Friday 31 March 2023

A new chapter?

As expected, the UK-EU Joint Committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement formally approved the Windsor Framework at its meeting last Friday. There is a palpable sense that this is a defining moment in the Brexit process and that, with caveats, a new chapter within it is about to start.

A chapter closes?

Procedurally, agreeing the Windsor Framework finally ends the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. Of course, formally speaking, that occurred when the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, was finalised in 2019 and signed in 2020. But, because of Boris Johnson’s dishonesty, negotiation of the Protocol effectively continued until now.

So that chapter, which brought shame to the UK and considerably damaged our international reputation, is now over, although the memory of it will no doubt linger in many foreign capitals. It leaves the issue of the Northern Ireland Assembly in "paralysis" (£), at least for now, but there is certainly no possibility left that the UK will see further changes to the Protocol to accommodate DUP objections. Thus the issues of the Assembly and the Protocol have now been decoupled. However, it can’t entirely be ruled out that, once the Windsor Framework provisions actually come into effect, there will not be new calls, not just from the DUP but from Brexit Ultras, for more changes. For neither group is reconciled to the basic principles of the Protocol.

Additionally, notwithstanding the existence of these irreconcilables, there is a sense that, as pro-Brexit Times columnist Iain Martin put it (£), “the Brexit wars are finally over”. In other words, the failure of the ERG and others to derail the Windsor Framework marks the end of the stranglehold of the Brexit Ultras and their ability since 2016 to keep pushing for harder versions of Brexit. In some ways that reflects how many Tory MPs, including many Brexiters, came to lose patience with the Ultras. It perhaps also reflects their realization that most of the public have done so, and indeed have lost interest in Brexit itself, as well as much of such enthusiasm as there was for it.

In this way, as I suggested in last week’s post, Britain’s ‘Brexit fever’ may have broken but, as I also suggested, that has to be caveated by the possibility of an ERG resurgence, perhaps after the next election, and by the way that ‘Brexitism’ has become embedded within a powerful segment of British political culture.

A new chapter opens?

If these issues mark the end of one chapter, that brings the sense of a new one opening. It would necessarily be a new chapter, not a new book, because it is inherent in Brexit that there is no end to it. That is, there will always be ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU about their relationship in general, but also there are specific review mechanisms, most notably for the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which will continue to refine, define, and re-define what Brexit means.

The possibility, at least, is that this new chapter will begin what Martin calls “an adult relationship” with the EU, or what I called one of “rapprochement” in a recent post. There are some positive signs of this in reports (£) that Rishi Sunak will seek to deepen trade, security, scientific and other ties with the EU, whilst at the same time rowing back on the wholesale sunsetting of most retained EU Law. Such an approach is certainly gestured towards in the text of the Windsor Framework, as I discussed at the time it was made public. King Charles’ visit to Germany and his postponed visit to France are being widely read as part of this new chapter.

From the EU side, the changed mood has already led to the Commission agreeing to revive the stalled agreement on banking and other financial services cooperation, as well as the more widely publicised offer to resume UK participation in the Horizon Europe research programme (now the subject of a financial dispute (£), so improving relations still has some way to go). It is also generally understood (£) that it was the completion of the Windsor Framework which enabled completion of accession to the CPTPP trade bloc, which was announced today, a lesson that the UK’s relationship with the EU directly impacts on its wider relationships.

The caveats here are to do with the consistency of Sunak’s follow-through, including the extent to which he will really pull back for the existing Retained EU Law Bill’s provisions. Similarly, to what extent will his political pledges to ‘stop the boats’ create a new schism with the EU and others over migration policy generally and human rights specifically? These and similar questions beg the over-arching one of the extent to which the UK has a coherent post-Brexit strategy at all. Earlier this month, after the Windsor Framework had been announced, I argued that it did not. Will the adoption of the framework change that?

It may be some time before the answer to that question is clear. But what it reflects is that, to the extent that we are now in a new chapter of Brexit, it is one in which the UK will be forced to address the question that should have been seriously asked and answered before even beginning the process: what is the point of Brexit? Having an “an adult relationship” with the EU, welcome though that would be, cannot be the answer to that question, and won’t provide an answer to it. Instead, what is necessary is for the UK to be adult with itself, meaning serious and honest political and public discussion about Brexit.

The waning influence of the Brexit Ultras may make that easier, but we are still some way off it. It certainly isn’t a matter, as a recent Telegraph leading article simpered (£), of Brexit needing “a new cheerleader” whose role would be “championing a project that to some degree is a leap of faith”. This kind of vacuous boosterism and the adolescent hero-worship it caters to is part of what got us into this mess. Similarly unrealistic is the article’s closing hope that “the revolution is only just getting started”. There isn’t going to be any Brexit revolution delivered by some visionary leader, there’s just a deeply unpopular mess to be dealt with, and doing so will require facts not faith.

The first steps to a new chapter

The first step in this will be facing the fact that, economically, Brexit has been, and will continue to be, deeply costly. The headline figure, re-iterated by the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) last weekend, is of GDP being 4% lower than it would otherwise have been, a bigger impact than the Covid pandemic. It’s not a new figure or comparison: the OBR said the same thing in October 2021, and it continues to do so with 18 months' more data. Moreover, this figure is built in to the government’s own budget calculations.

We are now getting to the point when these are not just forecasts but are becoming established facts. Actually, despite what is often claimed, what we are seeing is not so very different to the Treasury’s pre-referendum long-term forecast. That estimated (p.7) the GDP loss over 15 years compared with remaining in the EU to be between -4.6% and -7.5% (assuming, as happened, a UK-EU Free Trade Agreement), but it is heading to be slightly better than the worst case scenario, given the latest OBR estimate of -4%, or within the estimated range, given the latest CER estimate of -5.5%. The Treasury also estimated total trade volumes would be -14% and -19% over 15 years compared with staying in the EU (p.128), and we are heading to be within that, with the latest OBR estimate being -15%. And the Treasury estimated productivity being -3% over 15 years compared with staying in the EU (p.131), but so far we are heading for it to be worse than that, with the latest OBR estimate being for -4%.

These and many other headline economic figures, such as those for investment and tax revenues, along with what might be called sub-headings relating to particular sectors, are now well-established. Perhaps they will change, but there’s no sign so far, and no reason to expect it. So accepting that, and also ceasing to hunt around for this or that snippet of data that supposedly disproves the general picture, is the first step towards a serious political and public debate.

The second step is to drop all the manifestly false claims about the benefits of Brexit. Of these, the two that are probably the most common, and certainly the most egregious, are that Brexit enabled a faster Covid vaccine roll out and that it enabled more pro-active support for Ukraine. Less egregious, but still misleading, are claims that independent trade deals, including CPTPP accession, are much of a Brexit benefit, or come without costs.

The third step is to drop the nonsense that Brexit was just about ‘regaining sovereignty’ in the abstract, irrespective of any tangible benefits or, indeed, costs. If that were so, then Brexiters wouldn’t make the false claims about vaccines, Ukraine and trade deals. By doing so, they tacitly admit that it was not so, and therefore it is legitimate to examine each and every aspect of Brexit in terms of its effects, without chasing the false hare of sovereignty.

The final step: ‘de-Brexitification’

Those three steps are, obviously, a challenge to Brexiters. If that challenge is met, which is by no means assured, the final step is a challenge to both Brexiters and erstwhile remainers or re-joiners. There are all kinds of policy changes that Brexit enables, including those which some, perhaps many, would regard as positive. The banning of live animal exports, currently being legislated for and something long campaigned for by the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, is a possible example. Where they exist Brexiters shouldn’t over-claim for them, but those opposed to Brexit needn’t deny them. EU regulations aren’t perfect in every respect, but that doesn’t constitute a case for Brexit; equally they don’t need to be defended as if they are perfect in order to make the case against Brexit.

