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Anand Menon: The rock star prof revelling in Brexit

Anand Menon. Photo: David Tett - Credit: Archant

Anand Menon, celebrity pundit of the Brexit era, talks to MATT WITHERS about the true nature of Johnsonism, the prospects of a deal and why he’s enjoying his work so much.

If you have switched on a TV or radio or opened a newspaper in the past few years you’ve seen Anand Menon. Even if you haven’t you might. The director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank has become one of the breakout stars of Brexit, a talking head in demand from media outlets for an ability to explain arcane debates in plain English.

Radio 5 Live introduced him as the ‘rock star prof’, to the amusement of his colleagues who have since adopted the term. Prior to lockdown he hosted the ‘Beer and Brexit’ events at King’s College London, where the initiative is based, at which, along with more serious questioning of political figures, he shot quickfire questions, such as whether they preferred Blur or Oasis (Jacob Rees-Mogg professed to have heard of neither).

‘I think there’s quite a few things bundled up – firstly, I think it’s the fact that I’m a natural show-off,’ muses Menon on his semi-ubiquity.

‘So, you know, that helps. I’ve never understood people who are shy about doing media stuff, because I love it. Temperamentally this life suits me, because I’ve got a big head and I like the sound of my own voice.

‘It’s a curious thing – I was never that good a social scientist. I just didn’t have the patience to do the really deep, you know, ‘I’m spending 10 years investigating this incident in French history’. And I never had the brain to do the really technical theoretical stuff. So actually both those things, in a way, help me now, because I do things quite
quickly and I always do things in plain English.’

The 54-year-old son of immigrants from Kerala, southern India, professor Menon arrived in Wakefield in 1966 at the age of one. Having lectured at Oxford and Birmingham universities, he became director of UK in a Changing Europe in 2014. Taxpayer-funded, you’re not allowed to know what he thinks, at least politically. Not that he doesn’t have opinions.

‘I think in some ways, at least, Brexit has been handled quite badly,’ he says down the line from his home.

‘I think part of that was contingent, part of that was genuine mistakes. So the contingency is, I wonder whether we’d have had a different last few years if someone who had led the Leave campaign became prime minister in 2016. I think one of the problems Theresa May faced was she spent the first 12 months in office trying to prove her bona fides to the European Research Group, which sort of set us off in a certain direction.’

The Brexit process, he says, has revealed ‘all sort of flaws about our system’.

‘One of the surprising things for me is it’s revealed the fact that actually, even in the civil service – you know, this Rolls-Royce civil service of ours – there was a misunderstanding of the depth and nature of our links with the European Union, and particularly how those links shaped the politics and administration of the United Kingdom. I think a lot of the stuff over Northern Ireland came as a profound shock to people.

‘And I think the government messed things up. I think, you know, drawing those red lines so early, that ridiculous combination of no court of justice, no freedom of movement, no customs union but frictionless trade – you know, it was quite a rookie error that raised aspirations that turned out more fatally on Brexit than on the other side.

‘Whatever you think about Brexit, it’s hard to say that the period since 2016 has covered us in glory.’

After last December’s general election which handed Boris Johnson a sizable majority, Menon wrote a comment piece saying that we still didn’t, at that point, know what sort of Brexit the PM wanted. Do we now?

‘What we know is that Boris Johnson wants us out of the EU and out of transition as soon as possible,’ he says.

‘And that is the overriding objective, and the precise nature of how that happens is a secondary consideration. That much has been made clear by the government.

‘I think there is a degree of clarity over this government that was sadly lacking in the last government, which is ‘we prioritise autonomy over trade’. I think [UK Brexit negotiator] David Frost made that perfectly clear in Brussels in that speech he gave at ULB [Université Libre de Bruxelles]… he came closer than I think anyone in power has come over the last three or four years to explicitly accepting the trade-offs.

‘Yes, there will be an economic price to be paid for having this autonomy. I mean, he understated the economic price, I think, but compared to its predecessor this government has been relatively honest, both about what it wants and what it’s willing to sacrifice to get that.’

