Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on the events of last week – some unpleasant, some unexpected – putting them in their wider context, and talking through some possible scenarios.
First published in October 2019.
Like most people I was taken by surprise when Thursday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar ended with a positive-sounding line about being able to “see a pathway to a possible deal”. Quite what that means or will lead to is difficult to say, but it was followed by a meeting between Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier on Friday morning. There was no post-meeting press conference but both sides issued statements describing it as “constructive”. However, Donald Tusk stated that Johnson’s plans were “still not workable or realistic” although there were “promising signals”, and Barnier briefed EU-27 Ambassadors and the Brexit Steering Group this afternoon leading to the decision to intensify negotiations.
In such a fast-moving situation, sensible analysis is difficult and prone to age fast – and badly. One thing that is quite clear is that Johnson’s “final” offer for a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU is now dead. That is hardly a surprise given that it was never going to fly in the form proposed, for the reasons discussed in my previous piece. It may never have been intended as a serious suggestion, but in any case it was never a viable one.
The implication now is that Johnson is ready to shift, perhaps to the original, Northern Ireland only, version of the backstop. Another, and perhaps more likely, possibility being touted is that of a Northern Ireland only version of May’s UK-wide customs partnership plan. It was rejected by the EU as unworkable for the UK, but could be viable on a more limited basis🔒. This would see Northern Ireland leave the customs union, but all checks would be on the sea border, with adjustment payments then made where there were tariff differentials between the two customs territories.
Also perhaps in play are the consent arrangements in the Johnson proposals, which had been set up in such a way that the Northern Ireland Assembly’s periodic votes on regulatory alignment gave the DUP an effective veto. A different arrangement, giving parity to both unionist and nationalist communities may be under discussion.
But, of course, if changes to customs and to consent arrangements are made then we just go round to the other side of the same old loop with the DUP, in particular, and if so at least some ERG diehards refusing to back it and so, in the absence of sufficient Labour defections, parliament may reject it. No doubt some ERG MPs (and some Labour ones, for that matter) are now ready to vote for almost any deal. But it should not be forgotten that some of them – and many more Tory Party members – are far closer to Farage’s mind set than Johnson’s, and Farage has already dismissed any deal on the totally absurd grounds that it would entail having “a treaty” with the EU (this is effectively to say that the objection to the deal is that it is a deal).
Were a deal to be passed by parliament, it is all but impossible to actually be ready to leave on 31 October but a short technical extension, whilst an embarrassment to Johnson, would soon be forgotten. On the other hand, it would kill the remain cause stone cold dead. Thus if a deal is made with the EU, remainers’ hopes will hang on the intransigence of the DUP and of hardcore Brexiters to vote it down. Relying on such intransigence is not exactly unrealistic, but is ironic. Alternatively, remainer hopes might be kept alive were parliament to pass a deal on ‘Kyle-Wilson’ terms, that is, with the requirement of a confirmatory referendum attached.
However, all this is getting well ahead of where we are. The ‘pathway’ may go nowhere. There may be all sorts of political and diplomatic games going on, trying to attribute or avoid blame for a failure to reach a deal. That was what many ‘hot takes’ on Thursday suggested but, since Friday, it does seem that something more substantive is underway – interestingly there seem to be no unofficial briefings or leaks coming from either side. The coming hours and days will tell.
The unpleasant backdrop
These latest developments came against the backdrop of one of the most unpleasant weeks of the entire Brexit saga. There have been several examples. One was the almost certain mischaracterisation of Angela Merkel’s conversation with Johnson as saying that the EU and Germany had a veto on Northern Ireland leaving the customs union, which led to a vile (subsequently deleted) anti-German image being circulated on social media by the official Leave EU group. Another was the spectacle of the UK government first trying to bribe Ireland into accepting its (original) proposals and then compiling a list of threats of no-deal Brexit🔒 that could be used as ‘leverage’ to bully Ireland into doing so.
But the most egregious was the message put out on Monday by ‘Downing Street’ (though widely assumed to be from Dominic Cummings) about how the UK would react, if forced to request an extension from the EU, to countries that supported that request. It would treat them as guilty of a “hostile interference in domestic politics” with consequences for security and other cooperation. Apart from the aggressive sentiments, the language was childishly crude: any duty of sincere cooperation (i.e. with the EU – a condition of previous extensions) would “be in the toilet” whilst countries supporting an extension would be seen as “colluding with a Parliament that is as popular as the clap”.