This leads to a bigger point. For many erstwhile remainers, and certainly for re-joiners, the obvious solution to the damage of Brexit is to re-join the EU, or at least to re-join the Single Market and/or create a customs treaty with the EU. For them, any divergence from EU regulations is misguided in itself, and also an obstacle to future re-joining. For Brexiters, the converse applies: divergence is seen as a good thing in itself, simply for being divergence, and will make re-joining in the future more difficult.

I would suggest that both of these positions are misguided and, certainly, that they will need to change if we are indeed to enter a new chapter. We have left the EU, and for so long as that is the case there will be questions about specific regulatory alignments and divergences (if only as EU rules change). These need to be considered on their own merits, not in terms of the fact of them being alignments or divergences. In other words, they need to be decoupled from having left the EU. Equally, they should be decoupled from the possibility of re-joining the EU. If and when there is a strong and durable political consensus to re-join, that will entail a process during which there will be plenty of time for convergence (just as for any acceding country) or re-convergence. So long as that consensus exists, then divergence will not be the barrier re-joiners fear and Brexiters hope*.

In short, if this is to be a new chapter, post-Brexit policies will need to be ‘de-Brexitified’.

The illustrative case of Solvency II reform

This can be illustrated by one potentially very significant post-Brexit regulatory divergence, the reform of Solvency II regulations, something long pushed for by Brexiters and already being pursued by the government with increasing urgency (£). What this would mean in practice is that insurance companies and pension schemes would be allowed to hold fewer and more diverse reserves and use their funds to invest in, for example, infrastructure or new technology projects. As I explained in February 2022, when I first discussed this possibility on this blog, it is a highly complex and technical subject, and it divides opinion within the financial services industry (it also happens to be an area I have some, albeit dated, familiarity with, as 30 years ago I wrote my PhD on the regulation of the insurance industry).

The key point about this is that, as at a generic level is true of every single regulatory decision, there is a trade-off between reward and risk. In this case, crudely, the reward is freeing up massive funds for much-needed investment and generating proceeds that benefit policyholders or pension scheme members. However, there’s also an argument that it wouldn’t make much difference to these rewards in practice. The risk is that holding fewer reserves and/or more risky investments could lead to insurance companies or pension schemes collapsing, destabilizing the financial system and damaging policyholders or pension scheme members (and probably, ultimately, taxpayers). Again, there’s also an argument that it wouldn’t make much difference to these risks in practice.

There isn’t a ‘right’ answer here. Solvency II was in large part a response to the financial crisis and, as such, calibrated the regulatory calculation more towards lowering ‘risk’. Such calibrations are as much ‘political’, in the generic sense of political judgements about the prevailing economic climate, as ‘technical’. Arguably, that means that the present moment is not one to re-calibrate towards ‘reward’, given the pension fund vulnerabilities exposed by the Truss mini-budget (£) as well as the recent instability in the banking system following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (although Solvency II reform isn’t about banking regulation, the two are potentially related because insurers are exposed to banking risks). Against that, these might be judged as specific and unusual events with little wider implication, or that the risk is worth taking. That’s a judgement call, but it isn’t – or shouldn’t be – about Brexit.

It’s also not a UK versus EU question. On the one hand, Solvency II wasn’t some burdensome, inflexible EU Directive imposed against the UK’s wishes. It was unpopular with some UK insurance companies, but it was very heavily influenced by UK financial regulators at the time. In particular, it was an “evolutionary” development from the UK’s previous Individual Capital Adequacy Standards regime. On the other hand, there is a process underway within the EU to reform Solvency II for very much the same reasons as in the UK, namely unlocking funds for investment. It’s actually perfectly possible that both the UK and the EU will end up in similar places, and the EU might make changes more quickly than the UK (£), although this shouldn’t, as Brexiters like Rees-Mogg want (£), be seen as a ‘race’.

It would be quite absurd for Brexiters to support Solvency II reform simply because Brexit makes it possible, irrespective of its merits. Doing so won’t make Brexit more successful or secure. Conversely, it would be absurd for anti-Brexiters to oppose Solvency II reform, regardless of its merits, simply because it was made possible by Brexit. Doing so won’t make Brexit more of a failure or re-joining more likely. As to whether Solvency II reform turns out to be successful, that will depend on whether the assessment of the risk-reward balance turns out to be right or not, something which will probably take years to know and which will be down to things which are nothing to do with Brexit, and in itself will neither vindicate nor discredit Brexit.

Where might this new chapter end up?

The case of Solvency II illustrates the more general point that as time goes by there will be more regulatory divergence, whether as a result of decisions made in the UK or the EU. There are already several other examples of UK-initiated divergence in force or in train, including subsidy control,  data protection, artificial intelligence, and gene editing (for a full listing, see the UKICE regulatory divergence tracker).

There are other cases where the UK will decide to follow EU regulation, as has already effectively happened with restrictions on single-use plastic, and the logic of market size suggests there will be many more examples. These may well include the reversal of some of the planned but postponed divergences, such as conformity assessment marking (the long-delayed UKCA mark). Indeed, the tone of Sunak’s government is already markedly less bullish about divergence in general than its predecessor, and more concerned with limited divergence aimed at specific sectors.

The more the UK approaches each of these issues as discrete policy questions in their own right, rather than via support for or opposition to Brexit, the more politics will have been ‘de-Brexitified’. If we get to that point, then we will be at the end of the chapter which, arguably, we are now just starting with the adoption of the Windsor Framework. Brexit will be less toxic and simply less ‘present’, something also aided by the passing of time and, with that, of the leading Brexiters and many leave voters.

If all that comes to pass, then it will be the prelude to the next chapter in which it will be possible for a future government, and political culture generally, to take the logical next step and ask the question: why doesn’t the UK join the EU?



Note: CPTPP and re-joining the EU

*It has been claimed this week (£) by the Brexiters’ favourite trade guru, Shanker Singham, and others, that joining the CPTPP will mean “Britain can never rejoin the EU” (to be fair, that is the headline – the text says “EU customs union”). That is nonsense (and if it wasn’t it would be a strange outcome for Brexit ‘sovereignty’), for the obvious reason that, ultimately, Britain could simply leave the CPTPP. But, in any case, it’s far from clear that, if it came to that point, membership of both would be impossible. Indeed, there have even been suggestions that the EU itself might join the CPTPP.  See also commentaries from more ‘neutral’ trade experts Sam Lowe, David Henig and Dmitry Grozoubinski. More generally, the Brexit boosterism, not just economic but geo-political, that already looks set (£) to accompany CPTPP accession suggests that we are still not really in the ‘new chapter’ discussed in this post. That doesn’t mean that, overall, CPTPP accession is ‘a bad thing’ in itself, it just isn’t that much of a thing at all.


I will be taking a break from blogging over Easter, and expect the next post to be on Friday 21 April.

Friday 24 March 2023

Morrissey's Brexit

There’s really only been one major Brexit development this week, the vote on the Statutory Instrument to create the Stormont Brake as part of the Windsor Framework. If that sounds convoluted that’s because it is. This wasn’t about passing primary legislation, and there was only a short debate, and no amendments were allowed. It was not even about the entirety of the Windsor Framework (WF), although it seems that the government will treat it as such. Nor was there any possibility of the government losing the vote, as the Labour Party was pledged to support it.

What difference does it make?

