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Friday, 28 January 2022
All too predictable
Business as usual
So, of course, there are reports of delays and queues at cross-channel ports. Of course there are claims that they aren’t anything to do with Brexit. But of course they are at least compounded by and at most caused by Brexit. We’ve had this on and off for over a year, and of course it will continue to happen as the rest of the import controls get introduced in the course of this year. It’s one of the things which happens when new barriers to trade are introduced.
Equally, it’s not the only thing that happens, so even when there aren’t queues it doesn’t mean the barriers are having no effect, just that the costs of dealing with them are less visible, taking the form of individual companies introducing and using new systems or of simply not engaging in trade, which in aggregate slowly feeds into declining productivity, tax base, public spending, competitiveness, employment and consumer choice, and into increased prices and taxes.
It’s not even worth arguing about this anymore. We know the economic damage that was done between the referendum vote and actually leaving the EU. We know the damage that has happened to UK-EU trade since then. We know, and no one seriously contests, the predictions for what will happen to the economy as a result.
Similarly, it’s no surprise (but still scandalous and shameful) that the EU settled status scheme is still causing misery for untold numbers of British citizens, EU citizens and their families. It’s no surprise that the talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) ”stagger on” with no sign of resolution, or that, as ever, they are bound up with the apparently endless crisis of the scandal-ridden, inquiry-riven, ramshackle, Heath-Robinson excuse for a government that Boris Johnson presides over.
Nor is it a surprise – in fact, it’s almost a given – that the Brexit Ultras have lighted upon a new ‘article’ as their saviour, as they have so many times before. Step aside Lisbon Article 50, GATT Article 24 and NIP Article 16, the latest wheeze is NIP Article 13 (8) which according to Bernard Jenkin, amongst other nonsenses, puts the EU under some kind of obligation to drastically revise the Protocol. Jenkin was one of those identified by Dominic Cummings as part of the “narcissist-delusional” subset of the ERG who were “useful idiots”, a harsh judgement in that it is only half-true.
If Jenkin’s barrack room lawyering had any meaning, it was as a reminder to Johnson and Liz Truss that the ERG are watching the NIP negotiations and will jump on anything which to the addled brains of its members is a betrayal of Brexit or a diminution of sovereignty. In fact, the entire Conservative Party now seems to have dissolved into a series of groupuscules in a way that used to be more associated with the political Left. Apart from the ERG there’s (at least) the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), the Northern Research Group, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the Blue Collar Conservatism group, and the Common Sense Group (for once, the clue isn’t in the name).
Still, the ERG remains important. And since on the wilder shores of Brexiter thought (yes, I’m referring to clergyman Dr Timothy Bradshaw) the NIP is regarded as an EU annexation of British territory akin to that of the Crimea by Russia in 2014, it’s no surprise that the Ultras aren’t likely to accept any conceivable resolution to the current talks. Which is unfortunate, since it is Russia’s current territorial ambitions which point to the urgent need for a rapprochement with the EU.
Ukraine crisis policy: not a Brexit bonus
For what is very much not business as usual is the Ukraine crisis, and the continuing threat of a Russian invasion. Though here, too, there is a predictable Brexit angle in attempts to suggest that post-Brexit Britain has somehow become “freed of the shackles of Brussels” so as to be the “leading” European power, as argued by Conservative foreign policy analyst Nile Gardiner in the Telegraph (£). It is an analysis shared by the Telegraph itself in its editorial comment (£) and, inevitably, by numerous articles in the Express, including boasts that Britain has been free to act without “endless EU waffle”.
The gaping hole in this analysis is that, even as a member of the EU, the UK operated an entirely independent foreign and defence policy. Moreover, when a member, it was one of the main blocks to the EU developing its own foreign and defence policies, and to the wider project of EU strategic autonomy’ favoured, in particular, by Macron and Merkel.
It’s true that the UK now has an independent sanctions policy but, since sanctions will always be more effective the more countries that apply them, that’s of limited benefit, whilst entailing a loss of influence over EU sanctions policy. Hence Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s “diplomatic blitz” around European capitals (£) this week to garner support for the UK’s plans for sanctions against Russia. This is the reality of the alternative to the “endless waffle” of EU membership – a similar process of consensus-building but undertaken as an outsider, with correspondingly less leverage.
So the idea that what a good discussion of the whole issue by Mark Landler in the New York Times calls the UK’s “more muscular role” in the Ukraine crisis is made possible by Brexit is an absurdity. Britain has long been relatively ‘hawkish’ with respect to Russia, albeit not to the extent of investigating its possible role in influencing elections, including the Brexit referendum or of doing very much about Russian money-laundering in Britain. For that matter, it seems extraordinary that Brexiters have chafed so much against the EU’s supposed infringement of British sovereignty when, for years, Russian planes have actually violated our airspace and waters, and have actually murdered British citizens on British soil.
Brexit Britain: not in the room?
Still, the point holds that the current British stance on the Ukraine crisis certainly could, and possibly would, have been pretty much the same even if we had still been in the EU. Equally, it is absurd to suggest that now, as an ex-member, the UK can emerge as a leader of European strategic autonomy. It’s certainly right to seek to work with the EU over the crisis, but that’s made more difficult by Brexit and certainly not easier. Indeed, the challenge the Ukraine crisis poses for the EU and the UK serves to show their common security interests and the way that Brexit is unhelpful to pursuing those interests. For whether or not Russia played a role in Brexit happening , it was Putin’s “dream policy” and both “diminishes the UK in Russia’s eyes” and contributes to the fracturing of Western solidarity that he is now exploiting.
That would be so however Brexit had been done, since at the very least it makes the structures for cooperation more complicated and cumbersome. But it is all the more the case because the way Brexit was done has engendered such profound distrust in the UK, especially over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with particular damage to relations with France (£), the only EU country with a genuinely significant defence capability. This isn’t a minor point. ‘National reputation’ is a fuzzy notion but a real one, and in the last five years Britain’s has plummeted, both because of its highly antagonistic approach to the EU and its carelessness with its relationship with Biden’s administration. That has profound consequences, especially when trying to urge EU nations to take a harder stance: even this week, as Wallace did the rounds trying to drum up support for sanctions against Russia, Johnson was denouncing the EU for its “insane” insistence that the Protocol be implemented to the letter.
One particular thing the Ukraine crisis shows is the, at best, naivety of the Brexiters’ constant claims that UK security was entirely about NATO membership and nothing to do with EU membership, ignoring the extensive and multi-layered relationship between the two. It is a folly now baked in to post-Brexit policy, with the Integrated Review of March 2020 barely acknowledging the EU’s existence, whilst Liz Truss’s first speech as Foreign Secretary pointedly did not mention the EU at all. Notably, she did not attend a major US-Germany-France meeting of her opposite numbers to discuss Ukraine (though a junior minister was sent). Instead, she was in Australia. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it was a pre-arranged visit, but it’s indicative of priorities, and perhaps of misplaced priorities given the scathing attack from Australia's former Prime Minister (£) on Britain’s “delusions of grandeur” and on Truss herself, who he described as “demented”.
