Who is to blame for the Brexit we are getting?

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You might be surprised to discover that, according to a clutch of pro-Brexit pundits, it is Remainers who are to blame for the inglorious Brexit we’re about to receive. Odd how a rash of articles spinning this premise suddenly appeared one after another in a very short timeframe. It’s almost as if they’re all in the same WhatsApp group and somebody is sending them instructions as to what subjects to write about, and the narrative line to take on those subjects…

What sort of Brexit are we getting? In all likelihood, Boris Johnson’s thin gruel deal. If he can’t even achieve that, he fails to keep his most important promise to the electorate and we fall back onto the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) most basic terms. Ouch. From best-in-class trade terms to the most basic trade terms on the planet. No matter how much Johnson tries to tart it up by calling it “Australia”, WTO Brexit will hurt. We certainly will not “prosper mightily”, as he recently alleged.

Although the prospect of a no-deal Brexit has receded in the past few days, it is worth reminding ourselves why it most definitely would not be “a good outcome”, as our mendacious prime minister has persisted in claiming. Former head of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, told us back in 2016 that WTO analysis showed British consumers would be hit by higher costs to the tune of £9 billion and British exporters £5.5 billion. For reference, our net annual dues to the EU, which yielded us approximately 4 percent of GDP or £100 billion of benefits, were £9.7 billion. Brexit is literally the equivalent of being conned out of a tenner for a quid. Sure, we ‘save’ the £9.7 billion dues, but we also lose all those benefits. They include:

  • frictionless trade;
  • the synergy of financing 40 regulatory bodies with 27 other countries;
  • the Galileo satellite system;
  • various security systems and databases, and
  • cultural programmes as diverse as Erasmus and the City of Culture.

Furthermore, the costs associated with Brexit by far outstrip the £9.7 billion annual dues, so in reality we ‘save’ nothing. A double-whammy. There is no Brexit dividend.

It is not just the imposition of tariffs that increases cost. The re-introduction of red tape that membership of the single market alleviated, appointing an EU-based agent, customs formalities, other non-tariff barriers, the loss of ‘rule of origin’ cumulation and delays also have an impact. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge this, and even spreading fake news to the contrary, as Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has done, will be no defence against rising costs. Mogg’s fellow Somerset MP and top Brexiter Liam Fox eventually came to admit after years of chasing trade agreements, “If WTO was so good people wouldn’t be looking to have trade agreements or customs unions which are ways in which you can further improve on those WTO rules.”

Here is government’s dirty little secret: even with Johnson’s thin-gruel deal, we will still be hit by the costs and inconvenience of new customs formalities. Hence the building of all those lorry parks. Boiled down to its essentials, Brexit means switching from one legal framework for trade to another —one which is far less efficient and, ironically, over which we have even less control. People who think a last-minute free-trade deal with the EU will mean things will continue as they are now are in for a rude awakening. A free-trade deal is far inferior to the single market in terms of the benefits it confers.

Leading Brexiters and the pundits in the press who have given their lies wings know this, hence the blame game. The narrative they are spinning is that if Remainers had not opposed May’s deal, and tried to get a second referendum, we would now be looking forward to Soft Brexit. This premise has several gaping holes, not least of which is that Theresa May’s deal was not Soft Brexit. In her Lancaster House speech, Mrs May rejected the option of remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union, which is the definition of Soft Brexit. Instead, she decided her Brexit would centre on ending our Freedom of Movement.

May’s Brexit was softer than Johnson’s, in that it kept us in the Customs Union until a solution could be found for Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland. It was merely a stone’s throw away from the border between hard Brexit and no-deal Brexit, containing absolutely nothing for Remainers.

There have only ever been three ways to solve the Irish border issue:

  1. Soft Brexit, which Teresa May rejected;
  2. A hard border on the island of Ireland, which she rejected because it would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and thus Ireland’s hard-won peace, or
  3. A border in the Irish Sea, which she rejected because it would mean creating a border in the interior of the United Kingdom —something that no British Prime Minister could contemplate.

Leading Brexiters hated the fact that May would keep us in the Customs Union until suitable alternative arrangements could be found, since despite pretending otherwise in parliament and in the press, they knew it would be at least a decade until the technology to support such alternative arrangements existed. Remainers hated May’s Brexit because it would lead us to a status so much inferior to membership. Besides, by then VoteLeave’s lawbreaking, the nefarious methods of Cambridge Analytica, and Russian interference aimed at Remain voter-suppression in the run-up to the referendum had been exposed, calling the validity of such a narrowly won advisory vote as the basis for such major constitutional change into question.

