Friday 27 January 2023

Untying Brexit's toxic knots

This week David Lammy, the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a major and important speech at Chatham House. It wasn’t by any means all about Brexit, but, even where it was not, it could be read as the outlines of a serious post-Brexit foreign policy. That is something which, along with many others, I’ve been arguing has been needed for quite some time.

Some of the direct references to Brexit included the need for pragmatism rather than “the ideological purity of the ERG” and the need to find “a new, settled place in Europe”, with practical, though still rather vague, steps being in the improvement of trading relationship and a new security pact with the EU. It also recognized the damage the Brexit process has done to Britain’s reputation especially for respecting the rule of law, making implicit and sometimes explicit reference to what has happened over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Like any such speech, there was a lot of aspirational rhetoric and, for sure, the proposals for closer ties with the EU will be far too limited for many erstwhile remainers. But, without claiming more for it than was there, it would be quite absurd to suggest that there is no difference between Tories and Labour on post-Brexit policy.

In particular, the speech contained, if nothing else, a clear commitment to re-normalise UK-EU relations, and also a recognition that these relations are about more than being trading partners. That matters, both as a counter to the quite unwarranted antagonism that Brexit Britain has shown the EU and to the too often transactional terms in which, even when a member, the UK approached the EU.

The significance of Lammy’s speech

However, I think its larger significance was in articulating, under the general theme of ‘Reconnecting Britain’, two core principles. One is the necessity and desirability of the interdependence of nations, and the other the inextricable linkage of, and therefore need for coherence between, foreign and domestic policy and politics.

Whilst these are both quite abstract, high-level notions, they do go the heart of the collateral or contingent damage that Brexit has done. What I mean by that is that whilst the central damage of Brexit is Brexit itself, in the literal sense of leaving the EU, and can’t be significantly fixed without reversing Brexit, or at least hard Brexit, there are additional damages which came from the way Brexit was sold and enacted. Not only can these potentially be undone even without reversing (hard) Brexit but doing so is likely to be a necessary step if (hard) Brexit is ever to be reversed.

Those additional damages relate most obviously to the Brexiter incomprehension and, worse, outright denial of the complex realities of international interdependence. But they are also, albeit in quite convoluted ways, to do with the incoherent relationship between domestic and foreign politics that Brexit initiated. And, in the final and most toxic twist, the worst damage has been to treat domestic attempts to recognize the reality of international interdependence as anti-democratic and treacherous.

In this post I’ll try to tease out the different strands of this, and show how they relate to the whole Brexit process including some of the most recent developments, in order to show why I think Lammy’s speech is an important and positive step.

The parochialism of Brexit

Many Brexiters react with outrage if it is suggested that their project is one of inward-looking ‘little Englandism’. On the contrary, they will insist, it is about recognizing horizons way beyond Europe, no longer being ‘shackled to the corpse’ of the EU, re-establishing Britain as a ‘sovereign equal’ amongst nations, ‘re-gaining our seat’ at the WTO, and reviving ‘Global Britain’. Their preferred self-description as ‘Brexiteers’, with its echoes of buccaneering exploration, is a testament to this supposedly outward-looking stance. Yet one of the most remarkable features of Brexit is how myopic, parochial, and domestically focussed it has been, and continues to be. That’s partly characterised by ignoring the outside world but even more by assuming, and even insisting, that the outside world conforms to the falsities and fantasies of Brexit.   

Thus throughout the Article 50 process far more time and energy were expended on internal negotiations than on those with the EU, and these internal negotiations weren’t even amongst the huge variety of interested parties within the UK, but only the factions of the Tory Party. In particular, they were primarily about what the ERG wing of the party would accept. At the same time, whenever the EU made clear that, as was always obvious to anyone who knew anything about it, the Brexiters’ demands were unrealistic, this was denounced as ‘punishment’ for Brexit, as if ideas fermented within the Brexiter bubble about what the EU ‘ought’ to do (for example in the supposed interests of ‘German car makers’) had some kind of validity outside that bubble.

I mentioned in my last post the new book about the Brexit negotiations, written by Stefaan de Rynck, one of Michel Barnier’s senior aides. I haven’t read the book yet, but its pre-released preface, by Peter Foster – now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times but the Telegraph’s Europe Editor during the negotiations, and one of the finest journalists covering Brexit  – is revealing in itself. It notes the British government’s failure “to level with the electorate on the realities of life” outside the EU, and indicates how, associated with that, there was a pervasive lack of realism on the part of the government itself shown, for example, by the presentation of absurd and unworkable proposals to the EU negotiating team. It was very much a break with the previous, pragmatic and often effective way that the UK foreign policy machine had operated. But “in the grip of Brexit fever, all that savvy and know-how [of British statecraft] somehow went out of the window”, Foster writes.

The ’somehow’ is fairly easily explained. Politicians who believed in Brexit, or believed they had to act as if they did, had persuaded themselves of a series of fantasies, and dragooned civil servants into acting as if they could be made realities. Those civil servants who would not embrace the fantasies were side-lined or, effectively, forced out. The resignation, early on in the Brexit process, of Sir Ivan Rogers was both a key example and, as I suggested at the time, a harbinger of what was to come.

Those fantasies were multiple, but the principal ones were that it was possible to replicate or closely replicate the trading benefits of single market and customs union membership without being members of either, and that hard Brexit could be enacted without creating a border on one side or the other of Northern Ireland. From those were spawned multiple sub-fantasies about ‘technological solutions’ for the Irish border, the possibilities of GATT Article XXIV and numerous others.

Most damaging of all, having been sold to the leave-voting electorate, these fantasies became enshrined as the ‘will of the people’, as if, even if impossible in reality, anything ‘the people’ voted for must be turned into reality and, if it were not, democracy would have been betrayed. We are still living with the consequences of this. For our entire politics is still hamstrung by the implacable theology of a relatively small number of Brexit fanatics in politics and the media, and the diminishing but still very large section of the population that believes their fantasies and lies.