Truss did find time to meet with NATO’s Chief in Brussels, and affirmed NATO’s importance to European defence, and she will go to Ukraine next week. So she’s by no means inactive in the crisis, but seems keen to approach it in a way which downplays the EU dimension. Yet the EU has not disappeared just because the UK has left it, and pretending otherwise is silly. Thus, whilst the primary axis of the primary Western response is the US-EU discussion of economic sanctions, Truss was reduced to boasting about the UK “leading by example” without being an integral, central part of that discussion. A key rule of politics is that you need to ‘be in the room’ and Brexit Britain isn’t, at least metaphorically and sometimes literally. That doesn’t mean it has no role, or that its role is insignificant, it’s just that it’s a bit less significant than before and a bit less significant than it claims.
A post-Brexit performative policy?
Whilst EU membership would not have precluded the UK making a ‘muscular” response to Russia over Ukraine, it is absurd and potentially dangerous to think that the UK, with or without the EU, or the EU, with or without the UK, can do very much to face down the Kremlin. Regardless of Brexit, it is not even NATO but the US which plays the crucial role. The UK – and the EU – should in my view be strongly supportive of that, but neither economically nor, most certainly, militarily (including supplying equipment, training, and intelligence) can it lead the effort. It’s foolish to pretend or imply otherwise.
For if the UK gives the impression that it can do more than in it is able to there is a terrible danger that it will lead to the Ukrainian people being let down. It may be that ‘God Save the Queen’ was trending on Twitter in Ukraine on Monday, after the arrival of British anti-tank weapons and military trainers, but (as, to be fair, Wallace has acknowledged) there is little or no chance of the UK being able to do more than make very marginal contributions to Ukraine’s defence if Russia were to invade.
Again, that would be true regardless of Brexit. But there is a sense that a desire to assert its post-Brexit identity is leading the UK to take a particularly assertive posture, in order to demonstrate its self-professed status as ‘Global Britain’ (£). In Landler’s New York Times article, Lord Darroch, former UK Ambassador to the US and former National Security Advisor, is quoted as saying “I suspect this is part of showing we’re not bound up with the European Union”.
Seen in this way, UK policy on Ukraine might be as ‘performative’ as its independent trade policy – where trade deals are celebrated simply for being made independently, regardless of their economic value. If so, that would be deeply reprehensible. Performative trade policy is ludicrous; performative defence policy is reckless, and not only for the UK. For whilst no British politician is suggesting direct military involvement in Ukraine, expectations may be very different amongst ordinary members of the Ukrainian public, perhaps overly-impressed by Global Britain’s posturing.
I don’t suppose The Sun is that widely read in Kiev, but headlines such as “Ukraine needs our help. Being British means we stand up for FREEDOM” above an article by the Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, which starts with a reference to British soldiers’ lives lost in the Korean War, might suggest a promise of more than the UK can realistically deliver. Moreover, as a matter of fact, British public support for NATO to commit to defend Ukraine is, at 47%, the lowest of the six countries surveyed, slightly below Germany (49%) and well below France (57%). In any case, it’s at least arguable that the best approach to Russia is the combination of economic and military pressure and the kind of diplomatic efforts at de-escalation being pursued by France and Germany within the ‘Normandy format’ meetings.
Even if post-Brexit posturing isn’t what drives Britain’s Ukraine policy, it is impossible to read the press coverage of that policy without spotting how it is shot through with Brexit point-scoring. Most predictably, that is at the expense of the EU and especially Germany: “Europe shamed” as “Brexit Britain cares more than Germany”, as the Express renders it. On this showing, cocking a snook at the EU, rather than aiding Ukraine, is the important part of the story. Even more grotesque in this coverage is the jeering that the policy has somehow put one over on “bitter remainers” and the “American liberal elites” which “similarly sneered at Brexit”, in Gardiner’s words.
Less grotesque but even more fatuous is the suggestion, again in the Express, that the crisis discredits the “remainers’” claims “that the EU was the best hope for peace on the continent”. It’s fatuous for the same reason as it was when deployed during the referendum campaign in relation to the Bosnian War: the claim about the EU’s role in peace was only ever about it ensuring peace amongst its members, originally and most notably France and Germany.
That fact is neatly avoided in Heappey’s Sun article, which doesn’t mention the EU at all as part of the Western response to the Ukraine crisis, but trots out the standard line that it was NATO (alone) that “guaranteed peace in Europe for over 70 years”. Nor does he mention Brexit directly, but can’t resist a Brexity culture war jibe at “people who sneer at patriotism and the Union Jack”. Meanwhile, a Sun editorial explicitly repeats the strawman of what remainers supposedly claimed about the EU and peace (as well as explicitly trumpeting Britain’s Ukraine policy as some kind of justification of Brexit).
It has been familiar since the referendum that Brexiters’ main pleasure seems to come from discomfiting remainers but, even if there were grounds for discomfiture in this case which, as I’ve argued, there aren’t, it would be a terrible rationale for defence policy. About the only less defensible one would be to distract from the government’s ongoing domestic crises, as some commentators suggest is what Johnson is doing. Equally indefensible is the attempt to downplay the seriousness of those domestic crises by suggesting they are trivial compared with the Ukraine situation. The problem is rather that Johnson’s government is so pre-occupied with trying to scrabble out of its mire of scandal that it’s incapable of serious focus on Ukraine and other policies, including, indeed, the ongoing damage caused by Brexit.
Two years on
As we approach the second anniversary of Britain leaving the EU, things have settled into a drearily predictable and monotonous pattern, with this week a fairly typical example. The drag weight of Brexit to the economy in plain sight yet denied or ignored. The lingering scar of what was done to Northern Ireland, and the preposterous bluster of the Brexiters about it. The steady undertow of declining influence and damaged reputation. The bogus claims of Brexit benefits and the pumped-up posturing of post-Brexit Britain. The gimcrack government that created Brexit and was bequeathed by it.
In such circumstances cynical jokes are not just permissible but Inevitable, even if any laughter they give rise to is that of desperation.
Friday, 21 January 2022
Partygate, populism and Brexit
That team, including Cummings, has of course now been mainly expunged from Downing Street, but one aspect of the scandals now engulfing Boris Johnson is that they derive from that rift. Indeed Katy Balls, Deputy Political Editor of the Spectator – and therefore presumably well-connected to the players – suggests that the “pivotal moment” for these scandals was Johnson’s decision in November 2020 to cut ties with his Vote Leave advisers.
