Friday 24 February 2023

Sunak's Protocol no-show is entangled in Brexit lies

Two weeks ago I posted about the ongoing schism between ‘Brexitists’ and ‘Traditionalists’ within British Conservatism. Then, last week, I wrote about the battle for the post-Brexit polity in terms of whether a scenario of ‘rapprochement’ with the EU will emerge, or one of a constant ‘repetition’ of antagonism towards the EU. Clearly these two things are intimately related, especially whilst the Conservatives are in government. 

In both posts, I made the obvious point that a key moment in all these issues was approaching, in the form of a possible deal over the operation and application of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). That moment has now arrived in that, although the anticipated announcement of that deal this week didn’t happen, the pre-announcement politics have become intense.

It seems certain an agreement won’t be unveiled until at least next week, and what then happens will have potentially major implications for the country, UK-EU post-Brexit relations, the Tory Party and Rishi Sunak’s premiership. The implications are no less great if, after all the indications of an imminent resolution, Sunak suddenly announces that he hasn’t been able to reach a deal. And he surely can’t continue much longer without doing one or the other.

In the meantime, this provides an opportunity to take stock of where we are now, how we got here, and what may happen next. As ever with Brexit, it’s a complicated story.

Where are we now?

Last Friday it was reported (£) that Sunak “appears determined to take on Tory Eurosceptics by striking a compromise with Brussels”. On Sunday the story was (£) that Sunak was ‘pausing’ the deal because of ERG and DUP opposition, but by Monday we were told he was ‘pressing ahead’ despite this opposition which, on Tuesday, he was “relaxed” about. Such contradictory reports have continued all week, under cover of repeated claims from the government that there is ongoing “intensive work” with the EU. But Tony Connelly, RTE’s invariably reliable Europe Editor, tweeted that, but for a few loose ends, the substance of the talks had finished last weekend. So it really does come down to Sunak’s domestic political management now, which is unfortunate given that, in Anand Menon’s words, he is “truly awful” at politics.

It’s not clear what he is waiting for, since it is unlikely that there is much else he can do to satisfy his anticipated opponents if they stick to their maximalist demands. Perhaps some haggling might buy off the DUP, but there is no public sign that is in prospect. Nor is there any sign of the ERG* withdrawing their opposition to anything that it’s likely Sunak could have negotiated with the EU, even if that includes the quite substantial concessions on setting VAT and other taxes and on state aid provisions which some reports have claimed.

It may be that Sunak is hoping that will change under the influence of Northern Ireland Secretary and former ERG Chair Chris Heaton-Harris, who is widely reported to be enthusiastically supporting (£) whatever has been agreed. That hope would be further raised if Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, another ex-Chair of the ERG, endorsed the agreement but, conversely, if rumours he may resign over the agreement come true that would surely boost a rebellion.

It's also not at this point clear whether there will be a parliamentary vote on any deal. There is no legal requirement for one. Although in response to Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday Sunak said that Parliament would be able “to express its views”, that could be interpreted either way. But, even if none were proposed by the government, the ERG might find a way to engineer a vote. If so, the government would win with Labour support, which itself would be damaging to Sunak.

It’s also possible that Labour (or perhaps the SNP) could table an Opposition day debate, not with a view to defeating the government but exposing Tory divisions. It was certainly telling that Starmer used all six of his PMQs to ask about the Protocol, given his habitual reticence on anything Brexit-related. But this is one Brexit area where Labour feels on safe ground and, indeed, Sunak’s rather weedy attempts to dismiss Starmer’s approach as rooted in opposition to Brexit and a willingness to “surrender” to the EU hardly made sense given that he supports Sunak’s policy.

But, vote or no vote, if the ERG decide to exact revenge on Sunak they have plenty of ways of doing so. There are already threats of ministerial resignations (£), and with Boris Johnson stirring the pot and the strong possibility of poor results in the May local elections, who would bet against yet another Tory leader being toppled, ludicrous as that would be?

How did we get here? A very brief history of dishonesty

It’s easy to imagine that some in the general public hearing news reports about the NIP this week are puzzled. Surely Brexit was ‘done’ some time ago, and all the parliamentary rows about it a thing of the past? After all, that was exactly what voters were told would happen if Johnson won the 2019 General Election. But, of course, it was a lie, and it was a lie that grew from a series of earlier lies and led to countless more.

Those lies started before the Referendum, when Johnson and others insisted that a vote to leave the EU would have no implications for the Irish border, or for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the associated peace process. In doing so, they dismissed or ignored explicit warnings to the contrary. This still lies at the heart of some Brexiters’ opposition to the NIP: they don’t believe any need for it exists.

This isn’t the place to reprise all the twists and turns of the search for magical ‘alternative arrangements’ which would square the circle of a border being unavoidable but there being no place where a border would be politically acceptable. Such arrangements were never found, and even Shanker Singham, the Brexiters’ go-to trade expert, who chaired the Alternative Arrangements Commission, recognized that on the core issue of Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) regulations there is no alternative other than for Northern Ireland to follow the same rules as Ireland (and therefore the EU). Yet, extraordinarily, this week Brexiter Bernard Jenkin was again floating ‘alternative arrangements’ for an Irish land border as the solution.

In due course Theresa May came up with the solution of the backstop, which the Brexiters rejected as they claimed it would mean the UK remaining in a permanent customs territory with the EU. It most likely would have done, although in principle it would only exist ‘unless or until’ alternative arrangements were in place. That this didn’t satisfy the Brexiters demonstrated that they knew that their claims about the feasibility of alternative arrangements were also lies.

So Johnson came up with ‘the front stop’, the basis of the NIP, which created an Irish Sea border. But he lied about that, too, denying that it meant such a border. It seems likely that he also lied by telling ERG MPs that the arrangement was only temporary (see also revelations made by Dominic Cummings). Johnson then sold it as the oven ready deal to voters, and the Brexiters – Tory MPs and Tory and Brexit Party MEPs – subsequently voted for it in both the UK and European Parliaments.

Ever since, there has been a torrent of lies about it, many of them told by David Frost who negotiated the Protocol apparently unburdened by the knowledge of just how awful it was. If only he were capable of such reticence now. These lies include that it was only agreed under duress because the ‘remainer parliament’ had deprived Johnson of the ‘leverage’ of ‘no deal Brexit’; that it was only ever intended to be temporary; that the consequences of it weren’t known; that the EU wasn’t expected to apply it too literally; that it has damaged the Northern Ireland economy.

Throughout all that, there has also been a torrent of legal and quasi-legal nonsense about how Article 16 could be used to get round the Protocol (it wouldn’t), about how Article 13.8 means the Protocol was not permanent (it doesn’t), about whether the Protocol violated the GFA (see below), and about how parliament has the sovereign right to over-ride international law (it doesn’t). Such claims come and go, are endlessly discredited, only to re-appear. At the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, almost since it came into force, the UK flouted its provisions by unilaterally extending several of the ’grace periods’ for implementation. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland itself, the DUP used the Protocol as a justification to collapse the power-sharing institutions.

None of this should be shrugged off as ancient history. This edifice of lies isn’t just what created the current mess, it is also what needs to be demolished if there is ever to be any prospect of genuine progress.

The Protocol and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement

Within all of the lies, one which has again featured prominently this week warrants more detailed discussion. Although the ERG and the DUP are advancing similar arguments against agreeing any changes to the NIP short of, effectively, scrapping it, the two are not the same and have different interests. The ERG showed, in backing Johnson’s deal, that they didn’t ultimately give tuppence about the unionist case against the Protocol. It suits them now to say that the DUP must be satisfied so that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive can be restored, just as it suits them to say that the NIP jeopardises the GFA. But that isn’t what they said at the time when Johnson explicitly stated in Parliament that it was “fully compatible” with the GFA.

As usual, there are numerous different strands to disentangle in all this. One is the persistent claim from the DUP, now taken up opportunistically by the ERG, that the NIP violates the principle of ‘cross-community consent’ in the GFA. But this principle doesn’t apply to making international treaties such as the NIP, and the Supreme Court has ruled that the Protocol doesn’t violate the Northern Ireland Act (the legislation which implemented the GFA in the UK). Perhaps even those of us lacking the legal eminence of the Supreme Court might have suspected that any case whose applicants included Ben Habib and Kate Hoey might have flaws. In particular, and amongst other things, its ruling rejected the claim that the Act required a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Protocol on the basis of it being a ‘constitutional change’. In any case, if that claim had any logical (let alone legal) force then it would surely apply to Brexit itself, which didn’t have majority support in Northern Ireland.

