Friday 30 June 2023

The new Brexit consensus

Last week’s seventh anniversary of the referendum saw a surge of interest in Brexit, with numerous commentaries, including my own, looking back or taking stock. What all of them had in common was some kind of acknowledgement, even if only implicit, that Brexit has not proved to be popular and is widely viewed as having been a mistake.

For those who always opposed Brexit, this is no surprise because we never expected it to be a success. Brexiters, however, are in a more complex situation. They are torn between wanting to argue, like former Trade Secretary Peter Lilley, that Brexit actually has been a success (£), and wanting to argue, like the IEA boss Mark Littlewood, that the government has failed to “reap the true rewards of Brexit” (£). It is a tension which has been the defining feature of the years since the end of the transition period and, as I’ve remarked before, is one of the prime reasons why Brexiters have lost the ‘battle for the narrative’ in that period: why would public opinion swing to the view that Brexit was the right thing to do, when so many Brexiters spend so much time complaining about it?

Although the idea it was the right thing to do, but it was done in the wrong way, isn’t likely to build support for Brexit, there is polling evidence that it holds sway amongst 2016 leave voters. Of the 37% of leave voters who think Brexit has been a failure, some 75% of them think that it could have been a success, whereas of the 89% of remain voters who think Brexit has been a failure only 24% think it could have been a success.

Despite these differences, there is within this the very slender basis of a political consensus: whatever they ascribe it to, a miserable 9% of the public think that Brexit has been a success. Far from solving any of Britain’s problems, Brexit is now itself a problem in need of a solution. So what might the solution be?

The Brexiters’ solution part 1: Back to the future

For some Brexiters, notably Northern Ireland unionists and those close to them, one part of the solution lies in endlessly propounding the same solutions they have always wanted. Thus this week the Centre for Brexit Policy unveiled its great way forward for Northern Ireland which – it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry – turns out to be the idea of ‘Mutual Enforcement’, which it proposed in almost identical terms in its September 2021 report and before that in its February 2021 report. Indeed, its roots lie in the stream of ‘alternative arrangements’ proposals for the Irish border during 2018-2019.

It's not going to happen because, as border expert Professor Katy Hayward pointed out at the time of the 2021 version, it doesn’t meet the basis tests of what is needed. Not only has it been rejected by the EU, but it has been rejected by the UK government. Moreover, George Peretz KC has eviscerated this latest report’s claims about the legal basis for voiding the existing agreement. In any case, although the report talks of the arrangements for Northern Ireland being an ‘unresolved’ issue, politically, the chance of Rishi Sunak ripping up the Windsor Framework – one of his few tangible achievements as Prime Minister – is precisely the square root of Sweet Fanny Adams. That of the EU negotiating a new deal even less than that.

Even Iain Duncan Smith, launching the report, seemed to have no great expectations of it, but ascribed this to Joe Biden being “anti-British” and imagined that Brexit wouldn’t be “completed” until there was a different US President. As ever, the leprechauns have hidden the pot of gold but there are still some Brexiters searching for the end of the rainbow. Even more fantastical is the revival, on the wilder fringes of the Brexit Blob, that it would have been better to leave the EU with no deal at all. To change the metaphor to one I’ve used before on this blog, it is as if some Brexiters are stuck on a Mobius Strip, endlessly going around the same loop in the vain hope of arriving somewhere new.

The Brexiters’ solution part 2: Onward to the promised land

However, I think that most Brexiters realise that, to change the metaphor again, the dead horse of re-visiting the terms of Brexit isn’t going to run, still less win the Derby, no matter how hard it is flogged. Instead, for Littlewood, Lilley and almost all the Brexit Ultras, the solution to the problem of Brexit’s failure lies in ‘making use of Brexit freedoms’. However, they are remarkably coy about what this means. One reason for the coyness is that such Brexiters have rarely wanted to spell out their agenda in terms of cutting employment rights and environmental protections, knowing how little public support it has. Another is that when it comes to the more palatable-sounding ‘regulatory divergence’ they don’t really know what they mean.

Writing in the Mail, Andrew Neil (who would no doubt abjure being labelled a ‘Thatcherite Brexiter’, but whose writings on Brexit seem indistinguishable from theirs) began his referendum anniversary article by acknowledging that there is, indeed, a problem, with neither remainers nor leavers being pleased with Brexit. Towards the end of a long and largely vapid discussion, he suggests the solution is to make the most of Brexit, meaning:

“A dynamic digital economy. Low, competitive taxes for individuals and business. Light-touch regulation of new technologies. A robust welfare-to-work programme to tackle poverty and labour shortages. The reskilling of our people for the digital age.”

There are several things that are striking about this list, most obviously that much of it doesn’t even require Brexit (and Neil implies as much by saying they are “probably easier to achieve” outside the EU, although he doesn’t say why). But, just taking the ones that could be Brexit-related, which are those concerning regulation of new technologies and, probably, the one about the digital economy (as presumably it implies light-touch data protection regulation), what is also striking is how vague they are. I realise this is an article in the Mail, and that Andrew Neil isn’t exactly on all fours with Wittgenstein as a profound thinker, but, still, after seven years, this is very thin on detail.

Same old problems

Crucially, it doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the central problems with divergence towards light-touch regulation. I’ve rehearsed these so many times on this blog that I won’t repeat them in detail here, but the principal problems are that any UK national regulatory system forces those UK firms who also export to face the costs of double regulation, unless the UK system becomes widely used internationally, which is unlikely because the UK isn’t large enough.

These are essentially the points made just this week by the Chair of vehicle-maker Ford, Tim Slatter. Arguing that Britain should continue to follow EU car regulations “otherwise, what we're going to see is a lot of extra cost come into the cost of developing vehicles and producing vehicles”, he continued that:

“It's very important that Great Britain maintains good regulatory alignment with the European Union. There are sort of three big regulatory environments for automotive in the world. There's the North American one, the European one and the Japanese one. And it's really important that we maintain really good alignment to the European one, because that's where we build and sell most of our vehicles.”

This, or versions of it, is the constant, practical, block to post-Brexit regulatory divergence. In this sense, the deregulatory Brexiters are as stuck in a loop as those Brexiters still droning on about Mutual Enforcement and replacing the Protocol (in fact, they are very often the same people). They keep calling for the same things and keep failing to understand why they haven’t happened to any great extent, as shown by the latest edition of the UKICE regulatory divergence tracker. But, rather than reflect that this is because of the fundamental flaws in their ideas, they persist in blaming remainers and insisting that the solution depends on stronger belief in Brexit.

When faith meets reality

Thus Andrew Neil recognizes that Sunak is not going to follow a “radical Brexit Britain agenda”, but ascribes it to him not being a “true believer” in Brexit. Belief can mean many things, but amongst the more cult-like Brexiters there is the sense that it means something like ‘faith’, in a quasi-religious way, such that reality will bend if faced with a sufficiency of it. For commentators and politicians who are not in power, it is easy to sustain that faith, but almost invariably, when in power, it becomes impossible to do so in the face of reality. That is why so many Brexiters, when given the power to implement it, went on to resign. Brexit Secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab are both examples. They preferred to keep their faith intact rather than face reality, but others did the opposite and faced reality, for which the faithful inevitably despised them.

That is what Theresa May did, having embraced hard Brexit, when, as regards regulatory divergence, she came to the view in the Chequers Agreement that there needed to be a “common rule book” for goods, at which point the Brexiters turned on her as being ‘Theresa the Remainer’. In a more limited way, Kemi Badenoch did the same thing when reining back the scope of the Retained EU Law Bill, for which she too was reviled by some Brexiters. In a somewhat different way, Steve Baker also made that journey in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and, again, was denounced by the Ultras.

Even Johnson, for all his bluster, never actually enacted the regulatory divergence the Brexit Ultras want, and always drew back from completely violating the Protocol or even from following through on his many threats to invoke Article 16. Perhaps in his case that was aided by the plasticity of both his faith in Brexit and his relationship with truth, but the general point is that the practical realities of governing always, at least so far, and just about, trump faith in Brexit.

