Friday 24 November 2023

An Autumn Statement of Britain's foregone future

The staggering success of Brexit in transforming Britain’s economic prospects has been such that in his Autumn Statement speech the Chancellor mentioned it, well, just once, and that to refer to the fatuous “Brexit Pubs Guarantee”. This is the policy, first trailed in Rishi Sunak’s 2021 budget, and which came into force last August, whereby duty on a pint of beer bought in a pub is guaranteed to be less than when bought in a shop. As Brexit benefits go, this might be thought rather meagre but, in fact, it’s not even a Brexit benefit, as it could have been done whilst being a member in the EU.

The reticence was scarcely surprising, though. In making a statement putting heavy emphasis on the need to boost business investment, Jeremy Hunt could hardly mention that, just the day before, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England had told the Commons Treasury Select Committee that the decision to leave the EU had “chilled business investment” ever since the referendum. Nor, in putting heavy emphasis on the need for economic growth, was he likely to refer to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) forecast from April 2023 that Brexit will cause UK GDP to be 4% a year lower than it would otherwise have been by 2035, even though that forecast was explicitly left unchanged in its analysis accompanying this Autumn Statement.

Hunt certainly wasn’t likely to challenge the OBR’s estimate, as Trade Secretary Kami Badenoch did the other week, since one of the big lessons learnt from Truss’s mini-budget catastrophe, which brought him to the Treasury, is that the OBR’s forecasts are crucial to gain market legitimacy. So trying to pick holes in one of those forecasts would open a can of worms that every Chancellor who follows the hapless Kwasi Kwarteng will want to remain tightly closed.

The long hand of Trussonomics

That is a reminder that, although it seems a long time ago, it is only a year since Truss’s ‘true Brexit budget’ (£) meltdown and the first Sunak-Hunt Autumn Statement that followed. At that time, I wrote that the effect of those events was to begin to break the silence about the economic damage of Brexit. That was true, so far as it went, although it hasn’t persisted to the same degree, perhaps in part because Brexit has been subsumed into the long list of things about which, as I wrote more recently, we ‘mustn’t grumble’.

It’s not just that, though. Opinion polls show that in October 2022, following the Truss debacle, 57% thought that Brexit has made the UK economy weaker than it would have been, and 11% that Brexit has made the economy stronger than it would have been, a lead for 46 percentage points for ‘weaker’, which was the highest recorded since the question was first asked in February 2022. However, in the most recent iteration of this poll, in October 2023, 49% thought ‘weaker’ and 21% thought stronger. At 28 percentage points that is still a considerable lead, but it has not only declined since its high point in October 2022 it is also the smallest lead recorded in any of the polls since the question was first asked. (The numbers responding ‘similar’ or ‘don’t know’ have remained stable throughout, at around 20% and 12% respectively).

So it looks as if the Truss mini-budget did indeed have an impact on public debate and public views about the economics of Brexit, but that this has since diminished. One reason is probably just the passage of time since the mini-budget crisis, and declining media interest in Brexit. But another may be because of the extent to which, in Conservative circles, the belief that Truss was essentially right has endured or even grown. It may not be surprising that this belief was expressed just this week by Patrick Minford (£), the ever-deluded chief economic cheerleader for Brexit and prime intellectual architect of the Truss budget. Nor is it precisely a shock that Truss herself, whose qualities do not self-evidently include that of deep introspection, should not just regard herself as blameless but in recent months have appointed herself as the standard-bearer for a ‘true Conservative’ economic policy of tax cuts and small government. But it is more surprising, given the damage she did not just to the economy but to their chances of re-election, that “so many Tories still love the failed leader”, to quote part of the headline of an insightful recent article by the Guardian’s Zoe Williams which seeks to explain Truss’s “astounding return”.

Part of Williams’ explanation relates to Brexit. She suggests that Truss and her supporters have mobilized its recurrent victimhood motif to present her as not having failed but as having been destroyed by the forces of the Blob, the Establishment – that amorphous conglomerate which, to explain Truss’s demise, has to extend even to bond market traders. This is all part of the increasingly dangerous contemporary British version of the ‘stab-in-the-back myth’ that played such an odious part in German politics after the First World War. It was on display again last week in the aftermath of Suella Braverman’s resignation.

At all events, it won’t have been lost upon Rishi Sunak that Truss’s ‘Great British Growth Rally’ upstaged him at the Tory Party’s conference, and that tax cuts are one way that he might throw some red meat to his many critics. Indeed, he even had the gall to suggest (£) that the lesson of Truss’s budget chaos lay not for the Tories but for Labour’s “dangerous” green investment plans. In any case, one of the few things known about Sunak is that he wants to be seen as an ‘instinctive tax-cutter’ and his political hero is Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor in the 1980s

In this way, there is now a peculiar alignment within which tax cuts are seen as symbolic both of defiance of Establishment orthodoxy and of fealty to Thatcherite orthodoxy. So it’s not surprising that Sunak and Hunt conjured some up, even if they relied on a smoke and mirrors trickery that was concisely exposed by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and were based less on any serious economic analysis and more on a desire to lay political traps for Labour at the coming election.

Certainly the right-wing press was quick to latch on to this alignment, with both the Mail and the Telegraph carrying the identical front-page headline “Biggest tax cuts since the 1980s”. The Telegraph front page also prominently featured five pundits who it promised would provide “the best comment and analysis”. Of these, one was Allister Heath, who last year lauded Kwarteng (£) for “delivering the best budget I have ever heard a British Chancellor deliver, by a massive margin”, whilst another was none other than Kwarteng himself. Truly, the best comment and analysis anyone could imagine.

The scale of the economic damage of Brexit

Nevertheless, unlike the architects of the mini-budget, neither Sunak nor Hunt could even begin to try to pretend that the Autumn Statement was about ‘delivering Brexit’, any more than they could admit how constrained it was by the ongoing damage of Brexit, the leaden divers’ boots dragging down Britain’s economy.

Further evidence of this was provided by last week’s report from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), entitled Revisiting the Effects of Brexit. The first line of its conclusion is that “overall, it is certain that Brexit has had a significant effect on the British economy” [my emphasis added], and the ‘headline’ summary of that effect is that, coming up to three years after the end of the transition period, UK real GDP is between 2% and 3% lower than it would have been compared with if Brexit had not occurred, and that it is forecast to be between 5% and 6% lower than it would have been by 2035 (thus, even worse than the OBR forecast of 4%). This equates to £850 per capita and £2,300 per capita respectively. The main reasons for this are the impacts on investment, productivity, and UK-EU trade.

There are several things to say about these findings. First, they are based on modelling different scenarios and, in doing so, the impact attributed to Brexit is stripped out from the impact of other shocks, primarily those of Covid and of the Ukraine War. This also means they are based on a form of ‘counterfactual modelling’ (i.e. comparing what has actually happened so far and what is forecast to happen with what might, in other scenarios, have happened or have been forecast to happen). As such, they are, of necessity, estimates but – unlike the constant attempts by pro-Brexit economists to assess the impact of Brexit by comparing actual UK performance with actual EU, Eurozone, or individual member state performance – they do address the central relevant question: is the UK economically better off or worse off outside the EU than it would have been within the EU? By definition, this question can only be answered in counterfactual terms, and of course it is the same question as that asked in the opinion polls I referred to earlier.

The NIESR model is, however, a different to another kind of counterfactual model, the widely-quoted ‘doppelgänger’ produced by John Springford of the Centre for European Reform (CER) and, in fact, it suggests that Brexit has not been as damaging as the CER model estimates. Thus the last iteration of the CER doppelgänger showed UK GDP to be 5.5% lower than it would have been by June 2022, whereas NIESR shows it to be 2.5% lower by 2023.* It should go without saying that either figure may be right, or that the true figure may be even higher than the highest estimate, or lower than the lowest estimate, but for the time being, at least, these are the best estimates available. It should also go without saying that, on any of these estimates, it represents a huge economic hit. To get a sense of its magnitude, consider that in 2019-2020 (i.e. before the pandemic created big distortions in public finances), the UK spent 1.9% of GDP on defence, 4.2% on education and 5.8% on pensioner benefits.

