Friday, 15 October 2021

The moral turpitude of Brexit brinksmanship

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

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

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

The NIP row resumes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why ‘hardball’ diplomacy is the problem not the solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perils of ‘madman theory’

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the politics of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moral turpitude of Brexit

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

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


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

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

Friday, 8 October 2021

The Brexit three-card Monte

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

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

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

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

This isn’t just doublethink ….

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

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

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

… it’s Brexit doublethink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The object of power is power

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Ireland: more of the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public verdict: Brexit has failed

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

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

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

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

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

Brexiters should be wary of hubris

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 October 2021

Denial deepens (Great) Britain's Brexit crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit-specific reasons for ‘panic buying’

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

Brexit and trust

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

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

The reality of post-Brexit fears

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

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

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

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

Recurrent crises are likely

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

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

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

What about the workers?

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

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

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

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

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

The Northern Ireland difference

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

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

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

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

The first Brexit winter approaches …

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 September 2021

This crisis could be an opportunity

It’s impossible to escape the fact that Britain is now caught in an escalating crisis. It has multiple moving parts which interact in complex ways, but each of them is to a greater or lesser extent linked to Brexit. Daily, the dishonest promises made for Brexit and the reckless irresponsibility with which it was implemented are being exposed by this crisis. But it is made worse by a new layer of dishonesty and irresponsibility which seeks to deny that the crisis is anything to do with Brexit at all, or to pretend that those pointing out that Brexit is one factor are claiming it is the only factor. As always with Brexit, unpicking the claims and counter-claims of Brexiters is difficult because they conflate different issues and set endless false hares running. So it’s worth very briefly setting out what is happening and why.

The crisis in brief

Central to the crisis are the supply chain disruptions which have been going on for months (see numerous previous posts), and which, crucially, have now caused petrol shortages. Here Brexit is one important cause because it contributes to labour shortages, including of HGV drivers. We now also have an energy crisis. This has multiple and complex causes, although Brexit is not currently a significant one because the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) meant that large parts of existing arrangements were, in effect, unaffected. Even so, it is not entirely irrelevant because the UK did leave the Internal Energy Market. This has created more cumbersome trading processes, leading to increased costs for gas and electricity supplied via EU-UK interconnectors and, potentially, prioritisation of supplies to EU countries.

One knock-on effect of the energy crisis is the shortage of CO2 for food production and packaging, which threatened to cause even greater and very immediate supply disruptions when the two main UK plants ceased production until the government provided them with some financial support. Although it is little-remarked on, there is a Brexit factor here because the main alternative source, a Dutch plant, is prioritising EU clients. Moreover, although there is some lack of clarity about this, it seems as if Northern Ireland, by virtue of still effectively being in the EU goods single market, has escaped the CO2 shortage, and, certainly, it also has different arrangements to the rest of the UK as regards energy links with the EU because of the ‘all island’ system.

Whilst it is food, fuel and energy which are most in the headlines, there is a more diffuse sense of national crisis. Many goods other than food – for example construction materials - are in short supply, the NHS continues to struggle, with dental services, in particular, close to impossible to obtain in some areas, and social care is at or beyond breaking point. Shortage of staff caused by ending freedom of movement is again one central factor, and perhaps now the central factor, in this.

Certainly in all of these fields it is becoming more difficult to blame the pandemic and, as the former boss of Sainsbury’s said recently, in the long run Brexit will have a bigger effect on the food industry than Covid. In any case, to the extent that it is true that the pandemic meant that the Brexit damage arrived at the very worst of times, all that does is to underscore the government’s reckless refusal to extend the transition period when it had the chance. As Dr John Cotter has recently argued on the Encompass website, this was a result of “hard Brexit ideology” trumping pragmatism, with the consequences we are now suffering.

The need for realism and honesty about Brexit

All of this, along with the ongoing damage to UK-EU trade due to the new trade barriers, is very much in line with what Brexiters were warned would happen, and if anything rather worse. Their persistent dismissal of these warnings as Project Fear was successful in getting them their Brexit, but with that success comes responsibility: Brexiters own what is happening to our country. This is not about saying ‘we told you so’, in an attempt to refight the battles of 2016. It is about finally being honest and realistic about Brexit.

Ironically, the current dishonest attempts by Brexiters to claim that the crisis is nothing at all to do with Brexit may aid that. They themselves now admit that the way remainers kept scratching at the ‘£350 Million a week for the NHS claim’ in 2016 actually helped them keep the public debate focussed on that (spurious) claim. Now, their insistence on trying to discredit Brexit as a cause of the crisis helps to keep that (correct) claim in the headlines. Latest polling evidence suggests that a substantial majority of the public (68%) and, even, a small majority (52%) of leave voters think Brexit is partly to blame for the petrol shortages. So, perhaps, reality will win out.

