Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on what the Tory promise would mean for Leavers, Remainers, those who are sick of hearing about Brexit, and the country. Plus some comments on the LibDems and Labour.
First published in December 2019.
Whilst the outcome of the election remains unpredictable, there is a clear dividing line between the scenario in which there is a Tory majority and all other scenarios. If there is a Tory majority then, in the words of their endlessly repeated slogan, Britain will “get Brexit done”. More expansively, this week Boris Johnson invited us to “imagine the relief the whole nation will feel if we get Brexit done. Uncertainty ended, investment unlocked, a nation moving forward once again”.
It’s worth taking up that invitation by, indeed, imagining how the nation might feel if Brexit gets done. As a prelude to doing so, it should be clarified that by ‘getting Brexit done’ Johnson means passing the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, perhaps starting the process before Christmas, and leaving the EU on 31 January 2020. Britain would then enter a transition period lasting, in the absence of its being extended, until the end of 2020.
What would have been ‘done’?
This would mark a very important moment, which Remain-inclined voters should take full note of. It will be the point at which reversing Brexit becomes impossible. That perhaps goes without saying, but I mention it because I have seen it suggested, usually by Remainers, that revocation would still be an option during the transition period. Unequivocally, it won’t. Thus for those for whom remaining in the EU is their main priority it’s important to understand that this will not happen if the Tories win a majority in the election, and that this is literally the only and last chance they have to prevent Brexit which they can only do by voting in a way that prevents a Tory victory.
“This is literally the only and last chance they have to prevent Brexit which they can only do by voting in a way that prevents a Tory victory.”
For leave voters, they would have got what they wanted. Yet the hard core of them have already been told by Nigel Farage that what Johnson has agreed to isn’t really Brexit. Moreover, throughout the Referendum campaign, for many months afterwards, and even sometimes now, they were given the impression that the negotiations about leaving and about future terms were one and the same thing, and that both would be concluded on the same ‘Brexit day’. Unequivocally, that is not (and was never going to be) true.
Hence, as has been very widely discussed, including in many pieces on this column, if Britain leaves the EU at the end of January 2020 it will not really mean that Brexit has been ‘done’. It will begin a new phase, in which future terms, including future trade terms, are under negotiation and there will be a new kind of potential cliff edge at the end of 2020.
This has been most recently and most cogently explained by Sir Ivan Rogers – who has called just about every aspect of the Brexit saga right – and it is still worth making these points because, although those following Brexit closely already know them, they have not really percolated into the wider public and electoral debate.
What would it mean for those who are sick of hearing about Brexit?
If the Tories win, this lack of understanding is going to lead to some nasty surprises for many voters, most obviously those who, as we are constantly told on media vox pops, just want to hear no more of Brexit. I’m not sure, though, that we should give this sentiment as much respect as many politicians and commentators suggest, at least when it comes, as it often does, from leave voters.
“If the Tories win, this lack of understanding is going to lead to some nasty surprises for many voters.”
After all, we are also constantly told that they knew what they were voting for in 2016. If they did, then they must have known it meant years of Brexit-talk and no respect is due to their complaints now. If they didn’t, then no respect on grounds of knowledge of what it meant is due to their vote then.
At all events, there is going to be plenty more Brexit-talk to come as the internal war within the Tory Party about what Brexit should mean would immediately resume. We know already what the dividing lines are going to be. Some ‘pragmatists’ will be arguing for a Canada Plus Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will mean a degree of services coverage and regulatory alignment; others, the ‘purists’, will argue for a Canada Minus FTA, which will mean basic tariff and quota provisions on goods trade. Additionally and almost immediately – because a decision will be needed by July - there will be a battle between those urging an extension to the transition period and those against, even if this means a WTO Brexit at the end of 2020.
This in turn means that, despite Johnson’s claim, uncertainty will not be over and investment will not be unlocked. Businesses will continue to await the development of the negotiations and even if these travel quickly and in a clear direction, thus reducing or even ending uncertainty, it does not follow that the economic consequences will be positive. As the certainty grows that the terms of trade are going to be inferior, perhaps very substantially inferior, to single market membership then investment will continue to stall and more individuals and businesses will relocate or make their new investments elsewhere. Certainty isn’t in itself a good thing, if what is certain is that the situation is going to be damaging, and so the transition period for many businesses will mean the period in which they can make the transition out of the UK.
“Despite Johnson’s claim, uncertainty will not be over and investment will not be unlocked.”
What would it mean for leavers?
Amongst leave voters there is going to be a mixed reaction to getting Brexit done, in Johnson’s meaning. Some will say, triumphantly, that all the Project Fear doom mongers have been proved wrong. The sky has not fallen in. For, of course, in the transition period nothing much actually changes in terms of day-to-day experiences. Beneath the surface, as has been the case since 2016, the costs will be slowly mounting but not in very obvious ways, at least unless we get towards the cliff edge of 31 December 2020 with, if Johnson keeps his ill-judged manifesto promise, no extension having been sought.