Sunak’s solution

As for Sunak, although regarded by some as having never been a ‘true Brexiter’, he is in fact a particular sort of Brexiter, a technocratic globalist rather than nationalist, and therefore neither viscerally antagonistic to the EU nor bothered by the supposed sovereignty violations of international or trans-national regulation. For example, as Neil points out, his approach to Artificial Intelligence has been to seek to lead global regulation, rather than to be hostile to regulation.

In that, as discussed in my recent post on the topic, Sunak displays one kind of Brexit delusion – about the UK as a global regulatory leader – and thus it doesn’t make him less of a Brexiter, but does show that (like Thatcher herself, in fact) by no means all Brexiters, even on the Thatcherite right, are advocates of national regulatory divergence. This is also shown by the fact that, as Chancellor, he signed up to the OECD agreement to set a 15% minimum corporation tax rate (presumably with Johnson’s acquiescence). It is also shown by the announcement this week that the current Chancellor (presumably with Sunak’s blessing) signed the long-delayed Memorandum of Understanding with the EU over financial services regulation, something unlocked by having agreed the Windsor Framework. Equally, Badenoch’s retreat on Retained EU Law must have been at least authorised, and very likely advocated, by Sunak.

The other Brexit consensus

All of this clearly infuriates the ‘diverge and de-regulate’ Brexiters, since it is precisely the opposite of what they see as the solution to the Brexit problem. But, just as the difficulty they have always faced is lack of political support for their deregulatory agenda, so, now, they face the specific difficulty that this is absolutely at odds with how the public see the solution to the Brexit problem.

For there is one other slender piece of consensus, apart from the near-universal acceptance that Brexit has not been a success. It was revealed by a poll conducted for the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) last week, asking respondents which option they favoured for the UK’s relationship with the EU over the next ten to fifteen years.

Amongst all voters, the preferred option of 43% is to re-join the EU, 13% to re-join the single market (but not the EU), 22% to re-join neither but seek a closer trade and security relationship with the EU than at present, 7% to keep the relationship as it is, 5% to minimise economic and security ties, and 10% don’t know.

Amongst leave voters, with those options in the same order, the preferences are: 13%, 21%, 37%, 8%, 9%, 11%

Amongst remain voters, with those options in the same order, the preferences are: 73%, 6%, 8%, 5%, 2%, 6%

So this suggests that 78% of all voters, and even 71% of leaver voters, would prefer some version of a closer relationship with the EU, and note that this is a large increase from the 53% who favoured closer ties in a May 2023 poll (though differences in survey methodology may account for some of that). Obviously the majority of voters, and the vast majority of remain voters, want more than just closer ties without any form of rejoining, so there is only limited consensus about what a ‘closer relationship’ would mean. But it can certainly be said that there is a clear consensus against the standard Brexiter view of wanting greater divergence, which in the TBI poll only has 5% support amongst all voters and only 9% support even amongst leave voters.

It can also be said that, whilst there is no clear consensus on what a ‘closer relationship’ should be, there is at least an implicit consensus for a closer relationship outside of the EU and the single market. This needs to be phrased very carefully: of course, there isn’t a consensus view for that as the preferred option, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone who preferred to re-join the EU, or preferred to re-join the single market, would actually object to closer ties without doing either.

Many of those might say that there is no point in it, on the basis that it won’t make enough, or any, difference, but that wouldn’t be to object to doing it per se. Conceivably, some of those might say that doing so might, by ameliorating the damage of Brexit, undermine the momentum towards re-joining, and object on that basis. But anyone making that objection would at least implicitly be accepting that following this option would ‘make a difference’, as otherwise it could not adversely affect the case to re-join.

Thus, overall, there is a certain kind of consensus here, around three things: the vast majority of electors do not think that Brexit has been a success and the great majority of voters do not support greater divergence from the EU and the great majority of voters either support or at least do not object to the UK seeking a closer relationship with the EU. It’s not inevitable that this consensus will hold but it’s also more than possible that it will grow, for example when the fresh costs and disruption of starting to implement import controls on goods from the EU begin to emerge in October.

Delivering the consensus view

This very limited consensus is reflected by the current leadership of the two main Westminster parties. But Sunak’s ability to go very far with it is highly constrained by the fact that, whatever voters think, many of his MPs will vociferously disagree with him doing so. Notably, he has still failed to reach an agreement over UK participation in Horizon, to the major detriment of UK science and industry (though in that case he has been reported to have his own reservations, as well as facing the inevitable demands from the Brexiters to stay out). In any case, it is unlikely he will be in power after the next election and the Tory Party will, almost certainly, head off in the most dogmatic and extreme direction about relations with the EU, deregulation and just about everything else.

So it is really the anticipated Labour government which matters. Quite how far that government will choose to seek, and more importantly be able to agree, closer relations with the EU remains to be seen. But there are quiet noises that Starmer is getting bolder, and that Labour will try to maximise the closeness of ties with the EU, within the considerable limits of remaining outside the EU, single market and customs union.

One thing is for sure, whilst doing so will attract anger from the pro-Brexit media, Starmer will not have anything like the drag-anchor of the ERG to constrain him. Rather, he is more likely to face pressure from within his party to go further, both in what he promises before the election, which, after all, is still likely to be over a year away, and what he delivers afterwards. Moreover, whatever noise the Brexit media make, the issues involved are mainly going to be too technical and abstruse for the public to get worked up about – indeed the reality is that, outside the Brexit blob, hardly anyone ever remotely cared about having sovereign control of, say, SPS regulations, or had even heard of them.

The TBI polling referred to earlier was within a report setting out in some detail what a maximal approach would be (perhaps one should call it – maximal within minimal), and, as Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times recently discussed (£), the TBI looks set to be a major influence on the Labour government. The report is also worth reading as it disposes of some of the standard objections to Labour’s approach, such as that it is a new version of ‘cakeism’ or of ‘cherry-picking’. As for the question of how much the EU will agree to, it is certainly important not to be starry-eyed about this and to repeat the Brexiters’ naivety about the EU’s power and determination to pursue its own self-interest. However, Mujtaba Rahman, one of the best-connected and best-informed analysts in this area, has recently argued that there is more room for flexibility than the EU’s official position suggests.

There’s another point here which I don’t think is ever discussed. Even if a Labour government failed to achieve any change at all in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, at the very least it can remove the spectre of regulatory divergence which is ever-present under the Tories. A report this week in the Financial Times (£), which was mainly about how post-Brexit border frictions are pushing British firms out of EU supply chains, mentioned in passing how “uncertainty about UK regulation, which no longer tracks EU rules” is a deterrent for investors. Such uncertainty is also the reason why the EU hasn’t granted an equivalence agreement on financial services (£), and is unlikely to do so whilst it persists, notwithstanding this week’s Memorandum of Understanding. These kinds of uncertainties could be removed for years by a Labour government simply giving a commitment to continued alignment, which requires no agreement from the EU, and this appears to be consistent with Labour’s stated policy.

Beyond the consensus: Re-joiners have more to do, but much to celebrate

Naturally none of this will satisfy most of the 55% of voters who would currently vote to re-join the EU. But, for now, it is the only game in town, in the literal sense that there isn’t the remotest sign of any UK government holding a referendum in the next parliament which takes us to, probably, 2029. That doesn’t imply that re-joiners should cease to campaign for what they want, as the only way the game will change is by moving beyond the current, very limited, consensus. Their task is to sustain and build a durable majority in the opinion polls for re-joining over the coming years so as to make it politically viable for the UK and for the EU. If that seems a rather dour and depressing analysis, I don’t think it should. Considering all that has happened since 2016 it is truly remarkable and noteworthy what has been achieved.