At the very least, the words of Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that “we’ve moved on” from Brexit ring very hollow indeed when Brexit is intertwined with almost every aspect of the crisis. They also make little sense considering the government’s own decisions. Almost lost amidst all the other news was the announcement that, as predicted in my previous post, the UK will again postpone the introduction of import controls on EU goods. Whilst expected, it is a shocking indictment of governmental unpreparedness for Brexit and, even accepting that the slogan referred primarily to immigration, makes a mockery of ‘taking back control of our borders’.

It leaves the UK with perhaps the most bizarrely skewed trading relationship with the EU imaginable and, incredibly, this was defended by Tory MP George Freeman as Britain “acting very fairly” by continuing with “free trade” unlike the “aggressive” EU. It seems that five years on UK politicians still don’t understand what (hard) Brexit actually means. The wider point, though, is that we can hardly have “moved on” from Brexit when it still hasn’t been fully implemented.

Government stuck between admitting and denying reality

The import control decision makes sense in terms of avoiding adding another dimension to the crisis, and is an implicit acknowledgment that the more Brexit is implemented the more damaging it becomes, even if offering only a very limited and temporary postponement. The same applies in relation to immigration where, again, the government response to the crisis is stuck between admitting and denying reality by reluctantly agreeing to 5000 temporary visas for HGV drivers and 5500 for poultry workers whilst at the same time lashing out at it for being a “manufactured crisis” got up by “diehard remainers”.

At one level, this half-accepts that, in ending freedom of movement, Brexit is a cause of the crisis. It also implicitly accepts that the Brexiter idea that domestic labour could substitute for EU labour was false. But as a response it is woefully inadequate. The numbers are too small compared with the shortages, and anyway the UK is no longer an attractive destination for EU workers in general and drivers in particular (though the visas could also be used by non-EU workers).

There are multiple reasons for that, including Brexit itself which was so bound up with a derogatory attitude to EU workers, and the chaotic end to the transition period which saw truck drivers stranded in the UK, causing widespread anger not helped by subsequent treatment of EU drivers seeking to work in the UK. Beyond that, three-month visas are very unattractive, and, from October, the end of recognition of EU ID cards by the UK means that even to use such visas will require obtaining a passport. In any case, even in its own terms any effect it does have isn’t going to be immediate.

The bigger point is that, as is widely understood in EU countries but was never really grasped by the UK, there are fundamental differences between migration and freedom of movement of people – differences both in the ease with which it can be done and in the cultural and psychological meaning and experience associated with it. Thus the benefits of freedom of movement can never be replicated by issuing work visas, as if turning an economic tap on and off, the more so after years of very publicly denouncing foreigners for ‘taking our jobs’.

This is one example of why what is at issue is not just the arguments of 2016 but what happens now and in the future. Rather, the two are linked. The Brexiters simply didn’t understand the consequences of what they advocated and, as a result, are incapable of responding adequately to the problems they have created. That has been made all the worse by Johnson’s approach to Brexit as something to be ‘got done’ and his having made membership of his government dependent, above all else, on not even questioning how it was and is being done. Equally, Johnson is determined to avoid any reference to the promises he made for Brexit.

Thus whilst it is true that gas price rises have relatively little to do with Brexit, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he promised that Brexit would lead to lower prices. Similarly, having for so long made a trade deal with the US a central plank of Brexit, he now, almost casually, accepts that it isn’t going to happen. At the same time, trivial ‘benefits’ of Brexit, such as crown marks on pint glasses, are trumpeted by the Brexiter press as some huge national victory, whilst new false claims for its benefits, such as that it allowed the UK to be part of the US-Australia nuclear submarine deal or that it will enable all sorts of regulatory reforms or the briefly floated absurdity that the UK might join USCMA (NAFTA as was), are advanced as sops to the gullible. And if that sounds like derogatory elitism it is: but it is the derogatory elitism of Johnson and his cronies smirking at the ghastly oiks they so despise.

The battle between remembering and forgetting  

As I’ve remarked before, at least since Johnson came to power we have entered a period in which there is a battle between remembering and forgetting, in which the endless gaslighting by Brexiters within and outside government makes remembering – that is, remembering what was promised but also how we got to where we are – almost impossible.

Coming back from what has only been a two week break from posting I’m struck by how difficult it is to keep track of all the Brexit-related things which have happened just in that short period, and of the underlying complexities of how and why they happened. Each issue to which I have devoted a couple of sentences here could easily be the subject of an entire post or more. That is irritating in itself (for me, and perhaps for readers), and it is the reason why I’ve changed my intention to keep to the normal pattern of posting on a Friday, because had I done so it would have been even harder to keep up to date. But I think it points to a wider and very important fact.

