Friday 31 January 2020

A day to mourn

So today it will happen. For some, it will be a day of joy and triumph and celebration. Yet, though those celebrations will be occurring, it seems likely that they will be relatively muted and confined to a relatively small number of the most committed leavers, led by a perhaps slightly underwhelming cast of speakers. There will also be some light displays and a new 50 pence coin.

Certainly there is no evidence of a general upsurge of joy, and no mood of national confidence or renewal. The more widespread sense seems to be, at best, one of exhaustion coupled with uncertainty about what has been done and what is to come. For many already realise that today marks only a stage in a very long, painful and uncertain process.

But of course that stage is of fundamental, historic significance because Britain, definitively, leaves the EU with no possibility of revoking that decision. Hence as many, if not more, are mourning as celebrating, and some will even be in despair.

Crucially, there is clear, sustained polling evidence that more people think that it was wrong to vote to leave the EU than think it was right. The current figures, from 26 January 2020, are 47% to 40%. Even more, 56%, think Brexit will be economically damaging compared with just 21% who think it will be beneficial. Two of the four constituent countries of the UK voted against Brexit, and the parliament/assemblies of three of them have rejected the legislation enacting it.

And, yet, today it will happen.

As an Irish Times editorial put it yesterday, “no state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm”.

Anyone waking from a four year sleep to read this would find it truly bizarre. This long post is a partial account* of how we got to this moment and where we might be going now.

Brexit has created a deeply divided country

Never before has a modern democratic country deliberately embarked on such a major change of direction whilst so internally divided about its wisdom, and one so widely seen by observers across the world as seriously damaging to its standing and fundamental interests, including to its viability as a United Kingdom.

There is a reason why countries usually require super-majorities to enact major changes, and why countries which are composed of several national components create safeguards, so each can have its say. It is to ensure that such dangerous divisions are not created.

That no such care was taken was, ostensibly, because legally this was only an ‘advisory referendum’. But, politically, that was meaningless, not only but not least because of the leaflet sent by David Cameron’s government to every household, promising to enact the result. Subsequent arguments that the result should be set aside because of its advisory status were always a non-starter.

That leaflet was just one aspect of Cameron’s grotesquely irresponsible complacency that the referendum would be won, and his use of it as a tool to manage to internal divisions of his party. In the process, those internal divisions spread their poison to the entire country which is now infected for years to come. There is no antidote except, perhaps, the passage of time and the arrival in power of a new generation.

There are much deeper causes, too, which future historians will understand better than we can. The ambivalent history of Britain’s forty year EU membership, the social and regional inequalities embedded by the unplanned and imposed deindustrialisation of the 1980s, the breakdown of political trust whose proximate cause was the lies told to justify the Iraq War, a warped and malign public discourse about immigration, the financial deregulation that led to the financial crisis – and no doubt much else.

I think, in particular, the unprocessed cultural psychology of the Second World War was one of the biggest, yet least recognized, causes. In a strange historical irony, in the long run it proved harder to ‘get over’ victory than to face up to defeat and occupation.

Whatever the reasons for the result, it remains the case that, prior to the Referendum, EU membership was a matter of almost no public interest or disquiet. Leaving the EU was not, and is still not, some huge popular crusade or cause.

Brexiters never expected to win, and would be happier if they had lost

For this reason, just as Cameron assumed he would win the Referendum so, too, Brexiters expected to lose. That freed them both to tell as many lies as they wanted and to avoid specifying what a victory would mean. There’s no point in being mealy-mouthed about this: just about every claim made by Vote Leave was either simply untrue or, at best, a distortion of the truth. I think that there were some principled advocates of Brexit who were appalled by this but, if so, the plain fact is that without the lies there would have been no victory.

I am also convinced, even more now than at the time of the referendum, that many of the most passionate advocates of Brexit would actually have preferred to have lost. For them, protest, complaint and victimhood were the comfort zone that, in winning, they lost. That has fed through into a situation whereby those who most vociferously support Brexit regard any actual form it takes – including that which Johnson is developing – as not being ‘true Brexit’.

Thus, even as it is forced on the country, they remain unsatisfied and remain in that comfort zone of complaint and victimhood. Indeed the grimmest irony of Brexit is that, ever since the Referendum result, it has left not just so many remainers feeling sad, bitter and angry but so many leavers too.

So despite the endlessly repeated mantra of that Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, there’s never been a majority for any defined form of Brexit, and only momentarily for Brexit at all. Even as it happens, the opinion polls show a small majority for remain, whilst those who do want to leave the EU are still divided as to what form of doing so is what Brexit really means.

Brexiters won, but didn’t know how to deliver

This is one of the things that makes Brexit so unusual. It entails a huge national shift which its advocates don’t know how to deliver unlike, say, the Thatcherite revolution which – whilst one could disagree with it – knew what it was doing and how to go about it.

For having refused to specify in the Referendum what leaving meant – knowing that there was no agreement about that – Brexiters both then and ever since have shown they have no idea whatsoever about the practicalities of what it entails. Almost everything they say about, for example, international trade, or law, or customs procedures, or business operations, is either based on half-truths or is just flat wrong. It’s not just a matter of not knowing arcane technical detail but basic facts about what Brexit involves, as many posts on this blog have discussed with explicit, detailed refutations of the many false claims.

That incompetence is an affront not so much to those who voted to remain, but to those millions who voted to leave and might have had a reasonable expectation that the campaign leaders knew what they were doing. In reality, campaigning and protesting were all they knew how to do. Practical realities eluded them, not least because such realities contradicted the lies that they campaigned for and protested against.

For that alone Brexiter politicians deserve to be judged harshly by history. But perhaps even more degenerate are the shady think tanks and psychopathic disruptors behind those politicians, such as Dominic Cummings who, we are told, has now ‘done Brexit’ (£). As if it were a children’s game, they have wreaked havoc and then left the rest of us to live with the consequences. Even so, whatever they may say or do, from now on, and in fact since the triggering Article 50, it is Brexiters who are responsible for whatever happens.

Brexiters have insulted and humiliated half the country

More than anything else, and unlike any political event in Britain that I can recall, Brexit is an expression of contempt and even hatred directed at about half of the population. Perhaps it was the very surprise and bewilderment of winning that led Brexiters, rather than savouring victory, to unleash a culture war against those they had defeated. Even in some of the celebratory comments being made at the moment there seems to be more gloating about remainers’ distress than pleasure in leaving the EU per se.

The constant, sneering, references to ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’, 'saboteurs' and ‘remoaners’ are just the mildest version of this. Politicians, businesspeople, judges, lawyers, civil servants, academics – not to mention EU nationals, who did not even have the right to vote in the Referendum - have all been endlessly attacked, mocked and, at the wilder extremes, subjected to accusations of treachery and to death and rape threats. It’s undoubtedly the case that this climate intimidated some MPs into supporting things, especially the triggering of Article 50, which they knew were wrong.

I don’t discount the fact that those who voted to leave the EU have also been subjected to many insults – ‘Brexshitters’, stupid, racist, old, ‘gammon’ and worse – and, personally, I deplore that and have never indulged in it. The difference, though, is this. To the best of my knowledge, leading figures on the remain side have never sought to stigmatise leave voters but, rather, to try to understand their concerns. Whereas leading figures on the leave side have joined in, or at least not discouraged, the vitriol against remainers and never tried to understand their concerns.