However, the invocation of the GFA is more political than legal. The Brexiters bitterly resent the extent to which the EU and Ireland successfully established that the GFA must be honoured by not creating a land border in Ireland. But they realised that this was a powerful legitimating argument and, in particular, one that had traction in the US, especially once Joe Biden came to power. So they co-opted it to bolster international support as well as to give them domestic cover. That started under Johnson, with, for example, the visit of the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to the US in September 2020 (just as footage emerged that he had not even read the GFA) and continued after Biden’s election with, for example, the visit of ‘special envoy’ Conor Burns last June.

Notably, this no longer seems to be a line which Sunak is pursuing and, indeed, it is precisely the fact that he seems to have accepted the basic architecture of the NIP which explains ERG and DUP suspicions of an imminent ‘sell-out’. But it is a line the ERG/DUP are still pushing hard, as for example in Iain Duncan Smith’s article in the Sunday Telegraph (£) this week. It was a particularly repellent piece in the way the way it invoked the killings during the Troubles, when Smith himself had been a soldier in Northern Ireland. For despite the emotional blackmail of his lament that “given so much sacrifice, I cannot understand why we would risk its demise now” he not only voted for the Protocol but derided those calling for lengthy debate or scrutiny of it.

Nor should it be forgotten that, before the referendum, the then Northern Ireland Secretary and ERG member Theresa Villiers said it was “highly irresponsible” even to mention the possible effect on peace in Northern Ireland. It strikes me that then was exactly the time when it was responsible to do so, and massively irresponsible to leave it until now to do so.

The problem isn’t the NIP, it’s Brexit itself

With that said, and whatever the legalities of the GFA, it’s undeniable that the NIP has caused a major political problem in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s refusal to participate in the power-sharing institutions may be unjustifiable, especially given the consent mechanism which, as things stand, would be satisfied since a majority of current MLAs support the Protocol, as, indeed, do the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Yet the political reality of the DUP’s stance can’t be ignored and, certainly, the unhappiness amongst many in the unionist community shouldn’t be ignored. That the DUP’s own support for Brexit has contributed to this situation is true, and an effective debating point, but it doesn’t affect that political reality. In this sense, although I disagree with it in many respects, Tom McTague’s article in UnHerd this week about the concerns of unionists has some validity.

But this, rather than the GFA narrowly conceived, reveals the real issue that John Major and Tony Blair warned about so forcibly, but to so little effect, before the Referendum. In Major’s words at the time, a vote to leave would mean “throwing all of the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw into the air”. He has been proved right. Brexit threw a huge rock into the delicately calibrated mechanisms and compromises of the entire peace process, the ground from which the institutional fruit of the GFA and the NI Assembly grew.

Moreover, once Brexit became defined as hard Brexit it created the infamous ‘Trilemma’ to which there is no solution (or, more accurately, no solutions other than abandoning hard Brexit, or Irish re-unification). The addition of the need to keep the Assembly operational being adopted as a requirement, not just of the DUP but of the UK government, has added a fourth leg to that to create what in the past I have called the ‘Quadrilemma’ (a usage which, alas, hasn’t caught on).

In short, the problem isn’t the Protocol, it’s Brexit itself. There is no solution, or certainly no good solution, and the Brexiters have signally failed to come up with one. For the most part they now airily say that ‘Mutual Enforcement’ is the answer (and yet another version of it has been wheeled out this week). But it is one that has been considered and found inoperable, principally, as with 'alternative arrangements’ in general, because of the complexity and density of Ireland-Northern Ireland supply chains, especially as regards agricultural goods and the enforcement of SPS regulations. It’s also somewhat ironic to continue to float it even as the UK as a whole fails to implement controls on EU imports risking, as the NFU warned again last week, a “disastrous” food scandal. It is precisely the risk of spreading animal diseases and consequent impacts on the food chain that is one of the biggest practical objections to Mutual Enforcement.

Mutual Enforcement is also, as even its proponents recognize, a solution that relies upon high trust between the UK and the EU, trust that the UK, and the Brexiters in particular, have squandered, not least by breaking the original agreement and by constant ‘hardball’ threats to disapply it. Indeed, even as they push this high-trust solution, the Brexiters, including Johnson and Truss, are still insisting (£) that it is vital to continue with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, with its threat of unilateral disapplication, to ‘put pressure’ on the EU. If Mutual Enforcement could ever have been a technically viable proposal the Brexiters have ensured that it is politically impossible.

So, in the absence of a better solution, some version of applying the existing Protocol is all that is achievable. Even within that framework a better version than what Sunak is likely to have agreed with the EU would be possible, were it not for the Brexiters’ intransigent refusal to accept the EU offer of dynamic alignment of SPS regulations, which would do much to make the Irish Sea border thinner. Yet, for all their professed concern about political stability in Northern Ireland, they still prize an abstract ideal of ‘sovereignty’ above it.

What happens now?

Much of this continues to go round and round the same old debates and issues of the last seven years. But the context of Sunak’s current dilemma is somewhat distinctive. This is for several reasons, the first of which is Sunak himself. His central pitch is of being a ‘pragmatist’ who is ‘economically competent’ and a ‘problem solver’ which means that, more than was the case for Johnson or Truss, failing to resolve the stand-off with the EU would be reputationally damaging for him. Conversely, and especially given the government’s unpopularity and the severe ongoing economic problems, actions that might lead ultimately to a trade war with the EU, and the opprobrium of the US, would hardly demonstrate such pragmatism or economic competence.

Equally, opponents of his putative deal are not in the same position they once were. The DUP risk the impatience, especially of younger and less sectarian voters, at the prospect of the endless suspension of the Assembly and, with that, the festering of many bread-and-butter political problems (though it’s true they also face pressure from the even more extreme unionist parties). Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish Ambassador to the EU, argues that a Protocol deal would actually be in the DUP’s best interests.

As for the ERG, they may well find that provoking a political and perhaps economic crisis over a problem the public was told had been solved, and one most of them care little about anyway, will not be at all popular. That’s all the more so given that most voters think Brexit was a mistake that has damaged the economy, and at a time of food shortages which are attributable in part to Brexit. The Brexit Ultras may even reflect that, egged on by Johnson for his own transparently self-interested reasons, they risk creating, or hastening, the implosion of the government and the Tory Party altogether.

At all events, it’s hard to see how Sunak can postpone things much longer. Apart from anything else, doing so isn’t cost-free. It takes up political time and energy, and saps the UK’s international reputation at a time when Ukraine, in particular, requires international cooperation. It leaves UK participation in Horizon Europe on hold. It leaves Northern Ireland in limbo. Perhaps worst of all, because it leaves open the ultimate possibility of trade sanctions from the EU, it has a dampening effect on investment, already chilled by Brexit itself. Conversely, as Bloomberg reported this week, reaching a sustainable deal would give a major boost to investment and economic growth.

To a slightly lesser extent, all of this also applies if the outcome is, as some Conservatives are suggesting, some kind of ‘fudge’ in which Sunak gets a deal but it is not accepted as an end-state, with Brexiters continuing to agitate for further changes and negotiations and Sunak at least indulging that possibility. One way he might do that would be to continue with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, albeit holding off making use of its powers, to persuade the ERG that it might be used in some further negotiation. Doing so would continue the pattern of Tory leaders trying to ‘manage’ the ERG when national, if not party, interest requires standing up to them robustly. I doubt he has the stomach for that, though.

Finally, apart from all the other costs of not reaching an agreement with the EU, capitulating to the ERG will not solve Sunak’s political problems either. The existing Protocol would still be in place and hence, presumably, so too would the DUP’s refusal to allow the Assembly to sit. Within the Tory Party, such capitulation would inflame the increasingly vociferous ‘pragmatist’ faction, who are threatening to vote down the NIP Bill if it continues its passage as, in this scenario, it surely would. (They would also presumably do so if, as a sop to the ERG, Sunak chose to continue with the Bill even after having done a deal.)

So, returning to the general themes with which I began, whatever Sunak does now it will not resolve the schism in Conservatism. Whether he over-rides the Ultras or capitulates to them it will continue, and may well intensify quickly. In terms of re-setting relations with the EU, over-riding the Ultras and doing a deal will certainly help, but less so if it is only seen as a temporary fix, as just described, or if accompanied by a ‘consolation prize’ in the form of, say, continuing at pace with the Retained EU Law Bill.