Nevertheless, it was important in terms of how many, and who, would vote against. In the event, just twenty-nine did, of whom a mere twenty-two were Conservatives, with the others being DUP MPs plus the whipless, and increasingly unhinged, former Spartan Andrew Bridgen. The list of Tory rebels, by the way, includes some of the most disreputable and despicable politicians of our, and perhaps any, age. So it was a fairly puny revolt, and though it was notable that both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss joined it, what was more notable was that neither have the pull to have made it a significant challenge to Rishi Sunak. Johnson himself had to interrupt his ill-conceived defence against charges of having misled parliament, of which more below, in order to cast his vote.

It has been known for some time that the ERG’s membership has fallen, and the group is much less organized than in its 2018-19 heyday. Its members, or ex-members, are also split, and some of those in government, especially Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker, were closely involved in, and became advocates of, the WF. Indeed, in Baker’s case, that led to the one-time ‘Brexit hard man’ being thrown out of the ERG’s WhatsApp group whilst being described as a “little weasel” by Nigel Farage. As Robert Shrimsley, Chief UK Political Commentator of the Financial Times, observed, “the revolution eats its own children”. Perhaps more to the point, it is the latest example of the difference between taking responsibility for the realities of delivering Brexit and the luxury of espousing Brexit purity from the sidelines.

Even so, there are plenty of Brexiters on the Tory benches who are not ERG members but who might have been galvanized to rebel in different circumstances. Had there been enough to mean that the vote would have been lost without Labour support that would have been a significant embarrassment for Sunak, and a sign that the Brexit Ultras are still a force to be reckoned with, but there were not. It’s true that several Tory MPs didn’t vote, but it is impossible to tell how many of these were meaningful abstentions and how many were simply absences. In any case, abstention hardly bespeaks of Cromwellian resolve.

The day before, the ERG’s ludicrously-named, if not downright ludicrous, ‘Star Chamber’ had found the WF, including the Stormont Brake, to be unacceptable. But the fatal political flaw in this, as with all the Brexiter objections to the WF, is that everything they object to about it was also contained within the Northern Ireland Protocol itself, which they voted for. Not only that, but it was part of the ‘oven ready deal’ the 2019 Tory Government was elected to deliver. Now that the reformed Protocol has, effectively, been accepted, there is little realistic prospect of these objections being resurrected. Equally, the persistent Brexiter lie that the Protocol was always intended to be temporary, wheeled out again by Priti Patel in a Telegraph article this week (£), must surely have died this week, even if any of them actually believed it. It is expected that the WF will now be formally adopted at today’s meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.

There is a light that never goes out

So it is plausible to say that the grip of the ERG has finally been broken, and that Sunak, unlike any of his predecessors since 1992, has successfully faced them down. Certainly, Wednesday’s vote is widely seen to have strengthened his political position, with Jessica Elgot of the Guardian writing of it “having been a moment of pure delight for the Prime Minister”. Against that, it’s not just plausible but likely that, if the Tories go on to lose the next election, there will be a backlash from the Brexit purists, saying that the problem was that Brexit was betrayed.

By that, they will mean betrayed not just by Sunak and the WF but also by the failure of both Sunak and Johnson to deliver the deregulatory nirvana that many of the Ultras crave, for it is worth recalling that Brexiter dissatisfaction about delivering these ‘benefits of Brexit’ long pre-dates Sunak’s arrival. Johnson, if he stays the course, might seek to lead that backlash, arguing no doubt that his own failures were the fault of others. But his political stock may never recover, even if he dodges the bullet of the Privileges Committee hearing, and, anyway, the true Brexiters have always known he was not of the faith.

More likely, it will be championed by one of the true believers, perhaps one of this week’s WF rebels. Truss is probably irredeemably tainted by failure, a failure for which the greatest evidence is her own inability to recognize it, so Priti Patel or Jacob Rees-Mogg are more obvious candidates. It is already possible to see the battle lines being drawn, with Sunday Telegraph Editor Allister Heath, in an article (£) ominously yet absurdly titled “The Brexit revolt against the Remain Establishment has only just begun”, hailing the twenty-two Tory rebels as “heroes” and insisting that, if Sunak loses the next election, “the next Tory leader will be chosen by the party membership and will be a Brexiteer, anti-ECHR and anti-woke”. In other words, neither the Tories, nor British politics, have yet seen the back of the ERG.


All that is for the future. More immediately, the Windsor Framework vote could be a sign that, as I put it in a recent post, Britain’s Brexit fever has broken. However, there are several questions to be asked about that. One is what now happens about the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which of course is in no way resolved by the vote, even though a new opinion poll shows not just strong support amongst the people of Northern Ireland for the WF (overall 45% support, 16.9% oppose), but that even within the unionist community only 15.7% (though 22.8% of DUP voters) are opposed to it (and 45.8% support it, though only 36% of DUP voters). Wrapped up in that is whether, regardless of whether the Assembly is restored, the Protocol will go on being not just a running sore for some unionist politicians, but also, in being so, will function as a rallying point for Brexiters generally.

Another question is whether, how, and to what extent, Sunak follows up his success with the WF by moving in more pragmatic directions on Brexit policy generally. As I suggested last week, there are already signs that he will do so in relation to defence and international relations. But what about domestic policy and, crucially, the Retained EU Law Bill? If he continues with the latter, Brexitism can hardly be said to be in abeyance. If he doesn’t, will that provide a new rallying point for the Brexiters? It is of note that both this Bill and the Bill of Rights Bill are on the agenda for today’s meeting of the Partnership Council of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Barbarism begins at home

Even if passing the Windsor Framework has broken the Brexit fever as regards government policy, it will also serve to re-enforce and perhaps grow the poisonous reservoir of Brexit betrayalism within British Conservatism in its wider sense. That matters not so much in terms of Brexit policy but the rag-bag of populist causes with which Brexit has become bound up. Those causes have their adherents amongst the Tories, of course, with Lee Anderson and Jacob Rees-Mogg being obvious examples, but also within the Reform Party and the very powerful media and social media nexus that promotes Conservative populism.

Although the political parties in this space, not just Reform but the rump of UKIP, and Reclaim, which has never been more than a rump, remain angrily disunited, there is a sense of this ‘movement’ coming together, an example being the way GB News employs as hosts Tories like, again, Rees-Mogg and Anderson, as well as Nigel Farage and oddballs like Laurence Fox, alongside its wider cast of viciously aggressive presenters and freakish commentators. Similarly, an offshoot of Fox’s Reclaim was recently revealed to have funded Andrew Bridgen, whilst Bridgen himself co-hosted a lavish dinner for anti-vaxxers at the Carlton Club last month. In some ways, such loose-knit communities of interest are more effective than a political party, creating the impression of a disorganized ‘general consensus’ rather than an orchestrated agenda.

GB News is also becoming unusually favoured in being granted interviews by Tory Ministers, who sometimes are even interviewed by Tory MPs moonlighting as presenters, with the approval of Ofcom, whilst on other programmes these same Tory MPs – Rees-Mogg again is an example – feature as interviewees. And, of course, GB News is only part of the wider and more established media phalanx pushing similar agendas, especially still influential print titles including the Telegraph, Mail and Express.

Meanwhile, the increasingly cowed and compromised BBC, though certainly a very far cry from GB News, routinely hosts spokespeople of the ‘Tufton Street’ thinktanks, and bends over backwards to placate its implacable populist critics. Thus, with or without parliamentary representation, or even creating a single party, this populist movement will continue to exert a significant and malign influence on the British polity. Perhaps most alarming is how difficult it is to distinguish between some of the apparently ‘respectable’ populists and far-right street groups like Britain First.

