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”.
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.
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