How Brexit still haunts everything Boris Johnson’s government does

PUBLISHED: 16:57 21 May 2020 | UPDATED: 18:48 21 May 2020

Britain is led by donkeys on coronavirus and Brexit. Illustration: Martin Rowson/TNE.

Britain is led by donkeys on coronavirus and Brexit. Illustration: Martin Rowson/TNE.

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MICHAEL WHITE on the week minds began to turn to unfinished business in Europe.

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Apart from the grim rollcall of the Covid-19 casualties and 2.1 million jobless, two memorable details I won’t easily forget came my way in the past few days, both courtesy of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. Neither had anything directly to do with the stalled post-Brexit deal which may finally be showing signs of movement. My third weekend eye-catcher I spotted in the Guardian, but read nowhere else. That was probably because it flagged up an anguished analysis of the three-way withdrawal battle between Downing Street, the Conservative Party and Brussels between 2016-2020.

The continuing Brexit drama is now relegated by the pandemic to the inside pages – if picked up at all by monomaniacal media. Euro-drama all seems so last year, but it isn’t. Seen in the round the three fact nuggets fit together like pieces in one of those jigsaw puzzles which the lockdown has again made popular. I’d even suggest that, when that promised public inquiry –it must be held in public – into the Covid crisis materialises, those in charge save themselves trouble by first reading the Institute for Government think tank’s verdict, The civil service after Brexit: Lessons from the Article 50 period.

Its 56 pages will quickly alert them to the deeply dysfunctional way Theresa May’s divided government – or rather a tight little group inside the No.10 machine – strove to construct a negotiating package that would be acceptable to the cabinet and rival wings of the parliamentary party. Almost as an afterthought, it sometimes tried to calculate what Michel Barnier might accept on behalf of the EU27. The Guardian’s news report highlighted the IfG authors’ conclusions – based on interviews with key players – that May’s disintegrating authority and imploding cabinet discipline left civil servants like Oliver Robbins open to political attacks by the likes of Steve Baker and Common Sense Mogg.

Neither May nor Boris Johnson defended their officials. Instead Blustering Boris later heaped further pressure on them by threatening to meet his “Leave by October 31” pledge by breaking the law, as laid out in the Benn Act, which explicitly banned a no-deal departure. In such a crisis was the civil servants’ duty to the government or to the law? Fortunately for everyone, Boris blinked.


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There’s much more (you can easily find the report online) which fleshes out what we knew or suspected. It reads like a dress rehearsal for this winter’s Covid-19 shambles, itself the subject of Alastair Campbell’s angry critique in last week’s TNE, an extended Tweet (pages 19-30) which I hope you cut out and kept. Taken together they provide a handy framework for the piratical perils ahead as Johnson, his enforcer Dominic Cummings, and negotiator, David Frost, do high-risk brinkmanship over terms of our future relationship with the 27, 22 of whose school systems have partially re-opened. The Daily Mail (irony alert) is urging ministers to follow Europe’s bold lead.

Last week’s fruitless third round of Zoomathon trade talks ended in sharp expressions of mutual frustration between Frost and Barnier. Afterwards someone in Brussels – not Barnier, I think – briefed Guardian and Times correspondents. Their message was that heavyweight political concessions by Angela Merkel and Manny Macron will be required to forestall a no-deal crash that few actually want. Unless both sides agree an extension at next month’s EU summit – 66% of British voters, including half the Leave voters, now want one, says a new poll – that means 11th hour drama in late autumn. As David “Brexit Bulldog” Davis likes to say: “It’s not the first three years that matter, but the last three months.”

Let’s pretend the bulldog’s upbeat complacency is not misplaced this time. After all, Paris and Berlin have bigger fish to fry. On Monday they announced support for a 500 billion euros recovery fund to help maintain the eurozone – paid for out of the EU’s tight budget. Not before time and a modest concession by Germany’s tightwads whose recent constitutional court ruling on ‘proportionality’ in the bond-buying market is a piece of judicial mission creep that threatens to unravel the whole 70 year project. Don’t take my word for it. Martin Wolf, Yoda of the FT, thinks so too.

So if chancellor Merkel, her flagging prestige restored by a ‘good corona war’, can accommodate Macron (a less good war), what concessions might we expect? Don’t be impatient. We’ll come to that. But first those other eye-poppers I mentioned. One leapt off a Times page one splash that announced that our pie-peddling PM has realised the porker-ish error of his ways in getting cheap columnar laughs out of the nanny state. Why? Because when he entered St Thomas’ Hospital with Covid-19 he was medically obese – 5ft 9in and 17 stone and 7lbs. For reasons the boffins are still busy fathoming, obesity greatly increased his risk of dying there.