It's important to understand two things about the NIESR, CER and OBR estimates. One is that people sometimes wrongly think – and, when that happens, Brexiters suddenly become sticklers for analytical rigour – that these are estimates of absolute falls in GDP. They are not, they are estimates of lost growth in GDP that would otherwise have occurred. In that sense they are about a kind of invisible immiseration, the loss of what might have been. The second is that people sometimes think – and Brexiters collude in this when they talk about the Brexit impact as being one of ‘temporary adjustment’ – that what is being estimated is a one-off event. It is not. Rather, each year, every year, actual GDP is lower than it would otherwise be, with the gap between what is and what might have been gradually increasing. In that sense they are about a kind of compound invisible immiseration.

It's also important to repeat that all these studies do seek to strip out Brexit from other effects, and in doing so they recognize that the UK economy – including the specific issues of trade performance and productivity – faces many challenges other than Brexit, including some that pre-dated Brexit. This matters when reading, for example, another recent report, this time from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) about UK trade performance and policy. For this report, whilst making many good points about the non-Brexit challenges, still finds it necessary to repeatedly make the strawman claim that “most commentary” ascribes the challenges facing UK trade to the single factor of Brexit. In fact, it is hard to think of a single serious commentator on trade or economics who does this, and, manifestly, the NIESR, OBR and CER do not.

The issue about the economic studies is simply that, as the BCG report itself states in relation to trade, although without attempting to quantify it, “Brexit has undoubtedly had a significant impact”. Quantification is useful in estimating the extent of that impact but, fundamentally, the point is that whatever other factors are in play, in a world where economic growth is hard to find, Britain, uniquely, has chosen to make it significantly harder by the addition of Brexit to these other factors. For another way to contextualize the magnitude of estimates of lost GDP growth, such as the NIESR figure of 2.5% for 2023, is to compare them with the latest OBR forecasts of what GDP growth will be: 0.6% (2023), 0.7% (2024), 1.4% (2025).

The bitter legacy of Brexit for SMEs

The BCG report also rightly highlights that the impact of Brexit has varied between sectors, identifying pharmaceutical and automotive industries as amongst those where Brexit “is likely to have been a major factor in reducing trade”. Perhaps the most important distinction to be drawn is between large and very large businesses, on the one hand, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on the other. The reasons are fairly obvious. Larger firms had the resources to plan for and implement the changes that Brexit brought, and were often more likely to already be familiar with procedures for trading outside the single market.

There has been ample survey evidence of how hard SMEs have been hit by Brexit, and the negative impact on specific sectors and businesses has been assiduously chronicled by Peter Foster of the Financial Times, most recently in his report on the cosmetics and beauty sector (£), itself partly based on a study conducted by Oxford Economics for the British Beauty Council. Amongst other things, Foster’s report spells out that the impact of Brexit is an ongoing one, not simply a ‘shock’ to which firms ‘adjust’ – although, in some cases, it has been just that, with the adjustment being to cease trading with the EU or to cease business altogether. Yet Hunt, despite emphasizing the need to support small businesses, had nothing to say about this.

The particular impact on SMEs is sometimes acknowledged by Brexiters, such as in the recent Institute of Economic Affairs report by pro-Brexit economist Catherine McBride (aptly described by Professor Gerhard Schnyder as “a truly fascinating piece of post-truth economics”, this is what Badenoch based her critique of the OBR forecast on). But they typically downplay its significance on the basis that, precisely because they are small, the aggregate economic effect of that impact is small.

This is misguided in two ways. One is that although big firms may be better placed to deal with Brexit this doesn’t mean, as McBride blithely puts it, that they “can easily absorb any additional costs”. It is rather that, as Allianz Trade’s Head of Economic Research recently said, Brexit has “become a structural hurdle for UK exports” (the same is true of imports, and will become even more so if the latest promise to introduce UK-EU import controls next January is kept). Many big firms may indeed ‘absorb’ these costs, but they are still real, impacting on competitiveness, prices, employment, tax base or any number of other things. But it is also misguided because of the particular economic, social, communal and, indeed, emotional and psychological costs of Brexit’s impact on SMEs.

Those costs are well-illustrated in Foster’s reports, including the one on the beauty industry, which also illustrates the micro-level equivalent of the counterfactual issue in the aggregate modelling. For, as he says of Apothecary 17, a small Doncaster-based maker of male personal grooming products, the issue is not so much that it has adjusted to now being a domestically focused business, it is the ‘counterfactual’ that it might otherwise have continued to expand as an international business. That in turn has implications for the people it might have employed, the foreign currency it might have earned, the taxes it might have paid, and its resilience in the event of a domestic downturn.

There are numerous similar examples highlighted in Brexit and Businesses: In their own words, a recent European Movement (EM) report in which, along with survey results, individual SME owners and managers explain what Brexit has meant for them. Issues include not just the new complexities of trade and regulatory change, but labour shortages. Here, too, it is important to understand how SMEs often struggle more than large businesses because, although net migration figures remain at similar levels to before Brexit, the costs and bureaucracy of hiring workers from overseas are far greater than was the case under freedom of movement of people within the EU. Moreover, sectors like hospitality which are more likely to need workers who don’t qualify for visas are also more likely to have large numbers of small firms within them.

Sometimes, the profiles in the EM report are painful to read, as with that of Carol, who ran a niche bridal lingerie business in Devon. The last line is “Brexit was the final nail in the coffin of the business” (p. 12). Or that of Darren, who ran a specialist motorsport vehicle engineering firm in Cornwall and Essex. His profile concludes “our business is finished” (p. 17). These are affecting, personal stories of individual dreams shattered, whilst at the same time implicitly telling of damage to whole families and to local communities, often in ‘left-behind areas’.

It is ironic to think how fervently Tory politicians used to, and still sometimes do, declaim themselves to be the party of entrepreneurs, and to insist that small businesses were the bedrock of the British economy, and yet they presided over Brexit. Ironic, too, how so many Brexiters claimed that it was only ‘big Business’ that felt threatened by Brexit, and what mattered were the true, British, salt of the earth, small businesses, and yet now dismiss the effects on SMEs as all but irrelevant because big Business has been more able to weather the Brexit storm.

Britain limps on

Back, then, to this week’s Autumn Statement, when it was clear, though again not surprising, that the Labour Party are as taciturn as the government about the damage of Brexit. Thus Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ response speech made no mention of it at all. As if it were the seedy uncle who has to be tolerated at family get-togethers, everyone is too embarrassed to comment on the dubiously-stained mac, the off-colour jokes and the whisky-fumed breath that Brexit brings to the parties.

For the Tories, the embarrassment is the result of having been the architects of Brexit. For Labour, it is because, otherwise, they would be forced to explain why they don’t propose to seek to reverse it, even to the extent of seeking single market membership. The political reasons for that, both domestic and as regards the EU, are understandable and, in my view, justifiable. But, whether justifiable or not, they don’t change the basic fact that the country is accepting – or being forced to accept – that, year after year, it is going to get poorer and poorer than it would otherwise have been.

I’ve argued before that, even so, Labour’s post-Brexit policy is a real, if limited, alternative to that of the Tories. But no-one should think, and Labour shouldn’t pretend, that the accommodations that are possible within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) framework will make much economic difference. Equally, as Michel Barnier has said in a recent interview (£), there’s no prospect of the EU re-visiting the basic architecture of the TCA. Yet, although Reeves made no mention of it, other Labour politicians, such as Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds [approximately 10 minutes in], are including changes to the TCA as one of the ways a Labour government would boost growth.