Much of this Conservative populism has nothing to do with Brexit directly, and many of its causes and tropes long pre-date Brexit. However, Brexit is now its touchstone, being both an article of faith and the one occasion when one of its causes was voted on and won. That strengthens the longstanding populist idea of speaking for ‘the silent majority’, and by a kind of osmosis the narrow vote to leave the EU became configured as ‘the will of the people’ and then ‘the will of the people’ for Brexit got repurposed to present many other populist causes as if they, too, bore the imprimatur of having been subject to ‘the biggest exercise in democracy our country has ever seen’ (sic).

This charming man

That elision is evident not just in the rough and tumble of anonymous social media slanging matches and newspaper columns like that of Allister Heath, mentioned earlier, but in the writings of populist intellectuals. For example, in last week’s Mail, politics Professor Matthew Goodwin managed to run together issues as diverse, yet predictable, as Brexit, the paucity of further and technical education, the ‘over-representation’ of ethnic minorities in TV shows and adverts, and, of course, “’woke’ policies in our schools [and] universities” to propose that “there is a yawning gap between the values of the New Elite and the majority”.

Tellingly, Goodwin sometimes slips between referring to the majority and to “ordinary people”, something reminiscent of the Farage formulation of the Brexit vote as being “a victory for ordinary decent people” and its implication that very close to half the country is, in some way, neither ordinary nor decent. The difference is that, after that brief moment of triumphalism, Conservative populism has now reverted to its habitual sullen victimhood, a kind of hybrid of the bedsit self-pity of Morrissey’s early lyrics and the aggressive martyrdom of his more recent political stances (yes, it took a while, but now the title and sub-titles of this post make sense).

None of this is new – Goodwin talks of the ‘New Elite’, but most of what he says about it was already hackneyed when I was young, and he himself rather paradoxically asserts that “The New Elite has been on manoeuvres for decades”, leaving one to wonder how far back we have to go for the Old Elite, or even quite what it was. Certainly historians will be puzzled to learn that “in days gone by the governing classes had much more in common with the millions of ordinary people who shared their nation”, though they would probably spot it as an example of populist nostalgia in which even the elite ain’t what it used to be. And all of us might be puzzled as to why, if this ‘New Elite’ is so powerful, it is having to endure Brexit.

But, that aside, my point is that, for all that the vote on the Windsor Framework may betoken that we have passed the high-water mark of Brexiter extremism in parliament and government policy, it has metastasized into something wider or more general, but which retains Brexit as its primary point of reference. For that reason, rather than call it Conservative populism or even, taking a tip from Goodwin, the ‘new populism’, it is most apt to call it Brexitism.

That joke isn’t funny any more

For particular example, the biggest political news story this week has been Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Privileges Committee to assess whether he knowingly misled the House of Commons over infringements of the Covid rules. This has nothing to do with Brexit, except in the indirect sense that both relate to Johnson’s pathological dishonesty, and that Johnson might well never have become Prime Minister but for Brexit (and certainly only supported it in the hope that would be the consequence).

Yet the omnipresent Rees-Mogg was at pains to represent the hearing as the work of “the haters of Brexit”, despite the Committee containing four Tory MPs of whom at least one, Bernard Jenkin, is one of the most Ultra of Brexit Ultras. Indeed it turned out, as Martin Kettle noted, that “the unexpected star turn here was Sir Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP whose Brexit credentials are unchallengeable, who quietly carved Johnson’s evidence into pieces, leaving him spluttering and humiliated”. Perhaps Jenkin will now join Baker in the ranks of ‘crypto-remainers’, Jacobins turned Girondins.

Rees-Mogg’s attempt to discredit the process reveals his grating hypocrisy, seen also in his role in the illegal 2019 prorogation, since he so often affects to represent himself as the voice, an unctuous and preposterous voice admittedly, of parliamentary traditionalism. For, as Hannah White of the Institute for Government explains, the significance of the hearing is far less about Johnson’s future than it is about protecting the vital constitutional importance of ministerial accountability. But it also shows how Brexit continues to be the cornerstone of British populism, for all that it has ceased to have majority support. It is the talisman of Brexitism.

And, in fact, the hypocrisy and the role of Brexit in populism are linked. For the Brexit Ultras, no perversion of parliamentary rules and norms was too great if it delivered ‘the will of the people’. In that context, Johnson’s ‘anti-ruleism’ made him their ideal leader. But as I argued at length at the time, ‘Partygate’ exposed the risks and fragility of populism by opening a chasm between ‘ordinary people’ and their supposedly anti-elitist leaders. So it will be fitting if it is his lies over this, rather than all his other lies, which finally end Johnson’s political career. And it will be a fitting irony if, as argued by (£) the ferociously pro-Brexit Associate Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Camilla Tominey, the ‘implosion’ of “the cult of Boris” is taken by association to mean the implosion of “his Brexit dream”.

Still ill

For the reality, of course, is that the “dream” has imploded quite independently of Johnson. It collapsed under the weight of its repeated encounters with reality. For that matter, even if, under Sunak, government policy is becoming more pragmatic about Brexit, that does nothing at all to stop the continuing damage Brexit is causing, damage still being assiduously charted by Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downside Dossier. At best, it means ceasing to add new damages on top of the existing ones.

Discussing those damages is still largely taboo for both the Tory and Labour parties but, to coin a phrase, the people have spoken, at least to the extent of successfully petitioning parliament to debate a call for the government to hold a public inquiry into the impact of Brexit. The debate will be held on 24 April, and whilst little can be expected as a result it is at least something that Brexit will actually be discussed and not treated as an embarrassing medical condition that shouldn’t be mentioned in public. The Brexit fever may have broken, but the nation is still ill.



In case you missed it, I wrote an extra post this week, reviewing two recent Brexit books – The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit by Meg Russell and Lisa James, and Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done by Stefaan De Rynck.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Book reviews

Russell, Meg and James, Lisa (2023). The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-284971-7 (Hardback). 416 pages. £25

De Rynck, Stefaan (2023). Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done. Newcastle: Agenda Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78821-568-8 (Hardback). 288 pages. £25

As time passes since the Brexit referendum and the process of leaving the EU that followed, there is a growing literature describing and explaining what happened. The two excellent books reviewed here are amongst the most recent and, whilst very different in focus and approach, each fills in a crucial piece of the jigsaw of what will become the history of Brexit. Moreover, they are pieces that fit together so that they can profitably be read as a pair which, together, reveal two very significant chunks of the Brexit picture. In fact, it would be illuminating to chart the precise points they fit together by mapping specific moments in the UK-EU negotiations with specific events in the UK parliament, although I won’t attempt that here.

Russell & James: The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit

Meg Russell and Lisa James’ book is an academic text, whose authors work at University College London’s Constitution Unit and thus bring a very high degree of academic credibility and expertise, and it is based on a major research study of ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. As such, it draws on the Hansard record of parliamentary proceedings and a whole swathe of other official documents, secondary sources including other studies of Brexit and media reports, and a wide variety of interviews with participants in the events conducted by the authors (and others). These are all assiduously cited and there is an extensive bibliography, a compendious index, as well as a useful glossary of parliamentary terms. In short, it is a scholarly account but, for all that, a readable one and certainly accessible for general readers.

One problem with writing about Brexit is where to begin the story and where to end it. For the start, some authors (e.g. O’Rourke, 2018) go back as far as the Nineteenth century, but here, apart from a short preamble, the narrative begins with the steps that led to the 2016 referendum. The bulk of the book is a chronological account of parliamentary events, including their constitutional and legal aspects, from the referendum onwards. That chronology ends when the UK left the EU in 2020, apart from some fairly brief comments in the concluding chapter, which also serves to bring together some of the main themes in a non-chronological way.