Rory Stewart, then the junior minister in charge of prisons in the Department of Justice, dutifully did the rounds of the TV and radio studios to sell Mrs May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement (EUWA), and was later rewarded with a Cabinet post for his pains. He was one of the few Tory MPs who showed genuine enthusiasm for it, and he is now the most tenacious in arguing that Remainers are to blame for the harsh Brexit we’re about to experience for not backing May’s EUWA. Just when it looked as if this blame narrative might die a well-deserved death, Amber Rudd, Home Secretary under May and later Works and Pensions Secretary under Johnson, popped her head above the parapet, and garbled the same nonsense. At least they can claim consistency. Press pundits cannot.

Arguably the press played an even greater role in defeating May’s EUWA than Tory MPs did. They had already flexed their muscles in 2015, rejecting the compromises David Cameron had won from the EU, which would have enhanced our favourable membership terms still more. Historical events can be crafted into a narrative in the way that water can be given shape by putting it into a container. The press wield tremendous power in the way they frame events, and the voices they choose to amplify. Unfortunately, they tend to push the agenda of their proprietors, rather than act in the national interest. It is one of the reasons the UK press has been voted the worst in Europe for three years in a row.

If we look at who in the press is pushing the narrative that it is Remainers’ fault that we are heading for the harshest of hard Brexits, and compare it to what they said about May’s EUWA, there are some surprising results.

Left-wing commentator Owen Jones, for example, was implacably opposed to May’s deal. In November 2018, two months before the first *meaningful vote* was held, Jones actively campaigned to vote down Theresa May’s deal. The “votedownthedeal.co.uk” website may have been de-activated, but Jones’s Twitter video promoting it has not been taken down (yet). He had nothing but contempt for Mrs May for putting her EUWA to Parliament two more times, describing her decision to do so as “putting a gun to Britain’s head”. By August 2019, he was writing blogs trying to convince Lexiters that Soft Brexit was dead, and pointless anyway, as Brexiters thought it was Brexit in name only. They should stop trying to push for Lexit, he advised. Then he jumped on board with a People’s Vote to break the Brexit impasse. Now here Jones is today, blaming Remainers for something they didn’t vote for and have always actively opposed.

This is a perverse form of political victim-blaming more often seen on the Right than on the Left. “If you’re poor, it’s your fault for not pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and making yourself a fortune,” is the attitude prevalent amongst many on the Right. Indeed, commentators on the right have been equally hypocritical when it comes to May’s Brexit. Take Robert Colvile, for example. He even composed a pithy ditty to express his opposition to her EUWA before the first “meaningful vote” in January 2019:

“I do not like your Brexit deal

The backstop part does not appeal

I will not back it, not today

I will not back it, Mrs May…”

Before the second meaningful vote in mid-March 2019, Colvile went so far as to write a budget for the Chancellor for a no-deal situation. At the third meaningful vote at the end of March 2019, he expressed incredulity that Matthew Elliott recommended voting for May’s deal to get Brexit done.

Still, Colvile is not all bad. He at least advocated compromise in a 52-48% situation, when talkRADIO host Julia Hartley-Brewer opined that, “The whole point of holding a referendum in the first place was that there isn’t a compromise position. Leave won. There’s no reason why Remain should get a say at all.”

Tim ‘Montie’ Montgomerie, who would later become one of Johnson’s N°10 advisors (before falling out with him on a point of principle), backed the nonsensical Brady amendment that sought to undo the Irish Backstop. Yet after May’s third defeat, Montie quote-tweeted Brandon Lewis complaining, “Labour just voted against Brexit on #BrexitDay,” adding, “As well as THIRTY-FOUR ‘Conservative’ MPs,” suggesting a change of heart. Son of former Labour MP Glenda Jackson, Mail-on-Sunday columnist and member of the Brexit Press Corps, Dan Hodges also changed his outlook. Julia Hartley Brewer had claimed May’s EUWA “was not Brexit”, so Brexiters should not be blamed for any negative consequences flowing from it, but Hodges disagreed, because Brexiters started it:

“Because you [Brexiters] helped initiate this entire process. A process which many Remainers predicted would end in disaster. So yes, I’m afraid Brexiters are going to have to accept the blame for the impact of Brexit as well.”

He backed May’s deal though, as he thought it would fulfil two key objectives: leaving the EU, thereby satisfying Leave, and avoiding no-deal, pacifying Remainers. However, he predicted it would fail: “It represents a sensible compromise. And as a result, MPs will obviously reject it.” Now, he has joined in blaming Remainers for Johnson’s thin deal or lack of one, along with James Kirkup, who consistently backed May’s EUWA, claiming “May’s Brexit deal, including the backstop, is the least bad option available to Britain. MPs should vote for it.”

Do these pundits, most of whom have vacillated to one degree or another, have a point? Are Remainers in any way to blame for the Brexit we’re about to get?