This led Cummings to embark on a “revenge mission” which Balls suggests included a series of damaging leaks. Certainly Cummings’ public statements have significantly contributed to the mess that Johnson is now in. So for all that there’s a certain piquancy in seeing Johnson tormented by this “extraordinary vendetta”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg squeakily calls it, it is a highly unedifying spectacle since it seems motivated by egotism and bitterness rather than principle or the public good.
Thus the present crisis can be read as part of the unwinding of the ramshackle coalition that fought for, and obtained, Brexit, with another example being the now widely expressed dissatisfaction of Thatcherite Tories with Johnson’s Brexit. However, its deeper roots lie in the incoherence of the populist politics that delivered Brexit, and the way the subsequent Covid pandemic has exposed that incoherence far more clearly than Brexit itself.
The paradox of populism
At the core of this is the central paradox of populism. Brexit was presented as the triumph of ‘the people’ over ‘the elite’; the “victory … for ordinary, decent people who’ve taken on the establishment and won”, as Nigel Farage put it the day after the referendum. In the years since then all the conflicts it has given rise to have been explicitly cast in those terms (hence, ‘will of the people’, ‘enemies of the people’, and the equation of remainers with the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’). It’s also implicit whenever there are reports of Brexit causing prices of imported foods to rise or foreign travel to be more difficult, which are always met with sneers implying that ‘ordinary, decent people’ have no experience of such fripperies.
Yet this was always a precarious construct, given that the country was and is more or less evenly split – making ‘the people’ an unconvincingly small proportion and ‘the elite’ a preposterously large one – and the self-evidently elite nature of its leaders. For the idea that the largely male, public school and/or Oxford educated Brexit leaders – a category that takes in Johnson, Gove, Farage, Cummings, Carswell, Lawson, Rees-Mogg, Hannan, Redwood and many more – are anything other than a privileged elite is plainly ludicrous. It is a fiction which is constantly vulnerable to obvious inconsistencies, but although they are often pointed out (Rees-Mogg’s investment fund company, Lawson’s French Chateau, Redwood’s advice to investors etc.) this has no 'cut through' with their supporters.
Why? I’m sure it is not that those supporters fail to spot the elite privilege of their leaders. It is that this isn’t the kind of privilege to which they object. Such figures – Johnson most obviously, Farage certainly, even Rees-Mogg surprisingly – are seen as being, despite that privilege, still in some way ‘ordinary’ and, perhaps more important, as ‘authentic’. More than anything, they may be privileged but they are not what their supporters mean by ‘the elite’ which, instead, is associated with the supposedly finger-wagging, won’t let us say what really think, prissy, moralistic, do-gooders. The Human Rights Brigade. The PC Brigade. The girly swots. The experts. The bleeding-heart liberals. More recently, the Woke police.
It’s a shadowy and amorphous group which, together, constitutes a ‘them’ to which the ‘us’ – ordinary people and our perhaps not ordinary in the ordinary sense but still authentic leaders – are opposed. For years we suffered as the ‘silent majority’, but with Brexit we found our voice. Within this is another, and crucial, dividing line. As brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Coe’s ‘Brexit novel’, Middle England, the elite in this meaning are ‘constantly telling us what to do and say’. They are interfering. They are authoritarian. They force us to be other than ourselves, and so to be humiliatingly inauthentic. They make us follow their rules, whereas Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg are themselves and let us be ourselves.
Taking back control
In this cultural universe, ‘taking back control’ was a doubly potent slogan. It was about freedom from EU control, but also freedom from the control of them – who, not coincidentally, were opposed to Brexit – freedom to ‘talk about immigration’, freedom to celebrate Christmas not ‘Winterval’, freedom to fly the St George Flag and the Union Jack without being sneered at. In this last way it was, of course, partly about nationalism – about ‘us’ as a nation – but also about internal divisions – about ‘us’ versus ‘them’, those who for so long had ruled over us but were now exposed as traitors and saboteurs, as anti-British Elite Remainers (£).
So Brexit provided an umbrella that could link all sorts of disparate ideologies and resentments, the spines of which were ‘freedom from the rules’. Almost all the high-profile fights of the post-referendum period were framed by this. These ranged from the Miller case on Parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 to the row over Bercow’s “bombshell” ruling that Parliament couldn’t vote twice on the same motion (Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement), through to the court cases over prorogation. They were all battles over whether ‘the rules’ (laws, conventions) had to be followed or whether ‘the will of the people’ trumped such niceties.
It also informed the government’s brazenly announced intention to break international law over the Internal Market Bill and the decision arguably to actually do so by unilaterally flouting the Northern Ireland Protocol. It lay behind Johnson’s refusal to accept that Priti Patel had breached the Ministerial Code. And it explains the attempt to rip up the rules governing MPs’ conduct in order to get arch-Brexiter Owen Paterson off the hook, the failure of which now looks increasingly like the watershed moment in Johnson’s premiership.
At least until the Paterson scandal, Johnson was an ideal front man for all this because of his own disdain for rules in any form. This doesn’t derive from any coherent philosophy, but seems simply to be a mix of psychological disposition and sociological entitlement. On the one hand, he is lazy, irresponsible, and financially and morally incontinent. On the other, he grew up in and inhabits a privileged milieu where ‘rules are for the little people’. So, for example, this week it was reported that during a period of isolation due to exposure to Covid, despite being a grown adult:
“We had to create a ‘cat run’ for him to get from the flat to his office so that he wouldn’t come into contact with people. The idea was we could talk to him through the open door. But he kept on coming out so we put two chairs across the door like some kind of puppy gate. There was a pattern throughout. He just simply didn’t think about following the rules. They were not for him.”
This almost instinctive disdain for rules is very different to, but for a while gelled with, the ‘anti-ruleism’ of Cummings (which is also very different to the libertarianism of some Brexiters). Despite some of the more breathless commentary, such as David Runciman’s recent portrait of him, Cummings’ views of politics and policy are not especially unusual (though the tenacity with which he pursues them may well be).
Ironically, given his, often accurate, criticism of business schools, they closely resemble those of big-league MBA students in the 1990s and 2000s. Both share the ‘work round the clock, win at all costs, smartest guys in the room’ machismo. They’re also similar in the mix of adulation for this or that business leader, Silicon Valley ‘disruptor’ schtick, and geek-macho enthrallment to science and data, the confluence of which then informs various ideas about the management and organization of big projects, often discussed on Cummings’ blog.
Whilst having some interesting insights in them, these discussions are like jelly in being a sprawling mish-mash of ideas without much in the way of disciplined thinking. At all events, the key point here is that, to the extent they have an over-arching theme, they sit within a well-worn groove of anti-bureaucratic analysis of organizations. Since the core of bureaucracy is rational-legal authority, these ideas are associated with a specific hostility to the Civil Service and to what Cummings and others call ‘the Blob’ (£), and often slide into impatience with, even disdain for, the rule of law.