In the aftermath of a close vote, a divisive campaign and with a colossal national task to undertake a big, inclusive, consensus-building approach to Brexit was so obviously needed. It would have been enormously difficult but neither May nor Johnson even tried. Any competent political leader would have seen the vital need to bridge the huge divides Brexit has created or revealed. Yet even at this late stage, with Brexit assured and a large parliamentary majority, Johnson refuses to make even the tiniest gesture of conciliation.

Brexiters have refused to seek consensus

Far from any attempt being made to find a consensual solution, as the years have gone by Brexit has been defined in harder and harder ways. The soft Brexit of single market membership, which many Brexiters had said was what Brexit meant prior to the referendum, and which could have formed the basis of a national consensus, was discounted as not being real Brexit. The hard Brexit of a trade agreement quickly gave way to claims that only ‘no deal’ or ‘clean’ Brexit would do.

As we leave the EU today, there is still no clarity on whether any deal on future terms will be done, or what it will look like, but the direction of travel could well be a complete de-alignment with the EU. Undoubtedly some of the Ultras will push hard for that. However it turns out, it will be very different to what the Leave campaign promised. Always the agenda has been driven by the most fanatical and extreme anti-EU ideologues and their wholly dishonest claim to represent the will of an undivided ‘people’.

Even that might have had a scintilla of legitimacy if a confirmatory referendum had been held. Far from being an outrageous attempt to subvert democracy it would have been a perfectly logical, and entirely democratic, exercise. It would simply have asked voters who had given, as it were, planning permission for Brexit to have the final say on whether, on the basis of what had thus far been agreed, they wanted to proceed beyond today’s point of no return. If they did, the answer would have been yes. If Brexiters truly believed it to be the will of the people they would have been happy to ask, but they knew it was not so.

So remainers – and, for that matter, ‘soft’ leavers – have for more than three years had their faces ground into the dirt, being told to ‘suck it up’ even as Brexiters argue about what ‘it’ actually is. It is as if, had remain won, leavers had been told that the vote was a blank cheque to join the Euro, Schengen, and create an EU army. Or as if, rather than a 52-48 remain victory being, as Nigel Farage put it before the result, ‘unfinished business’, it had been treated as a licence to demand of leavers that they publicly recant their former beliefs and swear fealty to the remain cause.

What can remainers do now?

Having used their victory in this divisive and derogatory way, the Brexiters’ demand now is that remainers ‘get behind Brexit’ or, at least, accept that since it is unavoidable they should do their best to ‘make it work’. But that is impossible, even if there was any clarity as to what it meant and even if Brexiters had shown any whiff of humility. It is like asking someone to ‘get behind’ a self-harming relative because they are determined to hurt themselves. It can’t be done.

This leaves remainers with few options. Those in the easiest position are those who were only ever marginally interested, and only marginally pro-remain. That’s probably quite a big group and it shouldn’t be forgotten because, just as many leave voters were not rabid Brexiters, so many remain voters were far from being ‘remainiacs’. In time, for them as perhaps for others, ‘remainer’ will simply cease to be an identity.

Others – and I sense this amongst some friends – are simply withdrawing from political engagement, to concentrate on personal or perhaps local issues, and in some cases leaving the country. Some others feel vengeful, and anticipate the coming damage to the jobs and communities that most heavily voted leave with something like pleasure.

Others will follow the course outlined by Steve Bullock, fighting to keep alive in Britain the liberal values of the EU in the face not just of Brexit but of what its architects will now try to do. That may have some unpredictable effects on British politics, according to Stephen Bush. Still others will regroup around a campaign to re-join the EU although, realistically, this makes most sense for younger people since even on Ian Dunt’s reckoning it is a decade away, and I think that’s optimistic.

As for me …

As for me, well, although no one reading it can be unaware that I think Brexit is a catastrophe – not least as I stated it in the very first post – I have always avoided writing anything very personal on this blog. Indeed, some readers may have the impression that my primary concerns about Brexit are to do with trade, business, economics, and international political standing. And, it’s true, I do care very much about all of those things. I do not want my compatriots to be poorer and less secure, and everything I know about economics and politics – which, in one form or another, I have spent my entire adult life studying – tells me that Brexit will have this effect, in spades.

But just as I have always thought it nonsense to say that leavers are motivated only by emotion and culture rather than rationality and economics, so too do I think it nonsense to imagine that remainers are not motivated by emotion and culture as well as rationality and politics. There has not been a single night since the Referendum that I have not woken mid-way through with a feeling of despair, nor a morning I have not woken without the dull, heavy ache of doing so to a world gone wrong. It is the only time in my life I have experienced political events as personal trauma, the worse for there being no prospect of their resolution.

I also feel a seething anger about the torrent of lies which have been told by Brexiters and, by being recycled endlessly, have come to be believed. Even as we leave a new one has gained ground, conflating warnings about no-deal Brexit with the actual situation of a Withdrawal Agreement and transition period to crow that Project Fear has been finally discredited. It’s a small but telling example of how incontinently the lies are still flowing.

In particular, I feel a constant shame at the disgusting way EU citizens – including my own friends and colleagues – are being treated. They, like, their UK counterparts in the EU, built their lives on the entirely reasonable expectation that freedom of movement was a permanent right. On that basis, they created plans, families and careers which have now been damaged if not destroyed.

It is no doubt my own psychological peculiarity or professional deformation that my response to all this is to try to provide an analysis of what is happening, using evidence, rationality and argument. And, with Britain now having left the EU I will continue to do so, not least because – I’m pleased to say – there seems to be a (mainly) appreciative audience for this analysis.

As I wrote in more detail in a post after the election, there is a continued case for providing an ongoing analysis since Brexit is still so very far from over in terms of the decisions about what it will mean. Moreover, there may be some value in creating a more or less continuous record of what Brexit has done to our country since 2016, if only because what has happened so far is already in the process of being re-written, often inaccurately and sometimes mendaciously.

There may be worse days to come

That record will show how Britain has made an historic strategic error, leaving it poorer and weaker. It is a strategic error without even being a strategic decision. Unlike the day that Britain joined what became the EU, which was the outcome of years of careful planning and statecraft, today has come about by a series of accidents and mistakes, and an epic failure of political leadership. To undertake it in the absence of any clear national consensus is profoundly dangerous and irresponsible.

At best, depending on what happens now, the effects may continue to be a gradual, slow-burn process of damage and decline with no great drama, and the full effects emerging over so many years that their cause will be easily denied.

At worst, if Brexit rapidly creates deep economic hardship – for example if there is no future terms deal and no transition period extension - the biggest danger is who, then, will get the blame? Not, I suspect, those who have brought us to this, but all the usual scapegoats, especially immigrants as always, and also those who continue to refuse to ‘get behind’ Brexit. Social media warriors already regard that as a hanging offence, and at least one mainstream politician has already proposed trying those with “extreme EU loyalties” for treason.

It’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine that the Brexit McCarthyism that has been immanent since the beginning will end up becoming a matter of State. We’ve already travelled further down that road than many would have thought possible a few years ago, with civil servants traduced, judges denounced as enemies of the people, a government minister demanding to know what universities are teaching about Brexit, and constant attempts to subvert parliament even to the point of trying to suspend it from sitting.

So I mourn the country we have already lost, and fear for the one to come. For, dark as today is for so many of us, there may well be far darker days ahead.

*For more detail, see the previous 237 posts on the blog ….

Friday 24 January 2020

Is "f*** business" now government policy?

