MPs pass Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on 19th December 2019 (parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament)


A recent incident illuminates, as few events have since 2016, the moral and intellectual chaos into which Brexit has (predictably) fallen over the past four years. This involves four familiar riders on the Brexit whirligig: The Sun, Iain Duncan Smith, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Withdrawal Agreement.  It is revealing primarily about the newspaper and politician involved. But it also provides important insights into the entire Brexit process and the mentality sustaining it.

On 2nd August, The Sun published an article claiming the UK would face after Brexit “a £160 billion EU loans bill.” Although it is unclear how precisely this figure has been calculated (unnamed “experts” are cited), the claim relates to the workings of the EIB, for the loans it gave pre-Brexit and for which the UK will continue to bear its share of the liability post-Brexit. Given the prudence with which the EIB makes its loans, the real expense of this liability over the coming years is likely to be minimal. To approach anything remotely like the figure quoted by The Sun, every single loan made by the EIB would need to be repudiated in its entirety by all the borrowers. There is no chance of this happening, and The Sun’s elision of repayable loans with bills that the UK will supposedly have to repay is disingenuous and misleading. Overall, the article reflects the familiar mixture of confusion and fantasy which characterises most pro-Brexit reportage which is not simply mendacious.

Iain takes to Twitter

On 4th August, Iain Duncan Smith claimed in a series of tweets commenting on the Sun’s article to see the EIB matter as simply part of a larger issue: the unsatisfactory nature of the Withdrawal Agreement that “we” signed last year. According to Duncan Smith, the UK will remain post-Brexit unacceptably “hooked into the EU’s loan book”, a fact of which many were unaware because this provision was “buried in the fine print” of the Agreement. More generally, says the former Leader of the Conservative Party, the Withdrawal Agreement, which allegedly “gives the EU future control over us” must “go”.

Commentators such as Chris Grey have been quick to point out the striking irony of such complaints issuing from the mouth of Duncan Smith. He voted for the Withdrawal Agreement last year and happily stood for a Party in the General Election which claimed that it was a major success for Boris Johnson, an “oven ready” deal that would ensure the UK’s successful exit from the European Union. Duncan Smith’s protestations about the “fine print” of the Agreement ring particularly absurd and distasteful. He was one of those urging most vehemently that the deal should only be subjected to abbreviated Parliamentary scrutiny in 2019 on the grounds that all Parliamentarians were fully familiar with its provisions. Less than a year later, it turns out that either he himself was unaware of important provisions, or voted for the Agreement disguising the fact that he even then saw it as an unacceptable document. In neither case does Iain Duncan Smith emerge from this incident with honour or credibility. Continental observers know that he represents an important current of opinion within the ruling Conservative Party. Their already weakened confidence in the UK as a future political and economic partner will have suffered even more because of his behaviour.

It should be stressed however that Duncan Smith’s most recent complaints do not merely relate to continuing British responsibility for pre-Brexit loans. He now rejects root and branch the Withdrawal Agreement, both for its terms and because he does not regard the EU as a reliable or even well-intentioned partner. In contrast to the lazy rhetoric of Boris Johnson about our “European friends”, Duncan Smith makes no bones about regarding the EU as an opponent, which rejects the desire of the UK to have a “good trading relationship with the EU as a sovereign state”, seeks to deprive us of “our money” (yet again!) and wishes to “stop us from being a competitor”. Duncan Smith bitterly regrets the EU’s having received what he calls the “divorce payment” of £39 billion and calls unequivocally for the abandonment of the Withdrawal Agreement because it “cost too much” and deprives “us of true national independence”. Above all, and most tellingly, Duncan Smith insists, “you can’t be half in the EU and half out.”

In this last assessment, Duncan Smith is half right and half wrong. It is of course logically and practically possible to be half in and half out of the EU, through some such arrangement as EFTA or the EEA; and in so far as the Leave campaign presented to the electorate a clear blueprint for Brexit in 2016, it was precisely to be half in and half out, enjoying the benefits of trade with the EU, but dispensed from the more irksome elements of the EU. Where Duncan Smith is right is that being “half in and half out” is indeed an incoherent and in many ways repellent strategy for the UK. As an EU member it exercised a considerable role in setting the rules of the Union. Outside the Union, the UK will find itself forced to accept rules set by others if it wishes to retain anything like the level of access to the European market which it so effortlessly enjoyed before Brexit.

