Sunday 26 September 2021

This crisis could be an opportunity

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

The crisis in brief

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

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

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

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

The need for realism and honesty about Brexit

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

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

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

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

Government stuck between admitting and denying reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle between remembering and forgetting  

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

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

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

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

The crisis may prompt a renewed Brexit debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Northern Ireland

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

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

Friday 10 September 2021

Betamax Frost is an obstacle to a viable post-Brexit strategy

There’s something like an emerging consensus that the Afghanistan crisis has also created a crisis for Britain’s post-Brexit geo-political strategy and, in particular, shows both the emptiness of the ‘Global Britain’ slogan and the urgent need to increase co-operation with the EU. It’s a message that can be found in recent articles by former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts, by the Observer’s Chief Political Commentator Andrew Rawnsley and, perhaps more surprisingly so therefore more significantly, by pro-Brexit Times columnist Iain Martin (£). Within the Conservative Party it can be seen in the comments of Tom Tugenhadt and Tobias Ellwood, amongst others.

Of course many people realized from the outset that Brexit was going to create such a crisis, not least because it was so clearly a victory for Putin’s anti-UK and anti-EU policies – the Afghanistan issue has just hastened it and made it more visible. That arises from one of the key flaws in the Brexit case, which always insisted that Britain’s security needs were entirely met by NATO (meaning, in effect, the US), whilst all attempts to develop an EU foreign and defence policy were treated as illegitimate and indeed as a reason to leave. More crudely, during the referendum, any discussion of the geo-political consequences of Brexit was shut down using the ‘so World War Three will break out if we leave?’ straw man.

Subsequently, the government’s attempt to articulate its Global Britain strategy in the ‘Integrated Review’ made only passing references to the EU, and Boris Johnson’s stated aim of “leaving the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy” underscored that he wanted to act as if Britain’s strategic place in the world could be detached from its geographical place in the world. Exactly the same objective is apparent in relation Britain’s economic place in what Brexiters like to call the “post-geography trading world”.

The strategic logic for post-Brexit Britain

This was always foolish, if only because – as Brexiters themselves were wont to say – ‘we are leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe’. The implications of that truism are starting to be belatedly recognized in both geo-politics and economics. There’s a kind of Alice through the looking glass feeling in the words of the newly appointed Trade Commissioner for Europe, which speak of the huge importance of trade with the EU and of the need to work “with businesses and governments across the continent to remove barriers to trade”. It need hardly be said that … no, really, it need hardly be said. Still, it is a recognition, of sorts, of reality.

That recognition is also evident in some of the ‘quiet realism’ I’ve described in recent posts about the limited possibilities for regulatory divergence from the EU. For example, despite the current bluster about diverging from EU GDPR rules it seems almost certain that, when it comes to it, the government will realise that this would have few benefits but carry the massive costs (£) of losing EU approval of UK data protection rules as equivalent to GDPR. The pull of the EU regulatory orbit is too great for a country of Britain’s size and economic integration with the EU to resist. Divergence is simply too expensive, as has in fact been obvious since the 2017 Data Protection Bill was announced even as hard Brexit was being pursued.

Thus the strategic logic of post-Brexit Britain is getting clearer almost by the day. It’s not just that regulatory divergence is too expensive. It is also that continued de facto regulatory alignment makes it pointless to continue to refuse de jure alignment. That is because retaining the theoretical right to diverge (e.g. on Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary [SPS] regulations, which are also central to the Northern Ireland situation) whilst still in practice remaining mainly or entirely aligned makes no sense, or at least it only makes sense to theological Brexiters as an exercise in theoretical sovereignty. No doubt there will be a few exceptions, but that is the general logic of the situation.

Beyond regulatory issues, that logic suggests working in close and harmonious partnership with the EU across a wide range of security, diplomatic, environmental and possibly military endeavours. It’s not an ideal situation but, within the range of those currently politically viable for post-Brexit Britain, it is the best available. Anyone tempted to dismiss this as ‘remainer defeatism’ should recall that such harmony was precisely what many leave campaigners promised as a benefit of Brexit, replacing the antagonism arising from supposed ‘compulsion’ with a cooperation based upon making choices based on the UK’s own interests. It is only more recently that Brexiters have insisted on independence at all costs from anything European, regardless of UK interests.