As many have remarked, this is a foretaste of how the Tories are likely to run their election campaign if, indeed, it occurs prior to Brexit. It is also a further insight into the peculiar and unpleasant psychology of the man dubbed a “career psychopath” by David Cameron. But, more than either of these things, it is revealing of what has long been incipient within the entire Brexit cause, and has periodically been visible ever since the Referendum result was announced. As usual, it’s easier to understand immediate events by placing them in their broader context.
Entitlement, bellicosity and victimhood
At the heart of this is a peculiar mixture of entitlement, bellicosity and victimhood. From the outset, Brexit has been approached in a sour, suspicious and resentful way almost as if – as I have written before – Britain were being forced to leave. Theresa May occasionally essayed a more conciliatory approach, for example in her Florence speech, but in general she adopted the same dog-in-a-manger tone, perhaps in her ill-fated attempt to persuade Brexiters that she was ‘one of them’. But that was never going to happen given that she also tried to turn their ideas into reality. Thus even her inevitable acceptance of the simple idea that there would be a financial settlement to be made has never really been accepted by hard core Brexiters.
More generally, every time that the basic consequences of leaving the EU became apparent, they were treated by Brexiters as if they were a punishment. For example, simple statements of fact – such as Michel Barnier’s observation in February 2018 that leaving the single market and customs union would mean greater barriers to trade with Europe – were treated by Brexiters as a threat, rather than a description of the outcome they had chosen.
Exactly the same reaction has occurred whenever it became clear that Brexit – at least hard Brexit – entailed being unable to participate in various EU projects and agencies. Invariably, as for example with Galileo, this was treated as Britain being ‘excluded’, rather than having excluded itself. Perhaps the most absurd, but still revealing, example was the furious reaction from Brexiters to the supposed “bombshell” in November 2017 that the UK would not be eligible for the European Capital of Culture competition for 2023.
At one level, this is about a deep-seated lack of realism amongst Brexiters. Cakeism is an over-used term but, still, there has always been a sense that, somehow, Brexit could mean leaving the EU and yet to some large extent things remaining unchanged, and many of the features of membership continuing as before. The meaning of being a third country was never understood as the concrete legal and institutional manifestation of the will of the people but, instead, a punishment for it. In this way, by some extraordinary feat of political legerdemain, Brexiters – and especially the Brexit press – have been able to see every consequence of their victory as being a humiliation imposed upon them.
The result of this has been that every time the realities of Brexit became clear, Brexiters reacted both as victims but also, immediately, as aggressors. Thus quite early on, in April 2017, when the issue of Gibraltar surfaced, there was ludicrous talk of going to war with Spain – and not just from anonymous social media warriors but from Michael Howard, a former leader of the Conservative Party.
What this episode also exemplified was how whenever these realities emerged it turned out that they had been warned of before the Referendum and dismissed by Brexiters as Project Fear. Yet, inevitably, their emergence did not lead the Brexiters to admit they had been wrong but, rather, to insist ever more angrily that they were right. Indeed, worse than that, by configuring each consequence as a punishment they ‘proved’ that the EU was a malign body and therefore validated the decision to leave.
What that early Gibraltar episode also revealed was how war, talk of war, and memory of war have never been far away both before and since the Referendum. That was in evidence this week both in the anti-German reaction to Merkel’s call, and in the references to “hostile interference” in the ‘Downing Street’ statement.
A pre-Brexit election?
If it turns out that a deal is done with the EU and is passed by parliament, then this narrative will remain present amongst the Faragists for years to come. They will portray themselves as victims betrayed by the Establishment, but they will be a fairly marginal voice. However, if there is no such deal the features of Brexit I’ve just described, which have always been present and periodically revealed, are going to take centre-stage in a pre-Brexit election.
This will most obviously take the form of vicious accusations against the EU – and Germany and Ireland in particular – for having supposedly sabotaged a deal. If the Conservatives go into an election having been forced to seek an extension and campaigning on a no-deal Brexit platform, this will be an obvious line for them to take. Apart from needing to do so in the hope of seeing off the Brexit Party, it is only by whipping up such war sentiment that they might hope to get a degree of acceptance for the war-like privations of no-deal Brexit if they were to win.
That will be bad enough, especially for EU nationals in the UK, but it will be far worse than that. As well as stoking up ideas of the EU as an external enemy there will be an intensification of the ‘enemy within’ rhetoric, already presaged by the idea of a ‘people versus parliament’ election. Again, that has been present from the very outset, in the Brexit McCarthyism directed at remainers in general, civil servants, many MPs, judges, and so on. The low point, probably, was the toxic ‘enemies of the people’ headline and the mood it created but it could go much lower than that.
