They lied and cheated and then lied about lying and cheating. Doing so enabled them to say that they had achieved what critics had said was impossible, although they had done no such thing.
First published: June 2022.
Three years ago, when the Brexit process was in a limbo whilst the Tory Party held the leadership election that Boris Johnson eventually won, I wrote of a Brexit aporia, meaning a pathless path or a place you can’t go back or forward from. In brief, the idea was that Britain was suspended between an unrecoverable past and an unattainable future.
Last week, Johnson managed to survive a confidence vote of his MPs but his grip on power is now fragile. In a sense, his administration has also reached an aporia: it can’t go back to its raison d’etre of ‘getting Brexit done’, since that has supposedly been done, but it has no definable policy agenda and none is likely to be accepted by the multiple warring factions amongst its MPs. As is often the case, the foreign press is the best place to look to understand your own country, and The Australian described his government as a "zombie administration". As such, we can expect it to continue to be characterised by the performative politics and symbolism discussed in last week’s blog.
The Brexit process is at a very different point now to what it was in June 2019, of course, but the notion of aporia still captures the present situation. Indeed, in one particular way, there is a direct relationship between the two moments, namely the unresolved matter of Northern Ireland and Brexit.
How Johnson and Frost came unstuck
In 2019 the over-riding issue in the leadership election was the insistence of the Tory Party that May’s ‘hated backstop’ must be ditched and the EU forced to accept ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border (meaning technological and administrative arrangements to render an Irish land border totally invisible).
This was always impossible in the sense it was meant because the EU had made it clear that it would not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and that whilst alternative arrangements could render the backstop obsolete if and when they came to exist, they could not mean removing the backstop from the WA precisely because they did not exist. Yet part of the Brexit aporia of that time was that this impossibility was simply unspeakable for any viable candidate to be leader. There was no way back from the false promises Brexiters had made or forward from the WA that had been agreed. Brexit was stuck.
“They lied and cheated and then lied about lying and cheating.”
This diagnosis was by no means falsified by the fact that, after Johnson won, he and David Frost ‘delivered’ on removing the backstop, because they did so via three sleights of hand. To be blunt, they lied and cheated and then lied about lying and cheating. Doing so enabled them to say – as Frost did again just a few weeks ago – that they had achieved what critics had said was impossible, although they had done no such thing.
First, they got round the EU’s refusal to renegotiate the WA by reverting to a version of the earlier backstop, despite this having been said by May and Johnson to be unacceptable, and also repurposed this not as a backstop (a last, and possibly temporary, resort) but as a frontstop (an in principle permanent arrangement from the outset).
Second, in doing so they gave up on ‘alternative arrangements’ for an Irish land border because this ‘old backstop turned frontstop’ was an Irish Sea border, and because what had been agreed to was to run it just like any other external border to the EU single market. In the process, they had agreed to segment the UK single market.
And, third, despite what they agreed with the EU, they presented it to Tory MPs as only a temporary measure whilst subsequently, in the December general election, presenting it to voters as an oven-ready deal that would ‘get Brexit done’. They also, again despite what they had agreed with the EU, denied to both MPs and electors that there would actually be any Irish Sea border.
Deputy PM Dominic Raab, Steve Barclay & Liz Truss in 10 Downing Street. | Flickr/Number 10
A new aporia
It’s necessary to keep going over all this ancient history partly because so much of it has since been obscured and denied, but more because in apparently finding a way out of the 2019 aporia what they actually did was to elongate it, to the extent that, right now, we are still stuck in effectively the same place. For, now, the over-riding Brexit issue is the insistence of the Tory Party that Johnson’s ‘hated Protocol’ – aka his ‘negotiating triumph’ of 2019 – must be substantially ditched or, at least, ‘alternative arrangements’ made for the Irish Sea border. This, like getting rid of the backstop in 2019, is now an unquestionable and undiscussable dogma for the Tories, and some even want to go right back to the idea of a land border.