To the extent that strategic logic points in the direction of a relationship with the EU that is both substantially harmonized and harmonious, it’s a reasonable expectation that at some point in the future a British government will take that path. But manifestly it is not inevitable that governments will act with strategic logic and, most certainly, it is unlikely that the present government will do so. For even as the force of that logic becomes clearer, Johnson’s approach to Brexit – as enacted by David Frost – remains one of antagonism which precludes acting on it.

Frost returns for autumn

That this approach is set to continue was made abundantly clear by Frost this week, both in a major speech and in a written statement to parliament. For all the mention in the speech of not wanting “a fractious or difficult relationship with the EU”, he was unable to resist multiple jibes suggesting just the opposite. Crucially, he made it clear that he does not accept the fundamental tenets of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP): “the difficulties come from the way the Protocol is constructed, not just the way it is being implemented”.

An obvious retort would be that he was the UK’s chief negotiator when it was agreed in 2019, but, as in the past, he made clear that he regards this as having happened because of the constraints inherited from May’s administration, constraints which wouldn’t have existed had “we” (meaning Johnson’s administration) been in charge at that time. For this reason, he evidently feels no shame, or even any sense of inconsistency, in reneging on what he agreed because he feels no genuine responsibility for having made the agreement.

This, as with other claims he makes, entails a ludicrous re-writing of history, but it’s important to understand that – in my view, although of course I am not inside their heads – both Johnson and Frost genuinely believe this stuff (for a longer discussion of Frost’s approach, see my post from last March). That matters, because it explains their present stance. In particular, they believe that May failed to negotiate properly because she didn’t believe in Brexit, that the removal of the backstop was a triumph of their ‘hardball’ negotiation, and that the subsequent threat to violate the NIP with the Internal Market Bill was what led to the TCA being agreed. Most fundamentally, they believe that the entire Northern Ireland border issue was fabricated by the EU in order to stymie Brexit and only gained prominence because May allowed it to. It’s significant that all of these beliefs have recently been affirmed by Dominic Cummings.

These may sound like outlandish statements to many readers of this blog, but they are entirely commonplace, and in no way controversial, in Brexiter circles. As such they are now baked in as articles of faith, certainly for Frost who has re-made himself by embracing them. Johnson seems to have lost interest in Brexit policy entirely, and has subcontracted it to Frost. It’s conceivable - given the general plasticity of his beliefs which, in a sense, mean that the term ‘articles of faith’ is a misnomer in his case - that he might change approach and dump Frost if he saw some advantage in it, of which more below, despite the furore it would provoke amongst Tory backbench Brexiters. But for now he too apparently shares this boilerplate Brexiter analysis of how the NIP came about.

The resumption of the Protocol row

What these beliefs about the past now lead to is the proposition that if the UK pushes hard enough then the EU will abandon the substance of the NIP, including abandoning its refusal to grant SPS regulatory equivalence rather than the UK agreeing regulatory alignment. In this way, both the substance and the tone of the NIP row are indeed blocks both to regulatory harmonization and to the creation of a harmonious relationship which strategic logic mandates.

Central to that approach is the threat to invoke Article 16. It is notable that Frost this week re-issued this threat, along with the unsubstantiated claim that the conditions needed to justify its invocation already exist.  Many sensible commentators rightly say that this would not resolve anything, but would merely exacerbate existing uncertainties and tensions. Such commentors also rightly point out that Frost’s words are at odds with his stated aim of creating the basis for negotiating and resolving problems.

However, we are not in the realm of the ‘sensible’ conduct of international relations. For Frost-Johnson the exacerbation of existing problems is not a failure but a desirable result because it is painful for those – in this case the EU – who persist in playing by the ‘normal’ rules, and seen as a route to total victory rather than to a compromise. Again it is an approach derived from Dominic Cummings’ time in Downing Street (and in the Vote Leave campaign), and embraced by Frost who was in Cummings’ inner circle at the time.

