Friday 16 February 2018

The Brexiter elite are lining up their excuses, but it may backfire on them

Boris Johnson’s much-trailed speech – discussed in more detail in my previous post and witheringly dissected by John Crace – seems already to have sunk without trace. It certainly hasn’t injected the optimism and positivity which he believes is lacking in the government’s approach (and one can, at least, agree that Theresa May hardly exudes or inspires enthusiasm). The reason is something I touched on in that previous post: it was a speech campaigning for Brexit, not a speech about delivering it; a speech for 2016, not 2018.

That is partly about Johnson’s own manifest limitations as a politician, but it is also indicative of the much wider mess that the Brexiters have got themselves – and thereby our country – into. It is by now obvious to all but the most unreflectively doctrinaire amongst them that the process of leaving the EU is going to be far, far more complicated, risky and damaging than the Leave Campaign told voters would be the case. During the campaign every warning was contemptuously dismissed, and yet every one of them has proved to be correct – from the implications for the Irish border, to those for business (see here for the latest damage), to the time constraints on negotiating a deal, to the economic and cultural benefit of freedom of movement to Britain and to Britons, to the impossibility of cut and pasting EU agreements with third countries, right through to the absurdity of the overarching claim that Britain could retain all of the features of EU membership it wanted without having those that it (or at least that Brexiters) disliked.

For that matter, many issues have surfaced which were scarcely, if at all, discussed before the vote. Things like Euratom membership, chemicals and medicine regulation, and all the arcana of international trade such as Rules of Origin, Most Favoured Nation status, or Mutual Recognition Agreements. Almost every day some new aspect or consequence arises, even as the time until Brexit happens drains remorselessly away. On the other hand, no one suddenly discovers some previously unexpected benefit of Brexit. Indeed about the only concrete benefit Brexiters now routinely try to claim is that of having an independent trade policy, the economic value of which will be, at best, nugatory and more than offset by the costs of leaving.

The profound difficulty this poses for Brexiters is that they now have responsibility for what happens. Their policy is the government’s policy, and many of their leading figures – for example Johnson, Fox, Davis, Fernandes, Baker, Raab, Mordaunt, Gove, Leadsom – hold government positions and in some cases have direct responsibility for implementing Brexit. There is no longer any escape from dealing with all of these complex practicalities and they can’t bear it. The absurdity of that is well-illustrated by the way that these Brexiters in government dismiss their own economic forecasts as worthless, if not deliberately biased. But that trick won’t work anymore. Outside of the hardcore, most people, including probably most leave voters, have wised up to the fact that, whatever the exact figures turn out to be, they are only going in one direction.

Johnson’s response, of trying to pretend he is still campaigning, rather than being responsible, for Brexit is ludicrous but relatively urbanely expressed (albeit, not benign). Far more widespread is the vicious aggression exemplified by Digby Jones this week, accusing “remoaners” of “undermining our country” and saying they will be “to blame” for Britain getting a “lousy deal”. This Brexit McCarthyism has been on display since the day after the Referendum – the day, in fact, that, according to this same Digby Jones, “Germany would immediately want a free trade deal” - but will only grow as things get worse for the Brexiters. Anything rather than take responsibility for their failed promises, their ignorance of basic realities, and their lies. Anything to sustain their sense of betrayal and victimhood.

A different kind of evasion comes from those Brexiters who claim that leaving the EU was always going to be damaging, in particular economically, but that people had voted for cultural reasons or for sovereignty and both knew and were prepared to pay the economic price. That may have been true of some leave voters, but it certainly isn’t the way that Brexit was pitched to them. On the contrary, the constant rebuttal of ‘Project Fear’ was in the main an economic claim to the effect that Brexit would at the least have no adverse consequences if not, indeed, that it would have positive consequences.

Moreover, the infamous £350M a week for the NHS lie was nothing if not an economic argument for Brexit. Most Brexiters lightly dismiss this now, with word games or just the open admission that it was a lie. But it was believed by many voters, including some of the poorest (as, for example, this recent report shows). Even the argument about immigration was in part an economic one (the supposed negative effect on wages and public services). Whatever they say now, Brexiters ran a campaign that was every bit as economic-focussed as it was cultural, and that’s not surprising: had they argued for Brexit on purely cultural lines they would have lost the vote. That, indeed, has been admitted by Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings. The deeper point is that economics and culture are not separate things: I heard some leave voters explain their decision in terms of the de-industrialization of their towns. They were bemoaning loss of jobs and loss of community, not just one or the other.

We also now begin to hear another evasion, of a sort beloved by proponents of many political and religious ideologies and for that matter by many a management consultant, that nothing was wrong with the ‘idea’ of Brexit but that its ‘implementation’ was mishandled. So whatever mess we end up with is not ‘proper Brexit’. It’s true that the government have approached Brexit in an incredibly incompetent way – the premature triggering of Article 50 and the consequent election being the most egregious examples – and in this sense have made it even worse than it needed to be. But however it had been handled it would have been damaging, and most (though not all) peddlers of the ‘not a proper Brexit’ line are advocates of UKIP’s approach of unilateral withdrawal without Article 50 or, now, walking out of the talks. Incompetent as the government have been, a Brexit on UKIP lines would have been an order of magnitude worse.

From the moment the Referendum result was announced, when Johnson and Gove stood shocked and blinking like frightened rabbits at their press conference, Brexiters just haven’t been able to get over winning. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, there’s long been a sense that they would really have preferred to lose. Now there’s an increasingly tangible feeling that they see things going wrong and are getting their excuses ready: blame and betrayal being the key words.

Those words may boomerang on them. At the moment there are only small signs of ‘Bregret’ in the opinion polls but there does seem to be a growing realization that the promises made were false. Perhaps for now the sentiment amongst voters is that ‘we should get on with it’ and ‘hope for the best’ – showing the more endearing qualities of the British rather than some of those that have been on display since the vote. Plus, undoubtedly, many voters have tuned out the daily twists and turns of Brexit and will not take much interest until there is some decisive outcome or event. When they tune back in, they are not going to like what they see. Brexiters are preparing for that by lining up a list of culprits and excuses and they may succeed. But they have also ramped up hostility to the ‘out of touch London elite’. When the dust settles, voters may just decide that since it is the Brexiters who are now in charge it is they who now constitute that elite – and they who must shoulder the blame for betraying the unkeepable promises they made.

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