If there does come to be a leadership contest any time soon, this dogma will be the sine qua non of any viable candidature not least because of the extremist nature of the party’s membership in the country, never mind its MPs. In the meantime, it is, up to a point, one of the few policies where there is a measure of consensus within the Tory Party. However, it is only ‘up to a point’ since it is clear that many Tory MPs, notably Theresa May, will not support the government if it plans to break international law in pursuit of the policy.
The result of this, as RTE’s Tony Connelly discusses, is that the government is torn between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches to the proposed legislation, meaning whether it immediately disapplies parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) or whether it only creates the powers whereby at some future points ministers could do so. The former would delight the ERG and dismay the ‘Mayites’, the latter might placate the Mayites but disappoint the ERG. These factional splits are now also bound up with jostling for position to succeed Johnson, and presumably explain the now repeated postponements to the legislation appearing (along with the bizarre machinations over advice on its legality, elegantly explained on David Allen Green's blog).
Thus, as so often before, the internal dynamics of the Tory party condition how the government approaches Brexit negotiations with the EU, which can be expected to retaliate to some degree whichever approach is taken to the legislation since in any form it amounts to a complete breach of good faith, if not indeed international law. Meanwhile, the substance of the NIP issue remains as intractable as ever. Viable solutions, such as an SPS alignment agreement, remain undiscussable for the government. The same probably applies to the interesting proposals for a solution put forward by Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute, even though these also require very considerable flexibility from the EU.
Meanwhile, the government’s own anticipated proposals, apart from the opposition they will encounter from the EU and some Tory MPs (and Peers), will not satisfy the DUP and have already been pronounced “unworkable” by industry leaders in Northern Ireland. Fundamentally, because the Brexiters within and outside government are unable to admit or even recognize the lies they have told themselves and others about Northern Ireland in the past, which brought things to this point, they have no realistic future path to resolving it. Again, an aporia.
The public secret of Brexit’s failure
The same obtains on the wider canvas of Brexit in general. The Tory MP Tobias Ellwood recently suggested that single market membership would resolve many of the economic problems the country faces, and somewhat resolve the NIP issue, and was promptly eviscerated by Brexiter politicians and commentators. Academic research, including my own as it happens, has developed the concept of the ‘public secret’, meaning something that is both widely known and yet not openly spoken off, or even both known and yet not known. The economic failure of hard Brexit is somewhat akin to that – only somewhat, because within many sections of the public it is both known and spoken of, whilst amongst others it is arguably not known at all. But it is relevant because I believe that amongst a great many ‘informed’ Brexiters it is precisely such a public secret.
By definition, I can’t prove that, but I notice that Guardian columnist Zoe Williams detects a similar sense that “their heart isn’t really in it”. I think they are coming to realise that a colossal error was made with hard Brexit if not necessarily Brexit itself, but it is all but unsayable within their circles. Yet it is increasingly whispered of. Thus Iain Martin, The Times’ prominent pro-Brexit commentator, has begun to talk about the need to recognize the economic damage hard Brexit has done and to seek a more harmonious and better trading relationship with the EU, building on the existing trade agreement. In the process, he rejects as unworkable the Thatcherite Brexiters’ call for wholesale deregulation. Yet he cannot bring himself to endorse Ellwood’s single market call, or even regulatory alignment, instead plaintively hoping for “some bespoke arrangement … to minimise friction at borders”. So he accepts there is a problem, but for the solution reaches back to the same old ‘cakeist’ idea that there’s some special way of being a third country without being treated like a third country.
“There’s no going back, because it’s too late.”
Daniel Hannan’s recent article is different in acknowledging that it would have been better to have stayed in the single market, unsurprisingly as he was always in the ‘soft Brexit’ camp (though he didn’t stand up against the hard Brexiters very vociferously when it could have made a real difference). But, unlike Martin, he proposes that the way to redress the mistake of hard Brexit is to go even harder by pursuing the deregulatory route. So, albeit that they reach different conclusions, Hannan and Martin both illustrate the public secret of hard Brexit in giving at least a glimpse of Brexiters’ submerged but emergent recognition of its failure, and also in regarding any attempt to revisit it as untenable, almost unthinkable. There’s no going back, because it’s too late.