Firstly, the hard-right, deregulatory, ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ Brexit (not that they ever understood what ‘Singapore’ would mean) is, for now and the foreseeable future, off the political agenda. I have consistently argued, and taken quite a lot of flak for doing so, that those remainers who insist that ‘this was always the real agenda of Brexit’ make exactly the same error as those Brexiters who insist that ‘this is what true Brexit means’. Both miss the point that Brexit had multiple and contradictory meanings, and it could develop in multiple different ways. However, that’s not to deny that Brexit most certainly could have gone in the hard-right direction, and under Liz Truss it very nearly did. But, for the most part, it hasn’t.

Secondly, remainers and rejoiners have, certainly for now (although it is never over), won the ‘battle for the narrative’ which, as I argued in January 2021, would follow the end of the transition period. In May 2022 I wrote that Brexiters were losing that battle and by December 2022 that Brexit was slowly being discredited. In the months since then it has become ever-clearer that this is so. That is shown not just by the opinion polls about Brexit being a mistake and a failure but also by those now showing a fairly consistent, though by no means unassailable, majority to re-join the EU.

Both of those achievements would have seemed incredible in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, or in some of the dark days which followed, such as when the Mail dubbed High Court judges “enemies of the people” or when Tory MEP David Bannerman called for those with “extreme EU loyalty” to be tried for treason. It took a lot of resilience, and even some courage, for those who knew Brexit was a terrible, catastrophic mistake to keep saying so over the long years since, and that has reaped rewards. But the ‘de-Brexitification’ of Britain is going to be a long, slow process, calling for still more tenacity, and a considerable degree of patience.


Summer Recess: On that, hopefully relatively upbeat, note, I am going to take a long summer break from blogging. Although there’s always some Brexit news to discuss, experience suggests that the summer political shutdown means that it slackens off (last year being a notable exception). If something major relating to Brexit happens, or just something which particularly captures my attention, I will write a post. Otherwise, I don’t plan to post again until Friday 15 September when I will begin what will be the eighth year of writing this blog.

As always, my huge and sincere thanks to all the tens of thousands of people who read each week via various channels. I know very well that this blog competes for limited time and attention with any number of other sources, and I never take your readership for granted.

Finally, in case of interest, a new edition of my book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be available on (provisionally) Tuesday 19 September. This updates the previous edition by adding the ‘story’ of what happened from the end of the transition period (when the first edition ends) to the seventh anniversary of the referendum in June 2023. It can already be pre-ordered from Biteback Publishing, and the same link will be updated with more details about the new edition over the summer.

Friday 23 June 2023

Seven years on, Brexiters talk more about remainers than Brexit

As we reach the seventh anniversary of the referendum there is a flurry of assessments and comment pieces, as now happens on each anniversary of a milestone in the Brexit process. I’m not going to review them here, but their profusion, and the diversity of their claims and counter-claims are, in themselves, evidence that Brexit remains deeply divisive and hotly contested. And that is as much evidence of the failure of Brexit as the clear, established and growing public view that it was a mistake. For Brexit was never supposed to be a project of permanent division, a national future constantly contested and with a declining minority supporting it.

Conversely, imagine if Brexit had been a success. We might expect triumphant articles from Brexiters, trumpeting and celebrating this latest anniversary. Perhaps there would be replays of the campaign videos – like the Leave.EU one about the benefits Brexit would bring – ticking off, item by item, each promise that had come true. And, surely, there would be at least some one-time remainers recanting their opposition, swayed by a growing mass of evidence that daily life, and national prosperity and standing, had been improved.

Well, it’s still early in the day and, as I remarked last week, a Friday morning blog can get caught out, so perhaps, later in this anniversary day, we will see all of these things. But it’s not likely, and if it happens then it will be very different from the recent tenor of Brexit discussion. What we see instead is a mixture of defensiveness and blame-shifting and, most striking of all, a growing tendency for Brexiters to focus attention not on Brexit itself but on ‘remainers’.

The disgrace of Johnson

That focus takes various forms, and currently, because this anniversary has coincided with the public disgrace of Boris Johnson, it has also become bound up with that. I wrote at length about the connections between Johnson and Brexit in last week’s post and won’t repeat that, but it would still be worth reading by anyone taken in by claims made by, for example, Robert Tombs in The Telegraph (£), that commentators linking his downfall to Brexit are, somehow, ‘letting slip’ that the agenda behind the Privileges Committee report was not really about lying to the House of Commons.

That is also how the Brexiter press more generally has depicted the report, and this week’s Commons debate and vote upholding it, describing it as a “Remainer ‘show trial’” conducted by “vengeful technocrats” extracting “Remainer revenge”. And, almost invariably, this is seen not just as ‘punishment’ for Johnson supporting and enacting Brexit but as “the first step” (£) to reversing it. Or, perhaps, the outrage isn’t even rooted in such fears but something more visceral, as with former Brexit Party MEP Alex Phillips who declared herself “utterly sick with rage” at “all these smug Remoaners lining up to lambast Boris”.  

The very obvious counter to all this, apart from the fact that the Committee’s report was unanimously agreed by its members who included Brexiters, lies in the composition of the Commons vote on whether to accept its findings and recommendations. It’s true that, shamefully, some 225 Tory MPs chose to abstain*, including, disgracefully, Rishi Sunak whose weak leadership has been plainly exposed, and another seven voted against. That is a terrible reflection on the willingness of Johnson’s supporters to pervert important democratic safeguards, though listening to some of their contributions to the debate it wasn’t always clear they even understood what the vote was actually about. For example, Lia Nici, holding the report containing all the evidence in her hands, declared that there was no evidence of Johnson’s wrongdoing on the wholly extraneous grounds that she had once been one of his Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

Still, 118 Tories voted to support the Committee, suggesting that the Conservative Party isn’t (yet) Trumpified in the manner of the Republicans. Crucially, amongst their number were some very committed Brexiters, including Steve Baker, John Baron, Graham Brady, Geoffrey Cox, David Davis, Daniel Kawczynski, Tim Loughton, Penny Mordaunt and, no doubt, others. The Tory Party is clearly deeply split on this, as it is on many issues, but the split on this occasion wasn’t a straightforward one between pro- and anti-Brexit MPs. For that reason alone it is absurd to depict what happened as a ‘Remainer show trial’ or as a prelude to reversing Brexit.

Picking over the entrails of ‘Project Fear’

But this obsession with ‘remainers’ goes much wider than the attempt to blame them for Johnson’s richly-deserved and far too belated disgrace. Not only do Brexiters no longer make reference to their own promises of seven years ago, but they are fixated on the now totally irrelevant remain campaign. For example, the Robert Tombs’ piece returns to one of his favourite topics in giving a potted history of ‘Project Fear’ claims as a prelude to some cod psychology which purports to explain why remainers and re-joiners continue to oppose Brexit. The rather obvious explanation that the evidence of its failure continues to increase seems not to occur to him.

It's not just ‘Project Fear’ in general that preoccupies the Brexiters. They are also still gunning for particular hate figures within the supposed project, a prime example being former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, who reminded them that he had rightly anticipated that Brexit would have long-term inflationary effects – a key issue this week. Cue outrage from his perennial critic Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a dismissive assessment in CapX from, inevitably, Brexit Blob economist Julian Jessop. But whilst Jessop, rightly, accepts that Carney isn’t ascribing all current UK inflation to Brexit, he isn’t able to disprove that some of it is, something independent economists from Mohamed El-Erian of Queens’ College, Cambridge to  Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute in the US see as self-evident, and which even the BBC, despite its hyper-caution about reporting Brexit bad news, just about accepts.

A much less predictable piece about ‘Project Fear’ appeared, also in CapX, written by Phil Craig. There has been so much written about Brexit now that it is very rare indeed to find a new take on it, but Craig succeeds, albeit only by dint of almost mind-blowing perversity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it was hailed as “a great article” by that fine judge of intellectual quality and coherent argument, um, David Frost.

Normally, two arguments are made about Project Fear by its critics. One is that since some of its worst predictions didn’t come true that means that all predictions of any Brexit damage, then or since, can safely be ignored. The other is that, since some of the predictions were worse than has actually happened, Brexit is vindicated. The first suffers from an obvious illogic (‘some warnings were false, therefore all warnings are false’). The second isn’t, to say the least, compelling defence of Brexit (‘it’s good because it’s not as bad as the worst that some said it would be’).

