Friday 15 July 2022

The leadership campaign is mired in Brexit dishonesty

As the dust begins to settle on Boris Johnson’s downfall, it’s worth emphasizing that it was inextricably bound up with Brexit even though Brexit wasn’t its direct cause. Unusually and fittingly, it was his character and conduct rather than any particular policy which ended his premiership. Not, I think, because the Tory Party had some collective outbreak of moral rectitude – they all knew what Johnson was like from the outset – but more because the thumping loss of two by-elections demonstrated that the voters were finally starting to see through him, in large part because of ‘partygate’.

In some ways that’s a good thing. It arguably shows that, eventually and creakingly, the British polity still has some kind of moral compass. But it also means that, even though it ought to be, this is not a moment of reckoning for the Brexit he did so much to promote and shape. From abroad, things look different. Writing in the Washington Post, Stryker McGuire observes that “viewed from afar, Johnson’s greatest failing is liable to be what he hoped would be his glorious legacy: Brexit”. I’m sure that will eventually be the generally accepted view here, too, but it isn’t yet remotely sayable amongst Tory politicians and commentators, who invariably chalk Brexit up to his credit, perhaps as his only credit, and set against the debits of his conduct in office.

Brexit and Johnson’s character are inseparable

Yet in truth, Johnson’s deficiencies of character are inseparable from Brexit. He was far from the only liar in 2016, but the casual and brazen dishonesty with which he fronted Vote Leave certainly embodied and perhaps swung its campaign. He even embodied many of the particular hues of that dishonesty, in his insistence not just that facts don’t matter but that belief matters more, in his endless sense of his own victimhood, still on display in his resignation announcement and mirroring that of the Brexiters generally, in his refusal to take responsibility for his choices even to the extent of denying choices have to be made, and in his constant bogus and half-baked invocations of the Second World War.

Equally, the rank dishonesty of agreeing the Northern Ireland Protocol without intending to honour it, and of agreeing a limited trade agreement with the EU whilst pretending it lived up to his ‘cakeist’ promises, both contributed hugely to making the calamity of Brexit even worse than it was bound to be. And for all the pearl-clutching now amongst some Tory Brexiters about Johnson’s contempt for established rules and norms, they almost all supported his illegal Prorogation of parliament in 2019, as well as his threat of illegality in the Internal Market Bill (IMB) in 2020. So whilst Johnson’s immorality was built into his character, their support for him reflected their Jacobin-like frenzy whereby Brexit justified ripping up any law or convention that seemed to get in its way, including the very parliamentary sovereignty they claimed to be so central to their cause.

Small wonder, then, that the bludgeoning nonsense that they were enacting the ‘will of the people’ was squeakily echoed in Johnson’s last-ditch attempt to stay in post by invoking the constitutional gibberish that he had been bestowed a personal mandate by 14 million voters in the general election. Small wonder, too, that despite the fact that MPs on all wings of the party, including the ERG, turned him out, some pro-Brexit commentators are insisting he was the victim of a remainer, anti-Brexit plot. Brexit populism has been set back, but not destroyed, by Johnson’s demise.

It's now widely accepted, including, if only superficially, by most of the candidates to succeed him, that Johnson’s legacy is a constitution and political culture horribly damaged by dishonesty and immorality, with accompanying public distrust and cynicism. But simply laying this at the door of his own character, without recognizing its roots in Brexit, means it will not be addressed.

Why Brexit has never been discussed honestly

There’s actually an even wider point to be made. The referendum didn’t just result in leaving the EU. It also created a massive and ongoing destabilization of British politics. It is not coincidence that we have had two general elections and are about to have the fourth Prime Minister in the space of just six years. That is astonishing in itself, but what is far more astonishing is that at each of the pivotal moments – the general elections and the leadership elections – Brexit itself was only discussed in the most cursory of ways.

