Around the first anniversary of the referendum, after Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 general election, an unnamed but far-sighted Conservative MP told Politico that, “This country is f–ked. We are tethered to the mast of Brexit and when it goes wrong, we’re screwed. They all know it. All Labour have to do is hedge their bets. When the public realize they have been sold a pup they will turn on the party”.
The moment of truth may be almost upon us.
The Conservative Party and Boris Johnson have succeeded in one thing only in four long years: concealing the truth about Brexit. Through all the internal party wrangling and the tortuous EU negotiations, the government, aided by a compliant pro-Brexit press, has managed to maintain the delusion that isolating ourselves from the single market will somehow lead – eventually – to some sort of Eldorado.
The Tories are “tethered to the mast of Brexit”
The ship of Brexit set sail full of hope in January but is now badly holed, taking on water and sinking fast.
The damaging effect of losing all four single market freedoms abruptly overnight on 1 January can be seen in the growing toll of problems recorded by Yorkshire Bylines in the Davis Downside Dossier and the Digby-Jones index.
Brexit has been such a resounding failure that the government has been forced to delay implementing import controls until well into 2022, and reverse its own post-Brexit immigration policy in a last-ditch effort to recruit from the EU 5,500 workers for the food industry and 5,000 truck drivers. The latter is in response to the latest shambles in supplying petrol and diesel to filling stations, the situation being so bad the Cabinet are said to be considering bringing in the army.
With the post-pandemic recovery beginning to stall as Brexit slowly chokes the nation’s economic windpipe, we see shortages of just about everything from fuel and food to fireworks and Christmas trees, with rising prices and the prospect of Britain’s age-old problem, stagflation – inflation coupled with a stagnating economy – taking off, just as it did in the 1970s.
Many die-hard Brexiters think this is a short-term issue unconnected with Brexit, but recent polling suggests over two thirds (68 percent) of voters believe Brexit is at least partly to blame, including 88 percent of Remain voters and 52 percent of Leave voters.
Iain Duncan Smith (“Don’t blame Brexit for driver shortages”) puts the blame squarely on “brainless bureaucracy”, although obviously not the one in Brussels this time. Our own civil service comes under attack.
Johnson is “completely fed-up with bad headlines”
We learn from the FT that Johnson is fed up with bad headlines on the shortages, but not apparently, about the shortages themselves – a telling detail about how would-be world kings see ordinary folk.
Perhaps the prime minister is labouring under the illusion that the damage he has inflicted on this country is just an ephemeral thing and that we will soon be grateful for his hard Brexit?
His comment came as the truck situation was discussed in Downing Street on Friday. Someone familiar with the discussion told the FT that the prime minister was “completely fed up with bad headlines on this and wants it sorted and doesn’t care about visa limits any more” and is prepared to take “the short-term hit on immigration as a trade-off for not messing up Christmas”.
EU drivers are being offered three months temporary visas, can’t bring their families with them, and will be forced out again on Christmas Eve. Not very appealing, is it?
The PM may be in for a surprise. The problems are not short-term but endemic; the surface of Brexit has barely been scratched.
Northern Ireland: Frost in a difficult position
Lord Frost of Allenton is perhaps in the most awkward position. He recently tweeted that the protocol he agreed with the EU is “having a continued negative effect on everyday life & business in Northern Ireland”. As a persuasive argument it might be a slightly tricky one since the ‘negative effects’ are actually worse on this side of the Irish Sea.
There is no petrol shortage in Northern Ireland and food supply chains there have rapidly been able to reconfigure frictionlessly into Ireland and the EU, something Britain is unable to do through thickets of newly introduced red tape.
This is also, or should be, a source of some introspection and perhaps embarrassment for the man chiefly responsible for the protocol and the thin trade deal (although he never seems to acknowledge it nowadays). But men like him don’t do shame or embarrassment, do they?
To Ulstermen and women, on both sides of the sectarian divide, it must seem as if they are passengers in a lifeboat being hailed back to the Titanic for their own safety just as the great ship’s bow starts to slip below the icy waters. Lord Frost is clearly determined to see that we all share equally in the misery – we must go down together.
Barnier’s book is now out
All of this coincides with the publication in English of Michel Barnier’s book My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion (translated by Robin Mackay, published by Polity Books) in hardback, reviewed in The Guardian by Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell.
Powell says the EU side was “professional and properly prepared, whereas the UK was not” and that “Barnier was across the detail at every stage”, something that Dominic Cummings, our own Brexit ‘mastermind’, clearly doesn’t agree with. In a tweet, Cummings claims that the EU chief negotiator was “an emotional/bullshitter/lazy/DDavis type”. He puts the EU’s success down to Stephanie Riso, Von der Leyen’s deputy head of Cabinet.
Usual ignorance from Adonis. Barnier was an emotional/bullshitter/lazy/DDavis type. Our real opponent, smart, subtle, tough, perceptive re PM idiocy was Steph Riso. Lucky for us (esp at end when PM was caving on many fronts) Barnier often sidelined her https://t.co/ERLxBhmsl9
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) September 21, 2021
At least it’s a grudging acknowledgement that we were comprehensively out-negotiated, even if Cummings quibbles about who was responsible. This from the man who didn’t believe Vote Leave needed to have a plan at all.
The British side on the other hand even misunderstood how the talks were to be handled, repeatedly trying to negotiate with individual member states rather than the Commission. They kept being sent back to Barnier. Even at the last moment, Johnson tried to phone Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but both leaders refused to take his call.
Powell describes Barnier’s book as an important account of Britain being:
“Comprehensively out-negotiated over Brexit and saddled with a flawed withdrawal agreement and a deeply disadvantageous future relationship, both of which will cause us major problems for decades to come”.
Britain never even asked for a good deal
This is the mast to which the Conservative Party is now firmly tethered. They cannot deny that it is their project, their long wished for policy, supported by every candidate at the 2019 election. They cannot blame others or escape the consequences, which are becoming clearer by the day. They cannot claim the party was never warned about the deeply damaging impact of a Brexit and especially the hard Brexit Johnson delivered.
A leave-voting colleague told me in 2018 he thought the EU would “give us a good deal”, although I’m not sure he even knew what a good deal might look like. As it turned out, we didn’t get a good deal, because we didn’t actually ask for one.
We set red lines thinking the EU would have to make all the concessions and grant everything we wanted because ‘we’re so important’ – known as the Digby-Jones approach. It didn’t, and in the end we wound up with a still-contested internal border that two sitting prime ministers said Britain should not and could not accept, and a bad trade deal to boot.
Historians will one day answer many questions about Brexit. The biggest one of all may well be: how did they ever think they were going to get away with it?