Thus, even now, entirely unsurprisingly, the ERG are sharpening their knives to attack the mooted “compromise” (£) which Sunak may do over the Northern Ireland Protocol as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’, with Boris Johnson lurking opportunistically in the background, ready to condemn it in pursuit of his own insatiable self-interest. At the same time, David Frost chunters malevolently (£) from the side-lines about ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ in the Protocol negotiations. Apparently he is unaware that if no deal is done there will still be a deal in place – which is surprising, since it is the one he negotiated.

An indifferent world

Meanwhile, the outside world, far from being impressed, oscillates between being indifferent, bewildered and bemused, not just by Brexit itself but the political chaos and instability it has unleashed in Britain. Far from blazing a trail for ‘freedom’, support for leaving the EU amongst other member states has dropped significantly since, and surely as a result of, the UK’s decision to do so.

But the UK is not just alone in wanting to leave the EU, it is isolated as a result of doing so. As a British business leader at Davos last week is reported as saying (£) “there was a real sense of a new reality dawning. We are not invited to the top table”. More generally, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it in his own Chatham House speech last December, “our global influence and capability, not just reputation, has been seriously undermined by political chaos and economic weakness since 2016”.

Many leave voters will simply be unaware of this, and are gulled by endless paeans to the ‘world-leading’ status of Brexit Britain. But leading Brexiters, who are not so unaware, dismiss it as the chatter of the ‘global Establishment’ and, in so doing, reveal the myopia beneath their ‘Global Britain’ sloganizing since, if it means anything, and actually even if it doesn’t, Global Britain can’t avoid engaging with the ‘global Establishment’ in some way.

Saying this isn’t to imply uncritical support for economic globalization and its institutions, which are in any case under multiple strains. It’s to point to the strategic inadequacy of ignoring economic regionalization and the complex geo-politics that go with it, something recognized in Lammy’s speech, and the danger of viewing those developments through the parochial lens of Brexit populism, as if they were invented by ‘global elites’ abroad and ‘the metropolitan elite’ at home to thwart the simple yeoman honesty of ‘the people’. It’s an inadequacy illustrated just this week by David Frost’s latest foray into political philosophy (£) where he propounds an idea of “nationhood” that, never mind being outdated, has never existed.

A cause and consequence of this parochialism is the way that the endless proliferation of pro-Brexit think tanks and lobby groups invariably involve the same couple of dozen politicians, academics and commentators, a cult-like hall of echo chambers that is either oblivious to, or dismissive of, external realities. They have certainly wielded great influence, domestically, but, again, it is dangerous and ultimately doomed, because the world beyond is not just indifferent to Brexiter fantasies but, when at risk of being affected by them, bites back.

The realities of sovereignty

That was most starkly illustrated by the fiasco of the Brexit ‘mini-budget’, with Brexiters like Patrick Minford simply unable to understand why traders in international financial markets didn’t endorse the ‘new reality’ of Brexit economics, a reality defined by the crackpot theories Minford and his small group of maverick economists have cooked up. A very small but hugely telling illustration of the thinking, at once naïve and grandiose, underpinning this Brexit hubris came from Telegraph columnist and Brexiter Tim Stanley. Bemoaning the power of ‘the markets’ to make or break government policy he plaintively tweeted that this ran counter to what Brexit was all about, namely “Sovereignty. Democracy. Whatever the people want they get”.

This inability to understand that ‘sovereignty’ doesn’t bestow untrammelled freedom is creating multiple problems for Brexit Britain. It is one thing to talk about sovereignty in this naïve way for domestic political purposes, but quite another to operationalise it internationally. For example, as Gerhard Schnyder astutely observes in his latest Brexit Impact Tracker blog, “while the US and EU may not care how much damage the Brits decide to inflict on themselves, the situation is different regarding NI [Northern Ireland]. NI is thus at least partially protected from the full blow of Westminster madness”.

That is a reminder that, as happened so often during the original Brexit negotiations, the delusions of the ERG and their allies, whilst shaping so much of domestic politics, were never able to trump the realities of Brexit. Hence their enduring fantasy that there is no need for any form of Irish border couldn’t, and will never, prevail over the fact that it was the inevitable consequence of hard Brexit. Hence, too, that for all their bombast of ‘holding all the cards’ and for all their fantasies about a trade deal that would effectively replicate single market membership, the reality in the end was the thin ‘zero tariffs’ trade deal.

That arose partly because removing non-tariff barriers would entail the kinds of regulatory interdependence that was incompatible with Brexiters’ notion of national sovereignty, partly because many of them, such as David Frost, simply denied the significance of non-tariff barriers, especially for services trade where they are the only barriers, and partly because they also don’t understand international supply chains. Taken together, this created the delusion that trade occurs in the form of finished goods moving once between countries, inhibited only by tariffs, or at least acting as if that were the case.

Beneath all that lay the negotiating reality that the EU was utterly indifferent to Brexiters’ beliefs about what it should or would do. The world didn’t work the way they believed it to do, and no amount of belief or bluster could change that. So, far from the great deal which Brexiters promised was there for the taking, and which Johnson pretended to have delivered, what was created was the bare bones deal we actually have.

In a somewhat similar way, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is currently playing to the domestic Brexiter gallery by insisting that there can be no significant liberalisation of immigration visas as part of a UK-India trade deal, falsely linking this with delivering Brexit by equating any liberalisation that might happen with freedom of movement. But the reality is that either she will backtrack on this or there will most likely be no trade deal, or a much more limited one. Either way, it is a further illustration of Brexiter myopia that trade policy, supposedly emblematic of Global Britain’s new Brexit freedoms, should be subordinated to the domestic politics of anti-immigration sentiment (it also, of course, illustrates the pervasive tensions of globalism and localism in the entire Brexit prospectus). Those same tensions are in evidence in the UK’s plan to join CPTPP.

It may seem as if, and as she claims it to be, Badenoch’s approach to trade deals marks a departure from that of doing quick deals on any terms, as happened with the Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Agreements that Liz Truss negotiated when Trade Secretary. But it is actually a variant of the same thing. Both are ways of using international trade policy not for international trade but for the domestic purpose of showing that Brexit is delivering ‘what the people voted for’ and, in the process, ignoring what has to be conceded, whether in terms of market access, product standards or immigration liberalisation, to obtain them.

