With the war showing its pointlessness, and none of its promises delivered, most supporters of Brexit are falling silent. That will not make Brexit go away, though, so what might it lead to? Professor Chris Grey’s analysis.
First published: March 2022.
It’s hardly surprising that the Ukraine war continues to command media and public attention, displacing most other news, including Brexit news. But perhaps there is more to it than that. In a recent piece, I speculated that there was an emerging sense that the war had made Brexit seem strangely pointless and outdated, linking to a couple of other people (Rafael Behr and Robert Shrimsley) who were already making a similar point. It’s still too early to know, but four weeks on it looks more rather than less plausible.
On the one hand, the need for friendly cooperation between the UK and the EU is so overwhelmingly obvious that the creation of the barrier of Brexit seems more foolish than ever. Not only does it get in the way of shared practical measures, such as sanctions, it also dilutes the institutional expression of a shared ideological commitment to liberal democracy. On the other hand, the sight of what a real violation of sovereignty, and resistance to it, looks like throws a sharp light on the asinine idea that EU membership entailed a loss of sovereignty in any serious sense or that Brexit regained it. To that one could add that, despite the government’s woefully inadequate initial approach to taking refugees, the generosity of the public response seems to nullify, or at least contradict, the nativist spasm of 2016. Perhaps we are not really the people we seemed to be then, and which the government still believes us to be. Perhaps we never were.
The analysis that the war fundamentally recasts Brexit is being increasingly widely made. The London correspondent of Le Monde, Cecile Decourtieux, suggests that “in a context of dramatic rise in geopolitical risks, Brexit appears to be a handicap, even a historical error”. In a similar vein, writing in the New Statesman Paul Mason argues that “Brexit, in its original form, is dead: killed by the new geopolitical realities created by the war in Ukraine”. And the issue isn’t ‘just’ geopolitics: on any account, the war is going to compound pre-existing economic pressures deriving from energy prices rises and the long-run impacts of Covid, not to mention the challenges of climate change. These, as the Brexiters always say, are global issues. What they omit to say is that only Britain has to face them at the same time as the economic drag-weight of Brexit, as its ‘clear contribution’ to last week’s sackings of P&O employees brutally illustrates.
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That Brexit has been exposed as a failure by the war is obvious not least from the desperate tone of those few who are still noisily defending it in those terms. The angry hyperbole of Telegraph Associate Editor Camilla Tominey’s recent article, declaiming that “the Ukraine crisis has humiliated the EU”, is so far from anything resembling a rational account of what is happening that it can’t be taken seriously by anyone except the most spittle-flecked of Brexiter ideologues. Crucially, as with the similar piece by Daniel Hannan that I discussed last week, it does not provide a single example of anything the UK has done in the crisis that it could not have done, or that it has done better than it could have done, as an EU member.
That always has to be the test for Brexit, as it was sold as a project which would have advantages; simply lambasting the EU, even if it were justified, does not pass that test. Indeed Tominey herself self-defeatingly argues that what the crisis shows is the “extraordinary power and value of nation-states”, giving the examples of Britain, which has indeed left the EU, Ukraine, which wants to join, and Poland, which of course is a member.
A much more minor example of Brexiter desperation is that of a widely-mocked tweet by Paul Embery, the Lexiter trade unionist and writer. In it, he derided the EU’s sanctioning of 160 individuals in one day (compared with seven by the UK the same day), by saying that the EU’s total only “works out to six individuals per EU member state”. I disagree with most of what Embery writes, but it would be absurd and insulting to suggest he isn’t intelligent enough to realise that when the EU sanctions individuals they are sanctioned by every member state, so dividing them up in this way makes no sense at all. Doing so can only mean that no rational arguments are available.
For the most part, though, the Brexiters have simply fallen silent. For example, another Lexiter, the Guardian’s Economics Editor Larry Elliott, wrote an insightful article about the UK’s reliance on Russian money being inseparable from its wider need for “the kindness of strangers” to fund its perennial trade deficit. Yet what he did not even mention was the now clear evidence that Brexit is making this trade deficit worse, and is likely to continue to do so as the structural adjustment to having worse terms of trade with the EU continues, including the consequences of the UK running a laxer imports control regime than the EU, even if/ when full import controls are introduced, making it harder to export than to import.
That laxity was extolled as the pragmatic flexibility of Britain’s “risk-based” post-Brexit approach by Jacob Rees-Mogg during the media blitz of his first days as Brexit Opportunities Minister. Since then, he, too, has gone much quieter. However, given that in an interview on Andrew Marr’s LBC show last week he was still peddling the lie that the vaccines roll-out was a triumph for Brexit, it seems fair to say that he has found the ‘opportunities’ are more elusive than promised.
