Friday 7 February 2020

Brexiters need to stop campaigning and start governing

Brexit day has come and gone. But as has been widely remarked, though apparently not universally understood, nothing really changes in the Transition Period, so there is no radical rupture in daily life.

The big question is whether that also means that nothing really changes in the way that Britain approaches Brexit. For last Friday did mark a rupture in one, crucial, way. Brexit, in the formal sense of Britain leaving the EU has happened, and a new phase has begun.

The issue now is not so much whether remainers accept that (£) – they don’t have much choice anyway - it’s whether Brexiters do. In particular, the issue is whether Brexiters – who now, unequivocally, form the government – are able to shift from campaigning to, indeed, governing.

What would this mean?

Stopping the lies

The first and most important thing that would have to change is for Boris Johnson, his government, and all the Brexiter commentators and advisers to stop lying. If they are serious about Brexit they need to face up to the realities of what it entails and that means telling the truth to themselves and others.

To take an example from this week. Hardly had the celebrations ended than Johnson was reported to be “infuriated” that the EU had “reneged” on its commitments to strike a ‘Canada- style’ free trade deal by now insisting on ‘Level Playing Field’ (LPF) commitments in terms of state aid, workers’ rights, environmental standards and so on. But that this was the EU’s position has been clear for at least a year and, more importantly, was set out in the text of the Political Declaration (paragraph 77) that Johnson himself signed. It’s this kind of constant gaslighting that would need to stop.

There’s more to it than that, though. Suppose that it were true that the EU had hardened its position, or suppose that it does, indeed, harden position in the coming months. In that case: welcome to the real world – there’s no point in having a foot-stamping, ‘it’s not fair’ tantrum.  This is what Brexit means. This is what you wanted. The UK is now a third country with respect to the EU, which will pursue what it judges to be its own interests and those of its member states. Britain is no longer a member state, and the EU will, quite properly, have no regard for our interests.

It seems strange to have to remind Brexiters that the EU is not some cuddly, kind uncle, showering largesse upon the world. It is ruthless in pursuit and protection of its own interests. So too will be the US, or Japan, or China, or India, or any other country with which the UK seeks to made trade deals, including ‘cosy’ Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Nor is this confined to matters of trade, and trade itself is linked with other issues. That is evident in the row over Huawei 5G with the US (£) and the report that Spain will have a veto over the application of any UK-EU deal to Gibraltar. The latter caused much pearl-clutching from Brexiters but, again, there is nothing new here. It was the subject of one of the earliest rows in the Brexit process, back in April 2017. And as I wrote at the time, this row contained several lessons for how Brexit would proceed.

These lessons included, again, the need for realism. Just as the UK used Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986 to garner EU support for the UK’s rights over Gibraltar (in that case, to have an open border with Spain), so the converse applies now that the UK is leaving. Another lesson was that the UK needed to drop the idea that only France and Germany mattered in terms of negotiating with the EU. As the pivotal influence that Ireland has had over the last three years should have demonstrated, that simply isn’t true. The EU will negotiate as a bloc, on the basis of a mandate from the Council, and with regard to the (various) interests of all its members.

Getting real

If Brexiters are going to get serious about governing, what also has to end is responding to these and similar things through the victimhood narrative of being punished by the EU or the bullish assertion that it all proves that Britain is right to leave. These are campaigning stances – arguments, if you believe them, for leaving the EU. But Britain has left the EU. The campaign is over. It’s time to get real.

That ‘getting real’ also includes being honest about the economic and political effects of what is being done. A trade deal, of any sort, with the EU is going to do little for services. A minimal trade deal will do relatively little even for goods. If the approach is to be de-alignment then recognize, as Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform explains, that “flexibility does not come for free”.

All reputable economic forecasts show that, whatever the trade deal, we will be somewhat poorer and if there is no trade deal we will be much poorer. There’s no longer any need to try to rubbish those forecasts (or forecasts in general, although in fact, with one notable exception namely that of ‘Economists for Brexit’, these have been fairly accurate). If they turn out to be wrong then they will turn out to be wrong, but admit that, at the moment, that’s the most likely outcome. So plan on that basis.