Hardly had the electronic ink dried on my previous post, which included some discussion of the government’s approach to the business effects of Brexit, than Sajid Javid gave a clear and strong indication of just what that is to be. In an interview with the Financial Times, the Chancellor stated that “there will not be alignment” with EU regulations, that businesses have already had since 2016 to prepare for this, and still have until the end of the year to “adjust”.

In a way, there was nothing new in this. Ever since Boris Johnson came to power, and certainly since the changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration that followed, it has been clear that his government will be far less committed to alignment than, even, Theresa May’s (the ‘even’ is worth stressing since, of course, she had already taken the biggest step towards divergence by ruling out single market membership). Yet Javid’s was perhaps the hardest statement so far, and significant in coming from the person in charge of economic policy. For it seemed to suggest that there would be no regulatory alignment at all.

One problem with assessing such statements is that it is by no means clear that government ministers, even including the Chancellor, actually understand the full meaning of the terms they use and, therefore, the implications of what they are saying. But business groups certainly took him at his word (£), with the motor industry immediately warning – for the umpteenth time - that this would add billions of pounds to their costs, and aerospace, chemicals, and food and drinks industry spokespeople giving similar responses.

Known unknowns

There are multiple problems with what Javid said. One is that it is simply absurd to suggest that businesses have had since the Referendum to prepare. As anyone who has followed even the cursory details since then knows, the entire British polity has been convulsed in the debate about what leaving the EU actually means. Even now, with 11 months to go until the end of the transition period, the nature of that relationship has still to be negotiated. So how are businesses expected to prepare?

It is not enough just to know the general shape of what is in prospect (‘a free trade deal’) since that says very little about the detailed operational issues which will arise according to the specific nature of that deal. Moreover, a strict interpretation of the ‘no alignment’ line might well suggest that no such deal will even be reached, or only one of the most minimal sort, so in that sense even the general shape of things is not clear. At the very least, as things stand, there is no assurance of any deal, so even the most basic question of whether and what tariffs will apply is still open, and for some businesses the answer to that in itself will be the make or break issue.

Beyond that, if alignment with the EU is to end, then what regulations will replace them? None of that has been specified (except in a very few areas, such as the post-Euratom nuclear regulatory system), and so no business can know what it is supposed to be adjusting to. Very large businesses might be able to afford to plan for various scenarios, but even that would not be enough to make all the detailed operational preparations.

Did Javid know what he was saying?

One clue to the fact that Javid may not really have understood the implications of what he said lies in his comment in the same interview that Japan exports cars to the EU, yet does not follow EU regulations. That’s clearly nonsense – those cars it sells to the EU must conform, and the extensive investment by Japanese car firms within the UK and elsewhere, in order to be in the single market, is partly explained by this. But I think that what Javid probably had in mind was one of the basic, but mistaken, beliefs of many Brexit advocates (who, presumably, are now influential as advisors to the government). It is that what is at stake is adherence to product standards and that, therefore, a firm simply adopts the standards of the country it wants to export to for the products it wants to sell there. Meanwhile, firms which are solely domestic should not be subject to EU regulations, and their being so represents an objectionable intrusion into national sovereignty.

There are numerous difficulties with this. First, it ignores the fact that the issue isn’t just one of conforming with standards – as if all that meant was a business making internal changes to what it produced, though that in itself is a cost - but of the licensing and/or inspection needed to ensure or to demonstrate that conformity. The more regulatory regimes a business has to comply with, the higher the cost. So, far from ‘reducing the regulatory burden’ on business, that burden is increased when countries have their own regulations. Indeed, that is the foundational insight and basis of any single market, including that of the EU.

Second, it is not just about the EU. EU standards are substantially intertwined with wider, global, standards. That is, they have to some extent spread beyond the EU (e.g. chemicals regulations) or themselves incorporate standards systems from outside the EU (e.g. automotive regulations). Thus divergence from EU regulations is incompatible with the ‘Global Britain’ strategy that supposedly underpins Brexit. Or, to put it better, the distinction that Brexiters draw between being an EU member and being a global trading nation is a totally false one.

Conversely, the idea of a British set of regulations is deeply constraining. It is inconceivable that such regulations would themselves become a new international standard, so as to, again for example, supplant existing international chemicals and automotive regulations. In this sense, the question of whether these British standards would be ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than those of the EU – whilst potentially important in its own right – isn’t so much the issue as the fact that, higher or lower, they would only apply to British businesses (though see below for clarification on what ‘British’ means here). Even if the standards are the same – which makes the whole exercise pointless anyway – there would still be a need for double registration/ licensing of conformity.

Regulatory independence has no benefits

For those businesses that currently export, that just adds a layer of regulatory cost (i.e. regulation for the domestic market only), whilst for those that currently don’t it adds a huge barrier to developing export business in the future (i.e. having to shift to, and/or demonstrate conformity with, the international standards). And it is actually even more constraining than that, because these domestically-regulated businesses would also be precluded from supplying exporting companies to the extent that their products were components within a finished product that did need to comply with EU and international regulations. There is simply no business benefit to this at all – its only conceivable value is political flag waving that we have ‘our own’ standards.

As regards the automotive industry – but something similar would apply to many others – all of this was laid out quite starkly by the Brexit Select Committee in 2017 when it considered the question of regulatory alignment: “there is no argument for a separate set of UK standards” (paragraph 27) … “we have not identified any potential benefits for regulatory divergence from the EU … There are only costs.” (Paragraph 30)

There is a further and very important dimension to all this. Not only does divergence from EU regulations damage British participation in the European single market, it also substantially damages the existence of the UK single market. That is to say, because of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement for Northern Ireland, the more (Great) Britain diverges from the EU, the more significant the Irish Sea border becomes. That has economic consequences in shrinking the UK single market, but it also has major political consequences, most obviously for Northern Ireland but also for Scotland, since it further cements the ways in which Northern Ireland will remain in the EU single market. That is to say, the more Great Britain diverges from the EU, the more Northern Ireland diverges from the UK.


Subsequent to Javid’s interview, some supposed clarifications were made by the Business Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, but if anything these muddied the waters further. First, he said that a zero tariffs, zero quotas trade deal would mean that there would be no cliff edge at the end of the transition period, and would eliminate the bulk of the paperwork for exporters. But, apart from the fact that such a deal has yet to be done, it would certainly not solve the paperwork problem, as Pauline Bastidon of the Freight Transport Association pointed out.

Second, as so often in the Brexit debate, it seems that Zahawi doesn’t appreciate the different issues posed by tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. A tariff deal is irrelevant to the regulatory issues and, on those, he was back in the same territory as, implicitly, Javid had been. That is, again, he seems to think that it is just a matter of British firms following particular standards. He implied that these might be the same as EU standards – for example of chemicals – but that Britain would no longer be a rule-taker.

But this makes no sense at all. If Britain simply replicates EU rules then it is, effectively, a rule-taker. Yet at the same time, unless it is formally within the ambit of EU regulatory agencies then simply following the rules will not be enough, without licensing and enforcement, to gain the economic benefits of doing so. And, as noted above, it would entail double registration and licensing processes simply in order to follow the identical standards. So, if he actually understands and means what he says, it is yet another Brexit lose-lose: as a rule-taker there is a loss of ‘sovereignty’, whilst without formal participation in regulatory systems there is also an economic loss.

