Friday 30 April 2021

The Brexit roots of the scandals

It’s common to talk of the costs of Brexit in terms of its economic effects or its social divisiveness, its consequences for Northern Ireland or its disruption of the lives of millions of EU citizens in the UK and their counterparts. Yet it is also increasingly obvious that it has scarred, deformed and destabilised political conduct and culture, with ramifications well beyond Brexit itself. That is clearly on display this week in the swirl of inter-related scandals surrounding the government over lobbying, cronyism, and the funding of Boris Johnson’s home improvements. This is reviving interest in earlier scandals, including his murky relationship with Jennifer Arcuri and the still unanswered question of who funded his holiday in Mustique in 2020.

The Brexit government

At the most basic level, this government is the product of Brexit. Johnson might well have found a way to become Prime Minister had Brexit not happened, but he hitched himself to Vote Leave because he thought it would advance his chances. In any case, the manner and timing of his eventual coming to power were firmly rooted in the political turmoil Brexit had created.

And, surely, but for Dominic Cummings’ role in securing Vote Leave’s victory he would never have ended up as a senior advisor in Downing Street. Nor would the others from the Vote Leave team like Lee Cain, whose demise set in train the split between Johnson and Cummings from which last week’s explosive blog post stems (bloggers everywhere can at least thank Cummings for demonstrating that our medium is not yet the dead one that some claim).

Beyond that, from the moment he became Prime Minister, Johnson made Brexit loyalty the sole test for ministerial office in what one commentator called a hard Brexit coup, ruthlessly purged those Tory MPs who opposed his Withdrawal Agreement and, since the 2019 election, leads a party in which any squeak of dissent about how Brexit is being done, let alone the wisdom of doing it at all, has disappeared.

This government was elected on the central premise of ‘getting Brexit done’ and it is, definitionally, the Brexit government. Tellingly, The Sun this week, whilst urging him to “come clean” about the flat refurbishment, explicitly argued that having a “flawed PM” doesn’t matter because Johnson “delivered” Brexit, in contrast to the “morally-unimpeachable dud” that the country had previously tried (clearly meaning Theresa May).

Theresa May prepared the ground

There’s some irony in that because, in fact, the mania of ‘getting Brexit done’ trumping all other considerations grows directly out of the soil of the Theresa May governments. During those years what quickly developed amongst Brexiters was a loathing for the civil service, the judiciary, and for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability - some of which was shared or encouraged by May herself.

It is largely forgotten now, perhaps, but she persistently railed against parliament as trying to subvert Brexit and repeatedly treated it with metaphorical and, sometimes, literal contempt. Frequently she, much like Johnson, invoked populist ideas of ‘the people’ being betrayed by a remainer parliament. It is no coincidence that a few weeks after penning the infamous ‘enemies of the people’ article in the Daily Mail, attacking the judiciary, its author, James Slack, became May’s Official Spokesperson. He continued to hold that role under Johnson before replacing Cain as Director of Communication (and, subsequently, moving to The Sun). So we shouldn’t allow Brexiter depictions of her as ‘Theresa the Remainer’ to falsify the historical record: from 2016 May was ruthlessly committed to delivering Brexit.

This (still recent) history matters, because it shows that the conduct of the Johnson governments has not come out of nowhere and is not simply about Johnson himself. His first act, notoriously, was to illegally prorogue parliament. But prorogation had first been suggested, in January 2019 by Jacob Rees-Mogg, as a way that May could thwart ‘remainer MPs’ from preventing a no-deal Brexit.

Whilst prorogation failed, Johnson’s premiership has been characterised by repeated flouting of, stretching of, or disdain for, law and rules of conduct. The threatened illegality of the Internal Market Bill, the current breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and repeated unpunished breaches of Ministerial Code are all examples. Indeed Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government has argued that Johnson has “fatally undermined” the Ministerial Code through his failure to enforce it in the Priti Patel bullying case. The same MO was on display when he over-ruled the Lords Appointment Committee to ennoble Peter Cruddas, a prominent Brexit supporter and major donor to the Tory Party and to Johnson’s campaign to lead it.

More widely, he and his ministers have sought to avoid scrutiny from parliament and the media and, perhaps worse, treat such scrutiny as somehow illegitimate. More widely still, and most corrosively of all, from the referendum onwards Johnson, and now his Brexit government, does not just regard lies and half-truths as permissible but have found them to be effective and sanction-free. Brexit was the proving ground, Johnson’s misrule is the roll-out.

The guiding thread: ‘anti-ruleism’

The thread which runs through all of this, including almost all of the current scandals, is a rejection of, antipathy to, or sometimes just an inability to comprehend, rules – whether they be laws, conventions or moral norms. It is a thread formed of several quite disparate strands. In combination they create an ‘anti-ruleism’, a clumsy term which I choose because it isn’t some coherent or principled anarchism, but a rag-bag of inchoate impulses.

First, there is Johnson himself, with his entitled sense of rules being for the little people, his pathological dishonesty, his financial and sexual incontinence, and – as Dominic Grieve put it last weekend – his ‘vacuum of integrity’. That long predates Brexit, of course, but it has been amplified and rewarded by Brexit.

His manifest failings may, as almost every commentator tells us, be ‘priced in’ by the electorate so that they will never punish him for them. That remains to be seen and it’s of note that in the most hardline of Conservative circles – those which see Johnson as too soft on Brexit and too hard on coronavirus – these latest revelations are going down very badly. Much may depend on what else Cummings now reveals. But, even if – especially if – received opinion is correct then it is an extraordinary situation. It may not be unprecedented for a British Prime Minister to be a congenital liar, but for it to be widespread public knowledge surely is.

Then there is Cummings, no longer in Number 10 but very much a player in the latest scandals, as well as being the architect of the Brexit vote. Again, as both his campaigning and the Barnard Castle episode showed, he regards rules and established institutions, including the civil service, with contempt. But whereas for Johnson that is little more than a psychological reflex for Cummings it is worked up into a pseudo-intellectual ‘disruptor philosophy’, laced with the shop-soiled platitudes of 1990s business gurus and half-understood pop science books.

The Johnson-Cummings dyad eventually got broken in the increasingly baroque atmosphere of court politics that they created and of which their new enmity is a continuation. But it slotted into a Tory Party which, unlike conventional conservatism, has jettisoned traditional notions of rules. One part of that grows out of the Thatcher revolution and stands at the heart of Euroscepticism and the paradoxical legacy of Thatcher’s approach to the EU. It informed her championship of the single market and in doing so exposed the contradiction within neo-liberal fallacies about the market, leading her heirs to repudiate single market membership.

For these neo-liberal Tories understood the market as a purely natural and spontaneous phenomenon, existing prior to regulation and being curtailed by regulation. Historically and philosophically that is nonsense – markets require regulation as a prior condition of their existence, even if only at the most basic level of contract law but in fact much more than that – and was revealed as such by the creation of the single market, when this normally hidden truth became highly visible because the law and regulation required to make a market unfolded in open view. Their fallacious understanding of markets connected with a naivety, shared by many leave voters, about the complex web of rules, systems, and agreements that makes the things they take for granted - like air travel, for example - actually work.

Hence the paradox that these ‘free trade’ Tories came to regard the EU as creating burdensome red tape that must be escaped. Now, we are seeing precisely where that leads. On the one hand, leaving the single market has reinstated all the red tape that it, and the customs union, had removed. On the other hand the requirement to conform to international regulations in order to engage in international trade persists, Brexit notwithstanding. Nowhere was Brexiter incoherence more evident than when insisting that Britain’s freedom lay in following WTO rules. Hence, too, the paradox that in the name of Global Britain the UK has erected trade barriers with by far its largest trade partner whilst fiddling around trying to make trade deals (£), which themselves involve rules and constraints, with far smaller partners. And hence, finally, the irony of one-time free trade Tories like John Redwood advocating, in effect, national self-sufficiency. Indeed something like that is now being seriously proposed (£) as Britain’s industrial future.

