Thursday 25 February 2021

Brexit constipation

It was always going to be the case that post-Brexit the UK and the EU would be in ongoing negotiations, for which the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) would be the basis and from which the relationship would evolve. That was assured if only by the Brexiters’ truism that ‘we are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe’. The basic facts of geography, economics and international relations make such continuing negotiations inevitable.

Boris Johnson’s recent G7 speech at the Munich security conference may have tried to ignore that inconvenient truth - by mentioning the EU only twice, and then disparagingly – just as he wants to avoid all mention of Brexit, but it doesn’t change the reality. It’s a reality which takes the concrete form of the crisis that is silently engulfing Britain’s trade with the EU, its biggest trading partner. There are increasing delays in the shipping of goods, with shortages and price rises as a result. Some firms, especially smaller ones, have simply given up on trading. Meanwhile there has already been significant damage to the financial services industry and warnings of worse to come.  

So, whilst rarely in the news headlines, sector after sector is now reporting the impact of the new barriers which were the inevitable result of leaving the customs union and the single market. Professor Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University has created an astonishing archive of, so far, 200 reputable news stories over the last month or so about the quite extraordinary damage which is being done by Brexit.

However, what was not inevitable, although always highly likely, was that rather than these ongoing negotiations being about a relationship evolving from the TCA they continue to endlessly revisit and replay the debates that led to it. Brexit is thus stuck. At the heart of this lies the continuing refusal of the government, and Brexiters more generally, to accept what Brexit means and to accept what the UK agreed to, both in the TCA and in the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), including the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

One index of that refusal is the replacement of Michael Gove as co-chair of the Joint Committee overseeing the WA/NIP by David Frost, who negotiated the TCA. Frost will also be the UK chair of the new Partnership Council to oversee the TCA. This in itself is suggestive of a desire to frame the post-Brexit negotiations in terms of those which led to the TCA rather than in terms of what might develop from it. It is also indicative of a more hard-line approach (£), in contrast to Gove’s supposed weakness, with Frost’s monocular focus on ‘sovereignty’ at its heart (the EU, meanwhile, has moved on, although as Jon Worth explains on his blog that presents its own issues).

A hard Frost

The irony is that it was Frost’s approach, enabled, of course, by Johnson and building on the red lines established by Theresa May, which created precisely the trade barriers which are now causing so much damage. The only way in which these supposed ‘teething problems’ will be reduced (they cannot be eliminated without reversing hard Brexit altogether) is if the UK agrees to align more closely with EU rules.

In particular, aligning on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) rules would, as suggested in my previous post, ease the pressure on some of the industries suffering the most visibly, such as fishing and agriculture, and unblock some of the problems that Northern Ireland is facing. It seems clear that the EU would be amenable to this. Heeding calls from the chemicals industry to reconsider how the UK relates its regulation to the EU REACH system would be another way of improving on the TCA. Similarly, were the UK to accept a mobility agreement with the EU it could reduce some of the damage to services trade, along with other measures such as those suggested by Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform.

Perhaps Frost will prove more pragmatic than his previous conduct suggests, but the signs are not good, as Mujtaba Rahman, the respected analyst at Eurasia Group, has convincingly argued this week. What seems more likely is a continuation, or an escalation, of the bellicose rhetoric of ‘retaliation’ against the EU for implementing the agreement that the UK itself has signed up to. As both Rahman and Rafael Behr – in an interesting analysis which I’ll return to later – suggest, there is considerable domestic political mileage in continuing to pick fights with the EU. The economic damage, which might in other contexts be a national crisis, seems hardly to matter to this government and it doesn’t seem to be paying any political price for this.

Labour’s deafening silence

One reason for that is Keir Starmer’s deliberate and now deafening silence on what is happening. The one thing which an Opposition leader can do is influence the news agenda. If Labour were minded to, what are currently a stream of apparently disconnected stories, often buried in the business pages, could be pulled together to create headline news of massive governmental economic incompetence. Of course Johnson would try to twist this as Labour being anti-Brexit, or seeking to reverse Brexit, but if Starmer were canny he would position the attack in the fertile soil of Johnson having betrayed Brexit by hastily signing a deal for his own political convenience without regard for what it meant for ordinary people and for the country in general.

That is, after all, what some and perhaps many leave voters now think and so would not even necessarily entail alienating former Labour leave voters in the ‘red wall’. Such voters were probably not, for the most part, those for whom Brexit was a huge over-riding issue in and of itself but, having voted for it, they then ‘lent Johnson their vote’ to ‘get Brexit done’. That implies only the softest of commitments to voting Tory, and one very receptive to the charge that Brexit may have been ‘done’ but it was ‘done wrong’ by the Tories. The other side of the coin is that, in pussy-footing around the supposed sensibilities of red wall voters, Labour are treating the bulk of their supporters with contempt.

