First published in November 2020.


The absence in the previous weeks of the sound and fury that has accompanied the Brexit future terms negotiations since the end of the summer holidays might betoken that they are proceeding well. Early last week there were reports of substantive progress on fisheries. Tediously if predictably this was described in the Brexiter press as Michel Barnier ‘caving in’ and “handing” fishermen a “huge boost” but, in line with the general confusion of Brexiter logic, the same paper on the same day disapprovingly described it as a “compromise” between the UK and EU negotiators which will “anger leavers”. It’s an interesting illustration of the impossibility of satisfying Brexiter demands.

On the other hand, suggestions of a fisheries breakthrough were subsequently downplayed, and Barnier himself gave a decidedly downbeat assessment when briefing the European Parliament on the progress of the negotiations on Wednesday, re-iterating the same areas of contention as there have been for months. His remarks were echoed by David Frost. Talks, it seems, will resume but it may be of significance that the European Commission’s new economic forecast assumes there will not be a deal.

So for now the bogus drama of ‘will they or won’t they?’ continues and remains as pointless as ever, as do the breathless faux-scientific assessments that a deal is now ‘X% likely’ and the faux-worldly pronouncements that ‘a last-minute deal was always the plan’ or, with equal certainty, that ‘no deal was always the plan’. It is abundantly clear that there has never been a plan ‘all along’ and very likely that there isn’t one even now.

The pilots in the Brexit flight deck have never been able to agree on their destination and, for that matter, have never qualified for their flying licences. To the extent that there has been a plan, in recent months it appears to have been the belief that the large mountainside to which the plane is heading will disappear at the last moment. And whilst that is hardly a comforting prospect for those of us strapped in the passenger seats, it’s better to be honest about our situation than flatter our leaders by crediting them with a competence, even if a malign competence, that they so manifestly lack.

The US election and ‘Global Britain’

If a last-minute swerve to a deal is in the offing it is at least partly bound up with the outcome of the US presidential election, a victory for Joe Biden, for the largely symbolic reasons discussed in my previous blog post. Indeed many commentators believe it makes a deal with the EU almost certain, since it supposedly makes a UK-US deal less likely (this, according a spectacularly deranged column in the Express, is all ‘remainers’ fault’). If this is so then the important question it gives rise to is what, exactly, the UK will do in order the make a deal happen? Clearly it will be necessary to give ground on at least one of the three issues of fisheries, subsidy policy and governance, and very likely more than one. A further important question is whether there will be time for any deal struck to be ratified by the European Parliament so as to be in place by the beginning of 2021.

That what the UK decides about its relationship with the EU should be contingent upon the decision of the US electorate gives the lie to the naïve ideas of national sovereignty propounded by Brexiters. It also reflects the still unresolved question of what Britain’s post-Brexit geo-political strategy consists of, given that the ‘Global Britain’ slogan remains as meaningless as ever. It can’t just mean rolling over trade agreements that it used to have via the EU, and it surely isn’t compatible with mean-spirited and draconian immigration and asylum systems aimed solely at the Tory electoral base, still less with brazen assertions of the willingness to break international law.

In a select committee appearance last week the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, appears to think that the big advantage of Global Britain being an ‘independent’ state is that it is “now helping set global rules with like-minded democracies”, which she links to the goal of “ultimately” joining “the Trans Pacific Partnership” (sic*). Yet that would be a better description of Britain’s role when a member of the EU than as an aspiring member of a much more limited entity, not least as regards the setting of global regulatory standards, on the other side of the world.

In a typically acute article in The Atlantic last week, Tom McTague posed a series of questions about why the outcome of the US election mattered so much for the UK: “if the election of one president or another is an existential challenge, then perhaps the issue is Britain’s strategy itself. If Britain’s global trade policy is dependent on reaching a deal with the US, then is that strategy wise to begin with? … In the end, all these challenges reveal the essential question that lurks underneath: what kind of country does Britain seek to be?”

Unusually, and surely a considerable feather in McTague’s journalistic cap, this question was taken up in the House of Commons and posed directly to the Defence Secretary who, perhaps unsurprisingly, “did not agree at all” (and, indeed, did not answer at all). Of course that kind of question is, in a strict sense, unanswerable. Countries can’t meaningfully create mission statements in the way that companies do, and even when companies do so they invariably conceal or gloss over disparate and often contradictory realities. And countries, like companies, fall into strategies by virtue of events as much or more than by design.