And so Britain is set to limp on, if not the sick man of Europe then, at least, the only one who has shot himself in the foot. Sunak talks of making tough “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, and in his recent conference speech Keir Starmer said that under Labour “Britain will get its future back”, but the truth is that by far the biggest long-term decision of recent times was made in 2016. It wasn’t a ‘tough’ decision: it was made glibly, carelessly, almost casually. But its consequences are certainly tough, and not at all bright. What that bland and, to some, obscure little word ‘counterfactual’ in the economic estimates means is that each year those consequences will get tougher as Britain pays the growing price of a foregone future.



*The basic difference between the models, as I (a non-economist) understand it, is that the NIESR model compares UK actual and forecasted performance since Brexit with a UK counterfactual scenario in which Brexit had not happened, whereas Springford’s CER doppelgänger compares UK actual and forecasted performance since Brexit with the actual and forecasted performance of a weighted basket of economies which pre-Brexit were comparable to the UK and so is taken to be the counterfactual scenario for the UK had Brexit not happened. Springford has commented on Bluesky on how the NIESR model differs from his, and on some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Springford’s model has been criticised by some pro-Brexit economists, and he has responded to, and rejected, their critique. Separately, Professor Jonathan Portes of King’s College London has argued that not only is their critique theoretically flawed but that their preferred model actually yields similar results to Springford’s doppelgänger.

Friday 17 November 2023

A country on the rack of Tory Brexitism

It has become increasingly difficult to separate out Brexit as a topic from British politics generally, and the politics of the Conservative Party in particular. That has been true for a while, but brought home with force this week with yet another outbreak of the Tories’ long-running civil war. It is a war in which Brexit features as both cause and consequence and, whilst it may have begun with a relatively genteel skirmish between ‘Eurosceptics’ and ‘Europhiles’ in the Tory Party, it has now become a full-blown culture war which has spread way beyond the party, or even Westminster politics.

This has not happened suddenly. It began to emerge early in the Brexit process, and by October 2017 I was writing that Brexit was “becoming a battle for Britain’s political soul”. At that time, that may have seemed like hyperbole, or at least pessimism. Seven years later, it seems almost a truism.

Enter Cameron

It’s a cliché that a week is a long time in politics, but Monday’s announcement of the bizarre resurrection to political office of David Cameron already seems like a distant memory. But it’s still worth dwelling on for a moment. Just from a Brexit point of view, his is a name to conjure with in that, almost uniquely, he is likely to be despised by those holding almost any position on Brexit. Even those not much interested or exercised about it may well resent him for creating this enormous and de-stabilizing storm and then washing his hands of it, with a seemingly insouciant song on his lips as he resigned. For remainers, he is the man who with total irresponsibility gambled and lost the country’s well-being in a miscalculated act of party management. Meanwhile, for leavers, any lingering gratitude they may have to him for having gifted them the referendum is superseded by the fact that he campaigned for remain.

But for hard core Tory Brexiters, the loathing of Cameron goes far deeper than that. Even before the referendum, many of them regarded him as ‘not being a real Conservative’, meaning too socially liberal, too green, too metropolitan, too globalist. Before Brexit, that was still perhaps a relatively marginal view, but the Conservative Party now is very different even to that of 2015 or even 2017. Brexit saw most of the more centrist and socially liberal Tory MPs expunged or marginalized, and Brexit itself has now morphed from just being about leaving the EU into Brexitism or Brexitist populism.*

That is not simply about moving from Brexit to a wider right-wing agenda. As their pet political scientist Matt Goodwin illustrated this week, the Brexitists want to claim that the referendum was not just a vote to leave the EU but a vote to permanently end what he calls ‘Liberal Centrist Dad politics’. Absurd as this claim is – that wasn’t the question asked, so it can’t be claimed to be what the answer meant – it is important to understand how widespread it is. Thus similar claims this week were made by populist commentator Isabel Oakeshott and by Miriam Cates, co-Chair of the ‘New Conservatives’ group of Tory MPs. It enables Brexitists to dishonestly pretend that the referendum gave them a democratic licence for far more than leaving the EU. So they use it as if it were a permanent majority for their entire ideology, even though, as the last seven years have made clear, it was not even a permanent majority for Brexit, and was never a majority for any particular form of Brexit.

Exit Braverman

Precisely the same ‘logic’ was on display in Suella Braverman’s letter to Rishi Sunak, following her sacking. Amidst her wider diatribe, she too claimed that a whole swathe of policies she has advocated “are what people voted for in the 2016 Brexit Referendum”. In this, as in much else, Braverman, former ERG Chair and a leading light amongst the National Conservative (NatCon) group, epitomizes Brexitism. She does so with such crudity, venom and extremism that, eventually and belatedly, Sunak could no longer ignore it.

There’s a danger of becoming inured to the shocking growth of extremism in mainstream Conservative politics since 2016, an extremism ranging from the denunciation of judges as ‘enemies of the people’, through the unlawful prorogation of parliament, to a British cabinet minister openly stating in the House of Commons that he proposed to break international law, something which, as Attorney General, Braverman endorsed. So it is worth recording just how extreme her conduct became last week.

In brief, what we saw was a Home Secretary smearing Pro-Palestine demonstrations in their entirety as ‘hate marches’; attempting, against constitutional convention, to pressurize the police into banning their demonstration; suggesting that the police were unfairly biased against far-right demonstrators; and giving rise to at least the suspicion she might want the march to be violent in order to show that she had been right about it and right about her more general thesis that ‘multi-culturalism has failed. At the same time, she at least dog-whistled to far-right demonstrators to take to the streets.

It was a dog-whistle which was heard, with the consequence that far-right thugs despoiled the Armistice Day events that Braverman had falsely claimed the Pro-Palestine march threatened, unleashing what the Metropolitan Police called “extreme violence” against them. As the former Tory MP Dominic Grieve said, “it's impossible to escape the conclusion that some of that [violence] was fuelled by the rhetoric and the incitement of the Home Secretary Suella Braverman.” Grieve, also a lawyer and a former Attorney General, albeit of a very different stamp to Braverman, is hardly a man given to injudicious remarks. So for him to have used the word ‘incitement’ in this context is little short of remarkable.

It is true that, although most of the violence came from the far-right, some of the Pro-Palestine marchers were also violent. It should also be said that some of the marchers used antisemitic slogans and chants that are utterly indefensible. It simply isn’t enough to say that these are being ‘misinterpreted’ when everyone must now know that (to take the main, specific, case) ‘from the river, to the sea’ is open to multiple interpretations. It is a fact that to many Jewish people, including some who are our fellow-citizens, it inspires genuine fear. So to continue to use that chant is to choose to stoke that fear.

Yet neither of these things remotely justifies Braverman’s words and conduct, and in an atmosphere already so highly charged they were all the more disgraceful. It was certainly, so far as I know, unprecedented for a Home Secretary but, and this is a key point, what Braverman said was not a rogue or maverick opinion amongst NatCons. On the contrary, for many of them and their sympathisers what she said was no more than common sense and, at worst, her only fault was, in the words of David Frost (£), to “occasionally express herself imperfectly”.

Thuggish populists and populist thugs

Most crucially, and most dangerously of all, there is now effectively no difference between the kind of things the Brexitist populists say and those that the far-right ‘counter-protestors’ at the Cenotaph say. Indeed, there is even some evidence that that they share sources of funding. They are on the same side at very least to the extent that the English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson saying [offensive content warning] this week that Braverman had been “fired for telling the TRUTH”. Compare and, if possible, contrast with “Suella Braverman was sacked for being right”, the headline of a Telegraph article (£) by GB News presenter and one-time Brexit Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg.