Overlapping with these neo-liberal Brexiters are those for whom the goal of Brexit, and visceral hatred of the EU, led them to think that every law and convention that seemed to thwart it, or their version of it, was secondary and should be swept away. These Brexit Jacobins cared nothing for the independence of the civil service or the judiciary or parliament itself, and traduced all three. Many of them morphed into the ‘lockdown libertarians’ who, on their wilder fringes, regard coronavirus as a conspiracy or a hoax and railed against the rules and laws aimed at restricting its spread.

In this, they complete the circle back to the Brexit politics of lies, in which evidence and rationality count for nothing, and the gaslighting that goes with it. They also connect back to Johnson in that few can doubt that, were he not Prime Minister, he would be one of them, harrumphing about the rights of the free born British yeoman. Indeed, amongst all the current accusations against him the one most likely to do him damage does not involve money or favours but the allegation that he said he would rather see the “bodies pile high” than have another lockdown. As many have observed, what is most striking about this allegation is that, true or not, it is entirely plausible in a way that would not have been so for any previous Prime Minister.

Licence for ill

Each of these strands, in itself, has antecedents and each, in itself, might not matter. But Brexit wove them together to give them a focus and a potency they had hitherto lacked and, with that, the capacity for their infected pus to ooze throughout the body politic. Almost everything that has happened since the referendum can be seen as a struggle against laws and conventions, from the Miller case through to prorogation and, currently, international law.

In turn that has given a licence for a much wider moral turpitude. There’s nothing new about lobbying and cronyism, but, as Peter Geoghegan argues in a London Review of Books essay this week, what is new is their normalisation. Equally, there’s nothing new in dismissing scandals as of no interest outside the ‘Westminster bubble’ but there is something new in declaring that they are unimportant because they are not “the people’s priorities”. That grows directly from the sanctification of ‘the will of the people’ which was used as a rhetorical battering ram for Brexit.

New, too, is the culture in which when a rather sober and staid Conservative like Dominic Grieve calls attention to these abuses he is denounced not for what he has said so much as for having been a remainer. So, even now that Britain has left the EU, the half of the country which did not want to is deemed to have no legitimate voice in relation to any subsequent debate, and anything they do say is still viewed through the prism of Brexit.

One consequence of all this is to have made Brexit itself all but undiscussable. It was the ‘will of the people’ and now it’s been done, so harking back to it is at best pointless and at worst undemocratic. With its full effects only now starting to emerge that near-silence is wholly unjustifiable. But the Brexit government would like to extend this approach to all of its actions. For all their supposed antipathy to the Establishment and the elite it is impossible to miss the very patrician sense in which they insist that what they are up to is of no concern to voters.

Nor is it difficult to imagine Johnson cynically chuckling to himself that all he need do is offer the ignorant proles some flag-waving bluster, a war on woke, a crackdown on asylum seekers, or a ruckus with the EU to keep them happy. There is a photoshop of that (in)famous Bullingdon Club picture, featuring Cameron and Johnson, which inserts a poorly dressed man and has a caption indicating his naivety for believing that these arrogant young leaders in the making took him as an equal. It nicely skewers Johnson’s careless contempt for the ‘ordinary people’ he purports to speak for and the gullibility of those who, apparently, persist in thinking he is “one of us” because “you could have a pint with him”.

Against all this, it might be said that even this Brexit government has constraints upon it. After all, prorogation was ruled illegal, the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill were expunged, it was announced this week that there is to be a judicial review of the Priti Patel case, the Electoral Commission is to investigate the funding of the flat refurbishment, Johnson has been reported to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and the media are covering the rash of scandals. The latter also shows how important the role of the Labour Party is, because by pushing hard on the scandals it is able to shape the news agenda despite not being in power. They could do the same for the impact of the Brexit trade deal.

Yet if, as many commentors think, the public don’t really care – or, at least, not beyond those who didn’t support him anyway – then this latest convulsion may, like others Johnson has faced and faced down, pass. If so, that can only embolden not just Johnson but the entire approach of the government. As with the Jenrick and Patel scandals, there is already a sense that ministers can get away with anything, and judicial review – a key mechanism for political accountability - is itself now a matter of political contestation. As for the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, these have hardly proved to be robust in the past, and, absurdly, any finding by the newly installed ministerial standards adviser can be ignored by the Prime Minister. So Johnson may be untouchable.

An ill wind

If so, then the toxin of Brexit ‘anti-ruleism’ will have been definitively unleashed, and the consequences of that may outlive this government. Those who abuse power have to face the uncomfortable truth that they may one day be the victims of the abuse of power. The laws and conventions of politics may seem an inconvenience when in government, but a vital protection when not. Thus, it is hard not to feel contempt for David Davis’s recent statement that he had privately agreed with Gina Miller taking the government to court over its power to trigger Article 50. The time to have said that, and argued that, was when he was in government and Miller was being traduced as a traitor. It is neither wise nor principled to change position on such things according to your current situation.

The Brexit process itself provides a good illustration. When in December 2017 Tory rebels, led by Grieve, forced the government to legislate for a ‘meaningful vote’ on the eventual Withdrawal Agreement, the Brexit Ultras denounced it as remainer treachery, designed to thwart the ‘will of the people’. Yet when May finally created the Withdrawal Agreement that they loathed, and the meaningful votes were actually held in 2019, those same Brexit Ultras happily used them to reject her deal as not being in line with the will of the people.

The wider point was well-made in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, set in another period when such a mood held sway, with dissent deemed treason. Will Roper, the prospective son-in-law of Sir Thomas More, declares that he would cut down every law in England to get to the Devil. More replies:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat. This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

We have in the Brexit government an administration of a similarly Roperian mien. It hasn’t yet hacked down all the laws, by any means. The point, though, is that it is too late to complain when the last of them is felled but prudent to do so long before that. The Brexit process saw the first felling, the issue now is whether the Brexit government will get away with continuing it. Each time it does, the next time will be that little bit easier - until no one can stand in the winds that will blow.


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My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.

Friday 23 April 2021

Brexit limps on

We’re probably long past the closing date for nominations for the prize for the most absurd and mendacious comment about Brexit, including the category reserved for those made by Boris Johnson. If not, a strong new entry would be his comment this week that he will get rid of the “ludicrous” checks on the Irish Sea border, and yet again threatening to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) as he has been doing since at least 13 January (less than two weeks after it came into operation, and before, be it noted, the EU’s quickly abandoned plan to do so over vaccine shipments).

Ludicrous is a useful word here, since this is the border Johnson said he would never agree to, then agreed to, then said he hadn’t agreed to – all within the space of a few months. But beneath the latest bullish assertion is the rather different proposition that the issue is one of different “interpretations” of the NIP, and the need to “sandpaper” the border arrangements. This implies that, at least for now, the wilder demands from some Brexiters and unionists to ditch the NIP altogether are not going to be met.

This is consistent with Tony Connelly of RTE’s fascinating account of the meeting last week between David Frost and Maris Sefcovic, and its aftermath. This suggests at least a degree of returning goodwill and the continued dialing down of antagonism, as discussed in my post earlier this month. For example, the ‘hotline’ between the two co-chairs, that had existed before Frost took over from Michael Gove, has been re-instated.

More generally, the focus seems to be on technical fixes rather than political posturing (although it is worrying that Frost still appears to think that the fact that UK regulations were fully aligned with the EU on 31 December is a matter of any relevance to the post-Brexit situation in which the UK is not committed to retaining alignment). Along with the high-level improvements in tone, there are reports from business groups (£) on the ground in Northern Ireland of intense and serious efforts by the government to create compliance with the NIP, and, belatedly, signs that the Joint Consultative Working Group for the NIP is about to get going.

Reliably unreliable

All of this is better than might have been expected given Frost’s previous rhetoric and conduct. Of course it doesn’t mean that much. He may ramp the antagonism back up again for the reasons I suggested in that earlier post. It could also just be a prelude to Johnson-Frost declaring that they genuinely tried to make the NIP work, but that the EU wouldn’t cooperate and so now there is no choice but to suspend, or even renege, on the NIP. Some, no doubt, will even say that ‘that is the plan’. But my view is that, as with the negotiations that led to both the exit and future terms deals, it credits Johnson with far too much acuity to imagine that there is a ‘plan’ as such.