Sajid Javid also made some subsequent remarks on the subject, this time at the World Economic Forum in Davos (in between being taught some brutal, public lessons in realpolitik by the US Trade Secretary). In response to questions he re-stated that there was no point leaving the EU and still “sticking to all its rules”. This can be parsed in two ways. It might mean, as he implied before, exiting ‘all its rules’, or it might mean sticking to some but not others. The next day he spoke of not diverging "for the sake of it", which might imply the latter. But, in that case, which of them? Without saying, businesses can’t be expected to prepare. He also reiterated his belief that a trade deal could be done by the end of the year, but mentioned as if in passing that this would include “services”. But since any deal on services would necessarily include some element of regulatory alignment, did this mean that he now accepted this? Or did he not realise that this was an implication? And which specific services was he referring to anyway?

When dogma becomes policy

It’s by no means impossible that our politicians simply don’t understand what they are doing. If so, that isn’t unusual – they are not elected or appointed as ministers for their technical expertise – but it is being compounded by not listening to those who do and, very likely, listening too much to Brexit dogmatists who do not, or do not want to, understand. It really would not be a big ask to expect them to sit down for short lectures from non-partisan experts like Dmitry Grozoubinski on trade, Pauline Bastidon on logistics, and Anna Jerzewska on customs. Not with a view to coming to terms with the horrendously complicated technical details of these domains, which isn’t their job, but just to grasp the broad outlines of each which, on current evidence, they don’t.

That seems unlikely to happen. So we have to conclude that they may not know what they mean, but they do mean what they say. That is, perhaps without really understanding the consequences, they will pursue a policy of wholesale regulatory divergence. For this is not now a matter of an interview here or a speech there. There have been reports that government ministers actually regard whole, highly successful, sectors of the economy as expendable. Even that might – just about – make sense if at the same time they could point to sectors which are going to be boosted by their Brexit plans. So far, none have been identified.

Certainly there was much Brexiter excitement about a Reuters’ report this week that more than a thousand EU financial firms are to open new offices in London because of Brexit. But, alas, beneath the headline lay a different, more complex and less positive story – that, precisely in order to cope with the separation of regulatory regimes (i.e. the anticipated shift from ‘passporting’ to ‘equivalence’), these firms were establishing London offices. This would create an estimated 2,400 jobs. There was some ambiguity in the report as to whether this was across the headline 1000+ firms (<2.4 jobs per firm) or just across 300 of them (8 jobs per firm) but, either way, these are presumably ‘brass plate’ operations for registration purposes, not substantive operational moves.

Thus, as the report confirmed, it only mitigates the flow of jobs the other way. For example, just this week investment bank JP Morgan announced the latest phase of its relocation from London to Paris, where hundreds of its staff will be amongst the estimated 4000 from across the financial services who by the end of the year will have moved to Paris alone, with Dublin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam also pulling in jobs (and business and taxes).

As soon as the decisions was made that Brexit could not mean the ‘Norway model’ of single market membership that many leavers voted for, it was clear that the services sector was going to be substantially damaged. And frictionless trade for goods has long been a pipe-dream. But this apparent hardening to complete regulatory unilateralism suggests that manufacturing industry, too, is to be sacrificed simply in order to proclaim ‘independence’. Like blue passports, the value is purely symbolic. Unlike blue passports, the economic consequences will be severe in terms of jobs, the tax base and, hence, public services.

For in telling businesses so clearly that they have less than a year to prepare for a scenario that is still unknown but which looks to be deeply problematic for them, and which they have repeatedly and explicitly warned against, Javid has sent a message as clear in its own way as Boris Johnson’s revealing “f*** business”* comment. For businesses that export, have international supply chains, or which supply such firms, the message to those that can do so is to use the transition period to relocate. For others, perhaps especially SMEs, for whom relocation may not be an option, it may simply mean closing down. The costs and complexities just of new customs procedures, let alone those of future but unspecified regulatory changes, may simply be overwhelming.

But, as suggested in my previous post, we seem now have reached a point where all costs are irrelevant and all that matters is the bright, shining light of Brexiter purity. Which may be a fine and splendid thing to some, but you can’t eat it and it doesn’t pay the bills.

*I dislike the coy use of asterisks, but have used them because I have the idea that, otherwise, some internet filter settings may prevent readers accessing this post.

Friday 17 January 2020

As costs mount, Brexit goes round the same old circles

A report from Bloomberg Economics this week estimates the cost of Brexit since the Referendum result to be £130 billion, with a further £70 billion predicted by the scheduled end of the transition period. £200 billion is a colossal sum and in any other political context you’d expect it receive far more attention than it has. Of course it is only one estimate, but it comes from a credible source (and it is consistent with others) and, again of course, it is a cost compared with what would have happened and, in that sense, one which does not present a bill to be paid nor something directly felt in people’s pockets. Still, it does make the raging debates over who should pay for the cost of the Sussex’s security seem rather trivial.

Perhaps there’s a sense, now, that we all know Brexit is going to be hugely expensive and so it’s not worth discussing it anymore. Not that committed Brexiters necessarily accept this. Just as the predictions of economic costs were dismissed on the grounds that ‘you can’t predict what is going to happen in the future, anything might happen’, so, now the costs are racking up, they are dismissed on the grounds that ‘you can’t know what caused past events to occur, they might have occurred anyway’.

It is a hermetically sealed logic that cannot be reasoned with. And even to try provokes the second, though contradictory, line of defence, where we are invited to believe that Brexit was chosen as the result of an earnest political science seminar about theories of sovereignty, and was nothing to do with economics at all (this, presumably, is why the slogan chosen for the bus was a claim about … the supposed economic benefits of Brexit).

As for what the economic costs of Brexit will eventually end up being, that will to some degree depend on what kind of trade deal gets done and here confusion continues to reign. The EU have produced two detailed briefing packs (here and here) which, so far as I know, have no counterpart on the UK side, at least in the public domain. There is a sense that we are heading towards a re-run of what was symbolised by the famous picture of the opening of the withdrawal talks, where the EU side sat with bulging files whilst the UK relied upon David Davis’s vacuous grin.

The recurrent dynamics of Brexit

If so, there are good reasons for that and they go back to the three unchanged underlying dynamics of Brexit which I outlined after the election result. In brief, these are lack of realistic definition of what Brexit means or how to do it; the insatiable demands of the Brexit Ultras; and the general political imperative of all governments to avoid economic and social breakdown. These are contextualised by a fourth factor, namely (largely self-inflicted) time pressure.

As regards the first of these, the UK government is still to a degree in thrall to the Brexiter fantasies of a quick and easy deal in which the complexities and trade-offs are seen as just a ploy by the EU that will be overcome by determined negotiation by a ‘true Brexit’ administration. So, at times, the government is still talking as if a comprehensive, deep trade agreement, perhaps with a substantial services element (£), can be achieved by the end of the year whilst at other times the implication is that it will be much more limited, but that that is fine. As from the outset, the Brexiters – who are now firmly in control of the government – have no agreed, realistic idea of what they want.

In consequence, there are other ways in which the start of the trade negotiations is likely to be analogous to that of the Article 50 talks. It is already written into the Political Declaration that the highly technically complex and politically contentious issue of fisheries will be amongst the first matters to be discussed. It may well play the part of the financial settlement, which the UK first tried to deny the EU had any right to. But with EU briefings suggesting that they will insist (£) on a more or less status quo deal on fishing as a prerequisite for any progress on other issues, it may also be the subject for a re-run of the 2017 ‘row of the summer’ over sequencing.

