We had Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit”. And then the aggressive “Get Brexit Done” rallying call from Boris Johnson and former adviser Dominic Cummings.
The dog-whistle politics of the Brexiters has often seemed menacing. One thing is for sure: this folly has not been short on vacuous statements. Or on sloganeering, rhetoric, banality, and intolerance.
There was, of course, no feedback from the ballot box on just what type of Brexit the Leavers, who won a narrow majority in the UK but were well behind in Scotland, might want. The question was not asked.
The truth of the matter, as more people are realising now, is there were many possible forms of Brexit. This is crystal clear for example in the utter shambles to which exporters in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK are being subjected – as a direct result of the form of departure chosen by the Conservatives.
A large-scale survey by British Chambers of Commerce, published yesterday, has revealed 49 per cent of UK exporters are facing difficulties with changes to trade in goods with the European Union arising from Mr Johnson’s hard Brexit. Many of the respondents were small and medium-sized businesses. And British Chambers warned that, for some firms, the concerns were “existential”.
This week we have heard Michael Gove, who as Minister for the Cabinet Office has been responsible for Brexit “planning”, calling for a “reset” in relations with the EU and a refinement of the deal in relation to trade with Northern Ireland.
Michael Gove Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
The EU has signalled no great appetite to revisit what was tortuously negotiated. This is easy to understand. After all, it was explained in no uncertain terms to the Tory Brexiters what they were getting themselves into by following their chosen, separatist path. Foolish views about British exceptionalism on the part of the Brexiters have no bearing on reality on this front.
The Tory Brexiters made their own bed. The great pity is that it is others – many, many thousands of businesses and millions of households – who are having to lie in it and pay the price for this ideological crusade. They will continue to have to do so over the years and decades ahead as things stand.
The portrayal by the Tories of their divisive Brexit as a black-and-white thing, deliberately or otherwise, obscured the fact that there were many possible forms of leaving the EU (a departure which was of course an extremely bad idea in the first place). And the Tory Brexiters –it is important to remember some prominent Conservatives stood firmly against the folly at key moments – were able to make hay out of the division created. There was talk from some Brexit zealots about those who opposed what was happening being “traitors”, as Tory ministers banged on about the “will of the British people”.
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Of course, there were also the myriad false claims from the Leave camp, which painted a picture of sunlit uplands and a truly mighty Blighty, ahead of the 2016 referendum. Many people were hoodwinked then, and have been since.
Former prime minister Mrs May, installed to implement Brexit after predecessor David Cameron flew the coop in the wake of defeat in a referendum he should never have called, swiftly decided Brexit meant leaving the single market and the customs union. The arch-Brexiters were, of course, looking over her shoulder all the while.
This decision ruled out the least-damaging form of Brexit, for the economy, businesses, households and living standards. Remaining in the single market would have preserved frictionless trade, the huge benefits of which are being demonstrated on a daily basis now we do not have it. And it would have enabled continuation of free movement of people between the UK and EU member states, and all the consequent economic benefits of strong net immigration to a country with an ageing population.
In any normal situation, it would be a strange move indeed to rule out the least-bad option before negotiations even got under way in earnest. Of course, in the febrile atmosphere in which arch-Brexiters were pumped up by their narrow referendum victory, Mrs May’s call was at once demoralising and no surprise at all.
Theresa May Picture: PA Wire
Of course, things went from very bad to even worse.
The arrival of Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings (who stepped down after the die was cast on Brexit), and the packing of the Cabinet with hard-line arch-Brexiters saw a further deterioration in relations with our long-suffering EU neighbours.
Crucially, aside from the drama of the negotiations, what became increasingly evident in the statements after each round of Brexit talks was that the Johnson administration was wilfully pursuing the hardest form of departure.
There was, of course, a minor risk of a no-deal scenario but, while it was important to be alert to that hazard and its consequences and businesses and individuals are to be commended for flagging the dangers, it never looked that likely. You began to wonder a bit as deadline after deadline was missed. But deadlines had proved transient in the past.
Of course, the deal versus no-deal focus again directed attention away from the fact there were many possible forms of Brexit.
Which brings us to the one the Johnson Government chose – a departure in which the UK shunned regulatory alignment (having of course long decided to leave the single market and clamp down on immigration, the big dog-whistle topic in the referendum).
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The statements from both sides on regulatory alignment, notably EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s emphasis of the importance of a level playing field and harmonised standards, might have seemed to the Brexiter in the street to be a bit dull. Some Leavers might have viewed Mr Barnier’s input as big words from the EU to be shot down by their mighty, Brexiting Government.
However, the wisdom of all the warnings from the EU side has in fact become ever clearer since the transition period, which had protected the UK from the actual effects of departure following its technical Brexit on January 31 last year, ran out at the end of 2020. Of course, the EU offered the UK Government the chance to extend the transition period amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Johnson administration refused.
The simple truth is the UK signed up for some very big negative Brexit effects.
What we are seeing is, for the most part, not in any way teething problems. It is the manifestation of the new arrangements embraced so enthusiastically by the Johnson Government.
Mr Johnson was like the Cheshire Cat when he presented his Brexit deal on Christmas Eve. He has talked about having cake and eating it. What we are witnessing now is the sour, bitter reality of his deal.
Dominic Cummings Picture: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire
This week we have read of lobster and crab exporter Sam Baron winding up family business Baron Shellfish – a decision he has said is “all Brexit-related”.
The Scottish seafood industry’s exporting to the EU has meanwhile been hammered by Brexit.
The Johnson Government has had to launch a £23 million scheme to compensate businesses exporting fish and shellfish for Brexit-related losses. Inadequacies in the operation of this scheme have already been highlighted by Donna Fordyce, chief executive of industry body Seafood Scotland, and these must be addressed.
More broadly, the existence of such a compensation scheme is interesting in that it is a long-overdue acknowledgement of major problems from a UK Government that has at best long buried its head in the sand over Brexit effects.
It is crucial, amid the turmoil, that those on the front line of the Brexit catastrophe continue to highlight the problems. Who knows if there is any way of fixing them but members of the UK Government, which is fuelled by Brexit ideology, should do those affected by their folly the courtesy of listening to what has happened as a result of their actions, and help those who are paying the price.
James Withers, head of industry body Scotland Food & Drink, has done well in flagging the issues relentlessly, on behalf of big numbers of exporters north of the Border affected by the Tory Brexit circus.
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And he got to the crux of the matter this week.
Mr Withers tweeted: “UKGov’s decision to oppose alignment on standards in the Brexit deal was a huge mistake. In doing so, we (not the EU!) chose to erect much larger trade barriers. The frightening question is, why?”
We also had a report from Bloomberg this week that the UK will not publish an impact assessment of its trade deal with the EU, even though it has done so for other agreements.
This is unacceptable but, of course, we can always look back to the November 2018 forecasts of the Theresa May government.
These showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK GDP in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries. The Tories have since clamped down on immigration, a move celebrated by a delighted Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The refusal of the Johnson administration to tell us what it thinks the impact of its Brexit will be really says it all. It is dispiriting but not at all surprising. In any case, we can all see what the Johnson hard Brexit has resulted in on the ground, and British Chambers of Commerce’s survey highlights in no uncertain terms the widespread effects. What is more, it is telling Mr Gove is clamouring for a “reset”.
The Brexit of Johnson, Gove, Cummings et al has, of course, always been all about ideology. Never about the economy, businesses or living standards of the population at large.