Friday, 31 December 2021

Brexit returns to its roots

I decided to take a couple of weeks off blogging in anticipation of a quiet period for Brexit news over Christmas. It wasn’t the most astute of predictions given David Frost’s resignation on 18 December, but perhaps there’s some value in having had a few days for the dust to settle on that before commenting on it.

Frost’s exit

That said, in some ways the resignation remains puzzling. Frost’s letter to Boris Johnson indicates his dissatisfaction with the government’s general direction of travel, including failing to make use of the “opportunities” Brexit gives and the introduction of Covid restrictions. Yet his political situation was an odd one. He was not an elected, or a career, politician who was ever liable to be asked to defend government policy in general. Of course he was a member of the government, but he was brought in solely to oversee the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, which turned out to mean, centrally, seeking to significantly renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which he had previously agreed outside government when he was Johnson’s Chief Brexit Negotiator.

Thus, immediately, his resignation was taken to be a result of his unhappiness with that renegotiation and in particular with what was widely rumoured to be a ‘softening’ of Boris Johnson’s position on removing any role for the ECJ from the NIP and on invoking Article 16. This is highly plausible, and now the general view of what happened, for if it were not so then, surely, at the least, he would have brought the negotiations to a ‘triumphant’ conclusion and then resigned at a logical point, calling it a job well done. Instead, as Johnson’s response letter pointedly implied, he had left with his central task unfinished.

Yet if successful completion was denied him by Johnson’s change of heart, then why not say so in his letter? It would have been far more damaging to Johnson had he said, in terms, that the Prime Minister was undermining gaining full freedom from the EU rather than, as he did, pronouncing that Brexit had now been securely done. If, on the other hand, he didn’t want to damage Johnson then why use the resignation letter to criticize the government at all? Why, indeed, resign at a time when, on so many fronts, the government is in crisis unless the intention was to cause maximum damage? But if that was the intention, then why not turn the knife by loudly saying that Johnson was ‘caving in’ to the EU, and betraying the sovereignty of the UK?

All this assumes that Frost was acting from high principle about the ECJ, but this opens up another set of questions. If it was of such principle then why had it not been mentioned until July of this year? And, given the late arrival of that supposedly crucial demand, was it not always obvious to Frost that the ‘climb down’ was likely to happen? On the other hand, Frost’s self-evident careerism to date would suggest that he would easily accommodate a fudge on the ECJ issue. Or is it that, as a belated convert to Brexit he had, as converts often do, become a fanatic? Might it even be that this fanaticism is compatible with his careerism, and that he hopes that by resigning now he finds favour with Johnson’s eventual successor and returns to office? But, if so, that just re-opens the question of why he didn’t use the resignation to directly attack Johnson’s approach to the NIP negotiations.

Perhaps the answer to all this is that Frost is as useless at drafting resignation letters as he is at everything else. Because, despite a slimy eulogy in Conservative Home, and his own high estimation of his achievements, it’s important to recognize just what a failure Frost has been. He was the one who negotiated the NIP – the supposedly crucial difference to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – that he and Johnson later disowned. He also agreed the Political Declaration that they both disowned immediately. He negotiated the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which wasn’t, as he claims, something people said couldn’t be delivered but a thin agreement limited by the government’s own self-harming restrictions. The damage of that to UK trade has already begun, and will worsen when, from next week, UK import controls are introduced. Despite his supposedly ‘hard ball’ approach, Frost got precisely nothing from the EU that wasn’t on offer anyway. Add to that the poison that approach has contributed to the UK-EU relationship and, now, his jumping ship before the NIP talks are concluded and it makes for a record of lamentable incompetence, mediocrity and inadequacy. But for Brexit, and Johnson’s patronage, he would never have achieved any prominence at all.

Enter Truss

Given his record, it’s arguable that Frost’s resignation is a good thing for Britain. I’ve been suggesting for months that his ‘Betamax’ approach to the EU is a block to a more pragmatic policy. But whilst getting rid of him is a necessary condition for such a policy, it is not a sufficient one. It also requires Johnson to change tack, and that in turn requires him to stand up to the ERG and its associates in the media. Here again the latest events are difficult to decode. If what provoked Frost’s resignation was such a change in tack then will it be enduring given Johnson’s own pathological inconsistency and his current weakness (and, if it won’t endure, then Frost might as well not have resigned)? He moved swiftly to appoint a replacement, perhaps to forestall a head of steam building behind suggestions that someone like Iain Duncan Smith be installed. That would certainly have done nothing to re-set UK-EU relations for the better. But what of his choice of Liz Truss?

