With Trump and Cummings going the Brexit project is beached on the mudflaps of history, and with its deepest flaws about ‘independence’ ever clearer Boris Johnson can no longer duck the choice of purism or pragmatism, writes Professor Chris Grey.


First published in November 2020.


With Joe Biden’s victory now assured, millions of words have now been written – in the UK, if nowhere else – as to what it means for the US-UK relationship and for Brexit in particular. Of these, I’ve found the analyses of CNN’s Luke McGee, James Kane of the Institute for Government, and Lisa O’Carroll, the Guardian’s Brexit correspondent, especially insightful. There are also some intriguing thoughts about the wider consequences of a Biden presidency, in the form of a Twitter thread, from Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform.

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2016 recedes into history

My own take is that it’s worth taking a step back from Trump’s defeat to recall what his victory in 2016 meant for Brexiters, namely to validate their project as being not an anomaly but as having caught the tide of history.   With the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Brexit’ in the White House, and plucky Brexit Britain at his side, the EU would shortly collapse and a new era would begin. And it’s important to clarify what the Brexiters and Trump shared in their imagination of that new era – it was one of separate nations, unhampered by the constraints of international organizations or multi-lateral agreements, but making bilateral agreements if and when it was in their interests. A US-UK trade deal would be emblematic of how that new world would be, as well as a symbolic affirmation of Brexit itself.

It’s true that Trump’s hostility to NATO, the WTO, the UN, the WHO and so on was never matched, or even shared, by the UK government or by most Brexiters. Indeed, the latter seem to find the prospect of obeying ‘WTO rules’ positively exciting. But they very much shared his vision of the nation state. Ironically, Brexiters failed to appreciate that, by definition, that meant that for all his talk Trump was never going to grant the UK a trade deal on any terms other than his own, and actually he blew hot and cold on the whole idea.   In any case, despite his delusions of grandeur he operated within his own constraints. In particular, it has been plain since at least August 2019 that Congress would not ratify any trade deal if Brexit posed a threat to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Much attention is now focused on the prospects of such a trade deal with Biden’s America, and his own very strong and stated commitment to the GFA. But the more important point is that his election strips away the last vestige of Trump’s 2016 boost for Brexit. The EU has manifestly not collapsed and is not going to, there is no sign of any other member wanting to follow the sorry path of Brexit, and the populist wave has not triumphed.   And of course all the predictions of how as ‘the fifth largest economy’ the UK ‘held all the cards’ in delivering Brexit have long ago been discredited.

Now, there will be a US administration strongly committed to the EU and more generally to multi-lateralism and international co-operation. It’s only necessary to read Nigel Farage’s snivelly lament for the hours he spent in Trump Tower to see how fatally isolated the Brexit project now is.   That sense is compounded by the emerging news of the departure of Dominic Cummings and the rest of the Vote Leave team from Downing Street. Far from having caught the tide of history it is now beached on the mudflats of a failed international putsch, the ghastly remnants of an experiment that has gone so horribly wrong that government ministers are supposed to no longer refer to it by name.  

Can the government recognize what’s changed?

So the question now is whether the UK government recognizes all this or whether it is so captured by Brexiter ideology as to be incapable of doing so. As it happens, there is a very precise litmus test immediately available to answer that question in the form of the Internal Market Bill (IMB) or more specifically those clauses relating to Northern Ireland which, on the government’s own admission, would be in violation of international law. If the government persists this will make not just a trade deal but harmonious relations with the US generally impossible, as it will with the EU.

It is increasingly clear that this is not simply because of what the effects on the GFA might be but also, more broadly, because of the disdain of the EU and, now, the US for Johnson’s brazen disregard for international law even if the GFA isn’t damaged. In that sense it is irrelevant whether the IMB clauses do or – as can certainly be argued – don’t in themselves threaten the GFA, or even whether or not they are ever invoked. What matters is simply their existence if they are passed into law. Comments this week from both Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, and US Congressman Brendan Boyle underline this. For both, the key issue is the betrayal of trust over an agreement so recently signed by the UK government.