In fact the comparison with those negotiations is an apposite one, because what all the talk of “interpretation” and “sandpapering” codes is that what is now happening is the kind of discussion about what the NIP means in practice that should have occurred then. But Johnson and his government were fixated solely on ‘getting rid of the hated backstop’ and, later, ‘getting Brexit done’, and are only now getting round to disentangling the cart from the horse. In short, the only reliable predicter of Johnson’s behaviour is what seems to be in his personal interest on a particular day. Trying to discern a long-term ‘plan’ in that behaviour is, metaphorically speaking, like mistaking the priapic compulsions of a sex addict for a recitation of wedding vows. Come to think of it, in this case that is not a metaphor.

Given that, some of the findings of a new opinion poll conducted for the Queen’s University Belfast’s ESRC-funded Post-Brexit Governance project may not be that surprising. Whilst opinions on whether, overall, the NIP is a good or bad thing are fairly evenly split, a staggering 86% distrust or distrust a lot the UK government's ability to manage the NIP in the interests of Northern Ireland (and only 1% ‘trust a lot’ in the UK government to do so).

The rush to judgement

That aside, amid continuing reports of the damage Brexit is doing to individual businesses, this week has seen more dreary (though, as I’ll discuss below, politically meaningful) attempts to pronounce a verdict on the impact on trade based on the February bounce back. The most egregious of these was Wolfang Munchau’s Euro Intelligence briefing that Brexit has been a “macroeconomic non-event” on the basis of those February figures because they show that “UK exports have fully recovered”. This is based on the fact that “they were up 46.6% after falling 42% in January”.

But, alas, as the distinguished economist Professor Jonathan Portes pointed out (though it’s necessary to be neither an economist nor distinguished to realise it) this was based on a basic arithmetical error: these figures mean an overall fall of about 15%, not ‘full recovery’ (if X = 100, then after a 42% fall it is 58, and then a 46.6% increase brings it up to about 85).

Munchau also regurgitates the idea that modern economies are becoming all about data trade (i.e. the ‘weightless economy’ mantra that’s been around for decades) and makes the claim that gravity models of trade (i.e. that geographical distance matters) only apply to goods trade. The latter has long been a favourite idea amongst Brexiters, such as former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who talk of a ‘post-geography trading world’, but it is largely incorrect.

If we must analyse the limited data available so far, the UK Trade Policy Observatory or the Tony Blair Institute are better sources, and there was also a surprisingly good discussion in the Telegraph (£). But as all these recognize it really is too early to say yet what the overall effect will be (I have consistently said this since the end of the transition, by the way, whether the data were ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for Brexit). Apart from anything else, we have still to see much detail on the effects on services, rather than goods, trade. But it seems obvious by definition that the creation of trade barriers reduces trade. In any case, as the Independent’s Economic Editor Ben Chu points out, the main trade damage predicted for Brexit isn’t an absolute reduction in trade with the EU but a reduction in the growth in trade that would otherwise have occurred.

The other key point, made very neatly by Professor Gerhard Schnyder in his most recent Brexit Impact Tracker blogpost (which also has a lot of really excellent detailed discussion of the various debates about the trade figures), is that the benchmark for judging the success or otherwise of Brexit isn’t the predictions of those who warned against it but the promises of those who advocated it. From that point of view, it’s not even enough to show some post-Brexit good news (£). What matters is to show that it was caused by, and couldn’t have occurred but for, Brexit.

Why the costs of Brexit (still) matter

These latest skirmishes over the costs of Brexit are an illustration of how Brexiters have long been caught in the trap of claiming, in the same breath, that the economic consequences of Brexit will be good (or at least not bad) and that Brexit is nothing to do with economics and all about sovereignty and independence. If the latter were really true, then there would have been no need for their entire ‘Project Fear’ narrative. It was only by mobilizing the argument that there would be no economic costs that enough voters could be made to take a punt on sovereignty.

In that regard, this week saw the publication of a very interesting new report from the UK in a Changing Europe research centre about leave voter motivations. This is by no means a dead issue, because there is – at least possibly, if not probably – likely to be some kind of link between how people regard Brexit now it has happened and what they thought they were voting for in 2016. The ‘headline’ finding of the report was about how the image of leave voters as the ‘left behind’ is an inadequate one, and that many were ‘comfortably off’. That’s not exactly new, but it is a useful myth to bust if only because of the sanctimonious and hypocritical way that so many rather privileged Brexiters claim their project as an anti-elitist one.

What is more interesting about the report is how these comfortable leavers, whilst not necessarily expecting a personal economic benefit from Brexit, do envisage its benefits in economic terms. For example, they talk of it leading to increased investment because of the money (supposedly) saved and the rebuilding of manufacturing industry. This may not be surprising because, despite what was subsequently claimed, the headline Vote Leave slogan of £350 million a week for the NHS was an explicitly economic one, and over and over again the campaign materials hammered away the arguments such as that there would be more money for public services, cheaper food, and that small businesses, especially, would be more competitive when freed from EU red tape.

Of course the other headline slogan was ‘take back control’ – the sovereignty lure – but the point is that the two were made in tandem. It is simply not true that the leave case was an emotional one for independence and the remain case a rational one for prosperity. More accurately, the leave case was that sovereignty was cost-free and the remain case was that it had a price (and, in the process, foolishly conceded the false claim that sovereignty was something that had been lost). It was only afterwards that leave voters were told that they had voted for sovereignty regardless of the costs. Nor, therefore, is the frequent suggestion that remainers and leavers are talking past each other true. They make different claims, obviously, but they are claims about the same thing.  

It is this which makes current and ongoing debates about the costs of Brexit so important. The reason Brexiters want to deny them is the same reason they ran the Project Fear attack line. They know it is one terrain within which the battle for public opinion will be fought and won. Not the only one, for sure, because there are plenty of cultural (and psychological) reasons why leave voters will continue to support Brexit even if they perceive it to have been economically damaging. That is also one reason why there will always be a political temptation for Johnson to manufacture a row with the EU, for example over the NIP. But Brexiters know full well that were they to admit the economic costs but say that they don’t matter then at least some of their support would crumble. As with the debates about who voted for what, and when, discussed in last week’s post, this is still live politics which explains the claims and counter-claims about trade figures.

Proustian Brexit

Another aspect of Brexit that the UK in a Changing Europe report captures is that of nostalgia, and again it is part an economic nostalgia for lost manufacturing industries but, again, it is a mix of the economic and cultural in envisaging that with that will come a regained British “pride”. It is another example of the disjuncture between the rank-and-file leave voters and some of the leading Brexiters and their cheerleaders that, amongst the former, we do not seem to find much interest in a ‘weightless economy’ or a ‘post-geography trading world’.

Like other elements of Brexit nostalgia – ‘we managed perfectly well before’ – it seems to envisage the referendum as having been a kind of time machine. And there is a sad irony in that for, in a way, what the Trade and Cooperation Agreement has done – with its central provision of zero tariffs for goods trade ­– is to configure UK-EU trade as if for a past era of British manufacturing. But that won’t recreate that era, and is largely irrelevant to the present one. Meanwhile, the industries for which Britain might nowadays feel a legitimate pride, such as culture or design, are likely  to take a terrible hammering because of loss of single market membership and of freedom of movement of people.

Indeed, it’s becoming ever-clearer just how much ending freedom of movement of people, in particular, is going to damage Britain. The recent population drop caused in large part by the pandemic will accelerate that, in tandem with the demographics of an ageing population. How it will play out remains to be seen. The effects will be multiple and varied. In some industries, perhaps especially agriculture and retail, it is more likely to mean increased mechanization than increased wages or job opportunities for British workers.

Some of the respondents in the UK in a Changing Europe report suggest that ‘lazy’ British workers will be forced to take up the slack, but that rests upon numerous myths both about this supposed laziness and the supposed generosity of the benefits system. It’s of note that this week it was quietly announced that the Pick for Britain scheme has ended in failure, and there is now a cabinet split (£) over increasing the quota for temporary work visas for jobs like fruit picking. Overall there may well be increased employment of immigrants from outside the EU – hardly, perhaps, what many leave voters envisaged – and it’s quite likely that loosening visa restrictions will be a requirement of making trade deals with, for example, India, especially if there is to be much liberalization of services trade.

