With the Northern Ireland Protocol talks looking set to continue, some reflections on how narratives of the success and failure of Brexit are developing and how these will eventually coalesce into a ‘received image’.


First published in November 2021.


Brexit is in limbo, with talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) continuing. The situation is febrile, with Boris Johnson repeating the UK’s threat to invoke Article 16 and Maros Sefcovic re-iterating that doing so would have “serious consequences”. Friday’s meeting between Sefcovic and David Frost was important as according to Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney it was to become clear whether progress is possible. Most likely all that will mean is the usual ‘both sides are committed to getting an agreement, but differences remain and we will continue to talk’. But the now crucial issue of the UK demand for an end to any form of ECJ involvement in governance is unlikely to be resolved.

However, a well-sourced and plausible report in the Financial Times yesterday suggests that Johnson and some others in the government are now deeply worried about provoking a crisis and so, unlike Frost, are losing the will to use Article 16. Meanwhile, Frost himself was reduced to producing a tweet clarifying that he was 100% clear that Article 16 might, but then again might not, be invoked at some unspecified time. This was a marked shift from the implication in his Lisbon speech and elsewhere that such invocation was imminent if the UK’s demands were not met.

I’ve been arguing for at least a month now that, contrary to the widespread view that it would be to Johnson’s political advantage, a major crisis with the EU would actually be fraught with risk as it would add to, rather than distract from, all his other domestic problems and would remind voters that Brexit has not, as was promised, been ‘done’. At the same time, the Brexit Ultras who would push for confrontation are, at least for now, weakened because of having driven the fiasco stemming from their attempt to protect Owen Paterson.

More ludicrously, it seems from the FT report that Johnson wants a “quiet Christmas” after having had to ‘cancel’ it last year. If this, rather than any deeper motivation, is the rationale then there must be a possibility of hostilities over the NIP merely being suspended, and for the government to resume complaints and threats in the new year – although that will not bring any reduction to the risks of using Article 16.

Three ongoing Brexit processes

As ever, there’s really not much point in charting each ebb and flow of the talks and speculating on their outcome. Instead, whilst this hiatus continues, it’s worth reflecting on the strangeness of this situation, which, as I suggested last week, is an attempt to re-run the Brexit process in the hope of achieving a better outcome. Implicit within that is an acknowledgement that Brexit has in at least some respects ‘gone wrong’. That in turn links to the wider issue of whether Brexit is seen as having been successful or not. This is very much a live question, the answer to which will shape British politics for many years to come. It’s also a very complicated question, because it involves something which is simultaneously in the process of being done, being re-done, and being judged.

At one level it is about the intricacies of all that has happened since 2016, but the judgement will ultimately settle into a more broad-brush picture, rather in the way that images of power cuts, the three-day week, ‘Britain going cap-in-hand to the IMF’ and ‘rubbish piling up in the streets’ have come to define the 1970s collapse of the post-war consensus. That these things happened at different times and under different governments, as well as all the details of them, is forgotten and a received image holds sway. Historians may still have good reason to debate its validity, but the collective, generalized political memory of the 1970s has become one of crisis and decline.

The economic narrative about Brexit may be beginning to settle

Obviously, that is partly just about the passage of time, but it is also the outcome of political and cultural contestations over what gets remembered or forgotten, what gets foregrounded and what gets erased. With Brexit, this process has barely started, but I would suggest that, already, the economic narrative is just starting to settle to one where the received image is one of failure. It’s true that Brexiters still leap on the odd piece of news such as, last week, Shell’s decision to headquarter in the UK. But even if these can genuinely be ascribed to Brexit and are genuinely good news (both are questionable in the Shell case) they don’t do much to dent the more general flow of bad news since, especially, the end of the transition period.

Thus opinion polls now show a sustained view that Brexit has been bad (44%) rather than good (25%) for the economy as a whole and has had a bad effect (53%) rather than a good effect (13%) on prices in the shops – although it is of note that the number of ‘don’t knows’, running to 30%, is quite high, so it would be wrong to over-state how settled a view there is as yet. Indeed another recent poll found that 46% think it is too early to say whether Brexit has been success or a failure (but of those who think it isn’t too early, 37% think it a failure and 11% a success) – although here the caveat is that this question was about Brexit as a whole and not just the economic effects.

On the question of whether, in hindsight, it was right or wrong to leave the EU, 49% now think it was wrong and 38% think it was right (13% don’t know), with ‘wrong to leave’ having been ahead in almost every poll since the end of the transition period (and ‘don’t knows’ virtually unchanged throughout the year). Meanwhile, on the admittedly now slightly odd question of whether people would now vote to leave or remain, there has been a sustained majority for remain since June 2017, and a recent uptick showing remain leading 55%-45% (excluding don’t knows).

