Friday 22 July 2022

Suffocating unreality

An air of sticky and suffocating unreality has pervaded British politics this week, quite as much as it has the weather. The ongoing contest to replace Boris Johnson seems completely detached from the realities of a country enduring a sharp lesson in the what climate change is going to mean, still gripped by a pandemic that with “dangerous complacency” is treated as being over, suffering the misery of record NHS waiting lists, and facing multiple economic crises. And, as always, though no candidate to be Prime Minister can admit it, there is the ongoing, dragging undertow of Brexit, which has ripped up fifty years of economic and foreign policy strategy whilst its advocates are still unable to identify a viable alternative. Against this background, the leadership contest has come down to the absurdly narrow canvas of whether there should be tax cuts now or next year. It’s beyond pitiful.

Johnson’s squalid departure

That unreality is compounded by the fact that whilst Johnson’s shameful premiership is in one sense over, it still lingers on, like those apocryphal guillotined heads which continue to speak after being severed. In his case, that speech consists not of repentance for the crimes that led to his execution, but is more like a foul-mouthed reminder of why the court passed sentence. For, unsurprisingly, he is not passing his final weeks as a dignified caretaker of the nation. Rather, he skips vital meetings to host parties in his taxpayer-funded mansion, cadges outings in RAF fighter planes, makes spiteful boasts about his previous illegal actions, and hatches tawdry schemes to reward his cronies with seats in the House of Lords. Nothing so vividly illustrates the many reasons, at once banal and corrupt, that he was unfit to hold office as the squalid manner of his departure from it.

Perhaps most dangerous in the long-term, whilst bragging emptily of having ‘got Brexit done’, Johnson speaks, Trump-like, of plots by the “deep State” and Labour to undo Brexit. Having done so much to saddle the country with Brexit, and in a particularly damaging form, his words can only contribute to making it still harder for any future government even to ameliorate it. They set the stage for him to continue to exert a malign influence on British politics for, as Rafael Behr, consistently Britain’s best political columnist, perfectly puts it, “the role of former Prime Minister will suit his taste for elevated status without any burden of responsibility”.

At the same time, the very fact that Johnson and so many other Brexiters warn of the possibility of Brexit being ‘undone’ is a vivid testimony to their and its abject failure. Brexiters envisaged themselves as having ‘liberated the nation’ and they promised a great future, not at some distant time but immediately. Yet, over six years since the vote, the number of people who think Brexit was a mistake is now at a “record high”. Even so, audaciously, Brexiters like Reform Party leader Richard Tice implore them to “put their shoulder behind making [Brexit] a huge success”. That’s pretty rich given that not only have the advice and warnings of remainers been treated with contempt, but that Brexiters assured everyone that there would be no wheel to put any shoulders behind: the success was guaranteed.

Instead, Brexit has, on any reasonable reckoning of its effects and its popularity, failed as a project of national liberation and renewal. But, as outlined in last week’s post, it has been barely discussed in the leadership election. As Annette Dittert, the outstanding foreign correspondent who heads the London Bureau of German broadcaster ARD, observes in her fine, wide-ranging essay on the coming post-Johnson era, “none of the would-be successors has the courage to question the founding myth behind all this chaos: Brexit. None of them will admit that the latter is little more than a mirage”.

In that respect, there is little to choose between the final two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, but it is still (just about) worth considering each of them in relation to Brexit.

Rishi’s reheated Brexit

Sunak has produced a peculiar black and white video, in the style of an old-fashioned public information film entitled ‘Rishi and Brexit’. It introduces the slogan ‘keep Brexit safe’, which itself panders to the paranoid idea that it is under threat, without remotely acknowledging why it is so lacking in support. To the extent that he provides any detail on what his Brexit policy is, it has nothing to do with demonstrating its virtues to those who don’t support it, and is entirely to do with trying to satisfy the fantasies of those who do.

As a consequence, his plans are also startlingly unoriginal because, like Johnson’s government, he faces exactly the same constraints. The only things which might ‘improve’ Brexit would involve, at the very least, a wholesale renegotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Since that is inadmissible within the Tory Party, all he can offer is to make the most of the new opportunities provided by Brexit. But, as the government has already found, Brexit provides no worthwhile new opportunities at all.