It’s not just the same sentiment, but there is even a certain similarity between Rees-Mogg’s accusation that Sunak is too “effete” to care enough about immigration and Robinson’s cruder description of the Conservatives as “spineless cucks”. It’s not a coincidence. That same theme of affronted masculinity can be seen in former ERG Vice-Chair Andrea Jenkyns’ semi-literate letter of no confidence in Sunak, sent in response to Braverman’s sacking. In it, the MP who sits very much on the Brexitist or populist wing of the party, declared that Braverman had been “the only person in the cabinet with the balls to speak the truth”.

The populist politicians and the thugs certainly share the all too familiar anti-immigration and anti-liberal tropes, and at least versions of the ‘race replacement’ conspiracy theory. At this particular moment, they also share the opportunism of those who, in Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s words, “look at the war between Israel and Hamas, and the grief and fear it prompts in the hearts of Jews and Muslims, especially, and see not tragedy but opportunity – a chance to advance their own interests”. At least part of what, I assume, Freedland means is that we should hardly take it at face value when far-right bully boys and their allies claim to be shocked and appalled by antisemitic language and violence. Nor, for that matter, should we even begin to take seriously the idea that they were defending the ‘sacred monuments’ [offensive content warning] of the war dead, whose memory they in fact befoul.

Perhaps we should be relieved that, even gifted this moment of opportunity, the capacity of the far right to put much of a presence on the street proved quite limited. It seems they could only muster a few hundred yobs, and many of those were, apparently, addled by drink and drugs. They are frightening and intimidating, without question, but we are not – not yet, anyway – at the point of having uncontainable political street-violence.

What is more frightening is the possibility that they no longer need to exert such violence when their views, even if perhaps expressed more smoothly, and by men and women in smart clothes, are becoming so widely prevalent in the mainstream of politics and the media. Indeed sometimes, as with Tory Party Deputy Chairman and GB News presenter Lee Anderson’s “f*** off back to France” remark, even the expression is not notably different.

Reading Rishi Sunak

Given how high the stakes have now become, it is more important than ever to know where, exactly, Rishi Sunak stands. I’ve written at great length in the past about how Brexitism is eating Conservatism, including a post last February about the schism between Brexitists and Traditionalists and, more recently, after the Party’s October conference, about how Brexit has driven the Tories mad. Most of that analysis still stands, and is the context for these latest developments. In that context, a widely-expressed interpretation of Sunak appointing Cameron and sacking Braverman was that he was throwing his weight behind traditionalism, or ‘centrism,’ and against Brexitist populism. That is how many commentators saw it (£) and, perhaps more significantly, how the Brexitists in the Tory Party and in the Reform Party continue to understand it.

Even before the week’s later events, I felt that this was a questionable reading. Sunak came to power on the basis of being competent and offering stability after the Truss meltdown, and he has sometimes kept to that script. That’s especially so as regards Brexit, where agreeing the Windsor Framework and effectively dropping the scrapping of Retained EU Law were pragmatic, sensible steps which, of course, infuriated the Brexiters. The same goes for re-joining Horizon, effectively scrapping UKCA marking, and other decisions. However, he has consistently been inconsistent, if that is not a contradiction in terms, in that in other ways, especially in his prioritization of ‘stopping the boats’ and his de-prioritization of net-zero policies, he has embraced Brexitist populism.

He seems especially prone to doing so when under pressure, most obviously when, during his original, failed leadership campaign, he promised an even speedier shredding of Retained EU Law than Truss was proposing. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that, when Braverman was fulminating against the police last week, Sunak was, if more squeakily, singing a similar tune in his veiled threat to hold the Metropolitan Police Commissioner ‘accountable’ for any trouble if the Palestine march was allowed to go ahead. Not should it be forgotten that ‘Downing Street’ backed Anderson over his “f*** off back to France” comment.

So I never felt persuaded when, for a few hours this week, it seemed that Sunak had now made a definitive choice: to stop playing with populism and to make his pitch to the electorate as a competent centrist. Supposedly, the real Rishi Sunak had now stood up and was ready to be counted. One obvious problem with this reading is that there are surely only so many times that self-definition can be attempted. So it is hard to see how appointing Cameron is consistent with his Conference pitch – only a month ago – to present himself as someone offering a ‘new politics’ which would break with the ‘failed model of the last 30 years’. It’s not even clear that Cameron fits the ‘competent Sunak’ model given that his track record, including his role in Brexit, is hardly evidence of sagacious statesmanship or even of tactical nous.

Moreover, if it is meant to be an electoral gambit, to signal to Southern Blue Wall Tory voters that Sunak rejects Brexitist madness, it’s not obvious that it will be a clear enough signal for that purpose, whilst it is very obvious that it will be a negative signal in the newly acquired Northern Red Wall seats. And if that was the gambit, then why did he immediately undermine it by appointing Esther McVey, yet another GB News presenter and populist Tory MP, to attend Cabinet as ‘anti-Woke Tsar’, responsible for “leading the charge on the government’s anti-woke agenda”? That certainly won’t placate the populists, anyway, so whatever the motivation it just leaves a muddle.

All this is part of a wider mystery about Sunak and what motivates him. That is especially obvious in relation to Brexit. He has, apparently, always been in favour of it, although I don’t recall him taking any part in the referendum campaign, and he has never given any real explanation of what it is about Brexit that he supports. For that matter, as the Brexiters have observed, the impression he gives – his whole ‘vibe’ – is far more ‘remainerish’, if there is such a thing. And it’s the same with other things that he is supposedly motivated by, such as the possibilities of technology on which, for all that he is endlessly described as a ‘tech bro’, he never says anything except bland platitudes, such as that AI presents opportunities and dangers. This is not exactly evidence of a deep interest, still less of deep thinking.

I don’t think that it is possible any more, if it ever was, to regard Sunak as an enigma, or even as a very inexperienced politician still feeling his way. Instead, I think it is now beyond reasonable doubt that his plasticity is not the shiny cover for some deeper core of belief or purpose, it is just all there is to him. It’s not even a matter of the familiar attempt of many politicians to be all things to all people and who end up pleasing no one. It’s just that there is less to him than meets the eye. There are no hidden depths, just a well-concealed depthlessness. He is impossible to read not because of any inscrutability of purpose but because, quite simply, there is nothing to read.

My suspicion about the shallowness of any conversion to centrism Sunak may have had on Monday was amply justified within two days, following Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that the government’s ‘Rwanda’ policy is unlawful. That created immediate political pressure for Sunak because, whilst it seems unlikely that Braverman, herself, has a great personal following amongst the Brexitists, her views do, and Rwanda is a policy issue for them to rally around.

The fact that the ruling made it clear (£) that violation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was only a minor factor in the court’s judgment did not stop the more bone-headed of them from immediately proposing their pet 'Brexit 2.0' project of leaving it. Moreover some of them, like Anderson, have already called for the government to simply ignore the judgment, some, like ‘New Conservative’ Jonathan Gullis, have called for the government to just dump asylum seekers back in France, and another ‘New Conservative’, Brendan Clarke-Smith, has resurrected the odious “enemies of the people” line.

Without endorsing the most egregiously nonsensical of these suggestions (though, yet again, refusing to condemn Anderson’s remarks), Sunak immediately buckled to the populist pressure by proposing ‘emergency legislation’ which in effect is a new version of the idea that international law can be set aside by domestic legislation, mentioned above. At the same time, despite its marginal role in the judgment, he again raised at least by implication the possibility of, if not leaving the ECHR, then at least ignoring potential rulings from its associated Court in the future. So, once again, competent technocratic Sunak – who could, after all, simply drop all this Rwanda nonsense and focus on creating a quick and fair domestic system for processing asylum claims – disappeared from view. Whether or not this is enough to contain the Brexitists, who, as ever, will want more, remains to be seen.

