warnings become facts

It’s a gradual accumulation of harms, each contributing a little more to the ‘rot’ discussed in my previous post (the rot motif also featured prominently in the media last weekend [e.g. here and here], suggesting I’m not alone in detecting the stench). As that accumulation proceeds we are seeing the warnings of Project Fear turn remorselessly into established fact.

One story this week provides a particular illustration of that process. It concerns the number of British firms setting up distribution hubs in the Netherlands, especially, in order to service the EU market (£). This enables them to avoid delays and other costs, such as multiple VAT registrations, but of course also impacts negatively on employment located and taxes paid within Britain. The reason this story is interesting is not because it is news, so much as because it isn’t. That’s to say, as the report makes clear, this shift has been under way since 2017 and was in part a consequence of all of the uncertainty about what the future trading relationship would be, as well as, later, a response to what it actually turned out to be.

The point is that it’s only now that it’s possible to see the scale of what has happened. In 2017 and subsequently commentators, including me in my own small way, were talking of how there would be such business decisions going on, unreported and unknown outside of the companies themselves, which would, indeed, be slowly damaging the UK economy. But that could be dismissed as alarmism or speculation in the absence of publicly available information, though even without such information it was obvious to anyone with a cursory understanding that it must be happening. Now we can see that it was the case.

Control of our borders: trouble ahead

Versions of this are going to go on happening for years as more and more of the effects of Brexit come to light though, just as the warnings were dismissed as speculation, when they come true it will be dismissed as ancient history. This is likely to be true of the heavily-trailed decision, reported with growing certainty this week, to yet again postpone the introduction of UK import controls, which now seems to be imminent.

Whilst being, preposterously, talked of by Jacob Rees-Mogg as if it is a benefit of Brexit to be able to ‘decide our own control system’, the reality is that the government has been forced to realise that the country simply cannot afford the consequences of the form of Brexit it chose, negotiated and celebrated. So, at least on those aspects of its implementation that the government controls, it seeks to avoid those costs without actually admitting to its errors or acknowledging that the warnings about them were true.

However, as I explained in a recent post, all this does is to create a new set of costs and risks, including those of a human or animal health scandal. As with the distribution hubs issue, at the moment that can be dismissed as speculation and scaremongering. If and when it happens it will be too late. So whilst ‘we told you so’ is one of the least appetising of personal or political reactions, it is one the Brexiters have forced upon those of us who warned, over and over again, what the consequences of all their decisions would be. What else are we supposed to say? What else can we say? It’s not – for me at least – said with any relish, just with resignation.

Control of our borders: contradictory promises

In a somewhat similar way, the news that there has been a huge rise in post-Brexit immigration from non-EU countries (£) is hardly likely to be welcome to at least one significant swathe of leave voters. Certainly, despite the Express’s headlining of the story as being one of ‘Brexit Britain showing its power’, its readers’ comments evince little enthusiasm for this development. But those paying attention during the referendum campaign would have noticed that voters were being given contradictory messages, which couldn’t all be true.

The loudest one, no doubt, was that Brexit would reduce or even end immigration. In a notorious vox pop, one voter said he voted leave “to stop Muslims coming into the country”. But ethnic minorities from non-EU countries were being promised easier rules for their relatives and ‘globalist’ Brexiters were saying, if not very loudly until the day after the referendum, that, overall, Brexit might very well mean higher net migration.

Personally, I think the news on immigration is welcome and necessary, in and of itself. However, it is crucial to recognize that ‘migration’ and ‘freedom of movement of people’ are very different things, with the latter, which has been lost, very much preferable. It is preferable economically, because it makes it easier and far less bureaucratic to employ workers from overseas. It is preferable socially, in enabling an easy, flexible and genuine intermingling of families and cultures compared with a system based of time-limited work visas and points. And, much forgotten in the whole discussion, freedom of movement was a right that British people also had and have now lost, and with no compensatory easing of their ability to move to non-EU countries.

So, once again, as the realities of Brexit gradually emerge, so too does it emerge that pretty much no-one – leave or remain voters alike – is getting what they wanted or were promised. Whose fault is that? Not really those who voted to leave, and obviously not those who voted to remain. Certainly not those who warned as strenuously as possible of what would happen if we left. That only leaves those who made the false promises, those who insisted that Brexit must be done in the form it has been, and those who negotiated that Brexit. There are plenty of names on that list, but Johnson’s is at the top.

Still lying, still not learning

That is why the present debate, although it is about his refusal to take responsibility for breaking Covid rules and his lies about having done so, stands as a proxy for a much bigger one. When will he and his many adjutants take responsibility for their lies about Brexit? If ever they do, there will be no need and little force in saying ‘we told you so’. Brexit might instead become a shared problem to be solved, a national error to be mitigated and, even, corrected. Until they do, Brexit remains their responsibility, their mess, their guilt, their shame, and their legacy.

Certainly that is the situation now, as they continue to double down on the dishonesty. This week, Rees-Mogg, in his trademark tones of contemptuous yet ill-informed arrogance, again suggested that the government is planning to break the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, something seemingly confirmed by subsequent reports (£). Whilst noting the widespread comment that the government had been told that signing up to it meant being bound by it – in other words, that ‘we told you so’ – he shrugged this off as “absolute nonsense”.

Instead, he advanced the bogus rationale that the government had only signed it in the expectation that it “would” be changed. That would be an absurd enough thing to say of an international treaty in itself, but in the very same breath Rees-Mogg spoke, correctly, of the fact that the Protocol has provisions such that it “could” be changed. There’s obviously all the difference in the world between ‘would be’ and ‘could be’, and what makes his dishonesty, like Johnson’s, all the more grotesque is that it is so brazen.

Equally grotesque is the refusal to learn from past mistakes. In this case, these include the profound damage to the UK’s reputation done by the previous flagrant threat to illegally renege on the Protocol in the Internal Market Bill in 2019, and by the probably illegal unilateral extension of the Protocol grace periods in 2021. The Brexiters were warned of the damage, pressed ahead anyway, and the damage was done. To continue on the same path now is all the more irresponsible given that the Ukraine War makes international solidarity and co-operation so crucial.

All that can be done is warn them, yet again, of their impending folly. Sir Jonathan Jones, who was Head of the Government Legal Service until he resigned over the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill, has done just that over Rees-Mogg’s latest threat (£). Will such warnings make a difference? Very likely not. In which case, once the next bit of damage is done, there will be nothing else to say except, once again, ‘we told you so’.

Brexiters hold the key

It’s true that ‘we told you so’ gets us nowhere, but until the Brexiters – by which I mean, as always, the leading advocates rather than ordinary leave voters - admit that ‘you told us so’ it’s all that can be said. If they ever make such an admission then, as with individual leave voters who regret their choice, there can and must be generosity of spirit. Then, there can be soothing words about how Brexiters were well-intentioned, and meant for the best. But until then there’s no point being mealy-mouthed: the lies of Brexiters have been totally discredited.

As a country, we can’t and won’t ‘move on’ until there’s been an honest reckoning of where we are and how we got here. Only Brexiters can get us to that point, and if an admission of their failure is too much to realistically expect then at least a withdrawal into silence and out of public life might suffice. But, as with Johnson, there is no sign whatsoever of them doing so, perhaps because, as with Johnson, they are bereft of both honour and shame.