This brings into play the second of the recurrent dynamics. There are clear signs that Brexit Ultras like John Redwood and Owen Paterson are squaring up to make fisheries, which have always been totemic to Brexiters despite being a tiny part of the UK economy, a defining issue. With some suggesting that the UK might accept that EU proposal in return for a better deal on financial services there is a good chance that this will prove to be an early flashpoint between the government and its hard line MPs. Their position will be not just that the UK should not accept the EU proposal, but should not make any agreement on fisheries until the entire deal is done or, simply, walk away from the talks without a trade deal at all.

If so, that will add impetus to the established pattern in which the Brexit Ultras always push for a harder or ‘purer’ form of Brexit. That saw the shift from their advocacy of soft (single market/ Norway) to hard (FTA/ Canada) Brexit. It has reappeared now in the demand that the UK should, in parallel with or even as a priority over negotiating an EU trade deal do so with the US, as argued by ERG leader Steve Baker this week (£).

As with the fisheries issue, there is no economic logic to this at all. The geographic closeness of the EU and the volume of UK trade that results from that, as well as from decades of EU membership, makes a EU trade deal massively more important than any Free Trade Agreement with the US could ever be. Moreover, to some extent, the two deals are mutually exclusive in that they entail alignment with different regulatory orbits.

But the issue here is not economic logic, even though its advocates present it as if it were by, for example, their irrelevant talk of the size of the US economy. Rather, having belatedly understood that the trade deal they for so long championed will entail some regulatory alignment with the EU – and the deeper the deal, the greater that alignment – the Ultras find even that hard Brexit to be unbearable.

For some that may be informed by an ideological belief in low regulation, small state politics – the Singapore-on-Thames delusion – and, to that extent, there’s an obvious reason why it will preclude a deal with the EU. However, I believe that the more fundamental reason is a pathological loathing of the EU in every manifestation, and indeed of non-EU European institutions such as the European Court/ Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). They want to expunge every last trace of the EU’s presence in the UK. It is much closer to a religious mania than an ideological axiom, and, as for economic cost, that is irrelevant. No cost is too high to pay. If they were to gain the next concession, and get a US trade deal ahead or instead of an EU deal then they would certainly then make leaving the ECHR their next demand.

It is that ‘Brexit at any cost’ fixation which comes into conflict with the third dynamic that for any government, even one fixated by Brexit, the basic political pressure to avoid economic meltdown means that reality sometimes has to intrude. That could include recognizing the economic case for sacrificing fishing for financial services. More generally, to the extent that it is understood that there is only time for a minimal deal, if that, it may also be understood by government that, for many sectors of British business, such a deal would be little or no different to there being no deal at all [£]. It may also be sinking in that, trade deal aside, there is little prospect of the new arrangements for Northern Ireland being ready in time.

That, presumably, is what lies behind Boris Johnson implicitly recognizing, for the first time, that it may not be possible to do a deal in time (£). This may be the precursor to accepting that there will be an extension to the transition period. Time will tell on that, but as was shown by the ease with which he dropped his ‘die in a ditch’ pledge, such a volte face is well within his range.

Businesses and Brexit

Whether or not he extends (though especially if he does not) what is in prospect is the gradual leaching away of business from the UK, ratcheting up the costs of Brexit. This may well attract as little attention as the Bloomberg report and of course – as with all the examples so far – Brexiters will deny the cause. In this, they will be aided by the fact that few companies which relocate or (which is even more below the radar) decide to make new investments elsewhere will publicly attribute this to Brexit.

For it is important to understand that now that Brexit is unavoidable the relationship between business and the remain cause has fundamentally changed. Before, business lobbying against Brexit was consistent with, and part of, the remain campaign. But businesses rarely lobby on the basis of political principle rather than their own self-interest. With the remain cause lost, they will now make decisions based on that self-interest but will have no motivation to denounce Brexit policy as they do so.

On the contrary, especially to the extent that many will want to go on doing some business in the UK they will have no interest in alienating many customers and the government. An individual remainer might – for example – seek to publicise their decision to emigrate and to take their skills and taxes elsewhere in order make the political point that this is what Brexit has done. Few if any businesses will do anything like that. So it will be a slow and quiet economic puncture, not a noisy blow-out.

This scenario is made all the more likely because whatever economic realism derives from the third dynamic, it is in conflict with the lack of realism of the first and second. This can be seen in the report this week that Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom has substantially reduced contact with business groups (£) such as the CBI because she is irritated by them raising concerns about Brexit.

Here, again, there is a recurrent pattern in which those – in business, or the civil service, or elsewhere – who know the realities and complexities are sidelined for their lack of ‘true belief’. In ways that would have been astonishing to the traditional Tory Party, the CBI have long been regarded with scorn by Brexiters and, more generally, there were many reports during May’s administration of businesses being excluded by DExEU if they voiced scepticism about Brexit.

The paradox of Brexit

It is one of the biggest paradoxes of Brexit, because most of those who understand what it entails at a practical level do not support it, whilst most of those who support it strongly do not understand what it entails at a practical level. That is evident in microcosm even in the current row about Big Ben chiming on ‘Brexit Day’, with those who know the costs and technicalities involved advising against it, whilst the Brexit ‘bongers’ insist this is just remainer negativity and that a can-do attitude will overcome any obstacles if, indeed, they really exist.

At the wider level, this paradox presents any Brexit government with a massive problem. Either it ignores those with the knowledge and flounders around trying to square the impossible circle of ‘true Brexit’ with no adverse consequences, or it listens to those with knowledge and has to compromise on at least aspects of ‘true Brexit’.

Whilst that has been true throughout the Brexit process, it is now an acute issue with the trade negotiations starting and the timescale tightening. A key part of any trade negotiation process – and one reason they take a long time – is that governments need to engage and consult with the business and other groups which will be affected by whatever is agreed. If government as a whole persists with the Leadsom line then the incentives for businesses to stay and invest in Britain sharply diminish, as they see that the government does not have – and, worse, does not want to have - a serious grasp of the issues involved. With time running out, the business decisions will need to be taken before realism intrudes, if, indeed, it ever does. And businesses will make those decisions.

However, if the government does start to engage seriously with business (and other experts and stakeholders) then the paradox asserts itself in a new way, with this realism conflicting with the first two dynamics. This is exactly what we saw with the May government. Having delighted the Ultras by embracing hard Brexit, and accepted the lack of realism of the Brexit promise by imagining that, even so, there could be ‘frictionless trade’ for goods and services, there came a point in 2018 when May understood how damaging this would be. That was what led to the Chequers Proposal which – flawed as it was – began to recognize some of the complexities and trade-offs. Cue Johnson and Davis resigning and the government falling into the disarray from which it never recovered.

It is true that Johnson’s majority makes him far more secure than May. On the other hand, the time pressures Johnson has created for himself are all the greater, and his negotiating position with the EU is also much weaker than May’s at the time of Chequers. May had the possibility of extending Article 50, as she did, and, until the Withdrawal Agreement was completed, the core EU concerns around the financial settlement, Irish Border, and Citizens’ Rights remained unresolved. Now, Johnson could only extend the transition period with difficulty, both because of domestic politics and because, on the EU side, transition extension is less assured than it was for Article 50 extension. Meanwhile, the EU’s core withdrawal demands have been met. And, in any case, the votes of the ERG are more than enough to defeat Johnson, despite his majority.