In this way, the supposedly anti-establishment project of Brexit morphed into one directed at the machinery of government when Johnson and Cummings got to Downing Street. Yet, just as the idea of Brexit as anti-establishment became an absurdity once Brexiters won and became the Establishment, so too was it an in-built paradox to rule based upon an approach to politics defined by rule-breaking.
That paradox became glaring when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and Johnson was suddenly confronted by a situation which required the imposition of draconian rules and restrictions on everyday life that were unprecedented in peacetime. Small wonder that he did so belatedly, reluctantly, and with a nod and a wink that the rules were there to be broken.
But here the populism that had delivered Brexit took an unexpected turn. Because what was revealed were two diametrically different responses to the Covid rules from Brexit supporters. Some of the most high-profile of them became, as discussed in another post on this blog – lockdown sceptics, insisting that no free-born Englishman could submit to the yoke of Whitehall tyranny, with ERG membership closely overlapping the new ‘Covid Recovery Group’. Few could doubt that, had he not been in power, Johnson would have been amongst them. Yet amongst plenty of rank-and-file leave voters an entirely different version of cultural identity held sway, and one they shared with plenty of remainers.
This was the traditional image of the British – and for once it was the British, not just the English - as a ‘naturally’ law-abiding people of orderly queues, fair play, pulling together for the common good, and ‘all in it together’. A people who, in fact, did not disdain but played by the rules. Indeed Johnson himself, with his constant invocations of Second World War unity, mobilised exactly this cultural theme, and it proved to be remarkably powerful. Most people have followed the rules, despite the hardship, and in some cases tragedy, that entailed.
This disjuncture first emerged with force in May 2020 when Cummings was exposed as a lockdown rule-breaker in the ‘Barnard Castle’ episode*, yet defended by – oh how the wheel turns – Johnson. Finally, the incipient distinction between ‘the people’ and their anti-elitist yet self-evidently elite leadership was exposed in a way which had ‘cut through’ whereas, for example, the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment didn’t. The ‘freedom from rules’ umbrella of Brexit was blown inside-out by the wind of coronavirus.
Crucially, with the Cummings scandal came what Fintan O’Toole called “the unpardonable snigger of elite condescension”. It was that same sniggering which, come partygate, caused Allegra Stratton’s downfall as she rehearsed precisely the defence line of a party having been ‘a meeting’ which Johnson was subsequently to use in his ‘apology’ to parliament. And it was the same sniggering as Johnson’s when asked by a reporter about the most controversial of the parties. Suddenly, breaking the rules ceased to be funny, and ceased to be part of a popular insurrection against the Establishment, and became a potent symbol of elitist hypocrisy and contempt for ‘ordinary people’.
Rules have their uses
Whereas the scandals over PPE procurement were defended on the grounds that ‘in an emergency’ the niceties of bureaucratic rules governing the award of contracts had to be abandoned, those over lockdown rule-breaking had a very different character. Attempts to run a somewhat similar defence – that the parties were an understandable response to pressure of work – founder on the fact (£) that the same could have been said of NHS or other key workers.
So Johnson, like Cummings before him, has sought to save himself by an ironic invocation of rules and procedures. In Cummings’ case, he invoked some supposed exemptions in the detail of the regulations. In Johnson’s, he has tried to argue that the party he attended fell “technically” within the guidance, and that he “implicitly believed” he was following all the rules. Yet this cuts little ice considering the many cases where even unwitting rule breakers had been prosecuted and fined.
In another irony, as it is very much in keeping with the traditional response of the political Establishment to scandals, he has also deployed the ruse of ‘initiating a full inquiry’, hiding desperately behind the much-despised Civil Service Blob in the shape of Sue Gray. Suddenly bureaucrats are not just back in fashion but the fount of wisdom and justice, for whose words we are constantly told we must wait before passing judgment; there are rules and processes that must be followed after all!
Indeed in all the many scandals that have afflicted his short premiership it is notable that Johnson has invariably invoked procedural solutions or established customs to defend his rule-breaking, hence the seemingly endless inquiries of various types (equally notable is how often their findings have been anodyne or ignored). Even the prorogation of parliament was passed off as just a standard ritual until the Supreme Court put paid to that, something which still rankles with Brexiters and is believed to have led Johnson to want to seek revenge by ‘reforming’ its role (£).
Partygate and Brexit
However, unlike the prorogation and many other post-referendum cases of rule-breaking, reaction to the partygate scandal doesn’t follow the Brexit fault line. As was also attempted in relation to Cummings, some, such as doltish MP Michael Fabricant, have tried to pass it off as the anger of the “London Remain classes” but it’s very plain that it transcends that divide (£). That matters, because it is perhaps the only time since 2016 that this has happened. It shows that both remainers and leavers can and do share some very significant common values. In fact it is closer to the public outcry in 2009 over politicians' expenses, except for being aimed entirely at the Conservative Party (attempts to widen it to include Keir Starmer having so far failed).
It’s also of note that Operation Red Meat – the deployment of populist policy announcements to try to rebuild that coalition of support for Johnson – does not seek to work the Brexit divide, for example by making new threats to invoke Article 16. As I argued last week, that would not be likely to work as a distraction from his difficulties but would add to them. That’s because another part of Johnson’s defence is the endless claim that, whatever his partygate sins, he ‘got Brexit done’, something hard to reconcile with a fresh crisis over the attempt to re-write the Northern Ireland Protocol (of that, the only concrete news is that intense talks are continuing prior to Truss and Sefcovic meeting on Monday, but the respected commentator Mujtaba Rahman detects signs of progress, even if there are doubts of an early resolution).
Partygate obviously doesn’t mean that we’ve seen the end of the populist politics that underpinned and flowed from Brexit, still less of Brexit itself. It may not even mean the end of Johnson, whose fate remains precariously in the balance. If he does go, it will make a difference to the Brexit debate from then on, though. That is partly because so much of the leaving process remains ongoing, and his successor will affect how that is approached – albeit within a limited palette of options, some of which are even worse than Johnson’s and none of them hugely better.
Instead, partygate matters because it exposes the risks and fragilities of populism. A politics that mobilises ‘the people’ against ‘the Establishment’, and which posits rules as elitist meddling, can be an effective weapon for campaigning but is a double-edged one for governing. There is an implication in that for Brexit. As the damage charted by, for example, Yorkshire Bylines' now 500 item-long Davis Downside Dossier, mounts, ‘the people’ may recall that it’s nothing like what they were promised in 2016. They may even conclude that so fraudulent a deception was not ‘playing by the rules’ to a far greater extent than Johnson’s Brexit Establishment lockdown parties, and react with a correspondingly greater wrath.