For now, as so often before, we are enduring the ‘will they, won’t they’ Theatre of the Absurd of Brexit. And, as always, the outcome hinges on the perpetual civil war within Conservatism and the perpetual dance around the deranged sensibilities and insufferable arrogance of the political grotesques who prosecute it.



*I continue to use the term ERG, in line with the media and for ease of exposition. But the actual membership of the ERG is reported to be dwindling, and the Brexit Ultra opposition to the NIP, and potentially to Sunak’s deal, within the Tory Party is much wider.

Friday 17 February 2023

The battle for Britain’s post-Brexit polity

In the book I wrote about Brexit I anticipated (pp. 275-278) two broad scenarios for how the immediate future would develop once the realities of Brexit began to be felt (the book itself ended with the end of the transition period). These scenarios weren’t about ‘staying out’ versus ‘re-joining’, though they might eventually have implications for that, but about different ways of ‘being out’.

Post-Brexit scenarios

In the first scenario, the bitter domestic debate and the corresponding antagonism towards the EU would gradually die down. The inescapable facts of geographical proximity and of economic and regulatory interdependence would normalize the UK-EU relationship, in that it would come to be viewed as a rather dull issue to be approached in pragmatic terms, and seen through the prism of UK strategic interests rather than Brexit per se. The first concrete outcome of that would come with making use of the provisions within the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to deepen it as regards both trade and security.

In the second scenario, the UK would be stuck in a perpetual Brexit ‘Groundhog Day’. The approach to relations with the EU would be one of permanent hostility, resentment and suspicion. And there would be a similar hostility to attempts from the supposed ‘Establishment’ and ‘liberal elite’ to improve those relations. The economic damage of Brexit would be blamed on ‘EU punishment’ rather than Brexit itself, and the Referendum vote would continue to be used as a supposed mandate for ever-greater divergence from the EU and even as a mandate for a “Brexit 2.0” of leaving the ECHR.

‘Scenario one’ might be called one of ‘rapprochement’ or perhaps ‘amelioration’, and ‘scenario two’ might be called one of ‘repetition’ or even ‘intensification’.

Elements of both of them have been on display this week. That is because we are now witnessing, on a daily basis, a battle that will determine which, if either, of these scenarios will prevail as the consensus view of the UK polity, broadly conceived.

It is a battle played out in contestations over the nature and extent of Brexit damage, over specific post-Brexit policies including the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Retained EU Law Bill, in all the less visible interchanges between interest groups and the government over post-Brexit funding schemes or regulatory regimes, and in increasingly vociferous denunciations of the ECHR, especially in the context of ‘the small boats crisis’.

The current state of play

By the ‘UK polity, broadly conceived’, I mean the nexus of political parties and political actors, civil society organizations, the commentariat and media, including social media, and public opinion. I stress that, because it is not, as some seem to think, simply about what the opinion polls say, important as that is. Public opinion is certainly a necessary condition in settling which scenario emerges, but it is not a sufficient one.

It is indeed the case that public opinion is settling towards the first scenario. Some 47% (and 30% of leave voters) want a closer relationship with the EU, though what is meant by ‘closer’ is not homogenous, with just 14% (and 18% of leave voters) wanting it to be more distant than at present. That is still not a majority, but it is a very strong lead. It is likely that political actors, in the sense of business groups, trade unions and numerous lobbying groups, are even more united in favouring scenario one, as evidenced for example by the many signatories to a letter calling on the government to abandon the Retained EU Law Bill (£).

However, the commentariat and media remain as split as ever, and scenario two still has enthusiastic support in, for example, the pages of the Telegraph, Mail and Express. There has been some change in the way that is expressed, though, with the tone becoming notably more defensive as the evidence of Brexit damage has mounted (£) and as commentators realize they are losing the battle of the narrative and, with it, public support.

As for the government, in line with my post last week it is hopelessly stuck. It’s clear that there are elements, including Rishi Sunak himself, which see the need for something like the first scenario on grounds of economic and political pragmatism. That is evident in numerous reports that Sunak wants a resolution on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the fix he is in is reflected by other reports saying he has been “sitting on” an agreed deal for the last week, presumably for fear of the Brexit Ultras’ reaction. That looks like the final gasp of what for a long time seems to have been a policy of hoping that ‘something will turn up’. It hasn’t, and it’s likely he’ll find out next week what that reaction will be: already their opposition is growing louder (£).

The same desire for rapprochement is also evident in the government’s decision not to continue to contest the legal challenge to its treatment of EU citizens with pre-settled status and, in a more general way, in the Bloomberg report this week that Sunak has asked senior ministers and officials to draw up plans for a less acrimonious relationship with the EU. But, again, the same report highlighted the risk of a backlash to any such plans from the Ultras. And it’s not even as if the government itself has a coherent approach to EU relations since, in other reports this week, there are plans to “snub” the EU Horizon science funding programme, itself delayed purely because of the Protocol row.

Overall, whilst there may be some impetus to scenario one under Sunak, and he may even make some headway, there is no possibility of it becoming the settled consensus under this government. On the other hand, all the other political parties, apart from the Reform Party and DUP, are supportive of, at the very least, scenario one and certainly opposed to scenario two. The Labour Party, in particular, has effectively made scenario one its policy. So it does seem likely that, assuming a Labour election win, the next government will seek to enact it.

However, it’s crucial to understand that this would be a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for it actually happening. The key point is the earlier point that what is at issue is a consensus across the UK polity. Such a consensus doesn’t mean total agreement, which is never going to happen anyway. Instead it means scenario one dominating, and support for scenario two becoming the province of marginal and fringe actors in politics and the media. In particular, creating a consensus around scenario one will need significant buy-in from at least some who supported Brexit as well as from those who opposed it.

The Ditchley Park meeting

From that point of view, reports of a “secret” meeting held at the end of last week at Ditchley Park to “discuss the failings of Brexit and how to remedy them in the national interest” was an interesting development. The meeting brought together Brexiters (including Tories Michael Gove, Michael Howard and Norman Lamont, and Labour’s Gisela Stuart who co-chaired Vote Leave) and erstwhile remainers (including Labour’s David Lammy and Peter Mandelson, and the Tory David Lidington), as well as several former civil servants and some business leaders.

I call it ‘interesting’ not because it is going to yield anything in the way of concrete consequences, but because it is a tiny example, and so far as I know the first of its kind, of what a wider and long-term process of consensus-building for scenario one would look like. It is also, as Martin Fletcher of the New Statesman observes, perhaps the first time that as prominent a Brexiter as Gove has come anywhere close to acknowledging the failures of Brexit. Not that it should be over-stated: Gove, unlike those Labour MPs who attended, did so without the knowledge or consent of his party leader.

Brexiter reactions

That such a consensus is very far from being in the offing is also shown by the “near-hysterical responses” to news of the meeting. The most predictable came from Nigel Farage, with his autonomic reflex moan that “the full sell-out of Brexit is underway”. The Brexiter press took the same approach (£). You have to wonder just how often something can be sold out before there ceases to be anything left to betray. Brexiters like Sherelle Jacobs in the Telegraph (£) perhaps recognize this, but she draws the equally ludicrous conclusion that “Brexit was finally condemned to death in the gilded splendour of Ditchley Park”!

The Mail was sufficiently infuriated to run three items about the meeting – a report, an editorial, and a comment article by Steven Glover. Inevitably, the main attacks were multiple versions of the line that this was “a cynical remainer plot to derail Brexit”, but it was a line which made little sense, precisely because of the presence of “apparently unapologetic leavers” (though note the implied question raised by the word ‘apparently’) like “sinuous” Michael Gove (again, note the language: no one can fault tabloid journalists on their capacity to insinuate meaning). Nor could it be squared with the fact that neither re-joining the EU nor re-joining the single market were on the agenda. Indeed, all that was on the agenda was precisely the kind of rapprochement that I have called ‘scenario one’.

The logic of some of the Mail’s secondary lines of attack was also rather hard to follow. Apparently the secret nature of the meeting was evidence of its sinister intent, but so too was the fact that the leak of it having been held had appeared in the “Europhile Observer”. So was the cunning plot to conceal the meeting’s existence or to reveal it? Equally, David Frost ponderously warning, like a lumpen schoolboy who has diligently memorized the textbook without understanding its meaning, that the “establishment want to unravel the deals we did in 2020” was at odds with his own perpetual insistence that the Protocol, which is a key part of those deals, is not sacrosanct and, indeed, should be ‘unravelled’.