Whilst there is some validity in criticizing the use George Osborne, especially, made of the Treasury short-term forecast, especially, both versions of the argument typically operate by cherry-picking often de-contextualised claims from the remain campaign. It’s also quite wrong to equate remain campaign forecasts, accurate or not, with actual lies, such as the infamous ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ slogan that Craig gestures towards, which could never have been true. In any case, what the remain campaign said is irrelevant now, given that the leave campaign won and we’ve left the EU: all that matters is how Brexit has actually worked out.

But Craig’s new angle is to suggest that it is still relevant. He argues that ‘Project Fear’ shifted votes to ‘remain’ in the closing days of the campaign, making the ‘leave’ win much tighter than it would otherwise have been. This, he says, means that compared with the 60-40 win for leave that he believes could otherwise have occurred, the 52-48 win was less amenable to ‘losers’ consent’, and more likely to enable “conspiracy theories to flourish”, accounting for the continuing divisions.

This is nonsense at multiple levels (except, perhaps, if the implication is that the referendum should have required a ‘super-majority’), not least because there’s little or no evidence from the pre-referendum opinion polls that a 60-40 vote to leave was remotely likely. The highest level of support for leave recorded in those polls was 55%, in a single survey, and no other poll was anywhere near that.

Moreover, the ‘victim-blaming’ implication that remainers are at fault for what has happened subsequently because they didn’t lose heavily enough is a bizarre one. Even if Craig insists that remainer forecasts were lies, stripping their impact out would only make sense in this context if the impact of the leave campaign lies were similarly removed: does anyone seriously think that would have yielded a 52%, let alone a 60%, vote to leave? And, that being so, whilst Craig doesn’t seek to defend any of the leave lies, it is surely perverse to suggest that “the big lies, the ones that really shifted the dial” were told by the remain campaign.

Losers’ consent

Beyond that, though, is the whole question of ‘losers’ consent’. It’s true that some have focused on improprieties in the 2016 vote, including not just the conduct of the campaign but funding and possible Russian interference, though it’s not clear that a wider margin in the result would have assuaged those concerns rather than magnified them. But that wasn’t the biggest complaint. Far more important was the fact that what ‘leaving the EU’ meant was not specified by the referendum, so what the losers were being asked to consent to was only defined retrospectively. That would still have been a complaint, and an equally legitimate one, whatever the margin of their defeat.

It's also true that there was a demand for another vote. But the campaign for a People’s Vote was never, despite many claims to the contrary, a campaign to re-run the referendum, but to have a referendum with at least some knowledge (albeit not that of the eventual trade deal) of what, by 2018-2019, had become clearer about Brexit was going to mean in practice. That didn’t happen, because Brexiters knew or suspected that they would lose such a vote, and that’s one reason why Brexit continues to be so divisive: it did not, in the form it took, have majority support.

But even that might have gone away in time had the actually effects of Brexit not proved to be so dire (confirming at least some, if not all, of the ‘Project Fear warnings). Again, it is this, rather than issues of loser’s consent, or weird psychological preferences, or vindictiveness, or elite plotting, or any of the other convoluted arguments being put forward, which explains why Brexit is still divisive and still contentious.

Remainer ‘subversion’

For those not sated with Frost’s recommended readings, he praised another “excellent” article this week, this time from the more familiar pen of Graham Gudgin who, with Robert Tombs, co-edits the Brexit Blob's house-website Briefings for Britain, which is where the article appeared. Yet again, the focus is on the perceived sins of remainers, who this time are accused of “becoming increasingly desperate” and suffering “Brexit derangement syndrome”, supposedly because they “pin any and all negative events on Brexit”.

The latter is a typically hyperbolic claim designed to discredit by association in that, whilst I don’t doubt that examples can be found of it, no serious analysis of Brexit proceeds in that way. Certainly, serious analysts of things like travel disruption, trade levels, the labour market or inflation are at pains to try to separate out Brexit from other factors. The real issue is the refusal of Brexiters to accept that, whatever that separate impact may be, it is necessarily an extra burden, uniquely suffered by Britain.  

Towards the end of Gudgin’s article is another version of the losers’ consent theme, but this time making one of the most persistent, and the most pernicious, claims within the Brexiter canon, that remainers in parliament “attempt[ed] to subvert the result of a legally-conducted referendum”. It's manifestly untrue. When was this attempt made?

The vote on triggering Article 50? But that was passed with a massive majority. The votes on May’s deal? But her deal was voted against by the Brexiters, on the basis it was not real Brexit, so that can’t have been an attempt to “subvert the result” of the referendum. A motion to hold another referendum (if that would be considered subversion)? But no such motion was passed. The vote on Johnson’s deal? But his Withdrawal Amendment Bill had passed second reading and its passage was only interrupted by his decision to hold the 2019 election. I suppose, for Brexiters, the other possible answer would be the Benn Act. But that was a vote to prevent no-deal Brexit, which was never proposed as an even conceivable version of Brexit at the referendum.

Humiliating remainers

Perhaps the crucial conceit in Gudgin’s piece is that “we always knew that a hardcore of remainers would never give up”, as if “this Remainer fight-back” arises from the eccentricity, if not “some sort of mental breakdown”, of a tiny, declining and deluded minority. Yet the fact is that a clear and growing majority of the public think that Brexit has been a mistake, and not because they are “like Jacobites … still attempting to reverse the Glorious Revolution more than half a century after the event” but because ordinary people, seven years from the referendum, have seen what it means and see it as having failed. As the pollster Peter Kellner wrote this week, “Britain is now an anti-Brexit country”.   

Perhaps it is enragement about this which explains why so much Brexiter energy is directed at insulting remainers. Ever since the referendum result some Brexiters have seemed to enjoy the hurt and anguish it has caused remainers more than they do Brexit itself, which in itself has contributed to keeping all the divisions alive. That is even more the case now when, even in seeking to defend Brexit, they do not invite everyone, leaver and remainer alike, to relish its supposed success, but frame their argument in terms of humiliating Brexit’s critics.

A typical example is the recent Telegraph article by Ross Clark, headlined “Remainers predicting economic catastrophe have been utterly humiliated” (£). Before getting too excited, regular Telegraph readers might have recalled how, in March, David Frost told them that Remainers “are about to be humiliated” (£), that time by the agreement of UK accession to CPTPP and the 0.08% GDP uplift it might bring over 15 years. They might also have remembered that, last September, they were assured by Allister Heath that the “declinist remainer elite is about to be humiliated” (£), the reason on that occasion being the Truss mini-budget, which did indeed bring about humiliation – for its architects, and their cheerleaders like Heath.

At all events, any quailing remainer who continued reading the Clark piece might have felt utterly bemused rather than “utterly humiliated”. For it turned out that the prediction in question was made in January, not by ‘remainers’ but the IMF (for some Brexiters, of course, there is no distinction), and it was not of ‘catastrophe’ but, though the article didn’t spell this out, of a 0.6% contraction of UK GDP in 2023. Again not mentioned is that the IMF subsequently revised its forecast in April to a 0.3% contraction and in May to a 0.4% growth (one reason for the upgrade, by the way, was agreeing the Windsor Framework, regarded by Brexit Ultras as a betrayal).

The ‘utter humiliation’ suffered by this outdated forecast was that, according to Eurostat, the UK economy in fact grew by a dazzling 0.1% of GDP in each of the last two quarters. Wowza! Not only that but, to complete the humiliation, the Eurozone has “plunged into” a recession, having “slumped” by 0.1% in those same two quarters. Like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Clark attaches great significance to this as a justification of Brexit, although it is not at all clear why, since the UK was never part of the Eurozone, and its economic cycle rarely, if ever, coincided with it. Nor it is clear why a Eurozone recession should be good news since it is still such a major export market for the UK.