*Long-term readers of this blog may have noticed that this post is in parts based on the one I wrote about the Cummings scandal at the time, reflecting the way that it was a precursor to partygate.
Friday, 14 January 2022
Will Truss press the re-set button?
This time, these are not directly connected to Brexit yet they do relate to it. For one thing, it was Brexit which provided the route for Boris Johnson to come to power at all, so his premiership can be counted as one of its many costs. For another, the ‘partygate’ fiasco is a product of his endless dishonesty as well as ‘anti-ruleism’ both of which are the skeins linking his scandal-ridden administration and Brexit. And, for a third, at least some Brexiters are ludicrously suggesting that it is a ‘remainer’ plot, partly because some remainers are ludicrously suggesting it could put an end to Brexit.
Truss’s contradictory signals
Against this increasingly baroque and unstable background, Liz Truss has taken over (£) the now hardy perennial of a threat to “invoke Article 16” if the EU doesn’t accede to her demands in the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Even if this was designed for domestic consumption, it undermined reports that she is adopting a “warmer tone” (£) to the negotiations than Frost. Perhaps British politicians still haven’t cottoned on that the UK press is read abroad.
Yesterday evening, following talks during the day, she hosted Maros Sefcovic for dinner at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s stately home, although if that is the first prize offered in her charm offensive one wonders what the second is – two dinners with her, perhaps? Joking aside, this invitation does mark a departure from Frost’s approach and briefings beforehand suggested that a ‘re-set’ was in prospect, but that is hard to square that with the continuation of the Article 16 threat. At the very least, there’s no realistic way to re-set relations with the EU without also re-setting the promises to the ERG, which at her first chance Truss has failed to do.
The talks continue today so presumably there will be some statements later, although they are unlikely to be dramatic. It will, though, be significant if Article 16 is or isn’t mentioned. Maintaining the Article 16 threat is strange for three reasons. First, because, no matter what the more unlettered Brexiters seem to think, it doesn’t open the door to anything much except further talks with the EU and certainly doesn’t allow the UK to scrap or unilaterally rewrite the Protocol. Second, because acting on the threat would be likely, if not immediately then fairly soon, to entail some degree of trade war with the EU and some degree of diplomatic and economic pushback from the US, so as a threat it’s either self-defeating or unconvincing. And, third, because, unless all the reports to this effect are wrong, Boris Johnson had already decided not to act on this threat, thus provoking David Frost’s resignation.
Stick or twist?
Decoding what is going on in this ongoing Pontoon game is difficult and probably pointless. It could be that, perhaps because of Frost’s resignation, Johnson has changed his mind again. It could be that Truss is freelancing, perhaps with a view to cementing her own leadership chances if Johnson prevents her from following through on the threat. It could be a continuation of the persistent myth that ‘hard ball’ tactics will extract concessions from the EU at which point the UK climbs down on its most extreme demands – in this case an end to any role for the ECJ in Northern Ireland. It could be Truss playing to the ERG gallery. It could be that neither Truss nor Johnson really knows what they are doing, and just keep repeating the old familiar lines as if eventually they will make sense, or that ‘something will turn up’. It could be some combination of any or all of these.
At one level, all this can be viewed as part of the seemingly endless clown-show politics of Brexit and, certainly, as I argued in a recent post, part of the interminable internal fractiousness and factionalism of the Tory Party. But this is not a cost-free spectacle, and I see real difficulties ahead whatever the outcome, an outcome that must come soon – in weeks, if not days – whatever other political dramas are happening.
If, as common sense would suggest, the UK accepts a deal which involves, perhaps, a fudge on the ECJ – as implied in some recent reports (£) - as well as the already substantial accommodations on border checks and formalities offered by the EU, then I don’t think that the ERG and other hardline Brexiters are likely to sit back and take it. That is especially so given that Truss’s recent noises about Article 16 have suggested that the fundamental tenet of the NIP, Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods, is unacceptable, thus raising their expectations high.
The ERG already despise Johnson, and if he presides over any kind of ‘climbdown’ they will very likely move to finish him off, something not difficult in his weakened state. If that happens, there will be no need to shed tears except for the fact that if they succeed it is all but inevitable that his replacement will be elected on a more hardline prospectus, and so the whole saga over the NIP and Article 16 will start anew.
On the other hand, if Johnson (perhaps in anticipation of just such a scenario, or for other possible reasons discussed below) does now push things to a crisis with the EU, it will be by far the worst of the Brexit process to date, eclipsing the rows over the Internal Market Bill and the unilateral extension of NIP grace periods (with one immediate consequence being the resumption of the EU’s legal action over the latter).
How high a price are we going to pay for Brexit?
Whilst the hard line Brexiters are unlikely to care, it’s not clear how much more Brexit-induced damage Britain can soak up on top of all the problems of the pandemic and the growing energy and cost of living crisis. New analysis shows how, as EU trade recovers from the pandemic, the UK recovery lags behind. Manufacturers report and warn of the “soaring costs” of Brexit red tape, and an associated shortage of staff with the skills to deal with it, whilst industry is also bearing the costs of decoupling from the EU carbon market. The UK share of EU-funded science grants is slumping. The City of London is undergoing “a slow puncture” (£). And this is just a selection of this week’s damage reports.
It’s not, as is fatuously being discussed by Brexiters (£), that the government has ‘won the Brexit war but lost the peace’, it is that all the false claims made about the benefits of Brexit are gradually being found out. Brexit isn’t suffering from a failure to control the narrative. It’s simply suffering from failure. Do we really want to add the costs of a trade war with the EU? Nor would the costs be simply economic. If Article 16 is finally invoked, the reputational damage the UK has suffered as a result of Brexit and, especially, of the way it has been done, will be significantly added to, leaving the UK even more isolated from, and peripheral to, its natural friends and allies in the EU and the US at a time of growing tensions with, in particular, Russia and China*.
In her recent, and peculiarly hubristic, speech in the US, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt spoke as if with Brexit the UK had embarked on some world-leading, globally significant project to which the US and others needed to respond. Tellingly, embedded within it was a call to reject responses that, by implication, she realised were those most likely to be in her listeners’ minds:
“Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community. Or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished.”
For whilst, despite the paranoia of some Brexiters, there has been no interest in punishing the UK, the overwhelming view of its international friends is both to mourn Brexit and see it as self-harm. How could it be otherwise? As Michael Cox, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE, put it last year:
“Going it alone while taking regular potshots at the EU … might appeal to the gallery. But this does not change the simple fact that [the UK] now confronts an increasingly challenging international environment made up of an America in whose eyes it is now much less of an asset … a European Union which no longer trusts it … and a China too powerful to be pushed around or lectured … [A]s critics have been quick to point out … if the English were misguided enough to leave the biggest democratic and economic club in the world in which the UK had played a key role, whose members quite literally begged for it to remain, and through which it had amplified its voice in Washington, there would, in the end, be a price to pay. The only question remaining is how high will that price be and for how long will the UK be paying it?”
