One of the hallmarks of Brexiteers is an incurable obsession with petty symbols. So one of the small joys of Britain’s departure from the EU was that it took place at the stroke of midnight Brussels time – 11PM in Britain. Ask not for whom the bellend tolls. It tolls for Mark Francois, it would seem.
If you’ve imbibed the Brexit potion, then this will herald a new golden age for Britannia, unshackled from the limitations of funny continental types and free to roam the globe again. A great, global trading nation, no less.
A country that hadn’t given a passing thought to trade deals for nearly half a century has convinced itself that better ones are the shortcut to the strong economy we’ve lacked for more than a decade.
But after Friday’s Brexiteer celebrations, most people won’t have noticed much of a difference. We have entered a transition period to the end of the year and everything will basically stay the same. No chaos at the border, no extra lines at the airport, and still paying our membership subs.
In that time, the UK is supposed to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU – a task that typically takes seven years. And if we don’t, then we will leave on World Trade Organisation terms – pretty much identical to the no-deal Brexit people so feared in 2019. This isn’t very smart.
The folks over in Brussels figured such an approach might not work. After all, negotiating half your foreign trade in a year is a foolish thing to do, unless you plan to swallow wholesale existing EU regulations and rules to prevent undercutting on workers’ rights, consumer standards or environmental protections. So they included a clause allowing the transition period to be extended – so long as both sides agree to do so by the end of June.
In a fit of hubris, one of the first acts of Boris Johnson’s new government – with its sizeable majority – was to inexplicably tie its own hands behind its back and pass a law saying that there would be no extension and the UK would have to be out, deal or no-deal, by the end of the year.
The only explanation for doing something this dumb is that the Tories have come to believe their own bullshit. They are high on their own supply.
One of the many myths that Labour failed to expose during its catastrophically incompetent election campaign was that Johnson had secured “a great new deal”. In truth, Johnson’s deal was neither new nor great.
Johnson’s deal severs the UK’s economic cooperation with the EU – the mainland UK is out of the customs union and single market, while Northern Ireland is effectively in both but without any representation. Of course, with none of the benefits come none of the burdens – Britain won’t be paying into the budget or be bound by European rules and regulations.
It was a deal that was always open to Theresa May, but she actually was a unionist who wasn’t prepared to ditch a few million citizens to satisfy the deregulation dreams of the Brexit zealots. Nor did she subscribe to the “fuck business” approach of her successor.
What the Brexiteers can’t seem to get their heads around is that any deregulation by the UK is actually an increase in regulation for any business that operates or sells across the European continent. One set of regulations is replaced by two – no matter whether they are more or less burdensome. Complexity goes up, which is costly.
And in practice, most businesses will continue to conform to the regulatory standards of the single market of 400 million consumers less than two dozen miles from Kent. The deregulation opportunity is a mirage. It looks good from a distance, but there’s nothing really there.
What’s worse is that as well as believing their deal is new and great, Downing Street appear to have convinced themselves that it was won through brinkmanship and bluster about no-deal. Bizarrely, they think the EU blinked by agreeing to a crap deal for the UK that meant we lost control and gave us no benefits.
And yet. Johnson is trying to approach the negotiation of the future trade deal in precisely the same way as the agreement to leave. The political logic against no-deal remains as it always was – needlessly inflicting irreparable harm on your own economy is a vote loser. Johnson’s majority is larger than the ERG loons, so there’s no reason to pay attention to them.
So that really leaves two options: either a bare-bones trade deal that imposes a bunch of additional costs on UK businesses that export to the continent, or, more likely, swallowing a shedload of EU regulation over which we will no longer have a say. Yes, Brexit is basically pointless.
It seems quite possible that Johnson revives the deal that prompted him to resign from Theresa May’s cabinet – accepting EU regulation on goods in return for leaving the City alone to pursue casino-style banking. The financial crisis of 2008 shows us where that particular story ends.
But if it all goes horribly wrong, don’t expect any contrition from the Brexiteers. They will blame the Europeans, arguing that it just goes to show we were right to vote to leave in the first place. And if that doesn’t work, they will resort to the hard right playbook of stoking xenophobia and racism, blaming Britain’s economic woes not on their own stupidity but on immigrants who are our friends, neighbours, and colleagues.
Last year was a shit year. There’s every chance this one is going to be every bit as bad. That’s what happens when you put an amoral charlatan in Downing Street with no checks on his power. The argument over whether we leave or remain may be over, but the task of holding the bullshit merchants to account for delivering their impossible promises has only just begun.
Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics.