Friday 6 May 2022

Brexiters are losing the post-Brexit narrative

A few weeks ago I wrote about what seemed to be an emergent ‘admission-yet-denial’ phenomenon amongst Brexiters. It was prompted by Rishi Sunak’s remark that the damage done by Brexit to trade with the EU was “inevitable”, whilst simultaneously brushing it aside as if unimportant. This phenomenon is also illustrated by recent statements from Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost, and, taken with other developments, it denotes an important stage in the failure of the Brexiters’ project.

Rees-Mogg’s banjaxed border

As regards Rees-Mogg, in my last post I mentioned without much discussion his confirmation that the introduction of import controls would, yet again, be delayed.  It deserves more comment, because it marks not just a further postponement but the first clear indication that the government will never implement controls to the full extent that the EU has on imports from the UK. Like Sunak’s remark, this entails an admission of just how costly the terms of trade agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) really are, yet without any corresponding acknowledgement that the TCA, and Brexit in general, are at fault.

This was made explicit by Rees-Mogg in talking about the costs of import controls to businesses and consumers. Whilst suggesting that because of the general economic situation now was the wrong time to introduce these new costs, the timing is irrelevant to the fact that the controls are indeed costly, to the extent of £1 billion annually. Similarly, his idea that it is a tribute to Brexit that the UK’s import controls need not be as extensive as the EU’s was an implicit admission of the costliness of EU import controls to British exporters. These and the many other costs of post-Brexit trade are quite as much “an act of self-harm” as the import controls that Rees-Mogg described in just those words.  

It remains to be seen just how much it is going to cost to introduce the supposed new high-tech systems that are going to create what the government claims will be the UK’s world-leading border. It also remains to be seen whether this will be introduced on time – or, much more likely, for how long it will be delayed – and whether it will be functional. Rees-Mogg’s latest announcement specified the end of 2023 for the ‘Target Operating Model’, with 2025 already set for the implementation of the full Border strategy. The track record of such IT projects in general is hardly an encouraging one, and especially discouraging is the post-Brexit Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) which has experienced repeated outages, including that which contributed to the huge Easter queues at Dover and other ports.

I’ve written several times before about the costs and risks of delaying import controls, and these will grow the longer it is before the Target Operating Model is in place. The dangers of this latest delay in terms of animal health and food safety are especially acute, as farming and veterinary groups have pointed out. Moreover, given that it now seems the government will never introduce all the physical controls originally envisaged, the money already spent by ports on preparations has been wasted, which may give rise to compensation claims (£).

These delays and changes of plan also tacitly admit another aspect of how badly the government has handled Brexit. For as well as involving an admission of the costs of the TCA, they show the incredible foolishness of not extending the transition period so as to allow time to put the new controls in place, as well as to enable businesses to prepare. For example, of the Border Control Posts required under the original Border Operating Model (now, apparently, abandoned), almost 90% were yet to be constructed and/or approved by the time Rees-Mogg made his announcement. It’s therefore worth recalling the history of the transition period both because it partly explains the current situation and because it illustrates how, like so many other things now happening, the roots lie deep in the entire Brexit process. To restrict the length of this post, I’ve written this history as a separate page. Of note within it is the role played by Rees-Mogg himself in strongly opposing having any transition period at all, not that he now takes any responsibility for the consequences.

Frost’s bizarre mental legerdemain

This brings us to another prime example of the admission-yet-denial phenomenon, as well as of refusal to take responsibility for failure, in the form of the increasingly bizarre outpourings of David Frost. Frost, placed in the House of Lords in order to be Brexit Secretary, renounced that role last December but still uses the platform it gave him in order to pontificate about how the job he no longer wants should be done.

Last weekend, in a strange attack on Peter Foster, the senior Financial Times and former Daily Telegraph journalist whose coverage of Brexit has been consistently excellent, suggesting that commentators had been consistently wrong in their predictions, Frost tweeted:

“'You will never get rid of the backstop': Done

'An FTA will take many years to do': Done in ten months.

'You'll never reach an FTA without the ECJ': we did.

'You can't leave the transition period at end-2020': we did.

'The French will retaliate over fishing': they didn't.”

Jumping to the fourth of these, as I’ve just mentioned, leaving the transition period at the end of 2020 created multiple problems. But no one said the UK “can’t” leave it then, just that it would be extremely foolish and damaging. So it has proved. On the fifth of them, Frost can surely not have missed the fact that relations with the France over fishing rights have hardly been smooth but, in any case, the fishing industry believes it has been betrayed by the deal to the benefit of the French.

Frost’s FTA boasts

Then there are the remarks about the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). It’s quite true that most commentators thought it would take much longer to complete. That was partly because it wasn’t clear until the last minute whether EU law would require it to be ratified as a ‘mixed agreement’ by each individual member state or, as it turned out, treated as an EU-only agreement – so it wasn’t some indication of Frost’s negotiating wizardry. It was also because few anticipated that the UK would, under Frost’s negotiation, only want such an unambitious deal. So unambitious, in fact, that trade experts say it could have been done even more quickly than it was. In effect, it amounts to a tariff-free deal on goods, subject to rules of origin, with little on services or the removal of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) such as conformity assessment.