This is what they mean by playing hardball, and they genuinely believe it will lead the EU to re-negotiate the entire NIP. If nothing else, they think that the longer the negotiations go on, the more the unimplemented parts of the NIP will become normalized and EU claims about their necessity will be undermined. If in the process UK-EU relations are further soured then that is taken as a sign that their approach is ‘working’ – and in any case gives them a boost with pro-Brexit MPs and voters.

A looming crisis?

This isn’t going to explode immediately. As was widely expected, this week Frost announced that the UK will extend the various grace periods that were due to expire at the end of the month, and the EU has ‘taken note’ of this (i.e. accepted it). Significantly, unlike previous extensions, there was no date set. The UK position is to want a ‘standstill’ in the existing situation, whilst the EU was clear at the time of the previous extension that it was only a temporary solution. In the latest UK statement the word ‘extension’ is not used – the formulation is just that the UK will “continue to operate the Protocol on its current basis” – and the EU statement says nothing about timeframes.

So, for now, there is a fudge on that, but one which Frost will regard as very much in his favour and, tellingly, the pro-Brexit Telegraph immediately crowed that this was “a major concession” by the EU (£). What I think the EU has failed fully to appreciate is that in Frost’s Cummings-inspired negotiating approach any flexibility or conciliation is banked as a concession and chalked up as a sign that his intransigence works, not as cue for reciprocation.

The EU also continues to pause its legal action over the first, unilateral, extension the UK announced in March and Frost will see that, too, as a victory and vindication. It has yet to respond to the UK’s Command Paper of July setting out the government’s current approach. Once it does, which is expected to be at the end of this month, there will be a lot of sound and fury because what cannot be fudged forever is the fundamental difference between what the UK is now demanding and what was agreed in the NIP (for detail, see my discussion at the time of the Command Paper). At some point this will become a crisis, but how quickly is less clear than it would have been with a defined end date to the new extensions.

When and how the crisis comes will partly depend on the UK. Implicit in Frost’s parliamentary statement is that he might deem that there is no basis for further ‘constructive’ discussions. That is presumably code for an early invocation of Article 16. One counter-argument to doing so is the point made earlier – that the longer the grace periods remain in place with the NIP otherwise functioning, the greater the chance they might continue indefinitely. On that logic, Frost might drag the talks on for as long as possible rather than collapse them.

It will also depend on whether the EU is prepared to be robust in its responses, and if so then to what extent. Thus far, in its willingness to extend grace periods and to pause to legal action, the EU has seemed keen to dampen down and postpone conflict. If that continues it could play into the hands of Frost precisely because suspended implementation could become a permanent reality, and in any case would serve to confirm in his mind the efficacy of his approach.

According to RTE’s Tony Connelly – and he’s almost always right about such things - the EU is currently willing to offer some further flexibilities within the NIP framework but is also testing to see whether there is any flexibility in the UK position of effectively abandoning that framework. If so, that is still based on the misapprehension that Frost’s approach is one of the give-and-take of ‘normal’ negotiations. The problem for the EU remains, as I’ve discussed before, “how to react to a country that constantly behaves in a hostile manner, but hasn’t quite gone rogue”. Much will depend on how it answers that question in the coming weeks.

Domestic politics

However, there are potentially also domestic considerations in play for the government. Whilst an ongoing fight with the EU over the NIP would play well with its core supporters, it could go very badly indeed with wider public opinion if it comes at the same time as a worsening of the labour and supply chain crisis and especially if that crisis is widely attributed to Brexit (hence the importance of where that narrative settles, as discussed in last week’s post). With growing threats of shortages of toys and consumer electronics in the run up to Christmas (£) and of food shortages extending into the new year (£) it could be a bleak time.

In this context, it will be interesting and important to see whether the government introduces import controls, the first main phase being due to start on October 1, which, to spell it out, is only three weeks away, and the second on New Year’s Day. My hunch is that it will postpone again rather than risk the further disruptions that major retailers are warning of.