If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote? (Eurotrack) | WhatUKthinks

Of course, many Brexiters would argue that any emerging narrative of Brexit as being economically damaging is firmly down to media reporting, and would no doubt criticize the BBC in particular. It’s not very convincing, though, partly because the broadcast media in general, including the BBC, have been notably reluctant to explicitly link Brexit to this year’s economic problems, and partly because much of the print media, especially, is ferociously pro-Brexit. Moreover, it’s probably the case that by so vociferously denying that supply problems are anything to do with Brexit, it is Brexiters themselves who have done most to link the two in the public mind. In any case, official statistics leave little serious basis for doubt about the impact on trade. There’s some ‘quibble-room’, but Brexit wasn’t meant by its advocates to be something that ‘might not be too bad if you look at sub-section 4, column d’, but something which would be plainly and overwhelmingly positive.

In fact, my overall sense is that neither the government nor Brexiters, in general, any longer even try to argue any economic case for Brexit at all. It’s true that there are boosterish announcements about trade deals, the latest example being Johnson’s foreword to the government’s export plan last week, where he extols all the trade deals which have been done since “reclaiming our own chair at the WTO”. But almost anyone likely to read it will be equally likely to realise that almost all of these deals were simply roll-overs of pre-existing EU agreements, whilst the biggest of them, that with the EU itself, is massively worse than what it replaces. More generally, the central problem with using trade deals, even new ones if ever they are signed, as showing an economic case for Brexit is the minuscule difference they actually make to GDP whilst ignoring the substantial negative impact on GDP of Brexit itself.

Other than that, and the brief but now apparently abandoned attempt to claim wage rises as a Brexit benefit, the silence is remarkable. Certainly, the Chancellor didn’t embrace that suggestion, and Brexit was hardly mentioned in his budget. That may not be true amongst the keyboard warriors and some of the media camp-followers, but my sense (it’s only an impression, but I am quite immersed in it) is that amongst what might, with a certain amount of charity, be called the more thoughtful Brexiters there is now a tacit acceptance that, economically at any rate, Brexit is turning out to be a failure.

The political narrative is as contested as ever

However, it’s here that the political narrative becomes crucial. As many have remarked, the Brexit Ultras bear a remarkable resemblance to those communists who used to announce (and perhaps still do) that their creed had never been tried ‘properly’. Specifically, there is now an increasingly widespread claim that the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises can be blamed on what happened in parliament between 2016 and 2019.

The ‘remainer parliament’

At the most general level, the charge, as recently made by the Tory MP Lucy Allan for example, is that “the biggest threat to our democracy was the period 2016-2019 when elected representatives were doing their best to thwart Brexit and block the will of the people”. This then leads to the specific claim, made repeatedly by David Frost and others, that Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, especially the NIP, was only signed because of the circumstances of the 2017-2019 parliament.

The general charge is demonstrably nonsense. Far from seeking to thwart Brexit, in 2017 MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50. They never voted to remain in the EU, they never voted to revoke Article 50, and they never even voted to hold another referendum. They did vote to hold a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, something which at the time Brexiters denounced as treachery but which, when the meaningful votes came to be held, the Brexiters used with delight in order to avert May’s deal which they regarded as not being ‘true Brexit’.

So if it is those votes which were blocking the will of the people and thwarting Brexit, then on the first two occasions Allan herself voted against May’s deal. But if this was standing up for Brexit, then she, like many other Brexiters, including Rees-Mogg and Johnson, did vote for May’s deal on the third occasion – so was this an attempt to thwart Brexit? Of course, the real point about these votes is that they showed the total incoherence of Brexit itself – voting both for or against May’s deal could be, and was, depicted by some Brexiters as ‘betraying Brexit’.

The only other candidate for MPs trying to thwart Brexit is the ‘Benn Act’, and it is this – which he persists in calling the ‘Surrender Act’ – that Frost invariably identifies as having forced the government’s hand to sign the NIP. But nothing like ‘no-deal Brexit’ had ever been proposed during the referendum as what Brexit would mean, so at the very least preventing it was no different to when Brexiter MPs like Johnson voted against May’s deal on the basis of it not being the Brexit people had voted for.

In fact, to the extent that the parliaments of 2016-2019 were ‘remainer’ parliaments, in the sense that the majority of MPs had campaigned and voted for remain and, very likely, still wanted to remain, the most truly remarkable thing about them is the exact opposite to what they are accused of. It is precisely that despite that being the majority view they did not thwart Brexit.

Back to the NIP …

On the narrower point made by Frost that the Benn Act deprived the UK of negotiating leverage in 2019, that can never strictly speaking be disproved because we don’t know what would have happened otherwise. But the proposition that a threat to do something far more damaging to the UK than to the EU would have resulted in the EU dropping its fundamental requirements about the Irish border is, on any reasonable understanding, extremely unconvincing – and will be all the more so if a climbdown in the current NIP row eventuates.

However, what is different about this, compared with narratives about the economics of Brexit or the politics of the remainer parliament, is that it’s not an ‘assessment’ of what has happened so much as a re-play of it. This means a re-run of fantasies that no border is necessary at all or that a border could have been created between Ireland and Northern Ireland that was entirely invisible and virtual (due to new technologies).