So all this was bogus as a defence of Brexit, but the present point is that its entire framing, like that of the other articles cited, illustrates Brexiters talking to a (presumably) sympathetic audience in ways suggesting that what is now the most important thing about Brexit is the demonization of remainers.

The problem with Brexit is Brexit itself

This is part of the explanation of why Brexit has failed, at a political level. You can hardly recruit converts to your cause by insulting and humiliating them. But the bigger issue is that the pre-occupation with doing so is an expression of the fact that there is nothing to celebrate about Brexit. The problem with Brexit isn’t anything to do with remainers, it is with Brexit itself.

It is the refusal of Brexiters to accept that which explains how their original obsession with leaving has now shifted to an obsession with remainers. That in turn is part of the attempt to show that Brexit has been ‘betrayed’ or ‘not done properly’ or ‘done in name only’. Taken together, it creates a vicious circle. The more that Brexiters themselves decry the Brexit we actually have, the less reason there is for the public, including leave voters, to support it, and the less the public support it, the more Brexiters turn their ire on remainers.

Rather than pick over the scabs of Project Fear or scratch at the psychosomatic rash of remainer revenge and plots, they would do better to satisfy the seven-year itch by returning to the Vote.EU video I mentioned above, or perhaps the Vote Leave one about the NHS. Not in a spirit of triumph, as they might have done had Brexit succeeded, but in order to recognize how preposterous were the promises they made for Brexit, and how comprehensively they have failed to transpire.

 If capable of honesty, they would admit that the fault for what has happened since lies not with those who warned of it and tried to prevent it, but with those who made these promises and persuaded so many to believe them. And if capable of shame, they would hang their heads, as disgraced as their disgraceful leader.


*It shouldn’t be concluded that all the MPs who didn’t vote, including Tories, were registering lack of support for the Committee’s report (for example, Alberto Costa was one of them, although he was one of the Committee’s members). Some may have had legitimate reasons why they couldn’t attend.

Friday 16 June 2023

Could this be a cathartic moment for Brexit Britain?

Writing a weekly blog that appears on a Friday morning carries an inherent risk of something important happening later in the day. So it was no doubt tempting fate to begin last week’s post with the observation that it had been a relatively quiet Brexit news week, only for Boris Johnson to resign as an MP that evening, having read the draft report of the Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he had misled the House of Commons over the ‘Partygate’ scandal.

Subsequently, yesterday, the final report was published, and it contained what the BBC’s Political Editor called a “punishingly brutal” and “devastating” judgment both on the original offences and on Johnson’s “campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation” of the Committee and its members, finding him guilty of multiple contempts of parliament. It was a verdict that left no room for doubt about Johnson, and could also be regarded as a vindication of the robustness of Britain’s democratic institutions that he should be held to account in this way, including in the very robust defence the Committee offered of its own process in the face of the vitriolic, Trumpian attacks against it by Johnson and his allies.

In other circumstances this would mark the end of a political career, the definitive exposure of a wholly dishonest ex-Prime Minister and, now, ex-MP, and that may well be the result. Yet, whatever Johnson’s ultimate fate, there is more at stake than that because it is not just about Johnson but about the wider politics of Brexit and of post-Brexit Britain. For this was, indeed, a major piece of ‘Brexit news’, even though, in principle, the inquiry had nothing to do with Brexit, because there’s an ineluctable link between Johnson and Brexit, such that it is impossible to discuss the one without the other.

Johnson and Brexit: conjoined twins

Brexit had many causes, and it is an over-simplification to say, as Guardian columnist Martin Kettle does, that “Brexit was Johnson and Johnson was Brexit”. But it’s quite plausible to say that but for Johnson’s involvement the campaign to leave would not have succeeded in winning its narrow majority. It’s certainly the case that he played a crucial role in shaping the form Brexit eventually took. And, looking at things from the other direction, it is at least arguable that, but for Brexit, he would never have become Prime Minister and that, but for his ambition to do so, he wouldn’t have supported Brexit.

So, like a safebreaker too careless and complacent to wear gloves, Johnson has left his fingerprints all over the Brexit crime scene. And just as his pathological dishonesty, entitled incompetence, grotesque egotism and moral depravity caused his downfall first as Prime Minister and now as an MP, so did they indelibly mark Brexit. From the outset, who better to front a campaign based on lies than someone to whom lying is first, never mind second, nature? Who better to deny the complex trade-offs entailed in the Brexit process than someone who applied his ‘cakeist’ philosophy to every aspect of his priapic, venal life? Who better to oversee a project based on vapid boasts and slogans than someone so lacking in substance and depth that to accuse him of vapidity would be the most generous of flatteries?

Perhaps the most disgraceful thing is that many of these criticisms of him, and more besides, would be made by those who supported leaving the EU. For they always knew that his involvement in it had no foundation of principle or belief. He was never ‘one of them’ – indeed he was never one of any particular group or ideology – he was useful to getting what they wanted, just as they were useful to him in getting what he wanted. This was no Luther or Calvin, dogmatically committed to Reformation, but a political Vicar of Bray, guided by opportunism, albeit with a view to glory rather than mere survival.

“Revenge for Brexit”

All of this is would be so regardless of whether Johnson’s resignation had any specific connection with Brexit. But, in fact, he himself chose to make them connected. Within his more general attempt to depict himself as the innocent victim of a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘kangaroo court’ (for Johnson, whose supposed qualities as a wordsmith invariably yield snide metal not gold, has no fastidious objection to cliché) he explicitly claimed in his resignation letter, and since, that the reason he had been targeted was “to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result. My removal is the necessary first step, and I believe there has been a concerted attempt to bring it about.”

It is hardly surprising that he should make this claim, and it is similar to the one made by Dominic Raab about his own resignation as well as those made about supposed ‘plots’ against Suella Braverman (£). In part, it is just a refusal to accept responsibility for his own wrong-doing. But it is also distinctively ‘Brexitist’ in tapping in to the familiar ‘victimhood’ narrative, and the associated idea that Brexit is some ‘anti-establishment’ revolt being undertaken in the face of a shadowy remainer elite ‘plot’ to foil it or ‘coup’ to overturn it.

Thus, equally unsurprisingly, it was taken up across the Brexit Blob as the explanation for Johnson’s demise, a further illustration of the way that Johnson has always been enabled by others and a reminder that, even now, there are still plenty of saddle-sniffers like David Frost to parrot the paranoid squawks about the ‘Remain establishment’ getting its dastardly way (£).  

Of the many things that could be said of these fantasies about the anti-Brexit establishment, perhaps the most obvious is that, since Brexit did in fact happen, it can’t be very powerful or effective. The very obviousness of that fact may explain why Johnson defenders like Jake Berry are reduced to the transparent lie that Brexit has been “blocked” by the establishment. It’s a peculiarly self-defeating lie, as well, since his defenders are also adamant that Johnson’s great achievement was to ‘get Brexit done’.

In the case of the Privileges Committee’s judgment about Johnson, an anti-Brexit plot is an especially absurd allegation, since the majority of its members are Conservatives, and some of the most critical questioning of Johnson at the hearing came from Bernard Jenkin, one of the most hardline of Brexiters. Presumably this is why Johnson made a particular attempt to discredit him this week on the grounds that he had apparently broken lockdown rules himself, an utterly bogus argument since the Committee was investigating whether Johnson had misled parliament, not whether he had broken the rules.

Johnson, Brexit, and the Establishment

Even so, this idea of Brexit as an ‘anti-establishment’ project is a more complex and less risible one than it would appear from some of the sillier claims made about it. There is certainly a sense amongst the ‘Brexit Jacobins’ that all conventions and norms can be dispensed with in order to ‘save Brexit’. That was seen with the Prorogation, and the various threats to break international law with the Internal Market Bill and the NIP Bill. Johnson’s temperamental disdain for rules was useful for that, and his willingness to trash the process that judged him illustrates that disdain, but his anti-establishment credentials were as questionable as his Brexit ones.