In other words, they both maintain the Brexiter fantasy of sovereign independence by ignoring the realities of the limits and constraints to it. But the world doesn’t bend to Brexit, and can’t be monstered, as British politics has been, by the battering ram of ‘will of the people’ rhetoric. Hence, in trade policy as more generally, Brexit Britain exhibits the disconnect between domestic and international policy that Lammy identifies as needing rectification.

When truth becomes treachery

The last six years have been littered with examples of the same basic issue, but its ongoing salience can be illustrated by two news stories this week, both from Bloomberg. One discusses the recent collapse of Britishvolt, pointing to the way it illustrates the lack of realism of the Brexit “dream of independence in an interdependent world”. The other concerns the way that the UK is trapped between the two economic blocs of the EU and the US in their growing trade dispute over environmental subsidies. An outsider to both, all the British government can do is make representations that are unlikely to be heeded. Alone, and as in its Brexit negotiations with the EU, Britain is just too small to have much voice in what happens, for all that it may be deeply affected.

Again what is so dangerous for Britain is the internally-focused, cult-like quality that Brexiters have brought from their campaign to leave the EU and have now installed in government and political discourse. It’s not just that this has enfeebled Britain. It’s also that, reading the previous paragraph, they would undoubtedly sneer that these are just stories from Bloomberg, which ‘has always been part of the remain establishment’ (just as they would say of almost every media outlet save the Telegraph and GB News). No doubt, too, they would depict mentioning such stories as ‘talking the country down’. In other words, not only does Brexit do harm to Britain, it also renders discussion of that harm impossible. So whatever problems Brexit creates can’t be treated as problems to be solved, because even to identify them as problems is illegitimate.

In a similar way, the CBI, which this week pleaded with the government not to proceed with the “legislative chaos” of the widely criticised Retained EU Law Bill, is routinely dismissed by Brexiters as the remainer voice of the ‘big business elite’ (one peculiar byway of the Brexiter mindset is the ingrained fantasy that Brexit favours small businesses – in fact, they have been hardest hit by it). Iain Duncan Smith even linked the CBI to appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s. The same kind of treatment is meted out to businesses, thinks tanks, academics, civil servants or anyone else who raises concerns about the impact of Brexit, let alone about the wisdom of the entire project.

So this is the nasty little knot that Brexiters have created. It consists of the linkage of a denial of the reality of international interdependencies in foreign policy with a narrative of treachery and betrayal about domestic voices who insist on this reality. The consequence of that linkage is not just to make domestic politics toxic, and international relations both fractious and ineffective, but to make any viable domestic economic or industrial strategy impossible. For no such strategy can be built on lies and fantasies about national independence, or about how trade, regulation, science, agriculture, fishing, climate change mitigation, migration, education etc. actually work in reality.

A first step in the right direction

It’s because Lammy’s speech can be read as an attempt – perhaps the first high-profile attempt from an active politician there has been since Brexit – to untie that knot that I think it is an important speech, and is a cause for a degree of optimism. It is also consistent with the gradually emerging public view that Brexit has been a mistake and consequent growing support for closer relationships with the EU. Of course it still operates within the political constraints, both genuine and self-imposed, on Labour’s capacity to critique, let alone undo, Brexit. But, at the very least, it shows that within the Labour Party there is some serious thinking going on about post-Brexit Britain.

It's a Gordian knot that has been tied so tightly and comprehensively around the throat of the body politic that it can’t be slashed at a stroke. As I’m probably becoming quite boring in repeatedly saying, undoing the damage of Brexit is going to be a very long haul, a marathon not a sprint. But, by the same token, I don’t suppose many would accuse me of being prone to undue optimism. And I do think that the Lammy speech is a hopeful development. If it is still relatively timid in its critique of Brexit, that only shows how comprehensively Brexit has poisoned political discourse, making even timidity difficult, at least for those who aspire to govern. It’s certainly not the last step in the right direction but it may well be the first and, as the saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step.

Friday 20 January 2023

Strange days

Despite the two-week gap since my last post, Brexit developments have been relatively sparse. There is, as always, the endless drip of bad news stories and of new data on the damage of Brexit. In the former category is the final grisly demise of Britishvolt, once lauded as the shiny example of post-Brexit industrial strategy. It is now more readily understood as illustrating the total absence of such a strategy which, the CBI warned this week (£), is causing global investors to ‘shun’ Britain. The week before, Make UK gave a similar warning (£), blaming post-Brexit political instability.

In the latter category is a new report from the Centre for European Reform on the extent of the labour shortages Brexit has caused. Not only does this contribute to the now everyday experience of businesses being unable to provide services, for example in the hospitality sector, it also has adverse implications for economic growth and inflation. There’s also no doubt that this, and Brexit generally, is contributing to the burgeoning NHS crisis, according to a Nuffield Trust report (actually published just before Christmas, but I’ve only just become aware of it).

Meanwhile, the two main strands of Brexit politics, those of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the EU Retained Law Bill, drag on undramatically, yet with the capacity to unleash crisis and chaos in the near future. Both are dominated by the never-ending toxicity of the internal dynamics of the Tory Party.

Northern Ireland Protocol: will the ‘Brexit purity cult’ swallow a deal?

Thus talks about the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have continued, and the tone of very cautious optimism continues, most recently in a joint statement following Monday’s meeting between James Cleverley and Maros Sefcovic. It is reported in The Times (£) that the creation of a UK database giving the EU real-time information on goods moving to Northern Ireland has made the possibility of green and red trade traffic channels viable. But, although described as a “breakthrough” (£), assiduous readers of this blog will have known that this was in the offing over a month ago.

The same report explains that the UK has now given the go ahead to building permanent border facilities in Northern Ireland, but, again, that was covered on this blog two weeks ago. The report does, though, contain the amusing detail that these facilities may be called ‘huts’ rather than ‘border posts’ as a way of downplaying their significance to unionists and Brexiters. It’s true that within both these groups there are some who might, not entirely uncharitably, be described as intellectually challenged, but it seems somewhat unlikely that such semantics will fool even them.