Michael Gove. | Flickr/Number 10
An absurd taboo
That appears to be the consensus, if for different reasons, across both the Conservatives and the Labour Party. It is a crazy, almost masochistic, stance, which few would apply to poor decisions made in private or even corporate life. It can’t legitimately be justified by reference to the referendum, as that has been honoured and has no purchase on the question of future relations with the EU. So to regard even discussing the full variety of these relations as taboo is an absurdity that applies to almost no other political issue, and all the more so when the form of Brexit that was chosen is so manifestly not working.
That contention is supported by the opinion polls showing, albeit no doubt for a wide variety of reasons, that only 29% think the government is handling Brexit well (and just 4% think ‘very well’) whilst 60% think it is doing so badly (and 35% think ‘very badly), and that 49% think it was wrong to leave the EU against 37% thinking it right. It is most especially evident in the constant complaints of Brexiters, most vociferously and regularly David Frost, that Brexit isn’t delivering its promises. So it can’t make sense to speak of the problems, yet refuse to discuss the full range of possible solutions. It is especially absurd that the only version of the solutions that are up for discussion are those proposed by the very people, like Frost, who created the Brexit they now say wasn’t the one they wanted.
Unspoken causes create insoluble problems
The consequence is that not only is there no going back, there is also no way of going forward. Thus Britain faces multiple serious, obviously Brexit-related problems that simply can’t be addressed by its Brexit-silent polity. To take just a selection of the latest news reports, these range from the shortage of home-grown produce, to the apparently imminent collapse of participation in the Horizon science programme, to the “existential crisis” of the car industry, ignore the misleading headline), to the £500 billion under-valuation of public companies due to “Brexit scarring”, to the calamitous damage to trade with the EU, to the related precarious position of sterling. On the latter, an analysis last week from the Bank of America said that the pound faced an “existential crisis” (another one) comparable to that of an emerging market currency and, crucially, linked this to “a failure to discuss and acknowledge” the effect of Brexit.
It’s a theme taken up by several serious economic commentators last week, such as Simon Nixon of The Times and Simon French, Chief Economist at Panmure Gordon. In his thoughtful overview of the post-Brexit economy, French itemises the damage done, including some of the things just listed as well as the stalling of business investment, which he estimates as being £58 billion a year lower than if Britain hadn’t left the single market and customs union. He also makes the point, which relates to one I made in my last blog, as well as to Iain Martin’s article, that the free-market deregulatory Brexiters have yet to accept that enacting their preferred Brexit would come at high costs, with severe political consequences attached. In a different sense to Martin, they, too, have not moved on from the ‘cakeism’ of the entire Brexit project. Overall, French frames his analysis in a similar way to my term of an aporia, in suggesting that Britain is in an economic “limbo”, and also implies that this is compounded by the lack of serious public and political discussion of the choices that Brexit entails.
If these economic issues seem intangible then, very visibly over the long Jubilee holiday weekend and beyond, we saw the cancelled and delayed flights and passport queues. The Brexit dimension of this is resolutely ignored by government ministers and only patchily mentioned by the media, but the airlines themselves and travel industry experts are absolutely clear that hard Brexit is a big factor. Meanwhile, even the pro-Brexit press reports passenger anger at the passport queues faced by British holidaymakers entering the EU, albeit without mentioning, let alone reflecting on, its championship of their cause.
This is a part of a larger picture well-described by hit-and-miss columnist Simon Jenkins, in one of his occasional hits. Echoing my own recent lament of a country going rotten, Jenkins observes how, in multiple everyday ways, including the travel chaos, “Britain just isn’t working any more”, identifying hard Brexit as a major cause. It’s unparalleled, at least in my lifetime, that in the face of a multiple crises in trade, sterling, food supplies, the labour market, travel and multiple amenities of daily life politicians barely discuss one of the main causes. For sure, such a discussion would produce sharp disagreements, but such is politics, and it would still be a discussion, not this obtuse, perverse, deafening silence.
