Friday 30 December 2022

Brexit is slowly being discredited, but there’s still a long way to go

I had intended my previous post to be the last of 2022. Yet, even during what could be expected to be the relative quiet of the holiday period, there has been enough Brexit news to warrant another one. As Nick Tyrone wrote in one of his recent ‘Week in Brexitland’ posts, his initial worry that there would be weeks when he did not have enough to write about proved false, and the problem is, more, what to leave out. I have found the same thing.

That this is so reflects the fact that Brexit remains both an unfolding process and a deeply controversial one. That, in itself, is indicative of some of the failures of Brexiters. One is the way they treated winning the referendum as if it were the end of the matter, rather than the beginning. Another is the way that they failed to create, or even to try to create, a durable consensus for their project. Of course, more fundamentally, it is also because the passage of time has revealed ever more clearly the flaws of that project, and that most of the warnings about it were right.

It is also a testament to the refusal of erstwhile remainers to be cowed by the insults, bullying and intimidation they have been subjected to ever since the referendum, ranging from being called ‘remoaner cry babies’ right up to ‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. As a result, and despite having relatively little political leadership, the consequences of Brexit have been kept in the public domain and have received a growing amount of media attention.

The economic failure of Brexit

Although it may not seem like it, we are still only in the very early period of experiencing the realities of Brexit. Yet it is already clear that the post-Brexit public narrative has started to settle to the view that it has been a failure, especially economically, something begrudgingly acknowledged by Brexiters themselves. They now try to object that this is a premature judgement, and that it will take decades to assess Brexit. But, even leaving aside the fact that this wasn’t what they promised when selling their project, it isn’t a defensible objection.

The creation of new barriers to trade with the EU is having exactly the effect that any sensible person expected: trade with the EU is now more difficult. This can no longer be ascribed to ‘teething problems’. A British Chambers of Commerce report (£) just before Christmas shows that it is becoming structurally embedded in both trade and international supply chains. This shouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this blog, as it is exactly what I said was under way once the transition period ended. And there was never any prospect of an independent trade policy compensating for this loss by trade agreements with non-EU countries and groups, with or without a US trade deal, and this, too, has been borne out by what has happened since the end of the transition period.

Of course trade is only one component of the economy, but it has consequences for higher inflation, lower economic growth, and a lower tax take. These things, in turn, feed through into the pay claims being made by unions, and the strikes resulting from (in the main) the government’s assertion that it cannot afford to meet them. At the same time, without reducing total net migration in the way many leave voters wanted and expected, the end of freedom of movement of people is having severe consequences for many sectors of the economy, including health and social care. Recent polling shows that 63% of people think that Brexit is the main or a contributing factor to labour shortages.

These adverse economic consequences were not mitigated but significantly intensified by Liz Truss’s attempt to deliver what was hailed by Brexiters at the time as a ‘true Brexit budget’. That experiment is now dead, although its consequences live on (£). So, too, do the perennial Brexiter promises of a deregulatory bonanza. Yet that has limited electoral support, being unappealing not least to key parts of the leave voting coalition, and no economic rationale for a global trading country which simply isn’t big enough to operate its own, national, regulatory systems. It’s not completely impossible that some sectors may turn out to benefit from regulatory freedom from the EU, but the template for this – the Covid vaccine roll out – is based on the lie, albeit widely believed, that it required Brexit.

Thus, overall, the latest calculation from the widely cited analysis by John Springford of the Centre for European Reform (CER), which came out just before Christmas, is that the economic consequence by the second quarter of 2022 had been to reduce UK GDP by 5.5%. The consequence, which was widely picked up on by the media, is an estimated loss in tax revenues for the year to June 2022 of £40 billion. There is a legitimate debate about these figures – they could be higher or lower – but no reputable economist now denies that the impact has been negative.

Public opinion is slowly shifting

The evident economic failure of Brexit is probably the biggest reason why public opinion is turning against it. However, erstwhile remainers need to be careful not to over-estimate that. For one thing, if there is an economic recovery, for all that it would not vindicate Brexit, it might well affect opinion about Brexit. More importantly, although the trend in opinion polls shows a clear and growing increase in the gap between those who think Brexit was a mistake and those who think it was right, it is not an overwhelming change. The largest gap recorded was 56%-32% in early November 2022, but it has been smaller in each of the three polls since then, and there have been odd points since the end of the transition period when ‘right to leave’ had small leads. It’s also of note that ‘don’t knows’ have rarely shifted from the 12% mark.

Nor is the growing support for re-joining in the event of another referendum, for all that it stands at 45% to 32% in the latest poll, overwhelming. Only a few weeks ago, a different poll gave the result of 45%-41%. That was an outlier amongst recent polls, and from a pollster whose methodology appears to generate more support for staying out than other firms, but the point still holds that opinion is turning but only slowly and only somewhat.

It’s also true that the direction of travel favours re-joining, and that demographics are likely to favour it even more. But any honest assessment of the polling evidence would have to conclude that the country remains fairly evenly divided, and any sensible political analyst would recognize that it could change, decisively, in either direction in response to events and in the course of any future referendum campaign.

There is still a bedrock vote of something like 35% to 40% for Brexit, and depending on how ‘don’t knows’ respond, and on turnout, majority support for Brexit could easily be rekindled from that base. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, prior to the 2016 referendum, many polls showed a lead for remain, and that the final survey before the vote had both sides on 45%. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that, were a new referendum to be announced tomorrow, the polls could quickly get back to that kind of figure from where they are now

So, whilst Brexiters have lost the early post-Brexit battle for control of the narrative, the situation is still potentially fluid. Moreover, whilst the media are increasingly attentive to the negative effects of Brexit, the two main Westminster parties continue largely to ignore them. That is partly because the opinion polls do not, at least as yet, make it a safe issue for them to engage with, not just in terms of the split of opinion, but because of the enduring strength with which different opinions are held.

For opponents of Brexit to really force the damage it has done on to the political agenda, let alone to open a path to a referendum on re-joining, and then to win such a referendum, bedrock support for Brexit needs to get screwed right down, and for a long period. Exactly how low is hard to say, but my guess is it will never go below 20%, so the target would be somewhere in the range of 20% to 30%, and the lower within that the better.

Even then, as I’ve discussed before, and as Philip Stephens argued in the Financial Times yesterday (£), the EU will not risk “a new and deep entanglement until they are sure the British will not change their minds again”, which can’t be assured until the Tories change policy, whether or not they are in government. Stephens reckons that won’t happen until they have suffered two electoral defeats. Consistently low polling support for Brexit would encourage that change, as well as reassuring the EU.

In the meantime, what Stephens rightly says that EU would welcome, what is getting traction in the polls, and what ought to embolden Labour, is support for a closer relationship with the EU, including amongst 30% of leave voters. Even that, though, should be treated with some caution, as it may well reflect a continued belief that, but for EU ‘punishment’, the UK could enjoy some membership benefits without the corresponding obligations.

Brexiters have not given up

Overall, my point is that anti-Brexiters, or remainers, or re-joiners (or whatever term we might use) should not become complacent about public opinion, and should be prepared for a long haul. That may be an unwelcome diagnosis, but it’s one which I think the Brexiters are already very much alive to. That partly explains the continuation of the lies, disinformation and the misleading claims that prevent post-Brexit Britain from facing up to what it has done to itself.

For Brexiters, there are three reasons for continuing in this way. First, it is a way of shoring up their bedrock support so that it doesn’t reach the perilously low level I just mentioned. Secondly, it is a way of gaslighting those who are wavering about Brexit, by making it too confusing and complicated to understand. And, thirdly, it maintains the toxicity of the Brexit issue, scaring off those politicians who might otherwise try to address it.

