Professor Chris Grey on the confusion of Boris Johnson with a national leader, confusions on all sides about P&O Ferries, confusions in the CBI’s attempts to get behind Brexit, and the different kinds of Brexit failure that shouldn’t be confused.
First published: March 2022.
The peril of writing a column which is contemporaneous with events is that it can suddenly be overtaken by those events. Actually, in the years I’ve been writing this column that has happened surprisingly rarely, but it certainly did with last week’s piece. There, I wrote about how Brexit was seemingly in the process of being ‘cancelled’ – that is, denied a public profile – with reasons including the obviousness of the shared interests of the UK and the EU over Ukraine and the fact that “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”.
Within hours, Boris Johnson had made a mockery of my tentative suggestion, when he directly compared Ukraine’s defensive war against Russian military invasion with Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It was a crass and widely criticised remark which he reportedly now regrets, although no formal retraction or apology has been issued. But whilst it falsified my piece in one way, in another it affirmed the analysis that the war ought to have discredited such a comparison.
Johnson confuses party leadership and national leadership
That’s shown by the way that Johnson’s comments were heavily criticised by senior political figures – including, most damningly, the former President of Ukraine – and media commentators across Europe, and no doubt equally resented by EU leaders. At all events, it seems to explain why Johnson wasn’t – as he had apparently wanted to be – invited to Thursday’s EU leaders’ summit, which Joe Biden also attended.
Thus whereas the leaders of the US, Germany, France and Italy were in all three back-to-back meetings in Brussels yesterday (NATO, G7, EU), Johnson was only in the first two. The war is shifting the international order in fundamental ways, including the radical change to Germany’s defence posture, and the rapidly closening relationship between NATO and the EU. This presents particular challenges for post-Brexit UK, requiring skilled diplomacy and leadership.
Instead, not for the first time, Johnson’s words have had adverse consequences, damaging to the important need for post-Brexit UK to get back ‘into the rooms’ where international decisions are discussed and made, and damaging to the vital need for an indivisible international front against Putin’s aggression. It was yet another failure of international statesmanship on his part. It was also yet another failure of domestic leadership. For if Brexiters are in any way serious about healing the divisions of Brexit, or wanting erstwhile remainers to ‘move on’, that is hardly compatible with yet again implicitly depicting those who did not want to leave the EU as in some way unpatriotic or, even, traitorous.
What he said was no slip of the tongue. It was scripted, and must surely have been approved not just by Johnson but by his advisers. His motivation would seem to simply have been shoring up his waning support amongst leave voters. For it shouldn’t be forgotten that the absurd and offensive notion that Brexit was some sort of national liberation from an invader or an occupier is a pervasive belief amongst hardcore Brexiters.
Moreover, it was obviously no coincidence that this was a party conference speech. As with Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech – when she virtually declared hard Brexit and indubitably set the date for triggering Article 50 – and Johnson’s opportunistic promises about rising real wages (now no longer mentioned) at last year’s conference, this illustrates a central issue. To a very large extent, the preferences and prejudices of the rather small and ageing membership of the Tory Party, which has become to all intents and purposes ‘UKIP-ified’, drive national politics, and especially everything Brexit-related. Almost as important as the party membership are those who lurk outside as members or supporters of whatever the Brexit Party is called now, under Farage or whoever its notional leader is.
Taken together, that is the audience that matters to Johnson because, given the nature of the UK electoral system, he need not care about further damaging the UK’s international reputation or its internal cohesion. Or, at least, he need not care about these things given that he has no sense of morality or responsibility. Whether that completely invalidates my ‘cancelling Brexit’ thesis I’m not sure, though. It may well be that Johnson finds that, as perhaps was the case on this occasion, there is sufficient backlash even from Brexiters, and insufficient take-up for his attempt to re-ignite the Brexit battles, to make it worth his while. But it will be that calculation, rather than any regard for principle, that shapes events. Watch this space.