That isn’t so much because of his decidedly elite, Eton and Oxford, background. As I’ve argued before, it isn’t this kind of elitism which populism necessarily objects to, especially if it is combined with some public perception of ‘authenticity’, which, perversely given the plasticity of his principles, Johnson enjoyed. Rather, the deeper ambiguity of Johnson is the sense that, despite that disdain for rules and conventions, he also wants the respect of the Establishment and the respectability of belonging to it.

In this way, he strikes me as somewhat different to Trump, despite the resemblances in their character and conduct. It is most obvious in his manifest desire to be compared to Churchill, and not the Churchill of his maverick ‘wilderness years’, but the Churchill acclaimed as a great national leader and international statesman. Clearly, Johnson lacked any of the necessary qualities to be such a figure – perversely, had he done so, the pandemic gave him the best opportunity short of war to display them – but the desire to be seen that way made him much more conventional than some of the ‘true Brexiters’.

Had those true Brexiters been right in thinking that Brexit was a national liberation which would unlock both freedom and prosperity then he might even have been acclaimed in that way. As it was, even had he been cut from finer cloth, he presided over what was doomed to be a divisive and damaging fiasco. And, actually, one of the reasons that he lost the support of Conservative MPs when Prime Minister was that the Brexit Ultras thought he was failing to deliver the deregulation they saw as what would make Brexit a success, and many of them thought he was too ‘soft’ in defying the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Similarly, whilst Nigel Farage may now float the idea of joining forces with Johnson to “defend the Brexit legacy”, and be “eternally grateful to him” (£) for delivering Brexit, it is the Brexit Johnson delivered which is what Farage regards as a failure. Whether that alliance comes about remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely, not least for the reasons set out on the uk website by Josh Self (who, by the way, is emerging as one of the most acute of the new generation of political commentators).

Brexit Conservatism

It is more likely that Johnson has his sights set on a post-election return to leading the Tory Party. That, too, seems improbable right now but he still has some powerful, influential, and rich backers (£) and the idea is already being spoken of by his allies (£). Certainly his resignation letter seemed an attempt to position himself as ‘properly Conservative’ in the Liz Truss, tax-cutting, small-state mould which is surely the direction the Party will go in after Sunak. Again this entails getting Tories to forget that, when he was Prime Minister, his internal critics castigated him for not being a “real Conservative”. And then, of course, there was his call to “make the most of Brexit”, to which the response might be to ask why he didn’t do so in office if there is anything good to be made of it. As for his professed puzzlement about the government having “so passively abandoned the prospect of a free trade deal with the US”, that is easily answered: the US doesn’t want such a deal, and he had already discovered that when he was Prime Minister.

So all of this – along with reports of him planning a comeback to deliver “total Brexit”, whatever that may mean – looks like a pitch to lead what, writing in The American Conservative this week, David Frost called “Brexit Conservatism”. This essay sets out the application of ‘National Conservatism’ to the UK context, which has already attracted much interest in Tory circles, and which Frost has recently championed (it also reveals, yet again, that Frost’s sole point of intellectual reference is Edmund Burke). It might also be read as part of Frost’s own thinly-disguised ambitions to lead the Tory Party, although his greasily sycophantic tribute to Johnson (£) suggests he could be angling for a place in government if his old boss does stage a return. After all, it’s possible that, although neither self-awareness nor modesty are his most obvious characteristics, Frost might recognize that nor is the gift of charismatic leadership.

However, Johnson’s attempt to re-ignite the glowing embers of his political career with the bellows of Brexit isn’t just a way of appealing to Tory Party members in the unlikely event that he stands in a future leadership contest. For both him and his supporters It is also an attempt to retain political relevance by reference to that brief moment of triumph in 2016. His injunction, again in his resignation letter, to “remember that more than 17 million voted for Brexit” seeks to revive the idea of Brexit as a (somewhat) popular project and of ‘the will of the people’ as a way to scarify opponents, as well as to garner support.

But that mandate was long ago discharged, and harking back to it ignores the fact that only a minority, and that a dwindling minority, now actually support Brexit. It also reflects the failure of Brexit, since the only achievement Brexiters can claim is having won the referendum or, perhaps, the fact of having left the EU. All the promises they made for what it would actually mean in practice have been discredited. Yet at another, and deeper, level it is about returning to the comfort zone of campaigning rather than governing. Even when actually in government Johnson and his fellow-Brexiters always acted as if they were still campaigning. Obviously, the whole shtick about being anti-establishment and anti-elite is a way of positing Brexiters as being powerless, or insurgent, even when in power, but it is especially useful to Johnson now that he is out of power.

Brexitist logic

All of this points to the wider issue of ‘Brexitism’. That is not quite the same as, though it relates to, Brexit Conservatism, in that it refers to a mode of logic (or illogic) rather than to a particular policy agenda. Central to that logic is the bogus anti-elitism and victimhood, just discussed, and also the ‘simplism’ in which complex problems have simple, supposedly ‘commonsense’ solutions.

Beyond that, though, Brexitism has other features which are more difficult to pin down. Possibly the main reason why, to me and many others, Brexit has seemed different from any other political division is the way it’s not just a matter of different opinions, interpretations, or even values in the normal sense. Rather, it’s that the very basic stuff of political debate, some shared commitment to basic facts, evidence, rational argument, and logical consistency is missing. Or, even, that having such a shared commitment matters or is possible.

It’s about more than just lying, though it may entail that. It’s things like, to take a well-known example, trying to justify the ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ line by (amongst other things) weird logic-chopping about how ‘is joining’ denotes an ongoing process rather than carrying the obvious meaning that it is an accomplished fact and an imminent reality. Much of this blog has consisted of discussions of how this way of approaching politics has permeated the Brexit process itself (see, especially, all those posts specifically tagged ‘Brexit logic’), but this week’s furore over Johnson and the Privileges Committee illustrates its wider currency.

On the one hand, there is the Committee’s report, a textbook example of calm, forensic, evidence-based analysis and quasi-judicial rationality, and itself the outcome of an established institutional process of peer-based self-regulation with a public hearing at its heart. On the other hand, there are Johnson and his allies who, faced with all this, gurn out the dismissive line of it being ‘kangaroo court’, which no sensible or reasonable person could apply to that process and report, and despite the fact Johnson himself had deprecated the term before the Committee had reported. So any basic commitment to truth, let alone to consistency of argument, is simply dispensed with.

Then there are the numerous sub-arguments from Johnson and his defenders. For example, there’s the complaint that it should be voters, not other MPs, who decide who sits in Parliament. But, by resigning, Johnson forwent the chance for the electors in his constituency to make that decision. Or there’s the persistent attempt to discuss the findings in terms of the question of Johnson’s Covid rule-breaking or, relatedly, the actual or alleged Covid rulebreaking of other MPs or, as mentioned earlier, Bernard Jenkin, when the inquiry was solely about whether Johnson had misled parliament. Or the attempt to depict the Committee’s Chair, Harriet Harman, as having pre-judged Johnson in earlier remarks, when none of those complaining about this had voted against her chairing despite those remarks having already been known to them (£). Or, most ludicrous of all, the idea that the Committee had shown prejudice because during the hearing some of its members had made facial expressions of disbelief.

All of these arguments have a kind of ‘black is white’ craziness that makes them easy to discredit from the outside, and yet utterly impermeable amongst those who continue to advance them with stubborn obtuseness come what may. Moreover, within minutes of them first being aired they flow rapidly through the political ether to the point that, no matter how often discredited, they take on a permanent life, and not just on social media but ‘in real life’ with, in this case, members of the Committee having to be offered extra security in case of physical attacks on them.

And of course, both initially and ultimately, these arguments find confirmation by any criticism of them being dismissed as coming from actual or supposed ‘remainers’. One reason why this should be called Brexitism is because it spreads into every single aspect of political discourse. For example, already Rees-Mogg and others are trying to discredit the Hallett Inquiry into the Covid pandemic as being biased by “die-hard remainers” because reference was made on the first day to the possibility that no-deal Brexit planning got in the way of planning for a pandemic.

A cathartic moment?