For example, the latest Springford/ CER figures for Brexit economic damage were immediately denounced by, amongst others, Jacob Rees-Mogg. One aspect of his response, which is partly to do with his character but is not confined to him, is the sheer spitefulness of the tone, and the insinuations that the CER research is biased to suit its funders’ supposedly ‘Brexit hating’ agenda. Of course that is a particularly ironic charge from Brexiters like Rees-Mogg, given their enmeshment with the nexus of pro-Brexit ‘Tufton Street’ thinktanks which refuse even to declare who funds them. But it serves to poison the very notion of public, evidence-based debate by continually seeking to discredit any honest attempt to provide the evidence such debate needs, and it feeds the cynicism within which post-truth politics flourishes.

To the extent that Rees-Mogg criticises the CER estimate on substantive grounds rather than smears, he does so by the equally disingenuous device of raising questions about the model (and especially the comparator countries used) which have already been answered by Springford and others. By raising those questions again, rather than responding to the answers given, honest debate is again confounded.

It’s irrelevant to object that Rees-Mogg’s article was ‘only’ in the Express. The reason why Rees-Mogg placed it there was precisely in order to reach the core leave-voting audience, who very likely have not read the CER report and its responses to the questions about its methodology, in order to mislead them. And this matters if Brexit is to retain that core support and, in the process, ensure that it is too divisive and toxic for politicians to admit and address the problems it is causing.

Equally misleading was an article, again in the Express but given a veneer of official support when tweeted approvingly by Trade Minister Greg Hands, boasting that the UK had made an agreement with South Korea that would boost pork trade by “up to” £1 million over five years. Not only is the scale puny, but the deal merely mirrors a similar agreement between South Korea and the EU made three months ago. Perhaps, though, the government is learning that such bathos doesn’t do much for the Brexit cause, for last week it announced that it would not be “appropriate” to publish an estimate of the value of its plans to enhance the UK’s trade agreement with Israel. The reason can only be that the value is trivial or, even, that its terms are damaging to the UK in some way, yet still, somehow, it is claimed as a Brexit achievement. More gaslighting.

Meanwhile, using a similar trick to that for which they were castigated by the UK Statistics Authority just a couple of weeks before, Conservatives like Penny Mordaunt are pretending that joining CPTPP (if it happens) will be “worth nearly £9 trillion”. The first version of the trick was to adduce to the UK’s trade deals (including rollovers of EU deals and that with the EU itself), the entirety of UK trade with those countries. Mordaunt’s version is even more grotesque, in that the figure she cites is the total GDP of all of the members of CPTPP, rather than an estimate of what membership would be worth to the UK in terms of extra trade. In fact, the government’s official estimates are that it could eventually be worth £3.3 billion (that is billion, not trillion) a year, and with that could come significant damage to UK agriculture.

There’s room for some debate about the exact impact, as it would depend on how CPTPP membership was configured at the time of accession, and on the nature of whatever deals the UK already had or did not have with those members prior to accession. Equally, there are potential trade-offs in that, to the extent that CPTPP might involve closer alignment to US regulatory standards and processes, it might make it harder to maintain, or move closer to, EU regulatory standards, for example under a future Labour government (indeed some Brexiters see it, for ideological rather than economic reasons, as desirable for precisely that reason, which is one index of how bogus their claims to patriotism are).

The point here is not, necessarily, that CPTPP accession is a bad idea. It is that it comes with complex trade-offs and with the caveat that it is not a huge economic prize. It certainly won’t compensate for lower trade with the EU. Still it might conceivably be said that, given that Brexit has happened, it’s better than not doing it, if only as damage limitation.

What is very much the point is that the whole Brexit debate in the UK is still mired in dishonesty. That dishonesty is what prevents the country moving forward, let alone moving on from, Brexit. That’s partly just because, by definition, it precludes truthful politics. But it’s also because as well as being stuck in dishonesty, this dishonesty is of an apparently endlessly cyclical, repetitive nature. That is to say that it doesn’t, for the most part, offer new lies in place of old ones so much as constantly recycle the old lies in new guises.

For example, all the Rees-Mogg stuff about the supposed lack of credibility of economic models is effectively just another outing for the ‘Project Fear’ attack line. Similarly, the boosterish claims about trade deals are just a continuation of the basic lie about ‘Global Britain’ being able to escape the geographical realities of regional trade.

The continuing poison of Farage

However, the most damaging of the latest examples of repetitious Brexiter dishonesty comes, perhaps not surprisingly, from political bottom-feeder Nigel Farage. Confronted with widespread claims, and especially those of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) that I mentioned earlier, that Brexit has failed to have any benefits, his response in a recent interview is a microcosm of the mess the country is in, a mess to which he is a leading contributor.

On display are, first, versions of all the things I have just mentioned: a spiteful and divisive comment about the BCC as a ‘remainer’ redoubt, and the usual canards about global trade opportunities and unspecified deregulatory changes. Second, and far more damaging, is a brief but totally false and self-serving account of what has caused the problems the BCC identified. He derides Boris Johnson for having proclaimed his “oven-ready deal” as “the best free trade deal you’ve ever seen” when, in fact, Farage says, although the trade deal was tariff and quota free it still means what he calls “extra customs checks” which, he accepts, the BCC is right to complain about.

There are multiple layers of deceit to disentangle here. Whilst it’s true that at the time of the 2019 General Election Johnson often tried to imply that his oven-ready deal was the completed trade deal, Farage knows full well that it wasn’t anything of the sort and that it was only the Withdrawal Agreement. Yet he stood down the Brexit Party in Tory held seats, effectively endorsing the Withdrawal Agreement, and moreover he justified doing so on the grounds that Johnson had promised there would be a Canadian-style trade deal with the EU. Promised, note: Farage knew it was something for the future, and was not the same as the ‘oven-ready deal’. So he is now pretending to have been conned, as some voters undoubtedly were, by Johnson’s lie, when in fact he was complicit in it.

But it gets worse. Farage wanted and was promised a Canada-style deal, and that is what Johnson delivered (it was slightly ‘better’ than the Canada-EU deal in the extent of its tariff reduction, but it was of the same type). The extra customs checks, and other trade frictions, that Farage is now apparently complaining about were part and parcel of such an arrangement, and could only be avoided by a customs union and by single market membership, neither of which Farage supports. So his implication is that there could have been a Brexit trade deal which would have enacted hard Brexit whilst avoiding the barriers to trade created by hard Brexit, if only the government had “really believed” in Brexit.

Not only is it a lie, but it is exactly the same lie that Johnson told with his cakeist promises, right up until the point when he lied that his trade deal with the EU avoided non-tariff barriers to trade. For that matter, it is the same lie as David Davis told when he said that Theresa May’s government had found a way to have “the exact same benefits” of the single market and customs union membership whilst belonging to neither. Thus Farage’s line, confronted with the evidence that Johnson could not deliver the impossible claims he made for Brexit, is to tell the same lies that Johnson told, as if it were 2016 again. Or, in other words, to respond to those who feel cheated by cheating them again.

As with articles in the Express, it’s easy, but misguided, to say that interviews like this, on GB News, should be ignored. But, again, they are aimed at, and influential amongst, the leave-voting core and get endlessly recycled within leaver networks. Like it or not, Farage has the capacity to mobilise a significant chunk of the electorate which, in turn, has an impact on the agenda of other political parties.

