Even the most ardent Brexiters concede that things are not going very well. This however is a chronicle of a failure foretold. Once Brexit crystallized into solid form it was clear that any Brexit would leave the UK in a worse place than before. My own thinking pre-referendum was most informed by J C Piris “The seven alternatives to EU membership“, but I have recently come across an early piece by Prof Chris Grey (of the excellent BrexitBlog) “What actually happens if Britain leaves the EU?” dating from Oct. ’15. Chris Grey finishes the article by stating:
For the debate to be bona fide, we must be absolutely clear which of the different Brexit scenarios is envisaged and not to confuse or conflate them. If not, and the vote is to exit, it will be no good saying afterwards that “we didn’t understand what we were voting for” – the repeated complaint made by eurosceptics about the 1975 Referendum. By then it will be too late.
Of course this vagueness was deliberate. The Brexit Referendum would not have been won for Leave, without what I have previously called a Mirror of Erised approach, allowing every Leave voter to choose his/her Brexit of choice.
The conduct of the Referendum itself was also worse than amateurish, which I explored in “How to Run Referendums – Lessons from Ireland“, and there was a large element of hubris in the remain campaign.
There are two main features that are worth stressing.
Firstly failure was baked in and has resulted in what Chris Cook calls “A National Humiliation” in his excellent Brexit series on Tortoise media. In particular, on the Irish Border issue, Britain was totally outplayed by Ireland. An extract:
These talks were the story of a few vast forces.
- First, there was the basalt solidity of the political consensus in Ireland. Leo Varadkar gets a lot of personal abuse from the British press for his intransigence, but it is hard to imagine another Taoiseach taking a significantly different path.
- Second, the Irish civil service has built a base of expertise to deliver on this consensus. I was struck by how often names appear in documents and then re-occur, years later, in a relevant job. They have taken expertise on Britain and Brussels seriously.
- Third, the EU took a view that a leaky border would never be acceptable – and in a conflict between Britain and Ireland, it would take Ireland’s side.
- Fourth, the sequencing of the talks encouraged EU solidarity and made the Irish border the central issue – a problem to which there is not a satisfactory solution for all sides.
The British were crushed by these pressures. This failure is the responsibility of Theresa May.
I largely agree, apart from the fact that I’m not sure externally another PM would have made much difference. The failures were almost exclusively internal and due to a number of factors. The initial lack of any clarity as to what form of Brexit was deliverable. A major mistake, when Brexit was crystallizing, was taking an impossibly hard line stance (Lancaster House speech), from which she has had to row back ever since. Calling a needless GE and loosing her majority forced reliance on the DUP, resulting in the famous trilemma (Fig. 1).
These mistakes were compounded by the complete lack of honesty in clarifying, both to the HoC and public at large, the difficult choices needed to be made. Cakeism was born and it seems for many, comforting lies are preferable to harsh truth.
The country also has become increasingly polarized over the three years since the Referendum. Had for example a Norway type solution been agreed shortly after the referendum, many Leavers would have been satisfied and Remainers reluctantly agreed. Now no solution seems to carry a majority either in the HoC or country.
Secondly there is the greater worry that, on the Leave side, the vagueness of their position was not just tactical (necessary to win) but strategic. Brexit in this scenario is part of a much larger project to weaken Britain, destroy the rule of law and create a playground for multi-millionaires and oligarchs, ending up with some form of neo-fascist state. Serious thinkers like Jon Lis are getting worried. In his “Project fear? The last three years have been more catastrophic than even the most pessimistic Remainer predicted“, the article finishes:
What we can see now in Britain is a kind of national derangement. It has become clear that Brexit was never about leaving the EU. Indeed, that is its least important element. Brexit is, or became, a nationalist identitarian culture war. As a project it purports to be open and global but in truth parades dogmatic rigidity and smallness. It requires unquestioned devotion to a creed from people trapped into political submission. This dogma purges dissent, erases opposition and expels non-believers. Because the truth must not be spoken, the institutions which depend on it must be silenced.