Other leave voters will react in the opposite way, feeling cheated and wondering what has happened to all the great things they were promised. Being out of the EU will not feel any different to being in it. That disillusionment will be exacerbated the first time Britain has to comply with some new EU rule or ECJ ruling into which it no longer has any input. It will be even more intense if Johnson ends up breaking the pledge not to extend the transition period. Yet, if he doesn’t, the damaging effects of not doing so will re-enforce the sense of having been cheated and, no doubt, the belief that all would have been well if only Brexit had been ‘done properly’.
All in all, it’s unlikely that there will be any of the great ‘independence day’ street parties that leavers dreamt of, with the Brexit process dragging on and nothing positive to show for it. And that even as the calls for Scottish independence and Irish unification intensify.
What would it mean for Remainers?
The latter points to the really mendacious and myopic part of Johnson’s formulation: the idea that getting Brexit done, even in the limited sense that he means it, will result in “the whole nation” experiencing it in the same way. A huge number of people will experience 31 January as a day of disappointment, regret and anxiety. For some, it will be far worse - a day of total, unmitigated despair, the end point of all their hopes, and a disaster and tragedy for their country.
Johnson is not even trying to reach out to such people. Yet the reality of Brexit – for all the talk of honouring democracy – is that it will be, perhaps uniquely in modern democratic politics, a complete re-set of national policy undertaken against what, according to the opinion polls for a long time now, the majority of the country actually now wants.
From this perspective, it really is not clear what kind of country Johnson and his party think they will be governing or even if they much care. Yes, they will have won the election but, as the Referendum itself should have showed them, just winning a vote on a particular day is only the beginning. Dragging the whole country to a future most of the population now think ill-advised at best and catastrophic at worst, is not a recipe for a ‘feeling for relief’ nor for creating ‘a nation moving forward’.
“It really is not clear what kind of country Johnson and his party think they will be governing or even if they much care.”
This is all the more true in the very peculiar circumstances of Brexit because, as the demographics of the Referendum vote and the statements of various representative bodies show, leaving the EU was generally not the choice of the economically active, of business people, of professionals, of the scientists and the entrepreneurs, of the TUC, of civil society bodies, and so on. Of course these can all be derided as “the elite” and, of course, in a democracy no one’s vote should count more than anyone else’s. But in the situation of trying to forge a post-Brexit future it might be considered prudent to try to bring such people with you. In any case, the majority of Scotland and Northern Ireland Referendum voters can hardly be dismissed as the elite, and no accommodation has been sought with those, either.
What would the post-Brexit plan be?
I still believe that this could – with skilled leadership - have been possible, post-referendum, with a soft Brexit policy, but it is now too late for that and Johnson shows no interest in even attempting it. One consequence of that has been the hardening of Remainer and Leaver positions, and the growing sense of a country divided in new, or newly visible, ways (as one shouldn’t indulge the fantasy that, pre-referendum, all was harmony). Brexit has never been a strategic project, but the consequences of pursuing it have thrown up strategic problems, not just of economy and geo-politics but of culture and identity.
I’ve written before about how the most remarkable thing about the Brexit election is how little is being said about Brexit. More specifically, it’s remarkable how little is being said about life after Brexit if, indeed, the Tories are about to ‘get it done’ (Labour’s push last week on what a US trade deal might mean for the NHS attempted to open up one strand of this, but it did not lead the Tories to give any details of their plans, just to the denial that they would involve the NHS). Their manifesto, as many have observed, is bland and almost content-free, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that “as a blueprint for five years in government the lack of significant policy action is remarkable”.
Not only that, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a party conduct a general election campaign in such a low-key way. As during the party leadership contest, Johnson is scarcely visible - despite his much-vaunted campaigning skills – and has pulled out of several events, including the Channel 4 climate debate and even his own constituency hustings. At the time of writing it is unclear whether he will agree to be interviewed by Andrew Neil – widely seen as the most challenging set piece political interview for the party leaders.
With the partial exception of Michael Gove, the Tory front bench are virtually absent. Often news programmes announce that no Conservative spokesperson is available to appear. Last Monday morning, the day after the Tory manifesto launch, Nicky Morgan was fronting the media coverage – not with great success it has to be said – and she isn’t even a candidate in the election. And where is Jacob Rees-Mogg, for the last three years so ubiquitous in the TV studios that it sometimes seemed he had his own chair? Perhaps he is judged too toxic, especially following his Grenfell remarks, but it a strange kind of politician who does not come out in public when up for election.
So in the absence of both a substantive manifesto and campaign providing a compelling and inclusive plan to do so, Johnson’s talk of “a nation moving forward” post-Brexit might better be described in Tacitus’s line ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Johnson and Rees-Mogg, possessed of the classical education that they and sycophantic cap-doffers like Andrew Bridgen mistake for intellectual accomplishment, would have no difficulty in translating: they make a desert and they call it peace.
