Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on the significance of Johnson’s “don’t mention Brexit” edict, some realities of the talks to come, and the gamble that people will forget all the promises made.


First published in January 2020.


It’s difficult to know whether to regard Boris Johnson’s reported ban on Ministers and officials using the word Brexit after 31 January as sinister or silly – or perhaps both. But it is a helpful reminder of the dishonesty and chicanery that the Brexit process is going to continue to embody in the coming months. More profoundly, it symbolises how those months are going to entail a battle between remembering and forgetting.

New lies for old

At the most obvious level, the idea of not mentioning Brexit after 31 January is part of the more general smokescreen to pretend that, on this date, it will be “done”. In the same way, and according to the same reports, there are to be no further official references to negotiating a deal with the EU. For, according to the new scripture, the ‘deal’ has already been done – it is the Withdrawal Agreement – and so the negotiation of future terms cannot be referred to in this way.

“The idea of not mentioning Brexit after 31 January is part of the more general smokescreen to pretend that, on this date, it will be “done”.”

It’s a transparent ploy, in itself, but it is also the offspring of some older lies. For Brexiters, including at one time Johnson, used to believe, or pretend to believe, that both exit terms and future terms could be wrapped up within the Article 50 period. Indeed, many Brexiters, including at one time Johnson, used to say that exit terms – and especially the financial settlement - should not and need not be agreed until future trade terms had been. All of these claims were always untrue. So now the inconvenience of these old lies is to be covered over with a new one: that there is only one deal to do, and it has been done.

The announcement that DExEu is to close on the same date is presumably intended to communicate the same message. However here, at least, there is a more charitable interpretation which is that, as a piece of government machinery, it was always misconceived and, in particular, created crossed chains of command with Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Notably, the Institute for Government has argued since 2016 that it should not have been created. More recently IfG’s Joe Owen has made the case for closing it now but notes that, of course, this does not mean – as the announcement might be taken to imply – that the amount of civil service effort needed to deliver Brexit has reduced.

A policy with no purpose

But banning the Brexit word has a deeper significance, too, and one which I think historians will find both interesting and perplexing. For it is an extension of something which has been underway almost since the Referendum result itself. Few, if any, of the original advocates of Brexit any longer make any case for it being a good thing in its own terms, or, in any specific way, as having any beneficial outcomes.

Under Theresa May, there was a palpable sense that she was enacting a policy she knew to be damaging and that her task was to achieve what damage limitation she could – the scope for which she almost entirely closed down by virtue of her Lancaster House speech. Brexiters chalked this miserabilism up to her remainer negativity, but they, too, have ceased to claim any great benefits for Brexit.

During the election campaign, and now, Johnson has talked only of ‘getting it done’ in order to be able to focus on the people’s priorities. That very formulation at least implies that getting Brexit done is not one of those priorities, and the policies of NHS and infrastructure spending and so on that he claims to be the priorities could all be done, and be more easily done, without Brexit happening at all.

So, for many months now, the only argument made for Brexit is that it must be done because that was the outcome of the Referendum vote. For some, perhaps, that argument does over-ride all others, to the extent of thinking that even if it is a bad thing in itself it must be done for reasons of trust or democratic legitimacy. Yet – even if those were good arguments – it is strange that its most prominent campaigners no longer make any other case, and that this case is only one of avoiding the negative consequences of not proceeding rather than identifying the positive consequences of doing so. Why on earth would we not mention it, indeed why would we not take every opportunity to trumpet it, if it is such a wonderful thing?

Johnson’s New Year message

In this sense, the edict not to mention Brexit, despite it only being halfway to completion, links to Johnson’s New Year message calling for everyone to unite together and move forward from the divisions of the Referendum. Both are suggesting that we all simply shrug our shoulders and forget the promises that were made for Brexit, the damage it has already done, the damage it has still to do, and, indeed, all the decisions that have still to be made.