It is time to call this project for what it is. Brexit’s leaders are seeking to break every guarantor of British democracy, one by one. Each month brings unprecedented outrage. If we don’t end this soon, it may become too late to end it at all.
This is a nightmare scenario and the one I was most worried about before the Referendum. The constitutional safeguards in the UK are very weak and Trump has shown that even in the US, even with its written constitution, in the wrong hands democratic norms can be shredded at a frightening rate.
Into this toxic mix a new player becomes PM Boris Johnson.
Much has been written about Johnson, but this recent piece, The Ham of Fate, by Fintan O’Toole has been widely acclaimed. In the piece O’Toole describes Johnson as akratic (a word Johnson uses in his only novel Seventy Two Virgins):
It means literally “not being in command of oneself” and is translated variously as “weakness of will,” “incontinence,” and “loss of self-control.” To Aristotle, an akratic is a person who knows the right thing to do but can’t help doing the opposite. This is not just, as he himself seems to have intuited, Boris Johnson to a tee.
In the New York Times James Butler in “Boris Johnson Is How Britain Ends” predicts the breakup of the UK:
Mr. Johnson, whose laziness is proverbial and opportunism legendary, is a man well-practiced in deceit, a pander willing to tickle the prejudices of his audience for easy gain. His personal life is incontinent, his public record inconsequential.
And his premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself.
There are many similar articles, and there is bewilderment and dismay that such a totally unsuitable person has become the leader of the Tory party. It also a complete unknown as to what form of premier Johnson will be. Chris Grey speculates in his blog that he may come in three varieties of Nixon: “Nixon goes to China”, “Madman theory” and “Scandal, failure and premature departure.”
Will Johnson become PM?
For Johnson to become PM he needs to command the majority of the House. He seems to have swallowed the ERG faith based position that threatening the EU with “no-deal” will allow a reopening of the withdrawal agreement. Nearly all serious analysis believe that, not only will this not work, but will destroy whatever goodwill remains in the EU causing the EU to harden its position.
On Ireland for example considered by Brexit hardliners as the Achilles heel, it seem that the EU will not be intimidated and rather than abandoning Ireland is putting together a multi-billion pound support package.
Many serious parliamentarians also understand this and it is by no means certain that Johnson can command a majority of the house of commons.
Jon Worth produced Fig. 2 before Johnson was voted leader, but assumed it a foregone conclusion. Further of Jon’s analysis is available here.
It is by no means certain that Johnson will become PM and the likeliest outcome on this analysis is that there will be such instability that a General Election will need to be called by the 31st Oct.
Some initial skirmishes have been conducted. Three ministers have resigned Phil Hammond, David Gauke and Alan Duncan. Alan Duncan attempted to have a commons debate to test Jonhson’s suitability as PM but was blocked by the speaker. It looks likely that Johnson will indeed become PM and survive into the summer, with a dreadfully weak commons majority (currently three or four depending on whether speakers and deputy speakers are counted or not), which is likely to fall further after the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, widely predicted to swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems.
Johnson has become leader of the Tory party at the most difficult period since WWII. He not only has Brexit to deal with, but there are “events” most seriously the ramping up of tensions with Iran and the Trump’s administrations desire to add the UK’s military capability to its own assets – the Gibraltar seisure of the Iranian tanker may have been a set up by the US for exactly this reason. Hunt is trying to counteract this by suggesting some form of European task force – ironic in the circumstance. In a more stable period a completely incompetent PM may not have been such a worry.
Some pointers as to what tho expect are given in John Springford’s CER article Boris Johnson and Brexit: What to expect, which predicts a ramping up of No-Deal planning and rhetoric. Followed by failure and a GE.
The future is uncertain and may indeed be even more eventful over the next couple of months than it has been over the past three years. I will however be very surprised if there is not a GE before the autumn.