Tortured on the Tory rack

So it still an open question whether the Tory Party will blow up now, or not until after its expected loss of the next election. Meanwhile the country is in a kind of tortured hiatus with the electorate having apparently decided they want rid of this government, but have no choice other than to live through its last, decaying months.

That isn’t just maddening, it is also hugely damaging. We are beset by deep, structural social and economic problems, and also face massive international instability and environmental danger. And hovering over all that is the miasma of Brexit with its daily drag on the economy and the still unanswered questions it has created for what post-Brexit Britain is to be. None of this is being addressed. Instead, we have a zombie government with no policy agenda, which is bad enough, but it is also so riven by internal factionalism that there is the ever-present danger that it will do something utterly mad.

This is not just about the immediate situation. It is now more obvious than ever – and Cameron’s return serves as a reminder of it – just how profoundly the entire country has suffered on the rack created by the competing factions in the Tory Party’s civil war. That civil war has now lasted for over thirty years. Cameron papered over it, at least during the Coalition years, and despite, or even because of, the manifesto promise of a referendum, voters in 2015 might have thought that it had been consigned to the margins of politics. But, since then, it has engulfed us all.

It gave us the bitter referendum that was supposed to resolve matters. It gave us Brexit which, apart from everything else that could be said about it, manifestly intensified divisions within the Tory Party and smeared them to every corner of the polity. Yet, at the same time, which makes the whole thing an even bigger tragedy, it failed to satisfy the Brexiters. It has degraded our international reputation, permanently crippled our economy, toxified our entire political discourse – and, still, they want more. Still, they want the ever-elusive ‘true Brexit’. Still, they want the ever-elusive ‘true Conservatism’.

It is tempting to think that because we seem to be witnessing the death throes of this government, we are also seeing the death throes of this entire period of chaotic mis-rule and vicious division. It is certainly of some comfort that the Supreme Court showed this week, as it did over the original Miller case about Article 50 notification and the unlawful Prorogation, that some of the institutional guide-rails are still intact. That’s hugely important. And perhaps, post-election, the Brexitist populists will destroy each other and become so splintered between different parties as to keep them from power. But so much poison has been unleashed during recent years, and it has spread so far, even, now, extending to violence on the streets. Much will depend on whether the expected next Labour government, amidst all the other challenges it will face, will be able to reverse that spread. I am not hopeful, but it is the only hope there is.



*It’s difficult to find a precise name for people who fall under this label. They include those within the Tory Party, Reform Party and elsewhere who are identified with the National Conservatism (NatCon) institute, such as many of those who spoke at its 2023 London Conference, and, within the Tory Party specifically, members of various small groups including the New Conservatives, the Conservative Democratic Organization and the Common Sense Conservatives.

Friday 10 November 2023

What the Covid Inquiry tells us about Brexit

The Hallett Inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic still has a long way to go, but the evidence it is taking is already revealing an extraordinary picture of the British government at the time and, in the process, much about Brexit. It is tempting to say that it is not revealing much that many of us did not guess, but, apart from the fact that there’s much in the detail that is fresh, there is an important difference between ‘guessing’ and seeing hard evidence laid out in documents or given by witnesses under oath. And, actually, what is emerging is even more dire than could have been guessed.

What we could guess

Of course, it is not an inquiry into the handling of Brexit but it has long been clear that there were multiple intersections and interactions between that and the handling of Covid. I discussed many of them during the pandemic period, including in what is still the most-read post on the blog, from April 2020, which also gives links to some of the other places they are discussed by me and others. 

Some of those posts contain details which are now irrelevant, but the overall picture that is emerging confirms what is perhaps the central point made in that April 2020 post:

“What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in [i.e. Dominic Raab], and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

They are the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.”  

What ‘the people in the room’ are telling us

I’ve quoted that at length not to say ‘I told you so’ (and, in any case, I was hardly the only person saying similar things at the time), but because it serves as a fair summary of what we have been hearing recently at the Hallett Inquiry. As Andrew Rawnsley, Chief Political Commentator of The Observer, wrote in his column last Sunday, “the testimony from the people in the room” has shown that Johnson was “comprehensively incapable of doing the job”. But, Rawnsley continues, it wasn’t just Johnson who failed, it was the cabinet and senior civil servants, and the blame for that lies in part with Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave team.

Cummings’ own self-serving and obscenity-strewn testimony to the Inquiry, in both its written and, especially, its oral form, showed his utter contempt for ministers and civil servants, whilst in itself giving a glimpse of the bullying and misogynistic culture which, as confirmed by Helen MacNamara’s evidence, permeated the inner workings of the administration. MacNamara, the most senior female civil servant at the time, makes it clear that this culture was not just morally grotesque, but substantively and substantially impaired the quality of decision-making.

Moreover, although it may appear unconnected, or at least less malign, I think the “unbelievably bullish approach that everything is going to be great”, which MacNamara says characterised the early days of the Covid crisis, is inseparable from the vicious machismo she describes. The blokey boosterism, which is also instantly recognizable as being identical to Johnson’s approach to Brexit as well, is the affable face that quickly contorts to hate-filled thuggishness, at least behind closed doors, when it encounters any challenge. Unsurprisingly, this culture was not just misogynistic but semi-racist, “laughing at the Italians” and in doing so being not just laddishly unpleasant but, again, substantively damaging the Covid response by jeering at what could have been useful lessons.

It must be beyond question that Johnson and Cummings were jointly responsible for this culture and all that came with it, though no doubt others played a part, and they had presumably transferred it over from the Vote Leave campaign operation. More generally, for all their well-attested differences, Johnson and Cummings were conjoined, enablers of each other and enabled by each other. Cummings is quite explicit about this in his evidence, as well as showing a shameless contempt for democracy, declaring that “we” (by which he seems to mean the Vote Leave cabal) had the right to pick and choose who would be Prime Minister, and that “we” installed Johnson despite knowing how unfit for office he was. [1]

Meanwhile, it was, of course, Johnson who appointed Cummings as his Chief Adviser and gave him such latitude of powers, a latitude which amongst other things, led to the resignation of the then Chancellor Sajid Javid, just as the pandemic was starting. And it was Johnson who expended so much political capital to keep him in post after the ‘Barnard Castle’ scandal. They were two cheeks - one flabby and purpled, the other scrawny and pockmarked - of the same backside, and what lay between them, connecting them, defining them, was Brexit.

Brexit, too, explains the uselessness of the Cabinet which, as Rawnsley says, the Inquiry is showing to have “failed to act as a collective decision-making body and a restraint on a dangerously dysfunctional Prime Minister”. How could it have been otherwise given that, as Martin Kettle wrote when Johnson appointed his first Cabinet, it consisted of “mostly second-rate ideologues, many of them with negligible records of ministerial achievement and several of them with very dubious political ethics. All the positions of power are held by Brexit extremists. The rest are political hostages to the hard Brexiters.”  

The undermining of the civil service

As for the role of the civil service, part of what is at stake here was, as MacNamara’s evidence disclosed, changes that Brexit had wrought on the processes and machinery of government. But there is certainly more to it than that. Rawnsley points out that the Hallett Inquiry shows Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, to cut an “abject figure”, but his appointment to that role, in the middle of the Covid crisis, was partly because his predecessor, Sir Mark Sedwill, was seen by Johnson as “too much of a Europhile” (£) whilst Case was described as a “Boris Johnson ally”. It has also been reported that he had originally been brought into Number 10 as Permanent Secretary at Cummings’ behest. [2]

The wasn’t just a matter of a Prime Minster smoothly, if ruthlessly, appointing a more congenial or compliant Cabinet Secretary. On the one hand, Cummings’ written testimony (p.59, para. 276) reveals the utterly chaotic manner in which Sedwill’s ejection began. On the other hand, other evidence to the Inquiry shows that, Johnson ‘ally’ or not, Case, prior to taking over that role, had confided to Sedwill that he had “never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country”, referring, apparently, to Johnson and his special advisers. [3]

Crucially, this particular episode was itself part of a wider picture in which many senior civil servants had already left, or were leaving or being sidelined, because of a perceived lack of commitment to Brexit. Indeed, in my post of 28 February 2020 – the date is important as it is just as the Covid pandemic was developing, and shortly before the first lockdown – I recorded in detail how the civil service was under attack for supposedly being anti-Brexit, with reports of a ‘hit list’ of senior civil servants the government wanted to expunge. It was not long afterwards, in June, that Cummings made his threat of a “hard rain coming” for the civil service (£). That was, of course, only the latest instalment in a process which had been going on since the referendum, and, in Cummings’ case, stretching back to his days as a special adviser to Michael Gove in the Department for Education, when ‘the Blob’ first emerged as a term of abuse in British politics. The title of my February post is also worth noting – ‘Brexit is going feral’ – given that evidence to Hallett this week shows that, just four months later, ‘feral’ was exactly the term applied to Johnson’s government by Case, and apparently endorsed by Sedwill.

