by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust

15th April 2020

Michel Barnier and David Frost are due to resume today (15th April) their negotiations interrupted by the Coronavirus. If Brexit were a project built on rational economic or political foundations, the British government would by now have sought an extension of the transition period for the UK’s exit from the European Union. The deadline of 31st December 2020 was always an ambitious one for agreeing even the general outlines of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The economic and political disruption caused throughout Europe by the Coronavirus pandemic has now turned the retention of this disruptive deadline into an act of wanton self-harm for the UK.  No rational argument has ever been put forward by the government for maintaining this deadline, beyond the mantric repetition by its spokesmen of ministers’ refusal to countenance delay.  The transition period, we are told, will end on 31st December 2020 because that is the date on which the British government insists it will end.

It may be that, as before in the Brexit saga, the government finally and in panic accepts the pressure of reality, agreeing to extend the transition period into 2021 or 2022. A limited number of pro-Brexit MPs and columnists have already publicly called for an extension. Even the Sun’s political editor has suggested a month by month extension of the negotiations is currently being considered by the government. A clear majority of British voters would, according to opinion polls, either welcome or at least accept such a postponement. Against this background, it might seem puzzling that Boris Johnson’s government, facing a major crisis of public health in the UK, is reluctant to pare back its immediate political agenda and “flatten the curve” of the Brexit negotiations by extending their timetable. The government’s hesitation sheds, however, important light on the pressures within the Conservative Party that have manoeuvred Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s governments in an ever more radically Eurosceptic direction. Over the last four years, that party has metamorphosed from a traditional centre-right political grouping into a simple campaigning organisation for Brexit, to which all other governmental activities are subordinate. The Coronavirus pandemic has not yet served to jolt the Conservative Party back into its previous, broader-minded configuration.

Double jeopardy

Conservative Brexiters are deeply conscious of how unexpectedly lucky they were to win the referendum in 2016. They see anything which postpones the UK’s final break with the European Union as jeopardizing their narrow and fragile victory.  Only with great difficulty were many of them persuaded by Boris Johnson to accept a transition arrangement lasting until the end of 2020. It was to give these Brexiters reassurance that the present date of 31st December 2020 was enshrined in British law. If the transition period ends abruptly at the end of this year without any agreement between the EU and the UK, many Conservative supporters of Brexit will be entirely content. There is a significant body of Conservative opinion that genuinely believes in the salutary effect of an abrupt and supposedly stimulating break from the oppressive and moribund European Union. Another strand of Conservative opinion knows that any conceivable agreement negotiated between the EU and UK in 2020, 2021 or 2022 will show unmistakably the falseness of the Leave prospectus of 2016. It will be much easier to disguise this proof of mendacity in the fog of accusation and counter-accusation generated by the economic and political chaos arising in December 2020 through the absence of agreement.

But in addition to these familiar considerations, there is another reason why the radical Eurosceptics who dominate the Conservative Party do not want to extend the transitional deadlines. Many of them are uneasily aware that the Coronavirus pandemic brings and will continue to bring into fundamental question most of the underlying arguments and attitudes on which the Leave campaign of 2016 was based.  UK politics may look very different after the pandemic has retreated and these new politics are unlikely to be more favourable to Brexit than is the present political landscape. The evangelists of Brexit may well conclude that a rapid and antagonistic completion of Brexit is their best protection against changing British attitudes towards the European issue in the wake of the pandemic.