This Brexitist twisting of logic and bare-faced denial of even basic facts had, in Johnson, its most skilled exponent, as it coincided his own character. Now that his practice of it has been so brutally and publicly exposed the question is not just what it means for him but what it will mean for Brexitism. Of course, Brexitism will never be expunged, but it might be marginalised. In this respect, there are grounds for very cautious optimism. It is significant, and very much to his credit, that so committed a Brexiter as Bernard Jenkin conducted himself as he did, as this certainly did much to blunt the Brexitist attack on the Committee. Similarly Penny Mordaunt, another Brexiter (and, indeed, one of the worst culprits in pushing the ‘Turkey is joining the EU’ line) spoke out in defence of the Committee.

More generally, it is notable that, whilst all Johnson’s defenders appear to be pro-Brexit, by no means all pro-Brexiters are defending Johnson. Indeed, amongst MPs, those defenders seem to be confined to the most obscure and peculiar even amongst the ranks of the obscure and peculiar. For example, anyone finding themselves reduced to being dependent upon ‘Sir’ Michael Fabricant to tour the studios to defend them might conclude that the jig is up. Against that optimism, there still seems to be a sense within the media that these fringe figures have to be represented for ‘balance’, giving the public the impression that there may to two sides to what was a cut and dried report.

An early and important test will be how Conservative MPs vote on Monday, including how many of them decide to abstain, when the Committee’s report will be debated. Beyond that, a great deal will depend on whether, with or without Johnson, what Frost calls Brexit Conservatism comes to dominate the Tory Party after the expected loss of the General Election.

Ultimately, that will matter a lot for British politics, but in one way at least it will be less immediately damaging than what we are currently living through. For this latest eruption of instability and infighting within what is, for now, the governing party has to be counted as the latest instalment of the political and reputational damage wrought by Brexit. The crucial question is whether it will also prove a cathartic moment? Could it, indeed, a be a further sign that, as I tentatively suggested in March, Britain’s ‘Brexit fever’ has broken?

Nested within that are many sub-questions, or perhaps versions of the same question, which are currently being asked by many commentators from across the political spectrum. These include whether the UK system is proving more resilient than that of the US (£), how embedded the toxic myths of Brexit are, whether Johnson and Brexit have left a permanent legacy of political ‘doublethink’ (£), and whether this current Sunak-Starmer period marks a return to more conventional politics (£)?

The Privileges Committee has delivered its damning verdict on Johnson, but on these deeper questions the jury is still out.

Friday 9 June 2023

Could post-Brexit Britain lead global AI regulation?

It’s been a relatively quiet Brexit news week, with just the usual drip-drip of news about its negative impact on everything from the availability of au pairs to the production of strawberries to Brittany Ferries’ cross-channel freight volumes. As I remarked in a recent post, each individual piece of damage may be fairly small and easily dismissed, but the cumulative impact is ever-more alarming.

So in this post I’m going to focus primarily on Rishi Sunak’s ambition for the UK to lead international regulation in relation to Artificial Intelligence (AI), an ambition for which he sought to gain US support during his visit to meet President Biden this week. It was also announced that the government proposes to host a 'global summit' on AI in London this autumn.

Were this ambition to be met it would not, of course, be a benefit of Brexit – the UK could just as easily have proposed itself for this role as an EU member, and for reasons discussed below would have been in a better position to do so – but it is clearly part of an attempt to define Britain’s global role after Brexit.

The UK as an AI regulator

AI and its regulation are very rapidly emerging as huge economic and political issues and, as initially reported in the Financial Times (£), Sunak’s proposals might involve the UK hosting both a CERN-style AI research centre and an international regulatory authority based on that for nuclear energy. These are not terrible ideas. The UK has a relatively strong research base in AI and AI ethics – and the latter ought to serve as a reminder that despite the typical right-wing refrain that only STEM subjects are useful, and everything else is ‘woke’ or ‘mickey mouse’, the reality is very different. Philosophy and many other humanities and social science disciplines are quite as important in many business and regulatory fields. That’s long been almost a truism in Silicon Valley, the government’s favourite template for a post-Brexit innovative economy.  

The idea of the UK as an AI regulatory centre is also more realistic than previous ideas about how, after Brexit, the UK might create regulatory regimes in all kinds of areas in the expectation of attracting businesses to the UK because of its regulatory regime and, in due course, that regulatory regime emerging as the global regulatory standard. That approach was set out in the government’s January 2022 paper ‘The Benefits of Brexit’ (see, especially, pp. 24-29), as indicated by sub-headings such as ‘a sovereign approach’, ‘leading from the front’ and ‘setting high standards at home and globally’.

That is very much a relic of the now barely mentioned ‘Global Britain’ strategy, yet, as regards AI specifically, as recently as March of this year, in its policy paper introducing a consultation exercise that has still not been concluded, the government was talking hubristically of how “having exited the European Union we are free to establish a regulatory approach that enables us to establish the UK as an AI superpower.” Sunak’s latest ideas at least recognize that international regulation entails international agreement, rather than regulatory competition between unequal players.

In fact, they seem to owe something to, or at least are consistent with, the proposals in the June 2021 report by the Tony Blair Institute on the future of UK regulatory policy. These included that “the UK could strive to play a role as a regulatory convenor between the US and the EU … but only with the right focus and regulatory diplomacy strategy.”

The ironies of Brexit

Nevertheless, there is something deeply ironic about the UK, having not just left the EU but done so in a way that prioritizes national sovereignty in regulation, now proposing itself as being in the vanguard of international cooperation and regulation. Moreover, it serves to underscore the importance of hosting international regulatory organizations, and thus how much has been lost by Brexit leading to the departure from the UK of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. Hosting such bodies can have a value way beyond themselves, as it tends to establish a whole eco-system of basic research and commercial application. It is very much to his shame that David Davis, when Brexit Secretary, fantasized that (£), somehow, the UK could continue to host those EU regulatory agencies post-Brexit. Never mind artificial intelligence, as so often Davis lacked the genuine sort.

That irony goes even deeper, given that for many Tory Brexiters the guiding thread of Brexit was not just national independence in regulation, but hostility to regulation in principle. As regards AI, that is also reflected in the proposals in the government’s consultation exercise, which are firmly tilted away from having a dedicated AI regulator even for the UK and towards a “light touch” regulatory model. In fairness, it could be said that developments in AI, and understanding of their implications, has moved very fast even in the three months since the exercise was launched, and everyone is scrambling to keep up. However, the Tories’ pre-disposition against regulation, both generally and in its current AI proposals, does damage the government’s credibility in now pushing to lead global AI regulation.

Moreover, Brexit has already exacted a price. As a Politico report this week explains, Sunak is making a pitch directly to the US because the UK doesn’t participate in EU-US forums like the Technology and Trade Council, where AI regulation is already being discussed, and the EU and the US, along with Canada, have already developed proposals for AI regulation, to be presented to the G7 this autumn. The UK’s supposed post-Brexit ‘nimbleness’ isn’t quite as nimble as all that, and, as in so many other areas, it suffers from not being ‘in the room’.

Mr. Sunak goes to Washington

Perhaps, as the Politico report suggests, the UK can have a role as leading the smaller players, outside the EU and the US. There’s quite a lot of evidence that Japan, in particular, and despite its initial anger about Brexit, which was seen as a breach of faith as regards Japanese investors in the UK, is keen to support and enable post-Brexit UK’s geo-political heft generally (not in relation to AI regulation, particularly), not least because of relations with China.

However, Sunak is clearly pitching for more than being just ‘the leader of the others’ as regards AI and its regulation. He will undoubtedly have been pleased with Biden’s words in the post-meeting press conference, saying “we are looking to Great Britain to help lead a way through this  … there is no country we have greater faith in to help negotiate our way through this”, but what this means in practice remains to be seen (‘to help’ is not quite a ringing endorsement).