It’s as if it were an embarrassing episode at the Christmas office party that it would be bad taste to remind anyone of in the new year. That would be absurd enough, but when the message comes from the person who – metaphorically speaking – was caught photocopying his buttocks and who – literally speaking – is the boss it is at best self-serving and at worst an abuse of power.

The important question is how realistic is this strategy? People – and it is probably most people – may be heartily sick of the divisions and problems that Brexit has caused, but they aren’t all going to simply forget about them. Johnson has conducted his whole career, and, it seems, much of his personal life, on the basis of creating a colossal mess and then avoiding all responsibility for it. But Brexit is far, far bigger than any of his previous messes and he’s not easily going to be able to shrug it off and walk away, which both the B-word edict and the New Year’s message suggest he is going to attempt to do.

“Johnson has conducted his whole career, and, it seems, much of his personal life, on the basis of creating a colossal mess and then avoiding all responsibility for it.”

The bigger part of that strategy is, presumably, going to be to try to keep the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU as secretive as possible and, also, to make them seem entirely boring and technical, and hope that no one pays too much attention. That means the electorate, of course, but also the more extreme of his backbenchers. That may have some hope of success – some electors in any case believe that Britain left the EU in 2016, others will be happy enough to think that it was done on 31 January. And no doubt there will be many in the pro-Brexit press who will acclaim any trade deal, even a minimal one, as a great triumph.

Meanwhile, ongoing news of company relocations or disinvestments will be explained away as ‘nothing to do’ with the thing we no longer mention. In any case, since little will change in the transition period it will be easy to claim that Brexit has been ‘done’ without the adverse effects predicted by the ‘doomsters’. Subsequent to that, such effects will be dismissed as due to other causes since they came so long after Brexit was ‘done’.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the coming period is that whilst declaiming a future in which Britain’s potential will be “unleashed” – by implication because of ‘casting off the shackles’ of EU membership – behind the scenes what will probably be going will be a slow drip-feed of measures to re-attach the UK to EU systems and processes. An early precedent and template for such an approach can be found in data protection legislation. These measures may not have a high profile and are likely to lie outside of anything specifically identified as trade deal – or, more likely, be about non-trade matters – but will either seek to reproduce, or be inferior or more expensive versions of, existing relationships. To the extent that they are noticed at all, people will wonder what the point is; more likely, Johnson is gambling on them being too arcane to attract much interest.

Confronting realities

Even so, in important ways, the coming year is going to see Johnson forced to confront many of the realities which he has either denied or been ignorant of, and that will be true no matter how many of the officials and politicians involved are ‘true believers’. To an extent that has already started in that, mercifully, we no longer hear anything of the alternative arrangements for the Irish border nor the GATT Article XXIV nonsense. But there is much more reality to come.

In particular, the underlying confusions which gave rise to all the ‘easiest deal in history’ claims are going to be ruthlessly exposed. Such claims – made at various times by Liam Fox, David Davis, Peter Lilley, and Johnson himself – are based, when they are based on anything other than windy chauvinism, on the idea that the UK is already completely aligned with the EU, and therefore a trade deal will be easy.

That is a proposition which resolutely refuses to accept that as a consequence of Brexit, the UK, even in the transition period, will be a third country with respect to the EU. So it is not that the current membership terms are the baseline for negotiation, to be subtracted from. Rather – as regards trade – WTO terms are the baseline to which things might be added by negotiation. There is not a special ‘alumni club’ for ex-members of the EU.

It’s true, as EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said the other day, that the fact of current convergence and integration could make a close relationship easy. But that is only so if the desired outcome is convergence and integration. Since, as Hogan went on to say, the UK desire is apparently for divergence then current convergence is not helpful at all. In reality, this just amounts to a reprise of the Barnier staircase: for as long as UK red lines over, in particular, the ECJ and freedom of movement continue, then that circumscribes what kind of deal can be done. If the UK adds, as it has under Johnson, new red lines over level playing field commitments, that makes any deal more minimal still.