The other new silence concerns the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). It’s true that, because the legal system proceeds regardless of political events, last week the Court of Appeal in Belfast has rejected the challenge to an earlier High Court ruling in a case where some unionists and Brexiters tried to have the NIP ruled illegal. They will be taking it to the Supreme Court but, on my non-lawyer’s reckoning, to keep flogging that dead horse is more a case for the RSPCA than for a court of law. But, politically, it seems clear that precisely because of the need to cooperate with the EU over Ukraine, much of the heat for a confrontation over the NIP, including the use of Article 16, has dissipated.
Certainly, there are reports that Liz Truss favours dropping the Article 16 threat and, generally, seeking an accommodation with the EU, and although there are also some reports to the contrary it seems likely that the present state of quiet semi-implementation will be allowed to persist by both sides for some time yet. Considering how noisy and acrimonious UK-EU relations have been over the NIP for at least a year now, this is a remarkable development.
It’s possible that this de-escalation would have happened anyway, with David Frost’s departure at least removing his unskilled pugnacity from the equation, but the war has given both cover and impetus for it. There was even a sliver of recognition of this in a speech given by Frost himself in Zurich last week, although it was smothered by his usual self-serving – yet entirely unself-reflective – and delusional account of the Brexit process and deeply irresponsible comments about Northern Ireland.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Brexit Ultras will let it pass, and indeed despite his call to “move on” from past bitterness Frost continues to twist the knife of the Article 16 threat as well as to disown the NIP he negotiated. Truss’s approach is already being described as a “Brexit U-turn” by the Express, even though nothing formally has changed, and last week also saw an obscure but telling moment. It concerned the “Customs (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2022” (be still my beating heart) wherein the government attempted to amend the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 by, amongst other things, replacing references to “the United Kingdom” with “Great Britain”. This doesn’t necessarily imply the government giving up on re-negotiating the NIP but, at least symbolically, it suggests an acceptance of the Irish Sea border.
At all events, it was reported by Sky News’ Deputy Political Editor Sam Coates to be causing a “big row” between the government and some Tory MPs, leading to it being at least temporarily paused. One of those objecting most strongly was former ERG chair Steve Baker, calling yet again for the immediate invocation of Article 16 as he also did last week (a sign, I suggested in my previous piece, of the Brexiters’ frustration with the apparent rapprochement post-Ukraine). But his comments this week reveal two other things, which go to the heart of what has happened with Brexit and have fundamental implications going way beyond this little episode.
Firstly, Baker claims that he and other ‘Eurosceptics’ (he presumably means the Brexit Ultras) only supported Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister because he promised that “the Withdrawal Agreement is dead”, and that this explicitly meant not merely replacing the backstop with something else. But, says Baker, Johnson “then went on and did just what he told us he would not do”. Now it has long been known, not least because he said it in May 2020, that Baker and others voted for Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) because Dominic Cummings and Michal Gove assured them it could be changed later. That in itself is a totally ludicrous notion, given that it was the basis of both the General Election campaign and the signing of the treaty with the EU. However, what Baker is now saying is that, even before Johnson became PM, there was a promise that Johnson broke after he came to office – and yet Baker actually voted for what he came up with.
In other words, it isn’t, as before, that Baker is saying Johnson broke a promise to re-negotiate the NIP once it was done, and that this promise was why Baker voted for the WA; it is that Johnson had already broken the promise not to only minimally re-negotiate the WA by removing the backstop, but Baker voted for it anyway. That obviously reflects even more badly on Johnson’s honesty – though that is hardly a bombshell – but it makes the conduct of Baker (and like-minded MPs) even more indefensible. It is that conduct which has led directly to the continuing turmoil over the NIP, and if that is indeed defused by the Ukraine war and Baker doesn’t like it then, frankly, he should reflect on his own deplorable behaviour quite as much as he does on Johnson’s.
The second revealing aspect of Baker’s objections is perhaps less personally damning, but still an ironic comeuppance for the Brexiters. For throughout the Brexit process, under both Theresa May and Johnson, there has been a concerted side-lining of Parliament by the Executive, almost invariably cheered on by the Brexiters because it seemed to be a way of getting Brexit done during the 2017-19 Parliament. A particular feature of that Executive power grab has been the substantially extended use of Statutory Instruments – such as the Customs regulation amendments in this case – rather than primary legislation. As such, there is far less scope for MPs to scrutinise Executive decisions, and it has continued to be the case with pandemic regulations. On this occasion, the government seems to have been at least temporarily thwarted, but the general point is that the legacy of Brexit has been to make a mockery of the Brexiter promise that ‘British laws should be made by the British Parliament’. Baker should reflect on that, too.
All of this – the way that Johnson’s Brexit got through Parliament, and the constitutional legacy of Brexit – remains as important as it ever was in terms of understanding the web of lies that have created this mess. However, it would obviously be ridiculous to suggest that committee room rows over customs regulations negate the wider political silence over Brexit. At most, they are a reminder to the government that the Brexit Ultras are watching like hawks to pounce on anything they perceive as backsliding on Brexit. Whereas what the government seems to want is to ‘cancel’ Brexit – not in the sense of annulling it, but of simply not talking about it; of ‘no-platforming’ it.