Menon is not particularly surprised, he says, that Boris Johnson and his advisors have been so firm on not requesting an extension to the transition period amid the coronavirus crisis.

‘In a sense, politics has conspired to help them make that choice because it’s no coincidence that the same Tory backbenchers who hate the transition period are the ones who hate the lockdown,’ he says. ‘So I think there’s partly a cutting-your-losses attitude in Number 10, which is ‘let’s at least give them one of those two’.’

While he understands, he says, that this is a difficult time for the country, ‘it is a fantastic time to be alive as a social scientist’. Particularly in trying to get to grips with the new nature of the Conservatives.

‘There’s a period of profound change going on inside the Conservative Party, absolutely. We don’t really know how they will govern yet, because of course we haven’t seen them doing government in normal times. So whether, you know, the responsibility of government forces them back to something that is more recognisable I don’t know.

‘But at the moment what it seems is this is a government in campaign mode. It’s about slogans, it’s about quick fixes, it’s about getting through the day or the week rather than thinking things through in the longer term or having sort of more thought-through strategies.’

Is Johnsonism, then, the politics of perpetual campaigning?

‘Maybe that’s Cummingism,’ says Menon. ‘But I think Johnsonism – as far as we can tell and, as I say, it’s very, very early days as yet – is more a mood than an ideology. It’s that positive, oomphy, upbeat, down with the doomsters and gloomsters approach to government. It’s a tone, it’s a state of mind rather than a set of political ideas linked to economic outcomes.’

Are we heading for a no-deal at the end of the year? On this question Menon is the same as me and you and everybody else – he doesn’t know.

‘I still think that it’s perfectly plausible that we get a deal,’ he says.

‘It’s not going to be the deep and comprehensive agreement that both sides have talked about wanting, but there’s a relatively easy route to a deal if both sides are willing to move a little bit on level playing fields, on fish. I think that it’s still the case that both the British government and the European Union would far rather have a deal than no deal, partly because it looks better politically for Boris Johnson to negotiate a deal which he will then sell as the best deal ever, partly because it avoids a certain amount of economic dislocation and partly too, I think… you know, one of the main dangers of no-deal, it seems to me, is the potential it has to sour political relations between us and the European Union for weeks if not months ahead.

‘That is to say, if the talks collapse, we can easily imagine circumstances in which both sides in a relatively long period of finger-pointing and recriminations. And in those circumstances it becomes very hard to work together, not only resolving some of the outstanding UK-EU issues that the trade talks have failed to address, but also broader cooperation and collaboration in areas like anti-terrorism, security and things like that.’

The UK in a Changing Europe has continued producing some fascinating research throughout lockdown, including a recent report showing the large gap between Conservative MPs and their new voters on economic policy – the size of the state and the importance of redistribution.

‘That’s why it’s in [the Tories’] interests to try and hit these values issues, whether it’s trans rights, whether it’s statues, whether it’s ‘we can’t be affording to waste time now on the climate emergency, we have an economy to rebuild’ – they are the issues on which the Conservative Party is going to be more comfortable, because actually their coalition is actually far more united and cohesive on those values issues than it is on the traditional left-right socio-economic issues.’

Menon, meanwhile, is going to continue to enjoy his new-found sort of fame. He’s done Radio 4 comedy panel show The News Quiz twice (the second time via Zoom, which was ‘a little bit odd’). He draws the line at I’m A Celebrity….: ‘Were it to happen, I think the call would be intercepted by my partner and deleted from my voicemail records.

‘The fact of the matter is I enjoy what I’m doing now far more than I enjoyed academia,’ he says.

‘The beauty of my job at the moment is that I get to do loads of stuff that I really like, so I get to do a bit of radio, a bit of telly, I get to write stuff, I get to talk to interesting people at Beer and Brexit. I am, to use a technical phrase, a pig in s**t.’

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