Sovereignty and independence in an interdependent world

This in turn goes to the heart of the inadequacy of the Brexiter understanding of what ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ mean, which seems to be one of untrammeled freedom of action. On the one hand, this is what led them to believe, as no other EU member does, that being in the EU meant not being an independent and sovereign state (a lie nailed by the very first Brexit White Paper in February 2017, which stated that “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU”). On the other hand, it led them to think that as an ‘independent’ country the UK can operate without constraints.

This was the gist of Suella Braverman’s advice that the IMB was legal: “Parliamentary supremacy means it is entirely constitutional and proper for Parliament to enact legislation, even if it breaches international treaty obligations. It also permeates Johnson’s negotiating position with the EU within which the idea of being ‘sovereign equals’ translates into the accusation of ‘bad faith’ if the EU doesn’t give the UK exactly what it wants. It even drizzles right down the food chain to the boorish antics of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament, as if ‘independence’ is a licence to ridicule and insult others.

The way the Brexit Ultras think about independence was well-illustrated last week by Iain Duncan Smith’s insistence that Brexit has nothing to do with the US because “we are a sovereign nation” as if this precluded the US – also a sovereign nation, after all – from taking its own view of Brexit. In a similar vein was John Redwood’s letter to Joe Biden (draft text here), which can be read as “a warning” to the President-elect to recognize the significance of the UK “becoming a truly independent nation again”.

Despite insisting that the UK will uphold the GFA (and, following the bizarre new line of Brexiters, that it is the EU that threatens it), it is clear that Redwood does not understand the Biden concerns about the IMB and, from his tweets, that he doesn’t accept that it breaks international law. Instead, he waves the size of the 2016 leave vote as if it had any significance now that Britain has left the EU, and as if it provided an alibi for Britain to conduct itself however it wants. That vote is all they now have, since they are incapable of identifying what benefits this ‘independence’ has, what they actually want to do with it, or how it can possibly justify the mounting damage it is causing (for which, see the latest updates to Yorkshire BylinesDigby Jones Index).

‘So what?’ would be an obvious reaction and, presumably, that of the third assistant letter-opener to the Biden junior staffer who is most likely the closest person to him to read it (although, that said, it is unlikely, along with the Foreign Secretary’s equivocation, the Prime Minister’s terse – and botched – congratulations and the putrid tweet of some previously obscure peer that got reported in the US, to have done anything to endear the UK to the incoming President).

But, unfortunately, we in this country are obliged to take notice of Redwood, Duncan Smith and their fellow ERG backwoodsmen since they continue to exert a grip upon our politics.   Indeed, to read Redwood’s letter one could be forgiven for thinking that he spoke for the British government, rather than being a mildly eccentric backbencher who has not held ministerial office for 25 years. So their understanding of what ‘independence’ means matters.

And it is an understanding based on fantasy. The real world is an interdependent one, in which nations face constraints, their actions have consequences and, indeed, they must reckon with the sovereignty of others. Even if the formal enforcement mechanisms of international law and of international agreements are relatively weak, the realpolitik is that other countries, especially those with which you want to do deals, have ways of showing their displeasure. At the other end of the scale, behaving insultingly to other countries does not make them admire your independence of action but reduces their respect for, and goodwill towards, you.

Boris Johnson’s government is going to have to decide whether to prioritise the purism of this ersatz independence above pragmatic reality. | Flickr – Number 10

Same old issue: purism vs pragmatism

So in the coming days, even hours, Johnson’s government is going to have to decide whether to prioritise the purism of this ersatz independence above pragmatic reality and, in a way, that is just the latest version of the choices Brexit Britain has faced all along. And, as has also always been the case, the answer lies in the internal battles of the Tory Party. In general, these have always pushed the government towards purism – the main, almost the sole, exception having been when Johnson agreed his deal which, awful as it was, was more pragmatic than no (withdrawal) deal at all.