Thus in his Sunday Telegraph article Sunak propounds as ‘his’ Brexit policy the same old things that have been floating around since Johnson came to power. There are freeports (already under way, but as I’ve discussed before, they were possible without Brexit, albeit with different rules, and of dubious advantage). There’s reforming Solvency II regulation (already under way, but as I’ve discussed before there’s no consensus in the insurance industry that this is desirable and, anyway, the EU is considering similar plans). There’s removing GDPR (already under way, and likely to be extremely disadvantageous for British businesses). There’s speeding up clinical trials approvals (a policy announced in 2020, but the UK is now falling behind the EU in the approval of ‘novel medicines’ (£) because Brexit means the UK is too small a market for companies to bother with separate British approval processes, which is also indicative of the more general weakness of the case for bespoke national regulation. And last year the regulatory agency had budgets and staffing slashed, partly because of loss of EU funds following … Brexit).

Additionally, Sunak promises a ‘bonfire’ of retained EU laws and regulation, a promise already made by Jacob Rees-Mogg although Sunak proposes to act even more quickly (yet leaked documents show that just a few weeks ago, when Chancellor, he had warned against moving even at Rees-Mogg’s slower speed and also sought specific exemptions from it). More generally, as a recent National Audit Office report has shown, the moves to independent national regulation are fraught with problems of access to EU data and of staffing. Finally, Sunak proposes yet another “new Brexit delivery department” to be created, as if, somehow, this will achieve what the Brexit Opportunities Unit and Rees-Mogg, the Brexit Opportunities Minister have thus far failed to.

In short, this is all re-heated stuff, none of which constitutes benefits of Brexit, and most of which is founded on the delusion of sovereignty in regulation. The constant refrain that Brexit will allow red tape to be cut for businesses is simply nonsense. Just this week, the Cabinet Office was publicising its recent video showing exactly how difficult it now is to export to the EU as a result of the hard Brexit Johnson negotiated, whilst an all-party group of MPs called for the red tape for musicians touring the EU to be cut – but vainly, since that is not in Britain’s power having turned down an agreement with the EU that would allow it. Sunak isn’t a liar in the way that Johnson is, and he undoubtedly engages with and understands technical detail far better, but he is trapped by the lies of the Johnson Brexit that he proposes to keep safe.

Moreover, on what, as I said last week, will be the immediate Brexit issue facing the new PM, namely the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), Sunak has said he will persist with it without saying much more, including, crucially, how far he would push its demands. Allies of Johnson have warned that the former Chancellor would, in their terms, take a “soft line” over the Protocol, whilst some Northern Irish unionists have already called him “an appeaser”. It may indeed be that if he wins he will be minded to be more pragmatic than he has so far indicated. If so, he will face an immediate crisis within his party. If not, he will fairly soon face one with the EU.

Support for Truss

The most widely discussed thing about Liz Truss is – ought to be - the least important thing, namely that she campaigned for remain in the referendum but has now so fully embraced hard Brexit. Within that discussion, the idea that this is some sort of ‘gotcha’ moment demonstrating hypocrisy is na├»ve. Plenty of politicians have shifted in similar ways – old school Tories who became ardent Thatcherites, or those, sometimes very far to the left, who became enthusiastic New Labourites. Opportunistic? Maybe, but I doubt many experience any inner conflict or embarrassment. Such journeys are easily, and not necessarily dishonestly, rationalised as ‘pragmatism’.

It may even go deeper than that. I recently described Truss as a “born-again Ultra”, and there’s certainly no reason to assume that new or late converts to any cause are lacking in devotion to it; more often they are the most excessive in their zealotry. The people least likely to realise that will be the original Brexit Ultras who, like Alte Kameraden suspecting the motives of March Violets, will be especially attuned to seeing any sign of heresy. So for all that Truss is now their preferred candidate, with her ‘journey’ lauded by Steve Baker, that means that she will have very little room for manoeuvre if she is to avoid Theresa May’s fate of being first feted and then disowned by the Ultras. Indeed on the wilder fringes of Conservative opinion she is already regarded with suspicion and ominous comparisons are being drawn with May. Truss’s downfall will come, like May, not because she is a closet remainer but because she will try to turn their fantasies into realities.

For now, she owes her position as the darling of the Brexiters in parliament and the party to the sustenance she has given those fantasies. It wasn’t just by espousing Brexit and indulging in Thatcher-themed photo shoots. It began when, as International Trade Secretary, she began to oversee the development of an independent trade policy. That process had been started by Liam Fox, but she inherited and continued the programme of rolled over and new trade deals, earning breathless plaudits from both the tabloid and broadsheet (£) press.

For Brexiters, new trade deals are one of the few things that they can truthfully say would not have been possible without Brexit. Although they typically conflate the two, and over-state their value, rolled over trade deals are different, in that they wouldn’t have been necessary but for Brexit. But it’s also the case that this is one area that has proved many critics – including me – wrong, in that we doubted it would be possible to achieve the rollover of so many of the EU deals as happened (even if not always on quite such good terms, but sometimes, as in the case of Japan, on very slightly better ones). So whilst the rolled over deals weren’t a benefit of Brexit they were something about which ‘Project Fear’ could legitimately be said to have been largely discredited.