Whatever may happen with immigration following Brexit, nothing can replicate the incredible freedom to come and go at different times and for different reasons, economic and non-economic, that have been sacrificed. We haven’t lost that in order to regain the past. We’ve just lost it and entered a diminished future.


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Friday 16 April 2021

We are still Brexiting

We have now passed the 100-day point since ‘economic Brexit’ – the end of the transition - and to mark it Yorkshire Bylines put together an excellent series of briefings from regular and guest contributors (disclosure: I am one of them). Taken together these provide as good a summary as there is of what has happened during this period.

It may seem as if not much is happening, but that’s far from true. As regards this week, specifically, a few developments stand out. One is the release of February’s trade figures which, as expected, show some bounce back after January’s precipitate decline, but as before it is still too early to see what the eventual structural changes will settle to, especially as regards services trade. Plus the UK has yet to introduce import controls.

So it is certainly far too early to proclaim, as some of the usual suspects have, that the hit to the UK economy has been “completely trivial”. The best analysis I’ve seen of the economic cost of Brexit, updated to include these new figures, comes from John Springford of the Centre for European Reform (which, in fact, shows that, even were there to be no more damage, just what has happened since 2016 is far from ‘trivial’).

The other, more political, story is in reports of progress and a more positive atmosphere (£) in talks between the UK and the EU over implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol against the background of the violence in the province. Yet there is a need for caution, as Mujtaba Rahman suggests, because a durable political solution seems as far off as ever (if, indeed, such is possible). Whatever may happen in the next few days – a ‘stock taking’ meeting between Joint Committee co-chairs David Frost and Maros Sefcovic was held yesterday evening, and Sefcovic is briefing EU Ambassadors this morning, so there may be a statement soon – the issue, as with the economic effects, is to recognize that not too much weight can be put on individual ‘data points’. The implementation of the NIP is not suddenly going to be resolved in a single moment, but will be, at best, an ongoing process that goes in fits and starts.

A multi-threaded process

So just as the structural impact on trade will emerge over time, partly as a result of decisions about supply chains that companies take in the coming months and years, so too will the politics of the UK-EU relationship go in fits and starts. Moreover, the process will be multi-threaded, with the threads not necessarily aligned. Thus even if there is currently some rapprochement over the NIP, we also saw this week reports that the EU will not agree to the UK re-joining the Lugano Convention (£). This, which allows the civil and commercial judgements made in one member’s courts to be enforced in the countries of the other members, is one of the many byways within the Brexit saga. As I discussed in May 2020, when the UK made its application to rejoin, it was questionable whether the EU would agree, and it now seems that it won’t.

My point, then, was that it showed the limitations to the Brexit government’s idea of sovereignty, because like it or not the UK, like every other country, is partly dependent on the decisions of others. Now, it also shows the limitations of the government’s ‘hardball’ approach to post-Brexit negotiations, because it invites the same response from the EU. I am not saying that there is a direct link between the UK’s decision to flout the NIP as regards grace period extensions – still the subject of legal action, which the government this week requested it be given more time to respond to – and the EU’s stance on Lugano membership. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that squandering trust and goodwill over one issue has some impact on other issues.

All of this serves to illustrate that the entirety of Brexit is, as it was always going to be, an ongoing process even after the exit and future terms deals were struck. Indeed, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) has still to be ratified by the European Parliament, and setting a date to do so has been held up by concerns over the UK’s violation of the NIP, although votes in some important committees this week suggest that approval may be in prospect. Moreover, the complex architecture of technical sub-committees established by the TCA have still not actually been convened, primarily because the UK government’s pique about the delayed ratification – a classic example of cutting off the nose to spite the face, since it would greatly help UK businesses were they to meet.

Then there all the things which, like Lugano, lie outside of the TCA. These include the still unresolved matters of recognition of financial services regulation and data protection equivalence. The latter now looks to be getting close to being granted but if so then, like anything granted on financial services, it will always be possible for the EU to unilaterally withdraw recognition. In short, we are still Brexiting.

Laying the blame

As noted in my previous post, there’s nothing in opinion polls to suggest a widespread consensus that Brexit was a mistake. If anything, according to pollster Peter Kellner, there has been a slight rise in support for it, probably attributable to perceptions of the vaccine rollout. But commentators leaping to conclude that Brexit has now been accepted as a positive thing (£) are, again, putting too much weight on current data and on small shifts within it. Such judgments are premature, and will be for quite some time.

The reality is that, with small variations, public opinion about Brexit remains more or less evenly split. Yet in a way this is a sign of its failure. After all, Brexit wasn’t supposed by its advocates to create a permanently divided nation. It was supposed to be an incontestably ‘good thing’. Instead, just a few months into actual Brexit, what is striking is how few are standing up to claim credit for it. The more prominent discussion is of the question: who is to blame for this mess?

It is a discussion which entails a certain amount of re-writing of history. This week, the Labour MP Barry Sheerman correctly made the point that Boris Johnson had been repeatedly warned of the dangers Brexit posed for the Northern Ireland peace process. In response, Gavin Barwell, who became Theresa May’s Chief of Staff after the 2017 election, asked Sheerman how many times he had voted “against a Brexit deal which would have avoided these problems, ultimately leading to Theresa May standing down and Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister”. The week before, the Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges made a similar argument, though referencing remainers in general rather than Labour MPs as having responsibility for what is now happening because of having failed to back May’s deal.

A trip to the archives

I anticipate this kind of account gaining considerable traction – in fact it has been swirling around for well over a year already - so it is worth examining in some detail, not least as Barwell was a serious player and, by all accounts, an honourable politician. There are actually two different claims within it. One is that May’s deal could have been passed had Labour (and other opposition) MPs supported it. This has to be about MPs, not ‘remainers’ in some general sense, as only MPs had a chance to vote on it. The second claim is that, had May’s deal passed, the present problems in Northern Ireland would not be happening.

I’ve written before of the perils of such counterfactual history, and back in August 2020 also gave a preview of the ‘blame games’ that would emerge if there were no (trade) deal, many of which are now on display in this different context. So I won’t repeat all that, but focus only on the claims Barwell makes, neither of which stacks up.

Barwell claim #1

On the first claim, the first thing to say is that May made no attempt to garner opposition support for her deal, even though the original ‘meaningful vote’ planned for December 2018 was postponed because it was clear she would lose it. Only after it was held and lost in January 2019 did she belatedly ‘reach out’ to opposition parties but excluded Labour until after losing the third meaningful vote. Moreover, she continually insisted that the only alternatives to her deal were ‘no deal’ or ‘no Brexit’ and thereby – even if unwittingly – encouraged all those who wanted either of those outcomes to oppose it.

More importantly, if her deal had passed in the face of bitter opposition from the ERG and the DUP but with Labour support, it is inconceivable that her government would have survived even long enough to sign the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with the EU. There would certainly have been a parliamentary Vote of No Confidence, which all opposition parties would have been bound to vote for and, unlike the one which actually occurred in January 2019 (after the first meaningful vote), the ERG and DUP would surely have joined them. That is evident from their “furious” reaction to the talks she did have with Labour. What exactly would have happened then is unclear – presumably a general election with the Tories under a caretaker leader, and whoever that was they could hardly fight on a platform of May’s deal, given how few Tory MPs supported it.

But even if the inconceivable is conceived, and May’s government survived to sign the WA with the EU, what would this have meant for Brexit in general and for Northern Ireland in particular? May’s premiership itself could not have lasted much longer than the WA, if only for lack of DUP support and, anyway, she offered her resignation in return for backing her deal at the time of the third meaningful vote in March 2019. So there would have been a Tory leadership contest, presumably leading to Johnson coming to power, and very likely a general election at that point. If that also yielded a Johnson victory (or if there had been no election but he’d regained DUP support to continue without one) then there would certainly have been an attempt to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement which he and the ERG would undoubtedly be calling a ‘surrender document’. And, even if that attempt failed, such an administration would (as the actual one did) seek a very distant relationship with the EU.