No doubt first in line will be judges again. This week’s judgment in the Scottish courts further tightened the vice that the Benn Act has put on the government, forcing it to seek an extension from the EU in the absence of a deal by 19 October (on which day Parliament will sit in an emergency session). Even if there is an attempt to flout the promises made to the court by the government to comply with the Act then an immediate court order will follow on 21 October which, it seems certain, would enforce those promises. (For a proper explanation of this week’s cases and what they mean, see this article by the incomparable legal comentator David Allen Green🔒. The key extract from it is available out of paywall via the previous link in this paragraph).
Cue the script that has already been written: we were ready to honour our promises, and take the country out of the EU with no deal on the last day of October but we were thwarted by parliamentary trickery, remainer saboteurs, and Establishment judges. Vote for us to put them in their place once and for all, and let us finish the job.
A viable strategy?
Yet there are grounds for doubting it will succeed as an electoral strategy. Assume no deal has been reached, the EU has granted an extension and an election takes place, perhaps in early December. To make their narrative work Johnson-Cummings will want to run on a no-deal platform, but there are already signs that this will provoke a significant revolt amongst Tory MPs🔒 and, in response, Johnson has apparently ruled it out🔒. If so (a big problem here being that Johnson constantly and incontinently lies, so there is no way of knowing if such statements are true), then the Tories will haemorrhage votes to Farage, without necessarily leading to the Brexit Party gaining any seats but rendering Tory marginal very vulnerable. Farage will in any case capitalise on the fact that Brexit had not occurred on 31 October, whatever Johnson’s insistence that this was not his fault.
Additionally, the populist rhetoric of ‘the people’ has a limited purchase precisely because it is rhetoric, and precisely because it is populist in claiming the people to be an undifferentiated and unified body. Since the reality is that the people are as divided as parliament over Brexit then, as Anthony Wells of YouGov pollsters points out, “the characterisation of the situation as People versus Parliament doesn’t really stand up”. Actually, one could argue that the present Parliament does its job of representing the people, precisely because it is as split as they are.
Nor can it be assumed that voters will regard him as being on the side of the people. An IPSOS-MORI survey last week found that, even amongst Leave voters, only 43% thought Johnson ‘more on the side of the British people than the British Establishment’. Indeed, amongst those same Leave voters, Farage only scored 47% on that question.
Perhaps those who aspire to embody the will of the people would do well to heed the words of Bertie Wooster, in P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels, about Roderick Spode, the satirised version of an earlier populist, Oswald Moseley: “the trouble with you, Spode, is that … you hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and imagine that it is the Voice of the People …” (The Code of the Woosters, 1938).
To put that in a different way, populists might reflect on the reporting of John Harris who, in the latest of his commendable attempts to make sense of the political scene by travelling around and talking to people, finds little evidence of the ‘culture war’ they seek to stoke. Indeed, I tend to think – based on nothing but an intuition about my fellow citizens – that the more viciously that Johnson and Farage dial up the rhetoric, the more they will alienate many voters and find themselves competing for an ever-smaller slice of the vote.
But if there’s a deal?
In fact, it is precisely because of the limitations of this electoral strategy that there is some plausibility in the idea that Johnson is ready to make new concessions in pursuit of a deal. With the ‘leave with no deal on 31 October’ route now closed because of the Benn Act and associated court cases, the calculation may be that getting a deal, of whatever sort, and then holding an election is Johnson’s best chance. And, indeed, that is right. He would be quite likely to win such an election. It would certainly be easier to do so campaigning as ‘the man who delivered Brexit’ than as the man who was thwarted from doing so. Not least because it would be the best way of side lining the Brexit Party, which seems to be his main aim.
But there is a nasty sting in the tail of that. For, as I and others have repeatedly said, ‘doing a deal’ is just the beginning of a much longer set of negotiations about future terms. Any ‘relief’ that at least no-deal Brexit has been averted will quickly evaporate. There will still be huge, complex issues to do with trade, security and regulation to be discussed. They, too, will be characterised by the themes of entitlement, bellicosity and victimhood that have pervaded the withdrawal negotiations. There will still be the implicit expectation that Britain has rights above and beyond those of a third country. None of this will become ancient history, for it is hard baked into the next stage of Brexit.
Moreover, consider the massive rows which will erupt if (or when), during the transition period, Britain has to implement some unpopular new EU rule, or is subject to some adverse judgment by the ECJ. Consider also the disillusionment that will accompany the slow-burn economic decline that Brexit will bring, especially for service industries and transnational manufacturing, a topic that has got rather lost in all the attention given to what a deal would mean for the Irish border. And consider, finally, that all this will have been done when opinion polls show a small but clear preference for staying in the EU.
Many reading Friday morning’s papers may be hoping that a deal is about to be done and Brexit will somehow ‘go away’. The former is possible. The latter will not happen.🔷
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