So could there be a Brexit re-set?
That last question, both as regards international relations and economics, is the crucial one now. We are where we are, as the political cliché has it, and what matters now is not so much to bemoan the past as to start trying to put matters right, the prerequisite of which has to be honesty. In an ideal world we would have a leader with the wisdom, insight and integrity to do this but instead we have the “unfathomably inadequate” Johnson who, reportedly, is “only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”. It’s hardly an auspicious basis to meet the needs of the nation. Cometh the hour, cometh the man isn’t usually thought of in the terms which, on that account, Johnson would rise to the challenge.
That challenge isn’t just one for Johnson, but for Brexiters more generally. In a sense, it is no different to when a person makes a series of catastrophic decisions against the advice of friends and family. It may be too much to expect such a person to admit all of their follies and recant them. Most people are too proud to do that, at least until they reach the proverbial ‘rock bottom’, and, for all the damage done, Brexit Britain has some way to go before that. Perhaps until then nothing can change for the better, but perhaps at least some Brexiters can be led to draw fresh conclusions from their apparent recent realization, discussed in my previous post, that their project has not worked out as they expected. It may be that they continue to ascribe that to Brexit ‘not having been done right’ but, even if so, they, too, need to recognize that ‘we are where we are’.
This is obviously an easier ask of the softer parts of the leave voting public than it is of the Brexiters, but it does need to include at least some of the latter, even if not the ‘Ultra Ultras’ I discussed in that previous post. At a minimum, it means them acknowledging that Brexit has significantly undermined UK trade and UK business generally, and that extensive regulatory alignment is necessary. It means accepting that the NIP has been signed and that the EU proposals for its reform are reasonable, and could be augmented by Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary alignment (which would also be helpful for GB-EU trade). It means seeking to deepen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes up for its five-year review.
All of this seems to be where Labour Party policy is heading, and whilst it is nowhere near enough to satisfy, let alone delight, many erstwhile remainers, it’s a lot better than what we currently have. So Keir Starmer might be, or become, someone to tell the nation some home truths about Brexit, but we are probably a long way from an election which it’s not clear that Labour would win anyway. And much damage will be done before then if the Conservative government refuses to undertake a ‘re-set’ over Brexit.
Perhaps it is simply impossible for it to do so given the intransigence of the ERG and others, and the lurking influence of Nigel Farage. It’s certainly impossible to over-state the rabidity of the core pro-Brexit vote as shown, for example, by the extraordinary articles on the Brexit Watch section of the Conservative Woman website, reading which would make you think you had plumbed the depths of madness – until you read the comments beneath them. Of particular note is the almost messianic appeal of David Frost, apparently betrayed “at the very moment of his triumph”, whilst Truss is regarded as suspiciously “malleable”.
Yet, for all that, there are still considerable numbers of Conservative MPs and voters, represented most notably in cabinet by Rishi Sunak, who, whilst certainly pro-Brexit, would just like to see an end to the endless aggravation it has caused. In particular, those whose support for Johnson was predicated on his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ are likely to push for, or reward, a re-set, of which the most tangible outcome would be a settlement of the NIP row. It is, admittedly, the puniest of pegs on which to hang any hope for common sense to prevail.
Less optimistic scenarios
If such a re-set is the most optimistic – or over-optimistic – scenario, then a full-on crisis over the NIP would actually be the second best. For all the damage it would do, it might conceivably be a route to that ‘rock-bottom’ moment when, after these five long years and more, the Brexiters might, perhaps, be forced to face up to some truth.
Some may think that the intense political crisis currently engulfing Johnson make it more likely that this is the route he will go down, as a distraction. I think such ‘dead cat’ diagnoses are very rarely realistic and, in this case, would be more like to add to his problems than distract from them, compounding the sense that he is beleaguered at home and abroad. Even if it delighted one wing of his party it would alienate others, and even those in the first camp would quickly be disillusioned when they saw that nothing had been resolved by using Article 16 (if this does come to pass, by the way, they will then demand an even more extreme act e.g. completely reneging on the NIP: remember, the Ultras have never accepted it in its entirety).
Instead, the most likely scenario, which is actually the worst, is one in which Johnson seeks to keep his leadership afloat, and his party more or less together, by a partial climbdown so as to do a deal over the NIP, whilst not really accepting it as a final resolution and almost immediately re-commencing complaints and demands for fresh changes. So neither crisis nor re-set, but his usual approach of getting through the moment to see what turns up (the approach, pretty much, that led to the NIP in the first place). In this way he would seek to partially satisfy the ERG wing and partially satisfy the ‘pragmatic’ wing.
It would be opportunistic, dishonest, destabilizing for Northern Ireland, and damaging to the UK’s interests, of course, but these would hardly occur to Johnson as being problems if they enable him to prolong his grip on power.
The lies that bind us
Indeed, if I am right that that the pre-requisite for dealing with the damage of Brexit is honesty, we could hardly have a worse Prime Minister than Johnson, who is not so much pathologically dishonest as apparently unaware that honesty is even a thing. Yet it is important not to over-state the significance of single individuals, both in general and in relation to Brexit. If, or – as seems increasingly likely – when, Johnson is replaced, his successor will be bound by the same, structural, constraints. Most obviously, these are to do with the nature of the Conservative Party and the power of the Brexit Ultras. More fundamentally they arise from the dishonesty built in to the entire Brexit project.
*For a more detailed discussion of post-Brexit Britain’s international standing, and especially its current relationship with the US, as well as many other aspects of the current Brexit situation, see this week’s excellent post on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker blog.
Friday, 7 January 2022
Brexiters now worry about the judgment of history
There is a line, attributed to the mathematician G.H. Hardy, that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God, that’s all in the way of business, but if he says he doesn’t, one can take it he means what he says”. What, then, of the claim that “the hopes of those who voted for Brexit in 2016 have not been realised”? Or that the introduction of the first substantive phase of UK controls on imports from the EU, which started on 1 January, “threaten to wreak havoc on Britain”?
Coming from remainers, such sentiments would no doubt be dismissed as business as usual, but in fact the first is from an article in the Telegraph by Nigel Farage (£) whilst the second is a headline from the Brexiters’ other house journal, the Daily Express. More generally, recent weeks have seen increasing numbers of Brexiters voicing disappointment or concern about the realities of Brexit, a trend given fresh impetus by David Frost’s resignation with its lament for the government’s failure to “deliver on the opportunities [Brexit] gives us”.