At all events, it’s not inconceivable that with all this going on the public, including plenty of Tory voters, may become sick and tired with the constant aggravation over the NIP. It’s even possible there will be a resumption of the Jersey fishing row. Yet Brexit, people were promised, would ‘get done’ with Johnson’s election victory. Interestingly, Frost has recently changed his Twitter profile to read “you don’t get something for nothing, you can’t have freedom for free”, but many leave voters might come to recall that no such trade-off was suggested to them when Johnson declared that they could have their cake and eat it. That could also get linked to criticisms of him having broken other manifesto pledges, such as those on national insurance and pensions.

Such a situation would be yet another opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour to capitalize on the post-Brexit mess. For, apart from the obvious open goal of the supply crisis, what is opening up, as a result of Afghanistan and (in the scenario I’ve just painted) public impatience with ongoing conflicts with the EU over the NIP, is a space for a distinctive and pragmatic post-Brexit foreign policy. It could even be presented, for the reason alluded to earlier, as the delivery of Brexit in the foreign policy arena. After all, it was the Vote Leave campaign that promised “better relations with our European friends” (p.15 of link).

Ditching Frost?

In this scenario, Johnson might seek to deprive Labour of the opportunity by taking it for himself. To do so, a necessary but not sufficient condition is ditching Frost. Few can doubt that if Johnson sees that as being in his interest – the only calculation that matters to him – he will do it. This could allow a recalibration towards a better relationship with the EU, especially if assisted by some face-saving concessions from Brussels over the NIP, which are arguably possible without jettisoning the entire framework (£). Accepting such concessions rather than demanding an all-out renegotiation would become possible with Frost out of the picture.

That in turn could be a prelude to the kind of strategic shift that logic suggests will eventually come, although it’s unlikely that Johnson could fully effect such a shift. That’s not because he is a committed Brexiter – he has never been that – so much as because of his general lack of ability to formulate and follow through on anything at all, and what even his most enthusiastic supporters would admit is a lack of anything resembling ‘statesmanship’. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that he has some interest in ‘performing’ statesmanship, but no aptitude for its delivery. So any serious and substantive re-set of UK-EU relations is unlikely under Johnson – who is understandably loathed and distrusted across the EU – and probably under any Conservative Prime Minister whilst the diehard Brexit Ultras remain a powerful force in parliament and the media.

In short, there is a place that UK-EU relations can settle, albeit one that will please neither the most committed Brexiters nor the most committed remainers, which has a strategic logic to it given that Brexit has happened. But there are several obstacles to that, the first being David Frost. Whilst his removal would not guarantee anything changing for the better, for so long as he is in post it can be guaranteed that nothing will change for the better. For as the realities of Brexit, both economically and geo-politically, emerge at pace his embrace of a Betamax theory of sovereignty and an adolescent apprehension of international negotiation is increasingly being exposed as not just fatuous but redundant.


I will be taking a break from blogging until October 1, and hope that the diagnosis, above, that there will be no immediate crisis proves correct. But if you haven’t done so, then in the meantime why not read my book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) recounting and analysing what happened from the referendum result to the end of the transition period, which was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.

Friday 3 September 2021

A depressing anniversary

It’s now exactly five years since I started this blog and, as it enters its sixth year, with a pleasing symmetry, it will today have its six millionth visit. I must admit that I didn’t really anticipate when I started that I'd still be writing it now, over 300 posts and about a million words later, or that it would settle into a kind of weekly newsletter. I most certainly hadn’t imagined that it would become so widely read. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who has read it or in some way shared or recommended it to others.

Looking back at the very first post there are several things in it which I’d express slightly differently (unlike a certain more famous blogger, I don’t retrospectively change old posts) but, on the whole, it has held up fairly well, and these lines, in particular, now seem almost prophetic:

“Over a whole swathe of issues (the leaving process, the nature of the single market, the way that the WTO and trade deals work etc.) the Brexit position is composed of, at best, half-truths or just outright fantasies. It is therefore inevitable that the coming months and years will see a series of collisions between these fantasies and the realities (and equally inevitable that Brexiters will blame this on others).”

Here we are, five years later, and exactly this dynamic continues to play out though, given that Britain has now left the EU, in ever more bizarre ways.