This framing does mean that neither the negotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement nor the Transition Period are covered, and nor are the subsequent arguments and negotiations about the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, that is perfectly reasonable since these did not give rise to a great deal, or certainly not to the same degree, as regards the specifically parliamentary focus of this book.

So far as that parliamentary focus is concerned, I doubt whether anyone will ever improve on Russell & James’s account. It is highly detailed, lucid, and painstakingly accurate. I suppose there may be future PhDs or other treatises which delve even more deeply into this or that aspect, but, if so, they will probably not be of huge interest to more general readers and, by definition, won’t be accounts of the parliamentary story as a whole. The authors effortlessly unpick the often extremely abstruse history of, amongst others things, Meaningful Votes, Indicative Votes, complex amendments and unusual procedures. This is all sure-footed and faultless.

For people who followed that story closely at the time, there probably won’t be any huge surprises in this book, although, even for them, there will certainly be many details which have since been forgotten. Moreover, as the authors rightly observe, “[e]ven those closely involved sometimes struggled to follow the intense and fast-moving developments” (p.6), so it is invaluable to have this meticulous record of events both as a reminder and also as a way of understanding, retrospectively, things which at the time were ignored or misunderstood or which have since been misrepresented.

Russell & James are assiduous in not offering a ‘point of view’ on Brexit itself, and I think that readers, regardless of their own views, will find this a fair and objective account. Where they do have a point of view is on the desirability and necessity of “respect[ing] parliament as the central democratic institution … upon which UK democracy depends” (p.6). Analytically, this is the main guiding theme of the book, and it leads to some acute observations, in particular about the problematic lack of clarity of the place of referendums in the UK constitution, and the risk of them creating a conflict between parliamentarians and the ‘will of the people’ (p.61).

This certainly happened in the case of the Brexit referendum, and was compounded by the fact that the campaign to leave the EU did not specify any kind of plan or model for how it was to be done. The authors show clearly throughout (but especially pp. 321-324) how different actors mobilised, sometimes inconsistently, contradictory views about popular, parliamentary and executive sovereignty, and they argue that there are significant lessons to be learned for the conduct of any future referendums, whatever the topic may be.

Closely allied with this, Russell & James make some acute points about the conduct of Theresa May. One is about her failure to involve a wide variety of stakeholders (in fact, to involve anyone, much) in the immediate post-referendum process of shaping Brexit. Others have made this point, but the authors’ distinctive insight is that this failure served to exacerbate the incipient gap between popular and parliamentary sovereignty: the ‘people had spoken’ but they only got to speak once, and it fell to parliament to give concrete form to what they had said. Secondly, they argue that May constantly talked as if ‘parliament’ were thwarting her Brexit plans, whereas, in fact, her staunchest opponents were the ‘Brexiteers’ within her own party (one minor criticism of the book is the consistent use of the term ‘Brexiteers’, their own self-preferred label, with its connotations of buccaneering freedom, rather than the more neutral ‘Brexiters’).

These points relate to what Brexiters wrongly claim, and many members of the public have come to believe, about this period, namely that it was one in which the 'remainer parliament’ tried to ‘thwart’ Brexit. So it is worth quoting Russell & James at some length:

“[The] central disagreement about what Brexit should mean was facilitated by the original lack of clarity in the referendum. But it took place between May’s government and Johnson’s supporters – not between the institution of government and the institution of parliament. The Conservative MPs who blocked May’s deal, including Johnson himself, believed that they were defending Brexit, rather than undermining it. This made it wholly misleading to blame parliament for ‘thwarting’ Brexit, when those involved had in fact used parliament to pursue an argument with May’s government.” (p. 313, emphases in original)

I agree with this analysis, but would add that it reveals something which is not so much about Brexit as about what is increasingly being called ‘Brexitism’. For whilst, as I suggested earlier, most readers would agree that Russell & James’ descriptions of the parliamentary events are fair and accurate, it is surely the case that at least some Brexiters will never accept their analysis of those events, including especially that just quoted. And that is because for a certain – perhaps small, but very influential – group of Brexiters none of the constitutional niceties or conventions really matter or, worse, they see them as the devices of ‘the elite’ and regard those who insist that they do matter as apologists for, if not indeed members of, that elite.

In that sense, for all that the book is neutral on Brexit itself, it cannot help but be partisan in relation to ‘Brexitism’. Indeed, the last sentences of the book imply as much:

[The] “restoration of constitutional norms is not an easy task, or a challenge in which they UK is alone. It is part of an international struggle, to defend democracy and institutions.” (p. 335)

This is not a criticism of the book, so much as to point to the way that Brexit, in its wider sense, does not admit of neutrality. For that reason, Russell & James do quite as great a public service in their concern to emphasise the importance of parliamentary democracy and constitutional propriety as they do in their forensic account of the events, sometimes arcane and often dramatic, that took place in the British parliament between 2016 and 2020.

De Rynck: Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done

For most British readers, at least, Russell & James’ parliamentary focus will be relatively familiar, as will the sense it brings of the negotiations with the EU being part of the background context of the political battles that were taking place in the UK. For such readers, including most of those who followed Brexit closely, the complete shift in the centring of the story provided by Stefaan De Rynck’s book is therefore fascinating and informative. Here, what he at one point calls “the shenanigans of British politics” (p. 246) are very much the background context to the EU’s negotiating process with the UK which is his focus.

De Rynck, an experienced EU civil servant who was a senior aide to Michel Barnier throughout the negotiations, provides an insider account of that process. In that sense, unlike Russell & James, he was an actor in, rather than an analyst of, the events described and, although he also has high academic credentials, this is not written as an academic book. It is nevertheless highly detailed and, in places, replete with technical detail, whilst retaining readability – to a greater extent, in my view, than Barnier’s (2022) own, diary-based, book about the negotiations.

Like Russell & James, the approach is chronological, in this case running essentially from the referendum in 2016 to the finalization of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement at the end of 2020. It is based on official papers and media reports, as well as discussions held by the author with other participants and, of course, his own personal experience. It does not provide citations or a bibliography, which is a shame, but there is a good index and also a useful chronology of events listed at the beginning.

Although the focus and the centring of this version of the Brexit story is different to that provided by most, if not all, British analysts, including Russell & James, it is, indeed, recognizably the same story, and, in any case, De Rynck is deeply knowledgeable about UK politics. In particular, the consequences of there having been no defined UK plan for how to leave also runs through it. However, whereas the EU was as shocked as the UK by the referendum result, it much more quickly came to a settled view on what Brexit could and could not mean, something which didn’t exist in the UK polity and, arguably, still doesn’t.

That the EU was able to come to such a position, and stick to it pretty much unchanged throughout, was partly, on De Rynck’s account (and that of others), because of the very considerable efforts of Barnier and others to construct and maintain a consensus view amongst member states and other key actors. That was the exact opposite of May’s failure to even attempt to create such a consensus within the UK, and also the exact opposite of what Brexiters, at least, expected the EU to achieve. It enabled what De Rynck plausibly, and I would think accurately, depicts as a largely technocratic, highly transparent, and certainly patient approach to the negotiations.

I wonder, though, whether it doesn’t also reflect the fact that – notwithstanding the initial shock and, no doubt, in many quarters upset and even anger – Brexit simply didn’t have the emotional and political-psychological charge in the EU that it had in Britain. For sure, it was a matter of deep concern, perhaps most especially in Ireland, and De Rynck explains at several points how important it was to the EU to maintain solidarity with Dublin, contrary to UK beliefs that it would be “thrown under a bus” (p. 118). But Brexit never had the political toxicity in any EU country, or within the EU collectively, that it had in the UK.

