Is this the date we could finally overturn this Brexit mess?

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking inside 10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson inside 10 Downing Street. - Credit: Photograph: Simon Dawson/PA.

This week’s Brexit row has a retro feel. Michel Barnier and an impasse in Brussels. Tory rebels led by a former attorney general. ‘Get Brexit done’. For old time’s sake we even had Ed Miliband gesticulating frantically at the despatch box and Nigel Farage popping up to declare ‘this isn’t the Brexit we voted for’.

Equally retro were Boris Johnson’s Facebook ads whipping up his grassroots after Monday’s House of Commons vote. ‘Labour has just voted to side with the EU – AGAIN! We’re the only party that’s standing up for the integrity of the entire UK’.

All we need now is a People’s Vote march, and Chris Grayling hiring ferries from companies with no ferries, and we can all adjust our watches to October 2019.

I suspect there is more déjà vu to come. After this brinkmanship will probably come a deal next month to avoid no-deal in January, precisely a year after the October 2019 deal on Northern Ireland which avoided no-deal this January.

The immediate constitutional crisis is reminiscent – more déjà vu – of the prorogation crisis also exactly a year ago in September 2019. This time it will probably be the House of Lords, rather the Supreme Court, which prevents Johnson and Cummings taking the British state into legally disgraceful territory by rejecting the Internal Market Bill, which overrides Johnson’s own Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol.

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It looks as if the rejection of the bill in the Lords will be a largely Tory affair. Michael Howard and William Hague have both strongly condemned Johnson’s latest antics and I expect one or other of them will wield the knife on the elegant red benches. “Breaching international law would leave Britain perilously exposed,” wrote Hague in Tuesday’s Telegraph. “As foreign secretary I saw first-hand how much we rely on our reputation for upholding global rules.”

It is essential that the House of Lords rejects Johnson’s cavalier disregard for international law. Doing so will come to be seen as a staging post in the ultimate fightback against this monstrous government which gets ever worse over time as it mismanages Covid-19 with as much incompetence and malevolence as it implements Brexit.

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However, provided it is indeed déjà vu all over again and there is a deal of some kind, this autumn’s drama will not of itself reverse Brexit or even stop a fairly hard Brexit which leaves us out of the single market and all the EU’s political institutions, with only a Canada-style free trade agreement covering goods, where we have a massive trade deficit with the EU.

There won’t be 10-mile tailbacks to Dover and food shortages, but we will be worse off over time.

Herein lies the critical problem for Johnson and the critical opportunity for us pro-Europeans. Just as the ‘law of compound interest’ is one of the greatest insights of economics – when you let money accumulate at compound interest over a long enough period of time, it increases far more than you imagine at the outset – so the ‘law of compound decline’ is one of the greatest forces in politics.

Once a nation starts declining, the pain and suffering escalate much more rapidly than you expect at the outset when the change is only fractional. Ask the Venetians and the Egyptians.

Even two years of a British economy growing at a slower rate than France and Germany’s will make itself felt in lower incomes. And if this hits bankers and lawyers disproportionately, as the City suffers from the end of ‘passporting’ of financial services and the relocation of some business to Paris and Frankfurt, the squeals on the golf courses of Surrey and Sussex, and in Tory constituency associations, will get steadily louder.

This is déjà vu too. For it was precisely the growing sense of falling behind the French and Germans which persuaded Harold Macmillan, that ever feline physician of Tory Middle England, to make the first application to join what was then the European Economic Community in 1961. It took precisely 11 years to get from there to joining under Heath in 1972.

So put a big circle around 2031 in your New European calendar.

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