The concrete impacts of being outside the single market and customs union in terms of damage to trade, supply chain disruption and labour shortages are, as discussed in last week’s post, becoming harder to ignore. But as also noted in that post, though only in passing, this is provoking contradictory responses from Brexiters.

Initially, they argued that these impacts were just a remainer invention. That has become untenable as the shortages continue to grow, affecting everything from school meals to the profound and deepening social care crisis, threatening the ‘cancellation’ of Christmas and even, to the amusement of some, shortages of some beers in arch-Brexiter Tim Martin’s Wetherspoon’s pubs. Meanwhile, the latest trade figures show what the Food and Drink Federation call a “disastrous” decline of food and drink exports to the EU since the end of the transition, with meat and dairy products especially hard hit.

In the face of this, there is now a split between those arguing that the shortages and/or trade declines are essentially nothing to do with Brexit, and that to say otherwise is remainer propaganda, and those admitting they are very much to do with Brexit, but claiming that this is the fault of the EU.

It’s not Brexit!

The first of these is a continuation of the tired old Project Fear line that has served Brexiters so well both before and since the referendum. It is achieved by the familiar sleight of hand of exaggerating warnings (or, now, reports) of Brexit damage so as to create an absurd and easily-demolished straw man. The current straw man is that the shortages are entirely caused by Brexit.

Thus former Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe scoffs that “you cannot put the absence of food on the shelves solely down to Brexit” and thus, supposedly, “clinically crushes attempts to blame Brexit for the UK supply chain crisis”. At the more intellectual end of the spectrum, the pro-Brexit former Chief Economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Julian Jessop, points, rightly, to global issues, including the pandemic, as a major cause of the supply shortages with Brexit as “an additional factor”. Thus remainers are wrong “to have seized on the ongoing disruptions to supply chains as proof that ‘Project Fear’ was right all along”.

The first difficulty with such arguments is that, so far as I am aware, there are no serious or reputable claims that all the shortages are “solely” or even mainly caused by Brexit. There may well be people posting on social media saying it, just as such postings can be found making just about any claim, but basing counter-arguments on that is, precisely, to erect a straw man.  ‘Mainstream media’ reporting invariably says Brexit is only one cause and, if anything, tends to downplay its role. I said the same thing last week, whilst making the point that it is also the factor which is unique to Britain and, uniquely, chosen by Britain.

The other difficulty, most evident in Widdecombe’s case, is the slippage from correctly saying the shortages are not solely or mainly due to Brexit to at least implying that they are nothing to do with Brexit. That is both incorrect in itself, but also misses the way that, even without being the main factor overall, Brexit inflects the shortages in the UK in particular ways for particular products. Thus whilst Brexit is almost certainly not a factor in shortages of, for example, semiconductors, and only one of the factors in, for example, the shortage of timber – both of which can be seen globally, and affect the UK in a way similar to other countries – it is almost certainly the major factor in shortages of fresh produce.

This is because of the nature of UK supply chains which are heavily reliant on EU produce, and the specific way Brexit impacts on cabotage rules (where and how often a haulier can load/ unload goods). For these and other Brexit-related reasons (e.g. shortage of labour to pick UK produce) we see widespread shortages of fresh produce in UK shops but not in EU shops. Again it’s not an all or nothing explanation – there are some produce shortages in the US, for example – but the point is that whereas Brexit is low to non-existent on the list of causes in the case of semiconductors it is high on the list for fruit and vegetables.

Of course such shortages have a particular significance in that they impinge directly on the general public. So the ‘denialists’ have important reasons to discredit or downplay Brexit as a cause of such shortages. One is simply a psychological investment in Brexit as an unalloyed good. That presumably explains the contradiction that at the same time as disowning the shortages, some Brexiters are hailing rising wages as a Brexit benefit – a dubious claim in itself, but bizarre when, for it to be true, the shortages would have to be caused by Brexit. But more importantly it is political. There is a battle underway to control the narrative of what the shortages mean because if they come to be associated in the public mind with Brexit then that will do much to discredit the entire project.