This may seem a strange thing to say given how dominant an issue Brexit has been since 2016, but my point is that it has rarely, if ever, been talked about in depth, spelling out its actual practical implications and the choices and trade-offs involved. Thus Theresa May was installed following a truncated campaign after which we still, famously or infamously, only knew that ‘Brexit meant Brexit’. That stasis lasted for months until she simply announced in early 2017 that it meant hard Brexit. Then, as I catalogued at the time of the 2017 election and again during that of 2019, the two main parties, at least, refused, in different ways and for different reasons, to set out in detailed ways what their Brexit plans would mean. In-between, the leadership campaign which brought Johnson to power was conducted as a virility test over who would most readily embrace ‘no-deal Brexit’ rather than accept ‘the hated backstop’, but with no substance whatsoever on what lay behind these slogans.

So neither at these decisive points nor in the periods between them has there ever been any sustained, honest, realistic political conversation about the practical realities of Brexit. Instead, throughout the May years there were suggestions of securing ‘frictionless trade’ and the ‘exact same benefits’ of membership and in the Johnson years the claim of cakeism and denial of the coming costs, with Labour all the while just talking vaguely of the ‘better deal’ they would achieve. Equally, throughout these years there was virtually no honesty about the actual choices and problems posed by and for Northern Ireland. Instead there was endless nonsense about non-existent ‘alternative arrangements’ and, ultimately, the creation of an Irish Sea border whilst denying that that was what had been agreed. Thereafter, since the end of the transition the political silence about the damaging effects of Brexit has been deafening, whilst all the denial and dishonesty about Northern Ireland has been re-activated.

The fundamental reason for this, I think, lies precisely with the deadening effect of the ‘will of the people’ bullying, and attendant obscenities about ‘enemies of the people’. Whilst this hasn’t stopped continuing, vociferous opposition to Brexit, it has meant that, especially in the governing Tory Party, realism and honesty about the practicalities, and not just the principle, of Brexit is deemed as betrayal. This is why the civil service, which is bound to be realistic and honest in the sense that it has to deliver Brexit as a policy, rather than simply sell it to voters as an idea, has been so traduced as sabotaging Brexit.

It’s this which marks Brexit out as different to any other political issue, at least in my lifetime. There are plenty of examples of divisive policies but they’ve always been deliverable even when they have been undesirable, and they’ve always been discussable in more or less rational ways. Brexit isn’t like this because it promised impossible or contradictory things, which by definition can’t be delivered. But since even saying this is (still) deemed offensive to the ‘will of the people’, no honest or realistic political conversation has ever been possible within or between the two main parties. That extends from the most general level of Brexit having been enacted as hard Brexit, right down to the multiple and complex trade-offs in decisions about regulatory alignment or divergence in particular sectors. This evisceration of honesty and realism is the “radioactive pollution” that has poisoned the political ground, as I expressed it in last week’s post, and until it is cleansed the instability of the last six years will continue.

Who is a true Brexiter now?

In principle, the Tories now have a chance to change that with their change of leader. Whilst Johnson isn’t the sole or even main cause of the dishonesty of Brexit, he is so entwined with it that replacing him offered the possibility of facing up to that dishonesty. I don’t mean that there was ever the remotest possibility that Johnson’s departure would herald the end of Brexit. It won’t. That fantasy is the province of paranoid Brexiters (£) and, to put it charitably, over-optimistic remainers.

On the contrary, and entirely predictably, only those fully committed to Brexit have even attempted to be candidates. Yet there are now curious contortions in this. Some Brexit Ultras have insisted that Johnson must be replaced by a Brexiter, but this category includes Liz Truss who voted remain but is now deemed by Jacob Rees-Mogg to be a full convert. Indeed David Campbell Bannerman, the Conservative ex-MEP who once called for British people with “extreme EU loyalty” to be tried for treason, insists “only Liz Truss can save Brexit now” (£).

Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, who always supported Brexit, is now treated as not of the faith and even, bizarrely, denounced as a “socialist” by Rees-Mogg. Indeed according to arch-Brexiter Daniel Moylan, not only does Sunak not “care about” Brexit, but the other current front runner, Penny Mordaunt, who was an ERG member before becoming a minister, “doesn’t understand it”. Meanwhile, in a separate and stinging attack on Mordaunt (£), another of Johnson’s placemen in the House of Lords, the self-important would-be kingmaker David Frost, has questioned whether Brexit would be “safe” in her hands.