Barwell claim #2

So, then, Northern Ireland. If May’s WA had been struck and survived, it would still have been regarded by unionists as unacceptable – as the DUP’s implacable opposition to it showed - because there would still have been some degree of differential treatment of Northern Ireland. How much would depend on the future terms agreement not the WA. Barwell suggests that it would have been minimal, or non-existent, because May had promised regulatory alignment. But that promise had no guarantees, and it is impossible to see how May (even if she had continued) could have delivered that in the face of ERG opposition, unless Barwell seriously envisages Labour propping her up for months whilst she negotiated her trade deal, and supporting all the related domestic legislation. In any case, since she couldn’t have survived, the future terms would have been agreed by Johnson, and there would have been no regulatory alignment.

In short, under any realistic assumptions, there is no way that May’s deal (and, even more, anything, such as Common Market 2.0, that might have been agreed to in the Indicative Votes) could have been delivered by the government given the ferocious opposition to it from the ERG and the DUP. And, even if it had, the unionist opposition means it wouldn’t have prevented what is now happening in Northern Ireland. That could only have been averted by enacting it in a form that retained single market and customs union membership, which Brexiters – including the DUP – rejected as did May, from the Lancaster House speech of January 2017 up to and including the Political Declaration which suggested that the future terms deal would exclude freedom of movement of people and would provide for an independent trade policy. So the blame lies squarely with the Brexit Ultras, with May and, of course, with Johnson.

This isn’t ancient history – it’s live politics

This is history, in a way, but that matters because, in George Orwell’s famous line, ‘who controls the past controls the future’. In any case, it is hardly ancient history. It may seem a life time ago – both because of all the Brexit developments since, and of course the pandemic – but it is only a shade over two years ago that the meaningful votes were held. That really is no time at all. And, perhaps more to the point, the reason it is being dredged up again now is because people have political reputations to protect and agendas to pursue, and assigning and diverting blame is crucial to that.

Indeed, just as Barwell contends that the current situation derives from May’s deal having been thwarted, it is now a foundational myth of Brexiter belief that all that is going wrong with Brexit is down to Theresa May having ‘given in’ to the EU’s ‘unreasonable demands’ (as, for example, in historian Ruth Dudley Edwards’ absurd Telegraph piece this week, the more absurd since, like so many now lambasting the sea border, she advocated Johnson’s deal which created it). In doing so they absolve themselves of responsibility, whilst also ignoring that the problems May’s approach created were due to her misguided embrace of the hard Brexit they advocated. In that, they are actually helped by Barwell’s misguided characterization of May’s approach as being a substantive repudiation of hard Brexit since, to them, therein lies her sin.

So what is underway isn’t the ‘post-match inquest’. Because we are ‘still Brexiting’, it is about the live, ongoing politics of how the UK-EU relationship should be conducted and how it should develop. Specifically, the extent to which the impact of the Irish Sea border can be minimized is still a question of UK willingness to align regulations with the EU, especially sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulation. Even such an alignment won’t fully resolve matters, because the unionist objections are more based upon the symbolic politics of the border than the technical details (which is why, in those symbolic terms, May’s deal was almost as objectionable to the DUP as Johnson’s). Still, the technical details do affect the practicalities of supply disruption and that’s not unimportant.

The shape of future UK-EU relations

More generally, the question of a closer or more distant relationship with the EU continues, and will continue. It inevitably did not end with the TCA because of the brute facts of geography and economy. Thus Brexiter accounts of May having ‘given in’ are potent primarily because they give licence to their present attempts to make the relationship with the EU antagonistic and more distant. That is allied with attempts to obscure the damage that Brexit is doing, one part of which is to suggest that if there is any such damage it is down to Brexit not having been done properly because of May’s supposed weakness.

The latter is significant, because one of the crucial fault lines in public opinion now and in the coming period is between those who think that Brexit was intrinsically flawed and those who think it was only flawed in its delivery. As Kellner points out, there is a large constituency of voters whose views about Brexit are not very strongly held and who are liable to change their minds quite easily. Where (and whether) the opinion of this group eventually settles will have an important effect on where the politics of post-Brexit relations lands. However, this terrain is a tricky one for Brexiters because it pushes them in contradictory directions. On the one hand, to defend Brexit they need to downplay or deny the adverse consequences. On the other hand, to critique the way Brexit was done they need to focus on those consequences.

In this context, an important development this week was the formation and first session of the UK Trade and Business Commission, a cross-party group of MPs, business leaders and economists. Its focus will be the trading relations between the UK and the EU, and UK trade deals with other countries. It is noteworthy because almost all parliamentary scrutiny of the ongoing realities of Brexit has been closed down, including the Select Committee on exiting the EU that was chaired by Hilary Benn, who co-chairs this new commission. It is not an official or parliamentary body, and so has the potential to do the same kind of job for the trade and business aspects of Brexit that Independent Sage has done in providing informed, evidence-based data and discussion in relation to coronavirus.

This initiative has already received quite a bit of media coverage, and that is important because it is remarkable how little attention Brexit is now receiving. For example, the fact that the UK has requested extra time to respond to allegations that it has broken international law – hardly, one would have thought, a minor matter – is barely mentioned in the UK media. Where there is high-profile coverage, it eschews mundane but important issues like, say, the fact that the TCA committees haven’t met, in favour of, for example, James Dyson’s airy fatuities about Brexit giving Britain an ‘independence of spirit’.

The politics of ‘don’t know’

Overall, then, the guiding thread in all this is that we are in an unsettled situation across a number of dimensions which makes it too difficult, and too early, to identify a direction of travel. That uncertainty relates to the economics of Brexit, the politics of the UK-EU post-Brexit relationship, the security situation in Northern Ireland, the question of Scottish independence, and, out of all that, the formation of public opinion. Going back again to Kellner’s analysis, this will have big implications for domestic politics: “if Johnson, leading a more-or-less unified party on this issue, can persuade voters that Brexit is going well, he will be hard to defeat at the next election. Wherever Labour ends up, its first task is to undermine that Panglossian sentiment. A bold and compelling alternative to the current version of Brexit would help.”

That echoes my own recent argument that Labour needs to offer a different narrative on Brexit, and now is the time because a ‘common sense’ public opinion about whether Brexit was a success or a failure could coalesce quite quickly. That won’t be based upon arcane details of sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulatory alignment or membership of the Lugano Convention, but formed by big, broad brushstrokes of perception.

There is, however, another and perhaps more plausible scenario. One, quite sensible, reading of the referendum result would have been that the answer the public, considered as a single entity, gave to the question posed was ‘we don’t know’. The biggest scandal of Brexit is that this was then taken as an endorsement for almost the hardest form of Brexit imaginable. But what if, with that having been enacted, the settled view of ‘common sense’ public opinion remains ‘we don’t know’?

If that is how things shake out, then we are in real trouble: doomed to unending domestic division, whilst still, despite everything, having failed to create a stable and sustainable form for our country’s relationship with its continent.

Friday 9 April 2021

The ir/responsibility of Brexiters

The loud disputes between the UK and the EU of just a few weeks ago over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have quietened and there has still been no public response from the EU to the UK’s new roadmap for its implementation (though there are rumours of “disappointment”[£]). Nor, so far as I know, has there been any public indication of what its contents are.

As per my post last week, I think this is only a lull: the Brexit government’s aversion to the Protocol is now very deep-rooted. That is the Protocol which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated, claimed as a triumph, campaigned on in the 2019 election, and signed with the EU only a little over a year ago. It is also the Protocol which has as its core provision a permanent sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a fact mendaciously denied by government ministers, up to and including Boris Johnson.

This provision in turn arises from Brexit, or more accurately from hard Brexit. The facts here are so basic and so simple that they should not require repeating, but as events unfold there is perhaps a danger of them being forgotten. Hard Brexit did not flow automatically from the 2016 Referendum but was the interpretation chosen by successive British governments. It meant choosing to leave the single market and customs union, the institutions that prevent economic borders between their members. That meant choosing to create the need for an economic border with the EU and, as regards Northern Ireland, there is no politically acceptable place to put that border. Neither Brexit nor hard Brexit were the choices of the EU, they were not the choices of Ireland, and they were not the choices of the people of Northern Ireland.