The stakes in that battle are likely to increase because the shortages are likely to intensify assuming UK import controls are introduced over the coming months, and will do so in any case to the extent that UK demand for EU fruit and vegetables always peaks in the winter. It is also likely that food prices will rise (£). This battle to control the narrative has been underway since the end of the transition period, and so far it has been fairly easy to blame disruptions on the pandemic. As that wanes in credibility, and to the extent that simple denial is implausible, so too do Brexiters switch the emphasis to blaming others for Brexit damage.

It is Brexit (but it’s not our fault)!

Hence last weekend’s Mail on Sunday carried an editorial with a striking headline: “Let’s unite with the EU to crush the curse of border bureaucracy”. This attracted much ribald comment since, at first blush, it sounded like a call to re-join the EU. Needless to say it was no such thing. Instead, acknowledging the reality of border checks and delays, it was a roll out of almost all the fantasies the Brexiters have nurtured for so long. In particular, it revived the idea (without using the word) that there could be still be something close to frictionless trade despite having left the single market and customs union. The familiar suggestion is that this could be achieved by a mixture of new border technology and accepting UK product standards as ‘equivalent’ to the EU’s because they haven’t, in fact or as yet, changed very much from those of the EU.

At heart, this represents a complete refusal to accept the consequences of hard Brexit, embodying the persistent ideas that none of the things Brexiters like need to change as a result and/or that the UK should have a special status different to other third countries. In some discussions of the article it was suggested that this should indeed be possible because not all third country-EU relationships are identical. But whilst that is true (recall, for example, the Barnier staircase), it is only true within a restricted range of possibilities. It certainly doesn’t mean that the EU could simply grant the UK the benefits of a regulatory union (i.e. the single market) and a customs union without the UK being bound by their conditions and constraints.

Fundamentally, the article shows a continuing and total misunderstanding that it is the single market and customs union which abolished the red tape which, with Brexit, the UK has re-instated for itself. The complaints about that, in turn, reprise the peculiar way that Brexiters talk as if Brexit had been done to the UK, in this case by the EU raising trade barriers, rather than chosen by the UK. Existing regulatory alignment is irrelevant to this because the UK refuses to relinquish the right to diverge, or to accept external enforcement, on grounds of sovereignty. That is its choice, but it brings consequences. Similarly, whilst the MoS bemoans that “we are supposed to impose our own tiresome and self-harming restrictions on goods coming into the UK from the EU” (i.e. import controls) it refuses to understand that ‘tiresome and self-harming restrictions” are what the UK chose for itself in enacting hard Brexit.

Rather than accept these basic facts, the article and its defenders ascribe Brexit’s failure to the EU’s inflexibility and its supposedly ‘political’ approach to the Brexit negotiations. This recycles all the ideas which have been endlessly debunked since 2016, both by commentators and by events. Embedded within them is the implication that the EU has not just punished the UK unnecessarily but miscalculated its own interests (a revived version of the ‘German car makers’ argument), and that as an ex-member the UK should have some sort of ‘alumni’ status or could be ‘out and yet in’.

Mentioned in passing within the MoS article is the role of Michel Barnier, with the suggestion that he pursued a particular, political, agenda that was both punitive to the UK and, by implication, damaging to the EU. This is becoming the received Brexiter wisdom and is a thesis elaborated by Matthew Lynn in the Spectator recently. Its fatuity has been pulled apart by Tom Hayes of the Brussels European Employee Relations Group (who has also provided a separate analysis of Barnier’s negotiating approach), and I won’t add to that.

However, there is one particular aspect I want to highlight: Lynn writes as if the terms of Brexit, both as regards the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) including the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), were the creation of Barnier. That is in line with the habitual refusal of Brexiters to take any responsibility whatsoever for Brexit. But the fact is that both deals were negotiated with and agreed by the UK.

Stuck in the past

This has two implications. One is that the agreements were framed and limited by the UK’s own red lines about Brexit – especially exiting the single market and customs union, but also, under Johnson and Frost, of prioritising sovereignty above all else in the TCA and of removing May’s backstop in the case of the NIP. It was these choices rather than the EU’s (still less Barnier’s) ‘inflexibility’ which meant Brexit took the form it did. The other is that both the agreements were trumpeted by Boris Johnson as triumphs. In the case of WA/NIP it was lauded as the ‘oven-ready deal’ upon which he was subsequently elected. In the case of TCA he said he had confounded his critics by delivering the ‘cakeist’ deal they had said was impossible. Nowhere in any of this was it said that these were sub-optimal deals forced on the UK government against its wishes and priorities.

