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Brexit is for life, not just for Christmas

Monday 7 December 2020

Whether or not we get a deal by the end of year, Britain is now going to enter a state of endless negotiation

First Long Covid, now Long Brexit. Both conditions involve protracted symptoms of depression, palpitations, and, in some cases, irreversible damage. Both deny the afflicted – patient or nation – the sense of release and rejuvenation they hoped for. 

It is almost a year since the Conservatives won a historic general election victory with a single, high-impact promise: to “Get Brexit Done”. As the exhausted negotiators shuttle between London and Brussels in preparation for the meeting of the European Council on Thursday and Friday, much hinges on this evening’s telephone call between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, president of European Commission.

Can the greatest chancer ever to occupy Number 10 pull off a last-minute trade deal in the same flamboyant manner in which he secured the underlying Brexit withdrawal agreement in October 2019?

It matters a great deal that he succeeds. Failure would lead to tariffs, border checks, and nightmarish disruption at ports; the status of aviation would be unclear; new travel restrictions would apply to UK citizens entering the EU, as would mobile phone roaming charges; collaboration in healthcare, research and security would be jeopardised; and the Irish border would become a scene of confusion, commercial chaos and diplomatic tension – especially if the Internal Market Bill, back in the Commons this week, includes the so-called “safety net” clauses enabling UK ministers to breach the Northern Ireland Protocol that is a crucial element of the 2019 withdrawal agreement.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, a no-deal finale to the year’s diplomatic drama would instantly slice 2 per cent off GDP in 2021 – hardly an ideal context for Rishi Sunak’s strategy to repair the Covid-scarred economy.

Yet here is the figure that often gets overlooked: the OBR forecasts a long-run 4 per cent decline in GDP even if Johnson does get a trade deal. In other words, the economic options ahead of the UK appear to be: (a) bad and (b) worse.

This matters enormously because of the way Brexit has been framed since the 2016 referendum. We are habituated to thinking of a choice between “hard” and “soft” versions of departure from the EU, between a sharp breach and continued collaboration. In reality, however, that choice vanished when Johnson became prime minister – perhaps earlier, given the narrowing range of options available to Theresa May. The Brexit choices available today are “hard” and “harder”.

In the past 24 hours, much has been made of the gap between spectacle and reality in the UK negotiating posture. True, Johnson enjoys brinkmanship, and – for entirely practical reasons, related to economic reality – would prefer a deal. But it is a grave error to assume that he and his fellow Brexiteers are bluffing entirely when they say that they could live with a no-deal outcome.

This is because the essence of Brexit has always been divergence – the UK’s ability to set its own laws, regulations and standards as a sovereign nation – and Johnson has often said as much (especially so in private).

Naturally, as a politician whose defining characteristic is a desire to have his cake and eat it, he wants access to the single market without the corresponding responsibility to stick to its rules. He will blag whatever deal he can from the EU, and present it as a triumph. 

But he is perfectly aware of the contradictions inherent in any such pact; and will always reserve the right to renege on its terms, to shift the goal-posts on state aid – government subsidy that could threaten fair competition and trade – and environmental, agricultural, food, social, workplace and other regulations.

In practice, all the talk of a “level playing field” is delusional: the whole point of Brexit has always been to ensure that the field is tilted in Britain’s favour. Otherwise, what was the point of leaving?

In anticipation of such mischief, the EU wants so-called “non-regression” clauses in the deal that will prevent the UK backsliding, and the right to retaliate with sanctions if it does. Which, by the way, is a perfectly rational position for Brussels to adopt. 

Yes, the economic risk of a no-deal outcome weighs heavily with the prime minister. He is fearful, I am told, that posterity (which bothers him a lot) will chalk up such an outcome as a personal failure, and with good reason. Yet it is hugely important not to forget the role that the politics of identity also plays in his deliberations.

For much of the time, Johnson is a cynic, a pragmatist and an extremely adaptable builder of electoral coalitions (compare the formerly liberal mayor of London to the right-wing prime minister who conquered Labour’s “red wall” in December). 

But if there is a governing principle to his politics, it is a belief in British (in truth, mostly English) exceptionalism: a conviction that this country is best when left to its own devices, and that, when it fails, someone else must axiomatically be to blame.

“Let the lion roar,” he told the 2017 Conservative conference. It’s a rousing applause line. But – really – what does it even mean? Such rhetoric is intended to make Britain look big. But it is invariably underpinned by a pinched, mean-spirited perspective upon the world. It is made nonsensical by the contracting horizons of post-Brexit Britain.

As one former Cabinet minister who voted for Johnson in last year’s leadership contest told me: “Somehow, we are getting smaller, when the promise was that we would get bigger. I don’t see how we punch our weight now, let alone above it. My country seems to be shrinking.”

This ought not to be so: next month, the UK assumes the presidency of the G7; takes the helm of the UN Security Council in February; and – most important of all – is hosting the postponed COP26 climate conference in November 2021. The year ahead ought to be a celebration of Britain’s continued strategic might, proof that it grasps the deep interdependence of modern geopolitics.

Yet there is a pinched nationalism threatening such an outcome in 2021. Why was international development the only significant line item to be cut in Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review last week? Why does the PM scorn overseas aid as a “giant cashpoint in the sky”? Why has Priti Patel, the home secretary, militarised her campaign to keep out migrants rowing across the Channel in pathetic dinghies, and why did she think it would be consistent with basic British decency to send asylum seekers to a South Atlantic volcanic island?

It is true that Johnson is wary of the hardline Tory Brexiteers – the caucus led by Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe – some of whom are already muttering about a vote of no-confidence in his leadership of the party (it is just shy of two years since his predecessor, Theresa May, survived such a test).

For his part, Iain Duncan Smith, who has first-hand experience of being sacked as Tory leader by his own MPs, has been telling allies that Johnson’s premiership will be in grave danger if he concedes too much to Brussels. The PM was indeed rattled last week when 55 Conservatives rebelled against the new Covid tier system – a libertarian alliance of backbenchers that overlaps considerably with the hardcore Brexiteer faction.

The point, however, is this: Johnson certainly doesn’t want the rebels to cohere into a permanent sectarian menace to his Commons majority. But, crucially, he doesn’t want to disappoint these MPs, either. His self-image, his sense of self-worth, depends upon being perceived as the valiant deliverer of Brexit, rather than as the PM who blinked and (in the eyes of these true believers) sold out to Brussels.

This is the political-cultural context in which the final days of negotiations will be carried out. Of course, Johnson does not want his Brexit strategy to threaten economic recovery. But even that consideration is trumped by his fear of the charge of “treachery”, of letting down the nation by yielding too much to perfidious Brussels. If you think this is no way for a grown man to approach the governance of an advanced democracy, you’d be right. Such is the infantilism at the core of populist politics.

All of which helps to explain why, whatever happens this week, our troubles are just beginning. The EU knows how vigilant it must be in its dealings with post-Brexit Britain – deal or no deal. A thousand smaller battles lie ahead, a thousand abrasive arguments, a thousand confrontations great and small.

This is not the end of negotiations, but the start of negotiations that last forever. This is what our departure from the EU was always going to mean: a permanent state of attrition, a mode of apprehension from which there is no relief or release. Get Brexit done? More like Brexit forever.