It's vital to recall this vitriolic attack on the civil service from Johnson and Cummings, and Brexiters generally, because it is quite as important as, if not more important than, the related issue, which is getting far more attention, of how Hallett is showing that Brexit was prioritized over tackling Covid. It wasn’t just that Brexit overloaded the bandwidth of the civil service, Brexiters also undermined the civil service as an institution. Even now, Cummings presumably includes the civil service amongst the “insiders” who “refus[ed] to accept the referendum result” who he blames for the lockdown having been necessary at all. For, on Cummings account, it was this alleged “refusal” that meant that Brexit created the “constitutional and political crisis that consumed a vast amount of the focus of the core of the state 2016-2019”.  Unsurprisingly, as Anthony Robinson observes, this account conveniently ignores the role of the Vote Leave campaign in creating this crisis.

Frost (as always) muddies the waters

In a similar way, like Billy Bunter to Cummings’ Flashman, David Frost responded to MacNamara’s evidence that the government focused on Brexit to the exclusion of everything else from July 2019 with the justificatory bleat that “we were in the biggest constitutional crisis for a hundred years”. He also asserted that the claim that ‘no-deal Brexit’ planning got in the way of pandemic planning does not accord with the facts because the Brexit deal was completed in October 2019 (i.e. before Covid), and the Transition Period meant that “there was no economic shock and no new arrangements to prepare for during the height of the Covid crisis”.

As so often with Brexiters’ claims it is complicated to unpick them, and Frost is particularly prone to tendentiousness. The only constitutional crisis between 2016 and 2019, and certainly between July and October 2019, was the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament, for which Johnson and Cummings were entirely responsible. Frost makes it sound as if this crisis was something the government heroically struggled against when, in fact, it was something the government created. It’s true that there had been a rolling political crisis since at least the 2017 election but, stripped of all its great complexity, that was not a constitutional crisis but a simple reflection of there being no parliamentary majority for any particular form of Brexit, just as was the case in the country. [4]

It’s also true that this political crisis still existed until the December 2019 election, and the Inquiry has already heard evidence that the work streams implementing provisions from the 2016 Exercise Cygnus on pandemic planning had been largely halted by no-deal Brexit planning. However, it is not true the completion of the Brexit deal, in the sense of the agreement with the EU of the text of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in October 2019, ended no-deal planning. Firstly, that WA was not agreed by parliament until after the election. Secondly, even when it had been agreed, it initiated a new phase of no-deal planning – this time concerned with the possibility of there being no future terms, or trade, agreement.

This also means that it is either completely dishonest or totally ignorant for Frost to say that there were “no new arrangements” to prepare for during the Covid crisis of 2020. There were. Whether or not there was to be a trade deal, it would mean completely different trading (and other) arrangements compared with being in the single market, customs union, and other EU entities, once the Transition Period was over. Which of these two outcomes would prevail was not known until Christmas Eve of 2020 and so, throughout the year, there was the prospect of at least major change, and possibly of major disruption, to be prepared for. That was as true for businesses and other organizations affected as it was for the government.

The (non-) extension of the Transition Period

Moreover, Frost fails to mention that, until July 2020, the UK had the possibility of seeking to extend the Transition Period, something which the EU would almost certainly have agreed. Doing so would have helped the UK to deal with Covid, by taking away the urgency of the negotiations and the imminency of the changes that the end of the transition would bring. It would also have helped the UK to deal with Brexit, by deferring completion of the trade deal until the exigencies of the Covid emergency were over. For although the focus of attention arising from the Hallett hearings is how Brexit got in the way of dealing with Covid, it is equally the case that Covid got in the way of dealing with Brexit. For Frost to use the Transition Period as a defence against there having been such mutual impacts whilst ignoring his government’s refusal to extend the period, which would have reduced or contained them, is absurd.

As I wrote in June 2020, the decision on whether to extend the Transition Period wasn’t the last gasp of the battle over whether Brexit would happen, it was the Brexiters’ first challenge to show that they could govern Britain after leaving the EU, rather than just campaign for Britain to leave the EU. It is a challenge they comprehensively failed, because they were (as they still are) locked into the idea of defending Brexit against ‘betrayal’. Never mind that, by that time, Britain had actually left the EU, and that could no longer be prevented: they just ploughed on.

In doing so, they not only pulled time and attention away from dealing with Covid, they also ensured that Covid-battered businesses had no time to prepare for the end of the Transition Period. Even if Brexit were not intrinsically a huge folly, they ensured that it came into effect in the most unpropitious of circumstances, and they did so with absolutely no justification beyond the stiff-necked false pride that the period could not be extended even in the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic.

The Covid government was also the Brexit government

The Hallett Inquiry is beginning to uncover the deep dysfunctions in the way that the government handled the pandemic and, almost as a side-issue, showing some things about Brexit. But the real significance of the Inquiry for Brexit is that the government it is exposing to view is exactly the same government that before, during, and after the pandemic was handling Brexit. So, although it is not an Inquiry into the handling of Brexit, it is surely inconceivable that the way it handled Covid does not also apply to Brexit to some degree.

For, self-evidently, these dysfunctions did not arrive with the pandemic but pre-dated it, at least as far back as Johnson and Cummings coming to power (though, as noted, some features, especially the denigration of the civil service, go back further). It is inconceivable that the factionalism and infighting, the misogyny and the vapid boosterism, were not all occurring in the period when, after Johnson came to office, the Withdrawal Agreement and, especially, the Northern Ireland Protocol, were still being negotiated. It is certainly true, by definition, that the government dealing with the Covid crisis in 2020 was the same as that which was undertaking the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) negotiations during 2020. And, although Cummings departed in November 2020, it was still the Johnson government, with all the flaws Hallett is revealing, which, throughout 2021 and until he resigned in June 2022, was embroiled in the ongoing row with the EU over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

There are already plenty of reports that show how little Johnson understood about the practicalities of Brexit. To take just one example, he reportedly “slumped in his chair” when “the penny dropped”, during a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2019, that his ideas about the Irish border were totally unworkable. But we now know that this same Johnson, during Covid, seriously suggested being injected with the virus on live TV to show its harmlessness, and seriously asked whether the virus could be destroyed by blowing a “special hairdryer” up the nostrils, actually circulating a You Tube video of someone demonstrating this ‘cure’. Patently someone so dull-witted, or, more accurately, so lazy-minded, as to do these things would be equally incapable of grasping even quite basic things about Brexit, let alone its more complex details.

Similarly, the Inquiry is revealing how during Covid Johnson was flip-flopping daily, or even hourly, on both the overall strategy and the detailed measures for dealing with the pandemic. So it is surely reasonable to assume that he behaved in the same way on detailed issues in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA, and also on the big questions about them, most especially whether to allow there to be one or both versions of no-deal Brexit.