Trade deals with those countries with which the EU has deals are not all going to roll over on identical terms, and even where they do this will only put the UK back to the position it would have been without Brexit. Trade deals with new countries, even the US, will not make a huge difference and will not off-set the loss of trade with the EU. Be honest and realistic about the priorities and possibilities for global trade policy as Sam Lowe (again, but in a different article) suggests.

There are going to be border checks and other formalities between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so stop pretending otherwise. Recognize that in due course that may lead to Irish reunification. Also recognize that Brexit has made the case for another independence referendum in Scotland all but unanswerable, or at all events ensured that calls for it will be increasingly vociferous. It will surely happen eventually. So accept that and, with it, the possibility that Scotland will leave the UK.

Almost all of these things are, in my view, damaging. But that argument is over. Now that they are going to happen what matters is, again, for Brexiters to stop trying to win a campaign argument and start being realistic. If they think they are a price worth paying then so be it, but admit the price and start working out how to go about paying it.

And getting real means dropping all the tired old lines – still being wheeled out by the likes of David Davis - about how Britain’s trade deficit with the EU, and the needs of German car makers, guarantee a great trade deal. They helped win the campaign, but the campaign is over. They were lies but they’re no longer needed. Or, for those who want to insist they are true, they are still redundant as we’ll soon get that great trade deal anyway.

Developing a serious strategy

The second big change that would be needed is also about truthfulness and realism, but on a bigger canvas. I’ve several times argued that Brexit is not just a strategic error but, actually, a strategic absence. Again, that’s linked to its having been a campaign and protest movement. The historian Professor Robert Saunders has provided a more developed version of that argument in a truly superb essay on his blog.

It’s well worth reading in full but, in brief, Saunders argues that Britain joining the EU was a belated strategic response to its changed economic and geo-political situation in the aftermath of the Second World War. It may, he says although he does not agree, have been the wrong response, as Brexiters believe. But that does not mean that the challenges it responded to have gone away.

Moreover, he argues that the British Euroscepticism that ultimately gave rise to Brexit has its roots in a 1990s analysis of the world order which, in 2020, is redundant. Therefore we need, in his words, to get “serious about the choices in front of us” which “will require more imagination, more humility and a more clear-eyed appreciation of the options than anyone has yet offered in Britain’s tortured Brexit debate”.

It is a proposal in line with Sam Lowe’s analysis of post-Brexit trade priorities, referred to earlier, in which he argues that a long-term trade strategy must have a coherent economic or geo-political purpose rather than being a search for “political trophies”, although of course trade strategy is only one aspect of the wider point.

All this I agree with. Developing such a strategy will be difficult and the more so because it needs to be done quickly. It needs a big public conversation which should have preceded the Referendum or, at least, been developed once the result was known. ‘Global Britain’ is not such a strategy but rather, as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee put it in 2018, a slogan in need of substance.

Showing competence

Given the current time pressure and all the operational things that will need to be done – for example in developing new customs procedures – there is probably not the political or administrative bandwidth to achieve it in the next eleven months. But it is important to at least begin, and not just because such a strategy is needed in itself. Rather, along with being truthful and realistic about what Brexit means, doing so would at least send a signal of competence. That would do something to repair the battering Brexit has given to the UK’s image abroad, but it would also be an important domestic signal.

There is much talk of the need to reach out to those who voted for Brexit because they had been ‘left behind’ (though that could and should have been done long ago, without Brexit). But there is also a need to reach out to remainers, and perhaps to a particular group amongst them. Call them ‘the Establishment’ if you must, but like it or not the many business people, professionals, administrators and so on who, as the demographics of the Referendum voting suggest, largely did not want Brexit are going to have to deal with its effects.

In my previous post I argued at length how dangerous it is that we are embarking on a complete change of direction whilst being so internally divided. That would be true even if Brexit was the most wonderful idea there had ever been. Any such policy needs some minimal level of buy-in from those who have to deliver it.

Having failed for three years to provide the consensus-building leadership that might have created that, the government now has a final chance to at least demonstrate that it will approach Brexit in a realistic way, being truthful about its actual effects and challenges. I don’t suggest that this would win over many remainers, but it might at least persuade some that Brexit has moved from unicorn fantasies to a deliverable, if still to them undesirable, project.