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P&O: clarifying confusions
What had already begun to emerge as I wrote the previous piece was the brutal mass sacking of 800 employees of P&O Ferries. I was quite careful in wording my comments, in order to convey two points about how the sackings related to Brexit. To recap, these are, first, that the decline of UK-EU trade is certainly one reason, along with the pandemic, why P&O believed there was a business case for the sackings. The second is that the sackings give the lie to the claim by some Brexiters that leaving the EU would prevent such corporate behaviour. The RMT union has been remarkably silent about the fact that its leadership recommended that its members vote leave in 2016 with one reason being “to end attacks on seafarers and the offshore workers” (note how unequivocal the wording is). Those who heeded the advice on that basis may now wonder what it has achieved. Meanwhile, Farage’s whine that “Brexit was about putting our people first” ought – if he had a shred of integrity – to cause him to admit that he had misled British workers.
However, despite a veritable torrent of claims on social media, mainly from anti-Brexiters, the sackings do not show that British workers have less rights than they did before Brexit and nor is it the case (a different way of making the same claim) that these sackings would not have been possible but for Brexit. The reason is simple: UK employment law has not changed since Brexit and workers’ rights have not been reduced. Of course, it is well-known that many free-market Brexiters would like to do so, have expressed dissatisfaction that the government hasn’t done so, and may well get their way in the future. But, for now, nothing (relevant) has changed.
Why, then, is it only British workers who are affected? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, it’s probably not only British workers (and certainly isn’t only British residents). It is, more precisely, workers on contracts governed by British employment law (some reports say, specifically, Jersey law) most of whom may be, but not all of whom necessarily are, British nationals. Secondly, this law gives less protection than, for example, that in France, Ireland or Netherlands, but this isn’t because of Brexit – it was the case before Brexit and it is still the case after Brexit, as a result of decisions by British governments. In fact, ‘remainers’ who don’t take this point are ironically replicating the Brexiter narrative which denies this and all the many other ways in which EU member states are not governed by a single, uniform, EU-wide, legal system.
There is another connection, which is subtle and indirect, between Brexit and the fact that P&O did not give the government a 45-day advance warning of the mass sacking. It was reported last week that in February 2018 the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling amended the rules so that such warnings needed only to be given to the country where a vessel was registered. This was before Brexit, and nothing to do with Brexit – indeed it was to comply with an amendment to an EU Directive. What this report doesn’t mention is that, in January 2019, P&O announced it would re-flag all its UK-registered boats to Cyprus in advance of Brexit, to make its operations and accounting simpler. This was overtly a consequence of Brexit, but it also had the consequence (whether it was a motivation at the time is impossible to know, but P&O said it wasn’t) that mass sackings of UK contracted workers on those vessels did not have to be notified in advance to the UK authorities.
Of course, even if Brexit had not happened, P&O could have re-registered its boats if what it wanted had been (or became) to take advantage of the change in regulations. Equally, once Brexit had happened the UK could have reversed that change or, both before and after, could have ‘gold-plated’ it by, for example, requiring notification to both UK authorities and those where the vessel was registered. And in any case, even if notification had had to be given to the government, it would not have prevented the sackings, though it would have changed the political dynamics around them. So this isn’t a ‘smoking gun’ in which Brexit (or, as Johnson seemed to claim this week, the EU) is responsible for the sackings or the manner in which they were administered. Rather, it reveals several layers of complexity which, as with so much else about Brexit, make this a confusing issue.
Nor does any of the above have any bearing on the different question of whether the sackings, or the way they were undertaken, is itself legal. That remains to be seen, although P&O have already admitted they broke the law on trade union consultation. But its legality or otherwise has nothing to do with the fact that it happened after, rather than before, Brexit.
What this episode really points up is the way that economic nationalists and nativists were looking in the wrong direction when they focussed on foreign labour coming to the UK rather than foreign capital buying up UK assets, often via complex webs of ownership. So they spent years talking about exactly what they kept insisting the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ didn’t allow them to speak of, yet said virtually nothing about what the ‘neo-liberal global elite’ didn’t want them to speak of. (That may be linked, in turn, to the causes of Brexit – in ways that are thoroughly discussed in Gerhard Schnyder’s ever-excellent Brexit Impact Tracker – though, as he makes clear, that’s a different issue to that of Brexit ‘causing’ the sackings.)