Of course, no one expected the issue to be settled in this single meeting, and the real question is whether the UK is well-placed to deliver. Although the US-UK relationship still matters to both countries, at the most general level, as Rafael Behr put it in his discussion of Sunak’s Washington visit, “it is a bald strategic fact that Brexit makes a British Prime Minister less useful to Washington. Without leverage in Brussels, Sunak is not in a position to broker deals with Biden.” Unusually, this prompted David Frost to engage with critics of Brexit, ‘taking to Twitter’, as they say, to denounce Behr’s “declinist worldview” (‘declinism’ being the standard Brexiter way of recasting the observable damage caused by Brexit as the negativity of those who observe it).

Inevitably Frost’s complaint was, implicitly, based on his persistently simplistic understanding of sovereignty. First, he asserted that “the purpose of British policy is not to be ‘useful to Washington’ … it’s to pursue our own interests.” It apparently doesn’t occur to him that the UK might judge it to be in its own interests to be useful to Washington and, for better or worse, has often tended to do so, the Iraq War being an obvious example.

Frost then continued that he doesn’t “agree that those interests are best pursued [via EU membership, because] it is better to define and then pursue them ourselves, through alliances and partnerships of various kinds.” It apparently doesn’t occur to him that, as an EU member, the UK always defined and pursued its own interests, including the development of the single market and eastwards expansion, and that one means of pursuing them was through the ‘alliance and partnership’ of EU membership. And if Frost means that EU membership precluded the UK pursuing its perceived interests then, once again, Iraq gives the lie to that. There is hardly a more profound expression of sovereignty than the decision to go to war.

What Frost doesn’t comment on, though Behr mentions it, is the way that what used to be seen as the totemic Brexit gain of a US-UK Free Trade Agreement is not on the agenda of Sunak’s visit. That is not a news item, and was clear even before Liz Truss publicly acknowledged last September that there is no prospect of such a deal. Still, it is striking how quiet the Brexiters have gone considering that, in July 2017 Digby Jones was crowing that “remoaners” must be hating the fact that a US trade deal was “in the bag”. Even those who did not make such transparently false claims, but did hold out a deal as a key prize of Brexit, have never admitted that they simply got that wrong.

Pointing this out isn’t petulant point-scoring. It matters because it is becoming increasingly common for Brexiters like Frost, and some more neutral commentators, to talk as if various piecemeal deals on trade or security or other kinds of cooperation, including this AI role if it comes off, somehow justify leaving the EU. But, even leaving aside that some of the examples commonly given (e.g. AUKUS) didn’t require Brexit, and others (e.g. CPTPP) at best do no more than slightly mitigate the damage it causes, Brexit should be judged not on these things but against all the promises that Brexiters made for it. It’s one thing to make the best of a bad job, quite another to forget that it wasn’t sold in such dismal terms.

Can the UK be trusted?

All that aside, and quite apart from the way that Brexit inevitably reduced the UK’s influence with the EU and the US, the idea of the UK leading global regulation is undermined because the way Brexit was undertaken damaged Britain’s reputation for political stability and even for commitment to the rule of law. It is, to say the least, unfortunate that a country aspiring to a global regulatory role should not only have indicated its willingness to break international law but on more than one occasion asserted that, by definition, national sovereignty trumps such law. There’s a reputational price to be paid for Brexit Jacobinism.

Sunak may have introduced some stability and pragmatism, especially with the Windsor Framework, but his own words at the post-meeting news conference, about knowing that “some people have wondered what kind of partner Britain would be after leaving the EU”, show an awareness that the memories of the last seven years have yet to fade. Biden may have expressed “faith” in the UK but he won’t have forgotten the shenanigans over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and will still be watching to see how the Windsor Framework is implemented.

In any case, for all Sunak’s reassuring noises, he has only weak control over a party of which some sections are still in denial about why Liz Truss crashed and burned, and are openly flirting with ‘National Conservatism’. So the world is well aware that lurking behind Sunak’s gloss is a party seething with antagonism not just towards the EU and to Biden’s US, but towards the ECHR, IMF, OECD and even the WHO. Whilst such sentiments can be found in other countries, the fact of Brexit and of those voices being influential in the governing party certainly don’t help to make the UK seem a stable or attractive site for international regulatory leadership. You can hardly dismiss existing international institutions as the ‘Globalist Establishment’ whilst credibly proposing to establish a new one.

In any case, even leaving aside post-Brexit Britain’s trustworthiness, there are also questions about its operational capacity to undertake big projects like that of AI regulation. Although of a very different nature, nowhere is that more obvious than in the much-delayed introduction of import controls on goods from the EU. I discussed this most recently a couple of weeks ago, but at that time I missed something little-reported outside the specialist trade press, namely that earlier last month, apparently in response to industry lobbying of the government, the requirements for most fruit and vegetable imports have been relaxed, so that they will be treated as “low” rather than “medium” risk, with corresponding reductions in paperwork and physical inspections.

That’s good news so far as it goes, as it should reduce disruption to supplies (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that by doing so, it also increases the risks of a plant disease being imported). However, it also adds to the problems relating to ‘groupage’, which also proved to be so difficult when the EU introduced post-Brexit controls on imports from the UK. In practice, this means that mixed-loads of low-risk and medium-risk products are liable to be stopped for inspection, so even if someone is importing low-risk vegetables it won’t help them much if they are shipped in the same consignment as a medium-risk product. This will hit small businesses and specialist product lines especially hard as, again, happened when EU import controls were introduced.

The fact that the import control regime is still being worked out, years after the decision that Brexit meant ‘hard Brexit’ made import controls inevitable, shows how inept the Tory Brexit governments have been. Even now, less than four months before the next tranche of controls come in, those who have to operate them at ports don’t know what is going to be involved, to the extent of not knowing whether 1% or 30% of food imports from the EU will need to be checked.

All this is a big Brexit story in itself, as it is likely to lead to shortages of some products and higher food prices in the UK. But, amidst the general sense that ‘nothing works in the UK anymore’, it will surely also contribute to international scepticism about the idea of the UK leading AI regulation. After all, if post-Brexit Britain can’t even cope with the most basic consequences for the most basic goods of the regulatory border created by its new-found ‘independence’ from the EU, can it really be relied upon to take the lead in the most complex, advanced and fast-moving of global regulatory challenges?

Labouring a point

This brings me back to Labour’s Brexit policy, my discussion of which in last week’s post got a distinctly mixed reaction on social media. I’ll come back briefly to that, but as regards something like the UK pitching to lead AI regulation a Labour government would have an advantage over a Tory one simply because it would not be contaminated with the deregulatory madness and hostility to global institutions of the Brexit Ultras. That still doesn’t mean it would happen, but it would be a more favourable political environment within which to try it, though, by then, events will probably have overtaken us as regards AI. But the general point holds: in the eyes of many foreign capitals, a Labour government would be a return to normality.

Normality, here, means rationality and trustworthiness, but it would be unrealistic to think that, simply by electing a Labour government, the UK’s international reputation is going to be instantly restored. That will take a long time, which is partly why any prospect of (re)joining the EU is a long time away. Those insisting that this should be Labour’s policy for the next parliament need to ask themselves what value there would be in proposing something that would whip up huge controversy in the UK, to the point that there might not even be a Labour government, but if there was such a government with such a policy then the EU would be bound to turn the idea down unless or until it ceased to be controversial in the UK.

That observation isn’t negated by Michel Barnier’s widely-quoted comment this week that “the door is open” for the UK to join. Apart from the fact that it isn’t up to him (though he’s clearly a well-informed and credible voice), it would be absurd to interpret that to mean that an application for membership would be accepted unconditionally and without question. It’s not just the issue of negotiating the terms of membership, it’s whether there was a stable, sustained and unambiguous commitment in the UK to membership. Someone might say to an alcoholic spouse who has walked out of the family home that the door is always open for their return. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have to dry out before they were welcomed back.

Of course, I may well be proved wrong. Who, after the last seven years of politics, would be rash enough to make unequivocal predictions? But, having seen what became of the Brexiters’ pursuit of unicorns over those years, I’m not immediately persuaded of the merits of chasing what, at least for now, seem to be rejoiner hippocampi.