Most splenetic of all was someone called Carol Malone on GB News, who delivered a diatribe about “the anti-democratic treacherous elites” who by meeting to discuss how to make Brexit work better had apparently “spat on democracy and spat on the British people”. Goodness knows how unhinged she would have been had the meeting been a discussion of how to abandon Brexit altogether.

‘Remainer’ reactions

Perhaps less predictable were the negative reactions* from some of those who are anti-Brexit, although Martin Fletcher, referred to earlier, gave a qualified positive response and others were willing to give it a very cautious welcome. But some were almost as suspicious of the secrecy as the Brexiters, though it’s surely obvious that this was precisely because of the sensitivity of holding such a meeting, a sensitivity amply demonstrated by the ferocious response to its disclosure. In any case, whilst it is true the meeting wasn’t publicized by Ditchley Park, it wasn’t quite the conspiratorial event some depict it to be. To my mind, the level of confidentiality was sensible rather than sinister although, of course, ultimately such conversations will have to be public if a consensus for scenario one is to be created.

Many comments were disdainful of the lack of representation from any party other than Tories and Labour, or from trade unions and lobby groups. That’s a reasonable criticism, and, again, ultimately consensus-building would need a broader base, but it’s not indefensible to have a narrow group for what was widely recognized to be an unprecedented meeting, and one which would seem to have been very exploratory in nature.

In particular, some of these comments about lack of inclusiveness seemed to assume that the meeting had some kind of official or semi-official status that would, or could, give rise to a new national ‘plan’. Perhaps that was encouraged by the misleading reporting of the meeting as being a ‘Summit’. At all events it is obviously nonsense: such a meeting has no power at all, and certainly isn’t the basis of some kind of cross-party government or policy initiative. For that reason, similar comments about the lack of EU involvement were wide of the mark. The entire significance of the meeting, such as it is, lies in it (conceivably) being a tiny first step towards, specifically, domestic consensus-building around a very modest agenda.

Other comments jeered at precisely that modesty, insisting that no discussion was worthwhile that did not have re-joining the EU, or at least the single market, on the agenda. This is almost the mirror-image of the Brexiters’ criticisms, in that whereas they falsely assert that this was the real agenda and it was an attempt to sell out leavers, the re-join critics dismiss it for not having this agenda and being an attempt to sell out remainers.

Re-joiners beware

Underlying this is what I am increasingly coming to see as almost as big a block to ‘scenario one’ as that of the Brexit Ultras – the insistence by some that re-joining is something that will be quickly and easily achieved. I don’t think that is so, for the reasons I discussed in a video this week as a guest of Federal Trust (again, the comments beneath are instructive). But, whether I am right or wrong, the key point is that if re-joining is going to happen in whatever timescale, a necessary condition for it will be the creation of scenario one rather than scenario two. If scenario two becomes dominant, then re-joining will most certainly not happen. If scenario one takes hold then re-joining is by no means assured, but it becomes possible.

The danger, then, is that if even the tiniest step taken towards scenario one is dismissed out-of-hand by re-joiners and dismissed out-of-hand by Brexiters, then it will never happen. By insisting that only their preferred perfect outcome is acceptable, re-joiners, unwittingly no doubt, aid Brexiters in their rejection of it. In turn this makes it easier for scenario two to emerge. I don’t mean by this that re-joiners should give up on campaigning for their preferred outcome, just that they make that outcome much harder to achieve if they insist that anything other than the near-immediate delivery of that outcome is pointless or even, in a kind of reversal of the standard Brexiter line, a ‘betrayal’.

Commenting on reactions to the Ditchley Park meeting from “annoyed Remainers and EU commentators”, Helene von Bismarck, an eminent German historian specializing in Britain’s international relations, wrote “Too little, too late, they say. I am impatient too, but seriously, where do you want to start? If nothing except a Time Machine transporting you back to 2015 will make you happy, the future is bleak”. She also, rightly, pointed out that the meeting doesn’t constitute any kind of a turning point but at least – or at best – part of a process of facing up to the realities of Brexit.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that the agenda of that meeting did, in itself, face those realities. Gerhard Schnyder, in his discussion of it on his latest Brexit Impact Tracker is also absolutely right to say that:

“… eventually, the country will have to come together and heal the deep wounds Brexit has inflicted on the British body politic. But not on any terms. The risk is that if ‘moving on’ happens without a proper analysis of why Brexit took place and why it was never going to work, the ideas that drove the Brexit fringe of the UK’s political sphere will continue to cast their long shadows over the inevitable process of softening hard Brexit.”

However, that is not going to happen in one moment of revelation. The ‘proper analysis’ already exists; the political issue is to establish it as a consensus, which means enrolling at least some committed and leading Brexiters through a repudiation of their entrenched beliefs. That will take time and patience.

One implication of this could just conceivably be imminent. Although it is unlikely, suppose that Sunak decided that the only way of securing the deal with the EU to revise the Protocol was to take up Keir Starmer’s offer of Labour support, or even just threaten to do so to bring his rebels into line? If so, re-joiners should resist the temptation to denounce Labour for ‘propping up’ Brexit and instead see it as a significant move towards creating scenario one through a cross-party agreement that marginalizes the Brexit Ultras and undermines their desire for scenario two.

A battle for high stakes

The stakes here are very high. Each of the scenarios I sketched has very different consequences. For scenario one, rapprochement and amelioration lead to ‘restoration’, by which I don’t, or don’t simply, mean eventual re-joining, but a thorough repudiation and marginalization of the entire populist or Brexitist project. For scenario two, repetition and intensification lead to ‘pariahdom’, meaning international isolation and domestic authoritarianism and immiseration. But it’s also possible that the current situation, in which the two scenarios are contested with neither becoming dominant, will become the permanent one. That scenario, which we could call ‘muddling along’, actually seems quite likely at the moment and if so would lead to permanent economic and geo-political decline, as well perpetual political and cultural strife.

How re-joiners decide to conduct themselves will be one, though clearly only one, of the factors in what now happens in terms of these post-Brexit scenarios. The extent of the damage of Brexit and how widely that damage is recognized is one of many others. So is the scale of the expected Tory defeat at the next election and how the Tory Party then responds. A Labour government will take us some way to scenario one, though won’t be enough to do so in itself, and will presumably improve the TCA (and, to pre-empt some objections, no, that doesn’t mean ‘cherry-picking’ and, no, it won’t come close to reversing the economic damage of Brexit).

Getting from that to any kind of re-joining (whether of EU or single market) will need a situation to develop where it is the settled ambition of both government and official opposition parties, rather as it was in the 1960s when (unsuccessful) applications to join the EU were made by both Conservative and Labour governments, though, post-Brexit, any such application would need to be preceded by a referendum. In other words, as then, and quite differently than was the case with Brexit, joining would become an established national strategy.

The British polity is currently nowhere near that point. And it may never get to that point (and that won’t be hastened but delayed if, as some think, it needs to be preceded by reforming the ‘first past the post system’, which would mean electing a government with such a policy and then holding, and winning, a referendum on that, before even getting to the question of re-joining).

The long road ahead

But if things are ever to get to that point it will start with baby steps like the Ditchley Park meeting (even to call that a baby step is to over-state the case), after which there could and would certainly need to be far more confident and significant strides. The Brexiters, even as their cause languishes in the opinion polls, will still have the power to keep trying to trip that process up. They can only be aided in that if re-joiners and erstwhile remainers jeer at and belittle every fledgling attempt to walk.

Of course it is absurd, infuriating, ludicrous that we should be in such a situation, and that it is not possible simply to say, as one might in everyday life, that a terrible mistake was made and that it should be put right as quickly as possible. But, politically, that isn’t possible because of the deep and toxic nature of Brexit and the bitter divisions that still exist over it, including over the very idea that it was a terrible mistake. For evidence of that, just look at the extraordinary anger even something as trivial as the Ditchley Park meeting provoked. The poison can’t just be sucked and spat out. The fever has to pass and, even then, a long recuperation will be needed.

In the time that takes, the costs of Brexit will rack up, higher and higher. That’s disastrous. But one of the many damages caused by Brexit is precisely the fact that even the process of reversing it entails huge costs.



*I am mainly referring here to reaction on social media. In line with my usual practice I don’t link to tweets unless they are from public figures, but if anyone doubts the veracity of my account of these reactions see, for example, some of the responses to my own tweet of the original report of the meeting.