Most of the general public have, reasonably and understandably, not followed each twist and turn of Brexit. When it most dominated the news in 2019, many people probably got heartily sick of it, which was part of the appeal of Johnson’s dishonest ‘get Brexit done’ message. Since then, especially because of the pandemic, and because of the slow puncture nature of Brexit, even more will have tuned out.

Suddenly, that has the potential to change because of this complex crisis which, so to speak, is resulting in a much more rapid loss of air. The near political silence about Brexit that has obtained since, at least, the end of the transition period looks increasingly untenable. As Jonathan Freedland writes in the Guardian, Brexit needs to be ‘named’ in order for its role as the thread running through the crisis to be addressed.

The crisis may prompt a renewed Brexit debate

That is beginning to happen as media reports increasingly discuss Brexit in relation to the crisis – aided, as I’ve suggested, by Brexiters’ ever noisier attempts to deny that Brexit has any role in it at all – but as it does so those who haven’t been much engaged with Brexit will face my ‘catch up’ problem but on a far bigger scale. How can it be that Brexit, which promised so much for so long, has come to this? Wasn’t Brexit finished with months ago? These questions will intensify if the crisis deepens, which is likely given that colder weather will increase energy demands, and that demand for EU fresh produce will rise in winter, especially as the government response so far is so feeble.

The answers will determine who the public blame, and how they react, and this will matter hugely for the future. Because, to re-iterate, the issue isn’t primarily about who had the right of it in past arguments but about what happens now and in the future to UK-EU relations. For example, the already implicit recognition from the government that ending freedom of movement has contributed to the fuel supply crisis opens the door to an explicit recognition that it is a disaster across numerous other areas. That in turn could pave the way to, at least, reversing the government’s decision to refuse the EU offer of a mobility chapter in the TCA and, at most, to undermining one of the Brexiters’ central objections to single market membership. In a similar way, albeit with less immediate urgency, as the promises made for the benefits of leaving the customs union in terms of, especially, a US trade deal evaporate, whilst its costs to EU trade rack up, then the central case for that part of Brexit, too, erodes.

For it’s vital to recall that, despite claims to the contrary from some Brexiters since, Brexit was not sold to leave voters in terms of ‘sovereignty’ at any cost. They were promised that, at the very least, it had no costs and that, actually, it would mean lower prices, better public services, more trade, and more prosperity. There would be no crisis to be ‘survived’. And this is not some long-gone history – it was only a shade over the normal length of a government’s term in office. So although neither hard core Brexiters nor their hard core followers amongst leave voters will ever have a change of heart, whatever happens, it needs only a fairly small number of leave voters to recognize the grotesque fraud that was perpetrated upon them for post-Brexit politics to change quite dramatically.

That, of course, is why the Brexiters are so determined to deny the crisis is in any way caused by Brexit and, hence, why the government’s attempts to deal with the crisis are so limited and ineffective. It is also why, as I’ve argued so many times before – but it is now truer than ever – the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to hammer the government on Brexit.

For many of those potentially disenchanted leave voters will very likely have been traditional Labour voters, to whom Labour can now say without disrespecting them that Johnson has not delivered what he promised. In the process, the majority of habitual Labour voters who backed remain – and indeed remain voters in general, who have been treated with such contempt for the last five years - would, finally, have their concerns acknowledged. Beyond these electoral considerations, such an approach is the only way of being realistic about the reasons for and solutions to the growing crisis. The only way, in fact, of facing up to the realities of Britain’s entire economic and political situation, both in terms of the specific effects of Brexit itself and some of the chronic pre-Brexit problems which Brexit has rendered acute.

Rarely have political opportunism and principle been so closely aligned, if only Starmer would grab the moment, and in fact there are signs that he is finally starting to do so.

And then there’s Northern Ireland

Buzzing away in the background (and of which, no doubt, more next time) to all this is the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), and since my previous post David Frost has continued to make aggressive noises about this. His doing so again gives the lie to Kwarteng and others’ claim that “we’ve moved on” from Brexit: for how can that be if Frost is still trying to renegotiate it? But what I argued in that previous post is now even more true given the intensified crisis of the last couple of weeks: the public may be very unforgiving indeed of continued aggravation over the NIP on top of everything else and, indeed, will be reminded anew of Johnson’s false promise to have got Brexit done.

Indeed some may reflect that it is strange for the government to be so agitated about Northern Ireland when its version of Brexit avoids some of the problems experienced by the mainland. They might even wonder why, instead, the benefits of the NIP should not be extended to include Great Britain. After all, even if it doesn’t quite have the ‘best of both worlds’ as Michael Gove put it, it seems to have some distinct advantages over complete exit. From that it is just a very short step to asking why on earth we undertook Brexit in the first place, a question which is becoming even harder to answer with each passing day.