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Boris Johnson’s Brexit admission proves he’s playing us for fools

Boris Johnson and his cronies say the current multi-layered crises facing Britain are both nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with it, thus exposing the incoherence at the heart of the project since the start.

Boris Johnson preparing a Tory conference speech. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/ Pool/Getty Images Images

Having argued for weeks that the ongoing fuel and supply crisis is nothing to do with Brexit, Boris Johnson’s government has suddenly started to claim that, actually, it is a necessary part of a post-Brexit transition to a high wage economy.

It’s more complicated than a shift in messaging. Listening to government ministers, you can still hear some say the crisis is a global event beyond government control. Others claim it is part of a considered national plan and, even, good news. So it’s not that one message is being replaced by another but that they are being run simultaneously.

Johnson, inevitably, is the master of this illogic, managing to suggest within the course of one interview that the crisis doesn’t exist, that it exists but is nothing to do with Brexit, and that it exists but is part of what delivering Brexit means. It’s like the three-card Monte scam in reverse: rather than the gullible punter never picking the winning card, Johnson’s trick is to present whatever card he turns over as being the winner.

Many commentators have been struck by the ‘doublethink’ of simultaneously deploying these contradictory rationales. Actually, it is no surprise, and it hasn’t just emerged out of the blue, although Johnson’s statements have given it a much higher profile.

For example, at the end of August an anonymous government spokesperson explicitly tied the crisis to the successful delivery of Brexit: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”.

So throughout the crisis, this and the contradictory claim that it’s nothing to do with Brexit have both been in play, but with varying degrees of prominence.

However, the more important point is that this is just the latest example of something inherent to the entire Brexit project. Always it has relied upon, and been permeated with, inconsistent claims produced at the same time and often by the same person. This also wrongfoots (and exhausts) opponents, who chase down the flaws in one claim only to be confronted with a different, and diametrically opposite, one.

The ‘sovereignty at any cost’ and ‘all costs are Project Fear’ dyad is perhaps the most obvious example. Further examples include:

  • The UK is a big economy, so is bound to get a good Brexit trade deal AND the EU is useless at making trade deals with big economies
  • The EU needs us more than we need them AND the EU is bound to punish us for leaving
  • Because the EU will give us a great deal, that proves it’s right to leave AND because the EU didn’t give us a great deal that proves it’s right to leave
  • The UK-EU negotiations will be quick and easy AND the EU is slow and lumbering
  • Germany always tells the EU what to do AND the EU can never decide what to do because it has to get the agreement of all its members
  • We will threaten the EU with ‘no deal’ to get what we want AND a ‘no deal Brexit’ would have no adverse consequences
  • We don’t need a trade agreement with the EU, WTO terms are fine AND we must make trade deals with other countries rather than trade on WTO terms
  • The EU is a bully AND the EU is weak and on the point of collapse
  • Brexit will make us more global AND Brexit will protect local traditions and businesses
  • Brexit will lead to a glorious future AND will reclaim the past
  • Brexit will change everything AND most things will go on as usual

There are many other examples of the same thing, and at one level they could just be seen as normal political opportunism and, certainly, as one of the reasons Brexit was supported, since the very contradictions in the case meant it could mean all things to all people. But that opportunism wasn’t just a tactic to win Brexit; instead it was inherent to the intellectual and strategic incoherence of Brexit itself: it wasn’t a coherent project which was sold in contradictory ways, but its very incoherence lent itself to being expressed in such ways.

This explains why delivering Brexit is proving to be such a mess. The government oscillates between totally incompatible economic and geopolitical strategies because the only guiding thread of its formation was to ‘get Brexit done’, and that thread pulls in contradictory directions, for example as between free trade and protectionism. Moreover, whilst Brexit could mean all things to all people as a proposal, by definition it cannot do so in delivery, since its various aims and claims were incompatible.

However, that is only part of the picture, in that whilst it would have made delivering Brexit an incoherent mess under any prime minister and government it also interacts with the particular and peculiar nature of Johnson and his government. In CP Snow’s classic 1964 political novel Corridors of Power, the government minister at the centre of the story remarks that “the first thing is to get the power. The next – is to do something with it”. It’s almost a truism, and it’s easy to imagine almost any leading politician saying something similar.

But it is very obvious that only the motivation, and not the second, applies to Johnson. He may, perhaps, be interested in his ‘historical legacy’, but seems almost completely uninterested in the substance of what has to be done to secure a legacy worthy of the name. As the crises facing Britain multiply, he has this week headed off on holiday to Marbella. He is certainly totally bored with Brexit: “we’ve sucked that lemon dry”, as he put it recently.

Members of the English Coalition group gather in Trafalgar Square to march against the Northern Ireland Protocol on October 9. Photo: Adrian Dennis /AFP/via Getty Images

His interest in power alone sets the tone for his government as a whole. As one anonymous former minister reportedly put it, “the trouble with Boris is that he’s not very interested in governing. He’s only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”.

Such a rationality does drive a certain kind of political agenda, albeit a pernicious one. First, to retain power by rigging the system in his favour and by providing his voter base with the culture war forays that energise it. And second, as ‘world king’, to dole out courtly favours in the form of jobs and contracts for cronies and vengeful banishments for the disloyal.

But when it comes to serious questions of government, his only response is to try to get through the next few minutes, or hours or days by presenting whatever bogus argument suits the moment. Thus the response to the present Brexit-related crisis, as with the delivery of Brexit in general, is of this sort.