These facts make current Brexiter narratives both wearyingly the same as they have been since 2016 and yet newly idiotic. For they are talking as if it were still 2016 (or 2017 or 2018) and these deals were still to be made. For that matter, they talk as if the approach they currently advocate hadn’t already been tried and failed in the first half of the May administration. In a sense it doesn’t even matter if all their beliefs about what the EU could, would or should do were correct. As a matter of empirical fact the deals have been done and they are not in line with what Brexiters claimed and promised they would deliver. There is scope for the TCA to be reviewed, but it can be stated with categorical certainty that there is no way that the EU would ever agree, or would even be able to agree, to revise it in the way that the Brexiters envisage.

With almost as much certainty it can be said that the EU will not agree to change the core provisions of the NIP, and in part for similar reasons. For whilst the DUP have yet again stated their opposition to the NIP, an opposition shared by many Brexiters and, to a large degree, the British government, none of them has come up with a plausible alternative. In this sense, again, it’s as if we were still in the pre-agreement period and, moreover, it’s based on the fundamental refusal of many Brexiters to even accept that the Irish border issue is a real one, rather than the concoction of Brussels and Dublin.

It is beyond ridiculous that the Brexiters still don’t understand these obvious facts, which they could if only by imagining what the UK’s stance would have been as a member of the EU had it been another country that was leaving, including to the Irish border if that country had been Ireland. Or, if that involves too much of an intellectual stretch for them, then they might simply consider the matter in their own terms: having spent decades denouncing the EU as an inflexible, bureaucratic, legalistic, lumbering, self-serving ‘protectionist racket’ – decades, indeed, giving these as reasons the UK should leave – why is their entire strategy for how to do Brexit ‘properly’ predicated on the EU being flexible, creative, nimble, accommodating and non-protectionist?

Nothing new, except deepening depression

Very little in this post is new, but that is unavoidable whilst the Brexiters remain stuck on the same Mobius Strip in which the same failed solutions are proposed to the same problems. It also means that, as per last week’s post, we are still in a situation where there is a certain amount of realism developing (e.g. in recognizing the reality of things like supply shortages and trade barriers), but absolutely no truthfulness from Brexiters about the reasons for these realities. With that comes their pathological inability to take responsibility for the choices they made – and urged upon voters – and, always, the sickening insistence, at once treacly with self-pity and sodden with aggression, that it is all someone else’s fault.

There’s something extraordinarily depressing about the fact that all this is going to be played out yet again in the next few weeks as the NIP grace periods some to an end (I suspect they will be extended again by agreement with the EU), and David Frost resumes his attempt to renege on what he and the government agreed in 2019-20. That this is in prospect is shown by this week’s announcement that the government is to postpone implementing the rules on which goods qualify for “unfettered access” when travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain (and because this issue interacts with the wider one of introducing import controls, and because the necessary port facilities aren’t in place, it seems quite likely that they, too, will slip again).

Crucially, the reason given was the government’s intention to negotiate major changes to the NIP, which means the pre-summer collision with the EU will resume and intensify. That isn’t to deny there may be some scope for revising parts of it, perhaps including the Article 10 provisions on state aid (£). But it has been clear from the time it was agreed that (despite having agreed it) Johnson’s government don’t accept the basic premise of the Irish Sea border and all that comes with it.

It’s even more depressing to think that, if I am still writing this blog in five years’ time, I will probably be able to refer to that very first post five years ago as containing a still relevant truth. For what it is worth, I think I will still be writing it, at least if there are still readers for it. After all, there may be some value in having kept a continuous record of the folly and failure, the dishonesty and dimwittedness, of what has been done to all of us by the worst of us. There would seem to be no prospect of that, if nothing else, being in short supply.


My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) recounting and analysing what happened from the referendum result to the end of the transition period was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.