Friday 27 October 2023

Mustn't grumble

There is a stereotype about the British, and perhaps especially the English, that we are unwilling to complain, and will put up with quite a bit of privation with little more than a few grumbles or, even, with the observation that ‘oh well, we mustn’t grumble’. We even sometimes seem to recognize this placidity as a characteristic of national political conduct, as when it is observed that if such-and-such ‘was happening in France then they would be on the streets’.

Whether this really is generally true, or more so than it is in other countries, I’m not sure. Nor am I sure whether, if true, it should be regarded as an endearing stoicism or an appalling apathy. It’s not even clear whether it betokens a rather cowardly fear that making a fuss would be an embarrassment or just a resigned acceptance that doing so would be pointless. But, at all events, it does seem to characterize public sentiment about Brexit.

Brexit: plenty to complain about

That, at least, is one reading of the very extensive recent polling conducted for the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) research centre at King’s College London (which is well worth studying in its entirety). It certainly suggests that people have something to complain about. In particular, this latest survey confirms the pattern that has been clear for some time now with only 10% of all voters (and just 18% even of 2016 leave voters) thinking Brexit has turned out well or very well (p.30).

It's true that the beliefs lying behind that are varied with, for example, 61% of leave voters thinking it will turn out well or very well ‘in the long run’, though only 30% of all voters think this (p.32). And there are many more caveats and qualifications to be made about the ‘headline’ finding about the lack of success of Brexit. These include the extent of neutral responses and ‘don’t knows’ within different voter groups, and the variety of reasons given for why it hasn’t been a success. But that headline finding is clear and important. Brexit was, after all, promoted as something which would be an unalloyed success, so the fact that so few think it has been or is going to be is, just in itself, a reason for the public to feel disgruntled.

Of course, Brexit is in some ways an abstract, or at least general, concept and, apart from those with strong commitments for and against it in abstract or general terms, it’s reasonable to think that many people are more concerned with specific issues that affect their daily lives. Yet, if so, then there, too, they have reasons for complaint about Brexit. For example, of the 79% of people who have personally noticed the cost of goods increasing over the last year, 19% think this is entirely the result of Brexit and 41% that is partly the result of Brexit. The 65% who have noticed food shortages are even more likely to think they are wholly due to Brexit (47%), with another 36% thinking them partly so. Travel delays, and staff shortages in the NHS, social care, and hospitality, are also amongst issues where, of those who have personally experienced them, the large majority think they are wholly or partly the result of Brexit. (All figures in this paragraph from p.20 of the UJICE report.)

Taken together, then, there is plenty for people to complain about in Brexit, regardless of whether they attribute it to Brexit in and of itself or only to the way in which Brexit has been undertaken. That is all the more striking considering that other likely candidates for the causes of the problems people experience in their daily lives – Covid, Ukraine, or global factors generally – are less obviously attributable to domestic political choices. For although people may well consider that the government handling of Covid, to take the most obvious example, was defective in various ways it is surely obvious that the virus was something that affected every country, one way or another. Only Brexit is entirely home-grown and entirely unique to this country.

Brexit fatigue

Yet, as Anand Menon and Sophie Stowers of UKICE highlight in their commentary on the report, “there’s a real sense of fatigue around the Brexit debate and high levels of indifference towards the future of the UK-EU relationship”. It may be (the report doesn’t cover this) that, because Brexit is so closely associated with the Tories, complaint about Brexit is manifesting itself, along with other factors, in the government’s unpopularity. But there isn’t majority support for another referendum and, were one to be held, it is by no means clear it would yield a large majority, or even necessarily a majority, to rejoin the EU.

That said, there is clear support (64%) for a “stronger relationship” with the EU, and considerable support (50%) for a “closer relationship” (pp.48-49). What lies behind the discrepancy between the two is not obvious, but perhaps it is because respondents don’t know, any more than I do, what ‘stronger’ and ‘closer’ mean in specific terms, or how they differ. At all events, although there is a degree of support for an improved relationship, in some sense, with the EU, the overall point that emerges is that most voters don’t see Brexit itself as a burning issue, even though they see it as a factor in other issues, like the cost of living and the state of the NHS, which they do see as high priorities.

Some of the reasons for this can be glimpsed in the qualitative research which accompanied the polling data, including the fatalistic one that “we’ve made our bed, let’s all lie in it” (p.28) and the idea that it would be “embarrassing” (p.47) to re-open the issue of membership. These comments both came from leave voters, but even 42% of remain voters wish “we would stop talking about the issue altogether” (p.53). There’s also a widespread sense that it is de-stabilizing and divisive to continue to do so, something which is frequently said by politicians of both main parties.

Trapped by Brexiter blackmail  

All of these things may make some kind of sense, and goodness knows there must be plenty of us – including, I imagine, many readers of this blog – who are sick of Brexit and continue to feel traumatized by the divisions it unleashed. But it is important to understand that such sentiments arise in large part from a trap, or traps, which have been created by Brexiters.

On the one hand, even if they no longer try to claim that Brexit has been a success, some of them now seem to count it as a victory that they have created a situation in which it is too difficult to deal with its failure. So, far from having delivered the ‘will of the people’ for a ‘national liberation’, the Brexiters are now gleeful that the British people are stuck with something they don’t want: not just a bed, but a bed of nails, they have to lie on. On the other hand, the continuing vitriol the Brexiters have poured, daily, into the media ever since their referendum victory is an ever-present reminder that re-opening Brexit would, indeed, be hugely divisive. In effect, it is political blackmail: the constant threat that if the British people attempt to undo Brexit then Brexiters will unleash such extreme toxicity into politics that it will become unbearable.

So, in terms of that stereotype of the ‘uncomplaining Brit’, the situation is rather like being in a restaurant which, having promised a gourmet meal under its new ownership, has provided what most on the table consider to be a s*** sandwich (the asterisks aren’t my coyness, but because certain words create problems for blog feeds and search engines). But why complain? For better or for worse, the meal has been eaten and it’s ‘too late’ to make a fuss now, and anyway it would be ‘embarrassing’. Moreover, the waiter looks distinctly surly and the chef is ostentatiously, and ominously, sharpening knives in the kitchen, so it would be imprudent and possibly dangerous to do so. And, after all, there are at least some of the diners who claim to be delighted with what they have had. All in all, it’s better just to put up with things. Mustn’t grumble.

An ongoing condition

However, one of the ways in which this analogy breaks down is that Brexit is not a finite event, like a single meal at a restaurant. It is an ongoing condition: this is where we will be eating every day for the rest of our lives. A key aspect of how this is now playing out is revealed in another major recent piece of work from UKICE, Joël Reland’s latest version of the UK-EU regulatory divergence tracker which, in general terms, continues to show what is becoming an established pattern of there being relatively little divergence from the EU.

As if in confirmation, the day after that update was published, it was reported (£) that the government would not proceed with its attempt to scrap the ‘nutrient neutrality rules’, environmental protections inherited from the EU which restrict where houses can be built. On the other hand, this week the idea of scrapping EU rules capping bankers’ bonuses has to have been revived (£), having previously been seen as politically maladroit amidst Johnson’s promises of ‘levelling up, then pursued under Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng (£) as part of their deregulatory agenda before being kicked into the long grass of consultation from which it has now re-emerged.