Some MPs want “No Deal”

For some observers, this might appear to be a strong argument against the whole Brexit enterprise. For Duncan Smith, on the other hand, there is another, better alternative to the absence of “true independence” implied by a close relationship with the EU. It is as radical and comprehensive a break as may be possible. For him, a “no deal” Brexit will be far from a setback, and certainly not a disaster. It will be the logical conclusion of his approach to the EU and the UK’s detested former place within it. It should not be assumed that Duncan Smith’s view is unusual within the Conservative Party. Brexit has always derived much of its emotional and political impetus from contempt, distrust and animosity towards the EU, emotions skilfully fomented by the Eurosceptic British mass media, of which Boris Johnson effectively remains an important part. Over the past fifteen years, moderate Conservative MPs such as Dominic Grieve and Kenneth Clarke have found themselves more and more isolated in their Party, vainly and ineffectually hoping that their rationalism would one day prevail in Conservative counsels against the avalanche of anti-European bile and hatred (the word is not too strong) that was drowning their party.

It is of course tempting simply to laugh at or denounce the feckless inconsistency of Iain Duncan Smith in now rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement for which he himself so readily voted. But this inconsistency is part of a broader and highly effective pattern of activity, by which the radical Eurosceptics, supported by much of the Conservative-leaning media, have in the past twenty years taken control of the Conservative Party. These Eurosceptics have never regarded themselves as hampered by logical or political consistency, by facts or evidence, by Party loyalty or discipline. Only one issue has ever mattered to them, namely, to use the Conservative Party as an instrument to break free of what they regard as the hostile, impoverishing, immoral embrace of the EU. “National sovereignty” and “global Britain” are sometimes touted as more politically correct slogans for this aspiration. In reality, for many of its most celebrated proponents, Brexit is simply the UK’s chance to be free of an EU which is corrupt, hostile, expensive and domineering. Sir Ian Botham, who described the Union in 2016 as “corrupt” and a “racket”, will fit admirably into this Europhobic pantheon when he takes up his peerage.

Johnson must choose

This autumn, the British government will be confronted with a painful European choice. It knows from the protests of business and the calculations of its advisers how economically catastrophic a “no deal” Brexit will be. It also knows how difficult it will be to sell any Brexit “deal” to its backbenches, prone as they will be to welcome accusations of betrayal in the face of an untrustworthy and malevolent EU. It should certainly not be assumed that economic rationality will prevail in these circumstances. Few Prime Ministers willingly quit their post, a reflection which seems at least as applicable to Boris Johnson as to any of his predecessors. The tweets of Iain Duncan Smith are among other things a warning shot across the Prime Minister’s bow that any agreement he now signs with the EU will be subject to particular scrutiny from within the Party, probably even extending to reading the “fine print” of the text. However clever the drafting of the agreement, however minimal its terms, there will undoubtedly be a substantial body of Conservative MPs who will refuse to sup with the devil in endorsing the concessions necessary to avoid a “no deal” Brexit. Whether Johnson will be able and willing to face them down is a question impossible to answer at this point. It would however be rash to assume that he will. It is not by chance that many advocates of Brexit so enthusiastically employ analogies from the Second World War. Many of them, perhaps including Duncan Smith, genuinely see themselves in a heroic light, willing to make any sacrifice in the fight against the evil they claim to discern in the EU. Such ruthless self-certainty, such imperviousness to external events and internal logic, have brought the radical Brexiters over the past twenty years to domination of the Conservative Party.

The economic and political volatility caused by a possible recrudescence of CV-19 in the coming autumn might well only reinforce their intransigence towards a weakened and distracted Prime Minister. Iain Duncan Smith’s tweets suggest that he and his colleagues have no intention of changing a winning strategy. British politics this autumn will be tempestuous.