Electoral considerations aside, Starmer’s failure of leadership on, not Brexit, but the UK’s post-Brexit future is a catastrophic dereliction of duty. Who else is going to speak up for those being damaged by what is happening to this country’s trade? It’s also a major strategic error. He has a once in a generation opportunity to cast Labour not only as the party of business but, in doing so, as the protector of the working-class jobs and communities that are dependent on trade with the EU. It is ironic that Starmer is now replicating the way that, as I once described it, Jeremy Corbyn approached Brexit like an inordinately straitlaced Victorian confronted with a piano leg. In this way, too, Brexit is stuck.

The Brexit Ultras are stuck in the same old loops

Whilst the government is being given a free pass by Labour to escape scrutiny of the effects of the Brexit it agreed, it does not follow that it is giving Brexit Ultras what they want. Again, Brexit is stuck in a recurrent loop because even as Johnson doubles down on ‘sovereignty’ with Frost’s appointment, he is finding, like all his recent predecessors, that the Ultras want more. So, rumbling away, are all the same old battles. Hence former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, bemoaning the new barriers to trade that come with the TCA, makes – apparently in all seriousness - the bizarre jump of logic that the TCA should therefore be scrapped, thus resurrecting no-deal Brexit 2.0. Bizarre because, of course, that would simply mean that in addition to those barriers of trade there would also be tariffs and quotas. Yet he surely isn’t alone in wanting to revive the ‘Go WTO’ call of yore.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster and other Northern Irish unionists (plus, for some reason, the hapless Habib) are seeking a judicial review of the NIP. The DUP have, of course, always been opposed to Irish Sea border but now the ERG are also calling for the NIP to be scrapped (£). They believe, quite wrongly, that Article 16 of the Protocol allows the UK to do just that (for an accurate explanation of what Article 16 does and does not allow, see David Allen Green’s limpidly clear blog post). In a rational, or even half-honest, politics, this might seem truly astonishing. After all, the WA/NIP was the ‘oven ready deal’ on which Johnson fought and won a General election and for which all the ERG MPs subsequently voted.

But as I noted at the time, “many in the ERG will now be thinking that Johnson’s deal was only the bastard offspring of May’s ill-fated premiership and the ‘remainer parliament’, and feel no allegiance to it. They kept quiet during the election campaign, which required them to pledge support for Johnson’s deal, but that won’t necessarily last”. That proved to be true, because soon after having voted for it, and Johnson signing it, many of them denounced the entirety of the deal as not being “sovereignty compliant”. Now the issue is coming to a head, and it could spell real political trouble for Johnson and, more importantly, for the country.

The obvious problem is what is the alternative to the sea border? And on this the Brexiters are again stuck, returning to the endlessly debunked ideas of ‘technological solutions’ to create (as in David Trimble’s recent article in the Irish Times) an “invisible” land border or, as the ERG have it, “alternative arrangements” for the “mutual enforcement of the North/South border” (I fear it is only a matter of time before the ‘Malthouse compromise’ gets another airing). That is again bizarre since if these solutions really did exist then why could they not be used for the sea border? But, more to the point, it simply returns us to all of the issues about the Irish border that were discussed ad nauseum during May’s premiership. The underlying realities of the Good Friday Agreement have not changed. But nor, too, has the underlying refusal of the Ultras to accept these realities – regarding them instead as a contrivance of the EU and of Ireland to thwart Brexit.

As things stand, the government this week re-affirmed its commitment to the full implementation of the NIP. But this was at a meeting of the Joint Committee with Gove still co-chairing. It may be that when Frost takes over that will change, especially with the new pressure from the ERG. If so, there will be a monumental crisis. That meeting also saw the UK seek extensions to the various grace periods on full implementation, in order to develop the necessary systems. Yet, as with the entirety of both the WA/NIP and the TCA, the lack of readiness stems from the government’s own decisions – in this case not to extend the transition period. This too roots back not simply to Johnson’s refusal last year to extend, but to the heated arguments within the Tory Party during the summer of 2017 about the very idea of there being any transition period.

In these and other ways the Brexiters are proving incapable of ‘moving on’ from Brexit. As a result, the whole country is stuck in the debates of 2017-2019 when, it will be recalled, ‘Go WTO’ and ‘alternative arrangements’ were endlessly proposed as alternatives to the Brexit deals. But those deals are now done, leading to the question, posed this week by (another) blog by David Allen Green, of whether, if this recursivity continues, the WA/NIP and TCA “will be able to withstand such sustained political assaults.”