Yet Mordaunt’s credentials as a Brexiter seem real enough to the extent that, when challenged about her notorious referendum campaign lie that the UK did not have a veto on Turkish accession, opted to double-down on it (note her tone at the end of the clip, which has the muleish obstinacy of one who knows her argument has no logic, but takes perverse pride in clinging to it). Such unrepentant dishonesty is surely the hallmark of a true Brexiter, for all that ERG ‘hard man’ Steve Baker denies that this is what she is, whilst an article on the reliably peculiar Conservative Woman site goes further and denies she’s even a real Conservative.

Until she was knocked out of the contest, the ‘hard man’s’ preference, by the way, was for Suella Braverman, the scourge of ‘cultural marxism’ who wants to take the UK out of the ECHR and apparently believes that the vote for Brexit was also a vote against the expansion of university education and rights litigation (£). Kemi Badenoch, too, seems to think there’s a link between the ‘change’ people voted for in 2016 and her brand of small-state, war on woke conservatism. Perhaps it should be no surprise that it’s so hard to pin down who is a true Brexiter when so much of what has subsequently been claimed to flow the referendum result was unaccountably not written on the ballot paper.

The leadership contest continues to avoid the realities of Brexit

The most striking thing about the struggle between these latter-day Girondins and Montagnards for control of the Committee of Brexit Safety, at least to those who were assured that voting Tory in 2019 would ‘get Brexit done’, is how many are warning that it has not, after all, been done but is still a work in progress, and a fragile one at that. That being so, it might be thought that the candidates would at least have an honest conversation about how Brexit is going, if only because the recent by-election losses suggest that the voter coalition of the 2019 ‘get Brexit done’ election is fraying at both ends.

However, yet again, the chance for such honesty has been squandered. All the candidates have been setting out economic plans which barely, if at all, mention Brexit and certainly don’t acknowledge the chilling effects of Brexit on economic growth, trade, sterling and investment, which are now beyond sensible dispute, and are baked into official figures. For even to hint at any negative consequences of Brexit, economic or otherwise, is taboo in this election (the fact that Sunak has done so, even mildly, in the past may partly explain why the Brexiters have turned against him).

Similarly, all the candidates speak airily of capitalising on the ‘opportunities of Brexit’ without any meaningful or serious detail. Even the effects of Brexit and the new trade deals on farmers, a community that used to be close to the heart of Tories, go unmentioned. And even the Express has spotted the Brexit silence, though mistakenly thinking that it’s a failure to foreground Brexit benefits rather than a failure to acknowledge its damage. The consequence is that whoever leads the party will not have a viable plan to lead the country, for they will still be refusing the face the post-Brexit realities the country faces.

The most immediate acid test of whether a more honest and realistic approach to Brexit is in prospect is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), which continues to work its way through parliament, with all attempts to amend it being rejected this week. For the NIPB arises from a tangle of dishonesties: dishonesty towards the EU with whom the Protocol was signed, towards the MPs who were told the Protocol was temporary, towards the voters who were told it was part of an oven-ready deal, and towards the Northern Ireland peace process which is at the sharp end of it all.

That test has so far been failed. None of the candidates has indicated opposition to the Bill, and the front runners have all said they will continue with it although Sunak apparently had reservations about it in Cabinet (and Braverman, astoundingly, wanted to pursue an even harder set of demands). Whether this commitment comes from conviction or from the realization that to say otherwise would torpedo their chances of winning is irrelevant; either way they are endorsing the dishonesties associated with it.

What isn’t clear is how far the next leader will take the NIPB once in power, and, so far as I know, none of them has been challenged to answer this. The reason it isn’t clear is partly because of the dishonesty of the proposed legislation itself, which has been presented to ‘one nation’ Tories as merely a negotiating tactic rather than something that would be used, and to ERG-types as a non-negotiable set of demands which, if not agreed to by the EU, will be unilaterally implemented. Therefore, the candidates simply saying they will pursue the Bill doesn’t tell us what doing so means.

However, since there’s no way the EU will agree to it in full, the new leader will in fairly short order have to end this ambiguity. This could herald an early crisis, though It’s possible that neither wing would dare rebel at the very start of a new leader’s tenure. But the wider point is what would it say for honesty in politics if the first act of the new leader were to reveal as a key policy – whether that be abandoning the NIPB, making a deal with the EU that fell short of the Bill’s demands, or disapplying the Protocol - something they had not explicitly mentioned in the campaign?