It is also surely reasonable to assume that he flip-flopped in the same way during the long period when it was rumoured that he would, or would not, invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and, subsequently, whether he would pass and make use of the Northern Ireland Bill to pull out of the Protocol in its entirety. Relatedly, we already knew that during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations at least one senior Tory thought that “the Irish really should know their place”. So, learning now about how the Johnson administration jeered at the Italian response to the pandemic, it hardly strains credulity to suppose that it was similarly contemptuous of the Irish position on Brexit and the Protocol. 

Whilst Johnson is the most obvious culprit here, the same applies to his entire administration, including his feeble and mediocre Cabinet and his team of arrogant and bumptious Vote Leave Special Advisors, both during and after the Cummings’ period. If, as the Hallett evidence so far suggests, the entirety of this administration suffered from multiple deficiencies in handling Covid, then it is inconceivable that it became super-competent when dealing with Brexit. And whilst it might be said that the pandemic was a wholly unusual and complex problem, the same is true of Brexit. If they differ, it is not in that but in the fact that Covid was a crisis imposed on the UK, as it was on other countries, whereas Brexit was imposed by, indeed created by, the Brexiters, many of whom were by this time running the country. So they were incapable of dealing with either, but with Brexit they had the added culpability of having caused it.

We may never have a Public Inquiry into Brexit, and if we do it will have to encompass different issues and cover a longer period than Hallett. Yet, even without that, Hallett is providing a glimpse of just how rotten the Johnson period of Brexit was – the period, don’t forget that ‘got Brexit done’. If, as Covid data expert Professor Christina Pagel argues, Hallett has already “laid bare the government’s dereliction of duty” we can hardly imagine that the very same government at the very same time was the epitome of care and competence in its handling of Brexit. But the cases are different. We didn’t have this government because of Covid, but because of Brexit. In this sense, Brexit was the ‘original sin’ for which we paid twice-over. Once by having an utterly useless government when Covid hit, twice by having an utterly useless government to deliver Brexit. And that is before even considering the price inherent in Brexit itself. [5]


[1] This is not to say that Johnson could not have become Prime Minister without Brexit (and Cummings). Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog this week has an interesting discussion of this.

[2] Because for the purposes of this post I am splicing together different parts of testimony to Hallett it may be confusing as to what jobs Simon Case was doing at different times. In May 2020 he was appointed as Downing Street Permanent Secretary, a role that had been unfilled since being vacated by Sir Jeremy Heywood in 2012 (it had in any case only been created in 2010), who became Cabinet Secretary until his retirement in 2018, when he was succeeded by Mark Sedwill. Then, in September 2020, Case was appointed Cabinet Secretary, replacing Sedwill.

[3] The Cummings’ evidence referred to in this paragraph is confusing in that it suggests that Sedwill was initially sacked in May 2020, and subsequently refers to Case as having been Cabinet Secretary in July. This doesn’t square with the public record of posts held, but it seems to be that the outcome of the botched sacking was Sedwill’s resignation and that, by July, it had been decided that Case would be his successor even though he wasn’t formally in post. There is much more detail on all this in Beckie Smith’s report in Civil Service World. Another confusing issue is why, if Case was indeed a Johnson ‘ally’ and Cummings had supported his appointment in May 2020, did he speak about them in the disparaging terms quoted here? A possible answer is that it is because that quote comes from July 2020, by which time he had come to witness the chaotic nature of the administration.

[4] Frost, especially, has been vociferous in insisting that this political crisis was also a constitutional crisis, because it enabled, on occasion and most notably with the 'Benn Act' of October 2019, the House of Commons to take control of its business from the Executive. But this was absolutely consistent with the Constitution: Parliament is sovereign, and the Executive only has power to the extent that it commands a parliamentary majority. As regards ‘no-deal Brexit’ in the sense of no WA (the subject of the Benn Act), it did not.

[5] Part of that price is the damage to trade, and another Brexit story this week is the publication of a woeful IEA report denying that damage. Fortunately, Professor Gerhard Schnyder has done an excellent, painstaking job in exposing its numerous and profound flaws. I know from experience that undertaking that kind of detailed debunk is a hard, time-consuming business, because such reports contain nested layers of falsity or misunderstanding. But it really matters, not least because such reports gain so much traction including, in this case, endorsement by Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch.

Friday 3 November 2023

Book review: The Brexit House

Today’s post is the latest in a series of occasional book reviews, but it is a new departure in that it is the first time on this blog that I have reviewed a work of fiction. So I should say upfront that I have no particular expertise in judging literary merit. Nevertheless, it seems in keeping with the purpose of this blog, with its focus on the ongoing effects of Brexit, to discuss at least some of the fiction to which it is giving rise, as well as non-fiction treatments.

For, as we might expect from so seismic an event, Brexit has already spawned a wide array of novels and ‘the Brexit novel’ has become almost a genre in its own right, with at least one postgraduate research thesis having been written on it, and no doubt more than one. And, whilst I certainly have no pretensions to be a literary critic, I have long been interested in ‘Brexit novels’ both as manifestations of Brexit and as ways of understanding it, having, for example, been delighted to have been one of the speakers at the launch of my former colleague Bob Eaglestone’s edited book, Brexit and Literature.

From that perspective, the finest of the ‘Brexit novels’ I’ve read, and which I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, published in 2018 (I also reviewed it for a now defunct website, so I cannot link to it). Another excellent, though very different, example, also mentioned on this blog in the past, is Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion (also 2018). Obviously those are both written by established, professional novelists, in Coe’s case one with a major international reputation, whereas the book reviewed here appears to be the author’s first novel. As such, it probably isn’t as accomplished as theirs, and it would be unreasonable to expect it to be, but, to my mind, it is nevertheless a subtle and erudite book, and one which discloses much about some aspects of Brexit.


Winter, Julia (2023) The Brexit House. Market Harborough: Troubador Books. ISBN 978-1-803137-421 (Paperback). 340 pages. £10.99

Set at the end of August 2019, at the time when Boris Johnson was about to initiate what was eventually ruled to be the unlawful prorogation of parliament, two sisters, Cecily and Victoria, their husbands, and their children meet for a few days’ holiday. They are joined by Cecily’s friend, Diana, and her daughter. The holiday is spent at the large, ramshackle house that used to belong to the grandparents of Cecily and Victoria, and which they have inherited from their parents.

The house itself, with its extensive garden, adjacent to the cliffs and beaches of Dover, is, partly by virtue of that location, a proxy for something about Brexit. It is certainly emblematic of certain kind of middle-class, perhaps upper middle-class, Englishness, replete with photos of family members who had lived in and served the British Empire, and filled with a mish-mash of furniture, crockery, even cutlery, which are typical of families of that class. It is also, again typically, full of books. At the same time, it is in dire need of upkeep, is dirty, smelly, and, it emerges, inhabited by rats. The careful and caring depiction of the house is one of the great strengths of this book, to the extent that it is almost a character in its own right, and, of course, gives the novel its title.

The assembled party relate to this house in different ways, just as they do to Brexit. Cecily, the central character, clearly loves it, but is ashamed of some of its connotations of privilege and Empire. She and, especially, her German-Togolese husband, Florian, are also mindful of the many costly repairs it needs. These are costs they can ill-afford because, despite being highly-educated and having, in different ways, privileged backgrounds, they are not rich; they have social and cultural capital, but no financial capital. But neither of them experiences the house, for all its Englishness, as contradicting their adamant, and, in Cecily’s case, consuming and impassioned, opposition to Brexit. Indeed, for Cecily, in particular, its Englishness isn’t antithetical to the European identity Brexit has ripped from her, but an integral part of it.

Her friend Diana, visiting for the first time, also responds to the house and the history it embodies as, in some almost indefinable way, expressing English identity but, for her, it does so in a way which resonates with what led her to vote for Brexit. Yet its middle-class signifiers are wholly alien to her. She lives, it seems, a comfortable, even affluent, London life, but her origins are working class and she carries strong memories of her now-dead mother, who had bemoaned the loss of the traditional white working-class community she grew up in.