That these developments point in different directions partly reflects the strategic incoherence of Rishi Sunak’s ad hoc approach to Brexit, which I’ve remarked upon before. These particular cases may also derive from attempts to set pre-election political traps for Labour, the first one by suggesting that Labour’s own opposition to axing nutrient neutrality rules is at odds with its promise to cut the ‘red tape’ that impedes housebuilding, the second by challenging Labour to oppose this divergence and risk damaging its attempts to develop good relations with the City.

Such political games aside, Reland, in his accompanying commentary, suggests “that non-divergence is now the status quo” in the sense that it is both Sunak’s policy, even if inconsistently so and not announced as such, and, more explicitly, is set to be Keir Starmer’s default policy if Labour win the next election. Yet, as Reland points out, there is an important difference in that, whilst the Conservatives are undertaking little in the way of ‘active divergence’ (UK changing regulations away from those of the EU), they are allowing far more ‘passive divergence’ (UK not following regulatory changes made by the EU) than, it seems, a Labour government would countenance.

There are very good reasons to avoid both passive and active divergence, which I have rehearsed so many times on this blog that I won’t do so again (see also Peter Foster’s recent book on Brexit, which I reviewed in last week’s post). One particular emerging example, the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), mentioned by Reland and briefly discussed in one of my recent posts, forms part of an interesting analysis in Gerhard Schnyder’s most recent Brexit Impact Tracker blog. He explains that its likely effect will be to reduce UK tax receipts by billions of pounds, whilst correspondingly benefitting the EU. This, he argues, is part of a pattern whereby the ‘benefits of Brexit’ do indeed exist, but are invariably experienced by countries other than the UK.

Thus, increasingly, it is emerging that in ‘taking back control’ of its laws – which according to the UKICE polling data was the biggest motivation for leave voters (p.6) – Brexit means that what the UK loses on the swings it also loses on the roundabouts. That is, the more the UK diverges from the EU the more expensive Brexit becomes, but the less it diverges from the EU the more pointless Brexit becomes*. And all of this is quite apart from the remorseless, crunchingly negative effect of Brexit on GDP compared with what it would otherwise be – an effect exacerbated by any divergence but not ameliorated by non-divergence (and only very slightly ameliorated by greater alignment).

The full absurdity of what this all means can be seen by reference to the various models of Brexit that used to be propounded. Perhaps we could be in the single market, like Norway, gaining its economic benefits but, it was said, losing sovereignty because we would be subject to ‘fax democracy’ – receiving legislative instructions from Brussels**. That always somewhat understated the influence that Norway has but, anyway, it was deemed unacceptable, indeed deemed not to be Brexit at all, by the ‘hard Brexiters’. So we left the single market, taking the economic costs, but, now, we take legislation from Brussels not ‘by fax’ but by the inexorable economic and political logic of non-divergence.

The (ir)responsibility of the British people

It is re-visiting the form of Brexit, quite as much as re-joining the EU, that the Brexiters have made so difficult with the traps within which they have ensnared the British people. But, whilst they deserve to be judged harshly for having created them, I think that voters, and political journalists and politicians more generally, bear some responsibility. Indeed, although no doubt it would be denounced as ‘elitist’ by populists like Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton & Oxford), and is far more ‘unsayable’ than the supposedly silenced ‘debate’ about immigration, I despair of the constant vox pops showing so many voters to be puffed full of self-righteous indignation and galvanized with an invincible ignorance for which they feel pride rather than shame.

As regards Brexit, although there’s not much point harking back to it, the casual irresponsibility with which some voted for it in order to ‘give Cameron a kicking’, or because ‘it was time for a change’, or because they ‘never expected leave to win’ was disgraceful. It is far less excusable than those who were taken in by the false promises about money for the NHS or the rejuvenation of the fishing industry. It’s certainly worse than indefensible for leave voters of the former type to say that ‘we’ve made our bed, and now we must all lie in it’.

More importantly, now, there’s a deeply childish vein amongst the electorate, and the polity, in treating Brexit as if it were ‘all in the past’, ‘yesterday’s news’, from which ‘we should all move on’. It’s a mentality which is not just about Brexit; it is equally evident in relation to Covid, with people and politicians talking and acting as if it were now all over when, apart from anything else, an estimated 1.9 million people are suffering from long Covid. Perhaps politics has always been like that, but I think that the attention span is now even shorter because of the twin effect of the 24/7 news cycle and social media. Perhaps, too, the contemporary culture of victimhood, so central to Brexit but evident more generally, is antithetical to the concept of taking responsibility for choices made.

Yet Brexit, and Covid for that matter, demands a more serious response. After all, it was a major shift of the UK’s entire economic and geo-political strategy, and one which only came into practical effect less than three years ago, when the transition period ended. And this is hardly a ‘remainer’ complaint. Surely Brexiters should be the most disgruntled if their great achievement, their national liberation from ‘the EUSSR’, is now only fit to wrap fish and chips? But the answer to that is all too obvious: so evidently has it failed that they would far rather it just be accepted, undiscussed, as ‘just one of those things’ about which we ‘mustn’t grumble’.

The open secret that Brexit has failed

Of course, there are many who remain keenly attentive to Brexit and vocal in their complaints about it, by which I mean not just re-joiners but the Brexit Ultras. And, of course, it was inevitable that, gradually, the politics of Brexit and British politics generally would become less and less distinguishable. Yet there is a quiescence about the failure of Brexit which, given its centrality to politics since 2016, seems astounding.

In my previous life as an academic I co-wrote a book about secrecy in organizations, drawing in part on the concept in political anthropology of ‘public secrecy’. In very brief, this refers to shameful things which everyone knows and yet doesn’t know, an all but unsayable knowledge, akin to what is often called an ‘open secret’, of which examples can be found in many families, organizations or, as seems to be the case in Britain today, in national polities. The result is that what Schnyder calls “the Un-British Brexit benefits” are met with the all too British response of embarrassed silence.

Writing recently in the Guardian, George Monbiot discussed the political silence around Covid, and especially around its continuing effects on those with long Covid or the clinically vulnerable. His eloquent conclusion is that: “These facts – and these people – are treated as social embarrassments, locked in the government’s moral attic like a relative with a mental illness in Victorian England. They’re the country’s family secret. That coughing noise upstairs? Nothing that need concern you.”

In a similar way, the failure of Brexit and the possible solutions to it are only semi-discussable, publicly known and yet not known. For that we should blame the Brexiters who have blackmailed us into making it so, the media organizations who consider it old news, the politicians who purport to lead and to be willing to make ‘hard choices’, but follow the focus groups which want to avoid such choices. But we should also blame the electorate from which those focus groups are drawn, an electorate which, after all, made a big choice in 2016 but which now, whether from boredom or fear – or, perhaps, in some cases, shame – insists that we ‘mustn’t grumble’ about its consequences.