Friday 10 February 2023

How Brexitism is eating Conservatism

It’s almost impossible to over-state the extent to which Brexit is bound up with the peculiarities, schisms, crises and in some parts almost madness of modern British Conservativism. In the 1970s and early 1980s opposition to British membership of what became the EU was the province of Bennites on the left and Powellite nationalists on the right. The inclusion of leaving the EEC in the Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto was seen as a key part of the wider political foolishness of what became called ‘the longest suicide note in history’. By the 1990s the mainstream Labour movement had entirely abandoned this Euroscepticism and it lived on only amongst a fairly small group of what we now call Lexiters.

But Conservatism embraced ever more virulent versions of it. Within the Tory Party, that grew from the 1992 Maastricht rebels, and became incubated as a ‘party within a party’ by the European Research Group (ERG) founded in 1993. Meanwhile, the Referendum Party and UKIP emerged, with the latter enduring to become a significant electoral force in votes and in European Parliamentary seats, if not in Westminster. David Cameron sought in vain to stop his party ‘banging on about Europe’, whilst describing UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”.

A tale of two parties

However, what is now far clearer than perhaps it was at the time is that UKIP developed not so much as a separate party but as a kind of pressure group within Conservatism as a whole. Thus Nigel Farage had started out as a Conservative Party member, leaving in protest at Maastricht but, ideologically, there was, and still is, little if any difference between him and the ERG. Indeed the ERG had multiple links with UKIP and other anti-EU groups and parties. There has also always been a lot of interchange at the level of grass roots party membership between the Conservatives and UKIP, and a certain amount between its MPs and MEPs.

As a pressure group, Farage and UKIP (and, later, the Brexit Party and, now, the Reform Party) were critical in getting Cameron’s Conservative Party to hold the 2016 referendum. In a similar way, during the Referendum, the official Vote Leave campaign and the unofficial Leave.EU campaign were, whilst at loggerheads in terms of personalities, effectively complementary. Thus Vote Leave was able to make the ‘respectable’ leave case whilst Leave.EU could run a more stridently populist and anti-immigration campaign. All the votes garnered counted equally, after all.

Then, in the 2019 General Election, Farage’s decision not to run candidates in Conservative-held seats, reversing his previous stance, helped to give Boris Johnson his majority to ‘get Brexit done’, and certainly ensured that his majority was as large as it was. That election also saw the purging of many Tory MPs who were, or were seen as, anti-Brexit, or were just of a more moderate bent than the Brexiters. Thus, all the way through the process that led to Brexit, there has been a kind of on-and-off alliance, albeit wearing the paradoxical clothes of rivalry, between chunks of the Tory Party and the Farage parties.

Why does any of this matter now? The answer is because it is not ancient history, and it’s not even just recent history: it continues to be a key dynamic in the politics of post-Brexit Britain and in particular in the battle within British Conservatism about what ‘true Conservatism’ is.

Brexitists and Traditionalists

Thus Conservatism now consists of a dominant group which is pro-Brexit, pro-low tax, pro-deregulation, lockdown-sceptic, net-zero-sceptic, anti-woke etc. It is tempting to call them libertarians, but they are only selectively that (e.g. they are lockdown sceptics but authoritarian about public protests and human rights generally). This group spans much of the Tory Party and all of the Reform Party, as well as their media cheerleaders. They might be called populists, Brexit Ultras (or perhaps just Ultras, which captures their extremism) or Brexitists, which captures their mind-set. They, of course, would describe themselves as ‘true Conservatives’ or simply ‘Conservatives’, but in doing so they deliberately ignore another kind of Conservative.

These other Conservatives are, whatever the Brexitists may think, certainly on the political right. They are not necessarily anti-Brexit and, even if some were remainers, few are now re-joiners. But they aren’t fanatical about Brexit, don’t position themselves as ‘anti-Establishment’, are pro-business, fiscally ‘orthodox’, rationalists, and support the rule of law, including international law. They might be called Traditionalists or Pragmatists. Their natural, but increasingly precarious, home is the Tory Party and they probably don’t exist at all in the Reform Party.

It's this context, rather than the personal idiosyncrasies that she certainly possesses, which explains Liz Truss’s attempt this week to re-habilitate herself: she is the aspirant leader of the Brexitists. And it is this which explains the divisions which Rishi Sunak faces over Brexit policy and other issues, because he doesn’t really belong to, and therefore isn’t really trusted by, either group. More generally, these things show post-Brexit politics is already changing the political right, and may create an even more profound transformation.

What Truss has learned: nothing

In his recent excellent essay on Liz Truss’s premiership, the historian Robert Saunders emphasises that she “did not fall into No. 10 from a spaceship, like some twin-set Mr Bean. She won the leadership because she best expressed what Conservatism has become”. It’s true that she had the taint of having supported remaining in the EU, but she readily shrugged off that skin.

Theresa May had done that too, but always seemed to have embraced Brexit only as a dutiful reality. That was genuine, and Brexiters were quite wrong to doubt it, but it was not enthusiastic. In that sense, for all that she employed many of the Brexitists’ tropes when Prime Minister, and certainly shared the Brexiter hostility to freedom of movement of people, she remained a Traditionalist. Truss, by contrast, already a fervent free-market, deregulatory ideologue, became a true convert, a “born-again Ultra” as I first described her when she was Foreign Secretary. And, in my discussion of her leadership bid, I suggested she was all the more zealous precisely because of the recency of her conversion.

That zealotry was the hallmark of the defining – and in effect only – act of her short administration, the infamous ‘mini-budget’. It was, in all but name, the Brexit budget, hailed as such by Brexiter commentators and politicians. Crucially this enthusiastic greeting came not just from within the Conservative Party but from across the Brexitists, including, notably, Nigel Farage. When the whole thing fell apart so spectacularly, that same alliance was united in ascribing its failure to the Establishment, remainers and, even, ‘left-wing’ market traders, and united in urging her not to change course.

Five months later, Truss’s Sunday Telegraph ‘essay’ (£) reprises these explanations. As an account of a political downfall, it must count as one of the least self-reflective and most complacent imaginable. It might be summed up as an assertion that if she had a flaw it was that she was right all along (Louis Ashworth of the Financial Times has provided a damning line-by-line analysis of the article). In this way it actually, if unintentionally, did explain what went wrong with her premiership, which was, indeed, her certainty of her rectitude against all reason and evidence.

Why learning nothing cements Truss’s Brexitist credentials

That lack of self-insight was widely, and rightly, mocked. However, even if her flaws are psychological their consequences, and the conclusions they lead her to, are distinctively political. Moreover, they are distinctively Brexitist, and from that perspective her refusal to recant her beliefs in the face of the evidence of what they led to is a strength rather than a flaw. As with Brexit itself, true belief is all. Hence her insistence that she was brought down by “the economic Establishment” and, with that, what Marina Hyde calls “the sheer nonsense victimhood” of Truss’s account. That victimhood is, as I’ve stressed so often on the blog, most recently last week, one of the central and defining threads of Brexitism.

A particularly revealing aspect of this ‘sheer nonsense’ is Truss’s complaint that she hadn’t been warned by officials of the risks of the mini-budget. That’s in part just another version of blaming the Establishment and of victimhood as well, but it inflects them in a particular way. It seems to suggest not just obstructionism from the civil service but also incompetence. In this way it is rather contradictory, positioning officialdom as at once all-powerful and at the same time totally ineffectual (the same contradiction is manifest in the way that the EU is depicted as both a powerful bully and a corpse on the point of collapse – such contradictions being one of characteristics of Ur-fascism identified by Umberto Eco).

In any case, it is totally indefensible as an account of the mini-budget for two reasons. One is that it hardly needed official advice to know the dangers to sterling and the bond market. They were being written about by huge swathes of commentators at the time, even including this lowly blog. They may not have identified the particular issue of what that would mean for pension funds, which Truss refers to specifically, but even if it is true that it didn’t figure in official advice (a big if), the collapse of the bond market was calamitous enough in itself to be the cause of her downfall according to former Chancellor George Osborne.

The second reason that blaming lack of advice is an indefensible excuse is that it is abundantly obvious, and another prime example of her Brexitism, that she side-lined the advice from civil servants and others precisely because she regarded it as coming from the ‘economic Establishment’. That was evident in the sacking of Treasury boss, Tom Scholar, in advance of the mini-budget, ignoring IFS forecasts, excluding the OBR, and her hostility to the Bank of England. Conversely, it was evident in her reliance on, and total infatuation with, the advice of the small group of pro-Brexit, radical free market think-tankers and economists associated with the IEA and similar groups, and especially Patrick Minford.