Thus the conflict between economic realism and political exigency continues to be unresolved and resolution is unlikely to occur via a single decision taken at a single moment. Rather, we can expect an ongoing process of tacking this way and that as the negotiations with the EU progress and the internal fights of the Tory Party continue. The consequence is that neither economic realism nor political exigency will definitively win out. Instead, so many concessions will be made to the Ultras as to ensure considerable economic damage, whilst so many concessions will be demanded of them that they will always regard Brexit as having been betrayed.

Thus, as has been clear for a long time, we will end up a country made much poorer in order to please the Brexiters whilst having to endure their perpetual displeasure with what has been done. It is as perfect a lose-lose scenario as can be envisaged, and the Bloomberg report has put a figure on just the first instalment of just the economic aspect of that loss. There is much, much more to come.

Friday 10 January 2020

We’re beginning to see what ‘taking back control’ looks like

It’s widely remarked upon that ‘take back control’ was a brilliant campaign slogan, not least because it could be taken to mean whatever people wanted it to mean. But as the cliché has it, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Whatever lofty dreams the slogan may have inspired, we are now beginning to see the more prosaic realities of what it is going to mean in practice, and how these are puncturing the delusions that not only characterised the Referendum campaign but which have proved remarkably resistant to the battering received by events over the last three years.

Having to have reality explained - yet again

The core delusion was tackled again this week by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during her visit to the UK. In polite, regretful and measured tones – painfully at odds with so much of the political debate here - she pointed out the basic fact that, by definition, the UK’s new relationship with the EU will be less close and less beneficial than that of a member state, and less close and less beneficial than that of a member of the single market. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious, to the extent of being a definitional truth and virtually a tautology. Michel Barnier made exactly the same point in 2017, and again just a few weeks ago.

Von der Leyen also made the points, equally obvious to anyone with any knowledge, that a comprehensive deal could not be done by the end of the transition period, that the time available for even a minimal deal would be tight, and that the greater the distance the UK wanted in the relationship, the less comprehensive the deal would be. Again, these are no more than definitional facts. That anyone, let alone a major stateswoman, should have to explain them again arises solely because all of them are still denied, and apparently not even understood, by many Brexiters. It is actually quite embarrassing to be in a situation where such delusion has not just persisted but now occupies central stage in British politics, so that it falls to those abroad to state the obvious. But such is the pass to which the Brexit ‘patriots’ have brought our country.

There is little sign that this is making inroads amongst the cheerleaders for Brexit. Barnier’s 2017 speech was said to have “dashed the hopes” of something better than a free trade deal when the something better – single market membership – is what Britain had ruled out. Nothing has changed since. The rabidly pro-Brexit Daily Express characterised von der Leyen’s comments as having “THREATENED” the UK, describing her as having “lashed out” at the Prime Minister in her speech. Similarly, responding to the recent report (£) of Barnier saying that the UK would have to adhere closely to EU rules to get a good trade deal, Ruth Lea – a leading member of Patrick Minford’s erstwhile Economists for Brexit group – tweeted that this was “yet more bluster” rather than a statement of the obvious.

Having to take what you are given

Yet for all their media and social media outrage, the Brexit foot soldiers have not noticed that their government has quietly abandoned any idea that a trade deal can yield ‘exactly the same benefits’ as the single market or preserve ‘frictionless trade’. The Brexiter dream of a British exceptionalism, summed up as ‘having your cake and eating it’, has ended. Britain will accept what’s left after everything it has ruled out with its own red lines has been taken away. At the moment, as regards trade with the EU, that looks as if it’s going to mean, at best, a possible zero tariffs, zero quotas deal for goods trade.

This falls a very long way short of single market membership, of course, or of the Vote Leave assurance of membership of a supposed “free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey”, and even a long way short of Canada +++ that Brexiters used to speak of so breathlessly. Ironically, it is, in a certain way, consistent with the Brexiter idea that the EU would want a deal because of the UK’s trade deficit – but that deficit is in goods trade only, and so such a minimal deal would be a more beneficial one for, yes, German car makers and such like exporting to the UK than it would for the smaller volumes of goods the UK exports to the EU.

Such an approach reflects the longstanding failure of Brexiters to understand the difference between a free trade area and a single market, nested within which is a myopic and outdated focus on tariffs on goods. Thus what is in prospect does little or nothing for services, where the UK currently has a trade surplus with the EU, little for international supply chains in manufacturing, and nothing for all the non-tariff and regulatory barriers to both goods and services trade.

If a report in this week’s Financial Times (£) is correct, the government is minded to regard the clamorous objections of, for example, the auto, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors – all of which rely on international supply chains and regulatory harmonization -  as the noise of declining industries and, by implication, sees these as sacrificial in order to get a quick deal done. Certainly it seems to be accepted by both sides that passporting for financial services will end, possibly to be replaced with inferior ‘equivalence’ regimes.

So a deal will perhaps, even probably, be done. But so what? Anyone can do a bad deal in which they take what they are given because they’ve made anything better impossible. Far from having your cake and eating it, you get a cake with all the icing and chocolate stripped off, and what you eat is plain and stale sponge.

Pretending a bad deal was what you wanted

On any rational basis, this is insane economics. And it is not true to say that the Brexit vote was nothing to do with economics and was not why leave voters chose to leave. For, if that was so, the Brexiters would not have put such ferocity into repudiating Project Fear, and such energy into claims of how good future trade terms would be. Rather, we have a government knowingly pursuing a policy that will be economically damaging, but hoping that the electorate will, as per my previous post, forget that the damage was due to Brexit and forget the promises made about how things would be. But this, then, sets up an interesting paradox, which will be very important in the coming years.

To sustain their position, Brexiters will have to pretend that a minimal trade deal is, actually, a comprehensive trade deal, exactly as promised. Yet, in that case, they will have to drop the claim that the EU have been punitive or have out-negotiated the UK. Indeed, that is precisely the move that Johnson pulled off with his Withdrawal Agreement, and it might be fairly easy to do as regards a trade deal, since few people understand what that really means, and may well believe that getting ‘zero tariffs’ is a great British victory rather than the minimal outcome ‘threatened’ by the EU.

So this, too, is what taking back control looks like – a shabby con trick in which the mug punter is promised a shiny new roadster and given a rusty old banger. And there is something peculiarly English (I use this word deliberately) in the idea that the punter thus conned will drive off saying ‘better not make a scene and, anyway, it could be worse’. Politically, much depends on whether that is indeed what happens, or whether the electorate recall what they were promised and, if so, who they blame for not delivering it.

Learning your place in the world

If trade negotiations with the EU are already shaping up to give Britain what it has unwittingly chosen, it is also already beginning to be clear that the rest of the world is adjusting to the new reality of post-Brexit Britain. An excoriating article in The Times of India mocks the decline of British ‘soft power’. Meanwhile, it was reported that Australia has turned down a UK proposal to end the use of work visas as part of a future trade deal because it “could cause an exodus of highly trained workers to the UK and an influx of unskilled British workers to Sydney and Melbourne”. Apparently, they prefer an ‘Aussie-style immigration system’.

These are just two small examples from this week, but they are indicative of the emerging direction of travel. Having initially been bemused by the Referendum result, and then confused by the political crisis that followed, the election result has now cemented the new reality of Britain’s place in the eyes of the world – a “diminished” figure, being taught daily that it just isn’t important enough or powerful enough to exert much “control” over anything.