*To this should be added the particular dynamic as regards Northern Ireland, which in some respects is obliged to remain aligned with the EU. Thus, the more the UK (or at least GB) diverges from the EU, the ‘thicker’ the GB-NI Irish Sea border potentially becomes. This poses a particular paradox for those Unionists who are also hard Brexiters, since they desire both increased divergence and a thinner, or non-existent, Irish Sea border.

**Younger readers who may be puzzled by the reference to a ‘fax’ are referred to the Museum of Obsolete Objects. Less frivolously, Norway and its lessons for what ‘sovereignty’ means for post-Brexit Britain is the focus of what looks to be (I haven’t read it yet) an interesting new book.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Book review: Realism or optimism?

This week’s post, which is a day earlier than usual, is the latest in a series of occasional reviews of Brexit-related books, which can be found via the ‘Book reviews’ tag.
Foster, Peter (2023) What Went Wrong with Brexit and What We Can Do About It. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. ISBN 978-1-80530-125-7 (Hardback). 178 pages. £14.99

I don’t think that, in general, Brexit has been very well-served by British journalists. Political journalists, especially, struggled to capture the way that Brexit grew out of, and brought with it, a very different kind of politics from the traditional Westminster ‘game’. Perhaps even more, they struggled with the politics of the UK-EU negotiations, reflecting the pre-existing lack of British interest in the politics of the EU which was arguably a contributory factor, if minor, to why Brexit happened at all. Beyond that, very few journalists seemed able to engage with the deep technical complexities of Brexit, something which contributed to enabling Brexiter politicians to escape media scrutiny.

Indeed, at the height of the Brexit process, between, say, the triggering of Article 50 and the UK’s formal departure from the EU in 2020, I often found non-UK journalists more helpful in understanding what was going on. Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, was undoubtedly the foremost of these, but there were others, including Annette Dittert of Germany’s ARD. Of course, there were also some fantastic UK journalists. Faisal Islam, when Political Editor of Sky News (though less so since he became the BBC’s Economics Editor); Ian Dunt, then the Editor of; and Lisa O’Carroll, at that time the Guardian’s Brexit correspondent, all come to mind, but again there are others.

Peter Foster was and is undoubtedly one them, and I’ve referred to his work countless times on this blog (to the extent that he even has his own tag, though it by no means captures all the references). What he shares with all of those just mentioned is a capacity to understand the ‘big picture’ of Brexit whilst also engaging with the often arcane, technical details. It’s a quality he showed as the Telegraph’s Europe Editor, when, if I recall correctly, his focus was mainly on the Brexit negotiations, and, since then, as Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times. In fact, especially since taking on the latter role, I would say he is the foremost journalist, whether in the UK or elsewhere, in covering the detail of what Brexit means for, especially, businesses, supply chains, and regulation.

Readable, forensic, and realistic analysis

It is these things which are the main focus of the book (which of course means that there are other components of Brexit which aren’t within its ambit), and it provides a superb and authoritative account of them, made accessible by examples and vignettes. This readability of what might otherwise be rather dry material is also aided by a writing style which, and I imagine this is no easy task, transfers well from newspaper columns to the rather different demands of a book-length treatment.

Foster’s explanation of what Brexit has meant for businesses is forensic, if not brutal. Over and over again, he dissects how Brexiters misled themselves and others in what they were doing. Examples include David Frost’s disastrous, “never seriously substantiated” dismissal of the significance of non-tariff barriers to trade (p. 17), the resurrection of freeports which in economic terms “were destined to be empty vessels” (p. 48), the Brexiters’ “red tape fallacy” (pp. 29-38) that amongst other things led to the UKCA debacle (p. 71), and the “magical construct” of an invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (p. 104).

The book also contains a calmly withering overview of post-Brexit independent trade policy (pp. 54-64) and a careful account of what Brexit has meant for immigration (pp. 81-89). Unsurprisingly, at least to those who have read his FT columns, there are also superbly clear explanations of what Brexit has meant for particular sectors, such as chemicals (pp. 73-75), auto (pp. 75-79) and the travel industry (pp. 94-97).

Underneath all these individual issues lies the “magical thinking and dogma” (p. 41) which has consumed the British political and policy-making process since 2016. The story of how that happened is concisely but crisply narrated in chapter three (pp. 39-53).

All of this forms part one of the book, ‘What went wrong with Brexit’, which accounts for about two-thirds of the text. The briefer second part is concerned with ‘What to do about it’. Here, the discussion is equally assured and well-informed, and, in my opinion, realistic in focusing mainly on what can be done to improve the tone of UK-EU relations and the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. He also suggests that, especially if a better tone is achieved, the UK could re-apply to rejoin the Lugano Convention, having previously been refused, facilitating the resolution of international legal disputes for businesses. Other ideas include seeking to join the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean (PEM) Convention to harmonize Rules of Origin.

Many of these proposals have been made by bodies such as the UK Trade and Business Commission and the Tony Blair Institute, but are helpfully brought together and clearly set out here. What Foster advocates also looks likely to be (the maximalist version of) Labour policy if they get into power, although he doesn’t put it in these terms, and he spells it out in far more detail and with far more clarity than they do.

Again, in my view, rightly, Foster suggests that, taken as a whole, the value of such an approach is a bit greater than some critics, both pro- and anti-Brexit, allow. But he isn’t starry-eyed about it, being far more honest than Labour politicians are (at least openly) about the “limited overall economic impact” (p. 168) these measures would have. Beyond them, he also advocates (pp. 168-175) more sustained and strategic policy-making, rather than the post-Brexit frenzy of half-delivered and often half-baked ideas, especially about how to re-energize business investment.

Misplaced optimism?

Clear-sighted as all this is, and constructive as its suggestions are, there’s a degree of optimism about it that may be misplaced. Foster’s guiding theme is that “it’s time to think again about Brexit by taking an approach based on facts, not fantasy and fallacy” (p.8). That leads to his overall conclusion that “post-Brexit Britain, quite literally, cannot afford more of the wishful thinking that has blighted UK policy-making since the 2016 referendum” (p.168) and “what is now needed is a realistic, sober vision for what Britain should look like in 2050 – allied to fact-based strategies for how to get there” (p. 175).

Again, I think Foster is completely right, but I fear he underestimates the extent to which Brexit has made that all but impossible. As I said in my own Brexit book, it has created a situation of it often seeming as if there are ‘Brexiter truths’ and ‘Remainer truths’. Ultimately this may, and hopefully will, change, but for now it means that “an approach based on facts” – which Foster’s certainly is – will too readily be dismissed, for all his attempts at even-handedness, as the work of a ‘remainer’, or perhaps even as being typical of the ‘globalist’ Financial Times. How can such an approach succeed when even the most basic of facts is so bitterly contested?