A marathon not a sprint

What’s striking is just how many words it takes to unpick just a couple of minutes of Farage’s interview, because of the way his apparently straightforward comments contain nested, dishonest claims. This is how gaslighting works: for the average listener it is all but impossible to unpack what is being said and to evaluate it, and quite boring to read or listen to anyone who tries to do so.

Farage is especially, if malignly, adept at it, but exactly the same techniques are used by other leading Brexiters. It can be seen when, for example, they reel off lists of trade deals which are being done, to give an impression of economic success, or when they present negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol as if they didn’t arise from the government having reneged on the deal it signed with the EU, and sold to voters.

It’s notable that the BCC report, to which Farage was responding, called for an “honest dialogue” about the trade impacts of Brexit. It’s a call made repeatedly by all kinds of people and groups about all sorts of aspects of Brexit, and one I’ve repeatedly reported on and echoed on this blog. It is that honesty which Brexiters are determined to resist, using all the tricks described above, and many more besides.

As we finish another year of the Brexit disaster, this remains the key issue. The Brexiters are now on the defensive in the face of growing public and media judgements that Brexit was a mistake, and worse than a mistake. But they are not going to give in, and if they can possibly manage it they will stymie all attempts to be honest about Brexit. Even if they can’t con a majority into thinking Brexit has been a success, they want at all costs to maintain the absurd situation where, despite most people thinking Brexit is a mistake, there is no political means to even begin to deal with, let alone reverse, that mistake.

So it is for the rest of us, so far as we can, whenever we can and wherever we can, to keep chipping away, to keep challenging the lies, to keep reminding anyone who will listen of the promises made and broken, and of the damage that has been done and will go on being done. It is tiring, dispiriting and sometimes boring to do so. But it is remarkable how, even at this still early stage of Brexit, the tide of opinion has started to shift against Brexit. That shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it can be built upon. It will be a marathon, not a sprint, but, so far, it’s a race the Brexiters are losing.

Friday 16 December 2022

Post-Brexit Britain: a country broken by lies

It seems almost a lifetime ago, but in fact is only two years, that we were heading towards Christmas still not knowing whether there would be a UK-EU trade deal of any sort, but with the end of the transition period unnecessarily set unmovably for the last day of 2020.

A deal, of sorts, was done and we are now approaching the second anniversary of being fully out of the EU. Even that statement needs some qualifying, though. Many parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol remain unimplemented, and the Protocol itself is still being re-negotiated with no outcome expected until the New Year. The UK as a whole has continually delayed implementing import controls on goods from the EU and it is not clear when or whether it will do so. The introduction of the UKCA marking and registration system was recently postponed until the end of 2024. It may well be postponed again given that just this week it has been extended for construction products to the end of June 2025. And there are numerous other hanging threads, including participation in the Horizon Europe science programme.

A crisis-ridden country ruled by vandals

That the looming end of the transition period feels so long ago is because of the multiple crises that have come hard and fast since then, and the swirling chaos of post-Brexit politics that is in part the cause and in part the consequence of those crises. Few of these are entirely due to Brexit, but almost all of them have a Brexit aspect to them, including the extent of inflation and the wave of strikes it has engendered, and the now endemic labour and supply shortages. Brexit is inseparable from an emergent food supply crisis and from risks of an energy crisis. These are not ephemeral things, or luxuries, but fundamental to a functioning society.

As a result, there is now not just a clear and sustained public view that Brexit has been a mistake, but a more diffuse, yet palpable, sense that post-Brexit Britain is broken. It is a sense which has been growing since, at least, last summer, even before the mini-budget fiasco and its aftermath. Hence it’s common now to hear people on all parts of the political spectrum saying the same thing: ‘nothing works properly anymore’.

It would be fair to say that versions of the ‘Broken Britain’ theme have been around for years, maybe decades. But what is different currently is that there is no sign of the political leadership which might be able to fix things. That’s partly because of the continuing refusal of the Tory and Labour Parties to discuss, or even to properly acknowledge, the damage of Brexit itself. But that in turn is part of the legacy of Brexit in denuding politics of honesty and realism. It’s not, of course, that there was some prelapsarian Eden of political virtue. Politics has always been a dirty, messy, compromised business and, arguably, that is inherent to it. But Brexit has brought a new taint, at once subtly pervasive and dramatically grotesque, where it is not just that truth can’t be told, but that truth hardly seems to matter.

In recent posts I’ve written a lot about Labour and Brexit, simply because a new Labour or Labour-led government still seems the only, or best, hope of a break with some of the worst features of post-Brexit politics. That matters, because if we get a Labour government after the next election which doesn’t do so then there is no telling where people will turn to for hope, a point I’ll return to. In the meantime, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Conservative Party and Conservative governments are the prime architects of all this, the vandals who broke the country, and it is they who are still in power. Sunak’s government has arguably avoided Johnson’s sly degeneracy and Truss’s outright madness, but it remains a willing prisoner of Brexit and of the mendacity inherent in Brexit. Even in this relatively quiet week for Brexit news that has been on display.

Financial services regulation: nonsensical claims and flawed motivations

Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Edinburgh reforms’ to financial services regulation were announced as if they were a Brexit benefit, which would “seize on our Brexit freedoms to deliver an agile and home-grown regulatory regime”. It’s nonsense. About two-thirds of the proposals, including the most dramatic and risky one of relaxing the ringfencing of investment banking from retail banking, don’t require Brexit at all (£). Others, of which reforming Solvency II (discussed in detail in a previous post) is the most significant, are also under discussion in the EU and, anyway, are regulations very largely drawn up by the UK when a member of the EU.

There is a mixture of obvious reasons for pretending otherwise. One is just to sustain the public pretence that Brexit has benefits. Another is to placate the baying Brexit Ultras that ‘Brexit freedoms’ are being used, especially given their distrust of ‘remainer’ Hunt and ‘socialist’ Sunak, though their response, as it always is and always will be, was to call for more (£). It’s a big problem in itself for British politics that, both within and outside the Tory Party, there is a significant and vocal group who will never be satisfied by any attempt to satisfy them. Or, perhaps, the problem is with those, by no means all in the Tory Party, who still imagine that they can be appeased if given enough red meat.

There is also a narrower problem that flows from making decisions for these reasons which is that, just as post-Brexit trade deals have been done for the symbolic value of demonstrating Brexit freedom, the regulatory changes may be seen in the same way. That matters, because regulation always entails a judgement of the balance of risks, and if there is a suspicion that what drives these changes is simply some bogus Brexit boasting, rather than a rational assessment of those risks, international and institutional trust and confidence in the robustness of the UK’s regulatory regime will be diminished.

That possibility is unlikely to weigh heavily with the government because one of the deformations of political culture that Brexit has created is to ignore, or dismiss as unimportant or even as having an anti-Brexit motivation, the declining international reputation of the UK that has come with Brexit. Indeed it is inherent in the Brexit project, given that it is predicated upon a fantasy of Britain’s importance in the world which is bound to invite the mockery of others, and yet requires that that mockery be ignored to sustain the fantasy. The absurd eagerness of the UK to sign trade deals that disadvantage its own economic interests, and are solely for domestic Brexit boasting, enhances that mockery. And, not inherently, but in the way Brexit Britain has conducted itself, especially over the Northern Ireland Protocol, to mockery has been added international disdain and distrust.

Conversely, none of this matters much to the Brexiters because, with any lingering fantasy of other EU countries following Britain’s path now surely being dead, their project is entirely one of domestic politics, and most voters, and perhaps leave voters especially, are almost entirely unaware of how Brexit Britain is viewed abroad or discussed in the foreign media. The Brexiters themselves know, and frequently denounce the New York Times, in particular, for its coverage. But they also know that it is the domestic media that really matters, which is why they lash out most ferociously at even the mildest implication that Brexit has failed, especially from the BBC (which they loathe quite apart from Brexit) although the most extreme of them are convinced that the entire ‘mainstream media’ is the tool of a ‘remainer’ counter-revolution.

