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The Brexit blame game is a lot easier than getting a deal

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for a cabinet meeting at the FCO, followed by newly designated Downing Street Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield (R), amid a final push for a deal with the EU - Credit: Getty Images

JAMES BALL on how the spell is broken for a one-trick phoney.

Any man can tell you he can jump off the roof of a building, entirely naked and free of strings, parachutes, or similar, and levitate safely to the ground.

An incredibly persuasive man, perhaps backed up by faked video evidence and more, might even be able to convince you he could actually do it.

But when it came to the actual moment of truth, the no-tricks leap from the window, no man can actually deliver on that promise: he will plummet to the ground and come off far worse than it from the exchange.

You can fool people into thinking you can defy gravity, but you can’t fool gravity itself. The committed shyster, though, could at least quickly explain his fall, even as he’s scooped into the ambulance. It would have worked, if you’d just believed enough. Or it was sabotage. Or betrayal, by the ground, which had given the firmest of assurances it would be yielding.

It is, alas, not hard to see that this is yet another – slightly tortured – analogy for our seemingly-endless Brexit predicament. Once again we are teetering on the brink between deal and no-deal, we are in a crunch week, this time it’s really serious. And of course it is really serious. It’s just hard to wonder just how many brinks there can possibly be in one Brexit process. Is there nowhere to put a sure foot?

This fatigue might explain the exhausted circular firing squad in which far too many pro-Remain commentators have chosen to participate, blaming their ideological near-travellers rather than their actual opponents.

But the blame game we should really be focusing on is the one among the Brexiteers themselves – because absolutely no faction among them is going to claim responsibility for whatever version of Brexit we wake up with on January 1, 2021. But it will be the fault of all of them, to differing extents.

Culpable but less so than those in other factions are the small fringe of economic libertarians who wanted to be out of the EU for reasons of technical sovereignty – and to avoid ever-closer union – but never had the slightest intention of leaving the customs union or single market

As soon as such groups let themselves be tied to a Brexit campaign overwhelmingly sold on immigration and broad control, they must – or at minimum should – have known the road could never end with their preferred outcome.

By refusing to engage in any thought of what would happen after a Leave vote, to avoid exposing divisions and contradictions in their different positions and thus their chances of winning, they wrote a blank cheque to their extreme flanks, and went politically bust almost immediately afterwards.

The faction that wanted to leave with a ‘hard’ Brexit but with a deal and sensible transition arrangements are perhaps the most likely to get their way, depending on events in the next few weeks. In practice, within a few years, minor variants between a Boris Johnson deal from now and a Theresa May one from 2018 would largely die out – though they could have very different short-term impacts.

The issue here is most MPs or commentators within this group tend to act as if the EU’s red lines and demands were totally unforeseeable, whereas they have in practice remained almost entirely consistent not just throughout the Brexit process, but also with what everyone said they would be before the referendum.

When people complain the deal isn’t what they would have offered on fish, sovereignty, standards, or the level playing field… that’s their fault. Who else’s could it be? And yet any compromises in the deal will be presented as unforeseeable, and should no deal be struck, the effort will be to plant the blame firmly on the EU side.

That leaves the group now insistent that they wanted to leave with no deal, or “on WTO terms” the whole time. They never said that at the time of the referendum, because no-one in their right mind ever would – it was well outside the realms of political possibility in summer 2016.

The existence of trade deals is enough to tell you that “WTO terms” are a fiction: if they were better than deals, why would any country ever spend years or even decades negotiating one?

Instead, this has become a toys-out-of-the-cot fallback option for a group which has either radicalised itself through years in the filter bubble, or the last resort of scoundrels: it allows them to reject any deal as too meek and mild, creating their own blameless political futures.

In the event the UK ends up with a no-deal in December, most of this group will just claim it’s the wrong sort of no-deal: the government either didn’t prepare enough for it, or folded to the EU too soon.

None of these efforts should be allowed to work. All of these people share the blame. But none deserve culpability nearly so much as the prime minister himself. Boris Johnson secured the premiership through his Brexit stance, including by making his predecessor’s position impossible.

With help from his team, he then secured this into an 80-seat majority after purging himself of anyone who wouldn’t back his deal – except himself, when he briefly tried to pull the UK out of part of a deal he negotiated himself. On Brexit, since December 2019, Boris Johnson has had the freest hand imaginable to play. Every move was his to make.

But, as ever, after months of promising us all nothing but royal flushes, he’s pulled his only trick. Once again, he seems set to do nothing more than just play the joker.

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