In a way, this is the story of Brexit as a whole, albeit written on a smaller canvas, with the warnings of civil servants and others dismissed and derided as ‘Project Fear’, ‘declinism’ or obstructionism and then, when things go horribly wrong, blame it on the very people whose warnings were ignored. It was on display this week in David Davis’s assertion that the civil service had done a “really crap job” of negotiating Brexit. Again it’s an account that shows precisely zero self-awareness but, again, its political importance lies in the underlying failure to accept that Brexit, like the mini-budget, foundered on realities. For even If it were true that civil servants were anti-Brexit and wanted to obstruct it, and even if they had been replaced wholesale with ‘true believers’, those realities would not have changed. For particular example, no official could have enacted Davis’s own claim that there was a way to have “the exact same benefits” of the single market and customs union without belonging to either. It was impossible.

Sunak’s inheritance

So in these various ways, Truss showed in her ‘rehabilitation essay’, just as she did in her premiership, the Brexitism that unites the Farageists outside the party and the dominant Brexitist strand within her own. Her capacity to do so might not have lasted had she stayed in power because it is highly likely that, sooner or later, it was a unity that would have fallen apart on the familiar rocks of ‘betrayal’ and ‘purity’, and schisms would have emerged.

In particular, had she survived in office she would have faced exactly the same issues as Boris Johnson would have over the Northern Ireland Protocol. If she did a deal, she would have been turned on by the Brexit Ultras within and outside the Tory Party. If she did not, she would have faced both the practical consequences and also, possibly, rebellion within her party if the outcome were to break international law by unilaterally disapplying the Protocol.

That last point is an important one, reflecting my argument that whilst Brexitism is in the ascendant within British Conservatism, a rump of traditionalism or pragmatism endures within the Conservative Party. And, rump though it is, it remains large enough to defeat the government, despite the ostensible size of its majority in the House of Commons.  

It is exactly this dynamic that Sunak now faces. Despite leading the Tory Party and despite being pro-Brexit, he is not regarded by the Brexitists as being a ‘true Brexiter’ or, by extension, a Brexitist. Instead, they regard him, much as they did Cameron, as a ‘socialist’ and a ‘globalist’. And, of course, he was not the choice of the party membership, largely for these reasons. Indeed, the main supposed quality that brought him to power was the ‘pragmatism’ which, to the Brexitists, is code for compromise and betrayal.

The most obvious flashpoint will, indeed, be over the Protocol. With rumours of an imminent deal growing, so too are the signs of a Brexiter rebellion (using, ironically given their constant denunciations of remainer parliamentary ‘chicanery’, the mechanism of a ‘prayer motion’ to force a debate on the construction of border posts). Reportedly as a means to head off such a rebellion, Sunak is floating the idea (£) of derogating from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) as “red meat” to satisfy them. And, indeed, this is one of the various things the ‘true Conservative’ axis yearns for.

Yet if Sunak thinks that any amount of red meat will ever satisfy them he hasn’t been paying attention: nothing will ever satisfy them. Beyond that lies the absurdity that if this is a plan to distract from doing a pragmatic deal on the Protocol, easing relations with the EU and the US, it would immediately provoke a new crisis in those relations since derogating from the ECHR would very likely violate the Good Friday Agreement.

At the same time, it would also be very likely to trigger the opposition of the Traditionalists, who are already making noises to that effect (£). This perhaps explains why there are contradictory briefings about the government’s intentions, with some reports saying that there are ‘no plans” to derogate. Overall, the effect is both an illustration of Sunak’s dilemma but also adds to it, since to one side it gives the message that he is not really committed to this policy and to the other that he might just pursue it anyway, thus alienating both. So he is now caught in a vice: his supposed pragmatism is anathema to the Brexitists, whilst the concessions he makes to the Brexitists mean that the Traditionalists suspect him of lacking the pragmatism which is one of their defining values.

A very similar situation obtains with the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL). It began, of course, under Truss’s premiership, and Sunak’s reported enthusiasm for it, and especially for the time frame for sunsetting EU laws, has waxed and waned. Nevertheless it was passed unamended in the Commons and is currently being debated in the House of Lords. That debate again shows the clear split – clearer in the Lords than the Commons – between these different kinds of Conservatism.

It is a split which isn’t so much, despite what Brexiters try to claim, between Brexiters and remainers as between Brexitists and Traditionalists. That distinction is well-captured by a phrase used by Michael Heseltine – a remainer, most certainly, but, equally certainly, a Conservative – in the Lords’ debate, when he spoke of the “Robespierrian fanaticism” of Brexitists like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and invoked Margaret Thatcher’s role in creating the single market. It’s that Jacobin fanaticism that marks the divide in modern Conservatism, for all that both lay claim to the mantle of Thatcherism. And it is in evidence not just in relation to specifically Brexit-related issues but also in relation to net zero, say, or even the debates about current legislation of public protests.

Is a fundamental re-alignment in prospect?

Sunak is certainly too weak to resolve any of this. It goes beyond anything that can be resolved by the usual tricks of balancing political factions, such as he showed this week in appointing the tandem act of Greg Hands and Lee Anderson as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Party. Indeed the immediate rows about Anderson’s support for the death penalty and his views of food banks simply served to demonstrate the depth of the Brexitist-Traditionalist schism.

But even a less weak and more accomplished leader would fare no better because, fundamentally, it isn’t soluble without a complete re-structuring of the political parties. To a large extent because of Brexit, what has emerged is a situation where the Tory Party is no longer contiguous with the dominant ideology of British Conservatism and can no longer act as a broad coalition of different factions.

I say ‘no longer’ because this isn’t an entirely new situation. It has echoes of the way that Thatcher herself presided over a party split between ‘wets’ and ‘dries’, and which gradually, if not entirely, marginalised the ‘wets’. But the differences between Brexitists and Traditionalists inside the current Tory Party are more existential. They don’t just rest on different apprehensions of Conservatism but on entirely different approaches to the conduct of political life, perhaps even to the meaning of political life.

Even if that distinction with previous splits is overstated, the other difference is that, now, there is an artificial split between the Tory Brexitists and the Reform Party Brexitists which has no analogue in the Thatcher years. In those years Tories may have been internally split in the move from its one nation tradition to Thatcher’s far more ideological and market-orientated approach. But there was no powerful, lurking external grouping of Thatcherites claiming to be the voice of ‘true Thatcherism’, and able to mobilise perhaps 15% of the electorate, mainly at the Tories’ expense, as she wrought those changes on her party. Nor, of course, was there an equivalent external grouping of the old-style, one nation wets. Plus she was in government and winning elections as she changed the party – a very different prospect from being in opposition after, perhaps, a heavy election defeat and after having been in power for over a decade.

Taken together, this suggests there is a logical case for a fundamental re-grouping to occur on the right of British politics assuming such an electoral defeat. There will certainly be an almighty battle at that point and, if my analysis is right, that is very likely to lead to one of two scenarios. The Brexitists might combine into one ‘new Conservative’ party, making the Reform Party redundant and routing the last remnants of Traditionalism to the wilderness, or in some cases to the LibDems or even Labour. Or, though perhaps less likely, at least in the immediate aftermath of electoral defeat, the Traditionalists might win out within the Tory Party, shedding the Brexitists to a Farage-type outfit.

The strange death of Conservative England?

In either scenario, everything would then depend on how voters responded, especially in the context of changing political demography which is likely to prove unfavourable to any configuration of Conservatism. Would enough of them back whichever of those parties emerged, making it a viable future government? Or would there be a permanent or near-permanent split on the right which would keep them out of power forever (unless the first past the post system is changed)?

If that last situation is the outcome, we might just be witnessing the start of what will come to be called ‘the strange death of Conservative England’. Admittedly this is not the first time this has been predicted, and the prediction has proved wrong. Even so it is hard to resist the thought, voiced this week by David Gauke, the former Tory Minister who in my terms would be a Traditionalist, that “Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party”. Many will not mourn that, though they may be dismayed by what replaces it.



I recognize the many difficulties with the Brexitist and Traditionalist framing of this post. For example, it might be said that a certain kind of ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ Tory traditionalist has much in common with, say, Lee Anderson who on my account is a Brexitist. Likewise those who fall within my use of ‘Traditionalist’ would include ‘Cameroonian’ Conservatives who sought a more diverse and less ‘nasty’ party, as well as old school grandees of an almost Macmillanite hue.