All very well this Merrie England boozing and wenching stuff, but death at 55 is no laughing matter – especially for someone like Boris who thrives on groundless optimism and jokes. He is a mounted cavalier in a time of Covid trench warfare, as someone wrote this week. It would be priggishly censorious to add that a father has a duty to young Wilfred and his unaudited siblings not to gorge himself to death. So I will priggishly say it. A PM has an even greater duty to the nation not to duck responsibility – again – by croaking. I will priggishly say that too, fortified by eye-popper No 2. It appeared in the Sunday Times under the byline of Tim Shipman, whose fearless reporting of ‘leaks’ favourable to Michael Gove makes an excellent running joke for TNE diarist, Tim Walker. After making a hash of his Sunday night TV broadcast – in front of 27 million viewers – Johnson asked cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill: “Who is in the charge of implementing this plan? Is it you?” “No I think it is you, prime minister,” replied Sedwill. Bad career move, Sedders!

But the buck pass tells us a lot, doesn’t it? It was Sedwill (tipped for exile to the Washington embassy last year) who was left to defend officials from those snarky Mogg-Baker attacks. It was Sedwill who was also recovering from Covid-19 along with Johnson, Cummings and Matt Hancock, while still doing the day job. It was Sedwill who took over from Sir Jeremy Heywood when his predecessor died of cancer in late 2018 and has kept the rackety show on the road ever since – with a singular lack of gratitude from ministers. Many Tory MPs still want him purged. You can see him being sized up for the scapegoat gallery, along with Matt “Tigger” Hancock, the scientists and NHS managers.

No need to shed many tears for Lincolnshire grammar school boy Sedwill (at 55, he is just four months younger than Boris). But the pair’s “who’s in charge?” exchange over Whitehall’s less than A+ pandemic response confirms the IfG’s findings over Brexit.

It shows the same lack of preparedness, of political leadership and planning. Yes, London-centric senior officials didn’t expect the Leave win in 2016 or realise how much the EU had become embedded in the way Britain is governed since 1973. They had lost old expertise in trade negotiations and in border management. Not to mention expertise in handling the devolved governments which all have different priorities. It didn’t help that May became dependent on the DUP for her Commons majority, that the DUP was on furlough at Stormont, Sinn Fein wholly absent from Westminster to honour a century-old pledge.

So officials were hobbled by political failure. It started with David Cameron’s ban on contingency planning before the referendum. That smacks of Blair’s timid lack of proper pre-planning for the occupation of Iraq, an error acknowledged in Alastair’s TNE article last week. Officials were hobbled too by the absence of a clear vision of what Brexit might mean – either from the Brexiteers (we’re still waiting for you to agree one, boys), let alone from May, the Trappist Remainer. Even as PM she failed to produce detailed papers or to consult outside her own tight group. She failed even to circulate discussion papers for fear of leaks within her divided cabinet. Above all, she settled for a series of vague “Brexit means Brexit” speeches, which sets “red lines”, then speech-by-speech slowly retreated from them when the ‘bespoke” Hard Brexit model collided with reality. Especially over the Irish border/ Good Friday Agreement conundrum.

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Just remembering it all is enough to make us shudder. And, of course, May foolishly lost her majority in 2017. Then-chancellor Hammond got stick for not providing cash to prep a no-deal option. But there wasn’t much specific to spend it on until late 2018 when no-deal became a serious risk and he did pony up £1.5 billion, half of it never spent, the IfG authors point out. Meanwhile officials worked around the clock to revise 10,000 pages of statutory instruments and struggled to find tortuous forms of words which would unite the cabinet and party. The process baffled Barnier.

Cabinet unity improved after Johnson took over in July 2019, since all members signed in blood. So did consultation with business, but not with the devolved regimes. Last week’s four nation disunity over Covid next steps showed the problem persists.

Britain’s governance is over-centralised, even when devolved. Countries with stronger regional government seem to do better, though competence and trust seems to be the critical variables, so that Dettol Don’s erratic performance undermines the 50 US state governors. As for mixed messaging – a feature of the Covid-19 crisis too – the £40 million spent proclaiming “Get Ready for Brexit” seems to have flopped. Business simply didn’t believe the no-deal threat.