Truss has now become a committed Brexiter and, her one-time support for remain aside, is very much aligned with the deregulatory hard right, having been one of the authors of Britannia Unchained. Her Brexiter credentials – and her now soaring support amongst the Tory Party membership (£) to be its next leader – rest primarily on her record of making post-Brexit trade deals. Of course these are almost all rollovers of pre-existing EU deals, and the new deals that are in prospect are of very limited economic value whilst being highly damaging to UK agriculture. But that preference for symbolism over substance might lead to her readily accepting a fudge in the NIP talks, especially over the role of the ECJ. So despite the immediate appearance that nothing has changed in the UK position, including over the ECJ and Article 16, many well-informed commentators expect her to be less confrontational and more flexible than Frost (if it proves wrong then, again, Frost’s resignation looks pointless).

Thus one reading of Truss’s appointment is that she will be the one to deliver Johnson’s reported desire for a climbdown. Another is that by putting her at the sharp end of negotiating with the EU, Johnson is setting her up to fail. For it is notable just how many Brexiters (or Brexit converts) have found it easier to walk away from delivering the practicalities than to acknowledge their fantasies – David Davis, Steve Baker, Suella Braverman, Dominic Raab and, now, David Frost are all examples. Truss has so far had the easier and more popular of the Brexit tasks – is Johnson now seeking to rain on the parade of her threat to replace him? Or has he handed her a golden opportunity to woo the hard core Brexiters at his expense?

Also highly relevant is the appointment of Chris Heaton-Harris as Europe Minister. Whilst not a household name, perhaps not even in his own home, he has a particular fame or infamy in the Brexit saga. A longtime member and former Chair of the ERG, he was the then government whip who in 2017 wrote to every university Vice-Chancellor in the country demanding to know the names of academics teaching about Brexit and exactly what they were teaching. It was a nasty piece of Brexit McCarthyism, and it largely backfired, but it shows his commitment to the cause, as well as something of his character. He also resigned as a junior minister at DExEU (in charge of ‘no deal’ preparations) over the extension of the Article 50 period in April 2019.

Whilst it remains unclear just how central a role he will play, his new appointment, reportedly, has reassured the ERG wing that there will be no ‘sell-out’ over the NIP which they detest. But, if so, where does that leave any re-set? And, again, if there is no re-set then why did Frost need to resign? Or, if there really is a re-set, how long before Heaton-Harris resigns? And if he doesn’t, then how will the ERG remain reassured by his continued presence?

Why so many questions?

The reason why all this analysis is so full of questions and imponderables is because Johnson’s position is now so weak, and because events around him are moving so fast. Thus it is perfectly possible that when Frost decided to resign (which appears to have been early in December) the Prime Minister was set on averting conflict with the EU, perhaps because of fears it would lead to a trade war and to opposition from the US President. At that time, the ERG were in an especially weak position because they had driven the fiasco over the attempt in late November to save one of their own, Owen Paterson, from punishment. From this, so many of Johnson’s current woes have flowed, including the loss of the North Shropshire by-election.

Yet the huge rebellion against Covid Plan B restrictions that occurred on 14 December and which was largely driven by the ERG (which now overlaps with the ‘Covid Recovery Group’) was a stark reminder of their continuing power. So by the time that Frost’s resignation got leaked to the press a few days afterwards, Johnson’s capacity to change direction on the NIP was already more constrained than it had been when the resignation decision was made. Hence, perhaps, both Heaton-Harris’s appointment and Truss’s apparently (or possibly) unchanged brief. I think that this sequence of events explains what happened with Frost.

All this points to a deeper truth. It’s not just that Frost’s resignation raises so many questions, it is that they all have one thing in common: the internal divisions and battles within the Conservative Party including battles over who will lead it next. Some might say that this is what Brexit has always been about, but I don’t think that is quite right. It is certainly true that the original impetus to hold a referendum was entirely to do with those internal divisions, and the related external electoral threat from UKIP, and it’s also plain that Johnson supported leave to advance his leadership ambitions. But in the years after the referendum, for all that those internal dynamics continued to matter hugely, what happened was that the entirety of national politics became hitched to, and in that sense transcended, the Tory Party battles.