Indeed, the core political question remains whether the unionists and, especially, the Tory Brexiters will accept any deal that may be done, especially on the issue of the role of the ECJ, and the answer to it is as uncertain as ever (£). One development has been Keir Starmer’s offer to provide the parliamentary support to get a deal agreed in the face of what he called the “Brexit purity cult which can never be satisfied”, though it seems almost inconceivable that Rishi Sunak would accept such an offer, or that doing so would overcome rather than exacerbate the divisions in his party, even though it could resolve the immediate issue of the NIP.

Starmer, no doubt, knows this and it’s fair to call his intervention “political mischief”. Yet it does also point to the way that the best long-term way of repairing the damage of Brexit lies with the side-lining of the small, but powerful and toxic, coterie of what is, indeed, the Brexit Ultra cult. Indeed, it is a very mild and minimalist version of the strategy which I recently suggested Labour might adopt on Brexit more generally.

Whilst current attention is on the prospects of a deal over the NIP, it’s important not to forget the origins of this mess in the entire Brexit project and process in general, as well as the specific mendacity of Boris Johnson in agreeing the Protocol in the first place. A significant reminder of that will come with the publication next week of Stefaan De Rynck’s book Inside the Deal. De Rynck was a senior aide to Michel Barnier throughout the negotiations and his account of the events leading to the NIP has been previewed by RTE’s Tony Connelly. Amongst much else, this shows that Johnson knowingly and explicitly accepted all of the provisions which he, and Brexiters who voted for it, now regard as unacceptable, including the role of the ECJ. As ever, dishonesty lies at the rotten core of Brexit.

Retained EU Law Bill: a prize for the ‘Brexit purity cult’?

The baleful influence of the ‘Brexit purity cult’ also lies behind the ongoing passage of the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, which passed unamended through the Commons this week, although is likely to face extensive opposition in the House of Lords. Widely regarded as an abomination, both in principle and in the grave practical dangers it poses, it has even been ‘red-rated’ by the government’s independent Regulatory Policy Committee because of the inadequacy of its Impact Assessment process. But it has become totemic to many of the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who, quite illegitimately, seeks to tie its passage to the outcome of the referendum (£) using all the tired old tropes of the obstructiveness of the ‘remainer Establishment’ to do so.

Yet, more interestingly, the REUL debate shows once again, and even now, that the Brexiters have no settled idea about what Brexit actually means. As I mentioned in my previous post, those who insisted it was all about parliamentary sovereignty ought to be alarmed by the REUL Bill which so blatantly undermines it. And so it has proved, with David Davis, no less, spearheading an unsuccessful rebellion against it on just those grounds. That may be remarkable in being the first time Davis has ever been right about anything to do with Brexit, but it shows the incoherence of the Brexit project, as well as the sheer extremism of Rees-Mogg and similar ‘Brexit Spartans’*.

Although the Davis rebellion failed, the REUL Bill also illustrates the ongoing unleadability of the Tory Party and Sunak’s vulnerability to its now numerous flanks and factions in almost every policy area. In this sense, his administration is the latest manifestation of the rolling political crisis the Brexit referendum unleashed. Indeed one of the reasons why so much in modern Britain seems not to ‘work’ properly must surely be the way that the administrative demands of Brexit, on the one hand, and the political chaos it has engendered, on the other, mean that much of the basic work of a functioning government has been neglected for seven years. The anticipated chaos the REUL Bill will cause when enacted can only prolong that.

This dysfunctionality was not diminished by the size of the Tory majority since 2019, since from the start, with the exception of the vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal, it proved to be highly brittle and fractious. In fact, both the majority and its brittleness are inextricably linked: the ‘get Brexit done’ coalition of voters and MPs which created the 2019 majority is inherently incoherent. This makes it impossible for any Tory Prime Minister to stick to their principles, a situation compounded by Sunak’s lack of any evident principles to stick to, since he displays neither Johnson’s blatant commitment to his own self-interest nor Truss’s naked ideological fervour.  

No doubt Sunak has a modest share of both those characteristics, but far more obvious is his plasticity – not in the sense of being malleable, but of being lacking in solidity or substance which, in turn, does make him plastic in the sense of being malleable in his decisions. Even his pitch of ‘pragmatism’ is shown to be bogus given the manifest lack of pragmatism of REUL. Thus, exactly as was the case under Johnson and Truss, it is simply impossible to be sure which way Sunak will bend both on the NIP and on what becomes of the REUL Bill, including what use is made of its powers when it passes. It may even be, as I’ve suggested before, that the one depends on the other – in other words that his decision to plough on with REUL is to soften the pill he knows he is going to have to try to get the Brexit Ultras to swallow over the NIP. Then again, it is equally possible that he may give in to them on both.

The death of Brexit?

One curious feature of the present political landscape is that, despite the Brexiters’ continuing throat grip on the government, self-confidence amongst their wider camp-followers in the media seems to have collapsed. That has been underway for a while, but was dramatically illustrated by Sherelle Jacobs’ recent Telegraph column (£), bemoaning that Brexit has become “unsalvageable” because of “the hash” the Tories have made of this.

At one level, this is boilerplate stuff about how true Brexit has been ‘betrayed’, and all would have been well if only it had been done ‘properly’. But the language is especially spicy, for example in saying that “Brexit has become the madwoman in the country’s attic”, and it comes from one of the most dogmatic of Brexit flag wavers. Indeed Jacobs even castigates “the Spartans” for fighting their “last heroic battle” over the REUL, saying that in doing so they fail to see “the big picture” and are pursuing divergence for its own sake in a way that will seem pointless to many voters. Similarly, since Jacobs sees delaying an NIP agreement as being useful to the EU who, she suggests, want to wait for a Labour government to get a ‘softer’ deal, then what does this say about the Spartans’ anticipated opposition to whatever deal Sunak may do?

The headline of Jacobs’ piece (‘Britain is going to rejoin the EU far sooner than anyone now imagines’) prompted some excitement, as it seemed to be a case of the devil quoting scripture, but there was actually little in the article to justify it. And, in fact, the most obvious significance of the REUL battle is that the Brexiters are using what may their last months in power to leave a ‘scorched earth’ of entrenched divergence from EU law so as to make future alignment, let alone re-joining either the single market or the EU, more difficult for a future government.