But the political circumstances are very different now. Johnson was far more popular and powerful within his own party, and the Brexiters had glimpsed the possibility of losing Brexit altogether. So they supported a deal they hated and which they have since sought to repudiate. Now, he is beleaguered on every front, especially because of Covid-19, his inner team is in disarray, and his backbenchers are in a febrile and rebellious mood. The Brexiters have got Brexit – there is no going back on that – and no longer have the fear of losing it, and many would be happy with a no (trade) deal outcome. So if Johnson moves to do a deal with the EU they are likely to strike. It’s true that their parliamentary scope to derail it is fairly limited, but they have other weapons, most potently that of challenging his leadership, something which is already rumoured in any case.

Yet pragmatism suggests that if Johnson wants to avoid quite serious international isolation he will need to do a deal with the EU – it will be a thin deal, though potentially could develop into something more extensive in the future – both for its own value and as a way of aligning with Biden’s wider agenda. To do so will entail not only U-turning on IMB but also offering substantive concessions to the EU on one or all three of fisheries, subsidies and governance. And it can’t be assumed that the concessions the EU will seek will be unchanged by events. After all, just as the Biden presidency leaves the UK isolated so too does it strengthen the EU.

Some regard it as inevitable that he will now do a deal, although the apparent insistence on retaining the offending clauses of the IMB, even though their rejection by the House of Lords provided a ready get out, suggests otherwise. As Peter Foster, writing in the FT, suggests it would be wrong to “underestimate the emotional attachment of Mr Johnson and his inner Brexit circle” to the clauses as “a vital assertion of British sovereignty”. But with that inner Brexit circle now dissolving, as Cummings and Cain depart, does that mark a shift away from their purism making a deal more likely – or even, as some rumours suggest, does it arise from that shift having happened – or will no deal be the last hurrah of their final weeks in power? What, if anything, is the significance of the rumours that David Frost was about to resign but that he has now decided not to?

The deep roots of Brexit’s failure

My own view is still that even now it is impossible to predict which way Johnson will go, and pointless to try not least given the chaos of his administration. But clearly the IMB issue is going to come to a head very soon – the negotiations as a whole are going to the wire as 19 November seemed to be the absolute deadline. When it does, whatever the outcome, it will represent the latest episode in one of the deepest flaws in the Brexiters’ entire project. For as Jon Worth outlines in detail in an excellent blog last week the IMB mess arises from the Brexit Ultras’ refusal to accept or even to understand the ‘trilemma’ posed for (hard) Brexit by Northern Ireland (see also this explanation from law Professor Phil Syrpis).

At root, that comes from an even deeper failure, as outlined in my blog post of March 2017, to understand the nature of borders – both why they exist and what is needed to make them disappear. Brexit has been constantly caught on the ‘cakeist’ hook that Brexiters want both to leave all the institutions that make borders disappear whilst refusing to accept that this means that borders must re-appear.

It is, as ever, worth recalling what Boris Johnson, like other Brexiters, had to say about the Irish border when they were selling Brexit to the British people: the situation would be absolutely unchanged.   Even in September 2018 he described the border problem as “a gnat”. He rejected the initial idea of a sea border, rejected May’s backstop arrangements, then signed up to a sea border and has ever since sought to deny the consequences of having done so, with the IMB being the result.   As to what he does now, with no pain-free choices left then as Rafael Behr argues it will simply be a matter of how he calculates he can best avoid blame.

Johnson is Johnson, and bears a heavy responsibility for Brexit. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was one of many leading Brexiters who, orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, cajoled voters into leaving the EU without knowing or caring about what happened to Northern Ireland, to the GFA, and certainly to Ireland. For that matter, they didn’t know or care what Brexit meant for everything from creating customs arrangements to disrupting medical supplies to road haulage to musicians’ tours to financial services to data transfer, police and judicial cooperation to the millions of lives left in limbo, and so much else besides.   They didn’t know or care at the time of the Referendum and, for the most part, they haven’t bothered to find out since. Worse, throughout all these years they have vilified and belittled those who did know and care.

So as Brexit limps on, the unloved orphan of a failing populism, to some kind of resolution of at least what the end of the transition period will mean, we shouldn’t forget the lies shamelessly told, the promises blithely made, and the fears viciously propagated which have brought us to this shambolic point.🔷



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 22 November 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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