Foreign policy for domestic consumption

One consequence of this parochialism is that even the foreign policy of post-Brexit Britain is essentially for domestic consumption. This week, the new Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, made his first major speech setting out his foreign policy “vision”, which turns out to be myopic enough to warrant a drive to Barnard Castle.

There was plenty of denunciation of Putin for “debasing international conduct” but no mention that Brexit had substantially furthered his goals. There was plenty of rhetoric about the importance of international rules and the international order, but no mention of the UK’s threats to break international law over the Northern Ireland Protocol, or its existing violations of the Protocol. And, presumably, Cleverly imagines that no one has noticed the constant rumblings from within his own party about derogating from the ECHR. On the other hand, there was no mention of the EU, as opposed to some of its members, as a key UK ally; barely mention of it at all, in fact, except in reference to “making full use of the powers” of Brexit to – yes, of course – make new trade deals.

Even more underwhelming, if possible, was the report of Liam Fox’s Global Britain Commission (£) which, whilst predictably castigating the civil service for not having adapted to “the post-Brexit world” and for being too UK-focussed, proposes as the remedy to this inward-facing culture  – you really couldn’t make this up – a series of re-organizations of Whitehall departments, the creation of a new select committee, and a quango to be called the ‘Global Britain Advisory Council’. Aside from an assortment of cliches and bromides, the only other point of interest is the deeply ironic observation that post-Brexit Britain should emulate France and Germany in the assiduity with which they tout for new global export markets.

None of this is a remotely serious post-Brexit foreign policy. For that, see, by contrast, the recent Chatham House speech on the UK’s international role given by former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband. In it, amongst other things, Miliband points to the need to begin with honesty about the way that “our global influence and capability, not just reputation, has been seriously undermined by political chaos and economic weakness since 2016”. He then charts a path to renewal which includes, though is by no means limited to, healing the “gaping sore” of relationships with the EU, recognizing that the ineluctable facts of geography make this mandatory. But neither Cleverly nor any currently conceivable Foreign Secretary, whether Tory or Labour, can say anything like this, not least because its starting premise is unsayable in the dishonest politics of post-Brexit Britain.

A dishonest trade policy

That dishonesty is endemic in trade policy, too. Just this week the UK Statistics Authority has reprimanded the Conservatives for their wholly untrue claims that the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals are worth over “£800 billion of new trade” (discussed in more detail in Nick Tyrone’s latest ‘Week in Brexitland’ blog). These claims are false partly because they reference rollover deals and the UK-EU trade deal itself, which made the terms of trade worse, but especially for treating all trade with the relevant countries as being attributable to the trade deals. It’s an especially gross lie given how many Brexiters insisted that ‘trade on WTO terms’ (i.e. without any free trade agreement) would be a perfectly adequate basis for trade with the EU, and how often they falsely claimed that most of Britain’s non-EU trade was conducted ‘on WTO terms’.

At the same time, the bigger picture of how Brexit leaves the UK trapped between the trade blocs of the EU, the US and China, affected by all three whilst belonging to and influencing none, is becoming increasingly obvious because of the growing substantive trade conflicts between those blocs. Even before Brexit, it was clear that the world was settling into regional trade blocs, partly because of the failure of the WTO to make much progress in recent times. Now, with at least a degree of ‘de-globalization’ arguably taking hold, for many reasons, the Brexiter idea of going it alone on the basis of the shrill vainglory of ‘regaining our seat at the WTO’ looks more than ever – I was going to say misguided, but fatuous is a better word.

Incapable of admitting this fatuity, the Conservative government continues with the dishonest pretence that CPTPP accession is the great prize ahead for Brexit Britain and, meanwhile, pretending that non-binding and very limited Memorandums of Understanding with individual US States, most recently South Carolina, which anyway didn’t require Brexit, are some kind of prize. Once again, Brexit consists of lies, served up for consumption to a domestic audience, presumed to be gullible, though increasingly seeing through the lies.

It is also presumably for domestic reasons that Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch insisted this week that she will not even discuss including increased access to student visas as part of the negotiations for a free trade agreement with India. It certainly wasn’t for good economic reasons, either as regards the trade talks or the interests of UK higher education.

The dangers of a politics built on lies

If there is a single thread which connects these latest Brexit stories and the situation we faced two years ago as the transition period was coming to an end, then it is that of lies. In my post at that time I wrote about “the lies that bind us” and recorded that “we are no longer just in the territory of lies, but of lies about lies”. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the word ‘lie’ and its cognates is amongst the most used words across the 390 posts I have written on this blog since September 2016.

The entire Brexit project is so saturated with lies that it’s impossible to list them all. But one particularly obscene example, given its current state of near-collapse, is the way Vote Leave lied about what voting for Brexit would mean for the NHS. Yes, unexpected things, most obviously the pandemic, have happened since, but the promises made by the Brexiters were not qualified or conditional and, even without the pandemic, had no chance whatsoever of being delivered by Brexit. Even now, I find it impossible not be disgusted by the manipulative dishonesty of those promises, and the malign skilfulness with which they were made.

More generally, a recurring theme of this blog has been the impossibility of building a viable national economic and geo-political strategy based on lies. That has proved to be the case, and what is now also becoming ever-clearer is that lies, or their close relative of silence about the truth, are preventing us from undoing the damage done. That has important consequences. It is making us economically poorer and internationally weaker. But, worse than that, it is creating real political dangers. A broken country, or even just a country that feels itself to be broken, with a political leadership that can neither acknowledge nor fix the central cause of its problems, is bound to become increasingly vulnerable to extremism.

It’s a vulnerability already being exploited by Nigel Farage, indifferent to his own significant role in having broken the country. Notable in his diatribe against the current wave of strikes is that he drops his usual pretence of talking for ‘ordinary working people’. Indeed, a notable characteristic of the alt-right in general is that, whilst crying crocodile tears for how it used to respect the left when it stood up for ordinary workers rather being pre-occupied with ‘woke identity politics’, the moment unions do stand up for workers they are castigated. Nor is there any talk now of Brexit delivering real wage increases (£).

For of course the “political insurgency” Farage has in mind has as its central target not those who control the wages and employment conditions of ‘ordinary workers’ but the invented demon of an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers. No mention, needless to say, of how leaving the EU’s Dublin III regulation compounded the problem, nor of how international cooperation is needed to address it. It’s easy to dismiss his pub-bore droning, but, just as with Brexit, it is Farage more than anyone whose obsessive campaigning has made the ‘small boats’ into a major political issue, pressurising and enabling (£) his many willing accomplices amongst Tory MPs. Invariably, the odious Jonathan Gullis being a prime example, these try to claim their vicious crusade is mandated by the vote for Brexit and, equally invariably, they identify ‘foreign’ judges, lawyers, and the liberal elite as frustrating what ‘the people’ want.

The next scenes are well-known, because this play has been staged many times before. The need for a ‘strong man’ who will put an end to division and disorder. Who will ‘make the trains run on time’, literally and metaphorically. Who will punish dissenters at home and defy critics abroad. It’s unlikely that Farage will be that strong man – he appears to be suffering from a permanent hangover, and more likely to vomit in a jackboot than to wear it – but there will always be others like him, and far more sinister than him. At first, their lies can seem like a joke, perhaps a cheeky-chappy comedy routine or at most the ravings of a lunatic, but as the play goes on, the laughter goes silent. The final act reveals that it was a tragedy from the start.