Violence in Northern Ireland

Thus on the ground in Northern Ireland things have been anything but quiet, and the deteriorating security situation there, with the worst rioting “for years”, is becoming a matter of serious concern. Considerable care is needed in commenting on this from a Brexit point of view, especially when that comment comes from someone, such as me, who does not live in Northern Ireland and can claim no expertise in its complex politics.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear from numerous reports that Brexit, or more particularly the NIP, is a significant factor in the renewed violence from some members of the loyalist or unionist community, even though it is not the only one. Moreover, it has been stated on good authority that there is a paramilitary involvement in the latest violence – and although that is disputed, it is a fact that over a month ago loyalist paramilitary groups announced they had withdrawn support for the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement because of the Brexit deal. Perhaps worst of all, there are signs of a new generation, that had grown up with peace, now being drawn in, and there are also credible reports (£) of plans for an ongoing campaign of ‘civil disobedience’.

It is two months since I wrote on this blog that “what is now becoming ever-clearer is that Brexit threw a huge rock into the high delicate and fragile machinery of the Northern Ireland peace process, a machinery of complex checks and balances which had as an implicit condition the fact that both Ireland and the UK were within the EU”. As Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry puts it, “Brexit has cracked Northern Ireland even though its constitutional status hasn’t changed”.  

The directions that will take are highly unpredictable, and there can be no pleasure whatsoever taken from saying ‘I told you so’. Equally, it cannot be pretended that what is happening in Northern Ireland has come out of a clear blue sky - as one might think from some of the news headlines.

No contrition from Brexiters

So it would be fitting for some of the high-profile advocates of hard Brexit – perhaps especially those who are also Irish unionists – to take some responsibility for having, at the very least, misunderstood its consequences for Northern Ireland (£). It is no good simply blaming it all on Johnson’s deal, for whilst that is the cause of the specific form that these consequences are taking, the fact that there would be consequences is squarely down to the hard Brexit that so many, including but not limited to Johnson, championed.

Where Johnson can be most heavily criticized - as Naomi Long, the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, implied, and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said in terms yesterday - is for not being “straight” about what his Brexit agreement meant. That, of course, grows directly from Johnson’s wider, pathological, dishonesty as devastatingly chronicled by the journalist Peter Oborne.

It is all but unthinkable that Johnson will acknowledge his responsibility, and there are no signs of contrition amongst the Brexit Ultras more generally. On the contrary, where they are not silent, at least some are doubling down on the same misrepresentations that have caused this situation. Thus the increasingly peculiar former Brexit MEP Ben Habib insists that the problems were caused by the EU and Ireland “weaponizing” the border issue, with the British government at fault for giving in by agreeing to the Irish Sea border (he doesn’t find it necessary to mention that he voted for this agreement when he was an MEP).

For an alternative, he falls back on the stock Brexiter misunderstanding (to put it charitably) that the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement does not prohibit a land border and that this is what should be created.  It’s as if all the endless debates and explanations of the entire issue over the last five years had never occurred. Worse, Habib even regresses to the pre-referendum nonsense spouted by Johnson and others that, somehow, the solution lies in the Common Travel Area (it doesn’t because that relates to the movement of people, not goods and livestock), or that customs formalities could simply be waived - in others words, denying the basic fact of the economic border that hard Brexit requires.

In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, the would-be contrarian editor of Spiked, predictably argues that “it was the failure to implement Brexit properly, not Brexit itself” which created the problems for Northern Ireland, and that, inevitably, is down to the – yes, same language, as if they all take dictation from the same Brexity algorithm - “weaponizing” of the border issue by the EU etc. What Habib and O’Neill also share is a strange inconsistency in which the Sea border is a terrible outrage and yet a land border would have been “a practical challenge that could have been straightforwardly resolved” (O’Neill) involving merely “filling in a few forms and submitting the odd lorry load of goods to inspections” (Habib). More fundamentally what they share, needless to say, is a complete failure to accept that they have any responsibility whatsoever for Brexit or any of its consequences.

Choices have consequences

The decision to enact Brexit as hard Brexit is also the main reason for the myriad of emerging economic consequences. It is difficult to keep up with the daily reports of the damage that Brexit is doing. As I wrote in my previous post, these are ‘micro-damages’ taken as separate stories, but in aggregate they suggest an alarming degradation of businesses and livelihoods. This week’s crop ranges from delays, barriers and charges faced by independent garages getting parts, small-scale antiques dealers, and chocolate makers. As ever, the burgeoning 'Kelemen Archive' is an invaluable record of the astonishing scale of the damage. One potentially important development this week is that the Labour Party has (£), really for the first time, pushed the government hard on the economic effects of the trade deal. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a sustained strategy or a passing moment.

There is also still an ongoing stream of news stories about the post-Brexit problems facing British immigrants in EU countries. It’s important to make two distinctions here, both of which appear to elude the Brexiters and, for that matter, much of the media. Firstly, what is at stake is not how ‘the EU’ is treating these people, because each individual member state (being, Brexiter ideology notwithstanding, sovereign nations) has its own rules and procedures. Secondly, there’s a difference between those problems caused by member states not understanding or applying the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (£) and those which are simply entailed by Brexit itself, or, once again, at least by Brexit in the hard form chosen by the British government.

That issue of choice is central, and yet still evaded by Brexiters. A recent symposium with Michel Barnier was illuminating in his stress upon the point that he also often made during the negotiations: that choices have consequences. It seems so obvious as to hardly need saying, but even now, and perhaps especially now, it does. For in relation to Britons’ freedom of movement in the EU, former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman is still perplexed that they should no longer have these rights, as if that were somehow not entailed by the policies his party had advocated and the agreements which he, like Habib, voted for when he was an MEP.

Contorted logic

Of course this can be dismissed as just the problem of a sightly dim ex-politician, but its roots go much deeper, and explain a lot of the mess the Brexiters have created. Part of that is to do with the strange phenomenon, which I’ve discussed many times on this blog, of the way that many Brexiters seemed to think that whilst leaving the EU was a matter of vital necessity nothing much would really change as a result. But it is also to do with the weird arguments that they constructed around that; especially weird in relation to British ‘expats’ in the EU given the centrality many Brexiters placed on ending freedom of movement of people as the rationale for Brexit.

In the latter case, those arguments took two forms. One was that British people had moved to continental Europe to work, study or retire long before joining the EU, so Brexit was irrelevant. That was fatuous because it ignored the way that doing so was far more difficult before membership, and far easier afterwards. But it was doubly fatuous because it posited that freedom of movement rights had made no difference for British people’s free movement whilst arguing that they had made it far too easy for those from the EU-27 (as was).

The other, still on display in the present news stories, was that British immigrants in the EU were beneficial to the EU (spending money, paying taxes) whilst those from the EU were a drain on the UK. That was nonsense in itself as regards EU nationals in the UK, but was also a version of the ‘German car makers’ argument that ‘they need us more than we need them’. Both versions were at best economically illiterate and at worst insufferably arrogant, and both have now been comprehensively discredited. Yet they live on.

Will Brexiters take responsibility for what they have done?

When Article 50 was triggered, I wrote that from then on Brexiters would be responsible for whatever happened (the same argument was more eloquently made by Jay Elwes in Prospect). Four years on, it is clear that, on any objective criteria, there isn’t a single claim they made for Brexit that has come true. Economically, that has been obscured by the pandemic to a degree. The vaccine rollout has also given a temporary alibi and, notably, is about the only claim for the benefits of Brexit they make any more. But it didn’t require Brexit and, very likely, within a few months’ time the difference between the UK and EU record will have disappeared and become irrelevant.

As Mujtaba Rahman, the respected and influential Eurasia Group analyst puts it, “looking in rear view mirror, a lot of the drama [over UK/EU vaccine performance] of the last few weeks will look v[ery] silly indeed”. Already the Brexiter thunder over the treatment of the AZ vaccine in some EU countries (inevitably they ignored that of non-EU countries) looks even sillier in the light of emerging changes in the UK’s approach. As I have been arguing for weeks, viewing the vaccines issue through the lens of Brexit, or vice versa, was always nonsense.

