Not known for veracity, Dominic Cummings did speak truthfully when he admitted that he was not sure if Brexit will be a ‘good thing for the country’. He further observed in his bizarre interview with Laura Kingsburg – without any sense of irony – that anyone unquestionably opining Brexit was beneficial has ‘got a screw loose’. Despite his claims to the contrary i.e. reversion to type, no such qualification accompanied the messages he urged on unthinking supporters in the Leave campaign. Bitter experience reveals that populist campaigns run into trouble when faced with the reality of governing, and Brexit is no exception.
His vengeful rant exposed the truth that Mr Cummings and – as he would have us believe – his puppet Mr Johnson, had little understanding of the enormity of what was involved in Brexit and how it would be delivered (as made clear in Anthony Seldon’s ‘May at 10’). This does not explain Johnson’s cavalier attitude since taking office when surely he was made aware of the threat to peace in Northern Ireland and the sheer cost of disengaging from the dense relationships and privileges secured from 45 years of cooperation. A responsible prime minister would have thought long and hard before leaving the Single Market. His devil take the hindmost approach to Brexit has consigned the next generation, particularly in Northern Ireland, to a lower quality of life than would otherwise have been the case. From fishermen to financiers, Brexit is proving to be the disaster those who understood the complexities knew it would be.
Mr Cummings compounded his Brexit dissembling with the stupidity – his contention – of propelling a very unsuitable Mr Johnson to the highest office. Johnson’s flippancy, indolence and giant ego are not the qualities needed to run a country efficiently. Mr Cummings description of Johnson as a ‘disaster’ like a ‘shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other’ related to Covid but he might equally have been referring to Brexit. To date, Johnson’s mismanagement of Brexit has been somewhat masked by his mismanagement of Covid e.g. ‘freedom day,’ but as with Covid his approach to Brexit has one of irrational exuberance and indecisiveness.
Those still minded to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt might reflect on the fact that his Brexit propelled rise to power heralds the emergence of right-wing, English nationalism – wither the one nation Tory party – where ideology is prioritised over the economy and the integrity of the UK alongside some nasty ‘dog whistle’ politics. At the heart of this government there exists the belief that promises and solemn commitments can be disregarded if the implications turn out to be inconvenient. One manifestation of this truth is the reputational damage to the UK now that Mr Johnson is attempting to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol which it appears, he only signed for the political convenience of getting ‘Brexit done’. He and his eponymous Brexit bagman, Lord Frost, are now seeking to convince anyone ‘with a screw loose’ that the difficulties arising from the protocol can all be blamed on the EU whereas the mess is entirely of their making.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum refused a Brexit agreement that would have avoided the risk of reawakening the Northern Ireland ‘troubles.’ Having championed the deal that left only Northern Ireland in the single market Johnson now proclaims the rules he once said did not exist are too onerous. Quite rightly Brussels has rejected his reprehensible demands. It has however, repeatedly pointed out that the UK can remove the Northern Ireland border problem by signing up to EU food standards. But the government has no intention of signing up to standards it duplicitously claims it will exceed because it knows at some point in the future it will have to lower food standards in order to get trade deals with countries such as the US.
If Mr Johnson’s behaviour is discreditable, Mr Starmer’s is becoming daily more frustrating if not inept. It may be that the delusional Johnson believes that a perpetual ‘war of words’ with the EU will distract from reality but Starmer should not be an unwitting accomplice. His implicit acceptance of Brexit will, I believe, be revealed as a failure of leadership. This blog has long pointed out that the decline in inward foreign direct investment – the longest continuous decline since the beginning of the data series in 2003 – will have a greater impact on the economy than trade flows being lower than they otherwise would have been. The writing is on the wall, not only for the ‘red wall’ constituencies but beyond. The decline in trade and inward investment will see the steady drift of businesses and jobs to Europe, not to mention the on-going damage to the City of London, universities, etc. Starmer should be drawing attention to these costs, particular to the young.
Covid debts will thwart Johnson’s plan to spend, spend, spend. Trade deals with the US and China will not materialise in the short term while labour shortages in hospitals, care homes and restaurants will result in falling standards of service and higher costs. Drawing attention to the implications arising from the ‘get Brexit done’ (regardless of costs) message helped sweep Johnson to power will serve to increase the weight of the lies and half-truths bearing down on Johnson and thereby spurring the normal mid-term slump in government support. That said, offering the voters the opportunity of re-joining the EU is not feasible before the next election – it will take a few years before the full tragedy of Brexit is sufficiently absorbed. Rather, the Labour party, in contrast to Johnson’s war, should be proposing closer ties with Europe e.g. re-joining the single market. This is a credible policy, likely to prove increasingly attractive to a majority of voters and in the event of a minority Labour government, SNP and Liberal Democrat MPs would be sure to give such a policy their support. Re-joining the Single Market would mark the first step towards reversing Brexit.