The Brexit cuckoos

It’s depressing that not a single candidate, for all the talk of integrity from all of them, has had the courage to point to any of the problems Brexit has created, even without necessarily disowning Brexit. That could have been the drum that Tom Tugendhat – who I gather used to be a soldier – might have marched to. But apparently there isn’t a single Tory MP who, even knowing they would have had no chance of winning, was willing to at least set down a marker for any kind of honesty or pragmatism about Brexit. That is shaming on those of them, and some still exist, who know the damage Brexit is doing.  But the fundamental responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the Brexiters inside and beyond the Tory Party. They have made honesty all but impossible.

Inside the party, the ERG’s journey from ginger group to virtual control – a partly taxpayer-funded cuckoo party within a party, but which has never stood for election as a party, on its own manifesto – is perhaps the biggest factor. An index of its strength is that in the current leadership contest at least three of the original candidates – Braverman, Javid and Mordaunt - have in the past been reported to be members. The group also insists on having its own one-to-one meetings with all candidates to assess their Brexit credentials (Sunak reportedly ‘stormed out’ of his). This strength, along with the UKIPification of the party membership (£), ensures that no even half-way ‘moderate’ candidate, by any standard but their own, has a chance and, in any case, most such moderate Tory MPs were purged by Johnson in 2019.

However, the current election also reveals that, as so often happens with extremist groups, the ERG is now riven by infighting over ‘purity’. That has been incipient since at least the split between ‘the Spartans’, who voted against Theresa May in all three of the ‘meaningful votes’ on her Withdrawal Agreement in 2018, and the rest of them. Now it has become manifest in the contortions, discussed above, about who is a ‘true Brexiter’, and just last night the group endorsed former remainer Truss as its preferred candidate (although it’s not clear that its members are obliged to vote en bloc). Even so it’s quite possible, because of those contortions, that the ERG will end up with a situation where neither of the final two is “a Brexit purist” (£). To spell it out, that is how some pro-Brexit commentators are describing the scenario if the last two are pro-Brexit Sunak and Mordaunt!

The endless Tory Brexit psycho-drama is set to continue

We are therefore in a potentially extraordinary situation. The dominance of the ERG means that this leadership contest to replace Johnson has continued with his dishonesty about Brexit. That in turn will ensure that for the immediate future British politics will continue to be corrupted by the dishonesty inherent within Brexit. Yet the outcome of that contest may very well leave the ERG still unhappy. And even if that is not true from the start of the new leader’s tenure, it soon will be.

The Times columnist Danny Finkelstein this week made a point (£) very much in keeping with an argument I’ve been making on this blog for years, namely that whoever is elected the Brexiters will end up saying that person has betrayed Brexit because reality always gets the better of their dishonest beliefs. Thus once they embraced May with, it’s easy now to forget, huge enthusiasm but ended up bitterly despising her as ‘Theresa the Remainer’. Johnson, who was never one of their own, they came to see as having lost interest in, and stomach for, ‘unleashing Brexit benefits’. The same will happen to his successor.

Since Finkelstein wrote his article things have already moved on. It has now become abundantly clear that if Sunak wins the Brexiters will disown him from the outset, and the same is very possibly true of Mordaunt. But whoever wins will go the same way, possibly quite soon, as I suggest above in relation to the NIPB, but if not later when, once again, the benefits of Brexit prove imaginary or unsatisfying. Nigel Farage has already said that unless Braverman, who is now out, won it would mean that Brexit would be betrayed. But the reality is that, if she had won, it would not have been long before Farage and other Brexit Ultras were denouncing her as well.

What I would add to Finkelstein’s analysis is that the reason for this isn’t just because the gap between reality and Brexiter fantasy means that Brexit always gets betrayed, it’s that deep in the psychology of Brexit is a desire to be betrayed so as to maintain the purity of insurgency and to preserve the comfort blanket of victimhood. Indeed, the ERG’s endorsement of Truss, given its view of what happened with May, seems almost masochistic. Of course the real victims are those of us who, in the present leadership campaign, are merely onlookers as the tragedy of this perverse political psychology continues to play out before our bruised and bleeding eyes.



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