Even so, the vaccine rollout will certainly be cited by Brexiters for years as a justification but – based on the inordinate amount of time I spend lurking on pro-Brexit sites, in an attempt to understand their views - I have the sense that it is already a rather half-hearted one, knowingly grabbing at straws. The far more dominant mood amongst the Brexit hard core is that their dream has been betrayed and, in a now recurrent phrase, that ‘this is not what I voted for’.

However, that certainly doesn’t mean that there is likely to be some great moment of realization that Brexit is a mistake, in the way imagined by, for example, William Keegan of The Observer. For the hard core, the keyword is indeed, as it was always going to be, ‘betrayal’: they still see no flaw in Brexit, only in how it was done, which they attribute to politicians in general (Theresa May especially and Boris Johnson partly), to the ‘remainer Establishment’, and to the EU. Indeed if there were one single thread running through Brexit it would be that Brexiters never, ever accept responsibility for their choices and the consequences of those choices. It is always someone else’s fault.

Will Brexiters be held responsible for what they have done?

That may be different for those outside the hard core of leave voters, but it’s the last and most enduring of the remainer illusions to think that there will be a sudden shift in which the country comes to its senses. Nor is there likely to be a moment of justice in which the guilty are arraigned or shamed.

More likely, though even this is by no means certain, there will just be a long, slow process – akin to what happened with other once-bitter polarizations such as those over Munich or Suez – through which Brexit becomes widely understood, more though an osmotic process than as a result of particular events or arguments, as a humiliating failure.

For the time being, at least, opinion polls suggest that that has yet to happen and that, excluding ‘don’t knows’, the leave-remain split is … 52% to 48% (page 9 of download). Of course strictly speaking asking how people would vote in a new leave-remain referendum makes no sense now that Brexit has happened but another poll shows a 46% to 43% split on the question of whether in hindsight it was right or wrong to leave the EU. There’s very likely some temporary ‘vaccine’ effect in these figures, but despite the self-evident failure of Brexit to deliver its promises, and the clear damage it is doing, support for it has proved remarkably durable. It’s a fact that has to be faced.

I think that, in turn, this means that there may never be a reckoning, in the sense of a holding to account of Brexiters for what they have done. Notably, there hasn’t been a single leading Brexit campaigner who has recanted. It’s possible to imagine some of them doing so in political memoirs decades hence, though I suspect most will go their graves unrepentant and blaming others. And perhaps, even probably, history books will treat Johnson much as they have Chamberlain or Eden, and with better cause, but that will be too late to matter much.

It's not fair, but then we learn in the nursery that life isn’t fair. Most of us also learn that our choices have consequences, and that we should take responsibility for them. It is a lesson for which the Brexit leaders were apparently absent.

Friday 2 April 2021

A Brexit reset?

The ‘big picture’ of the economic consequences of Brexit continues to get filled out, as discussed in an excellent panel event hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank this week. But behind that unfolding disaster lie a whole host of ‘micro-damages’ (although for those involved they may be anything but trivial). In some cases they are linked directly to the new trade barriers, as in the collection of individual stories in Daniel Thomas and Peter Foster’s recent Financial Times article (£) telling of presents undelivered and swingeing payments for handling charges and duties. But the authors make the important point that these are not just ‘economic’ stories – indeed the financial aspects are in some cases trivial – but about familial and cultural ties which have been strained or broken by Brexit.

So even when reported as ‘business stories’ it is important to recognize that there is a human dimension to them. Small firms have been especially hard hit, with a survey for the Federation of Small Businesses this week showing that over a quarter of small exporters to the EU have temporarily or permanently ceased selling their goods there. Others have relocated. Such firms, whilst certainly being commercial enterprises, are very often the labour of love of individuals or families, so it is not surprising that, in the words of one such business owner, “it’s really emotional seeing your business crumble around you”.

It’s a reminder that whilst Brexit is in some ways old and stale news, it is actually only in the last three months that many of the concrete effects have been felt, and these are throwing up all sorts of consequences of varying degrees of predictability in part according to how well-informed people were. These range from a spate of recent stories about unregistered British ‘expats’ in Spain having to return to the UK to the problems obtaining driving licences faced by those living in France. Meanwhile British gardeners are suffering an acute shortage of plants and equipment, in large part because of Brexit. Charities are warning that thousands of, by definition vulnerable, EU children in the British care system risk becoming undocumented adults. A House of Lords Committee has identified the problems of lack of access to EU policing data. And so the list goes on … and on … and on (an excellent new source of information is Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s weekly Brexit Impact Tracker).

These effects vary from the mildly inconvenient to the potentially life-shattering, and from the immediate and possibly temporary through to those which are permanent or are lurking dormant for now. Of course it is highly unlikely that many people will link such disparate things together as being about Brexit, or even to necessarily recognize them as being to do with Brexit at all. Most will only be affected by a minority of the consequences, and those that affect them will not all happen at the same time. Nevertheless, taken in the round, they represent a downgrade, not necessarily dramatic but real, in quality of life as a sole result of the political choices that the UK has made.

The political psychology of remainers

As all this happens, it’s unsurprising to hear remainers say ‘we told you so’ and, for example in the case of reports of leave voters having to give up their Spanish retirements, to jeer or sneer. That may be unedifying or even graceless, but it is psychologically understandable.

I’ve written quite often about Brexiter political psychology but less about that of remainers. Losing the referendum was obviously a fundamentally different experience for remainers than it would have been for leavers, for at least two reasons. One was that a decision to remain would not have required any process of enactment, it would simply have meant the continuation of the status quo. So whilst leavers, and certainly committed Brexiters, would have been hugely disappointed they would not have had to adapt to a new reality, nor would they have had to endure the tortured making of that reality, including the way that, at times in the years that followed, remainers were still able to have the hope that the decision would be reversed.

Another big difference is that there would surely have been no equivalent amongst remainers of the strange phenomenon amongst some Brexiters of disappointment at having won because doing so denied them their victimhood and grievance. In other words, it is very hard to imagine remainers having felt aggrieved had remain won, and it is also difficult, though not impossible, to imagine them having spent the next five years telling leavers to ‘suck it up’ and ‘dry their cry-baby tears’ whereas that is what they – remainers – have been expected to do. It’s also difficult to envisage leavers, had leave lost, facing the prospect of the equivalent of the ‘Festival of Brexit’ that remainers are supposed to get behind.

In the years that have followed the referendum the reactions of remainers have shifted, at least somewhat, as some of the anger and disbelief has perhaps evaporated. If nothing else, they have been forced to shift by the brute fact of Brexit having happened. Strictly speaking, neither leaver nor remainer is a meaningful term any more: we can no longer leave or remain because we have left. But that is the more so for remainers, in that leavers can think that they are now ‘living’ their identity whereas that of remainers is now definitively obsolete.

Yet it is remarkable the extent to which some Brexiters continue to be dissatisfied and to nurture a sense of grievance. That, in combination with the absolute refusal of a single high-profile Brexiter to take any responsibility whatsoever for the damage they have caused – even where they accept that there has been damage – perhaps explains why some remainers are not especially magnanimous when hearing of the travails of leave voters, such as those for whom it has turned out to mean leaving Spain. That might be especially so when, even now, the pro-Brexit press talks of them being “booted out”, as if it were a punishment for, rather than a consequence of, Brexit. Or when it emerges that those now complaining of such consequences had hitherto been crowing about ‘independence’. For all that leavers denounce remainers as ‘bad losers’, the bigger problem is that Brexiters have been such ‘bad winners’.

Reactions to vaccines

It’s against that backdrop that we can also understand the various reactions to the vaccines rows of the last few weeks, which break in numerous directions. For Brexiters, the paradoxical way that, as Fintan O’Toole so eloquently analysed in Heroic Failure, their self-pity combines “a high sense of grievance and a high sense of superiority” (p.3) continues to be on display.

The superiority motif is abundantly evident in, for example, the doltish triumphalism of Iain Duncan Smith’s account (£) of “the EU’s failure” which he contrasts with the re-discovered “national self-confidence” of “a nimble nation, finally at ease with itself”. Of course, a truly ‘self-confident’ nation ‘at ease with itself’ would not have to brag in this way anyway, especially if the EU was really, as Smith believes, “an incompetent organisation full of self-doubt”.  