That this thinnish deal is seen as a great achievement by Brexiters reflects their outmoded pre-occupation with tariffs and goods trade. More specifically, it is a reflection of Frost’s own completely arbitrary claim that existing studies “exaggerate the impact of non-tariff barriers [and] they exaggerate customs costs”. Since these studies are un-named, it’s not possible to evaluate that claim, but Frost’s propensity to downplay them helps explain why the deal he negotiated is proving to be so poor for businesses now experiencing precisely the impact of NTBs and of customs costs. To put it bluntly: he guessed, in defiance of the evidence and to justify his approach, and he guessed wrong.

This is also a reason why his comment about the FTA confounding predictions of ECJ involvement is off-beam. So far as I can recall about the only person making that prediction was Nigel Farage, and it was false. An FTA, as opposed to a Withdrawal Agreement, without any ECJ role was always perfectly possible. But what that would and did preclude was any substantial removal of NTBs or liberalisation of services trade, which generally require some form of trans-national regulatory and legal oversight, and for trade with the EU could only mean some ECJ involvement. That was the price of prioritising ‘sovereignty’. So, as with the speed of the deal, its avoidance of the ECJ is a sign of how much less extensive his FTA was compared with, especially, having the “exact same benefits” as the single market and customs union or even the ‘deep and special partnership’ that had once been mooted. Hence Frost’s boasts are both an admission and a denial of his own, and Brexit’s, failure.

Frost’s backstop boast

But the most extraordinary item on Frost’s list is the first. Again, it contains at least a half-truth. It was widely predicted that it would be impossible to get rid of the backstop, because the EU had said it would not re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) it had drafted with Theresa May’s government. But this didn’t preclude doing what Johnson and Frost did, which was to resurrect, effectively, a version of the old phase 1 agreement on an Irish Sea Border – rejected by May as “something no British Prime Minister could agree to” – and implanting it not as a backstop (i.e. a fall back), but as a frontstop (i.e. from the outset) in their WA. Doing so didn’t confound predictions that the backstop could be disposed of, it simply dropped the very concession that May had obtained from the EU.

More to the point, it is precisely what he and Johnson agreed to replace the backstop which Frost has, ever since and with ever-increasing volume, been denouncing as an unworkable agreement, made only because the “Surrender Act” – as, putridly, he still insists on calling the Benn Act – tied the government’s hands, and which he says must be replaced or reneged on. So it takes some feat of mental legerdemain for him to also claim the removal of the backstop as a triumph that confounds his critics. It is as if we are expected to forget Frost’s role in creating the present situation or, more accurately, to accept his bowdlerized and self-serving account of it.

A pattern of admission and denial

The pattern, then, is clear. Both Rees-Mogg and Frost implicitly or explicitly admit to the failures of the Brexit they agreed or supported, whilst denying or ignoring that the cause is the Brexit they agreed or supported. And of course the same is true for all those MPs in the Tory Party, from Johnson downwards, and those MEPs in the Brexit Party, who signed or voted for agreements the effects of which, whether as regards import controls, the Irish Sea border, or the fishing deal, they now disown or seek to circumvent.

As Jonathan Freedland, one of the few high-profile commentators to pick up on the full significance of Rees-Mogg’s import controls announcement put it, “in the long history of Britain’s needless, pointless departure from the EU, Rees-Mogg’s admission should count as a milestone”. Should, certainly, but probably won’t because both his and Frost’s admissions are accompanied by deceit and denial about the causes of what they bemoan. Like alcoholics hiding the empty bottles and gargling extra-strong mouthwash, they hope that no one will notice their shaking hands and vomit-flecked clothes, or remember last night’s maudlin promises, lecherous advances and aggressive diatribes.

Strawmen, sophistry and sneers

Meanwhile, a different but hardly more endearing tactic is increasingly in evidence. Again, it’s one I’ve remarked on before and it takes the form of claiming Brexit to have been a success compared with predictions – usually garbled, hyperbolic versions of predictions – of the damage it would cause. Currently this is attaching itself to the UK’s response to the Ukraine War, as in a recent article in The Times by pro-Brexit columnist Iain Martin and a boorish Tweet from Conservative self-styled “pundit” Tim Montgomerie. Both position their arguments against a caricature of remainer claims that “nothing can ever go right after Brexit” (Martin) or that “Brexit Britain would be a marginal, isolated, good-for nothing (and racist obviously) country” (Montgomerie) which they then propose to have been discredited by the Ukraine War.

It would undoubtedly be possible to find someone who had at some time made these predictions about Brexit, but they don’t constitute the standard or serious anti-Brexit argument which is that it reduces British standing and influence, rather than eliminates it. But even if they did, then all that has been demonstrated by Ukraine is that Brexit has not done Britain the harm predicted, whereas it was sold on the basis that it would be of some benefit.