Nor does the Brexitist-Traditionalist distinction entirely map on to Brexit support. For example, Lord (Michael) Howard is certainly a Brexiter, but his opposition to the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill marks him out as a Traditionalist rather than a Brexitist. It would also, no doubt, be true that there are different factions within each of the categories of Brexitist and Traditionalist, as well as people (David Davis? Bill Cash?) who don’t sit very well within either, Sunak being a particularly important and interesting case, as discussed in this post to an extent. Even so, I think these terms, or something like them, capture the primary divide within current Conservatism.

There’s also a lot to be said about how Thatcherism relates to these categories and, perhaps, the way that she was able, for a while anyway, to yoke together a certain kind of populist and insurgent politics (somewhat akin to Brexitism) with a certain kind of pragmatism and respect for institutions (somewhat akin to Traditionalism). This partly explains why, as I mention in passing, both are able to iconise her, in the same way as both pro- and anti-Brexiters are able to invoke her.

But this is a blog post, not a PhD thesis!

Friday 3 February 2023

Three years of failure

This week saw the third anniversary of the UK’s departure from the EU, and with it a flurry of assessments and opinion polls. These broadly reflect what I have been recording for some time. The mounting evidence of, especially, economic damage coinciding as it does with the centrality of ‘the economy’ as a political issue has meant that Brexiters are gradually losing the battle for the narrative of whether Brexit has been a success or a failure.

Then and now

Because that has, indeed, happened gradually, it's worth standing back to see just how dramatic a loss that has been. On the day we left, the newspaper headlines included “Our Time Has Come” (The Sun), “A New Dawn For Britain” (Daily Mail) and “Yes We Did It!” (Daily Express). Yet the anniversary of this wonderful day of freedom and opportunity was not marked on the front pages of a single national newspaper, which instead carried stories of strikes, NHS chaos and the latest calamitous economic growth forecast from the IMF, predicting the UK to be the only major economy which will shrink this year.

Nor were crowds gathered in the city squares, town centres and village greens of Merrie England to celebrate the great liberation from the EU yoke. There was no bunting in the streets. No church bells rang. 

Some Brexiters did, it’s true, mark the date in fitting style. They did so by telling lies.

Most fittingly of all, they were led in this by Boris Johnson. For, as if in memory of those fabled lies of yore, such as ‘£350 million’ for the NHS and ‘Turkey is joining the EU’, he offered as ‘proof’ of the definitive triumph of Brexit the lie that it was what had enabled the early approval of the Covid vaccine. He then followed this up with the equally false claim that Brexit enabled the UK to give more robust support to Ukraine.

Whilst it is Johnson’s default mode to lie, whatever the topic may be, it is telling that in reaching for evidence of the success of Brexit there were no truthful examples available to him even if he were minded to tell the truth.

Thus even supposedly ‘reasonable’ Brexiters like the Times Iain Martin (£) trotted out the vaccine and Ukraine nonsense, whilst giving as the “main advantage” of Brexit that it has removed the possibility of using the EU as a “convenient bogeyman” to blame for all Britain’s ills. But that is a preposterous line of reasoning since, prior to Brexit, the only people doing so were the tiny handful of Eurosceptic fanatics who regarded the EU as such a bogeyman and, anyway, Brexit has now created a much larger number of people blaming the EU for ‘punishing’ Britain and blaming Brexit not being done ‘properly’, thus creating a new scapegoat.

Indeed, despite having left the EU, some Brexiters continue to be obsessed with it, and seek to justify Brexit not so much for any positive virtues they suppose it to have but just in terms of EU-bashing. A typical example of this tedious ‘whataboutery’ is Sunday Telegraph Editor  Allister Heath’s playground taunt (£) that “we are in a mess but their mess is even greater”. And in the Mail Daniel Johnson adds a dose of remainer-bashing in his childishly spiteful diatribe about the “gloating” of “privileged progressives who have time to work themselves into a Brexit tizz between sips of oat lattes” as a prelude to insisting that “it’s the EU that has failed the big tests” over the last three years.

It’s because of the absence of truthful or credible claims of Brexit benefits that pretty much all the Brexiters now rely on vague, and equally misleading, guff about ‘sovereignty’. But Brexit wasn’t sold to the public as an abstract proposition about sovereignty. To the extent it was sold on the basis of sovereignty at all, it was on promises of the great new future that this ‘taking back control’ would bring, and it has failed. At the very least it has failed to persuade the public that it has been a success, which is recognized by almost all Brexiters, albeit that they are responding in somewhat different ways.

The unholy Trinity of Brexit: denial, betrayal and victimhood

For example, all that is really acknowledged by Daniel Hannan, writing in the Washington Examiner, is that Brexit has lost the public relations battle - in other words, he fails to understand or to accept that this has happened because of the accumulating evidence of failure rather than despite its supposed success. “Britain is doing just fine”, he asserts on the basis of some cherry-picked statistics and the usual stale attempts to ascribe all Britain’s economic woes to Covid and the Ukraine War. Of course this is not just stale, but silly and dishonest: every serious analysis of the economic effects of Brexit tries to disentangle them from these other factors. But for Hannan it is just that “remainers” and “Europhiles”, who supposedly dominate the UK media, are determined to “discredit” Brexit. As for the similar commentary overseas, well, that he attributes to foreign analysts foolishly “falling for” British news reports.

However, most Brexiters have all but given up the absurd attempt to deny the substantive failure of Brexit. Instead, commentators like Camilla Tominey of the Sunday Telegraph (£) attribute its failure to the government not having unleashed the ‘potential’ of Brexit. Similarly, on the Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast (which supposedly features “views from beyond the bubble” but in fact is as hermetically sealed as a diver’s suit), the paper’s Allison Pearson admits that “there really isn’t much reason to rejoice” but insists that is because “the government is obstructing the Brexit that we thought we were getting”. Likewise, a string of anniversary articles in the Express lashed out at the “socialist Tories” who, according to Richard Tice, “utterly failed” to make proper use of Brexit and, according to Nigel Farage, have “delivered nothing short of” – wait for it – “a betrayal” of Brexit.

Meanwhile, also in the Express, Mark Francois huffed and puffed that anyone unhappy with Brexit should blame – wait for it again – the “ardent remainers” in parliament who delayed Brexit “night after night”. He has apparently forgotten that the delays and endless votes he is referring to were principally caused by him and his fellow ‘Spartans’ refusing to vote for Theresa May’s deal on the basis that it wasn’t ‘true Brexit’. So, in his terms, the parliamentary delays should surely be seen as having helped rather than hindered his cause*.

So as always, and as from the very beginning, betrayal and victimhood are the dominant themes. Brexiters still seem to be unable to grasp that they will always, and were always going to, feel betrayed. Or, more likely, as I’ve argued many times before, they actually want and need to feel betrayed. It’s almost exhausting to keep recording the apparently inexhaustible well of bellicose self-pity.

The Brexit arm-wrestling contest  

Since there’s absolutely nothing new in any of this, there’s little new to say about it. Although I often use the phrase ‘the battle for the narrative’, it is a misleading metaphor if it conjures up the image of a military campaign with offensives and counter-offensives, and evolving tactics and weaponry. It’s more like an arm-wrestling bout in being a continuous, grinding contest with little in the way of skill or innovation. In 2016, a complacent remain side was momentarily flipped over, and since then has gradually pushed back. The Brexit side is now straining, puce-faced, angry, but stubbornly determined to avoid the final humiliation of being completely discredited, and perhaps even vanquished. It’s an important contest, with much at stake, but as a spectator sport it’s less than riveting.

That said, this ongoing contestation is of interest simply because it is ongoing. Firstly, that shows the failure of Brexiters to convert their referendum victory into a stable consensus, or more accurately their refusal to even attempt to do so. Hannan expresses surprise and even bewilderment that the contest is still happening. It is “extraordinary”, he gasps, that “none of this is dying down”. Yet he and his fellow ideologues conspicuously fail to grasp why this is the case.

Central to that failure is that they still don’t understand the realities of what Brexit means. A particularly important example is that, like the ERG MPs, they still fail to understand why the Northern Ireland Protocol exists and why neither the EU nor, for that matter, the US are ever going to agree to abandon its core provisions. Underlying that is their refusal to understand why hard Brexit necessitated a border. So, just in that respect, let alone any others – deregulation, fishing quotas, gravity-defying trade patterns, border control, and all the other things they claim to have been bungled or compromised - there will never be the outcome they say is required for Brexit to be done and its ‘potentials’ realised.