The political psychology of Brexit, part 94

Green’s discussion begins with reference to the remarks of Mujtaba Rahman and Rafael Behr which I linked to above, both of which suggest that continuing antagonism is more or less assured. Behr, in particular, locates this within a political psychology of Brexiter grievance and victimhood, with its associated “heroic defiance”. I think that is right, and it is a psychology I have been writing about on this blog since November 2016. But I’d push the point a bit further.

What seems to be happening now is the drawing together of several strands within that psychology. One is the persistent idea that any actual Brexit ‘isn’t what we meant’ or, in other words, a refusal to accept the actual consequences of Brexit as being the result of the UK’s choices. That then morphs into the idea of EU ‘punishment’ and even into behaving as if Brexit is, somehow, being forced on the UK. In some ways it has always seemed as if the Brexiters would have been happier had they lost the Referendum but, now, they have found a new way to wallow in bellicose victimhood. The result is certain kind of cakeism: Brexiters have the cake of a Brexit delivered and yet are still able to eat the cake of Brexit grievance.

The consequence of this is that no one else can ‘move on’ either. Erstwhile remainers, or for that matter those who are neutral about it, can hardly ‘try to make Brexit work’ when the government’s rigidities preclude assisting in that, whilst the Ultras are still calling into question the entirety of the Brexit deals. Not only are they stuck, but so is the whole country.

But the context has changed

However, although in all these ways the Brexit saga is repeating itself, what is crucial is that the formal Brexit process has moved on. Before the Referendum, the Brexit debate was purely domestic. Afterwards, at least once Article 50 was triggered, that debate continued to be parochial but at least ran into the realities of negotiating with the EU. But, now, Brexit has been defined in international agreements. The WA/NIP, in particular, is binding in international law and the NIP is of especial interest to the new US administration. So the legal and geo-political costs of breaking or flouting it would be very high, as would the economic costs of breaking the TCA (which has still to be ratified by the European Parliament, by the way).

Brexit is therefore no longer simply a matter of domestic politics. This means that the childish refusal of Brexiters to be realistic about what Brexit means and to take responsibility for the consequences of the choices they have forced upon the country gets more dangerous and damaging by the day. That damage is most obviously economic, but it is also reputational. Many Brexiters, even as they angrily denounce others for ‘talking Britain down’, will be ignorant of, or indifferent to, it, but they have made Britain a laughing stock internationally, as shown by a recent scathing article in the New York Times.

More concretely, as illustrated by the striking image at the Munich security conference of Merkel, Macron and Biden discussing transatlantic security, far from emerging as ‘Global Britain’, Brexit is rendering the country marginal. The Brexit press whined about Biden ‘snubbing’ Britain at the conference by not mentioning it in his speech, but this is what marginalization brings. Yet even as it is happening the Brexiters indulge themselves in fantasies such as Daniel ‘single market’ Hannan’s idea of a UK-India trade deal (£) based upon what he fondly imagines to be the ‘sentimental’ attachments between the two countries. Like the CANZUK fantasy that some are still pushing, it’s a good example of what has been called the ‘Ladybird’ thinking behind Brexit, which as a prospectus for Britain in the twenty-first century it is worse than risible.

The urgent need is to improve trading and diplomatic relations with the EU, but that can’t happen whilst Brexiters are stuck in the past, whether that be the 1800s, the 1950s or the endlessly revisited battles of the last five years.


I don’t think there is any reason to think that any of this is going to improve. Looking back over the last few years of this blog I find periodic posts (also here) arguing that ‘now’ Brexiters and the Brexit government need to get real. It never happens. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it can’t happen, as it is in the nature of Brexit to deny reality. I had some hopes - never great, certainly naive and now pretty much dead - that with the TCA there could be some kind of re-set or normalization of UK-EU relations. It’s already clear that that will not happen, at least in this political generation.

There is a report today from the invariably reliable Tony Connelly of RTE that “senior EU figures are contemplating a major re-set of relations with the UK” to coincide with the ratification of the TCA in the hope of creating a more harmonious atmosphere. But the reality is that ever since 2016 almost all the antagonism has been generated by the UK’s Brexit Ultras rather than the EU. At all events, it takes two to tango and for the reasons given in this post Brexit Britain seems unlikely to dance, stuck as it is in the same old patterns.

This Brexit constipation is here to stay. There is, to continue the scatological metaphor, currently no political laxative powerful enough to shift it. It will take an enema, which is not yet in prospect and, if and when it comes, will be undignified and painful.


Apologies that there was no post last week – I was unwell – but many thanks for those who sent good wishes or who remarked that they missed (and valued) the blog.

My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback Publishing in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback or via other online platforms, including Waterstones, as a paperback or e-book.

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