If I sound slightly irritated, it’s because it has been depressing to see so much disinformation about this coming from the ‘remain’ side, and the virulence with which some have responded to corrections to the false claim that Brexit is what made it possible for the P&O workers to be sacked in the manner that they were. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of good reasons to criticise Brexit – and good reasons, other than that one, to link the sackings to Brexit. Indeed there are also plenty of good reasons to criticise the Brexiter reaction to the sackings.
P&O: compounding confusions
Take, for example, Camilla Tominey of the Telegraph. First, she suggests that P&O’s financial situation is solely due to the pandemic, as if the post-Brexit decline in trade had no role at all. Second, she rightly says that foreign-owned companies wanting to replace British workers with cheaper labour isn’t a consequence of Brexit – and then asserts that it was such behaviours that motivated millions to vote for it. But if the implication is that they thought Brexit would prevent such behaviour then, like Farage, she fails to acknowledge that it manifestly hasn’t delivered that promise.
Finally, she claims that Brexit is helpful in this situation as it enables the UK to have Freeports and, since DP World (P&O’s owner) has a contract for two of these, the government now has a way of penalising the company. Her punch line is that “you won’t hear many Remainers admitting to that”. Which is true, because it’s nonsense. Freeports were possible whilst an EU member, and whilst it is the case that the government envisages UK Freeports as operating differently to the way the EU would allow, that is irrelevant to Tominey’s ‘penalty’ argument which would apply equally whatever form Freeports took. In any case, it seems unlikely that the government has any intention of withdrawing the contracts from DP, judging by Johnson’s dismissal of the suggestion at PMQs this week.
Then, rather more piquantly, there is the reaction of Dover MP and ardent Brexiter Natalie Elphicke. Last month, she caused much mirth by saying that the lorry queues in her constituency were nothing to do with Brexit, but caused by Brussels’ bureaucracy. This week, she turned up at a demonstration in Dover to protest against the sackings and, deliciously, joined in the chants of “shame on you” before realising that the ‘you’ referred to Elphicke herself for voting against a recent Labour proposal to outlaw the ‘fire and re-hire’ tactic that P&O had employed. She has since been complaining about the “nasty militants” (aka the workers) who heckled her, whilst also purporting to be on the side of the workers (aka the nasty militants) against P&O and then, like all Tory MPs, abstaining on a fresh Labour attempt to end fire and re-hire. All in all, she seems … confused.
Confusions - or contradictions?
Confusion, it seems, is the order of the day. Sometimes, it comes from Northern Irish unionist Brexiters like DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who, as the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole pithily observes, has still, after six years, not worked out that Brexit and the destabilisation of the union are inseparable. And, astonishingly, David Frost still doesn’t grasp one of the key reasons why this is so. More understandable is the confusion of those who did not, and probably still do not, support Brexit but are obliged by circumstance to claim to have seen the light. It’s a manoeuvre that plenty of Tory MPs have made, with more or less conviction and convincingness, and this week it was the turn of the new leader of the CBI, Tony Danker.
Danker, for entirely defensible reasons, is trying to repair the breach between the CBI and the government over Brexit. It is understandable and defensible because no lobbying group is going to get far with this government if it’s perceived to be hostile to Brexit. In doing so, though, he – deliberately or not, I don’t know – underlines some of the obvious problems with Brexit. For example, he suggests that business people had been opposed because they had seen it as reducing free trade, whereas he now realises that the Brexiters had thought sovereignty more important, and that they were right. But, of course, many Brexiters, and certainly Johnson, have never admitted there is any contradiction.
He also says that he is ‘signed up to’ the part of Brexit which is to do with a high-growth, flourishing economy, but this is exactly what Brexit can’t deliver for exactly the reasons why so many businesses didn’t support it. He calls for the government to think of international trade in terms of services, but it is precisely services trade that is most undermined by Brexit, and least assisted by the ability to make independent trade deals. In a way, and again quite justifiably, the whole approach is one of challenging the Brexit government to do what has so far proved entirely impossible – to make good on the promises of Brexit. I doubt such a challenge will appeal to the Brexiters, though, especially as so many of them are now also hostile to the Net Zero goal, which Danker supports.