So Jacobs may be right in saying of the present situation that “this is how Brexit dies”, but Brexiter MPs are doing all they can to prolong its life even if they, like Jacobs, recognize its failure. If so, that makes their actions even more despicable.

So is re-joining in prospect?

Of course Brexit, in the literal sense of the UK not being a member of the EU, will not simply die. It will continue unless it is reversed, and as I argued at the end of last year that will be a marathon not a sprint. In brief, it would require a government to be elected with a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum, which almost certainly isn’t going to happen in 2024, so would be 2029 at the very earliest. Personally, I think that the entire British polity has been so scarred and traumatised by the 2016 referendum that it will be much longer than that before any government contemplates repeating it. Either way, if and when it happens, that referendum would have to be not just held but won by re-joiners.

Additionally the EU and all its members would need to have confidence that both the size of that win, and a changed political culture of the UK, indicated that a subsequent change of mind would not happen. And by a changed political culture I mean not just the marginalization of Brexiters, but a sustained and wholehearted commitment to the EU as an ideal. It couldn’t simply be, as it was for many who voted to stay in the EEC in 1975, based on some grudging, transactional acceptance of the evident economic costs of not belonging. A re-joining UK would need to clear a much higher bar in that respect than a new entrant, precisely because of Brexit having happened, which has been traumatic for the EU, too.

How (not) to win friends and influence people

If all this is to come to pass, it will require the creation and maintenance of a ‘big tent’ re-join movement over many years, perhaps even decades. From that point of view, it will be important not to alienate sympathetic allies. In my previous post I discussed an article by Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman which I felt had been unfairly treated by anti-Brexiters, especially given Fletcher’s long track record of critiquing Brexit, a treatment he subsequently described as “a ton of slurry [landing] on my head”.

To summarise very briefly, he argued ‘remainers’ should recognize that re-joining wasn’t on the agenda for a generation and in the meanwhile seek to contribute to a post-Brexit consensus. My criticism was that, whilst I agreed about re-join being a generation away, his consensus proposals were totally unrealistic. It’s relevant to what I’m about to write that he described this criticism as “well taken” and expressed with “civility”, showing that it is possible for like-minded people to disagree without rancour.

Without reprising the discussion, my point here is about the “ton of slurry” Fletcher received. It accords with my own observation and, to an extent, experience in recent months, in that there seems to be a seam of anti-Brexit sentiment which is every bit as judgemental and even vicious as some of the nastiest elements of the Brexit camp. No doubt there are earlier examples, but it first really caught my attention at the time of the P&O sackings last March, when I recorded on this blog that “it has been depressing to see so much disinformation about this coming from the ‘remain’ side, and the virulence with which some have responded to corrections to the false claim that Brexit is what made it possible for the P&O workers to be sacked in the manner that they were”.

I’ve subsequently experienced some of that virulence first-hand, especially from those who took umbrage at my explanation of why Freeports are not ‘Charter Cities’. Perhaps I have been lucky, or naïve, not to have come across this before. In 2018, Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times wrote that (£):

“Not being a Leaver, I had never really experienced the venom [of remainers] — until last week when I wrote a piece, which I won’t rehash here, doubting the case for a second referendum. As a liberal metropolitan media Remainer, I have got used to being regarded as an enemy of the people by Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail. But it came as a shock to find I am also an enemy of the people to people I would until recently have regarded as friends. My enemy’s enemy has turned out to be my enemy too. By not supporting a second referendum, I am apparently transformed into Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

It may be understandable that, in the highly charged atmosphere of 2018, Shrimsley got this reaction. But the political situation facing re-joiners now is very different to that facing remainers then. Then, there was the immediate possibility of avoiding Brexit, and a one-shot route to doing so, making dissent from it hard to stomach. Now, there is a long haul towards reversing it, requiring a different political approach.

A very minor illustration of the implications of that is provided by the way my agreement with Fletcher about re-joining the EU not being on the agenda for a generation attracted a series of snide and increasingly unpleasant tweets from the Oxford for Europe group (or, more accurately, whoever operates its Twitter account) which led me to block their account, something I would never have expected to find myself doing. At a personal level, it was hurtful, and cost me some lost sleep. That wasn’t because it was abusive or especially insulting – I’ve had much worse over the years, though almost invariably from leavers. But, just as Shrimsley described, that’s the nub of it: it was hurtful because it came from a group to which, in principle, I’m sympathetic and, indeed, to which I have given an invited talk in the past.

But my point isn’t to solicit sympathy (perhaps I am too thin-skinned) or to elicit support for my view of the likely timescale for re-joining (which may, of course, be wrong). Rather, it is that if a re-join campaign is to gain traction, whatever the timescale may be, it will need to come to encompass those who are currently hostile to it. That is unlikely to happen if its proponents conduct themselves in so vexatious a way as to alienate even those who are already receptive to it. In a similar way, little good can come of heaping “slurry” on the head of someone like Martin Fletcher or aiming “venom” at someone like Robert Shrimsley.

Strange days

It’s difficult at the moment to capture the Brexit developments in a single narrative arc. The quote from Antonio Gramsci that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” has become so over-used as to be clichéd, as well as ripped from its original context. But it captures something about the strange days we are living through, with Brexiters like Sherelle Jacobs talking of the death of Brexit, and public opinion clearly showing that Brexit is regarded as a mistake, yet no solution in prospect.

It has actually now also become clichéd to observe, invariably using, as Jacobs does, yet another cliché, that the failure of Brexit is ‘the elephant in the room’ of the vast majority of political and economic discussion. So, paradoxically, Brexit is both unsayable and yet its unsayability is constantly spoken of. It seems likely that these strange days will continue for quite some time to come. That, at least, seems to be the consensus of political experts and, as Brexit has shown us, we ignore experts at our peril. But Brexit has also taught us just how unpredictable politics can be.

Strange days, indeed.