On social media I spotted a smart marketing man with no discernible axe to grind arguing that Johnson’s new Covid triple-slogan “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives” is actually more sophisticated than has been acknowledged. The words empower us all to be more pro-active, more alert, in control, saving lives. The background colour features green instead of red. But the failure to provide clarity and persuasive detail, the reluctance to publish the evidence on which strategy is based – scientific, not economic this time – is familiar from the Brexit campaign. Yet there is less excuse because the cabinet and party are now united, as they were not.

Or are they? Better Tory sources than mine are saying discontent is mounting on the backbenches as doubts about the government’s basic competence are reinforced by its tardy performance – policy and implementation – and the lacklustre public performances of those blandly forgettable ministers allowed to do media.

The Commons science and technology select committee, chaired by Remain cabinet exile, Greg Clark, publicly joined the critics of track-and-test failings on Tuesday. So does the loyalist press, though mostly on the inside pages, saving its main firepower for attacks on fluctuating scientific advice and teaching union militants.

They’re an easy target, but newspapers which say “private schools lead the way” reveal how little they realise what advantages such schools have in terms of staffing levels, resources and parental engagement.

It’s a bit like the fallout from the “Protect the NHS” phase, which did so at the expense of Cinderella care homes (20,000 excess deaths?) and wider community (11,000 more deaths than average?). Some 55,000 Covid deaths in total, suggests the Office for National Statistics. Not a good look. Nor is Priti Patel’s legislation to introduce that points-based immigration reform. Its second reading was carried by 351 to 252 remotely-registered votes on Monday – despite concern on the Tory benches. Are EU care workers still “unskilled” after what we’ve seen? Is a £25,600 job offer requirement fair or sensible at this time of crisis? It fulfils an election pledge, but from pre-history (last year).

All this will come out at the inquiry and ministers tell reporters “now we are all keeping notes”, ready to defend themselves.

Johnson’s repeated failure against Keir Starmer adds to backbench disquiet. Critics want a properly functioning Commons restored so ministers can be held to account, over opaque “follow the science” decisions and expensive Covid contracts, made without proper tender or quality control, so the Guardian pointed out. Loyalists want it back so they can shout abuse at the Labour leader. PMQs without bear-baiting is like football with no crowd. Boris needs a claque, though what he really needs is an empathy transplant. The blame game got much noisier this week.

In the EU/UK chess game, London finally published its version of a Canada-style trade deal. “Cherry picking,” cried experts. Liz Truss outlined tariff-free proposals for global trade, easy gesture politics which is meant to bolster support among hardline MPs. HMG wants tariff-free and quota-free access to EU markets but not to have to contribute to that 500 billion euros recovery fund. Yet it remains adamant that it can’t accept carte blanche the EU’s regulatory framework, especially one arbitrated by mission-creep EU judges. It also wants annual fish quota deals like Norway instead of status quo access demanded by coastal fishing states, notably France where the maritime economics are small but the emotions large – just like us.

As major EU economies get back to work and ours does too – we are all making cars again this week – my hunch is that Merkel will not want to sweat the small stuff when everyone is trying to crawl out of a deep recessionary hole. She needs to make a larger gesture than she made to Cameron in his feeble ‘renegotiation’ in 2015-16 because we learn by past mistakes and she knows Boris is enough of a cavalier to risk a no-deal result, hoping to bury the economic downside in wider Covid-created misery.

Making French and Dutch fishermen pay might strike her as worth a try – if Whitehall’s negotiating team is better prepared to be flexible too. As we saw over the Irish Sea customs border and those disappearing mortality graphs at the daily Covid briefings Boris is more than willing to declare a retreat a victory, a U-turn a triumph, and hope to get away with it. But the trick is getting harder every time it is repeated. And it’s only the start of his long journey towards those promised sunny uplands of the new Global Britain.

In the big bad world, the Trump administration is actively undermining the World Trade Organisation on whose rules Global Britain rests so much hope. As for the World Health Organisation, China’s president Xi popped up online at its Geneva assembly to back its global Covid inquiry – just as president Trump threatened to defund it. Guess which one will call the shots? Johnson’s vision for a nimbler, more adaptable Britain is not borne out by his performance to date. He speaks good Latin, an ancient language no longer used. Would it be mean to mention another one? How fluent is his Mandarin?

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