That has been the case for quite some time, of course, and Johnson, in particular, has long ceased to show any interest in Brexit at all, like a spoilt child who clamours for months for an expensive Christmas present then discards it as boring on Boxing Day. The more fundamental reason for cancelling Brexit continues to grow all the time, with the Ukraine war just the latest, if heftiest, example: it is obvious, even I suspect to most Brexiters, that it has utterly failed to deliver any of its promises. The P&O sackings last week provide a further example, showing that Brexit hasn’t delivered its promise to protect British workers’ employment security and rights (promises which ironically were made to seafarers, specifically, by their own union, the RMT, one of the few to support Brexit in the referendum).
So whilst, now and then, Johnson and other government ministers may make some general claim about it being a success, or float the vaccines roll-out lie, they really don’t want to go into any detail in the way that it is an absolute certainty they would be doing if there were any real, tangible benefits for them to boast of.
The Covid pandemic helped with that quietude but, interestingly, Covid itself is now being treated in the same way, as something the government wants to ignore and seems to think that, if ignored, will go away. So, just as it is being reported that ministers want “to get rid of data and move on” despite the new spike in Covid cases, we also learned last week that the government no longer keeps track of delays and queues at Dover (and, I assume, all ports) caused by post-Brexit regulations. Like babies playing peek-a-boo, ministers appear to imagine that if they can’t see something then it doesn’t exist.
More seriously, it would seem to be the flip-side of the post-truth politics discussed in last week’s piece, in which reality can be denied with impunity. But, of course, neither viruses nor lorry queues disappear just because you ignore them – they exist regardless of any “wish psychosis”, to use the term in Gerhard Schnyder’s most recent excellent analysis on his Brexit Impact Tracker. Perhaps to that concept we could add that attempts to “cancel” both Brexit and Covid show not just the nature and limitations of post-truth politics but also those of the 'politics of the spectacle': we may be endlessly exhorted to ‘move on’, but that neither cures us of Covid nor clears us through customs.
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Cancelling as a step to cancellation?
At all events, there are powerful reasons why Brexit, at least, is not just going to go away. For one thing, as a matter of institutional fact, there will be ongoing discussions about the NIP (and a vote on it in the Northern Ireland Assembly scheduled) and also about the operation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), especially as its five-year review gets closer. So much of Brexit still remains undone, or in the process of being done, from farming support to criminal justice cooperation. Not only will the Brexit Ultras be watching what happens but so too will be plenty of remainers and just about anyone who recalls the promises that were made. For example, last week the still unresolved issue of replacing EU structural funding for, for example, Cornwall and Wales was in the news again with reports of “a furious backlash” at the failure to honour the “promise of a post-Brexit bonanza”.
So the question is whether all this proceeds quietly, at the margins of political discourse, and is treated by the media and the public as a series of discrete events for the inside pages rather than as headline news. Or will the entirety of Brexit re-emerge as a central issue? The answer partly depends on whether the Conservative Party has another internal spasm over Europe. It also depends on whether the Labour Party will continue to give tacit support to the silence around Brexit, at least to the extent of being content for it to be a peripheral issue.
Of course, Labour have been in an unenviable position (above and beyond issues about the extent to which some of its core vote supported Brexit), because Covid and Ukraine have both made it harder, even if they were minded, to seem to be ‘banging on about Brexit’. There were some signs of a more robust approach, from Rachel Reeves in particular, when Covid started to wane and before Ukraine had flared up again. The LibDems, more certainly, look set to go into the next election with a strong programme of integration with the EU including a “roadmap to join the single market” revealed last week. With the increasing possibility of at least an informal LibDem-Labour electoral pact there’s at least a chance (the only chance) of at least some of it seeing the light of day.
Paradoxically, if there is a kind of ‘cancelling’ of Brexit underway – whether by virtue of the impact of the Ukraine war or government disinclination to discuss it – then that, along with the simple passage of time, could make a single market membership policy relatively (only relatively) uncontroversial. It is not as if there was ever deep public opposition to it – hard Brexit was entirely the confection of the hard Brexiters, not the electorate.
So I think that a hypothetical Lab-SNP-LibDem coalition, facing a Tory Party which in those circumstances would be in bitter disarray, might not encounter much public opposition to such a policy. In the end ‘cancelling’ Brexit could mean not so much fully reversing it – still, surely, most unlikely - as most people just not caring that much one way or another about what is done with Brexit. Very much, indeed, as they felt about EU membership before it got whipped up into a matter of frenzied concern by those who now mostly have nothing to say about it. Of course, even if this analysis is right, there is still much damage that will be done before we start on the slow road to some semblance of sense.
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