*Rees-Mogg wasn’t, in fact, one of the original Brexit Spartans, defined as those who voted against May’s deal all three times (he voted for it the third time). In other Spartan news, Andrew Bridgen has lost the Tory whip for comparing the Covid vaccination programme (puzzlingly, something which usually, though dishonestly, Brexiters regard as a benefit of Brexit) to the Holocaust, whilst fellow-Spartan Suella Braverman refused to apologise to a Holocaust survivor for the ‘dehumanising language’ she uses to describe migrants. Other alumni include Andrew Rosindell, whose claims to fame include his failed attempt to get the Union flag on all new car number plates, and Owen Paterson, the disgraced and now former MP currently seeking redress for his downfall in the ECHR he once said the UK should “break free” from. Always a pleasure to see what the class of 2019 is up to.

Friday 6 January 2023

Another Brexit year begins

In terms of the big picture of Brexit, nothing has really changed since the post I wrote just before Christmas. The gist of it was that until political leaders face the truth about Brexit nothing will be done to address its failings, which also carries the danger of a revival for Farage or a similar populist politician.

It’s an analysis which was echoed by John Harris of the Guardian this week, who went on to predict that this year “the gap between Brexit’s delusions and our everyday reality will become increasingly inescapable” and that both main parties will face the same problem of the impossibility of thinking “coherently about the UK’s long-term prospects when any truthful discussion of the present is off limits”.

As to what those prospects are, the Financial Times annual survey (£) of leading economists finds a clear majority expecting the UK to face the worst and longest recession of any G7 country. Brexit figures strongly amongst the reasons, and is certainly the one most obviously unique to the UK. The report on the survey quotes Professor Diane Coyle of Cambridge University as saying “the UK is in a structural hole, not a cyclical recession” and will continue to suffer “unless some sanity returns to our trade relations with Europe [and] until we have a government with an adequately long-term strategy it can get through parliament”.

Needless to say, the Brexiter diehards have a different analysis. The ineffably foolish David Frost (£) is bemused that “somehow, we have allowed our exit from the EU to become defined as the problem not part of the solution to our problems”, as if it had happened by some strange chance, rather than the obvious failure of the Brexit project.

He shows a similar lack of insight in suggesting that part of the problem is “that we have a Remainer Chancellor: other countries’ financial establishments and investors take their cue about us from the views of the Chancellor and Treasury, and if they are not vigorous advocates of Brexit that makes a huge difference to international perceptions of us”.

He is apparently oblivious to the fact that the biggest damage to international investors’ perceptions of the UK occurred when Kwasi Kwarteng, a ‘vigorous advocate of Brexit’, delivered his ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget, which found much favour with Frost himself. Indeed the mini-budget wasn’t an anomaly but inseparable from the nature of the kind of post-Brexit Conservatism Frost champions, as the historian Robert Saunders argued in an excellent essay this week.

A post-Brexit consensus?

It's worth noting Frost’s description of Jeremy Hunt as a “Remainer Chancellor". In a similar way, Jacob Rees-Mogg this week (£) railed against “unelected remainers in the House of Lords” (as unelected as Frost, one might comment) for their anticipated opposition to the Retained EU Law Bill. I’ll come back to that Bill shortly, but this constant sneering at remainers explains the central problem with a proposal put forward recently by the New Statesman’s Martin Fletcher.

His suggestion is that leading ‘remainers’ should unequivocally drop as unrealistic all calls for a referendum on re-joining for at least a generation, and acknowledge at least the possibility of some benefits of Brexit. Then, Rishi Sunak could offer a broad-based, cross-party commission to explore “practical ways to make Brexit work better by, for example, lowering barriers to trade with the EU, making it easier for British professionals to work on the continent, and facilitating British participation in European science and research programmes”.

Fletcher has been a consistently interesting and acute writer about Brexit, and deserves a more serious and sympathetic hearing than he received, at least on social media, perhaps because of the somewhat provocative title of the piece, “it’s time for remainers to try and make Brexit work”, which of course he is unlikely to have written himself. He is also, in my opinion, right that re-joining the EU is not on the agenda for a generation, an argument also cogently made by David Allen Green this week. It’s of note that although a recent opinion poll found 65% support for another referendum, just 22% supported an immediate vote. Moreover, as I argued in last week’s post, the result of such a referendum can’t be assumed and, in another recent post, re-joining isn’t really viable from an EU perspective until it is clear that a future Tory government wouldn’t seek to reverse it again.

However, Fletcher is unrealistic to think that remainers acknowledging that re-joining isn’t in prospect will open the door to the kind of consensual post-Brexit planning he advocates. That’s clear just from the way Frost and Rees-Mogg disparage erstwhile remainers like Hunt, who has certainly fully accepted Brexit although, like Sunak, has committed the sin of admitting it has some costs. For them, such a consensus could only mean ‘betraying’ Brexit, and even the limited realism of acknowledging any costs is heresy. Nor are they remotely interested in “practical ways to make Brexit work better” which, to them, just means diluting or softening Brexit. And, in a sense, they are right, because the harder Brexit is, the less practical it is, and the more practical it is, the softer it becomes.

This problem is not solved but exacerbated if, as spelt out in Fletcher’s follow-up article, “more extreme figures” on both sides are excluded from the hypothetical Commission. For it is hard to think of a single high-profile Brexiter who would accept the kind of ‘practical solutions’ Fletcher envisages it coming up with. That is precisely why they haven’t been adopted. So the idea that simply excluding them in order to create a rapprochement based on practicalities is, itself, impractical. It certainly wouldn’t put an end to the bitter divisions of Brexit, which is Fletcher’s main, and admirable, aim. It would simply provide a new focus for them.

The idea that remainers should ‘get behind’ or at least ‘move on from’ Brexit isn’t a new one, of course. It has been around in various forms since the referendum. So, too, has the implication that remainer intransigence has precluded a ‘consensual’ approach to Brexit. Yet the reasons why such ideas are both unrealistic and inaccurate have scarcely changed since I first discussed them in October 2016 (that post also accurately predicted that the bitterness of divisions would endure and deepen as Brexit became a reality).

