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.

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