There is nothing shameful in that – it is true of all countries bar, perhaps, superpowers. But other countries accept that and address it precisely though the formation of blocs and alliances that allow them to live more comfortably and easily in the world. What is embarrassing is the hubristic refusal to understand that, and to enact a Vainglorious Revolution that forces us to live with less comfort and ease in the world. That is compounded by having a Prime Minister who not only embodies such hubris but who is also widely seen as untrustworthy and unserious, but Brexit would make it so in any case.

Events in the Middle East this week underscore this, as indeed have some other recent international crises. It’s important not to over-state this, because even without Brexit the Trump presidency would represent a major challenge for British diplomacy. One key part of the post-imperial role that Britain found – more by chance than choice, perhaps – was as the Transatlantic Bridge between the US and the EU. Trump was always going to strain that bridge at one end. But completely uprooting the pier at the EU end has made that even more unstable. The UK is now uncomfortably adrift, with many of its key strategic priorities (such as the Iran nuclear deal) bound up with the EU whilst being in abject desperation for a politically symbolic (though economically relatively trivial) trade deal with the US.

The haplessness of that situation is shown by reported pressure from Brexiters within cabinet to pursue trade talks in parallel with both the EU and the US – a deferral, rather than an understanding, of the choices to be made. It is also a peculiarly unrealistic idea even in its own terms: if no deal, or a limited deal, is done with the EU there will be an immediate deterioration in terms of trade at the end of the year, which is not true as regards a US deal and, anyway, a US deal of any sort in Trump’s election year is highly unlikely.

So in an economically regionalised world, the UK has decided to have no region. In a politically multi-polar world, it is caught between poles. That is as evident in relation to dealing with Russian nationalism as it is to standing up to China over Hong Kong or addressing the endless saga of the Chagos Islands. Again, these would pose severe challenges without Brexit, but are made more difficult by the loss of the economic and diplomatic muscle that EU membership brings and the addition of pressures to create new trading relationships outside the EU. Indeed, in this sense, the economic and geo-political aspects of Brexit are inseparable.

Thus we are at the very beginning of paying the huge price not so much for pursuing a poor strategy – and many of the issues alluded to are problematic and contentious in their own right and might, usefully, have been up for reconsideration - but for having, with Brexit, abandoned strategy altogether. So taking back control in this context means simply drifting, rudderless, ignoring – perhaps not even being aware of - the consequences and choices of Brexit.

Having Brexit defined for you

From the outset of this blog I’ve been arguing – like many, many others – that the core problem with the Brexit Referendum was that it was a vote against something, EU membership, without being a vote for anything that had been defined. That has been the underlying truth in all the years that have followed. But, now, something is beginning to change. For with the ineluctable passage of events the meaning of Brexit is, gradually, starting to be defined.

But that definition is not being decided primarily by internal British political debate about what kind of country we want to be and what a post-Brexit economic and geo-political strategy would look like. Every opportunity to do that – during the Referendum campaign, as a post-referendum consensus-building process, or in the 2017 or 2019 General Elections – has been squandered. And Johnson’s ‘just get it done’ approach to Brexit compounds that error, making a virtue of the refusal to take the time and create the process to plan it. Not so much oven-ready as half-baked.

So instead, as we come within weeks of leaving the EU, Brexit is being defined for us by others whether in the EU or beyond. We don’t know what it will end up looking like - except for being economically poorer, politically weaker, and culturally meaner - and we won’t have very much say in it, although domestic choices can make it more or less bad. In ‘taking back control’ we have, in some fundamental way, lost control of our future. Over and over again we refused, collectively, to get real. Now we’re going to be made to do so.

Friday 3 January 2020

The battle between remembering and forgetting

It’s difficult to know whether to regard Boris Johnson’s reported ban on Ministers and officials using the word Brexit after 31 January as sinister or silly – or perhaps both. But it is a helpful reminder of the dishonesty and chicanery that the Brexit process is going to continue to embody in the coming months. More profoundly, it symbolises how those months are going to entail a battle between remembering and forgetting.

New lies for old

At the most obvious level, the idea of not mentioning Brexit after 31 January is part of the more general smokescreen to pretend that, on this date, it will be “done”. In the same way, and according to the same reports, there are to be no further official references to negotiating a deal with the EU. For, according to the new scripture, the ‘deal’ has already been done – it is the Withdrawal Agreement – and so the negotiation of future terms cannot be referred to in this way.

It’s a transparent ploy, in itself, but it is also the offspring of some older lies. For Brexiters, including at one time Johnson, used to believe, or pretend to believe, that both exit terms and future terms could be wrapped up within the Article 50 period. Indeed, many Brexiters, including at one time Johnson, used to say that exit terms – and especially the financial settlement - should not and need not be agreed until future trade terms had been. All of these claims were always untrue. So now the inconvenience of these old lies is to be covered over with a new one: that there is only one deal to do, and it has been done.

The announcement that DExEu is to close on the same date is presumably intended to communicate the same message. However here, at least, there is a more charitable interpretation which is that, as a piece of government machinery, it was always misconceived and, in particular, created crossed chains of command with Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Notably, the Institute for Government has argued since 2016 that it should not have been created. More recently IfG’s Joe Owen has made the case for closing it now but notes that, of course, this does not mean – as the announcement might be taken to imply - that the amount of civil service effort needed to deliver Brexit has reduced.

A policy with no purpose

But banning the Brexit word has a deeper significance, too, and one which I think historians will find both interesting and perplexing. For it is an extension of something which has been underway almost since the Referendum result itself. Few, if any, of the original advocates of Brexit any longer make any case for it being a good thing in its own terms, or, in any specific way, as having any beneficial outcomes.

Under Theresa May, there was a palpable sense that she was enacting a policy she knew to be damaging and that her task was to achieve what damage limitation she could – the scope for which she almost entirely closed down by virtue of her Lancaster House speech. Brexiters chalked this miserabilism up to her remainer negativity, but they, too, have ceased to claim any great benefits for Brexit.

During the election campaign, and now, Johnson has talked only of ‘getting it done’ in order to be able to focus on the people’s priorities. That very formulation at least implies that getting Brexit done is not one of those priorities, and the policies of NHS and infrastructure spending and so on that he claims to be the priorities could all be done, and be more easily done, without Brexit happening at all.

So, for many months now, the only argument made for Brexit is that it must be done because that was the outcome of the Referendum vote. For some, perhaps, that argument does over-ride all others, to the extent of thinking that even if it is a bad thing in itself it must be done for reasons of trust or democratic legitimacy. Yet – even if those were good arguments - it is strange that its most prominent campaigners no longer make any other case, and that this case is only one of avoiding the negative consequences of not proceeding rather than identifying the positive consequences of doing so. Why on earth would we not mention it, indeed why would we not take every opportunity to trumpet it, if it is such a wonderful thing?

Johnson’s New Year message

In this sense, the edict not to mention Brexit, despite it only being halfway to completion, links to Johnson’s New Year message calling for everyone to unite together and move forward from the divisions of the Referendum. Both are suggesting that we all simply shrug our shoulders and forget the promises that were made for Brexit, the damage it has already done, the damage it has still to do, and, indeed, all the decisions that have still to be made.

It’s as if it were an embarrassing episode at the Christmas office party that it would be bad taste to remind anyone of in the new year. That would be absurd enough, but when the message comes from the person who – metaphorically speaking – was caught photocopying his buttocks and who – literally speaking – is the boss it is at best self-serving and at worst an abuse of power.