Amongst the reasons discussed in it was the fact that, by then, Theresa May’s conduct had squandered any possibility of a ‘big tent’ process of the sort Fletcher advocates. But that possibility was very small anyway, because of the nature of the Tory Party and of the Brexit Ultras within and outside it. That is even more the case now, and explains why Fletcher’s proposals can already be seen to be unworkable. For what he describes as the path remainers should follow is effectively exactly the position which the Labour Party has adopted (and even the LibDems are not calling for re-joining). Yet that hasn’t prompted Sunak to respond in the way Fletcher suggests it would enable, and it is inconceivable that it will. The reason is obvious. Sunak, or any other Tory leader, would be ripped apart by his own party were he to try it.

The Retained EU Law Bill: pragmatism or ideology?

Many of the difficulties with Fletcher’s proposals are illustrated by the current row within the Tory Party about the Retained EU Law Bill. If passed in its current form, originally devised by Rees-Mogg, it would mean that all such law would automatically lapse by, in the main, the end of 2023, unless explicitly retained in UK law after review, or made subject to a longer sunsetting period. There are several issues at stake here.

Administrative chaos? Very possibly

One, which is purely practical, is the huge administrative burden of reviewing the entirety of retained EU law within this timeframe, and the potential problem of mistakes or oversights leading to massive legal confusion for individuals, businesses, and other bodies.

But such practical objections are derided by Brexiters as ‘remainer’ foot-dragging and anti-Brexit resistance, providing a ready illustration of why the Fletcher proposal is a non-starter. Their insistence that the Bill must be pursued replicates exactly the problem that has dogged Brexit from the outset, with Brexiters repeatedly positioning anything that challenges the ‘simplism’ of their beliefs as sabotage, which explains, in particular, the bitter deterioration of relations between Brexiter politicians and civil servants since 2016.

Indeed Rees-Mogg again (£) provides an example in implicitly referring to civil servants raising the practical problems of the Bill as “whingeing from life’s eternal hand-wringers”. Like Frost, he has learned nothing from the mini-budget which provided a paradigmatic example of the disaster that can follow the side-lining of the civil service, and expertise in general, in favour of Brexiter ‘true belief’.

That same mind-set informs the Brexiters’ Jacobin-like contempt for constitutional convention, most evident in the 2019 Prorogation. That is present in a particularly pernicious aspect of the Bill, namely the extent to which it gives Ministers, rather than Parliament, the power to decide which regulations might be scrapped. That this is pernicious should be as clear to leavers as to remainers, since it continues the Executive power-grab that has been a feature of Brexit, despite its promise to ‘restore parliamentary sovereignty’ (this also, by the way, makes Keir Starmer’s bid to pinch the ‘taking back control’ slogan a smart one).

A key test of Sunak’s much-vaunted pragmatism, and of his political control over the Brexit Ultras in his party, will be whether he proceeds with the Bill and, if so, with its currently planned timeframe. It will also be a test of whether he will continue the ‘Brexity’ disdain for the conventions of parliamentary democracy. There are contradictory rumours about what he intends, but at least he has now ruled out another stupid and impractical plan (£), also devised by Rees-Mogg, to set departmental ‘red tape budgets’.

A bonfire of rights and regulations? Probably not

The other main aspect of the Retained EU Law Bill is not so much practical as ideological. In principle, it could mean whole swathes of EU-derived employment rights, most notably working time regulations including the 48-hour working week, minimum rest periods, and annual paid leave entitlements, being scrapped. The same is possible for environmental standards, including regulation of pollution and of food standards.

However, despite some of the wilder rumours circulating on social media, the passage of the Bill doesn’t in itself mean these diminishments of regulatory protections would happen, because the government could decide to retain the existing regulations, or to extend the sunsetting period before they lapsed. But will that happen? Clearly there are many Brexiters who want these rights to end, and see that as a major benefit of Brexit. It would deliver the ‘Britannia Unchained’ Brexit they yearn for. Equally, there are many who are opposed to Brexit who are convinced that ‘this was what Brexit was about all along’.

But, as always, it is more complicated than that because of the central flaw in Brexit, namely its many different meanings. That flaw has been inherited by the present government because it came to power on a similarly diverse coalition of Brexit-supporting voters. Many of these, and the MPs who represent them, will not support the wholesale scrapping of so many employment and environmental protections.

That situation is compounded by the multiple crises that the government now faces, and its deep unpopularity. It can hardly afford to preside over the potential administrative chaos the Bill will create, and it could hardly give an easier gift to the Labour opposition than to propose to shred workers’ rights and environmental standards.

There’s no cause for complacency, of course, and this is in every respect an indefensible and dangerous piece of legislation. But on the face of it Sunak would be crazy to attempt to use it in this way even if his party, not just in the form of the Red Wall MPs but many of those from the rural heartlands, as well as the House of Lords, would countenance it.

Even Rees-Mogg (£), whilst urging the quick passage of the Bill, does so on the basis that this would neuter the critique that the government has a “secret agenda” to remove these rights and standards in the run-up to the 2024 election. Not that it would entirely do so, since the suspicion would rightly remain that, were the Tories to win again, they would then use ministerial powers to do exactly that. So Rees-Mogg is probably being disingenuous as usual, but the point is that he recognizes that the current Tory government couldn’t get away with it.

Again, then, as so often throughout Brexit, what will happen with the Bill comes down to the schismatic internal politics of the Tory Party. That bleeds through to the other major current Brexit issue, the Northern Ireland Protocol. The two are potentially linked, since denying Brexiters what they call the ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ might be more or less difficult depending what they are or are not asked to accept as regards a deal on the Protocol.

The endless Northern Ireland Protocol saga: an end in sight?

There are several signs that such a deal is in the offing, and continued pressure from the United States for something to be achieved by April, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, under threat of Joe Biden pulling out of a planned visit to the UK. That would be symbolically damaging, and betoken a more general frostiness in UK-US relations, and add to the sense of post-Brexit Britain’s diminished international standing.

One indication of progress that was little commented on, at least outside Northern Ireland, came with the quiet confirmation by a government minister during the holiday period that permanent border facilities will need to be built at Northern Ireland’s ports. It has long been accepted that these will be necessary, even under the UK’s proposals for revising the Protocol, but the failure to actually build them (rather than the temporary facilities) has been regarded by the EU as a sign of UK bad faith. So it is at least a straw in the wind.