Perhaps realizing this, such arguments perform a sophistic pivot to imply or claim that Brexit has allowed Britain to respond to Ukraine in a way it would not otherwise have been able to. But little or nothing Britain has done required Brexit (though the idea that it has attracts some support [36%] amongst voters, especially [54%] leave voters*). Certainly sending arms and providing training, which has made a real and important difference, didn’t require leaving the EU as shown by the fact that it preceded even the vote to leave. Britain cut tariffs on imports from Ukraine unilaterally, which it couldn’t have done as an EU member, but the EU, which does far more trade with Ukraine, announced the intention to do so two days later. The UK and EU have enacted different sanctions in different ways and at different times, but as an EU member the UK could always have set its own sanctions in addition to any it participated in with the EU. And the UK response on refugees has been feeble compared with the EU, as it probably would have been anyway.

Similarly, the associated sneering at EU countries for what they have not done – especially in relation to providing arms or cutting Russian energy imports – is irrelevant, even it is fair or true, which is highly debatable, as a justification for Brexit. It seems to be based on the false premise that EU membership would only be justifiable, and/or that it was justified by remainers, if everything the EU ever does, and everything its members ever do, is beyond reproach from a British perspective. But that is a nonsensical idea. What is plainly true is that Britain no longer has any of the substantial influence it used to exert over EU policy, including, as in this case, over policy towards Russia and Ukraine. That is the loss that Brexiters were warned of.

Losing the post-Brexit narrative

So there are several strings of Brexiter argument on display at the moment. The doublethink of admitting Brexit damage but denying its cause, or boasting of supposed triumphs whilst disowning or ignoring their consequences. The negative claim that it hasn’t been as bad as some, or a caricature of some, warnings. And false claims about benefits (Ukraine being the latest, the early vaccine rollout perhaps the earliest). There are also, of course, still the flat denials of all the damaging consequences of Brexit, as there always have been.

What is striking is how convoluted some of these arguments are, and how defensive. If Brexit had been even half as successful as it was claimed it was going to be then, by now, you’d expect that to be easily demonstrable and increasingly self-evident even to those who had formerly doubted, or at least to a growing number of them. You would also expect a growing self-confidence from Brexiters so that they would feel no need to jibe – as Montgomery does – at “remoaners”. The magnanimity of victory, even though it eluded them in 2016, would by now be theirs. There would be clear signs of Brexit at least moving towards meeting the test for its success set by Frost himself, namely that by 2031 “nobody is questioning Brexit. It was self-evidently the right thing to do.”

In fact, apart from a couple of times in mid-2021, probably attributable to the government’s promulgation of the false belief that Brexit had enabled faster vaccine rollout, opinion polls since Britain left the EU have shown a clear lead of those who think in hindsight this was wrong thing to do so over those who think it was right. Over the last six months that lead has been fairly stable at about 11%-13% (the latest figures are: right 38%, wrong 49%, don’t know 12%). On the top political issue of the moment, there’s also evidence that a clear majority of both leave (57%) and remain (78%) voters think that Brexit has made the cost of living higher. This has been happening during a time when, in England at least, few national politicians have been openly criticising Brexit and when media coverage of it has been quite muted (and, perhaps for those reasons, Brexit itself is seen as a less important issue than it has ever been in recent years, whilst still ranking higher than, for example, pensions, transport, crime or education).

At the end of January 2021 I wrote a post on this blog arguing that the months to come would be crucial in shaping the post-Brexit narrative. Fifteen months on, I think it is justifiable to say that the outcome has predominantly been to frame Brexit as having been a mistake and a failure. The evidence for that is the opinion polls and also the way that, as discussed in other posts, so many Brexiters themselves now say that it has not delivered its promises. The latter, admittedly, is not quite the same as saying it is a failure, but it is a long way from a ringing endorsement. All of this is a long way from what success would look like.

Of course, the narrative is not fixed and may change. It’s clear that Johnson is trying to use the Ukraine War for that purpose (as well as for more general political advantage). It’s very possible that the government will re-ignite the row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, perhaps as early as next week, although there are somewhat contradictory reports about that (see here and here). If so, that may shift the dial by stoking anti-EU sentiment. And, as noted in that January 2021 post, unforeseen events may change the narrative in either direction. Still, it’s reasonable to think that the narrative that settled first is likely to be hard to dislodge.

What’s more, I believe that many Brexiters realise this, and it explains the increasingly convoluted and defensive postures they are adopting. This makes it all the more important to keep reminding them, and more importantly everyone who will listen, what they did and what it has led to. Eventually, doing so will have prepared the ground to do something different and better or, at the very least, it is a necessary precondition for that.



*The question asked in this survey is slightly ambiguous, though: “With the UK outside the EU, has the UK’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine been stronger, weaker, or similar to what it would otherwise have been?” Someone might very reasonably answer ‘stronger’, not meaning that Brexit had enabled this but that a desire to show its post-Brexit relevance had prompted the UK to respond more strongly than if it had still been a member.

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