On January 31 it will be four short years since the UK officially left the EU. The end of 47 years of membership was marked by Boris Johnson with a party, at which English fizz, and canapes of Shropshire blue cheese, Scottish shortbread and British roast beef were served.
The then PM, these days merely a disgraced former MP, told the gathered lackeys that “this is not the end, it is a beginning”.
For once in his life, Johnson was telling the truth. January 31, 2020 marked the beginning of a disastrous period of national decline and humiliation. If you want to know just how bad it has been you just have to measure his claims then against reality now.
In a typically grandiose address to the nation on that night, Johnson tried to sound Churchillian. The dawn was breaking, he said, on a “new act in our great national drama.” What he failed to mention was that the drama was the last act of Hamlet.
Johnson promised the country that “recaptured sovereignty” would enable the government to deliver the changes people had voted for. Leaving aside the simple fact that the UK never lost its sovereignty – having joined and then left the EU, both the acts of sovereign nations – exactly what laws have been enacted since 2020 that we couldn’t have introduced before?
Try to think of some, because I am at a loss. We were going to burn all the EU rules and regulations in a vast bonfire, but it turned out we needed them. We were going to have our own industrial and economic standards, but it turned out they were unwanted, expensive and unnecessary and so we kept the EU ones.
But what were the changes he had in mind? “Controlling immigration” was one, and we have controlled it so well we now have the largest net migration figure ever recorded; 606,000 in 2022 compared with 226,000 before Johnson became PM. Well done, all. At least that figure will go down by 200 if the costly fiasco of flights to Rwanda ever gets off the ground.
In the same breath, Johnson also boasted of “doing free trade deals” around the world. So far, we have joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade group bordering the Pacific. The government claimed this would put a rocket under the British economy as we are “joining” the most dynamic and fastest growing part of the world, only to find we had trade deals with nearly all its members already. Its own figures showed it would add just 0.08% to the UK’s GDP, only for that to be corrected by the Office for Budget Responsibility to 0.04%.
We have managed two deals with New Zealand and Australia that are so bad our Antipodean cousins are laughing at us, having got everything they wanted and more. Johnson even managed to undermine his own negotiators at a boozy dinner with the Aussie PM, then put the giveaway in writing, and signed it before his own government found out he had sold British farmers down the river.
Which reminds me, how are the suppliers of the food for those canapes in 2020 doing now? Because the Tory government sold them out and then cut their farm subsidies; they have been betrayed and abandoned; they were nothing but useful idiots for Brexit. His guff on January 31 about “liberating our fishing industry” went pretty much the same way.
Johnson bragged about “creating freeports” – another supposed benefit of Brexit, except there are dozens of freeports across the EU. You don’t have to leave the EU to create them, you just have to be as thick as mince. As Teesside is showing, they are a licence for private business to make millions and dodge tax legally, which is why the UK got rid of them years ago.
The blue cheese-fuelled bilge went on. “This is the moment when we really begin to unite and level up,” Johnson said, “defeating crime, transforming our NHS, and with better education, with superb technology and with the biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians.”
What can we say about this? Levelling up is a joke, with Brexit harming the regions far more than the south-east of England, and with HS2 abandoned. After falling (understandably) during the pandemic, crime has now risen beyond 2019 levels. The NHS is again on its knees and schools are literally collapsing. The Victorian sewers are pumping raw sewage into our rivers and seas.
But Johnson was not finished. “If we can get this right,” he said, “I believe that with every month that goes by we will grow in confidence, not just at home but abroad, and in our diplomacy, in our fight against climate change, in our campaigns for human rights.”
Well, we did not get it right and we have not grown in confidence – apart from the government’s confidence in tearing up international law, backtracking on climate change for cynical electoral advantage and undermining human rights. If we go to war with the ECHR over Rwanda, our shredded diplomatic reputation will be toast.
Finally, the Delphic Oracle of No 10 told us that Brexit would make the UK “simultaneously a great European power and truly global in our range and ambitions”. Instead we are a weakened power on the margins that is suffering the effects of lost growth, lost trade, lost investment and lost tax revenues. Brexit is a continual drain on the UK economy – between 4% and 6% of GDP so far, and it is going to be a drain for years to come.
But of course, that was just what Boris Johnson said on January 31, 2020, and he is a serial liar and fantasist. What about what others said or wrote on that fateful day?
We are, I am afraid to say, still waiting for the Daily Telegraph’s self-styled “humble handmaiden of Brexit” Allison Pearson to fulfil the promise made when she claimed “I am so, so weary of Brexit fighting, but I will chain myself to the Downing Street railings if every single penny of the grants the EU ‘gave’ (from our subs, mind) does not carry on being paid, by the government, to my own South Wales and other deprived regions”. As any fool could have predicted, the EU regional funds have not been replaced.
The Daily Mail on the day that we were finally “free” from the clutches of Brussels announced that “with Brexit uncertainty ended, the economic handbrake can come off – potentially releasing a flood of pent-up investment.” At least they were clever enough to put the word “potentially” in that sentence. A very wise move that, given that the British economy seems to be permanently stuck in some Groundhog Day of eternally stalled hill starts.
The Mail predicted that “once we leave the EU, ministers will be able to focus on voters’ traditional concerns – housing, social care… household bills”, which is what some of us were afraid of in the first place. They have all got worse, partly because of the disastrous economic consequences of Brexit. Nor have they been alleviated by “a mammoth trade deal with the US” which the Mail told readers we were now at the “front of the line” for.
The Sun assured its readers that “we will not be Little Britain” and that the UK would offer “a permanent, welcoming home” for EU nationals already living here. Yet early January brought the tale of a Spanish woman forcibly removed from the UK after returning from a Christmas holiday near Málaga, despite showing border officials post-Brexit paperwork that proved she had the right to live and work here. And last week we heard of a young French woman married to a British man who was sacked by her employer because of a mix-up in the post-Brexit immigration process.
In fact, the “permanent, welcoming home” has seen thousands of EU nationals leave since Brexit, damaging the health and care services and the hospitality, farming and food processing industries.
All in all, four years on, all those fine words sound as if they were spoken about another country.
Where is the reborn confidence, the economic boom, the control of our borders, what happened to our reputation, our championing of human rights and international law, the trade deals and levelling up, the infrastructure and the new international power?
The answer lies in the fate of the man who more than any other made this happen and sold this colossal lie to the nation. Deserted and abandoned by his own party, thrown out by his mates, and judged to have lied to the House again and again by his peers. He was an incompetent, lazy, inadequate, two-faced liar. But what those lies created lives on. The damage is immense and it may even be permanent.
Four years ago, Johnson concluded with the words: “Whatever the bumps in the road ahead I know that we will succeed.” The bumps have been bigger than we might have expected – Covid, Ukraine – but so has the depth of Brexit’s failure. By the time the fifth anniversary of us officially leaving the EU rolls around, we are likely to have a new prime minister and a new ruling party. But what we need most keenly is one that recognises that uncomfortable truth.