For all that, we are not in a pre-scripted play. There are still choices that can be made by political leaders that will make a difference to the outcome. That’s why it matters so much that Labour, in particular, get things right, and soon. For the longer our political leaders refuse to make the choices that still exist, or even accept that they need to be made, the smaller the space for a better outcome, and the more inexorably the path to tragedy becomes the only one left.


This is the last post for this year (barring some major Brexit development, which seems unlikely). I will take a break from blogging and intend the next post to be on Friday 6 January. Recently, this blog site had its eight millionth visit. I’m very grateful to all those who visit and read, as well as to the many thousands who read (or at least receive) the posts each week as emails, and to those who publicise the posts in various ways. I never anticipated when I started this blog, a little over six years ago, that it would gain such a readership, or even that it would still be going. I also know that there are any number of other sites and sources competing for the limited amount of reading time people have and I really appreciate the continued interest in this one. So, despite the slightly dark tone of this post, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. CG

Friday 9 December 2022

There's a better Brexit strategy available to Labour

I’ve spent quite a lot of time both in last week’s post and the one before discussing Labour’s Brexit position. That’s because, as the earlier of those posts concluded, it’s the only question that really matters now in terms of how Brexit proceeds. That assertion is predicated on two, related, assumptions.

The first is that the Tories are incapable of substantively changing the form of Brexit because of the strength and rigidity of the Brexit Ultras, and the fear of a Farageist resurgence (£). That should be qualified by adding that they might, even so, be capable of changing it for the worse, for example by pursuing the EU Retained Law Bill and, in particular, by re-igniting the Northern Ireland Protocol row. More generally, Rishi Sunak’s administration seems to be going through the motions of governing, bereft of ideas, lacking a policy agenda, riven by internal divisions, and simply serving out time until it is put out of its misery. Its decaying stench is captured with acidic humour by the journalist Matt Carr in his latest substack newsletter.

The second and related assumption is that it is highly likely that Labour will win the next election, probably with a majority or, if not, leading a minority administration. It is an assumption that is widespread, even, and perhaps especially, amongst Conservatives. This explains why Labour is attracting more donations, much greater interest from lobbyists and businesses, and coming under much more intense media scrutiny now, across all policy areas but including Brexit. Victory seems there for the taking unless Labour blows it, but with that comes an understandable degree of caution, not least about Brexit.

Today, in the absence of much Brexit news, I’m going to devote the whole post to discussing Labour’s Brexit policy, including a proposal for a totally different strategy, one that is not so much bolder as more imaginative than anything I’ve seen suggested so far.

What is Labour’s Brexit policy?

As things stand, the Labour policy is to seek improvements within the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) framework, although the nature of these has not been fully spelt out. In particular, it has been suggested that Labour would seek a ‘veterinary agreement’, but it hasn’t been clarified whether this means committing to the ‘dynamic alignment’ on EU sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulations which is the key to reducing much of the border friction, including that on the Irish Sea border. The obvious assumption is that it does mean this, otherwise it is meaningless, but it hasn’t been made explicit, nor whether it establishes a more general principle for dynamic regulatory alignment in other sectors, and if so which.

The strategy appears to many commentators to be one of ‘alignment by stealth’ (£), giving enough hints to encourage anti-Brexit voters whilst being sufficiently vague to avoid alienating leave voters. One problem with this, apart from the obvious danger of pleasing neither group of voters rather than both, is that it reduces the legitimate space for extensive alignment, if this is indeed the goal, once the election is over. That may end up meaning only minimal changes, but, minimal or maximal, they would do relatively little – not nothing, but not much – to undo the economic damage of Brexit.

Is Labour getting it right?

As to whether this approach is right, there is a broad spectrum of opinion even amongst acute and well-informed commentators on Brexit and politics in general, and there is merit in all of the different things they say. For example, the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr argues that, despite the frustrations of erstwhile remainers and others, if Keir Starmer’s strategy was working the results would look … very much as, in fact, they do! I read that as a call for patience and realism rather than pushing Labour to take a more ambitious position, whether on Brexit or anything else. If so, there is some wisdom in that. The dangers of ‘purism’ in politics are well-evidenced, not least in the history of the Labour Party.

However, another Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, points out that with the economic damage of Brexit now moving from the abstract to specific consequences for, for example, household food bills, it can’t continue to be politically ignored. Freedland doesn’t explicitly comment on what this means for Labour, but does remark that “in the eyes of the voters, Brexit was always a Tory project”. I read that as a call for Labour to make explicit the linkages of the cost-of-living crisis, Tory economic incompetence, and the Tories’ Brexit, and to offer a more extensive re-shaping of Brexit than at present. If so, that’s very much in line with what I’ve been arguing in recent posts.

Meanwhile, writing in the Financial Times, Andrew Duff (£), a former LibDem MEP and founder member of the pro-federalist Spinelli Group, urges Labour to take a far bolder line. This would entail an EU-UK customs union and the creation of a Ukraine-style Association Agreement but with several additional features which, cumulatively, would create a new category of ‘affiliate state’. Duff makes it clear that this proposal is as challenging for the EU as it is for the UK, entailing not just that the EU “orthodoxy” against “cherry-picking” be dropped, but EU treaty change. As he puts it, “[t]here is no post-Brexit solution that does not entail radical reform on the EU side as well as a bold change of gear in Britain.”

For what it is worth, I think that this would be a goodish outcome, and have done since January 2018, not least under the influence of Duff’s earlier writings on this. However, it seems extremely unlikely that Labour would adopt it as their policy, and Starmer’s repeated comments about both the single market and a customs union bear that out. He and Labour may get to this point eventually, but it surely isn’t in prospect before the next election. Moreover, whilst Duff understands the internal politics of the EU far better than I do, I really doubt whether it is ready to undergo the kinds of changes he proposes in order to improve its relationship with the UK.

Even if Labour promised more, could it deliver?

Behind that doubt lies another issue, which the discussion about Labour’s Brexit position too often ignores, my own included. Commenting on my previous post, Bryan Kelly, a long-term reader of this blog, emailed me to make the point that Starmer might sensibly judge that it is not worth expending political energy and capital in proposing a major change to the UK-EU relationship if there is no reasonable chance of the EU accepting it.

To do so would carry not just the electoral risk of making such a proposal but the risk of failing to deliver on it when in government. I would add that it also risks perpetuating what has been pervasive in so much of the Brexit process, namely a chauvinism, or at least myopia, whereby the UK simply has domestic debates about what it wants and doesn’t want, without regard to what is acceptable to the EU.

These risks apply most obviously to Labour adopting a ‘re-join’ policy, and hardly less to any bold, Duff-type, proposals, but they also apply to all versions of the idea of seeking single market membership. The key question, Kelly suggests, isn’t so much whether the EU (or EFTA, for that matter) and its members states would or would not welcome such membership. It is whether they could rely on the UK polity to be able to sustain such membership.

Central to the answer to that question, Kelly argues, isn’t Labour policy, but the Conservative Party. For if a Labour government took the UK into the single market, what would stop a future Conservative government, five years later, or, for that matter, ten or even fifteen years later, from reversing it? Having gone through all the aggravation of Brexit, why should the EU risk going through it again with a second mini-Brexit?

Even if some individual figures within the EU (or EFTA) might say that they would welcome the UK into the single market despite this risk, that isn’t the same as the EU (or EFTA), and its member states, being willing to do so. And it remains a genuine risk at least unless either the Conservative Party completely implodes after the next election or it purges itself of the Brexit Ultras. Those are both conceivable, but the second, especially, is highly unlikely, and certainly can’t be relied on, now, for a policy that Labour must articulate now.

