Since taking office, Boris Johnson has overseen a blizzard of untruths, half-truths and hearsay emanating from Downing Street. From claims of a secret, cunning plan to circumvent the law and sneak out of the EU to fake news stories about investigations into "foreign collusion" by MPs opposed to Brexit, spin has been replaced by spickle.
But there is a lie that transcends them all, a falsehood that marshals all the rest: “Get Brexit done”.
“What the whole world wants,” Johnson told his party conference, “is to be done with the subject of Brexit and to move on.” Time and again, Johnson promised that leaving the EU would allow the government to focus elsewhere – from the NHS to schools, hospitals and a “new economic plan”. We can expect to hear a lot more of it in the coming weeks – as soon as the election was called, that conference speech was turned into a slick election video.
It is this promise to the people that Johnson uses to justify his conduct, from lying to the Queen to riding roughshod over the norms of parliamentary democracy.
In truth, should Johnson’s withdrawal agreement receive parliamentary approval, then the legal exit will merely mark the end of the beginning of Brexit. There will be no talking about other things that are important to the country – the NHS, the climate breakdown, whatever. No increased “bandwidth”. Political oxygen will still be in short supply for everything other than Brexit. Just even more Brexit. Eternal Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. The 2020s will be a festival of Brexit.
The next phase will be more complex, complicated and contested than the past three years. Britain will need to negotiate a new partnership with the EU from a far weaker position than the negotiation of its withdrawal. That isn’t going to happen quickly, quietly, or calmly.
Johnson’s allies in the Conservative party and press have trumpeted his plan as if it were some sort of diplomatic triumph. It’s not.
The plan sees mainland Britain exit both the EU customs union and single market while leaving Northern Ireland in both. This has been accomplished by introducing a border in the Irish sea. The political declaration explicitly sets a free trade agreement as the desired basis of the future relationship. It would see Britain have the same trading arrangements with the EU as distant countries such as Canada, Mexico and South Korea. Under Johnson’s plan, Ukraine will have a closer economic partnership with the EU than the UK post-Brexit.
Such an arrangement was always available to Theresa May. She didn’t take it both because of the harm it would do to the union, and because all too late she came to understand the economic damage it would cause. The government’s own impact assessments show that it would be nearly as economically destructive as a no-deal exit. It was precisely because May tried to smuggle a close future partnership with the EU into the withdrawal agreement that the ERG were so determined to stop her. The “backstop” was the destination – a customs union and close regulatory alignment – not a fall back.
The path ahead will be rocky. The withdrawal agreement includes a transition period that will last until the end of 2020, during which time a trade agreement is supposed to be concluded. A typical free trade agreement takes seven years to be negotiated, so this timetable is pure fiction. If a deal is not reached, the UK (except Northern Ireland) will revert to WTO terms; this is effectively a trapdoor to a no-deal.
The transition can be extended by mutual agreement between Britain and the EU by the 1st of July 2020, but the European Research Group – the Tory hard-Brexit headbangers – will fight any extension every step of the way precisely because it is a route to the destructive no-deal exit that they seek. So if you thought that passing Boris Johnson’s deal would stop politics being a Westminster psychodrama dominated by a bunch of hard-right fanatics, think again.
In theory, a free trade agreement ought to be straightforward. The EU is our largest trading partner and we are a major destination for their exports, too. We sell more to them in services and they sell more to us in goods, meaning that there is a strong incentive for both sides to strike a deal – we can scratch their backs and they can scratch ours. But what makes modern trade deals complicated isn’t slashing tariffs to zero or capping the amount of goods that can be sold--its the tricky task of eliminating all the other things that get in the way of trade, such as differences in standards or deliberately difficult rules that make it hard for foreign companies to compete. Since Britain is currently an EU member, the same rules and standards are in place on both sides of the channel, meaning that it shouldn’t be difficult to agree. So far, so simple.
This is where reality clashes with ideology. For the Brexiters, the purpose of Brexit was to be able to deregulate and strike new trade deals in fast-growing far-flung places. They see the EU as a cumbersome, statist project that overburdens the European economy with regulation. In this view of the world, it is EU regulation that stands in the way of a more dynamic economy that grows more quickly. It is for this reason that the provisions guaranteeing that Britain wouldn’t lead a race to the bottom in consumer standards, workers’ rights and environmental protections were ripped out of the draft withdrawal agreement that May had negotiated.
But if the plan is to deregulate, then UK regulations will no longer be aligned with those of the single market, which means our exports will need to be checked to see if they meet EU standards. If the UK is going to strike its own trade deals, there will need to be controls to stop Britain providing a back door into the single market for products from countries were the EU has charged higher import tariffs. And if Britain tries to undercut EU countries by slashing workers’ rights and environmental protections to make its exports cheaper, then the EU will introduce counter-measures, perhaps including tariffs, to prevent such a race to the bottom. This is the essential paradox of Brexit: it is either pointless – because everything stays the same only Britain has less say – or painful, because things change for the worse.
What’s more, the strategic objective of the Brexiters is to realign Britain from the European sphere to the US sphere. Given the binary nature of regulation – you either meet a standard or you do not – it is not possible to be aligned to both blocs at the same time. Britain cannot be Norway and North Carolina simultaneously. It will be in the attempt to secure a deal with the US and a deal with the EU that the myth of Brexit will explode. Britain cannot have its cake and eat it. Do Britons really want a future like the US with runaway inequality, inaccessible healthcare, and almost no rights at work?
In truth, Brexit has become the prism through which a much larger contest about the future of Britain has been refracted. There are two competing visions for our future – one where we are a European social democracy, the other where we are a free market society and economy like the United States. All the evidence suggests that no matter our cultural affinity with our cousins on the other side of the pond, most Britons are rather accustomed to European social model and want more protection, not less. Any politicians that seek to sacrifice our way of life will face fierce resistance from a populous that sought shelter from the storms of global capitalism, not to climb to the top of the mast as the rain pours and lightning strikes.