The important question is how realistic is this strategy? People – and it is probably most people – may be heartily sick of the divisions and problems that Brexit has caused, but they aren’t all going to simply forget about them. Johnson has conducted his whole career, and, it seems, much of his personal life, on the basis of creating a colossal mess and then avoiding all responsibility for it. But Brexit is far, far bigger than any of his previous messes and he’s not easily going to be able to shrug it off and walk away, which both the B-word edict and the New Year’s message suggest he is going to attempt to do.

The bigger part of that strategy is, presumably, going to be to try to keep the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU as secretive as possible and, also, to make them seem entirely boring and technical, and hope that no one pays too much attention. That means the electorate, of course, but also the more extreme of his backbenchers. That may have some hope of success – some electors in any case believe that Britain left the EU in 2016, others will be happy enough to think that it was done on 31 January. And no doubt there will be many in the pro-Brexit press who will acclaim any trade deal, even a minimal one, as a great triumph.

Meanwhile, ongoing news of company relocations or disinvestments will be explained away as ‘nothing to do’ with the thing we no longer mention. In any case, since little will change in the transition period it will be easy to claim that Brexit has been ‘done’ without the adverse effects predicted by the ‘doomsters’. Subsequent to that, such effects will be dismissed as due to other causes since they came so long after Brexit was ‘done’.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the coming period is that whilst declaiming a future in which Britain’s potential will be “unleashed” – by implication because of ‘casting off the shackles’ of EU membership – behind the scenes what will probably be going will be a slow drip-feed of measures to re-attach the UK to EU systems and processes. An early precedent and template for such an approach can be found in data protection legislation. These measures may not have a high profile and are likely to lie outside of anything specifically identified as trade deal – or, more likely, be about non-trade matters - but will either seek to reproduce, or be inferior or more expensive versions of, existing relationships. To the extent that they are noticed at all, people will wonder what the point is; more likely, Johnson is gambling on them being too arcane to attract much interest.

Confronting realities

Even so, in important ways, the coming year is going to see Johnson forced to confront many of the realities which he has either denied or been ignorant of, and that will be true no matter how many of the officials and politicians involved are ‘true believers’. To an extent that has already started in that, mercifully, we no longer hear anything of the ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border nor the GATT Article XXIV nonsense. But there is much more reality to come.

In particular, the underlying confusions which gave rise to all the ‘easiest deal in history’ claims are going to be ruthlessly exposed. Such claims – made at various times by Liam Fox, David Davis, Peter Lilley, and Johnson himself – are based, when they are based on anything other than windy chauvinism, on the idea that the UK is already completely aligned with the EU, and therefore a trade deal will be easy.

That is a proposition which resolutely refuses to accept that as a consequence of Brexit, the UK, even in the transition period, will be a third country with respect to the EU. So it is not that the current membership terms are the baseline for negotiation, to be subtracted from. Rather – as regards trade – WTO terms are the baseline to which things might be added by negotiation. There is not a special ‘alumni club’ for ex-members of the EU.

It’s true, as EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said the other day, that the fact of current convergence and integration could make a close relationship easy. But that is only so if the desired outcome is convergence and integration. Since, as Hogan went on to say, the UK desire is apparently for divergence then current convergence is not helpful at all. In reality, this just amounts to a reprise of the Barnier staircase: for as long as UK red lines over, in particular, the ECJ and freedom of movement continue, then that circumscribes what kind of deal can be done. If the UK adds, as it has under Johnson, new red lines over level playing field commitments, that makes any deal more minimal still.

It is here that Johnson will confront the biggest difficulties in his ‘don’t mention Brexit’ strategy. If he holds firm to seeking only a very minimal trade deal, there is going to be a lot of economic fallout. If he does not, then there will be a lot of political fallout. If either of those things happen, then Brexit will certainly continue to be at the forefront of public debate, and the claim that it has ‘been done’ will ring hollow.

Brexit talks to continue …

In this sense, as noted in a recent post on this blog, the underlying dynamics of Brexit will not change after 31 January as regards the contradictions and conundrums of what it means for the UK. Yet, in another sense, there will be a change as regards the dynamics between the UK and the EU. During the Article 50 negotiations, Brexiters repeatedly spoke of how ‘EU negotiations’ always go to the last minute of the last hour. In this, they failed to see the difference between, for example, treaty negotiations amongst the existing, ongoing member states – with last minute horse-trading to facilitate an agreement - and those between the EU-27 and the one, departing, state. The late breakthrough which did happen was simply based on the UK accepting the Irish Sea border that it had previously rejected.

And just as the Article 50 negotiations differed from normal intra-EU negotiations, so too will future terms talks, which will occur under Article 218 which governs EU negotiating rules with third countries, differ from the Article 50 talks*. Amongst other things, depending on the scope of the future terms agreement this will have implications for whether unanimity or qualified majority within the European Council is needed to conclude any agreement reached.

Alongside this difference in legal process, there is a sense that the political priority which Brexit has for the EU – which, except perhaps in the very immediate post-Referendum period was never as all-encompassing as it was for the UK – will diminish further. It will be one amongst many issues which the new EU leadership team face and, necessarily, the UK-EU trade relationship matters far more for the UK, for whom the EU is its largest trade partner, than it does for the EU. If Johnson continues down the track that makes a distant relationship inevitable then, by the same token, it becomes even less salient for the EU. If he changes track, then the compromises the EU will require will loom large. Either way, the realpolitik of the power difference between the EU and the UK will become ever clearer.

And Brexit talk to continue …

For all that the government may not wish the public to notice this, judging by what happened with the Article 50 negotiations there will be plenty of press releases and statements from the EU about how talks are progressing. There is also likely to be plenty of noise from business lobbies in the UK, if a minimal deal is in prospect, and from irate Brexiters if an extensive deal is in prospect. There will be plenty of talk of preparations if no deal 2.0 is in prospect. And there will certainly be ongoing and intensifying discussions of the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland within the UK.

For all of these reasons, I think it is unlikely that Johnson will achieve his aim of getting the nation to move on from and forget the Brexit that he did so much to cause and is going to spend at least the next year enacting. Apart from anything else, for all his talk of respect and friendship, Johnson is offering no compromise towards remainers in the form that Brexit is to take. And whilst some – even some who once cared passionately – will no doubt cease to be engaged by or interested in Brexit it remains the case that it is a policy which only ever had a bare majority in support, and that for only a fleeting period of time.

So the idea that it can all be brushed over and forgotten like an ill-advised newspaper column is, surely, naïve? Or, perhaps, to think otherwise is naïve? For Johnson’s hope is presumably that the electorate are ignorant, lazy and forgetful – like all populists he has a low opinion of the people he purports to speak for – and that the post-truth politics that have got him so far will protect him from being held accountable.

At all events, the tight rope that Johnson will walk this coming year will be defined by whether people remember what was promised and how false those promises were or whether, as he hopes, they forget and, indeed, ‘move on’, accepting what happens as ‘just the way things are’. He has already set down the first chips in that cynical gamble. In the coming year, we’ll see whether he is right.

*There is a fiddly complexity here in that Article 50 utilises Article 218 (3) but, for the future terms talks, the entirety of Article 218 applies. There has also been some discussion within legal circles about whether, in fact, future terms negotiations could be conducted under Article 50 rather than under Article 218 – however, the consensus seems to be against this.