However, that certainly doesn’t mean that they have actually faced up to these realities, still less that they have recanted on their support for Brexit. These are not, in fact, Archbishops declaring their atheism. So what should we make of what they are saying? And why does it matter?
Denial and desperation
In general terms, that things should have reached this point was almost inevitable. On the one hand, much of the damage and failure of Brexit was predictable. On the other hand, as I’ve argued many times, the most committed Brexiters are so invested in the idea of being betrayed and of victimhood that no actual Brexit would have satisfied them. Taken together, this meant it was almost guaranteed that the idea that ‘Brexit would have worked but it wasn’t done properly’ would develop.
What was also almost inevitable was that some Brexiters would simply continue to deny the damage. So although many of them at least tacitly accept that UK-EU trade has by definition been permanently depressed by the introduction of new barriers, others still refuse to do so – an example this week being the high priest of Brexiter economists, Professor Patrick Minford. He makes the economically illiterate claim that “[civil servants] said that actually we'd be damaged because we're making trade with Europe harder – which is not really true. Because there's no reason for having a border with the EU making it much harder to trade with the EU; there are no tariffs because we've got a trade agreement”. It seems he has still not grasped the significance of non-tariff barriers to trade, nor spoken to the many businesses struggling with the new import controls, at least some of which will either go out of business or cease to import from the EU.
That, in turn, will impact upon prices and consumer choice, and that is more than a matter of the metropolitan middle-class being unable to find cheap chorizo (it being an article of Brexiter faith that working-class people only eat tripe and faggots, just as they never go abroad for their holidays and rarely visit, still less live in, London). To what extent remains to be seen, although the Express’s talk of “havoc” is likely to be alarmist. More likely, as with Brexit economic effects in general, the impact of import controls will be one of gradual degradation, with each year life in Britain getting a little worse and a little more constrained than it would otherwise have been.
This will be compounded as the successive stages of import controls are rolled out over the coming months. However, when that gets mixed in with pandemic effects and energy price rises, it will mean that there is no great moment of revelation that Brexit has failed, just the steady accumulation of a realisation – as is already happening, including amongst a large minority of leave voters – that this is so.
One way that some Brexiters seek to head off such an assessment is not so much by denying as by downplaying the damage caused, principally by pointing to the aversion of worst-case scenarios (or of trumped-up, hyperbolic versions of such scenarios). Thus when border controls do not cause visible queues at borders, as has largely though not entirely been the case this week, the suggestion is that this means everything has ‘continued as normal’. But this ignores the invisible effects of goods not shipped because the necessary paperwork is not ready, or orders cancelled as the new costs and complexities become clear. It also ignores the way that where trade flows do ‘continue as normal’, they do so with the higher costs embedded within them, costs which are ongoing and which have wider impacts, whether that be in terms of higher prices, reduced competitiveness, reduced funds for investment, or less employment than would otherwise have been the case.
In this way, the old battle about Project Fear is still being fought, as if the case for Brexit were made by the avoidance of predicted damage rather than the need to show positive outcomes. A particularly egregious example this week was an attempt by Conservative journalist and commentator Harry Phibbs in Conservative Home to discredit various predictions, going back to the referendum, about this damage.
It is such a mish-mash of cherry-picked evidence, quotes and assertions that it would take literally hours, possibly days, to disentangle and evaluate the validity of the claims he makes about the warnings that were made and their context, and the validity of his claims about what has actually happened. I did consider doing it, but it is just not worth the effort. In any case, much of it rests on a simple misunderstanding of treating heuristic forecasts of what would happen ‘if everything else remained the same’ as if they were predictions of what would happen regardless of anything else that might change.
Yet, for all its inadequacies, it is of interest for two reasons. Firstly because it shows the desperation of the Brexiters, in the face of their increasingly discredited project, that they need to rely on the argument that it hasn’t been as bad as some said it might be. A similar desperation is shown by the continuing reliance on the now stock lie that Brexit enabled the early rollout of Covid vaccines, as implied by Phibbs and repeated this week by, amongst others, the former Chair of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott.
The other point of interest is how, with a couple of exceptions, Phibbs’ list is all about the economic costs (or not) of Brexit. This is important, because it once again falsifies the other Brexiter argument when those costs are pointed out, which is that their project was never about economics but simply about regaining sovereignty. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this is entirely untrue and their proposition was, rather, that the (supposed) regaining of sovereignty would yield economic benefits, or at least would have no economic costs.
The new critique, aka the same old promises
That latter point is an important one, because it is the key to understanding the present raft of alarmed commentaries amongst Brexiters about what has (not) been delivered. For these all entail a recognition of precisely the fact that sovereignty was promised not just as an end in itself but as something that would have benefits. Thus, with denial and downplaying of damage now being threadbare arguments, and forced to confront the lack of such benefits, Brexiters are now once again promising that great things are, or could be, just around the corner.
This bounty is, unsurprisingly, to be realised by a combination of global trade deals and a bonfire of regulatory red tape, as argued again this week by, amongst others, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Hannan. Alongside these promises and, again and significantly, in the ferociously pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, articles by its Associate Editor (£) and Chief City Commentator (£) have warned, respectively, that the government is “squandering Brexit opportunities” and that “time is running out to prove that Brexit is not a historic failure”. Note, again, that all these supposed opportunities are economic, underlined by the way that Farage’s piece suggests that “supply-side reform could add 2 per cent to our GDP”. Whatever Brexiters – and, for that matter, some commentators on Brexit - sometimes say, their project has consistently made economic claims, relies in large part for its support upon those claims, and can legitimately be judged in terms of those claims.
Indeed, it is only a few months ago, at the time of the Tory Party conference, that Johnson made the claim that rising real wages was a key part of what the new post-Brexit model of the economy would deliver. In that regard, it is of note that the latest figures show that, even as he said this, real wages were static, and are set to continue to plateau or even fall in the coming years. It was in any case an opportunistic claim, designed to head off criticism of labour shortages, and little has been heard of it since. As always with Johnson, it was just a ruse to get through an awkward moment rather than a serious or sustained commitment.
However, this latest spate of commentary about the unfulfilled promises of Brexit does not mean that Brexiters have wised up to its realities. What the likes of Farage, Duncan Smith, and Hannan are engaged in is a rear-guard defence of their project which, whilst to a degree accepting that it hasn’t delivered, is also a doubling-down on the fantasies that it could, with one more push, be delivered. And, moreover, that if the government were sufficiently committed to Brexit then that final push would be forthcoming.