The idea that the EU would be divided, including the idea that it would sacrifice Ireland’s interests, is one of numerous examples that permeate the book of how the UK never really understood or cared sufficiently about EU perspectives on Brexit. That doesn’t just apply to Brexiters, but remainers, too. De Rynck points out a number of fallacies, including that of those “remainers who thought Barnier was on their side” (p.2). However, the more consequential fallacies were those taken over from Brexiters by the UK government, because these significantly inflected the negotiations.

These fallacies, which re-appear over-and-over again in various forms in the book, include all the different versions of ‘cherry-picking’. It is instructive to have it confirmed that, as many have speculated, Theresa May did indeed initially approach Brexit as she had done her negotiations within the EU as Home Secretary, which was to “first opt-out of all membership obligations and [then] back in to those elements in the UK’s interest” (p.12). But that was just an instance of the wider inability of the UK government to understand the difference between negotiating as, effectively, a third country (or a third country in waiting) rather than as a member. That also explains what De Rynck calls the fallacy of the belief that ‘the EU always budges at the last minute’, as if Brexit were like a summit of member states.

Indeed, although his tone is scrupulously polite throughout, it is impossible to read De Rynck’s book without detecting a degree of bemusement at how UK diplomacy became so crass following Brexit, especially in the automatic, and in his assessment counter-productive, adoption of an adversarial approach to the negotiations, and the persistent belief that threats of ‘no deal’ (whether over the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade and Cooperation Agreement) would produce meaningful concessions from the EU. As he pithily puts it, “the UK government played a game of chicken, by itself” (p. 247). Many of us in the UK made similar observations, but it is interesting to learn that this was, indeed, how it appeared to the EU negotiators.

Interesting, though, is perhaps too weak a word. It is also, at least for a British reader, embarrassing or worse to see just how unrealistic, if not downright ignorant, the UK government’s conduct was. Again, De Rynck is diplomatic about this, but reading between the lines, David Frost comes out particularly badly. For example, following Frost’s new threat “to walk away” from the talks in September 2020, he coolly writes that “Barnier debriefed his officials that the UK’s negotiator barely seemed to believe his own threat” (p231).

There is also an implication, for example in his discussion of the photo taken at the start of the Article 50 negotiations of David Davis, with no papers, grinning across the table at the Barnier team with their bulging files, that De Rynck felt a degree of perhaps professional sympathy with the UK civil servants. As he notes, “in the UK, the political bickering deprived the civil service of a direction to use its knowledge productively. Preparatory work by a civil service cannot make up for political indecisiveness” (p.40).

However, ultimately, even greater political decisiveness from the UK could not have compensated for the lack of realism of its demands in the face of the power asymmetry of the negotiating partners, which is effectively the story of the book. Although pro-Brexit readers probably won’t like it much, it will be hard for them to disagree with its central contention that the outcome for the EU was “close to the best-case scenario imagined in October 2016” (p. 245), if only because they, themselves, so frequently bemoan that they have not had ‘the Brexit we were promised’.

Final thoughts

That outcome is hardly surprising. There is a quote, mentioned almost in passing by Russell & James, from a Conservative MP saying that “right up until the indicative votes themselves [in 2019], a very large number of my colleagues had actually no idea at all what the Single Market or the Customs Union was [sic]” (p. 241). That is all too believable and yet also astounding, all the more so given that some of those same MPs were insisting that leave voters had ‘known exactly what they were voting for’ in 2016.

It is also hardly surprising that my reading of both these books reflects the interpretation in my own book about Brexit (Grey, 2021), although I should make it clear that Russell & James’ book is far more detailed, and far more authoritative, on the parliamentary events than mine, and that I barely touch on the EU negotiating stance at all, and certainly not with any of the knowledge of De Rynck. Overall, from my perspective, Russell & James demonstrate that the referendum anointed as ‘the will of the people’ a series of promises that could never be delivered by parliament nor, as De Rynck shows, by the negotiations with the EU.

That was because the promises were contradictory, made on the basis of ignorance, if not downright lies, and could never be turned into reality. These two excellent books illuminate much of how and why this was so. No doubt we will see many more books about Brexit in the years to come that do the same. But perhaps the one we should wait and hope for will be written by one of the leading Brexiters, finally acknowledging these truths.


Barnier, Michel (2022). My Secret Brexit Diary. A Glorious Illusion. Cambridge: Polity (English translation).

Grey, Chris (2021). Brexit Unfolded. How No One Got What They Wanted (and Why They Were Never Going to). London: Biteback Publishing.

O’Rourke, Kevin (2018). A Short History of Brexit. From Brentry to Backstop. London: Pelican.

Friday 17 March 2023

Limited realism and the limits to realism

In last week’s post I wrote about the strategic incoherence of post-Brexit politics, despite the more pragmatic approach embodied in the Windsor Framework. The fate of that agreement, specifically, remains somewhat unclear. The DUP continue to make noises that could mean rejecting it, but might not, whilst Brexiter MPs are restless (£) that they will get bounced into the deal, but if so there may not be much they can do.

As things stand, the Joint Committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement are due to sign off the Windsor deal by the end of next week, with a vote being held in the Commons on Wednesday. That vote will be, specifically, on the Statutory Instrument (SI) to create the ‘Stormont Brake’, but the government has said it will be treated as the promised vote on the Framework itself (there may be further debates on other related SIs, but it’s not clear there will be votes). That vote will be won, no doubt, but, in my view, the widespread assumption, or implicit assumption, that this issue is going to quietly disappear is not yet justified.

In the meantime, the theme of strategic incoherence can be thought of in a slightly different way, and one which shows why, even if Sunak is minded to create a more coherent and realistic approach, the very nature of Brexit continues to undermine it. Back in 2019, I wrote about the way that a core strategic problem of Brexit is that of a nation existing in a global context but which has eschewed a regional anchoring. If the three levels of national, regional and global are thought of as the legs of a stool, what Brexit has done is to cut off the regional leg, creating a fundamental imbalance.

That imbalance flows from the way that the case to leave the EU relied upon marrying together quite inconsistent ideas about Brexit as a project of national independence and Brexit as a project of global greatness. One way that inconsistency was temporarily glossed over was by ubiquitous references to the UK being ‘the world’s fifth largest economy’, as well as to its membership of various international bodies and organizations. The implication was that Britain was powerful enough to ‘go it alone’ and also to be a global leader. In such an imagination, regionality, in the form of the EU, was irrelevant.

But an imagination was all it was, and the consequences of it being false run through many of the latest Brexit-related events. Some of them show a growing realism, whilst others continue the delusions.

Geo-politics: a degree of realism

As foreshadowed in my previous post, the Franco-British summit and the AUKUS summit, along with the publication of the ‘refreshed’ Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR23), offered Rishi Sunak an opportunity to develop a more realistic and effective post-Brexit geo-political strategy. I think it is fair to say that he has had some success.

The Franco-British summit was effective in soothing the very strained relationship of recent years, strains which aren’t entirely to do with Brexit, though it also served as a reminder that on the high-profile issue of migrant returns there is no bilateral substitute for an agreement with the EU, which is not going to be forthcoming. Nevertheless, the joint declaration that followed the meeting contained not just warm words but some substantive initiatives, including, for example, easing travel formalities for school trips, though again that’s a reminder that the problems were caused by Brexit in the first place, and an agreement with one EU member state is only a small reversal of those problems.