It is here that Johnson will confront the biggest difficulties in his ‘don’t mention Brexit’ strategy. If he holds firm to seeking only a very minimal trade deal, there is going to be a lot of economic fallout. If he does not, then there will be a lot of political fallout. If either of those things happen, then Brexit will certainly continue to be at the forefront of public debate, and the claim that it has ‘been done’ will ring hollow.

Brexit talks to continue …

In this sense, as noted in a recent piece on this column, the underlying dynamics of Brexit will not change after 31 January as regards the contradictions and conundrums of what it means for the UK. Yet, in another sense, there will be a change as regards the dynamics between the UK and the EU. During the Article 50 negotiations, Brexiters repeatedly spoke of how ‘EU negotiations’ always go to the last minute of the last hour. In this, they failed to see the difference between, for example, treaty negotiations amongst the existing, ongoing member states – with last minute horse-trading to facilitate an agreement - and those between the EU27 and the one, departing, state. The late breakthrough which did happen was simply based on the UK accepting the Irish Sea border that it had previously rejected.

And just as the Article 50 negotiations differed from normal intra-EU negotiations, so too will future terms talks, which will occur under Article 218 which governs EU negotiating rules with third countries, differ from the Article 50 talks*. Amongst other things, depending on the scope of the future terms agreement this will have implications for whether unanimity or qualified majority within the European Council is needed to conclude any agreement reached.

Alongside this difference in legal process, there is a sense that the political priority which Brexit has for the EU – which, except perhaps in the very immediate post-Referendum period was never as all-encompassing as it was for the UK – will diminish further. It will be one amongst many issues which the new EU leadership team face and, necessarily, the UK-EU trade relationship matters far more for the UK, for whom the EU is its largest trade partner, than it does for the EU. If Johnson continues down the track that makes a distant relationship inevitable then, by the same token, it becomes even less salient for the EU. If he changes track, then the compromises the EU will require will loom large. Either way, the realpolitik of the power difference between the EU and the UK will become ever clearer.

And Brexit talk to continue …

For all that the government may not wish the public to notice this, judging by what happened with the Article 50 negotiations there will be plenty of press releases and statements from the EU about how talks are progressing. There is also likely to be plenty of noise from business lobbies in the UK, if a minimal deal is in prospect, and from irate Brexiters if an extensive deal is in prospect. There will be plenty of talk of preparations if no-deal 2.0 is in prospect. And there will certainly be ongoing and intensifying discussions of the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland within the UK.

For all of these reasons, I think it is unlikely that Johnson will achieve his aim of getting the nation to move on from and forget the Brexit that he did so much to cause and is going to spend at least the next year enacting. Apart from anything else, for all his talk of respect and friendship, Johnson is offering no compromise towards Remainers in the form that Brexit is to take. And whilst some – even some who once cared passionately – will no doubt cease to be engaged by or interested in Brexit it remains the case that it is a policy which only ever had a bare majority in support, and that for only a fleeting period of time.

So the idea that it can all be brushed over and forgotten like an ill-advised newspaper column is, surely, naïve? Or, perhaps, to think otherwise is naïve? For Johnson’s hope is presumably that the electorate are ignorant, lazy and forgetful – like all populists he has a low opinion of the people he purports to speak for – and that the post-truth politics that have got him so far will protect him from being held accountable.

“Johnson’s hope is presumably that the electorate are ignorant, lazy and forgetful ... and that the post-truth politics that have got him so far will protect him from being held accountable.”

At all events, the tight rope that Johnson will walk this coming year will be defined by whether people remember what was promised and how false those promises were or whether, as he hopes, they forget and, indeed, ‘move on’, accepting what happens as ‘just the way things are’.

He has already set down the first chips in that cynical gamble. In the coming year, we’ll see whether he is right.🔷


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(*) There is a fiddly complexity here in that Article 50 utilises Article 218 (3) but, for the future terms talks, the entirety of Article 218 applies. There has also been some discussion within legal circles about whether, in fact, future terms negotiations could be conducted under Article 50 rather than under Article 218 – however, the consensus seems to be against this.



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[This piece was originally published on the Brexit Blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 7 January 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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THE AUTHOR

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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.