Even so, it’s a legitimate question in the context of Brexit, which enacted a deliberate rejection of a central anchor of what Britain’s post-imperial, post-war place in the world had become. It wasn’t asked during the Referendum campaign and, four years later, it remains unanswered. At its heart, as I’ve argued before, is how to reconcile Brexit, which was, contradictorily, both a nationalist and a globalist project, with a world which is neither of those things but, instead, regionalised.

Back on the home front: Coronavirus nudging Johnson to a deal?

Global politics aside, domestically the Covid-19 situation also nudges Boris Johnson in the direction of doing a deal with the EU. I started arguing in March, and it is now so obvious as to be a truism, that the politics of Brexit and of the coronavirus pandemic are inextricably bound together. With a second English lockdown now underway, and very widespread criticism of Johnson’s inept handling of the crisis, it’s arguable that he just can’t afford to fail to secure the deal he promised in the election.

The counter-argument, obviously, is that the lockdown would distract attention from no deal but I think that’s less plausible. Apart from the additional trauma it would heap on the economy it would only cement the sense, eloquently described by Rachel Sylvester in The Times last week, of a Prime Minister whose administration was in a downward spiral of failure. Nor would this just be a matter of one disaster on top of another, since both can be seen to flow from the same deficiencies of inane boosterism and an inability to master complex policy detail and, indeed, a pathological aversion to even attempting such mastery. Ultimately, both reflect the inability of Johnson and those around him to meet the challenge of governing rather than campaigning.

But – and it is a big but – this imbrication of Covid-19 and Brexit does not unambiguously make a deal with the EU the path of least resistance for Johnson, which is the path that this most unprincipled and unserious of politicians will invariably seek. Many of those within his own party who are most vociferously opposed to the new lockdown – the Redwoods and Swaynes – are also those most likely to attack any deal which he might strike and, more fundamentally, most likely to see no deal not as a failure but as their desired outcome. Having faced their challenge over the lockdown, he may be less willing to risk doing so over the far more incendiary issue of an EU deal, especially with Farage poised to ginger up opposition on both counts.

A role for Labour?

In this context, the Labour Party’s position becomes important. On lockdown, Johnson was able to defeat his backbench rebels because of Labour support, and their numbers were probably curtailed by the knowledge that this would be so. But will Keir Starmer be so compliant in supporting any deal that may be reached? There are grounds to think not since, political tactics aside, there are good reasons of principle why he should be critical of it. For whilst some may greet any deal with relief it is virtually inevitable now that its terms are going to be fairly thin, and certainly cannot yield anything like the “frictionless trade” that for so long was promised.

It may be said that such promises, which were always nonsense once Theresa May insisted on hard Brexit, have already been abandoned but even without insisting on that as a benchmark any deal will manifestly not be the “super Canada-plus” one Johnson promised during the election either. At the very least, the near abandonment of the services sector by any conceivable free trade agreement ought to be fertile ground for Labour to argue, with complete accuracy, that Britain is going to suffer grievous economic damage. Clearly all of this applies, in trumps, if no trade deal is made.

However, there is a ‘big but’ to this, as well. Starmer has been remarkably – and in my view mistakenly – silent on Brexit since becoming leader. Of course the reasons why are obvious and well-known, and in their own way good. It deprives Johnson of his culture war comfort zone of burbling on about the will of the people, and whipping up his base, and avoids Labour having to confront the divisions amongst its own voters. But whilst that justifies Starmer in not foregrounding Brexit, it makes no sense to treat something so important as totally off-limits.

In particular, Starmer would have been wise to set down a small, quiet marker in the summer that the failure to extend the Transition Period when it was possible was a mistake. For it has now proven to be not just a mistake but a catastrophic error of judgment (and, tactically, saying so would fit well with the Starmer narrative of how such errors have characterised Johnson’s approach to Covid-19).

Even without having done so, and irrespective of whether a trade deal is reached in the coming week or so, the very real problems of the imminent end to transition, now compounded by the lockdown, ought to be meat and drink to the leader of the opposition. I flagged some of these problems in a previous blog post, and did so in more detail in an article in Prospect last week. Without reprising that here, a key point is how the failure to prepare has deep roots right back to the Referendum campaign’s dismissal of all adverse effects of Brexit as Project Fear.