Yet even within Smith’s windy chauvinism there is still the recurrent grievance trope of the EU “lashing out” and trying to “scapegoat” the UK. Similarly, Nick Timothy – the master strategist behind both Theresa May’s approach to Brexit and the 2017 election – opines that the EU is “dangerous”, “fixated by its own accumulation of power” and “determined to stop Britain making a success of Brexit”. As the eighth characteristic of Umberto Eco’s study of Ur-Fascism has it, “the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak”.

In fact, more objective accounts of the vaccine rows, such as that of RTE’s Tony Connelly, suggest that once there has been a “long and painful inquest” into how the EU handled things “it may well be that member states will need to grant more powers to Brussels as a result”. In other words, the real problem may well be not be that the EU is, as Smith has it, a “Leviathan” or, as Brexiters in general claim, a ‘super-state’, but that it is insufficiently centralized or, to put it another way, that the problems have resided more with individual member states than with the EU. That certainly seems more plausible than the hyperbolic talk of an EU “meltdown” provided by Matthew Lynn in The Spectator.

The reactions of remainers are varied. One, undoubtedly, is a kneejerk reaction to defend the EU at all costs and deny that any errors of leadership or organization have been made. Another, more sensible I would say, is to recognize that there have been such errors (as Connelly’s analysis makes abundantly clear) but also to recognize that they hardly constitute a damning indictment of the very existence of the EU. No political institution is perfect, and just because Brexiters insist that the EU is flawed in every respect it does not mean that remainers have to defend it in every respect. That is a difficult stance to take, though, precisely because of the provocative gloating of the likes of Iain Duncan Smith.

But there is a third remainer reaction, which is from those saying that the vaccines issues have led them to change their minds and to support Brexit (or, at least, that Brexit has enabled the UK to deal better with the pandemic). Of course it may be that we should just take that at face value, but I think that in at least some cases there is another explanation.

There is something emotionally exhausting about maintaining, year after year, an anger and sadness about Brexit and living with a sense of being stuck in a country that has taken a fundamentally wrong direction, when there is now absolutely nothing you can do about it. In those circumstances it can be a relief to find some way to feel reconciled, and that is what the vaccines issues have provided, even if only to the extent of being able to think there was some upside to Brexit. That is entirely understandable, even though my own view (as per previous posts) would be that it tells us little or nothing about Brexit either way, simply that it shouldn’t be viewed through that lens and, outside the UK, tends not to be.

Dialing-down the antagonism?

What is interesting, and somewhat surprising, is that despite the IDS-type reaction there are at least some signs that the government is not milking the vaccines row in the same way. There was a conciliatory joint statement on 24 March about these talks, although, unless I have missed them, there have been no further announcements since then. It also seems significant that it chose not to use David Frost to negotiate an agreement over vaccines with the EU, but rather former Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow, and certainly was seen as such by EU officials (£).

The big question is whether this betokens a more general dialing-down of antagonism from the UK, and there are also glimmerings of the latter. The tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol do seem to be easing a little. The Ireland/ Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met in what both the UK and EU described as a “constructive atmosphere”, following which a new ‘road map’ for operationalizing the Protocol was delivered by the UK to the EU. The EU is likely to respond next week, but it seems as if it has forestalled the threat of initiating arbitration procedures under the Withdrawal Agreement for breach of good faith which was to have occurred (although the separate legal process about infringement of the Protocol by the unilateral extension of grace periods continues).  

Equally notable is what is not being said – there has been a marked absence of the bellicose language of the last few weeks and both the UK government and media have suddenly gone quite silent about the Protocol. To this can be added very tentative signs of progress on financial services regulation (£) and data protection adequacy.

Thus it’s possible that there is some thawing of relations and this is the impression of some who watch Brexit closely, including the respected political analyst Peter Kellner. That is plausible, in that basic rationality, both economic and diplomatic, would suggest a need to improve the tone and content of UK-EU relations. Such rationality has hardly been evident in Johnson and Frost’s approach to date, but perhaps some limited common sense has belatedly broken out.

Yet, if so, the question in the heading of Kellner’s piece – ‘will Boris Johnson betray hardline Tory MPs?’ - is a telling one. For such a change of approach would represent a decisive break with what Iain Duncan Smith and the other ERG Ultras advocate. Goodness knows that’s long overdue, but I’m not sure that it is likely, if only because it goes against the grain of the dynamics of recent Tory Party history. It would also mean Johnson giving up on the tactical advantages of whipping up his voter base – and the Brexit press – that confrontation with the EU confers.

The spread of Brexit Jacobinism

In fact, I think that many commentators in the media and think tanks miss or underestimate the extent to which the current government is radically different from any that we have seen before, not so much in its policies as in its repudiation of the norms and conventions of politics, including previous expectations of economic competence. Such an approach is not lacking in political rationality, for what Johnson has discovered is that, so far anyway, there is little or no political price to be paid for it.

So analysts keep over-pricing a return to normality, in which established rules of conduct apply, and under-estimating the extent to which Brexit Jacobinism has become dominant, spreading from Brexit to infect the government’s entire approach to politics. That is the thread that runs through everything from the illegal prorogation of parliament to the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill to its draconian approach to policing protests, hostility to the legal system (‘activist’ lawyers, judicial review) the civil service and 'woke' universities, excessive use of Executive powers (Henry VIII powers, Statutory Instruments), disdain for the ministerial code, illegal lack of transparency in public procurement with associated accusations of cronyism, resistance to scrutiny and accountability by both the media and parliament, and much more besides. Many of these issues have been problematic in the past, but as Tom de la Mare QC puts it - in relation to the “epidemic” of Statutory Instruments, but it applies more widely - “Brexit is that coca leaf refined into cocaine”.

As regards, specifically, post-Brexit relations with the EU, this means a rejection of the norms of diplomatic conduct with friendly nations. I wrote a few weeks ago about the delusionary approach to these relations that David Frost (and presumably Boris Johnson) appears to believe in, and the Brexit Ultras certainly do. Within this approach, the unilateral extension to the grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), for all that it provoked legal action from the EU, will probably have been seen as a success because it also led the EU to push for further talks and to express a willingness to ‘show flexibility’ in the application of the Protocol, which has already had some concrete results.

A feral State

So I think that what is happening in the present, apparently calm, moment is more likely to be that Johnson and Frost are ‘banking’ what they see as the gains of violating the NIP and that in a few weeks’ time they will launch another ‘strike’. Sober voices will warn that this is doing terrible damage to the UK’s international reputation, but that will cut no ice with this Brexit government because it believes, on the contrary, that what the ‘declinist Establishment’ calls ‘damage’ is actually Britain gaining respect by showing its strength.

From that perspective, things like yesterday’s call from the Irish Taoiseach for a “reset” of relations over the NIP to make them more trusting and constructive are likely to be interpreted as a victory for Frost’s negotiating strategy and encourage its repetition rather than, as hoped, its abandonment (as regards the NIP – the fact that he’s not involved in the vaccines talks does suggest that these are being treated differently).

In short, on this analysis, Brexit Britain has become a feral State and there’s no obvious way that that the EU can deal with this. It’s like being confronted by thugs or blackmailers, but with the peculiar twist that they believe themselves to be the aggrieved party. So you can stand up to them and provoke further aggression; or you can try to conciliate them, but they will still keep coming for more.

It would be no surprise if this should continue to be the dynamic, because it is exactly the same as that between the Brexit Ultras and the Tory leadership for the last thirty years. Now they have captured the Tory Party, and hence the government, and are attempting the same thing in relation to the EU. And it is crucial to understand that the most hard core of them do not simply want some easements of the NIP, but are adamantly opposed to it in its entirety, and to the Withdrawal Agreement itself, all of which they see as not being ‘sovereignty compliant’.  

Perhaps I am wrong, and Johnson is about to embark on a more pragmatic and consensual path. It’s not - to put it more charitably than is warranted - as if inconsistency is entirely alien to his nature, either political or personal, if he can see some advantage in it. But as he glances over his shoulder and sees the Smiths and Redwoods and Jenkynses and Patersons and all the rest of the gurning fanatics, well, even someone possessed of an altogether more Cromwellian resolve might be forgiven for having second thoughts.