He probably knows, and many of his MPs certainly know, that his response is economic nonsense but, for now, it is an answer to why the country has to endure this crisis. Next week or month, it’s easy to imagine a completely different line being taken. For example, the already growing fears of inflation could lead him to say that wage control is the new imperative and, no doubt, that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to achieve it.

Nowhere is the meeting of the inherent incoherence of Brexit and the depravity of Johnson’s approach to politics clearer than Northern Ireland. It’s here that the contradiction between leaving the institutions that removed borders and insisting that doing so won’t recreate borders has the most dangerous and destabilising effects.

More narrowly, it’s never been clear whether Johnson agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol without understanding what it meant, or whether he understood what it meant and never intended to honour it. Either way, it was another example of him lazily or dishonestly grabbing at a supposed solution to an immediate problem.

It’s another example of contradictory claims, with Johnson saying the problems are ones of implementation and that it could work “in principle” while David Frost says the actual construction of the Protocol is flawed.

So, again, incoherent justifications are advanced simultaneously. If criticised for having agreed it, the response is that it is implementation that is the problem. If criticised for not having implemented it, the response that the agreement is flawed. So back to why agree it? Because the Remainer parliament constrained our options. So why sign it after you’d won the election? Because we didn’t expect it to be implemented so inflexibly. Pick a card, any card. Thus whilst the UK’s approach to the Protocol row has been described as playing poker, its intellectual basis is the same old Brexit three-card trick.

There is also a contradiction between the fact that it is in NI that the supply and labour crisis is least acute, yet only here where the government insists the Brexit arrangements aren’t working and must be changed. Perhaps under the new messaging, in which the crisis is depicted as showing Brexit doing its necessary work of restructuring, we will be told next that the NIP must be changed in order to allow Northern Ireland to have its fair share of this beneficial crisis. For it now seems that success is defined as failure and failure as success.

The public has a more straightforward grasp on Brexit, with a new poll showing that, overall, 36% think it has been a success and 52% think it has been a failure. Within that, there are significant variations between the four nations – in Northern Ireland just 18% think it has been a success and a stonking 74% think it a failure – but even in England the figures are 37% (success) to 50% (failure). The variation in results amongst Remain and Leave voters is much as would be expected but intriguingly, given that the referendum vote showed no significant gender difference, there is a sharp difference between men (44% success, 49% failure) and women (29% success, 55% failure).

It is worth dwelling on these results. The referendum was almost the only moment when there was a majority for Brexit, and then only in England and Wales, and that for almost the entire time since then there has been a small majority for Remain. This latest poll shows the majority in each constituent nation and in the nation as a whole, as well as the majority of women, think it is a failure. So for all the ‘will of the people’ rhetoric, Brexit is a huge national transformation that is being done without sustained national support or acclaim.

In the face of that, it is really quite grotesque for Frost to talk of “the long bad dream of EU membership” being over. Of course, that was in the context of the Tory conference, though it’s of note that 32% of 2019 Conservative voters, a not inconsiderable minority, also think that Brexit is a failure. That isn’t surprising considering that Brexit damage now reaches deep into some of the traditional Conservative heartlands of farming and business in a way that seemed unthinkable.

Indeed the party now seems decidedly anti-business in its latest stance on the labour and supply crisis (and interestingly is now even at odds with pro-Brexit business leaders). One Conservative MP has even suggested that the collapse of supermarket supply chains would be a good thing as it would mean “the farmer down the street will be able to sell their milk in the village shop like they did decades ago”. If the Tories are the party of business, then it’s business circa 1890.

Whatever the context of Frost’s words, there’s a serious problem in gloating over something which is so widely seen as having failed. Although this has not much dented the Tories in the polls yet, the disconnect between public opinion and what is a major and ongoing shift in national direction is going to play out in complex, unpredictable and far-reaching ways.

Similarly, Frost showed remarkable stupidity in suggesting that a New York Times report that the referendum result had “stunned the world” was some kind of endorsement for Brexit or for Britain. The reality, of course, is that Brexit has shredded Britain’s reputation and made us a laughing stock.

That is obvious from foreign press coverage of Brexit, including mocking cartoons as diverse as that in Germany, suggesting people visit British supermarkets to experience what life in Communist East Germany was like, to one in the Bangkok Post depicting the British lion leaping through a door marked Brexit and emerging as a dopey-looking pussycat. Indeed if Labour was canny in attempting to tap into the patriotism of ‘red wall’ voters, it could do worse than to circulate these images of what Brexit’s plastic patriots have done to us.

Frost’s remarks reveal a hubris amongst Brexiters which they’d be wise to be wary of. That was one of the thoughts prompted by watching the fascinating new BBC documentary series Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution, in that in its heyday New Labour, like Thatcher’s New Right before it, thought, as the Brexiters do, that they had redefined politics forever. In fact, not only does the ‘wheel always turn’ but, more importantly, each supposed triumph provokes and incubates surprising counter-reactions.

Another thought was a more melancholic one. Whatever one thinks of them, Brown, Blair and those around them were serious, committed, competent politicians who knew what they wanted to do and why, and, to an extent, how. The same could be said of Thatcher and many of her ministers. It is a dispiriting contrast with the squalid and mediocre three-card tricksters, the architects and progeny of Brexit, who now govern us.

Read Chris Grey’s Brexit & Beyond blog here

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