What are the alternatives?
It’s reasonable to ask, given that it’s an election, what the alternatives are. The situation for the other parties – apart from the Brexit Party, which has faded into near irrelevance – is, of course, different in that they, unlike the Tories, are not making the ‘get Brexit done’ on 31 January promise. Of these, the SNP have a clear Brexit policy which is consistent with the way Scotland voted in the Referendum, but of course do not contest seats across the whole of the UK. Those parties that do have a national presence have their own problems in terms of what would come after enacting their Brexit policies.
The LibDem policy to revoke Article 50 – let’s call it ‘get Brexit undone’ – were they to win a majority suffers the obverse problem to that of the Tories. I argued in an earlier piece (which attracted much criticism from LibDem readers) that this is a misguided policy, in part just for the tactical reason that being questioned about it gets in the way of getting their message across. At the same time, it bestows no real benefit because the LibDems hardly have to prove their Remainer credentials and everyone knows they won’t have the majority under which the policy would be operationalised anyway.
Because of its problems, this week there have been signs of moving this policy backstage but, formally, it remains in place. And, just as Tories have nothing to say to Remainers, the revoke policy says nothing about what stake Leave voters are supposed to have in the post-revocation settlement.
I don’t mean by that to invoke the spectre of a nation ‘exploding’ (as suggested by the ludicrous Mark Francois), with riots on the streets and Nigel Farage donning khaki and taking up arms. I just mean that, like it or not, over half of our fellow-citizens voted in 2016 to leave the EU. What are they supposed to do if it is cancelled by fiat? Just ‘suck it up’, as Remainers were so insultingly told to do after the Referendum? Some kind of legitimate process is needed to stay in the EU, and some kind of accommodation or reconciliation process needed to make that durable.
An irritated tweet in response to my previous post suggested that nothing of this sort was needed since not leaving the EU is simply to continue with the status quo. That is, at best, a naïve sentiment. It’s true that had the Referendum been won by Remain then that would have been very different to Leave having won because it would just have continued the status quo – and that’s important in relation to the (also naïve) argument from Brexiters that they would have accepted a Remain victory, so Remainers should accept a Leave victory. But, since Leave won, annulling Brexit now with no further referendum would not revert to the status quo of 2016, it would simply ignore that which had unsettled the status quo. I think that it’s a morally indefensible position but, even if I’m wrong about that, it’s a politically indefensible one, as Jo Swinson is finding.
“Since Leave won, annulling Brexit now with no further referendum would not revert to the status quo of 2016, it would simply ignore that which had unsettled the status quo.”
As for Labour, having made a total hash of their positioning ever since the referendum – and, had they not, both they and the country would be in better situation now – they have lighted on a policy which in the current context makes a degree of sense. It is certainly the only one which offers any possibility of the “nation moving forward”. It offers the possibility of the kind of consensual Brexit that the Tories could have created, along with the referendum that might legitimately put a stop to Brexit altogether.
Clearly another referendum won’t, in itself, repair the divisions caused by the first one. It’s just the least-worst way of beginning to do so. But, equally clearly, there are no good options now for how to resolve this, only various shades of bad.
Similarly, in my previous piece I advocated that Corbyn, himself, would be wise to adopt the ‘neutral’ stance in any such referendum which, a few hours later, he did (I claim no causal link between these things!). And although he has taken a beating for that stance, remember that he was already taking a beating for his previous refusal to say, either way, what he would support and that would have intensified if he had stuck to it.
In general terms, given that he would get flak anyway, it’s better to do so for holding a better position and, if he were to become Prime Minister, he would at least avoid Cameron’s fate in the event of a future referendum. The reality is that he has left it far too late, and faffed around far too much, for any position he takes to be truly credible. But, as the political cliché has it, we are where we are.
What’s the choice?
Which brings us full-circle to the election choice, a choice in which it’s important to remember that, as Brendan Donnelly of The Federal Trust has written this week, “not all outcomes are equally bad”. Because this column is solely concerned with Brexit I make no comment at all on the political parties or their policies with respect to anything other than Brexit. But with respect to Brexit, the choices are clear for voters whose main priority is to remain in the EU.
In whatever constituency they live, they need to vote for whoever is most likely to beat the Tory candidate. There are multiple tactical voting websites, but a very useful new resource is Jon Worth’s blog which overviews all of them. If they do this, even if it means gulping hard – and there are sound moral reasons for doing so – and voting for a party they detest, they will wake up on 13 December with the possibility of remaining in the EU. If they don’t, perhaps because they couldn’t make that gulp, they’ll wake up on 13 December with no hope at all of remaining in the EU.
For Leavers, the choice, strangely enough, is in a certain way more difficult. However they vote, they won’t get what they were promised in 2016. It was all lies, unfortunately. Including the latest and biggest lie – and it’s hardly the first time in history it’s been told – that it will all be over by Christmas. Whatever happens, it won’t be.🔷
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