Of the first, nothing can be said other than that it shows a total ignorance of customs and regulatory territories. An equally ignorant variant is that it was only the EU that said it needed a border, and so if they erected one that was their business – the reality, of course, is that both sides need a border because both sides would – at the desire of the Brexiters – have different customs and regulatory territories.

As for ‘technological solutions’, if these are realistic then why not use them at the Irish Sea border now? If this is not possible, why would they work at the land border? And if they would work at the land border, why reject May’s deal, which would only have required the backstop ‘unless or until’ such an alternative was in place? Brexiters have no better answers to these questions now than they did in 2017-2019.

Nor does it help to say, as Frost frequently does, that the NIP was agreed before the final trade terms were known (a re-hash of the familiar and longstanding Brexiter objection to Article 50 sequencing). For the final trade terms were those of a ‘Canada-style’ deal which is precisely what gives rise to the need for a border, albeit that the complexity of border provisions is less than would have been the case in a ‘no-deal’ scenario. And nor is it relevant to say that because, currently, there is little regulatory divergence with the EU the risks of limited border controls are small. For the whole Brexiter prospectus is one of having the freedom to diverge – the corollary of which freedom is border friction.

Beyond all this, it is plainly untrue that Johnson had to agree his deal because the Benn Act had prevented ‘no deal’. He could have sought an extension of the Article 50 period, for one thing. He certainly didn’t need to claim it was a great deal and sell it to the British people as such, if he didn’t believe it. And he actually signed the treaty with the EU when he had an 80-seat majority and did so with the backing of all his MPs. As I noted at the time, many of them did not genuinely support the deal but support it they did, and not in a situation of parliamentary weakness.

But since the NIP …

Whilst much of this just goes over the same old ground as before, the way in which the government are going back into the past of the Brexit process is particularly perverse. It focuses relentlessly on the NIP and especially the GB-NI border despite the fact that opinion polling shows there is a majority, and increasing, support for the Protocol in Northern Ireland. And the threats to trigger Article 16 are deeply unpopular with businesses there which would be most affected by it, as they are with border communities. In fact, Northern Ireland could be said to have a better Brexit deal, economically speaking, than any other part of the UK, and the easements proposed by the EU will remove many of the difficulties businesses have experienced.

If the argument is that the problem is political, not economic, because it treats Northern Ireland differently and therefore violates the East/West balance of the Good Friday Agreement and alienates the unionist community then a) this is inconsistent with Johnson’s original suggestion in January 2021 that the reasons for invoking Article 16 would be the economic ones of diversion of trade and supply problems, b) the government already knew it treated Northern Ireland differently, not least because of the DUP’s objections at the time, c) the government’s stated stance that it wants to change but not scrap the NIP is not enough to meet unionist objections, and d) the government should have sought to calm down rather than inflame opposition to the Protocol.

Yet whilst putting so much effort into disputing the NIP, the government has been laggardly in implementing the more general GB-EU border, as a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) explains. That can be attributed in part to the years in which the need for border controls was denied or played down, leading not only to a lack of government action but also a lack of business preparation. Remember that it was not until February 2020 – after Britain had left the EU – that any government minister formally and publicly acknowledged that border controls would be necessary. It also reflects the shameful irresponsibility of refusing to extend the transition period. Even so, the government does not dispute the need for such a border, and as the NAO spells out, it is not viable to leave the present situation of largely incomplete import controls unrectified. Nor have I seen any Brexiter dispute this need.

This is highly significant, for it shows that, at some level, they do now accept that leaving the single market and customs union does entail extensive new border controls. But, if that is so, then it is even less defensible for them to continue to claim this is not so at the GB-NI border (which, of course, is the GB-EU border as regards goods trade) or that it would not be so if there were a UK-EU border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In short, second time around the Brexiter position on Northern Ireland has all of its original problems, plus many additional ones that flow from what has happened since. The greatest of these, of course, is that the NIP has since been signed.

Where will the narrative settle?

So, as the negotiations with the EU over the NIP continue, there are three confusingly different yet interconnected processes in play. One is the continuation of the Brexit process itself, in terms of the implementation of what was agreed in both the Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The second is the attempt to re-run that process in the belief that there will be a different outcome, at least as regards the NIP. The third is the attempt to write or re-write the history of these still ongoing processes so as to evaluate what happened.

The first two may, either soon or eventually, come to be resolved through agreement with the EU over the NIP, through implementation of the agreements in general, and through further refinements of the TCA in particular. Although most current media attention is on the NIP talks, it is the third of these processes which, in the long run, is the most important.

It will be resolved, if at all, when a settled, widely shared, narrative of what Brexit meant emerges. That doesn’t mean one that is undisputed, just one that is the received wisdom for most people. I suspect that, rather like Suez – though Brexit is on a far bigger scale – or perhaps appeasement, both policies which at the time were deeply divisive and contested, in due course there will be such a received collective image of Brexit. It may take years, even decades, but there are already the very early signs that this image will be one of an unjustifiable, almost inexplicable, folly.

PMP Magazine



— AUTHOR —

Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.


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Sources
  • Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 24 November 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
  • Cover: Dreamstime/Tashatuvango.