However, whilst recognizing the genuine value of the summit, Professor Richard Whitman of Kent University, an expert in this area, argues that the Paris-London relationship is somewhat less important than it was pre-Brexit and pre-Ukraine War. Still, within that context, the meeting was as effective as it could have been, and certainly an improvement on the legacy Sunak inherited from his predecessors. Certainly only a few of the Brexiter diehards complained about it, and that to little effect.

The refreshed Integrated Review was also an improvement. Whitman, again, notes that its tone was one of “sober realism”, with the hubris of the previous version now largely gone, along with its ‘Global Britain’ tagging. In line with defence analyst Joseph Huminski’s account of US expectations for the review, cited in last week’s post, it put far more emphasis than before on the centrality of European-Atlantic security, manifest in the extent of UK bilateral relationships with EU states, and reflecting, of course, the impact of the Ukraine War.

It’s true that the Indo-Pacific tilt of the 2021 review continued to feature strongly, but I read that as now more being bound up with falling into synch with US hawkishness about China – again in line with Huminski’s explanation of US expectations – rather than being, as it appeared before, a fantasy about the UK as a Pacific power in its own right. That is underscored by the new stress on the AUKUS pact which had not been created at the time of the previous review.

Overall, from a Brexit perspective, there are two observations to be made. One is that there is nothing the UK is doing in defence and foreign policy that required Brexit, unsurprisingly, since, as an EU member, the UK already pursued its own policies in these areas. On the other hand, what has been lost is insider influence over EU decisions in these areas. One immediate practical consequence is that UK firms look set to be locked out of bidding for contracts under the EU’s plans to massively increase arms spending for Ukraine. Moreover, conspicuously missing from an otherwise acute and thorough appraisal of the global scene (about which there is far more to be said than I have done here) is any recognition of the extent to which Brexit was a gift to Russia’s strategic interests.

The second observation is that, given Brexit has happened, post-Brexit defence and foreign policy does now seem to be in the process of being ‘normalized’, in the sense of losing at least some of its Brexity delusions of grandeur, reverting to a position of closely shadowing US definitions of western interests and trying to repair Britain’s regional standing with European neighbours. Of course, some may feel that this traditional posture is problematic, and indeed that the extent of UK ambitions is some way ahead of its ability to afford them. That raises questions which are beyond the scope of this blog, but to the extent that Sunak is engaged in such a normalization, it does undo some of the reputational damage of Brexit.

Trade and regulation: lessons in realism

The refreshed Integrated Review, like its predecessor, makes frequent reference to how defence, security, development and foreign policy are related to trade policy and to economic performance and stability generally. This is clearly true (for any country, not just the UK) and works in both directions, since, for example, the value of pledging to devote 2.5% of GDP to defence spending can’t be separated from the scale of total GDP.

From that point of view, the emphasis on the government is putting on the apparently imminent accession of the UK to the CPTPP, both in IR23 and more generally, is excessive. This was discussed at some length in Alan Beattie’s excellent Trade Secrets column (£) in the Financial Times, which, apart from pointing out that it will only be worth a “pitiful” 0.08% of GDP, identifies the “rough ride” the UK negotiators have had. This is because, in essence and to coin a phrase, ‘we need them more than they need us’ – not so much for economic reasons but for the political one created by “ministers desperate for deals to put in the post-Brexit trophy cupboard”. To that could be added precisely the geo-political emphasis the government is putting on CPTPP membership as an aspect of its Indo-Pacific tilt.

From the other side of the table, this means that individual CPTPP members have few reasons, either economic or political, not to take what advantage they could of this supplicant from the other side of the world, perversely determined to seek a regional place in another continent having discarded the place it had in its own. The consequences, it seems, from both Beattie’s report and other sources, are likely to include significant and potentially controversial concessions for example to Malaysia (by granting zero tariffs on UK palm oil imports) and to Canada (by granting generous tariff-free quotas for beef imports). The latter arises in part because Canada wants the same one-sided benefits already given to Australia and New Zealand by the UK in its ‘desperation for deals’. This is also a reminder of the naivety of those Brexiters who imagine there is a cosy familial bond within ‘the Anglosphere’, and a reminder more generally of the ruthlessness of international trade negotiations.

That ruthlessness is especially evident when a single country, like the UK, is negotiating for itself rather than as part of a regional bloc, and is doing so with a much larger regional bloc. Such asymmetries also apply to regulation, an instructive example this week being the case of regulations about the amount of arsenic allowed in baby foods (I may not be the only person who didn’t know that arsenic in baby food is a thing). New EU rules reduce the amount allowed, which initially raised questions about how, under the Windsor Framework, the difference between EU and UK rules would be managed in Northern Ireland. However, subsequently, the UK trade body for baby food manufacture announced that its members would follow the EU standard, even for products made and sold in Great Britain.

This may seem extremely abstruse or esoteric, but it goes to the heart of the entire question of post-Brexit regulatory independence and, with that, the Brexiter idea of sovereignty. For what it illustrates is that, regardless of what UK regulations may be, businesses will adopt the product standard that suits them. That will generally mean, as in this case, the standard that allows them to sell into both markets, which will be the higher standard, and especially the higher standard of the larger market, making the Brexiters’ idea of regulatory sovereignty facile (the so-called ‘Brussels effect’). In some cases, it may mean simply not serving the smaller market at all.

It’s true that there may be some sectors for which, either because of the size of the UK’s market (e.g. some financial services) or their scientific novelty (e.g. gene editing), the UK* could conceivably be a standard-setter, but as a generality that’s not the case. And even the examples given have much complexity, with many of the ideas for the ‘Edinburgh reforms’ of financial services being controversial, the more so in the wake of the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank this week, and both may be matched or overtaken by changes in EU regulations.

Science and technology: between hubris and realism

It’s worth looking at science and technology in more detail, because it’s clear from numerous statements, including the refreshed Integrated Review and this week’s Budget statement, that the Sunak government sees this as key to the UK’s post-Brexit strategy. That’s not unreasonable, and nor would it have been without Brexit, but there are problems with the government’s approach, and they are all connected with Brexit.

Firstly, it is very much bound up with the ‘global dominance’ version of Brexit, symbolised by the constant rhetoric of Britain being ‘world-leading’. In fact, as a major new independent review of UK R&D published this month shows, that rhetoric rests heavily on past achievements and on a few small research clusters. Overseen by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, the review depicts UK science as being good, but not that good, and as on a trajectory of gradual long-term decline (£). Perhaps that can be reversed by the new UK Science and Technology Framework but, at least in its headline aspirations to be a ‘Superpower’ in this domain, a term repeated in the Budget statement, there still seems to be the equivalent of the ‘Global Britain’ hubris of the original Integrated Review, rather than the ‘sober realism’ of IR23 (perhaps tellingly, the ‘Superpower’ theme goes back to Johnson’s time in office, although Sunak has used it assiduously).

Secondly, as the Nurse review clearly acknowledges, but the government is incapable of even mentioning, Brexit has already damaged UK science. A key issue here is participation in Horizon Europe, which, as I discussed in my previous post, the government is now, bizarrely, fighting shy of, despite the path to participation being cleared by the Windsor Framework agreement. The government’s alternative plan is described by Nurse as “utterly inadequate” and, along with the Royal Society, business groups have urged the government to join Horizon (£). Nor is Horizon the only issue – the end of freedom of movement has, for science as for business, made international collaborations more difficult. For whilst it is true that the post-Brexit immigration rules have seen a surge in skilled immigration (£), the costs and bureaucratic processes involved are a far cry from the free-and-easy interchanges within, at least, Europe that have been lost.