That is well-illustrated  by Daniel Hannan’s spiteful and dismissive review in the Telegraph (£), which I refer to, reluctantly, simply because it is illustrative; it has no other value. This describes the book as “myopic”, “pro EU”, and an example of “Brexit Derangement Syndrome” that will only interest remainers. In a related way, Foster rightly calls for “ending the politics of betrayal” (pp. 121-127) as part of the way forward but, as I’ve often argued on this blog, though it is far more eloquently discussed by the Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole, that politics is inseparable from Brexit.

Within the context of such tribalism and its associated betrayalism, not only are facts disputed they also get distorted. For example, on one of the few occasions Hannan touches on the substance of Foster’s book, it is to criticize him for not seeing that the UK’s continued use of the CE mark (rather than insisting it be replaced by the UKCA mark) should be regarded as a welcome possible “step towards mutual recognition”. But, for all that it may seem as if there are Brexiter truths and Remainer truths, on these kinds of issues some things are true and some are false. And Hannan’s claim is simply false, for the obvious reason that there is no prospect, and not even any proposal or suggestion, that the EU will start to recognize the UKCA mark reciprocally with the UK’s recognition of the EU mark.

This is only a tiny example, but it is misunderstanding, misrepresenting or ignoring the kinds of ‘nuts and bolts’ issues that Foster specializes in which allows Brexiters to continue to resist – indeed, to viciously disparage – a “realistic, sober vision … allied to fact-based strategies”. That is, it enables them both to ignore reality and to construct an alternative reality.

Catching or contributing to the tide of pragmatism?

Now perhaps the tide is turning, and the influence of Brexiter ideologues like Hannan is diminishing. That seems possible given Sunak’s at least sporadically more pragmatic approach to the EU compared to his predecessors (though as one was a pathological liar and the other plain bonkers, that’s not a high bar), and even more likely if Starmer’s Labour come to power.

Foster clearly believes that this, and growing public disaffection with Brexit, means “that space is now emerging for a re-think” (p. 4). If so, his book may have caught the tide of the times. I hope so. But, as he frequently and strongly emphasizes, “time is of the essence” (p. 8), and it must be an open question whether, especially with the pro-Brexit media denouncing every step towards sense as betrayal, any UK government can move fast and far enough to deliver even the still relatively cautious prospectus the book advocates.

On the other hand, one danger which a Labour government looks likely to face is that, along with Brexiter denunciations, it will also be attacked by remainers and rejoiners as being insufficient to the magnitude of the task. The positive reading of that is it will push Labour towards Foster’s more maximalist version of its presently disclosed policy. The negative reading is that, squeezed between those who say it is too much and those who say it is too little, the space for pragmatism will remain vanishingly small.

None of these observations detracts from that fact that this is an excellent book which should be read by anyone who wants to understand the intricacies – and idiocies - of what Brexit has meant for trade, businesses, supply chains and regulation, and what could be done to address some of them. Indeed, although some of its prescriptions have been made by various think-tanks and committees, this is perhaps the only book providing a serious and sustained analysis of what Britain might now, realistically, do about Brexit. So, even if the tide has not yet turned in a more pragmatic direction, it could help it to do so.

As such, I hope it is widely read, not least by policy-makers and by commentators who, if they shared Foster’s depth of knowledge and acuity of analysis, could do so much to re-shape the tone and content of the debate about Britain’s post-Brexit future.

My only gripe, but it is quite a big one, is with the publisher rather than the author (as I assume it is an issue of house style): the book gives no sources or references and, even more surprisingly, and very irritatingly, does not even have an index.

Friday 13 October 2023

‘Not for EU’ labelling: a case study of the Brexit mess

An important development in the Brexit process occurred at the beginning of this month, with the introduction of ‘Not for EU’ labels. As well as being important in its own right, it serves as a case study of the utter mess that Brexit has created, a mess which far from reducing ‘red tape’ has massively increased it, and a mess which is both the cause and consequence of multiple confusions. It speaks volumes for just what a mess Brexit has created that even this single issue needs a blog post of over 3000 words to disentangle what is going on, and, even then, only by leaving out a lot of the granular detail.

What is happening?

Since 1 October, all meat and some dairy products moving from Great Britain (GB) to Northern Ireland (NI) have been required to carry labels saying ‘Not for EU’. Goods bearing that label can legally be sold in NI but cannot legally be sold in the EU. This rule applies to such of those products as originated outside GB, including from the EU, if they have come to NI from GB, as well as to those actually produced in GB.

This is phase 1 of the implementation of regulations arising from the Windsor Framework. In phase 2, starting on 1 October 2024, this labelling requirement will also apply to all meat and all dairy products sold within both GB and NI. Finally, in phase 3, starting on 1 July 2025, it will additionally apply to several other products, including fruit, vegetables and fish, again in both GB and NI.

These are the rough outlines of the requirements but, as usual with Brexit, there is a lot of complexity beyond the outlines, in this case about exactly what products are affected and exactly what has to be labelled. The details of this are set out on the government’s website (some of which read like a script from Yes Minister: I particularly liked “if herbs are added to cheese or fruit to yoghurt, they are dairy products as the plant product adds flavour.”)

Although ‘Not for EU’ (NFEU) labels are not yet required for goods sold in GB, there are reports that they are already appearing on products on GB supermarket shelves, with one example, which received attention on social media last week, being an M&S ready meal in a store in Suffolk. Another example, this packet of Sainsbury’s French ham which was on sale in late September with an NFEU label in a store in England, is of note as it illustrates that the labels are applied even to produce originating in the EU.

Their appearance in GB suggests that some retailers have decided it is cheaper to have identical labelling across the UK and/or that it gives them greater flexibility in what stores they can sell the goods in and/or that it saves the costs of undertaking two rounds of package re-design as the phases unroll. For, all other issues aside, it is important to understand that implementing these regulations will cost millions of pounds for each supermarket chain, not to mention the costs for smaller businesses, all costs which are likely ultimately to be passed on to customers as higher prices.

At all events, as this labelling has begun to appear it has already attracted a lot of, mainly adverse, comment, and a certain amount of confusion – in particular, in the idea that the label denotes a ‘deficient’ produce which does not meet EU standards. The reality is, again, more complex. I tried to explain some of this in a short Twitter thread last week, but many of the responses showed that I had not done so sufficiently clearly and, in any case, Twitter isn’t a good medium for complexity. Actually, I also discussed it briefly when it first became clear, last May, what was in prospect, but that probably didn’t attract many people’s interest because at that point there were no actual labels in use. Now that there are, and with that use set to increase, it may become a major issue, especially as regards public opinion about Brexit.

So this post will explain in more detail why NFEU labelling is happening, what it means, what it does not mean, and how it relates to Brexit as a whole.

Why is this happening?

There are three parts to the explanation. The first part is to do with the general way that the EU single market works, and what leaving it means for the UK. Under EU (or any) single market rules, goods are produced to a common set of standards, and each member state adopts those standards and takes necessary steps to ensure that producers within that state adhere to them. On that basis, whether produced in Berlin, Barcelona or Bologna, they can be sold without further checks or proof of compliance – in exactly the same way as applies to goods sold within GB regardless of whether they are made in Bath, Bridgend or Blair Atholl.