So this is a strong argument for Labour’s current approach of merely seeking refinements within the TCA although, even then, as I argued last week, the refinements sought could be more extensive and more explicit than Starmer is currently articulating, and take the form of the proposals made in the recent Tony Blair Institute report.

Is there a different strategy?

However, accepting that argument, it strikes me that Labour could use it in a far more intelligent and imaginative way. At the moment, Starmer is not only ruling out single market membership but now even claiming that doing so would not improve economic growth, which is obvious nonsense. He is also, with somewhat more reason, saying that renewed political uncertainty about the trading relationship would be de-stabilizing for businesses.

Instead, he could say that single market membership is indeed a solution to many of the economic problems caused by Brexit, but that it is not possible for him to propose it because it is not practically deliverable unless the Tory Party also commits to it. Were they to do so, it would make it viable for the EU to agree to and, whilst meaning a further change for businesses, would also remove the risk to them of that change only being temporary. That the Tories will not give such a commitment, Starmer would say, shows they are putting ideological dogma ahead of the national interest and economic competence.

At one stroke this would be honest and realistic, would have some appeal to erstwhile remainers (as it would show Labour trying to do at least some of what they want), would not alienate many Labour leavers (some of whom would be happy with the idea, whilst those who were not would see that Labour wasn’t actually proposing to do it, because of lack of Tory support), and it would make sense to the many people, not especially partisan for leave or remain, who recognize that Brexit has damaged the economy and that needs to be dealt with.

It would also turn the political spotlight firmly on to the Tories to justify their failed Brexit policy rather than allowing them to present Labour as trying to reverse or undermine Brexit. Obviously, the Tories would still claim the latter, but it is a claim which would be substantially blunted by the fact that Labour would not actually be proposing single market membership. Rather, Labour would be supportive of it if, and only if, it was accepted as a non-partisan, cross-party, common-sense solution to Brexit, something which could have a lot of electoral appeal to those voters who dislike political tribalism, and challenging the Tories to agree to it.

Of course they would not do so, and in that way would cater for their core, Brexit-supporting, voters who will never vote Labour anyway. But they would alienate some swing voters and help Labour to consolidate existing attack lines by depicting them as unfit to govern in the national interest, putting ‘party before country’, and held hostage by a small group of fanatics. All of which happens to be true. In the meantime, Labour would have created the space to openly pursue the most extensive possible upgrade of the TCA as a pragmatic and moderate holding position.

Gateways to this strategy

Needless to say, it may already be too late for this. Starmer’s repeated remarks about the single market may have precluded such a change of strategy. But the election may be eighteen months away – conceivably, as long as two years – so there’s at least the possibility of changing direction, citing changed circumstances. It is always possible to cite changed circumstances, anyway, and in this case it could be justified by the continuing build-up of evidence of economic damage. But there are two more specific gateways through which Labour could develop this strategy.

Supporting British (small) businesses

One is that, whilst Starmer has said this week, not entirely unreasonably, that businesses have now adapted to hard Brexit, so softening it would just create new costs and uncertainties, that really only applies to big businesses. It is SMEs which have suffered most, and would benefit most from softening Brexit. And here there is a certain irony, for Brexiters often claim that it is only big, global business that opposed Brexit, and that small businesses welcomed it. That was never entirely true, certainly of those small businesses that trade with the EU. But in any case what Brexit has revealed is that global firms, which have the resources to navigate new procedures, and which do not have national ties or loyalties, have most easily been able to undertake the relocations and supply chain adjustments it has necessitated.

That isn’t cost-free, for them or for the UK economy, but it is possible to a much greater degree than it is for SMEs. So it is SMEs, which are embedded in communities, localities and regions, and which are also crucial drivers of innovation and economic growth, which have paid the highest price. Yet, precisely because they have these qualities, they should be dear to Labour’s heart. And, crucially, they are exactly the kinds of British businesses that many leave voters (and many remain voters for that matter) want to see flourish, rather than the remote, global owners of casino capitalism: the ‘predator capitalists’ as Ed Miliband dubbed them in 2011, or the “people in positions of power [who] behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street”, as Theresa May put it in her 2016 ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech.

So, for Labour, a focus on improving the form of Brexit in order to come to the aid of British SMEs could be the golden thread to connect their remainer voters and those traditional Labour voters who supported leaving the EU, not to mention some of those who normally vote for others parties, including the Tories. In this scenario, the onus would be on the Tories to explain to voters, and especially to Labour-turned-Tory leave voters in the fabled Red Wall, why they refuse to endorse a cross-party agreement to shift Brexit from a form that disadvantages British local and family businesses to one that supports them.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The other gateway for Labour to adopt this strategy is over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Things have gone rather silent this autumn, and it is not really clear what is happening. The NIP Bill has been paused. There was a report this week of a new HMRC database that may meet EU requirements by providing real-time information on which goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are bound for the EU single market. That would also greatly assist the creation of the ‘green lane’ system the UK government argues for.

However, as with all the debates between 2016 and 2019 about ‘technological solutions’ for an Irish (land) border, it seems unlikely that there is any technical fix for what are ultimately political issues. In particular, if the Tory government continues to refuse any role for the ECJ it is hard to see a resolution, and yet a resolution has been promised, not least to the US, by April 2023, when the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement occurs.

It’s possible that something will be found that the EU and UK government will agree to, and which the Brexit Ultras and the DUP will accept. But at the moment that seems unlikely, suggesting another crisis, probably in the New Year. That would again be a route for Labour to announce the offer of a cross-party agreement on softening Brexit, not (just) for economic reasons but in order to resolve the NIP stand-off. If that, rather than simply economics, were to be the gateway, something like the Duff proposals would be the logical solution since these, unlike single market membership alone, would be necessary to resolve the NIP issue.

Again, the Conservatives would certainly not agree. But, again, the spotlight would be on them to justify a policy which, on their own admission, had failed and to which, in this scenario, they had no solution other than simply to break the NIP, and, with that, international law, whilst risking a trade war with the EU, something made easier for the EU to prosecute under its recent rule changes.

A chance for Labour to lead

Clearly none of this goes as far as many would want Labour to go, especially ‘re-joiners’. Equally clearly, because the Tories would not accept a commitment to it, it would not in itself yield a significant change of direction. But it would be a relatively low-risk way for Starmer to bring some honesty and realism to the debate about Brexit, a debate which is likely to intensify as the election gets closer.

Moreover, it would enable Starmer to provide some substantive leadership to the country in this debate, even whilst in opposition. For he would be inviting the Tories, as they contemplate electoral defeat, to participate in a new national consensus, and one which spoke to the clear public belief that Brexit has been a damaging mistake, yet without taking Britain back into the EU.

And, after all, as I outlined last week, many leading Brexiters are now saying that, simply by being out of the EU, Brexit is vindicated. So Starmer would be making a proposal which gave Brexiters that ‘success’, whilst in a genuine and convincing way showing how Brexit could be ‘made to work better’.

Again, it’s obvious that the Tories would refuse the offer and the proposal would come to nothing but, again, it would open the space for extensive TCA reform as a baseline position whilst identifying a route map for the longer-term, were the Tory Party ever to come to its senses, or if circumstances changed in other ways (for example, sustained and overwhelming public support for single market membership). In the meantime, blame for the economic damage of Brexit would be pinned firmly on the Tories’ recalcitrance.