Thirdly, as regards regulation specifically, this aspect of the Framework, which is also the subject of the Vallance Review, is again predicated on the hubristic vision that by 2030 “the UK leverages post-Brexit freedoms and is at the frontier of setting technical standards and shaping international regulations”. There is in that some acknowledgement of the role of other countries and of international bodies, but, with it, the ambition to ‘lead’ and ‘convene’ the international standard-setting ecosystem. What’s lacking is recognition of the brutal truth that the rest of the world neither needs, nor desires, nor is likely to accept such a role for the UK. The hard lessons that the UK is slowly being taught about the realities of power asymmetry in trade negotiations have yet to be learned in the equally unforgiving sphere of international standard-setting.

With that said, there was one revealing feature of the Budget statement in the announcement that the government would use “our Brexit autonomy” in relation to regulating medicines to “move to a different model which will allow rapid, often near automatic sign-off for medicines and technologies already approved by trusted regulators in other parts of the world such as the United States, Europe or Japan”. That doesn’t mean the end to independent UK medical regulation, and the statement goes on to say that the MHRA will be able to approve some medicines in advance of those other regulators, but it does seem to be a realistic recognition of the ‘regulatory pull’ of larger jurisdictions. Whether it is sensible in terms of medical safety I am not competent to judge, but it is certainly piquant to think that, in the name of “Brexit autonomy”, EU-licensed medicines will be effectively rubber-stamped for use in the UK.

Overall, it would be wrong to be completely dismissive of the government’s post-Brexit science agenda. Within the documents referred to there are plenty of interesting ideas, and there are a lot of serious, highly competent, people who are going to be involved in delivering it. Yet, if they do so, it will surely be despite the overall framing of the approach. In other words, it may be successful if it acknowledges the realities of the UK is a medium-sized scientific power possessed, no doubt, of certain advantages, but needing to work co-operatively with others and mindful of its regional location adjacent to the EU and the particular relationships that entails.

It's also notable that the science strategy, including the revised Investment Zone plan, is heavily reliant upon and makes frequent reference to Britain’s – yes, of course – ‘world-leading’ universities. For that to work, the government might wish to consider the state of morale in UK Higher Education, riven for years by strikes over pay, pensions and casualisation, and to reconsider its complicity in endless attacks upon ‘woke’ academics as well as the Brexity disdain for ‘experts’. Indeed, there’s a certain irony in universities being so often decried for being bastions of ‘remainerism’, whilst also being charged with a central role in digging the country out of its Brexit hole. Equally, irrespective of Brexit but made harder by the impoverishment caused by Brexit, its success will require significant increases in government spending, without which any strategy, however realistically defined, will be mere rhetoric.

Small boats: scarcely a glimmer of realism

Rhetoric without substance is hardly a new feature of politics, but arguably it has become a particular problem in post-Brexit Britain. That is evident in the performative trade policy that prizes ‘doing trade deals’ above their value, but most grossly illustrated by the latest drive to ‘stop the boats’ with the Illegal Migration Bill, which has dominated recent news headlines recently and engulfed the BBC in a major row.

Rafael Behr identifies the Bill as prime example of this post-Brexit performativity, in the sense that, for all its cruelty, it will not ‘stop the boats’ and this is not its purpose. Rather, its purpose is the grimly populist one of enabling the government to declaim its commitment to ‘the people’s priorities’ whilst demonizing those who oppose it, including Labour and ‘lefty do-gooders’, as out of touch with ‘the people’. Yet, as Nick Tyrone points out in his latest Week in Brexitland substack, if this were genuinely the popular consensus then why make such exaggerated and vitriolic claims about the need for the policy?

Both the performativity and the populism of this are, indeed, hallmarks of Brexit, but there is something else here, too. It is the most extreme example of imagining Brexit as mandating untrammelled national independence. It does so by trying to detach the UK from the global flow of refugees: if all those who have passed through a safe country on their way to the UK are deemed automatically ‘illegal’, and with seeking asylum by direct travel being virtually impossible, then Britain has no responsibilities. That may be somewhat ameliorated by providing for refugees from favoured places, such as Hong Kong and Ukraine, but otherwise uses the accident of an island geography to pursue a policy of national isolationism.

So, suddenly, in this domain, there’s no talk of the UK ‘leading’ or ‘convening’ international standards or responses, still less of ‘Global Britain’. On the contrary, at least for the hardliners, there is outrage that such international standards should apply, most especially those of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the ‘meddling foreign judges’ of its associated Court. For them, the Illegal Migration Bill is not, or not simply, performative politics because its anticipated failure is a gateway to the Brexit 2.0 of ECHR derogation. And if that brings with it the termination of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, and puts the Good Friday Agreement into crisis, that would not bother many of them, and indeed might be welcomed by some of them.

Yet even in this area there is a glimmer of recognition, from the government if not the hardliners, shown in the discussions with France and, more widely, the ‘Calais Group’, that international cooperation is necessary. And, for all the noise of those who would derogate from the ECHR, it is still difficult to envisage the government actually doing this, or being able to do so in the face of what would undoubtedly be a huge backlash even from within the Tory Party, let alone from other domestic and international actors. Still, Sunak will allow ministers to dangle the prospect, as well as continue his ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric, despite the costs to international reputation, since whatever realism he shows in other respects is trumped by his apparent belief that it is a vote-winner.

The real consequences are clear

It’s easy to identify the many ways, including those discussed here, that Brexit has rendered the UK directionless, confused or destabilized across just about every policy area. And whilst there is no single measure to capture the consequences, one which is highly revealing is business investment, since it implies some degree of confidence in the current and future UK economy and polity. Moreover, it allows a degree of comparison with other countries.

On that metric, the verdict could hardly be more damning, as, for example, expressed this week by BYD, China’s largest electric car manufacturer, which is currently considering where to open its first European car plant. In the words of its European president, “as an investor we want a country to be stable … To open a factory is a decision for decades. Without Brexit, maybe. But after Brexit, we don’t understand what happened … Even on the long list we didn’t have the UK.” It’s an interesting formulation as although, no doubt, the economics of Britain being outside the single market are part of the calculation, issues of stability, presumably both political and regulatory, and, more intangibly, ‘reputation’ are foregrounded.

Overall, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s report that accompanied this week’s Budget statement not only confirmed the stagnation of business investment that started immediately after the referendum, but showed a larger and more long-lasting negative impact than it had initially expected**. A briefing published by the Economics Observatory this week shows that a similar picture emerges from a variety of different sources and models and, significantly, that it obtains across multiple business sectors (see Table 1). These sources show the UK’s investment levels since 2016 to be poor by international standards (see especially Figure 3).

It is hardly surprising. “Brexit has cracked Britain’s economic foundations” as CNN’s Hanna Ziady put it at the end of last year. But it has done more than that. It has fractured Britain’s relationship with the world across multiple domains, all of which show the strategic incoherence of Brexit. There are some signs, limited but welcome, that the government recognizes and is trying to repair some of these fractures. But these attempts are patchy, painfully slow and, in the final analysis, inevitably constrained by the ultimate reality that the multiple problems Brexit is causing are inherent in the lies and fantasies of Brexit itself.



*Note that as regards the specific example of gene editing, the proposed new regulatory framework will apply in England only.

**The second link in this sentence shows the investment chart. To put it in context, it is Chart F on p.48 in the overall report (the first link in the sentence) which itself sits inside Box 2.4 (pp. 46-49) which reviews the OBR’s previous and current assumptions and forecasts about Brexit more generally.