Thus the issue of EU membership, that had hardly mattered at all to the majority of people before 2016, became the central, crucial and over-arching dividing line amongst the whole population. The virus, so to speak, jumped species and proved highly transmissible. Hence all the parliamentary battles of 2017-2019 were not solely, or even primarily, internal Tory conflicts. They were an accurate and necessary representation of the divisions that had engulfed the whole country as a result of the referendum and its result.

That national division hasn’t faded, by any means, but it’s notable that we hardly ever hear Brexiters talk of ‘the will of the people’ any more, as all pretence that this is some national ‘project of liberation’ has now been dropped. That is partly because there is now a fairly clear public consensus that Brexit has gone badly, even amongst a large minority of leave voters. But it is also because Brexit has returned to where it began, as a dog-fight between Tory factions.

It’s true that the ‘remain’ faction of the Tory Party, both in the country and in parliament, has all but disappeared since the 2019 election but instead there is a key division between the ‘deregulatory’ free market Brexiters and the ‘levelling up’ Red Wall Brexiters, and they have very different agendas. Tellingly, both of these agendas can be called ‘true Brexit’, reflecting the fundamental flaw of the entire Brexit project, namely its lack of definition, but also denying either camp the claim to represent ‘the will of the people’ in the way that, together, they did when scarifying remainers.

Johnson is dependent on both factions and, having no principles of his own to guide him, is buffeted around by each, whilst neither of them has any real loyalty to him. Indeed the newly-elected MP for Bexley voted against the government on Covid Plan B within just two weeks of taking his seat. Thus whilst on paper he has a strong majority, in practice his party is so riven that this is meaningless because there is a large enough coalition of willing rebels to defeat him in almost any policy area. So on Brexit policy – and, for that matter, policy more generally and Covid especially – he has simply lost control of events.

That has happened for many reasons, but at least one is just the latest version of the recurring dynamic whereby Conservative Prime Ministers are caught between inflicting massive damage on the UK and appeasing the unappeasable Brexit Ultras who are indifferent to all such damage. Hence, as regards the Frost saga, even if Johnson still wants to back-pedal on the NIP talks, he may not now be able to. It must be admitted that there is a certain piquancy in seeing him now exposed to precisely the political and moral delinquency which he exploited in order to gain power, and to the same, almost gleeful, disloyalty which he, himself, displayed towards his predecessors.

An “extremist rabble”

We’re about to enter the second year of ‘full’ Brexit in the sense of the end of the transition period, and there have been many excellent assessments of the how the first year has played out, including those by Bloomberg News, the Financial Times (£), and Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker (my own appears in the December print [subscription only] issue of Byline Times). As we do so, it’s important to understand that the dramas of ‘Frost out’ or ‘Truss in’ - and all similar events, of which we can expect many in the coming months - whilst important in some ways are only tangentially about Brexit.

To put it another way, all of the substantive questions and choices that Brexit Britain faces, including those arising from the NIP negotiations, in its relationship with the EU and the wider world exist independently of those political dramas. They can’t simply be a domestic matter as they were before 2016 precisely because Brexit has now happened and so, almost daily, practical matters arising from it have to be dealt with. These matters should be the stuff of national political debate, not least in advance of the scheduled 2025 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but the Labour Party is still wary of raising them, whilst the government has this week gone so far as to try to ban the official use of the very word Brexit altogether.

The absence of such debate doesn’t mean that the ongoing questions and choices won’t be addressed, but that the responses will be based solely on the outcomes of factional infighting in the Tory Party rather than on the basis of any strategic intent, still less of any sense of what might serve the national interest. In particular, what happens will be driven by Johnson’s own perception of interests on any one day and, relatedly, the extent to which the ERG fanatics are able to dictate his decisions, as well as, and perhaps increasingly, by how the battle to succeed Johnson develops.

In this sense, Brexit has returned to the ground where it was spawned, namely the dysfunctions of a Tory Party which, as the political commentator Nick Cohen put it this week, has now “dissolved into an extremist rabble that is contorted by magical thinking, heresy hunts, fits of temper and doctrinal spasms”. What happens to the rest of us and indeed to the country is, as it has always been, just collateral damage in that never-ending conflict.

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