Two remarks encapsulated in 2016 the irrationality and dishonesty of the Leave campaign: Boris Johnson’s promise that after Brexit the UK would “have its cake and eat it”; and the claim of Michael Gove that British voters were “fed up” with experts. The first of these assertions has been destroyed by the course of the Brexit negotiations. Even Boris Johnson has now come reluctantly to recognise that there is at least a short-term economic price for leaving the European Union.  Gove’s assertion is yet more comprehensively and tragically imploding in face of the pandemic. Governmental spokesmen over the past six weeks have lost no opportunity to claim that they were respecting expert scientific advice in their public health policies. The careless expectation that the simple mobilisation of national political will can be an acceptable substitute for informed analysis has been shown by the Coronavirus to be a dangerous illusion.  It took only three weeks from Boris Johnson’s cheerful boast that he was happy to shake hands with patients affected by the Coronavirus to his own admission to hospital suffering from the virus. When he left hospital, he paid tribute to the expertise of the foreign carers (including EU citizens) who a few days before had struggled to save his life. Not even the sycophantic adulation heaped upon his recovery by his courtiers from the traditional media could disguise the ironic contrast between the interdependent scientific reality of 2020 and the xenophobic rhetoric of the Leave campaign in 2016. Post-pandemic, public opinion in the UK will be much more respectful of experts and migrants than it was five years ago.

Consumed by virulent Brexit

The Conservative government came to the pandemic intellectually and administratively ill-prepared. Since 2016, the UK has had a functioning government in name only.  The governing Conservative Party devoted almost all its energies until December 2019 to the prosecution of a bitter civil war, of which Brexit was the major theatre of combat. This war was a seamless continuation of the referendum campaign, in which empty slogans were the preferred weapons and facts counted for nothing in the fratricidal struggle. The final victory of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in the General Election of 2019 was the unhappy culmination of this process, and many talented Conservative MPs fell by the wayside during it. The Conservative Cabinet emerging from the Election was one chosen not for its talent or experience but for its loyalty (real or affected) to the core value of Brexit, with all that implied in the way of intellectual dishonesty and propagandistic manipulation.  It has been little surprise that the Cabinet Ministers providing daily briefings on the Coronavirus in recent weeks have almost without exception confined their utterances to aspirational slogans rather than observable reality.

This intellectually and politically mediocre Cabinet has not merely been confronted with the most severe national emergency since the Second World War. After the pandemic has subsided the Conservative government will be confronted with a raft of national and international challenges, challenges that Brexit can only exacerbate. In particular, the Conservative Party will need to refashion its narrative and philosophy of economic government. It will be very difficult for it to revert in the coming years to its traditional policies of “economic austerity” and a reduced role for the state. Many voters will conclude from the Coronavirus pandemic that there can and must be a more benevolent and active role for the state than that of simply keeping taxes as low as possible.  These same voters will have noted that in times of crisis the government can make immense financial resources available, the existence of which resources it had previously vehemently denied (“There is no magic money tree.”). If the Conservative Party is in these new circumstances to stand a chance of winning the next General Election against a probably revivified Labour Party it cannot afford to be seen as the party that favours tax cuts for the prosperous at the cost of public services for the poor. The pandemic has destroyed any possibility of Brexit’s becoming, as it might have been, the occasion of a radical restructuring of the British economy along privatised American lines. There were within the Conservative Party many who saw Brexit as desirable primarily as a vehicle for the economic and political Americanisation of the UK.  This prospect now seems however a wholly remote one.

But it is not just in the UK that America’s standing in the world has been greatly diminished by its response to the pandemic. The Coronavirus marks another important milestone in the destabilising American retreat from its hegemonic global role. Brexit will tear the UK loose from its well-established European relationships at a time of great geo-political instability. If, as many commentators expect, an immediate consequence of the pandemic will be a slowing down of globalisation and a greater economic and political emphasis on regional blocks, then the present Conservative government will not find it easy to play the role of “global buccaneer” which some advocates of Brexit envisaged. The continuing controversy within the Conservative Party about the UK’s most appropriate relationship with China is a harbinger of the complicated decisions the British government will need to take after Brexit about the UK’s future position in the world. There is no reason to believe that the present government is anywhere near having adopted a coherent approach to these existential issues.

The economic and political decisions confronting the UK when it finds respite from the Coronavirus will be at least as painful as those it now faces in the midst of the pandemic. These decisions and dilemmas will be made more intractable by Brexit, in whatever form or on whatever date it takes place. Some mitigation of the negative effects of Brexit would, however, be achieved by an extension of the transition period. It says much about the political psychology of Conservative Brexiters that they reject even this palliative measure with such determination. Today, Brexit is the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party is Brexit.