The need for imagination

So I think there is a strategy for Labour – not perfect, because no strategy is perfect, especially starting from the horrible mess that Britain has got itself into over Brexit, and especially given the conundrums Brexit has always posed for the Labour Party. And it’s not even especially risky, electorally. It has the advantage of an honest acknowledgement of what Brexit has done to the country, of the need for the EU to agree if there is to be a different and durable Brexit, and of the way that the Brexit Ultra wing of the Tory Party is both the cause of the problem and the barrier to a viable solution.

That might not have been possible before, but the mounting evidence of Brexit damage, the change in public opinion about Brexit, the political chaos of the Tory government, and the utter discrediting of the Brexit Ultras by the mini-budget have all made it so. It’s a huge prize for Labour and for the country, replacing the lies and division of the Brexit years with honesty and a plan for consensus, and offering a path to repairing some of the damage of Brexit. It does not even require Starmer to have courage. Only that he has imagination.

Friday 2 December 2022

Our politics is incapable of responding to the failure of Brexit

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, with public opinion now firmly settling to the view that Brexit has been an economically damaging failure, Brexiter ideologues were out in force to claim that this was just a new ‘Project Fear’. Typically this either came from, or drew upon the analysis of, the small group of economists who have always been, and no doubt always will be, pro-Brexit. So far as the vast majority of economists are concerned, the debate is over except, as the Financial Times set out in a summary this week £), over just how large the economic damage is.

Although Brexiters will undoubtedly continue to churn out denials of this, they are increasingly putting forward a different defence of Brexit. This arises partly from the implausibility of the economic defence, but also as a way of reconciling defending Brexit with Brexiters’ own frequent laments that the ‘opportunities’ of Brexit haven’t been delivered.

Most notably, what is increasingly emerging is an acceptance by Brexiters that they have indeed lost the battle for public opinion, and that the idea that Brexit has failed is now firmly, possibly permanently, the dominant narrative. Rather than contest the evidence for this, they now propose that it is based on a false criterion of Brexit success and failure.

Brexit has worked!

So the latest line is to say, as Daniel Hannan did in the Telegraph (£) last weekend, that “Brexit has already worked”, the reasoning being that the only actual meaning of Brexit was to leave the EU. We’ve left the EU, so it has worked. Questions of what is then ‘done’ after Brexit are secondary, and not relevant to that of whether or not it has been a success.

In a similar way, towards the end of a typically paranoid and frankly weird article by Brendan O’Neill in Spiked Online it is asserted that:

“[Brexit] wasn’t about trade deals or economic boosterism. It was about democracy. We voted to leave the EU in order to strengthen British sovereignty. We made a constitutional demand, not an economic one. Brexit is working just fine, thanks. We are no longer beholden to laws drawn up by distant institutions over which we have no direct democratic control. That’s what we wanted. Brexit is a success, a brilliant, historic one.”

It is an idea that is now found all over social media with, for example, former Brexit Party MEP Belinda de Lucy tweeting that “[People] who say Brexit is failing are lying. They know full well Brexit is not an economic policy it is simply the act of a nation self-determining its own laws. It can no more fail than the act of any other country governing itself outside the EU.”

In one way, there’s nothing new about this strategy. Brexiters have always segued opportunistically between claims about sovereignty and claims about the supposed economic benefits of Brexit. But this latest iteration takes a particularly hard line in trying to completely decouple Brexit from its effects. Doing so has the particular consequence that it not only enables them to say that Brexit has ‘worked’ and been a ‘success’ simply by virtue of having left the EU but also, conversely, that there is no possibility that it has failed because Britain has, as a matter of fact, left the EU.

A bogus argument

It’s a bogus argument, for at least two reasons. One is that it is such a peculiar, and certainly limited, concept of sovereignty, whereby it is simply something to ‘have’ and is entirely separate from what is done ‘with’ or ‘by’ sovereignty. It is a purely hypothetical concept. Secondly, it is an empirically fatuous understanding of sovereignty. Whether in or out of the EU, a country has to exist within all kinds of international regulations, systems and bodies, which is one of the many reasons why Brexiters are finding it so hard to actually do anything meaningful with this sovereignty. Moreover, countries typically need the agreement of others to do some of the things they want to do. An obvious example is the current so-called ‘small boats crisis’, where the ability of the UK to ‘do what it wants’ turns out to rest upon the agreement of other countries, such as France or Albania. So even in its hypothetical form, this sovereignty doesn’t exist.

If the Brexiters’ response is that what Brexit meant wasn’t just sovereignty but democracy, so that the things that affect British people are voted on by them, or by their elected representatives, then the same issue remains. Like it or not, British people are affected by decisions made in other countries and within international bodies, from NATO to the WTO. And if the response to that is that Britain is represented in, and able to influence, those bodies then the same goes for being an EU member.

Dishonesty and incoherence

It's also, of course, a dishonest argument. Brexit was never presented to the British people as simply being an end in itself. It was always presented as allowing Britain to do certain things and to have certain things. Many of these were, indeed, economic, such as making trade deals or having more money for the NHS, or they were in other policy domains, such as immigration and border control. But they were all to do with the supposed benefits flowing from sovereignty, not just ‘sovereignty’ in the abstract. The stated aim wasn’t simply ‘to leave the EU’ but to do so because leaving the EU would make people’s lives better in various ways.

So it is wholly disingenuous now to say that the sole definition of Brexit being a success is to have left, as if, to coin a phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It is also completely incoherent, given that Brexiters also oppose, for example, aligning with large parts of EU rules, as proposed within a report by Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute this week. Responding to this proposal, leading Brexiter and former Brexit Minister David Jones “said that aligning with EU rules would defeat the point of having left the bloc” (£). But how can it, if the only test of Brexit is having left the EU? And how can it violate the democratic principle, if alignment is what an elected British government chooses?

It's equally dishonest and incoherent to say, as O’Neill does, that Brexit wasn’t about things like trade deals given how Brexiters trumpeted these as a huge triumph. If they are more coy now, it is only because the Australia and New Zealand deals have been exposed as damaging and of little value, whilst the amended rollover deal with Japan has just this week been revealed to have been followed by a slump in trade with Japan. Yet previously it was regarded by Brexiters as a vindication of their project.

But of course this whole attempt to re-write what Brexit success means is so transparent that a three-year-old could see through it. We know full well that if the figures showed these trade deals to be a huge success Brexiters wouldn’t just shrug and say that Brexit was never about trade deals, they would be saying that this vindicated Brexit. We know that not least because of the way they have constantly made the entirely false claim that the vaccine rollout programme was proof of the success of Brexit. No mention then that the only proof needed of success was to have left the EU.

It’s not even necessary to dig back into the past to show what nonsense this all is. Because, even now, Brexiters are totally incapable of agreeing on what Brexit means. Hannan, in particular, purports to speak with authority on the basis of his own long-standing support for Brexit. Yet, on the very same day as his article was published, an editorial leader in the Spectator, also stressing that magazine’s Eurosceptic lineage going back to the 1975 referendum, came up with a completely different “defence of Brexit”. This one acknowledges the economic problems that have been caused, but makes the familiar argument that the success of Brexit will take years to be judged, and emphasises that “above all, Brexit was a call to abandon an economic model based on low wages and unskilled labour …” [My emphasis added.]

That characterisation can itself be challenged, but the present point is: so which is it? Was Brexit simply about leaving the EU, and the fact of having left means it has now succeeded, as Hannan claims? Or was it about creating a new economic model, the success of which can’t be judged for decades, as the Spectator insists? The answer, of course, is neither. These are not arguments made in good faith, they are opportunistic deployments of incompatible claims in order to wriggle out of accountability, and to deflect public recognition of the abject failure of Brexit.