In all, Danker’s comments implied that there remains a considerable gap between Johnson’s populism and the pragmatic needs of businesses (and not just businesses, it could be added), even as he sought to articulate some overlap between the two. I imagine that some version of such intellectual contortions is performed daily by civil servants seeking to demonstrate fealty to Brexit whilst retaining membership of the reality-based community. Perhaps it is not fair to call this a confusion, though, so much as the irreducible contradiction of trying to make something work when, by its nature, it cannot work.
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Not to be confused: different kinds of Brexit failure
From that perspective, it’s worth drawing a distinction between the ‘necessary’ and the ‘contingent’ (or ‘unavoidable’ and ‘avoidable’) failures of Brexit, which shouldn’t be confused. The most obvious ‘necessary’ failure of Brexit (or, at least, of hard Brexit) is economic. Creating barriers to trade and supply chains with Britain’s nearest and biggest economy is inevitably economically damaging. There’s really no point in arguing about this in terms of either theory or practice. If Brexiters want to say it’s a price worth paying, well, that’s a different matter and, notably, not how they presented things to voters. Another example of the necessary damage of hard Brexit is the political consequences for Northern Ireland, which, in one way or another, would exist however it was done although, again, Brexiters never presented this fact to voters.
The most obvious ‘contingent’ failure of Brexit is the relentlessly hostile, dishonest and derogatory way that the UK government has undertaken it, and the associated reputational damage. It’s true that to some extent that was inherent in a project supported by those who loathed the EU, but it was contingent in that skilled political leadership could have over-ridden or at least substantially dampened it. Instead, right from the outset, a hostile and antagonistic approach was adopted in which the EU was treated as a punitive aggressor and, sometimes, even as if it had somehow forced Brexit, or at least its consequences, on the UK.
Where does the P&O scandal fit in to this distinction? After Brexit, the UK could have reduced workers’ rights. Or, as it could have done without leaving the EU, it could have increased workers’ rights. In fact, it has done nothing in either direction, primarily because Brexit promised both of these things, so doing either will split those who support it and who voted Tory in 2019. That flows from the necessity of making contradictory appeals to secure enough support for Brexit, which then hamstrung the contingent possibilities of what was done with it. So, as with a huge swathe of other regulatory issues, the result is the stasis of retained EU law.
Whilst he certainly isn’t the only person to blame, Johnson bears more responsibility than any other single individual for all of these failures. The economic damage, even of hard Brexit, could have been less but for his doctrinaire approach to ‘sovereignty’. He negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol and pronounced it a triumph whilst lying about what it meant. He was the chief salesman of the contradictory prospectus of Brexit. And the reputational and relational damage has been positively stoked by Johnson, with his Ukraine war comparison just the latest example.
I had thought, and to an extent still think, that the war might at least dilute the contingent failures of Brexit. Perhaps my mistake – though, if so, not one I am normally guilty of – was to confuse Boris Johnson with a half-way competent leader. It’s a confusion exhibited by many people, not least Johnson himself.
Finally, whilst Johnson may have undermined the validity of my ‘cancelling Brexit’ thesis, it was well-illustrated by this week’s Spring Statement* from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and the political discussion that has followed. For whilst the headline news reported that living standards are set to fall more sharply than at any time since the 1950s, almost no attention has been given to the role Brexit plays in this. It’s not the major role, but it is an important contributor to the economic woe – as the Office for Budget Responsibility report (pp. 62-65) made clear – and, unlike the various global factors, is both unique to, and self-inflicted upon, Britain. Yet whilst we are supposedly basking in our newfound liberation, confusingly, public mention of its consequences has, indeed, been cancelled.
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- Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 31 March 2022, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Andrew Parsons. - PM Boris Johnson. | 29 March 2022. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)