As a result, they are doomed to conclude that Brexit isn’t working ‘as it should’ because it ‘hasn’t been done properly’ and that it hasn’t been done properly because it has been ‘betrayed’. Yet at the very same time they continue to be surprised that those who never supported it remain unpersuaded. That applies especially strongly to those, like Farage and Tice, who endlessly rant about how Brexit has been betrayed. There is an obvious contradiction, if not an impossibility, in simultaneously denouncing Brexit for not having delivered its promises and expecting those who always knew those promises were bogus to cease denouncing it. To put it another way, Brexit leaders and commentators can hardly tell leavers that they have been defrauded by Brexit and expect to convince remainers to get behind the very fraud they are complaining about.

The context of the coming election

The second reason why the ongoing contestation over Brexit is of interest is because, again simply by virtue of being ongoing, the context of it has changed. In particular, the debate about Brexit is now inseparable from the next General Election, and the, at least at present, languishing prospects of a Tory victory. The Brexiters are scared that, as a result, time is running out for them.

That inflects their position on things like, especially, the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, with the idea that this may be the last chance to embed de-alignment from the EU, and the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations. There are two aspects to this. One, for the true believers, is that they think that passing REUL Bill and achieving what they think is possible in terms of scrapping the Protocol or, if not, having a major conflict with the EU (and it looks as if they will have to decide which way to jump very soon) will help to protect the Tories from a resurgence of the Reform Party, potentially led again by Farage, and/or from high levels of abstaining from disaffected leave voters. It also undoubtedly underpins the central emphasis the Tories are placing on their ‘stop the boats’ message.

The other aspect is the Brexiters increasing fear of the Labour Party. Last week I commented positively on David Lammy’s speech, whilst recognizing that it wouldn’t go far enough to satisfy many erstwhile remainers. But what the latter should recognize is that, even if they don’t see Labour as offering a significant challenge to Brexit, the Brexiters most certainly do. Daniel Hannan, again, is a good example, in this case in his own Sunday Telegraph article (£) where he argues that Re-joiners have a long-term strategy that begins with the kinds of closer ties that Labour are talking about, referring to Lammy’s speech as evidence. The plan, he thinks, is “to hold Britain in the EU’s regulatory orbit pending an attempt at re-entry”. From this perspective, too, passing the REUL Bill and resolving the NI Protocol on Tory terms is essential.

Whether this is indeed Labour’s secret intention is very much open to question, but it is at least possible, and it is even more possible that many re-joiners will vote Labour in the hope that it is, and push for it to become so. In fact, that’s pretty much the only voting strategy (along with the allied one of tactical voting, depending on constituency) for re-joiners to follow**. In this way, frustratingly cautious as it may be, Labour’s position on Brexit is beginning to look likely to pay dividends. Potentially, it enables three things: it gives re-joiners just about enough reason to hope voting Labour is a gateway to what they want, it gives softish remainers and softish leavers the hope that some of the harder edges can be sanded off Brexit or, at least, that unlike under the Tories there won’t be an even greater hardening, and it gives those still committed to leave the reassurance that re-joining isn’t Labour policy.

Clearly the longer-term fate of such a position is deeply questionable. Apart from important questions about what the EU will and will not agree with a hypothetical Labour government, it is also possible that such a voting coalition will prove very unstable, with the very real chance that all of its segments will come to feel dissatisfied. But my point is just about the next election. That election won’t be solely determined by Brexit, of course, but, to the extent Brexit is a factor, it will weigh heavily on the Tories. For they will be vulnerable to Labour from those who never wanted Brexit, and from those who wanted it or could live with it but think it has been done in too ‘hard’ a way, and to the Reform Party or abstentions from those who want and still want it but think it has been done in too ‘soft’ a way.

This potential electoral vice is really just a version of the earlier point that Brexiters have shot themselves in the foot by their own repeated insistence that Brexit has been betrayed by the Tory government, giving neither those who wanted it nor those who didn’t any reason, at least on Brexit grounds, to vote Tory. And that itself is really only a version of what has been obvious about Brexit from the beginning – that its fantastical and dishonest claims were bound to fail, and therefore bound to antagonize most remainers and at least some, and probably many, leave voters. That was inherent in Brexit and compounded by the ways it was undertaken, and since it was undertaken by the Tories it is they who will suffer most, electorally.

The Political Editor of UnHerd, Tom McTague, comes to similar conclusions about Labour’s Brexit position, writing this week that Labour “finds itself in the enviable position of benefiting from the Tory party’s association with Brexit, but without having to actually risk reopening the old wounds of the referendum by pledging to re-join the EU”. McTague’s analysis is well worth reading, but the main way mine differs from his is that, at least on my reading, he thinks that, had the Tory Party proceeded differently, it need not have “lost its grip on the revolution”. I think it was always doomed to fail, though I don’t pretend to have known how that failure would play out (nor do I know how it will do in the future).

The key issue: public opinion

But in a way that difference doesn’t matter. What matters now is what underlies all of the commentary from every point on the Brexit spectrum, and that is the opinion polling. The headline polls continue to show a very clear view that Britain was wrong to leave the EU (54%) rather than right (34%). Digging beneath that reveals a fascinating array of issues, of which perhaps the most important (though also most predictable) is the demographics of opposition to Brexit. Opinion polls also show a clear lead for re-joining the EU if there were another referendum (by 63% to 37%, though note this excludes ‘don’t knows’). That doesn’t mean that another referendum is in the offing, or that this would be the result (or that the EU would re-admit us), but it does show just how comprehensively Brexit has failed in the estimation of the public.

By far the most dramatic illustration of that is the new FocalData study (upon which McTague’s article is a commentary). This maps opinions dis/agreement about whether or not it was “wrong to leave the EU” on to individual parliamentary constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. Staggeringly, it finds that there is just a single constituency (Boston & Skegness) where the score for ‘disagree it was wrong’ is higher than for ‘agree it was wrong’. Even there, a constituency where 76% voted to leave, it is close (41% disagree it was wrong, 37% agree). There are also two other constituencies in Lincolnshire, both immediately adjacent to Boston & Skegness, where opinion is tied (41% agree, 41% disagree). But in every single other constituency bar those three, ‘agree it was wrong to leave’ beats disagree, at the greatest by 69% to 13% in Bristol West.

Of course, as ever, there is a need for caution. Agreeing that it was wrong to leave undoubtedly contains or conceals a wide range of opinions about why that was so. For example, the data show 29% of Reform Party supporters being of that view, but many of them will mean by this that Brexit hasn’t been done properly rather than that it shouldn’t have been done at all. So it doesn’t in itself translate into support for re-joining the EU, or for softening Brexit. Equally, as with the population-level data, there are a lot of people who think ‘neither’ or ‘don’t know’ – 23% in Boston and 17% even in Bristol West. It may be somewhat surprising that after all this time these numbers should be so large, but it is important in considering how future opinion polls, let alone a vote on re-joining, might change. And it’s also worth looking at the balance between those who ‘strongly’ or ‘mildly’ dis/agree in each constituency.

Brexit’s utter failure

Yet even with these caveats this is a remarkable testimony to the utter failure of Brexit itself, and of the Brexiters failure to turn their 2016 victory into a durable consensus. Ian Dunt, one of the best analysts of the entire Brexit saga, believes that “someday soon, probably not more than a few years from now, it will be hard to even find people who admit to ever having supported it in the first place”.

Even without that happening, just the current level of ‘Bregret’ begs a question. Given that amongst leave voters who now think Brexit was a mistake there must be considerable numbers who mean not just that it wasn’t done ‘properly’ but that it was wrong in principle, it must surely be the case that at least one of those Brexiters who led the campaign to leave is also of that view.

Yet, so far as I know, not a single high-profile Brexiter has publicly said such a thing. Will any of them ever have the courage and honesty to do so? Or will they continue to chunter on that all would have been well had true Brexit been delivered, even as historians begin to write epitaphs to their lies and hubris? Will they go to the grave unrepentant, even as the ashes of their failed project are scattered to the winds?



*It’s also worth recalling that the Meaningful Votes in 2018 and 2019 that allowed Francois and his fellow Brexit Ultras to put paid to May’s deal only occurred because, back in 2017, Tory ‘remainer’ rebels forced this on the government. At the time the Ultras pilloried the rebels for this, denouncing it as an attempt to sabotage Brexit, only later to use it to defeat the government.

**By that, I mean re-joiners who want the UK to re-join the EU. Obviously those who want, for particular example, Scotland to leave the UK and re-join the EU as an independent state would presumably make a different calculation.