By contrast, some say, as they did in response to Ellwood’s statement, that it is bizarre and perhaps even in some way unsophisticated or stupid to still be talking, six years after the referendum, about different models of Brexit. But that reflects precisely the aporia it has brought us to. We are stuck, and, actually, those responding in this way are contributing to that ‘stuckness’ by suggesting that we ought not to be going back, whilst at the same time preventing any moving forward. The ultimate reason, as with the NIP, why models of Brexit are still legitimately up for discussion, even if that discussion remains peripheral to mainstream political discourse, is that there was no honesty at the time about what Brexit meant.
In particular, the core dishonesty that all forms of Brexit, but especially hard Brexit, would be cost-free – a dishonesty encapsulated by Johnson’s ‘cakeism’ and all the denunciations of costs as Project Fear – is the reason why now, when the costs are so evident, the entire question of why and how to do Brexit remains a legitimate one. Yet it is still unresolvable partly because it is not discussable as a central political question, and partly because the old lies are still being told. So, again, we – in the sense of the polity, collectively – can talk about the problems, but we can’t talk about the causes, and therefore we can’t find any solutions. Another aporia.
Sir Keir Starmer. | Flickr/UK Parliament
Labour’s chance to lead
Thus Britain remains at a Brexit aporia and will do so until there is the political courage and honesty to face up to it. In other words, it requires the public secret to be broken and become a public discussion. In practice that will indeed mean re-visiting, perhaps through citizens’ assemblies, questions of single market participation and a customs treaty or, at a more minimal level, creating a sensible policy on regulatory alignment with the EU or, at the most minimal level, developing a realistic approach to build upon the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in advance of its five-year review. The latter could draw on the suggestions of Dr Peter Holmes of the UK Trade Policy Observatory, writing for the Progressive Economy Forum, and should take in enhanced security cooperation as well as easements on trade and mobility.
It seems all but impossible that the current Conservative government, under Johnson or any conceivable replacement, will do any of these things, but the Labour Party should be developing proposals to tackle them if it is serious about forming or leading the next government. Doing so would signal political leadership and would speak directly to the evident disquiet the opinion polls reveal about Brexit both in itself and in the manner of its execution. And whilst Brexit doesn’t figure high in the list of voters’ political priorities, its effects are inseparable from those that do, notably the economy and the health service.
As political sociologist Martin Shaw discusses in Byline Times last week, “the single market taboo won’t last forever”. At some point the dam will break and the near-silence will end. In fact, as I’ve suggested in this column, the very early signs are already there. Labour would be electorally wise and politically right to get out ahead. The LibDems, especially, can play a role (and they – unlike Labour – have already produced a well-considered set of proposals), as might the SNP and the smaller parties. Indeed one part of what is needed is to build a new, cross-party, cross-nation process to find a new way forward. But, realistically, only Labour can currently lead this process and, ultimately, lead a government that might deliver its outcome.
Aporia is not stasis
The need for such leadership is becoming increasingly urgent, and will become more so the longer it is delayed. Aporia is not stasis. For whilst Britain remains stuck, and silent about how it got stuck, and silent about how to get unstuck, the world continues to change – economically, geo-politically, environmentally. This means that the costs, economic and non-economic, of Brexit aporia continue to rack up.
Hannan’s recent article likens Brexit to moving into a new home that may be “more elegant and more comfortable” but, since moving is stressful, an EFTA-type arrangement would have been easier. But, he goes on, now that we’ve moved in all our furniture it would be folly to get the removers in again. The Iain Martin version of that metaphor would, I suppose, be that we should re-arrange the furniture and give the walls a lick of paint.
A better version would be to recognize that having moved out of a comfortable house into what was sold as a shiny palace but turned out to be a crumbling and vermin-infested maisonette, we aren’t going to make things better by ignoring the dry rot and the rats. On the contrary, if we do so much longer the walls will begin to collapse and the ceiling fall in.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
- Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 14 June 2022, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 14 June 2022. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)