Getting out of the echo chamber

A final part of the shift from campaigning to governing would be for government ministers to look beyond the advisors who – I assume – they most closely rely on. Many of them, including Dominic Cummings but not limited to him, have their background in, precisely, the Leave campaign. Relatedly, the whole shady network sometimes known as the Tufton Street mafia is a big part of the problem, because it is from this that so much of the misinformation has flowed. Again, this would be the case even if Brexit were the most wonderful of ideas. It’s always a problem to confine advice to ‘true believers’ as it is a recipe for groupthink and poor decision making.

For Brexiters to recognize this involves dropping the idea – born both of being in campaign mode but also of a victim mentality – that they face a ‘remainer conspiracy’, whose lack of positivity will put a brake on Brexit. Yet if Brexit is supposed to be a realistic project, rather than an act of faith-healing, it requires that ministers get technically competent advice rather than just the soothing balm of being told what they want to hear.

Equally, if the government is really serious about ‘bringing the country back together’ then it would start engaging with people outside of the doctrinaire Brexiter camp. Instead, this week has seen journalists excluded from briefings and business groups not invited to Johnson’s speech on his Brexit ‘plans’. Echo chambers are bad enough on social media, and they’re certainly no basis for effective government.

Will any of this happen?

The short answer, of course, is ‘no’. The very nature of last weekend’s celebrations gives a clue as to why. It showed how, for many who were celebrating, the pleasure comes from triumphing over remainers rather than leaving the EU. That triumph can be endlessly relived, but doing so won’t deliver Brexit. Some, burning EU flags, are more concerned with hatred for the EU than with what Britain outside the EU would be. If Brexit leaders continue to pander to these two sentiments then, as for the last three years, Brexit will continue to be entirely focussed on the campaign, not on governing.

Still others were pro-Brexit but were protesting against Johnson’s Brexit for not being the real thing. That betrayalism, which no doubt Farage and some in the ERG will continue to articulate, means that Johnson is likely to continue to approach Brexit as a tactical party management device rather than as a matter of policy delivery. In any case he is an unlikely person to lead a shift from campaigning, given that it entails both being honest and also giving attention to practical detail and delivery. These things are hardly his most obvious strengths, and were he minded to try he would have started immediately after Brexit day, if not indeed when he became Prime Minister.

Instead, we’ve already seen in this first week we that nothing’s going to change. Apart from the bogus claims about the EU having suddenly invented its LPF requirements, we had the equally bogus idea that the UK could prosper with an ‘Australian-style deal’. In trade terms, since there is no EU-Australia free trade agreement, that just means no trade deal i.e. WTO terms (plus a few bits and pieces). Presumably Johnson’s advisors have suggested his formulation sounds more palatable.

So, still no honesty and, given the devastating effects it would have, still no realism and still no strategy. Johnson’s Brexit speech, according to politics Professor Tim Bale, was “of little substance” and did not have “a whole lot of realism”. Childishly, but in line with government policy (£), he refused to use the word ‘Brexit’. Unsurprisingly, the pound fell by about 1% against both the dollar and the euro as he spoke.

To the victor the spoils

That is one small example of the fact that Brexiters, led by Johnson, will now have to confront reality even if they refuse to be realistic. Slogans and rhetoric won the campaign, but neither they nor ‘true belief’ will make a difference to that reality. Strangely, those on the free-market Right, many of whom are such ardent Brexiters, used to know that ‘you can’t buck the market’.

So whatever kind of deal gets agreed with the EU it will have real consequences on business locations and investments, on growth, on the pound, on prices and on employment. They will happen even if Brexiters deny them, or discount them as ‘remainer negativity’, as if they were still campaigning rather than governing, still trying to win the argument rather than delivering their promises.

Brexiters are no longer, if they ever were, the victims they portray themselves to be. As Nigel Farage said at last week’s celebrations, “the war is over, we have won” (£). To the victor, go the spoils. They are now ‘the elite’ and ‘the Establishment’ but with that power comes responsibility and accountability. Like it or not, they can no longer run away from the consequences, but there’s no sign that they are going to stop trying.

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