Victoria and her husband Dan are also fond of the house, and want to buy Cecily’s share of it which, being much better-off, they could afford to do. As for Brexit, they appear to have some concerns about what its effects may be on them, but seem uninterested in it one way or the other, and it’s not clear whether they voted for it or not, or even if they voted at all. They are mildly amused and mildly exasperated by Cecily’s pre-occupation with Brexit and the impending prorogation, and they do not seem to appreciate the practical and emotional implications for Florian of having to apply for ‘settled status’. That disengagement and complacency about Brexit are evidently bones of contention between the sisters, but it’s plain that this is only the latest episode in a much deeper and longer-lasting tension and rivalry between them, going back to their childhoods.

So, out of this, two main axes of conflict emerge. One, between Cecily and Diana, is mainly about Brexit, but has elements of class and education. The other, between Cecily and Victoria, is mainly about sibling rivalry, but has elements of Brexit. These two lines also intersect in Victoria’s attempts to befriend Diana at Cecily’s expense, whilst at the same time disparaging her as a suitable friend for either of them because of her lack of education. It is these conflicts which give the book its narrative power. These three characters and their relationships are not ciphers or caricatures espousing different positions about Brexit (as, I must admit, I had half-feared would be the case when I started reading the book). Rather, Brexit is interweaved with those characters and relationships, perhaps exacerbating their conflicts but not defining them.

Diana is especially well-handled in this respect. Whilst being overtly pro-Brexit, it is made scrupulously clear that she is neither a racist, nor stupid, nor ignorant, nor insensitive, nor unreflective. If anything, she comes across as having a kind of sentimental and delicate sense of England and its history. She is arguably more sympathetically drawn than the other main characters, with Cecily sometimes coming across as somewhat priggish and hectoring and Victoria as rather shallow, snobbish and materialistic. In what is clearly an anti-Brexit book by an anti-Brexit author, that is an achievement.

The book depicts the relationships and conflicts between these characters unfolding over the days they spend together in the house and surrounding area, with Dover and its cliffs again having quite different resonances for the various characters, especially Cecily and Diana. Alongside that depiction there are the ‘interior monologues’ of Cecily, Diana, and Victoria. Of these, Victoria’s is the most straightforward and contains her reflections on, especially, Cecily and their shared childhood, as well as on the other characters in the book and on her former boyfriend.

Cecily’s interior monologue has much more work to do. It mainly takes the form of her reading and reflections on that reading, mainly during sleepless nights. Much of this is concerned with the web of relationships between the English Reformation and Brexit, and it sparkles with insights – presumably, in fact, Winter’s – on these relationships, which she also links to the haphazard Protestant legacy of her childhood. Such comparisons aren’t new, of course. Even before the referendum they were made by Giles Fraser, the pro-Brexit cleric and commentator, and have been made ever since the result, both by critics of Brexit and its advocates, including Iain Duncan Smith (£). The latter was derided by the historian Simon Schama as an example of “dunces abus[ing] history in the name of their simple-minded prejudices”, and extensively critiqued by others.

However, there is a serious case discussed amongst historians (in overview by, for example, Rosamund Oates and Harry Cocks, and in their scholarly literature by, for example, Peter Marshall and Charlotte Methuen). Although using the medium of a novel rather than a scholarly article, Winter – or Cecily – certainly makes the comparison in a sophisticated way, finding the chimes and rhymes of history, rather than crude repetitions or bogus causalities, and, in the process, displays an impressive depth and breadth of reading. This encompasses John Locke, R.H. Tawney and E.P. Thompson, amongst many others, and the book finishes with a list of references to all the works mentioned.

Diana’s interior monologue consists mainly of reminiscences about her mother’s life and the erosion of the working-class community in Greenwich during her lifetime, and her forays into amateur history, which fill out our understanding of Diana’s own commitment to Brexit. It also quite nicely depicts how, whilst having learnt, as she left her working-class background behind, that some of her mother’s views are unacceptable and should not be expressed, she retains at least some sympathy for those views. At least some of that sympathy can be read as being not so much about politics as an emotional regret for having distanced herself from her mother’s life and concerns. In this way, again, Brexit is interweaved with, other, pre-existing and wider, themes in the character’s life.

There is also a subtle account, provided both by the monologues and the interactions, of the tensions within Cecily and Diana’s relationship in which both, even leaving Brexit aside, feel insecurities. For example, Cecily worries that the scruffy and dilapidated state of the old house will appall Diana, whose home is spotless and well-ordered. In fact, Diana finds it romantic and mysterious, but she worries that her ignorance about everything from the books on the shelves to the provenance of the crockery will expose her lack of education and, by extension, her social origins. At the same time, as the days progress, each becomes increasingly irritated with the other, again not just because of Brexit but because their differences begin to grate when, apparently for the first time, they have intensive contact with each other. Still, at various times they continue to see in each other qualities they admire or appreciate.

I enjoyed this book hugely, and read it at one sitting, but it has some flaws. Cecily, Diana and Victoria aside, the characters are not very well-drawn. Florian has a bit of back story, and some sense of his political views, but Dan has almost nothing. Amongst the children, Victoria’s son, Zac, with his public-school confidence and glibness, but occasional bouts of intellectual curiosity, is the most developed, although mainly only serves as a springboard for Cecily’s history lectures. Cecily’s daughter, Julia, and Diana’s, Olivia, are scarcely developed at all, and really seem to have little purpose other than to explain the friendship between their mothers which arises from the children being at school together.

The ‘interior monologues’, whilst interesting in themselves, felt contrived at times. Cecily’s just about works, by giving her the props of all the books in the house, and by virtue of her background as a PhD educated historian. Diana’s is weaker, seeming to use her mother as a mouth-piece for all kinds of ideas and arguments that the odd reference to her having been ‘an amateur historian’ was too flimsy to bear. Given the sense that Cecily’s thoughts about Brexit and the Reformation are, apparently, essentially the author’s own, they have a corresponding authenticity and coherence, whereas Diana’s thoughts about her mother are an act of invention, and feel less plausible. Tellingly, a note at the end of the book says that both the mother and, to an extent, Diana are themselves characters inspired by another fictional treatment of Brexit, David Abbott’s Dark Albion. A Requiem for the English, which perhaps explains why Diana’s inner thoughts seem, somehow, second-hand compared with those of Cecily. Victoria’s is the most successful of the three, perhaps reflecting the way that it has less narrative complexity, but, at the same time, this also makes it less significant.

Those criticisms aside, this is a skillfully-written and interesting book. It develops a thought-provoking thesis about Brexit, via the discussions of how it can be seen as at least echoing themes in the English Reformation, or perhaps folk memories of them, and it gives a humane and thoughtful account of some of the subtle social class divisions behind the Brexit vote. Its scope is confined to various gradations of middle-class Southern Englander, but that’s a very important part of the Brexit story, as Danny Dorling’s research on the geography and demography of the referendum vote shows.

Ultimately, though, the reason I think The Brexit House works as a novel is because it is not simply about Brexit but about friendship, family, and, especially, sibling relationships. Many of us with siblings will be able to recognize the way that, as depicted here, decades after childhood, such relationships can be heavily freighted, with even the smallest phrases having a power, including the power to wound, which they would not conceivably have in the mouth of anyone else. Likewise, the very different interpretations the sisters have of their shared history is a recognizable feature of many families. The implication is that, for those of us who must now perforce live together in ‘the Brexit house’, that is the Brexit story, and in that way the novel is an extended metaphor, but, in the process, it discloses much about family relationships more generally. Or, perhaps, it shows why, for so many of us, Brexit means so much more than Brexit.