As for the new trade deals, that is a very different matter. No one doubted that it would be possible for the UK to reach some Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on its own, the question was always about their quality and their value. What Truss did, as is becoming clearer by the day, for example in relation to the much-trumpeted Australia deal which is now just about to be ratified, was to accept any terms, no matter how disadvantageous to British farmers and the environment or to animal welfare standards, and regardless of how small the benefit and how great the cost, out of desperation to achieve a quick deal. Even more dishonest was her pretence that straightforward commercial deals, such as that with India, of the sort that the UK could and did enter into whilst an EU member, were only possible because of Brexit with the implication that they were also FTAs.

So her approach was purely performative but, more than anyone or anything else, she and these trade deals have given Brexiters something to crow about when the rest of their project is so manifestly failing. In particular, despite their constant assertion that Brexit was ‘never about economics’, it has enabled them to fabricate an economic case for Brexit. This is the main reason why Truss is in the position she is, a position she is now building on with her tax-cutting mantra, and why she is the currently the favourite to win the grassroots vote.

Subsequently, as Foreign Secretary, she inherited responsibility from David Frost for managing post-Brexit relations with the EU, including the ongoing disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Initially, she seemed to offer a change of tone, but that was quickly abandoned and she became the architect of the NIPB. Some speculate this was because she was already preparing the ground for a leadership bid, or it may reflect a genuine shift in her position. Either way it means that, whilst the EU is likely to take a similarly firm line on the Protocol whoever becomes PM (£), it is already reported by knowledgeable experts such as Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group and Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute that a Truss premiership would face deep distrust from the EU. I imagine that the Irish Tea Sock would be similarly unenthusiastic.

I have not seen anything that Truss has said to suggest that her ideas about what to do with Brexit are any different to the boilerplate stuff that Sunak and others regurgitate about regulatory divergence and so on. It may be that, as her performative approach to trade deals shows, she would be (even) more likely than him to champion purely symbolic changes, regardless of their damage. Maybe that will be enough to sustain her support amongst Brexiters, even if it drags the country further into the economic mire.

There may also be no difference in practice in how Sunak and Truss approach the immediate test of the NIPB which has now passed through the Commons, despite the ongoing contest, although it won’t reach the Lords until after the Summer Recess, by which time the new leader will be chosen. Truss, of course, is the Bill’s sponsor, so she would seem even less likely to seek any kind of rapprochement with the EU than Sunak, and to have even less political leeway to do so. So if she wins she is unlikely to face an immediate crisis within her party, but seems certain to face one with the EU before the year is out. That, too, would endear her to the Brexiters, but there will be a high political price to pay in other ways.

Brexit is too big for either of them

Whilst the candidates chunter on about how soon to cut taxes, and vie with each other to persuade the airless echo chamber of the decrepit party membership which of them is the most ‘Thatcherite’, and as Johnson sees out his last few weeks of malevolent indolence, the realities of Brexit are ignored as if they are too boring, or simply settled. The truth is that Brexit is just too big for either of the would-be leaders, or the ones who they defeated in the earlier rounds, to face up to. Too big for the Labour leadership, for that matter (on which, more is planned to come in next week’s post). We’ve become a country which is too scared of itself to talk about what it’s doing to itself.

But Brexit won’t go away. It may indeed be tedious, it may be too frightening to discuss, but it is very far from settled. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will be doing so just as, to quote Rafael Behr again, but this time from his recent Prospect essay, “the peak of the [Brexit] illusion has faded” and “the great illusionist [Johnson] has been unmasked”. Yet observing the leadership contest, Annette Dittert, in her New Statesman essay, concludes that “after having banged their heads into the brick wall of Brexit reality, the new Tory strategy seems to be to just keep on banging, only this time with a longer run-up”. And, indeed, that is exactly what the Brexit Ultras are currently demanding.

If the new administration pursues that line, then more and more failure and damage will accrue. Or, if it takes an even slightly more ‘pragmatic’ approach, it will once again, this time with Johnson egging the fight on, be torn apart by the never-ending Tory war on Europe. We are in for a long, hot summer before we know which of Sunak and Truss will prevail. It probably won’t tell us much more about what will happen afterwards as regards Brexit, but a great deal of that is predictable. For unreal as the present political debate may be, the realities of Brexit are all too clear, and just as resistant to Brexiter fantasies as they have ever been.

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