by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust

14th February 2020

Michael Gove’s acknowledgement that trade between the UK and the EU after 1st January 2021 will be far from frictionless is a watershed in the Brexit process. The claim that Brexit would not significantly impinge upon British trade with the European Union was central to the 2016 Leave campaign. So central indeed that government ministers spent the three years thereafter repeating this dishonest assurance in the face of ever-mounting evidence to the contrary.

With its 80-seat majority safely secured, the British government has concluded that now it is safe to begin the process of gradually accepting the negative consequences of Brexit, so vigorously denied hitherto. Naturally, this acceptance of reality remains only grudging and partial. Michael Gove spoke as if the imminence of border formalities were an uncontroversial prospect long accepted by all parties. He also seemed wholly unembarrassed by the short length of time available for preparation until the end of December and the five years at least it will take for the government’s new frontier trading regime to be in place.  There is a bitter irony in the fact that the government has begun its painful journey towards at least partial European realism by announcing the imposition of extensive  paperwork and similar formalities. It was a repeated trope of the Leave campaign that bureaucracy and “red tape” disfigured and delegitimised whatever may have been the original and commendable goals of the EU’s founders .

The enduring denial that Brexit would involve customs and other checks at the border(s) of the EU was not merely a political and rhetorical convenience. The equivocation about the objective implications of Brexit for cross-border trade reflected a continuing disagreement among Leave voters and later within government itself about different models for quitting the EU. Campaigners for a Leave vote knew that there is not and never has been a majority within the British electorate for any specific form of Brexit. Any serious discussion during the referendum campaign of realistic alternatives to current British EU membership would have risked splintering the Leave coalition. Post-2016 government ministers have been forced to realise that any concrete form of Brexit, be it “hard” or “soft,” brought with it highly unpalatable consequences which they have been reluctant to discuss honestly with the electorate. Until now.

It seems from the recent rhetoric of Michael Gove and other ministers that the British government has now intellectually resolved the Brexit conundrum by tilting decisively towards a “hard” Brexit. All the ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ about “having our cake and eating it,” about “exact same benefits” and about the UK’s “having the upper hand” in negotiations with the EU has melted abruptly in the first heat of this new phase of negotiations.  The warnings of “Project Fear” have now become the acceptable discourse of ministerial pronouncements .

Hard truths

Although it was a truth carefully concealed from most voters on the Leave side in 2016, a “hard” Brexit, involving minimal alignment with the norms and regulations of the EU, was always the more logical and natural outcome of the UK’s leaving. It would have made little sense to leave formally the EU’s regulatory orbit, to the construction of which the UK had contributed so much as  a member state, simply in order in effect to remain within that orbit, yet unable to contribute to its future trajectory. It is true that such a “soft” Brexit, modelled perhaps on the European Economic Area, would have mitigated the economic damage caused by the UK’s leaving the EU. But it is difficult to see how such an option could ever have been politically sustainable.

 A “hard” Brexit can at least console its advocates with the possibility, remote, delusory  and absurd as it may be, of beneficial and radical change from an unsatisfactory present: the UK casts off the constraints of EU membership and bestrides the trading world as an unchained colossus.  Brexit is so deeply rooted in delusion and irrationality that it is entirely consistent for it to be carried out in the most deluded and irrational way possible. The Brexit envisaged by Boris Johnson looks likely to meet those demanding criteria admirably.

The governmental volte-face on frontier formalities will probably need to be followed in short order by similar reversals of tack on Ireland, fisheries, financial services, digital exchanges and trading arrangements with third countries. These reversals will be intensely embarrassing to Boris Johnson’s administration, and it may well be that he concludes his short-term political interest is better served by abandoning negotiation with the EU and simply proclaiming that after the transition period ends the UK will trade with the EU on “WTO terms.” No informed commentator is in any doubt that this will cause considerable damage and disruption to the British economy. It will also exacerbate political tensions within the United Kingdom, heightening discontent in Northern Ireland and Scotland.  Such political and economic dislocation would be unlikely, however, to deter this hubristic government. Boris Johnson would reasonably hope to be able to count on support from important sections of the traditional mass media to justify his recklessness in pursuing a new “no deal Brexit” as an unavoidable response to the “intransigence” of the EU. Over the past three and a half years, these Eurosceptic media have had much practice in depicting as unreasonable the EU’s wholly understandable reluctance to accommodate the ever-varying demands from London that are, in truth, inimical to the EU’s interests.

Opposition tasks…

However the negotiation process is precisely contoured, the government’s inevitable shifts and evasions on Brexit throughout 2020 must be spelled out by a coherent and effective Opposition in Parliament. Not merely should the government be held to account by the Opposition but the whole Brexit process itself deserves the most withering forensic analysis possible. It was a distinct advantage to Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s flailing governments that they were confronted by so weak an Opposition leader as Jeremy Corbyn, a leader moreover whose commitment to the anti-Brexit cause was doubted by many. Whatever his other merits or failings, Sir Keir Starmer is probably the best placed of the Labour leadership candidates to provide a relentlessly informed critique of the incoherence and inconsistency which will characterise the British government’s conduct of the coming Brexit negotiations. Such a critique could well be a defining element in the re-emergence of the Labour Party as a credible party of opposition. The absence of such a critique by contrast could well be a factor in the final eclipse and even disappearance of the Labour Party as presently constituted.

Labour’s European policy will continue to be confused and confusing unless the Party frees itself of the Corbynite analysis whereby a Brexit it carried out would be an acceptable Brexit, whereas a Conservative Brexit would not. Principled objection to Brexit is not only the most logically coherent position for Labour. It is also likely to prove politically the most profitable. As the often brutal consequences of a “hard” Brexit emerge it will be precisely those voters of the “Red Wall” who will be the most vulnerable to these consequences and likely to repent swiftly of their dalliance with Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

…and the way ahead for Conservatives

As his purging of deeply traditional Conservatives such as Dominic Grieve, David Gauke and Nicholas Soames vividly demonstrated last year, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson is in many ways radically different to its predecessors. Boris Johnson’s personal and political history would have precluded him from high office for most of the Party’s existence; and the sub-revolutionary rhetoric of his most influential adviser Dominic Cummings is absolutely antithetical to the values of continuity and at best cautious reform which gave the historic Party its intellectual and moral foundations. Over the coming months, this new Conservative Party will be engaged on a particularly radical enterprise of disengagement from the past, namely attempting to rewrite the history of the whole Brexit debate. As the drawbacks and disadvantages of Brexit become clearer, so government ministers will become ever more insistent that the most radical and economically damaging form of Brexit was precisely what the electorate were voting for in 2016. This is demonstrably far from the truth, but the Brexit negotiations, if they continue throughout the year, will no doubt provide many such instances of self-interested distortion from the authors of the Brexit catastrophe. The damage thus done to our democratic political culture has disturbing implications for our country’s future which go well beyond even the boundaries of the Brexit debate.  Accountability is impossible when governments are able to rewrite history at will. The claim that the electorate voted in 2016 for a “hard” Brexit is the precise equivalent of the Interrogator in George Orwell’s “1984” who shows Winston Smith only four fingers but insists that his victim should be willing to say he sees five at the Party’s behest.