That’s not a point that it would be useful for Starmer, or any other politician, to pursue now because few will care and many will see it as re-litigating the whole Brexit question. Nevertheless, it is one which continues to matter for those of us who are not willing to ignore how the present mess has not just arisen by some quirk of nature as from a blue sky. Rather it grows directly and inevitably out of the grotesque mendacity, ignorance, and irresponsibility of Brexiters going back years. It should never be forgotten or forgiven in the swirl of news about its daily consequences.

A country unprepared

Those consequences continue to be somewhat under the public radar for the time being, mainly eclipsed by coronavirus but also because each in itself can seem trivial or even dull. An example last week is the problem Scottish potato farmers are having in selling their goods to Northern Ireland because of uncertainty about post-Brexit trade rules (and, specifically, the application of phytosanitary rules). It is an instructive example in that in agriculture, as in many other industries, decisions about what to produce and where to place orders are necessarily having to be made now (as they have been for some time). It’s just not viable to continue to insist that businesses need to ‘get ready’ for the end of transition when they already have to make such decisions without knowing what they are facing.

One thing that businesses in Great Britain sending goods to Northern Ireland do know is that they will have to make customs declarations – as many as 30 million a year, it was reported last week. But exactly how this and other aspects of GB>NI and NI>GB trade will actually work remain unclear. The Institute for Government** produced a highly informative report last week, authored by Joe Marshall, Maddy Thimont Jack, Jess Sargeant and Nick Jones, entitled ‘Preparing Brexit. How ready is the UK?’ and they describe the unknowns in some detail. They document how several major decisions about the Northern Ireland Protocol that have still to be made and, as regards GB-NI trade specifically, state that delays in information [have made] it all but impossible for businesses to prepare to date” (p.22).

The report, whilst acknowledging progress that has been made, especially as regards legislation and some regulatory bodies, towards readiness for the end of transition shows that there remain significant gaps. Apart from those relating to Northern Ireland, these are to do with management of the GB-EU border and the preparedness of both businesses and individuals.

Overall, the report concludes that “the UK is still not ready for life outside the EU” (p.50) and makes the important point that the end of the transition period will in no way mark the end of the Brexit process. Whilst the tone is studiously neutral, on my reading (but judge for yourself) this report envisages significant disruption in January and regards the failure to extend the transition period as an error of judgment on the scale I suggested above.

The IfG report is entirely consistent with last week’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on UK border preparedness, which warns of “significant disruption” at the end of the transition period, principally because of inadequate infrastructure and IT systems, as well as lack of business preparation. Again, the lack of clarity about how the Northern Ireland sea border will work is highlighted. The response of a government spokesperson to the NAO report, that the government is running a major information campaign so that individuals and businesses know how “to grasp the new opportunities available as the transition period ends”, can only be the work of a comedian. For there are no ‘new opportunities’, except, perhaps, for smugglers, only new costs and inconveniences.

The insanity continues

And so what in my previous blog post I called the insanity continues. Since then, as anticipated, there is not only the new lockdown in England but also the (sensible) hesitance of the government to say that it will indeed end on schedule at the start of December, which suggests that it may well be prolonged. As even the most hard-pressed of civil servants and business managers can expect to take a Christmas holiday this means the actual time available to prepare for the end of transition is now nugatory. And whilst I have suggested that the Labour opposition could be more vocal in exposing the folly of what is happening, it is not in power.

The ensuing disruption, like the wider economic damage of Brexit, will be squarely attributable to the hubris and incompetence of Johnson’s Brexit government.🔷


(*) She meant the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, as it has been called for over two years. Interestingly, Truss seemed to assume that the US will join it even though this was when there was even less clarity about the election result. Trump, of course, pulled out of the talks for what was to have been the TPP. It has long been touted that the UK sees joining the CPTPP as creating a backdoor route to an agreement with the US if a Biden presidency were to also join. It remains an open question whether any of this will happen.

(**) I often refer to the Institute for Government’s work on this blog and would like to acknowledge, explicitly, just how excellent it is. Throughout the Brexit process the stream of high quality data and analysis its researchers have provided has been truly remarkable and, since it is freely available, a massive public service (and, no, I have no relationship or involvement to disclose).



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


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[This piece was originally published in The Brexit Blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 10 November 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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