If a country is outside the EU, its companies can still sell their goods within the EU so long as they conform to EU standards. However, for a country outside the EU, there is no presumption that they do so, and there could be no presumption that they do so, given that such a ‘third country’ has made no commitment to adopting a common set of standards or to taking the necessary steps to ensure that its producers conform to them. Instead, exporters have to provide the relevant certifications of conformity, which are subject to checks, including possible physical border inspections – hence the import controls that the EU now applies to goods coming from GB (although the UK has yet to introduce them on imports from the EU).

In this respect, it is irrelevant that UK standards and EU standards were identical at the time of Brexit, and still largely continue to be the same, because there is no commitment from the UK to maintain and ensure identical standards. That is, the UK may actively decide to diverge by changing standards, or may passively diverge by not adopting changes in EU standards. As regards agri-food products, which are what NFEU labelling is concerned with, the EU offered the UK a ‘dynamic alignment’ of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) deal, whereby the UK would commit to neither actively nor passively diverging from EU standards. This was rejected by the UK, partly on the grounds that it would compromise ‘sovereignty’, and partly because it was argued it would reduce the scope for future trade deals (especially with the US), which might entail diverging with EU SPS (even though the EU had also offered the option of a temporary dynamic alignment agreement).

So now comes the second part of the explanation of NFEU labelling. Given these circumstances, amongst others, the hard Brexit of leaving the single market (and customs union) entailed a regulatory (and customs) border between the UK and the EU. For GB the location of that border was straightforward: the coast and airports. But for NI it implied a land border with Ireland which, despite some Brexiters’ continuing denial, was politically and arguably legally impossible. This, then, became perhaps the central complexity of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, leading ultimately to Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which created an Irish Sea border between GB and NI which became operable in January 2021.

There followed two years of complex and bitter dispute, which I won’t summarise here (but see numerous previous posts), culminating in the agreement in February 2023 of the Windsor Framework (WF), a series of measures to make the Irish Sea border smoother and less intrusive. A key provision was the creation of ‘green lanes’ through which certain products could flow from GB to NI with minimal paperwork and no routine physical checks. Enabling this is what gives rise to the NFEU labelling, to help ensure that these products do not end up being sold in the EU single market, most obviously in or via Ireland. The result, according to Northern Ireland Secretary, and enthusiastic Brexiter, Chris Heaton-Harris will be “as close to a frictionless border as we can have”.

However, this doesn’t explain why NFEU labels will also end up being required in GB shops. So this brings us to the third part of the explanation. Whilst NFEU labels in NI are required by the WF, their use in GB is not a requirement of the WF but is purely the decision of the UK government. As I discussed when that decision was announced, it was taken for what Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called “practical and philosophical reasons”. The ‘philosophical’ reason was as a sop to Brexiters and NI unionists, aimed at reassuring them that NI was not being treated differently from the rest of the UK. The ‘practical’ reason was so that businesses do not have to use different labelling according to whether their products are sold in GB or NI (this also being the probable reason why some businesses are already using the label in both).

What does it mean?

Fundamentally, the label means one thing and one thing only: the product it is on cannot legally be sold in the EU. This leads some, perhaps mainly ‘remainer’, commentators to conclude that the product does not meet EU standards. That is a false conclusion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it does not conform to EU standards and, at the moment, in most, and probably almost all, cases it does conform to EU standards.

However, it might not meet EU standards, and that will depend on whether all three of the following conditions are met:

·         if GB has actively diverged (e.g. the government’s decision to allow the use of the neonicotinoid pesticide thiamethoxam, which is banned in the EU) or passively diverged (e.g. by not following the EU in its post-Brexit ban on the use of Titanium Dioxide as a food additive) from those standards;


·         if the product in question is one to which such divergences apply;


·         if the manufacturer of the product has decided not to follow the prevailing EU standard.

So the fact that a product is marked NFEU doesn’t mean that it doesn’t meet EU standards, and it doesn’t mean that it does. It just means that there is no way of knowing for sure either way.

From the EU’s perspective, that is vital information, as it means that it is definitely not for legal sale in the EU single market as it cannot be guaranteed to meet EU standards. It does the job for which it is intended under the Windsor Framework, allowing it to use the ‘green lane’. But that job is an irrelevant one for UK consumers. This is also a point which seems to cause confusion amongst some, again perhaps mainly ‘remainer’, commentators on social media, who argue that, because the product is labelled NFEU and so cannot be guaranteed to meet EU standards, it should be avoided in favour of an alternative product which is not so-labelled.

However, this misses the crucial fact that products which are not currently labelled NFEU are just as unlikely (or likely) to meet EU standards. The absence of the NFEU mark does not mean ‘this product is for sale in the EU’. All that consumers can know is that a product legally for sale in the UK meets prevailing UK standards, whether or not it is marked NFEU. They do not know whether it meets EU standards, whether or not it is marked NFEU.

What is the GB situation?

This is especially confusing in GB at the moment given that some retailers are voluntarily beginning to use NFEU labels for some products before they are legally required to. This might lead people to conclude that Retailer A’s ready meal X, marked NFEU, is less likely to meet EU standards than Retailer A’s ready meal Y, which isn’t marked NFEU. Or that Retailer A’s Shepherd’s Pie ready meal, marked NFEU, is less likely to meet EU standards than Retailer B’s Shepherd’s Pie ready meal, which isn’t marked NFEU. But none of these conclusions has any basis: to repeat, neither the presence nor the absence of the label tells people whether or not the product conforms to EU standards.

Some of this confusion may disappear once the regulations are fully rolled out, as it may well be impossible to find directly comparable products which don’t carry the mark. However, there will still be scope for similar confusions because even then it will only apply to some foodstuffs. For example, whereas fresh fruit and vegetables will have to be marked NFEU when phase 3 comes in to force, comparable tinned fruit and vegetables will be exempt. Equally, comparability aside, the full roll-out may lead consumers to think that those types of products without NFEU labels are those that still conform to EU standards. But that would be wrong. For example, breakfast cereals will not have to have NFEU marks, as they are not included within the regulations, but it won’t mean that they meet EU standards (nor will it mean that they don’t).

The issue here is that NFEU labelling is only legally necessary for those products (effectively, perishable products) which are eligible to use the ‘green lane’ from GB to NI under the Northern Ireland Retail Movement Scheme. But, even here, there is a further complexity because, judging by experience in NI so far, retailers are going to choose to mark all products as NFEU, even though they are not obliged to. The reason, I assume, is that given the complexity of the regulations, it is much easier to make sure the retailer doesn’t fall foul of them at store level by simply marking everything NFEU.

What about future divergence?

It may be that, over time, there will be greater divergence between UK and EU standards, making it more likely that the first of the three conditions, listed above, for an NFEU label meaning that the product doesn’t meet EU standards is met. Clearly many Brexiters want this. But there is always likely to be industry and consumer pressure on the government not to diverge, as illustrated this week by the report (£) of supermarkets urging the government to legislate to match forthcoming EU bans on products with links to deforestation, which will affect many foodstuffs.