Politics in limbo

At one level, all this is just about the fading battle for control of the narrative of whether Brexit has been a success or a failure. As I suggested at the time, this battle started in earnest from the end of the transition period, when ‘economic Brexit’ began, and it has gradually been lost by the Brexiters. So, whilst it won’t go away, it is now in substance over, unless something dramatic and unexpected happens. This, as again I’ve suggested before, is the reason why it’s still only the usual cast of diehards who try to defend Brexit, and that they have been forced to adopt ever-more contorted and absurd arguments to do so. It is a mark of having lost that there are so few, if any, new recruits. If anything, amongst many of those who supported Brexit – and I think Rishi Sunak is an example of this – there is a sense that the defence they now offer of it is half-hearted, unconvinced, and unconvincing.

At another level, what is important about this battle is that, to the extent it is settling to the view that Brexit is a failure, then, in principle, it becomes possible to address the political question of what follows from it. But, as it is turning out, this now leaves us in a limbo, because our politics is incapable of dealing with the failure which the public clearly recognize, as do many, possibly most, politicians. In an interview this week, Tony Blair put his finger on this, saying “people think there’s a problem and it needs fixing” but that there is a political fear of addressing it because of the toxicity of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

Labour’s strategy

That does not look like changing any time soon barring, again, something dramatic and unexpected happening. As I said last week, the Tories can’t deal with the mess, so it will come down to whether Labour can. Since then, Sunak, who seems increasingly like a schoolboy actor struggling to play the part of a Prime Minister, has made his first foreign policy speech, but the mentions of the EU within it were bland and vacuous. To be fair, perhaps that is the furthest departure from outright antagonism that his party will allow him to get away with, but that is just another way of saying that the Tories can’t deal with the failure of Brexit.

As for Starmer, he has now made an unequivocal statement against freedom of movement of people and with it, not for the first time, ruling out single market membership, as well as a customs union. He must know that going back on this in government would be virtually impossible. That still leaves scope for some progress. Judging by his interview, Blair thinks Labour should, and could, implement the proposals of his thinktank’s Spisak report. These proposals fall short of seeking single market membership “just yet”, but, even so, it’s not clear that Starmer is willing to go even as far as they do, for example and in particular, on extensive regulatory alignment.

Perhaps, as Gaby Hinsliff of the Guardian argues, he intends to do so without trailing it too loudly before the election, but that will cause problems later and hardly constitutes the kind of honesty and seriousness which Brexit requires. It may also be that, as Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia group suggests, he is planning on the basis of having two terms in government to deal with Brexit but, if so, he is also accepting that for the first term he will preside over an economy carrying its drag weight which, in itself, may jeopardise achieving a second term.

Clearly at the heart of all this is electoral strategy, rather than issues of political principle or economic rationality, and that isn’t in itself reprehensible – if it is a good strategy. Writing on his Brexit Impact Tracker, Gerhard Schnyder suggests that:

“Possibly, [Starmer] feels that people left of the centre of the political spectrum are so disgusted by the Tories that they will vote Labour no matter what. Hence, catering to the right wing of the Tory party using anti-Union, anti-immigration, pro-Brexit rhetoric will allow him to reconquer the pro-Brexit former Labour heartlands in the North and Midlands of England without hurting their electoral appeal in the liberal urban centres.”

Schnyder questions the wisdom of this, pointing out that voters on the left might not vote for Labour, or vote at all. In a sense, Starmer is replicating the Blair approach of running from the centre-right, and assuming that everyone to the left will tag along with this. It has some logic, and worked for Blair, but in the process began to lose Labour its traditional votes in its Northern England heartlands, and ultimately completely eviscerated Labour in Scotland. It is an approach which really only consistently works in a wholly two-party system and in which turnout is high.

In any case, Starmer’s version of this strategy is a different one because, to put it at its most basic, rather than going to the centre-right to court centrist voters in the South of England, and hoping to keep traditionalist Labour northerners on board, his approach is to go to the centre-right to court traditionalist Labour northerners, and hoping to keep centrist Southerners on board. This clearly relates to the ways that Brexit has both revealed and created a much more complex political landscape than existed in, say, 1997, the year of the first Blair victory. Within that landscape, ‘the centre’ no longer sits on a left-right axis (perhaps it never really did) and possibly doesn’t even sit at a single location at all.

The risks of caution

It’s not at all clear that Labour strategizing has caught up with this new landscape, although it has been obvious for a while. Of course, it's entirely understandable that Starmer is cautious, though it is telling that a politician as astute as Blair, in his interview, whilst recognizing the reason for that caution, still believes it is politically viable to be bolder. I think that’s right, for two reasons. One is the importance of providing honest and mature political leadership, especially after the dishonesty and, often, infantilism of the last few years. That would be good in itself, and could be an electoral advantage in itself, but the second reason is more narrowly electoral.

For from a purely calculative perspective, Starmer’s excessive Brexit caution is actually rather incautious in a post-Brexit, post-left-right context, given how many Labour voters were remainers. If the opinion polls continue to give Labour a large lead going into the election, there will be a strong incentive for Labour remain voters, in all constituencies, to register their dissatisfaction by voting for robustly anti-Brexit parties, or by not voting at all. They will be emboldened to do so by the assumption that a Tory government is very unlikely. If they do so in sufficient numbers, then any Labour majority will be reduced or, possibly, not materialise at all. The fate of Theresa May in the 2017 election, which she began with such a commanding poll lead, provides a precedent.

However, if, as is more likely, the opinion polls are far closer by the time of the election than they are now, then there will also be a strong incentive for such Labour voters in marginal constituencies to vote for whichever of the more robustly anti-Brexit parties is best placed to win there, in the very real hope of a hung parliament in which a Labour minority administration could be forced to drop Starmer’s red lines. The election of 2010 provides a precedent of sorts. This scenario, in fact, is now the best hope the country has of addressing the failure of Brexit.

An unpredictable future

Having said all this, I’m not sure that there is much value in trying to second guess political events. It’s a fool’s game at the best of times but especially now, when the defining truth of post-Brexit politics is instability and unpredictability. That has been compounded by an almost unprecedented pandemic as well as and ever-more complex and unstable international polity, but both of those could have been accommodated within ‘normal’ politics. It is Brexit which lies at the core of the instability, rearranging political identities, and swallowing up and spitting out four very different Prime Ministers in six years. Sunak’s regime already seems flaky, with multiple rebellions on diverse issues, and a major blow-up over Brexit, perhaps in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, an ever-present possibility.

One way of understanding this ‘unleadability’ of the Tory Party is, as with the Labour Party’s agonizing over positioning, to see both as part of the same post-Brexit re-alignment of politics generally: what now constitutes a stable coalition of interests that can hold together a political party and provide it with a deliverable policy agenda and a sustainable electoral base? For this reason, it’s possible there will be an election earlier than expected but, for the same reason, it’s also possible that the result of the next election, whenever it comes, will resolve little, and the sense of crisis and instability will persist.

Regarding Brexit, specifically, that is particularly frustrating because there is actually the basis of a consensus to, at the very least, soften Brexit, and a growing impetus to re-join the EU across all social, age, and regional groups (though with much variation as to the extent of the growth), which has demographics on its side. Most people know one or both of these should happen, and most probably expect that one or both of them will eventually happen. But, for now, there seems no way of joining the dots between that and the political system we have. So we drift on, directionless, declining, decomposing. Something will shift, eventually, but when and what is impossible to know.

For now, our politics is incapable of responding to the failure of Brexit. Indeed, one of the many failures of Brexit is to have left us with a politics lacking that capacity.