More high profile were the comments of Leo Varadkar, now once again the Irish Taoiseach, indicating that both Ireland and the EU saw the possibility of a more flexible implementation of the Protocol, and acknowledging both the concerns of Northern Irish unionists and “mistakes” on all sides in the construction of the original Protocol.

It’s important to understand that there isn’t anything in this which is new in substance. It certainly doesn’t imply an acceptance of the hard-line Brexiter and Unionist positions whereby there is no role for the ECJ and no difference at all between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in their goods trading relationships with the EU. To do so would be to entirely destroy the Protocol and the EU could never agree to that, a point implicitly made by the German Foreign Minister this week in her reference to finding a pragmatic solution “on the basis of existing agreements”.

But Varadkar’s comments do have a political significance. I read it as part of an attempt to give both the UK government and Unionists a ‘ladder to climb down’, so as to be able to claim substantial ‘concessions’ from the EU, even if these turn out to be little more than what has been on offer for many months. Will that happen? Before Christmas, Charles Grant, the well-connected and well-informed Director of the Centre for European Reform, wrote an intriguing Twitter thread suggesting it might.

Continuing DUP opposition is likely to be ignored, his sources suggest, although an equally credible report from the Financial Times this week (£) suggests that DUP support is a primary consideration for the UK government. Personally, I think Grant’s account is more plausible, given recent history. For the DUP itself, the dynamic is somewhat similar to that faced by Sunak. If they oppose a Protocol deal by refusing to participate in the power-sharing institutions they will continue to add a Brexit crisis to all the other crises in Northern Ireland, especially that of the NHS. If they don’t, they face the wrath of even more extreme unionists parties, their equivalent of the ERG. For now, there is just a hint, following Varadkar’s statement, that they may be amenable to compromise though, if so, it will probably come with, literally, a price tag for the Westminster government.

On the key UK political issue of ERG opposition, Grant reports that senior sources anticipate that this won’t be a problem if the deal is supported by Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker (both former ERG Chairs, and, now, NI Secretary and Minister, respectively), and this analysis is similar to the FT’s. I imagine that is true, though it bears saying in passing that it shows just how dysfunctional British politics has become that an issue with such massive repercussions, not just for Northern Ireland but for UK foreign policy and international reputation, should come down to what two extreme ideologues will accept.

But how likely is it that they will stay in line? That does not seem to me to be at all obvious, especially as regards Baker, who is a true Brexit fanatic. It’s easy to see him resigning again, like so many other Brexiters when confronted with the realities behind their fantasies. There is an additional question of whether, even if these two, and the ERG as a whole, accept a deal, they will regard it as permanently settled. After all, they supported the original Protocol before almost immediately insisting that it be re-written.

For Sunak, if he can get a deal by his party, the prize is clear. Resolving the running sore resulting from Boris Johnson’s irresponsible and dishonest conduct over the Protocol would be an achievement in itself, and would ease tensions with both the EU and the US. Perhaps more importantly, it would avoid an escalating conflict with the EU at a time when his government is beset with so many other crises. It would also deprive Labour of a major chunk of its minimalist post-Brexit policy offering to the electorate, that of resolving the Protocol.

Most of the political dynamics of this have been the same since the first rumblings, in early 2021, that the UK would renege on the Protocol. But for Sunak there is at least one significant difference. Lurking in the background is Boris Johnson with, reportedly, ambitions to regain the premiership (£). It seems an absurdity, but then post-Brexit Britain is absurd. It’s certainly further evidence of Johnson’s grotesque ego and malign influence.

Be that as it may, it would clearly be to Johnson’s advantage to agitate against any deal on the Protocol, and any retreat on the EU Retained Law Bill, as ‘betrayals of Brexit’. Of course, both would be in the national interest, but it would hardly be excessively cynical to say that this would not weigh heavily as a factor in Johnson’s mind, nor especially uncharitable to suspect it would not even occur to him that it was a factor to be considered at all.


And so we limp on into another year of Brexit, the evidence of its failure and unpopularity mounting, but our politics too dysfunctional to admit, still less to address, that failure.

Amongst David Frost’s many ludicrous characteristics is his pompous belief that he is some kind of political philosopher. It is all the more ludicrous since his sole and invariable point of reference is the Eighteenth Century ultra-Conservative Edmund Burke, from whom Frost derives the fatuous notion of sovereignty that did so much damage in his negotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. And Frost is not alone: the same cartoonish concept of sovereignty informs the current push from some Brexiter commentators (£) for an extreme, maximalist, approach to the use of the powers proposed by the Retained EU Law Bill.

In his latest column, Frost quotes Burke at length, declaiming that:

“The words of the great Tory political philosopher Edmund Burke from 1775 ring all too uncomfortably true today:

‘A nation may slide down fair and softly from the highest point of grandeur and prosperity to the lowest state of imbecility and meanness, without anyone marking a particular period in this declension; without asking a question about it, or in the least speculating on any of the innumerable acts which have stolen in this silent and insensible revolution. Every event so prepares the subsequent, that when it arrives, it produces no surprise nor any extraordinary alarm. I am certain that if pains, and great and immediate pains, are not taken to prevent it, such must be the fate of this Country.’”

It evidently does not occur to Frost that anyone paying attention has marked “a particular period in this declension” of the nation. It began on 23 June 2016. And endless questions have been raised about the “acts which have stolen in this silent and insensible revolution”, of which the most pressing is how on earth do we escape this godawful mess that Frost and his many cronies have inflicted upon this country.

Michael Fletcher’s articles include the plaintive lament that “we can’t carry on like this indefinitely, with the two halves of the country pulling in completely opposite directions and scarcely talking to each other”. I sense and can identify with the despair and distress that lies behind those words. And perhaps – hopefully – it is true that it can’t continue indefinitely, but, for the time being, we will have to live with it. The key to ending the impasse is, alas, held, as it always has been, by Brexiters like Frost.


Please note that there will be no post next Friday, so I expect the next one to be on 20 January 2023.