A conundrum for Johnson
For Johnson and his government this emergent criticism presents a conundrum. He can hardly admit that the Brexit that has been delivered is ‘disappointing’ since he is the one who delivered it, and is thus reduced to bathetic claims about re-instating crown marks on beer glasses and the use of imperial measurements on market stalls, which even Brexiters can see are pretty lame achievements. And whilst the government may sing the same tune as its Brexiter critics about future miracles in trade and deregulation it is constrained both by its continuing failure to deliver them and by the fact that a good section of its voter base, notably in the ‘red wall’ but also amongst its traditional farming and business heartlands, don’t want them. Moreover, no one believes what Johnson says anyway, for the sound empirical reason that he never tells the truth.
It is perhaps for this reason that he has followed his earlier, failed, attempts in December 2019 and September 2020 to stop cabinet ministers using the word ‘Brexit’ with the new style guide for the civil service which advises a similar silence. For it would indeed be easier just not to mention the B-word. Although even when unspoken Brexit proves to be a lose-lose, because whilst remainers mock the national liberation that dare not speak its name, Brexiters are furious that their project is being treated as if it were offensive or embarrassing.
If Johnson would rather not mention Brexit and the promises made for it, it is because he is now reaping the consequences of having been the most prominent person making those promises. From the very first, attempts to put Brexit into practice have revealed the falsity of the claims made for it. Only from outside of government can the fantasies be sustained and that is exactly what is happening again now. It’s already clear that trade deals will have no great positive effect, if any. Meanwhile deregulation is not generally wanted by either businesses and consumers, and both what it will consist of and what benefits it will bring remain almost entirely vague.
Fundamentally, this is because the Brexiter fantasies are incompatible with the facts of economic geography: the UK sits within the economic orbit of the EU because it sits adjacent to it in space. That won’t change, because it can’t be changed. There may well be some minor ways in which divergence from the EU will be both possible and beneficial. It’s conceivable, though at this point far from clear, that this week’s announcement on the post-Brexit farm subsidies system will become one of the more significant examples. But any programme of major regulatory divergence – on data protection, say – is only achievable at such huge cost that it would require an even more reckless government than this one to undertake it.
In a somewhat similar way, the realities of immigration policy, whilst it is certainly now very different as regards EU countries as a result of Brexit, in practice reveal the limitations and contradictions of Brexiters’ magical thinking. For whereas Farage’s article criticises it for potentially allowing a net rise in migration and thus breaking the promise of Brexit, businesses find it too restrictive and, as with the new terms of trade, massively increasing rather than destroying ‘bureaucratic red tape’ and thus breaking a different promise of Brexit. Meanwhile some of those most enthusiastic about the freedom to make global trade deals are the most pant-wettingly furious when they learn that such deals may, as in the case of India, entail liberalisation of immigration. Again this illustrates the way that all kinds of contradictory promises can be, were, and still are made to make the case, and maximise support, for Brexit but are revealed as incompatible when put into practice.
So whilst Farage and Hannan and Smith and all the rest of them can, from outside government, rail about all the things that should be done – as Johnson would most certainly be doing as well, if he were outside – the government itself cannot deliver them and, at best, can only go on promising or pretending to have done so, exactly as it is doing. This is a dynamic which is built in to Brexit and will undoubtedly recur for years and probably decades. That is partly because the economic effects – actual, potential or counterfactual – of Brexit are so complex and diffuse as to be endlessly debatable. But that dynamic is rather different as regards the other main ongoing Brexit debate, that over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).
Northern Ireland: a different dynamic
The NIP debate is different because, although also complex and diffuse in some ways, it has a degree of specificity and precision: there is an actual legal text, with concrete institutional arrangements that flow from it, and a concrete set of negotiations underway about that text and those arrangements. Going back to Phibbs’ attempt to discredit ‘Project Fear’ warnings, it’s telling that his ‘debunk’ of the warning that Brexit would lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the utterly risible one that “the border remains open”. For, of course, this is the case solely because the UK government was forced, virtually at diplomatic gunpoint, to accept that this consequence of Brexit was totally unacceptable and to make some arrangement to avoid it. The Brexit Ultras have never accepted that any border was necessary at all, but that fantasy could not be sustained by the government, hence the NIP and the Irish Sea border.
Clearly, as the last year or more has shown, the government itself does not genuinely accept, and certainly has continually tried to wriggle out of, what it agreed. So far, that has allowed it, a bit as with promises of trade deals and deregulation, to pretend to the Ultras that a new and perfect Brexit, unsullied by realities, is just around the corner. Part of that pretence has been that Article 16 could, and would, be the ultimate route to this nirvana. However, unlike the promises about trade and deregulation, it cannot be endlessly deferred, or even to any great extent misrepresented by PR, simply because it is the subject of concrete agreement with the EU.
We are still in limbo as to how that will play out under Liz Truss’s oversight, but the negotiations can’t drag on forever and – not least because of US pressure – an invocation of Article 16 currently looks unlikely. It’s all but unthinkable that the outcome will remove the Irish Sea border and, at that point, all the denial and obfuscation will, for practical purposes, end. So whilst it can be expected that Brexiters, and especially the DUP Brexiters (£), will continue to regard the NIP as a betrayal, and whilst it may go on being a source of friction between the UK and the EU, it is different to the more open-ended and nebulous issues of trade and regulation. A permanent segmentation of the UK single market will be the undeniable legacy of Brexit, something never proposed to voters in the 2016 referendum.
Why does this matter?
All of this matters for what happens in everyday politics and economics, but most profoundly because it is the latest stage in the political battle for the meaning of Brexit. The Telegraph headline about whether or not it will be proved an “historic failure” is an acute and revealing one. Whilst they still don’t understand why, the Brexiters do sense that their project has gone awry and they do care about the judgment of history – or at least the most ideologically committed of them do, because they genuinely believe that they initiated a ‘national liberation’.
That was always absurd, both in what it implies about EU membership and given the fact that almost half those who voted didn’t want it. Because of that absurdity, I think that remainers have never understood that the Brexiters (to emphasise, I mean the most ideologically committed, hard core of them, not their camp followers or rank-and-file leave voters – the Ultra Ultras, so to speak) do believe it. They believed it in 2016 and they still believe that it will come to be seen as true.
No doubt the most committed of them will believe it forever more, and will also forever insist that true Brexit is just one more heave away or, at least, that it would have been possible had it not been betrayed. However some, at least, realise that public opinion is beginning to settle permanently to the judgement that it was a mistake, in which case their life’s work will be forever discredited. The latest opinion poll finds that 52% think Brexit is ‘going badly’ and just 15% that it is going well. That has been the case for about three months now and, whilst it is still very early days with a lot of neutrals and don’t knows, if it persists for long, it will indeed coagulate into the judgment of history.
The Brexiters are right to think that this is what is currently at stake, and the rest of us should realise it as well. For if – and in my view when - that judgment pronounces Brexit not just a mistake or a disappointment but an abject failure and a disastrous folly, then new possibilities will flow.