Boris Johnson’s bluster shows UK is no closer to accepting Brexit reality

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the next COP26 UN Climate Summit at the Science Mu

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the launch of the next COP26 UN Climate Summit at the Science Museum, London. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/PA. - Credit: PA

Brexit was never going to be hell, says JAMES BALL, but the government is making sure it's purgatory.

It was supposed to be done. We were told it was done. We were promised it was done.

An hour before the seemingly endless month of January drew to a close, the UK left the European Union. Thanks to a transition period, very little changed - while we don't have MEPs or any say in EU policy-making any more, we can still for now easily trade with and travel between EU nations.

But there's no longer any means in the short or medium term of reversing our decision to leave. If we want to be EU members once again, the battle would now be to re-join on entirely new terms, not to avoid leaving. In that sense, surely Brexit is done?

Looking at the newspaper headlines and the prime minister's waffle, that certainly doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, it feels horribly like - in the words of his predecessor - nothing has changed.

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We have yet another new term for a no-deal Brexit: an "Australian-style" trade deal, a cute shorthand designed to rebrand trading with the EU without a deal by the simple virtue of naming a country which currently does so.

Never mind that Australia's economy relies on exporting goods and raw materials, while the UK's is dominated by complex goods supply chains (some car engines cross the Channel five times during production) and even more so by services. And while Australia is around 8,700 miles away from the EU's nearest point, the UK is just 20 miles away.

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So an "Australian-style" deal isn't just a rhetorical trick to sell no-deal at the end of the year - it's an outright falsehood. So far, so familiar.

We've also had a familiar glut of blustering nonsense from ministers, threatening the EU that they would refuse to accept level-playing-field rules, insisting they are happy to engage in border checks and won't allow Brussels to dictate product standards.

As ever, such threats were either contradicted by the UK positions stated in the political declaration which Boris Johnson himself agreed and passed through parliament, or else outright daft: Johnson's position on accepting product standards suggests the UK currently doesn't apply its own standards to products we import.

As anyone trying to sell chlorinated chicken into the UK (so far) knows, that's not the case. Trading with someone means following their rules, at least for what you send to them.

Just as with the Brexit debate, this bluster is being conducted entirely in the pages of UK newspapers and by UK broadcasters, apparently aimed at a UK audience. The EU has once again set out its positions and its negotiating red lines in public documents available from its own website, with thousands of words of detail.

Just as with the Article 50 talks, negotiators will not be allowed to deviate from the red lines given to them by the 27 EU leaders. So once again the only people who will be taken in by the UK government's bluster are the UK public, via the UK political lobby.

Further showing there's nothing new under the sun, we can get ready for a (potentially futile) argument over whether or not the transition should be extended - sound familiar, anyone? - surrounded by government and business arguing about the need for clarity and to avoid cliff edges. We will even soon start hearing about queues at Dover and factories with no supplies again, within just weeks or months from now.

Most of this is because Brexit is done only in names and legalities. Johnson's Brexit got all the flag-waving bit done and absolutely nothing else - all the problems, the complexities and the potential costs are still in front of us, and details have never been Johnson's strong suit.

Rather than use his thumping majority and four years of time between him and the ballot box to confront realities and try to actually get a working Brexit done, Johnson has decided to double down on the bluster and nonsense that has characterised the last three-and-a-half years, in the manner of a freediver hurtling headlong from a cliff, confident 20ft from the ground that his technique is working perfectly so far.

Sadly for us, we're strapped in and plunging along with him, in the most boring and repetitive round of self-destruction into which any modern government has voluntarily engaged.

Some of the darkest warnings about Brexit - the overblown, unhelpful ones - made it sound like the moment of leaving the EU, especially were it without a deal, would be nothing short of hell itself.

Those scenarios were never going to come to pass. It could be demoralising, destructive and an act of national self-harm, leading to shortages and leaving us poorer, but it was never going to actually destroy the nation.

Brexit was never going to be hell. But Boris Johnson and his government seem to be doing everything in their power to make sure it's purgatory.

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