Perhaps the most important question to ask is, why does somebody need to be blamed? It looks like we’re on track for a very hard Brexit, whether it’s via Boris Johnson’s thin gruel Brexit, which will spare us the tariffs, but still inflict customs disruption on us, or no deal Brexit, which even ultra-Brexity politicians like Michael Gove say will be harmful. Yet we have been repeatedly told that this is what Brexiters wanted all along —“Let’s Go WTO!” they’ve chanted for the past couple of years. Crucially, we’ve been told voters knew they were voting for the chaos and negative consequences of reverting to WTO terms when they voted to Leave. Are they now tacitly admitting Brexit is a bad idea, this government is rotten and Boris Johnson is a lousy prime minister?

Newton’s third law of motion is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Those trying to apply this ‘law’ to show that demands for a second referendum forced Brexiters to become more extreme are indulging in revisionist wishful thinking. First of all, there’s the inconvenient fact of chronology: the People’s Vote campaign was launched in 2018, whereas the “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra surfaced in July 2016.

That mantra is the perfect illustration of how the government has been influenced not by Remainers, but by Nigel Farage’s rag-tag bag of Brexiters. Although it is associated with Theresa May, “no deal is better than a bad deal” was first preached by one Richard Tice, close associate of Nigel Farage, co-founder of Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave, and now chairman of the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage and his ‘movement’ have been phenomenally successful in setting the Conservative Party’s agenda, from ‘inspiring’ David Cameron to hold an in-out referendum, to May’s red lines ruling out everything but a hard Brexit, to Johnson’s flirtation with and adoption of no-deal Brexit as an acceptable outcome. Indeed, it was Arron Banks’s campaign to persuade Leave.EU supporters to join the Conservative Party, which he claims upwards of 30,000 heeded, that has helped convert it into ‘BluKIP’.

Perhaps the most conclusive proof that the demand for a further referendum did not make hard Brexit inevitable is the fact that many of today’s advocates for no-deal Brexit have previously advocated a second referendum themselves —although only when they thought they wouldn’t win. They include Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, John Redwood, Dominic Raab and Dominic Cummings. Who could forget Nigel Farage’s ominous pronouncement a month before the 2016 Referendum, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”?

The irony is, of course, that the demand for a second referendum only arose when it became clear that while the official campaign, VoteLeave, had ‘won’ the referendum with promises of a better deal than now, it was the harsh agenda of the unofficial campaign, Leave.EU, that was being enacted. For context, the People’s Vote movement arose a year after the government triggered Article 50 without a plan, showed contempt for parliament with its Schrödinger Brexit impact assessments and allowed the press to attack its own MPs for attempting to have a sensible discussion about the risks and trade-offs of Brexit. As the Tory Party continued to negotiate with itself rather than the EU, alarm grew that we were hurtling towards no-deal, which was the very opposite of what had been promised, and had even been dismissed as ‘project fear’. That’s why there was a democratic imperative to allow the people to speak again via a referendum rather than a general election, which is about “who governs” rather than a precise constitutional issue like Brexit. Sadly that battle was lost, and British democracy is the lesser for it.

What of power and agency? Nothing Remainers say should matter, because Brexiters made a suite of promises they should deliver on. To claim Remainers are to blame for government’s failure to deliver the Brexit it promised is to assume that despite Brexiters holding all the power, they had no agency and did not decide on the course of Brexit themselves. This is errant nonsense. With an 80-seat majority, Boris Johnson could have decided to give us any Brexit he chose. Nothing tied him to May’s red lines. He could have re-set them. Had he been smart, Boris Johnson would have reunited the country by pivoting to EEA/EFTA. After all, ‘Norway’ is what many leading Brexiters promised, what the majority of Leavers expected and which most Remainers would have accepted. It might even have prevented the now inevitable break-up of the Union when Northern Ireland reunifies with the Republic of Ireland and Scotland gains its independence. Certainly, we would have been spared the humiliation of Gibraltar joining Spain in Schengen, and imposing passport controls on Brits not Spaniards.

If Remainers are not responsible for hard or no-deal Brexit, then who is? Clearly, responsibility resides with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. They alone have the power and the agency to decide which Brexit to pursue. Those who exert influence over them are not Remainers, but EU-hating media barons like Rupert Murdoch and Eurosceptic donors like the newly announced peer Peter Cruddas and ‘patriotic’ Brexiter hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, who is praying for a no-deal Brexit to make good on his £300 million bet against the British economy. Sure, the government has to get its Brexit through parliament, but even if two thirds of Tory MPs were to rebel, Govt could rely on payroll and opposition votes to get a deal through as the only alternative to no-deal. If what they were to propose was EEA/EFTA, that opposition support would be all the more enthusiastic.

Alas, as Boris Johnson might say, he is not that smart. Every time he has been given a new dollop of power, his fans in the press have foamed at the mouth in anticipation. “Now we’ll see the real Boris! He’s a liberal at heart! He loves Europe!” they enthuse. Every time they are proved wrong as his commitment to far-right nationalist-populism grows. The real Boris Johnson is what Prime Minister Boris Johnson does. He and his cabinet alone are responsible for the ugly Brexit we will get.