Unrepentant to the last, the disgraced, vainglorious Mr Johnson boasted that Britain has taken back control of its borders. This on a day when Dover and all approach roads were gridlocked by people and goods attempting to get into the EU – not the end to freedom of movement Brexiteers’ demanded. And time to recall that prior to Brexit, the desperately seeking Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg opined that any border delays would be in Calais not Dover. Dover is just the latest in a growing list of unequivocal Brexit costs which now includes ONS data showing that Britain’s current account deficit more than 8 per cent of GDP is the worst since records began in 1955 and experts warn that Britain faces an existential sterling crisis. History will surely conclude that the economic and reputational mess of Brexit would never have happened without the lies, chicanery and buffoonery of Johnson. This raises a question. If Johnson’s legacy is delivering an historic low in the UK’s international standing might it improve with his departure?
The signs are not good. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak insist they are committed to legislation gutting the Northern Ireland protocol which, if enacted, would leave the UK in breach of its international treaty commitments, further deteriorate UK-EU relations and instigate a trade war with our biggest export market. Bluster over the protocol and denial of Brexit’s failures might be expected as the candidates burnish their credentials for the Farragist majority of Tory members but if, as the polls suggest, Liz Truss wins the future looks dire. Her stance that cutting taxes and regulations will foster economic growth lacks evidence; indeed, such policies patently failed in the decade leading up to the pandemic and industry has counselled against a go-it-alone approach to regulations. In clinging to her simplistic narrative she is perpetuating her dubious Brexit conversion i.e. proposing policies that address her own ambitions rather than the country’s needs.
In the event that Mr Sunak is successful there is a little more hope. Despite his hard right politics and Brexit stance he is more capable of appreciating the risks of persistently ignoring evidence. Brexit is not working and increasingly people are realising that this is the case. As a former Chancellor he is well aware of the threat Brexit now poses. The UK has the highest core inflation in the G7 in part because of sterling’s depreciation since the referendum. Economic growth is being stymied by a decline in business investment, the imposition of non-tariff barriers and widespread labour shortages. Sectors such as construction, manufacturing, logistics and hospitality are crying out for a relaxation in post-Brexit immigration policy. These facts should be weighed when listening to claims by Tory leadership candidates – and Keir Starmer – that economic growth is the priority. No amount of tinkering with the practical details of Brexit can remedy its fundamental incoherence. Self-imposed isolation from our nearest and biggest trading partner is harming small businesses, prompting corporations to invest elsewhere and dismembering labour markets to the detriment of both employers and job-seekers.
It is unrealistic to expect Sunak as PM to reverse Brexit even though an aggressively resurgent Russia, pandemics and climate change have raised doubts about the wisdom of Brexit isolationism. Despite his current stance on the NI protocol, last December when the now Lord Frost and fellow zealots were pushing for a confrontation with the EU over the failures inherent in his ‘deal’ the sensible voice counselling less belligerence was Sunak. From this I perceive the possibility that as PM Sunak may adopt a softening of Brexit, the more so as he will appreciate the continuing damage to the economy and with it the risk that the Tory party will be decimated at the next election. As the Tory party remains in the grip of Brexit zealots this outcome appears a vain hope, the more so given the ferocity of the personal attacks on Sunak by diehard MPs and the incorrigible Brexit supporting Daily Mail and Daily Express. However, I interpret the zealots’ behaviour and support for the bumbling Ms Truss as being motivated by the fear of a more cerebral and confident PM confronted with growing voter disenchantment with Brexit. The zealots’ nightmare is Sunak as PM applying the words he wrote in his resignation letter to Johnson; namely, ‘the public are ready to hear that truth’ and having seen-off the zealots he would be a strong position to sell a more constructive relationship with the EU to the public.
The country urgently needs a PM who is willing and able to reverse the Johnson legacy of a political cul-de-sac and place UK-EU relations on a more positive footing. A less confrontational approach is a necessary precursor to a deal on veterinary border checks thereby easing some of the hyperbole regarding the NI protocol. With positive engagement there might be an unblocking of access to the Horizon programme, re-entry to the Erasmus scheme and less barriers for artists, sportspeople and other professionals to work in the EU all of which would generate kudos for the new PM. More fanciful but not impossible in the medium term, would be membership of a EU outer tier alongside would-be candidate countries e.g. Norway, Ukraine. Of course even if the next PM improves relations with Brussels outside the Customs Union and Single Market much of the Brexit self-harm remains.
I remain convinced that the combination of Brexit despondency and demographics will, in the course of this decade, kindle a popular desire to rejoin the EU but Britain’s main opposition parties have neither the foresight nor the nerve to visit the issue before the outcome of the 2024 election is digested. The best one can hope for at this stage is that Britain’s next leader will adopt a more conciliatory approach, be more inclined to evidence than fantasises and possess the strength of character to facedown zealots. Before Johnson, such qualities were taken for granted in a British PM.