Moreover, even where such pressure fails, and divergence occurs, the big producers and retailers who operate within both the UK and the EU are likely to continue to follow the EU standard, and thus the third of the conditions outlined above will not be met. So their NFEU-labelled products will continue to be more likely to still meet EU standards. Of course, to sell them in the EU, without the label, such businesses would need to obtain the necessary certifications, but they would not have to create a different product line.

By contrast, in those circumstances, domestic, often smaller, producers and retailers are more likely to make and sell goods that do not meet EU standards. That is not (necessarily) because they will actively decide to do so, but because they don’t have any reason to actively make sure that their products meet EU standards, since they are not selling them there. So their NFEU-labelled products will become less likely to still meet EU standards.

But it will still be the case that there is no way of knowing if an NFEU-labelled product meets EU standards or not, and no way of knowing whether one not marked NFEU meets EU standards or not. This remains the case even if there is massive future UK divergence from EU standards. Consumers won’t avoid that by avoiding NFEU labelled products, because it will be equally true of products which are not marked NFEU. As and when UK standards change, any product sold in the UK will potentially not meet EU standards, whether or not it bears the NFEU label, and may still do so, whether or not it bears the NFEU label.

It is worth adding that this entire issue may be overtaken by events. If there is a Labour government, and if, as Labour have consistently implied, but not quite said, that government seeks and secures* an SPS dynamic alignment deal with the EU then, as I understand it (I stress this because there are so many complexities and unknowns), the entire need for NFEU labels would disappear.

Confusion abounds

The deep origins of this expensive and confusing mess lie in multiple confusions on the part of Brexiters. One of the most infamous phrases in the Brexit process was Liam Fox’s suggestion, made in 2017 when he was International Trade Secretary, that ‘this should be the easiest trade deal in history’. Most people who remember it probably think it was akin to similar hubristic claims, such as Michael Gove’s ‘we will hold all the cards’. In fact, it grew out of the belief by supposedly more ‘sophisticated’ Brexiters that the fact of existing regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU would mean that a trade deal could be struck that would effectively replicate single market membership, including the absence of many non-tariff barriers (i.e. including regulatory and standards divergence).

As I discussed at the time of Fox’s comment, it was nonsense, and it has never really gone away. Some Brexiters, lamentably including David Frost during the Brexit trade negotiations, simply can’t seem to understand that the issue isn’t just about the actual standards of products, it is about being part of the systems that certify, register, and uphold those standards. Ironically, it is this same lack of understanding which creates confusion amongst those assuming that the NFEU label necessarily means that the product doesn’t meet EU standards.

Perhaps more importantly, the confusion, or something like it, seems to inform current Labour policy. Leaving aside SPS, where, as noted, that policy is most likely one of dynamic alignment, Labour seem to think that continued regulatory alignment in general is a way of solving the problems of Brexit. If so, that is only half-true. It is true that maintaining alignment with the EU (not as part of a specific agreement, but simply by unilateral UK shadowing of EU regulations and standards) will make life easier for British businesses and other organizations, to the extent that it does not force them to produce to two sets of rules. Though, even then, the benefit may not be huge since, as noted above, in practice many firms will simply follow EU rules – the case of arsenic levels in baby food being one recent example. However, more fundamentally, alignment in itself does not enable UK products to be sold freely in the EU because, to repeat, it’s not just about the standards, it’s about being part of the systems around the standards.

The other deep root of the NFEU situation, of course, is the Brexiters’ persistent refusal, going back to before the referendum, to understand or to be honest about the implications of Northern Ireland for (hard) Brexit, and vice versa. That is what ultimately led to the Windsor Framework and NFEU labelling, and also, indirectly, to the government decision to sweeten the pill for unionists by rolling out that labelling across in GB as well as NI, even though it didn’t have to and, anyway, the unionists are not impressed by it.

Against this background, British consumers can hardly be blamed if they, in turn, are confused by the labelling, and falsely, but quite understandably, take it to be a mark of inferior produce. It’s easy to see how ‘Not for EU’ will become interpreted as ‘not for you’. If that leads to public consternation, and deepens the unpopularity of Brexit, then it will be an irony the Brexiters richly deserve. They have endlessly deceived themselves and the public by treating hugely complex issues of international trade and supply chains in highly simplistic and deeply misleading ways, and they have also endlessly demanded that the UK diverge from EU standards.

So If the public are now misled by the NFEU labels, which arise from this complexity, and simplistically take them to mean that Brexit has made the food they buy unsafe, then the Brexiters will have no one to blame but themselves.


*It is an important question as to whether the EU would now agree to such a deal. It’s true, as noted earlier, that this was offered to the UK, but that was in April 2021 in the context of the unresolved NIP disputes. That may not still hold good post-Windsor Framework, which the EU may well regard as having settled matters to its satisfaction. It is certainly the case that Labour will not secure an SPS deal if, as some statements have suggested, it has in mind a ‘New Zealand-style’ equivalence regime – which has already been proposed by the UK and rejected by the EU. The difference between ‘dynamic alignment of regulation’ and ‘regulatory equivalence’ is, again, a very complex issue, as explained by a House of Commons Library research briefing.

Note: I’m not 100% sure yet, but I don’t think there will be a post next week.

Friday 6 October 2023

Brexit has driven the Tory Party mad

I’ve written several times on this blog about the problems that Brexit has caused the Labour Party. More recently, it has become increasingly obvious that it has had far more profound and damaging consequences for the Tories, and I wrote in some detail last February about how ‘Brexitism’ is eating Conservatism. Now, although Labour continues to agonize about not alienating leave voters in the ‘Red Wall’ seats, it is beginning to craft some kind of post-Brexit stability for itself. Whereas Brexit has driven the Tory Party mad, as their party conference this week made abundantly clear.

The two things are not completely separate, as illustrated by the Tory Party’s thuggish Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson. A former coal miner and long-time Labour Party member, who also served as a Labour councillor, his early political heroes (£) were Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn. Now a Tory MP and GB News presenter, he is not just ferociously pro-Brexit but a cartoonishly ‘prolier than thou’ populist, espousing the predictable litany of ‘things we’re not allowed to say’, from supporting the death penalty to telling asylum seekers to “f*** off back to France”.

So, to the extent he represents a certain segment of the traditional Labour core vote, he is indicative of part of the problem Brexit poses for Labour. But Anderson’s greater significance is that he fits perfectly into the post-Brexit Tory Party alongside those, from Jacob Rees-Mogg through to Suella Braverman, with whom he might otherwise have little in common. At the same time, there’s really no discernible difference between his beliefs and those of the Reform Party, as illustrated by his cringingly fawning ‘interview’ of Nigel Farage on his very first GB News show.

In one way, there’s nothing new about this. Populism has always brought together certain kinds of far-right and certain kinds of far-left people. What is new is what it has done to the Tory Party, and at the heart of that lies Brexit.

