In the coming weeks, Boris Johnson will make one of his biggest decisions as Prime Minister: whether to sign up for the trade deal on offer with the EU. If we imagine that, like in 2016, he has written two articles on the subject, the one favouring a deal would foreground trade, friendship with our neighbours and the integrity of the United Kingdom. The alternative would major on the word “freedom,” acknowledging that any EU deal inevitably restricts this, and personal survival in post, the prospects of which reduce for Conservative leaders too friendly to the EU.
The Brexit dream is dying because that is the stark choice. You can’t have full freedom and close trade ties, but one or the other. It is dying because the EU currently looks more likely to hold together than the UK, because the Prime Minister’s promise of frictionless trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can’t be squared with the treaty he signed, and because you cannot reach a trade deal with the US if you threaten a bipartisan consensus on the NI peace process.
Yet point out, as I did on social media, that the dream is dying, and you can expect to hear otherwise from the high priests of Brexit. They’ll say the UK regains freedom at the end of the year, and indeed we will no longer be directly subject to EU regulations and European Court of Justice rulings. But if we want agreements with others, that freedom can only ever be partial, because cooperation comes at a regulatory price. The UK faces a series of never-ending trade-offs, despite the 2016 promise that we would “take back control.”
Doubtless the online response would be even more vitriolic if one was to suggest the Brexit dream was dying because of Leavers’ own hubris. But if we think back to the naïve pre-referendum days, many Brexit advocates appeared perfectly happy to accept gradual changes and continued UK membership of the single market. They will state now that it was the EU’s intransigence that forced their increasingly hardline position, but that’s to cover up the failure to anticipate that Brussels would have its own terms and conditions—that we couldn’t just have what we wanted.
Instead of gradualism and building…