Farage and the ‘UKIPisation’ of the Tory Party

There are multiple dimensions to this, and they are interconnected and difficult to put into sequence. Perhaps the first of them is that, in using the referendum to outflank and marginalise UKIP, the outcome of the vote has ironically been to ‘UKIPise’ the Tory Party. That started to happen even before the 2017 election and has solidified since, so that by this week, as Lewis Goodall of the News Agents remarked, “you could have been at a UKIP or Brexit Party conference”.

That seems to apply not only to its grass-roots membership but to many, perhaps most, of its MPs, with almost all ‘remainers’ having been pushed out before the 2019 election. With them, the more socially liberal wing of the parliamentary party has also been very significantly eroded. That matters electorally, because those MPs, the David Gaukes and the Dominic Grieves, represented a certain kind of Tory voter the party is now liable to lose, potentially threatening its ‘Blue Wall’.

Yet, also ironically, the UKIPisation of the Tory Party has failed to reduce the fear its leadership has of the threat it faces from UKIP’s successor, the Reform Party, and especially the threat it would face if Farage returned to lead some version of that party. The Tories ‘getting Brexit done’ has by no means got rid of the Farage threat. That is partly because, inevitably, he spearheads the idea that Brexit has been betrayed by the Tories. It’s also because he and the people he represents will always depict Tory positions, especially on immigration and asylum seekers, no matter how extreme, as not going far enough.

But what is feared by the Tory leadership is loved by many, perhaps now most, within the party, including those jostling to take it over from Sunak, and the not unrelated seething mass of groupuscules advocating various versions of New and True Conservatism including National Conservatism, Common Sense Conservatism and Conservative Democracy. For them, Farage is not an external threat but a welcome friend. Hence the warm welcome he got at the conference, which apparently – no sniggering at the back, please - he attended in his capacity as a "journalist". Indeed, the Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie observed that “party members would choose him as leader if they could”.

That may be unlikely to happen, but Farage clearly, and correctly, sees himself as a significant player in influencing the party’s direction and its future leadership, which he opined was “the real debate this week”. That framing of the conference was in itself an act of hostility towards Sunak, as was his  enthusiastic endorsement (£) of Liz Truss’s approach to economic policy. Yes, it’s astonishing that anyone could think that, but Truss herself certainly continues to do so (£), as, presumably, do the “huge crowd”, which included Farage, who came to hear her speech to the conference fringe, given less than a year after her ignominious downfall.

Farage, whose political instincts are as acute as they are malign, was right about the central theme of the conference, and it wasn’t Sunak’s announcements about there being extra trains on the Dullchester to Snoreham line in ten years’ time, even though these dominated the reports of his less than visionary speech. It was, as Sam Coates of Sky News put it, “the existential questions about what the next iteration of the Conservative Party stands for”.

That Farage is now openly playing a role in these questions, inside the party he left in 1992 and has tormented ever since, may also seem astonishing. But to many in the current party he is not a torment but an inspiration. So is the GB News channel he fronts, as Priti Patel aggressively asserted at the Conservative Democratic Organization’s dinner before dancing with him, the would-be Princess to his irredeemably ugly frog. For that channel is now the mouthpiece for what the bulk of the Tory Party, quite as much as the Reform Party, believes in, and its studios are awash with Tory MPs interviewing each other.

The enemy at the top

To the New and True Conservative Jacobins, the enemy is neither Farage nor the Reform Party, it is Rishi Sunak and the remnants of moderate or even vaguely pragmatic conservatism. It is a curious fate for Sunak, a fiscally conservative Thatcherite, not to mention a supporter of Brexit. When he became an MP in 2015 that put him towards the right of the party. Just seven years later, the new Tories regard him as a ‘globalist’, even a ‘socialist’ and, of course, a ‘betrayer of Brexit’, if not a ‘closet remainer’. 

His clumsy attempts to placate them – from his new-found scepticism about the Net Zero agenda, to his insane embrace of the ’15-minute City’ conspiracy theory – have no impact on that. And they will, correctly, see it only as a sign of his weakness that he accepted the possibility Farage might be allowed rejoin the Tory Party, and as a further humiliation that Farage immediately rebuffed the idea (though, interestingly, he hasn’t entirely ruled it out for the future).

As many of his predecessors as Tory leader found, the more Sunak tries to please the extremists, the more they demand. His situation differs from them in two ways, though. One is that the extremists are no longer a fringe group within the party but becoming its mainstream, and include members of the cabinet like Braverman. The other, which is all that is saving him for now, is that even the extremists, such as Rees-Mogg, reluctantly realise that it is impractical to depose him before the next election. 

Clearly these two things point in different directions, but they are both bad for Sunak. If and when he loses the election, of course he will be ousted. But if, by some chance, he wins it then they will continue to attack him, though I suppose if he won by a large majority they might hold off doing so for a few weeks. The True and New Conservatives aren’t going away.

Brexit sowed the wind

The present state of the Tory Party isn’t all about Brexit, but Brexit lies at its heart. It is what started the rampage of populism, with its imagination of a singular ‘will of the people’ and, with that, the hunt for heretics and traitors, the denunciations and the witch-burnings, the suspicion of any hint of a lack of true belief. Hence, to give just one example, former Chancellor Philip Hammond, who, like Sunak, was a hyper-wealthy, almost stereotypical Thatcherite Eurosceptic as well as a spreadsheet technocrat, ended up being accused of “betrayal” for not supporting ‘no-deal Brexit’, and even facing calls that he be “tried for treason”.

Yet alongside such ferocious dogmatism lies the constant disappointment with Brexit. That was always going to exist, but Sunak’s relative ‘pragmatism’ has provided a new excuse for the Brexiters. To them, the Windsor Framework, the climbdown over scrapping all EU Retained Law, the resumption of Horizon membership, and the various other ad hoc accommodations he has made, all feed the Brexiters’ sense, itself the flip-side of their revolutionary purism, that Brexit hasn’t worked because ‘it has never been tried properly’. To take just one recent, but spectacularly stupid, example, the Telegraph’s Tom Harris this week foot-stamped about how “this useless government is destroying the Brexit dream” (£)*.

It is also Brexit which has led the Tory Party to all but turn its back on the business interests that used to be at its core. Boris Johnson’s ‘f*** business’ comment may have been a throwaway remark, but it had a deep resonance. Most businesses, whether large or small, were opposed to Brexit, and many are now deeply concerned about its effects. So, with Brexit the primary test of purity of belief, business is now – not entirely, but to an extent which would have been unthinkable a few years ago – positioned as the enemy. And that is not just for lack of Brexit belief, but for the now associated sins of ‘wokeness’ and being part of the Establishment or ‘the Blob’.

Something similar applies to huge swathes of professionals, civil servants, and just about every established institution including the Bank of England, the judiciary, the Church of England, many charities, and perhaps even the King (£). Like the evisceration of social liberals from the Tory Party, and to some extent overlapping with it, this has electoral consequences because many of those written off so disparagingly were the kinds of people whose interests the Tory Party used to represent and upon whose votes they could usually rely.

The new ‘politics of envy’

Again, this is not just about Brexit but it started with Brexit. Being a remainer is invariably first on the list of features, usually followed by ‘wokeness’ and university education, defining the ‘new elite’. This is the term repetitively ground out by the Conservative populists’ academic cheerleader Matthew Goodwin, himself a speaker at this year’s London NatCon conference, who has made the astonishing social scientific discovery that there are quite a lot of middle-class people in economically advanced societies. Even more astonishing, and apparently deeply sinister, he has discovered that they “live in the most affluent and trendy districts” and  “marry and socialise” with each other (£).

It’s worth reflecting how remarkable it is that, as with the hostility to business and professionals, populist Tories now regard the educated and affluent middle-class in general as being amongst the enemies of the people rather than being part of their core vote. In a similar vein, Suella Braverman’s ugly and depraved conference diatribe against immigration linked opposition to her bigotry and incompetence not just to those who “are desperate to reverse Brexit” but to those rich enough to have “luxury beliefs”, to employ gardeners and cleaners, and to have second homes. It is again remarkable that what used to call itself ‘the party of aspiration’ should now have such disdain for the well-to-do, to the point of regarding them as ‘unpatriotic’. It is equally striking that it now practises the ‘politics of envy’ that it used to disparage.

But this is the true face of the populist Conservatism that is engulfing the Tory Party, with Braverman also having been one of the speakers at the NatCon conference, along with Anderson, Cates, Rees-Mogg, David Frost and other Tory politicians. And it isn’t just about calibrating to different kind of voters from those who have traditionally supported them. It goes right to the heart of how these populist Tories govern, or do when they get the chance.

This was exemplified by the Truss mini-budget which, as I discussed at the time, was not just a ‘Brexit budget’ because it was hailed as one which would deliver Brexit, but because it was constructed in explicit rejection of the institutions and advice of ‘the Establishment’. They had opposed Brexit with their ‘Project Fear’ warnings, but Brexit had been voted for and done anyway. So Brexit morphed into ‘Brexitism’ where almost all institutions and most expertise are suspect. The market reaction to the mini-budget showed the recklessness of that, and very briefly shocked the Brexitists into relative silence. But they have quickly forgotten all that.

Brexitism: a different kind of ideology

It's something of a myth that the Tory Party used to be pragmatic rather than ideological. Thatcherism was nakedly ideological, and even before 1979 there were plenty of Tories who held her beliefs. Nor was Thatcher averse to populism, especially in relation to immigration. For example, her infamous remark about British people fearing they might be “swamped by people of a different culture” was similar to the kinds of things Braverman said this week.

But Brexitism is ideological in a different way, by being detached from almost any commitment to reality or truthfulness. Thatcherites had ideological positions, for example on the privatisation of nationalised industries, but there was nothing fantastical about them. Those industries existed and, rightly or wrongly, it was possible to privatise them, as the Tories did. The claims Tories made for what that would do for their efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, or investment may have been flawed, and the flaws may have flowed from their ideological assumptions about markets and the state. But they were not delusions or lies in the way that characterised Brexit, for example in the denial that it had any implications for a Northern Ireland border, or the assertion that post-Brexit trade with the EU could be frictionless. In this sense, Brexitism, unlike Thatcherism, is a distinctively post-truth ideology.

Likewise, every single budget under Thatcher – every budget under any Prime Minister of any party, for that matter – was ideological, but Truss’s ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget was ideological in a different way in its refusal to accept the realities of what it meant. That was demonstrated not simply, or not so much, in its formulation as in the response to its consequences, which Truss and her supporters still ascribe to Establishment plotting rather than market sentiment. And this detachment from reality now goes right down to such things as the ridiculous claims from the Environment Secretary Claire Coutinho that she has put a stop to a ‘meat tax’ that never existed.

Even Sunak engages in a degree of this post-truth Brexitist ideology, including the ‘no meat tax’ calumny. More importantly, in his conference speech extolling the pragmatism and honesty he claims to bring to politics, Sunak quite brazenly lied about the benefits of Brexit, including making the absurd suggestion that it has boosted UK economic growth, for which there is not a shred of evidence. There’s no surprise in that, as no Tory leader can speak the truth about Brexit, but it shows that Sunak has little interest in addressing the concerns even of Tory voters, of whom a not negligible 29% think leaving the EU was a mistake, 38% think it has been more of a failure than a success, and just 22% think has been more of a success than a failure. The ‘Brexitists’ certainly don’t have any interest at all in doing so.

Is populism popular?

Indeed, at one level, it seems as if the Brexitists no longer care about winning elections, and all that matters to them is ideological purity. But, though there may be an element of this, I think the truth is more that their ideological purity leads them to believe that it offers a route to winning elections. They see the Conservatives’ current weak position in the opinion polls and refuse to recognize that it derives from voters’ gradual disenchantment with Johnson and sudden disenchantment with Truss. So they conclude, according to taste, that if Johnson had stayed or if Truss had toughed it out then their poll ratings would have risen. And, now, they urge Sunak towards ‘true Conservatism’, certain that it will be popular and, if the election proves it not to be, waiting to ascribe that to him not going far enough and not being a true believer. At that point, they will install a Braverman, or some other New and True Conservative, in the expectation that this will bring them to power again in 2029.

In short, I think they have mistaken populist policies for popular policies, especially given the changing demography of the electorate. The core reason, again, is Brexit. It was the moment when the longstanding populist belief that they speak for ‘the silent majority’ seemed to be vindicated, and they saw further vindication in the 2019 ‘get Brexit done’ election. Indeed the Tory MP Miriam Cates, who is one of the NatCon’s rising stars, explicitly locates British National Conservatism as emerging from these two events. It is a massive over-reading, and over-simplification, of those votes, and especially of the narrow referendum victory, but it gave them licence to claim ownership of the ‘will of the people’ and to depict their opponents as ‘enemies of the people’. It made politics toxic and, in the process, they poisoned themselves.

Of course, perhaps their analysis is right, and when they get their New and True Conservative Party it will prove wildly popular, or at least popular enough to deliver an election victory in 2029. That could be especially likely if they face a Labour government which has been lacklustre or worse. Certainly there is no cause for complacency, and still less for amusement, about what is happening to the Tory Party. In his weekly Guardian column, Rafael Behr, touching on many of the themes I’ve written about in this post, rightly concludes that “there is something disturbing about a regime that is too ridiculous to trust with power yet too powerful to be written off with ridicule”. That will continue to be true even if, as looks increasingly likely, they lose the next election and become completely taken over by Brexitist populism, if only because, even out of office, they will have much media backing.

However, the difference between my analysis and that of the populists isn’t just about the content of the prediction. It is also about a difference that goes to the heart of the irrationality of Brexitism. That difference is that if they prove to be right then I would accept that my analysis was proved wrong. But if I prove to be right then, without a shadow of a doubt, they will deny that their analysis has been proved wrong. They will say it just means that it wasn’t true ‘True Conservatism’ and insist that the answer is to do it again, but this time properly. Exactly as they do of Brexit, the ultimate source of the madness that now afflicts them.


*This headline was later amended to the less punchy one of “The Government risks destroying the Brexit dream”, but the original lives on in the URL.