Brexit—from food to famine

Language works in subtle ways. Leavers knew it; why don’t pro-Europeans?

May 18, 2022
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Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The word Brexit was coined just a decade ago. Its first recorded use was in May 2012, nine months before David Cameron announced his fateful “in/out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It was a mimic of Grexit, shorthand for the possible exit or expulsion of Greece from an imploding Eurozone. Within just four years Brexit had become the most freighted word in British politics, and so it has remained. Yet across the last decade, its associations have kept changing—both the associations of the word (what it stands for) and the political associations of those using it—including those, like Keir Starmer, who are avoiding the word entirely in an attempt to “move on” from a debate which they lost first time around and are now keen to downplay.  

However, as the reality of Brexit becomes one of increasing damage, with catastrophes in Northern Ireland and the collapse of UK trade, it can’t be wished away. On the contrary, a new debate is starting on how it might be reversed, in stages. The reversal process will doubtless attract another portmanteau, something like “de-Brexit,” just as nationalisation was followed by denationalisation in the postwar era.

The rise of Brexit the word is described brilliantly by speechwriter Simon Lancaster in his forthcoming book Connect!, about how words and metaphors conjure potent images. He charts three stages in the evolution of “Brexit.” Before the 2016 referendum, and in the triumphalist aftermath of Vote Leave’s success, it heralded dynamic change and propulsion towards the emergency EXIT from the proverbial cinema on fire. Even opponents of Brexit in the referendum were hard put to counter the image of a liberating, exciting future freed from the shackles of Brussels. The alternative of “Remain” seemed weak and inert, all figures and no feelings.    

“It’s intriguing to think of what the other possibilities might have been,” says Lancaster. “If it had been called the ‘Britsin’ referendum, the background beat to every conversation would have been ‘in… in… in.’ Or what if it had been called the Breu referendum (Britain and EU)? That would have locked in people’s minds a marriage between Britain and the EU. The opponents would have been in favour of ‘Brivorce.’ I doubt people would have been queuing up to vote in such numbers for divorce.”

There are deep underlying connections between food and wealth

Brexit as a UK version of Grexit, a leap for freedom escaping EU servitude, persisted as an idea until the wake of the 2016 referendum. For Grexit never happened and neither the Eurozone nor the wider EU showed any sign of imploding. On the contrary, despite holding a bitter 2015 referendum to reject German-imposed austerity, the radical left Greek government of Alexis Tsipras had within weeks agreed bailouts with the EU. By 2018 Greece had emerged from bailouts and austerity, staying firmly within the EU and the euro. 

As for the EU, by 2018, in the aftermath of the Brexit and Greek shocks, it had never in its 60-year history looked so united and viable. Partly this was because of the calm, unprovocative leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany’s perpetual chancellor, but it was also in reaction to the existential threat posed by Brexit itself. Even populists like Le Pen in France, Orbán in Hungary and Salvini in Italy were by now rowing back fast from Frexit and equivalents. Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk became images of EU competence and solidity—especially Barnier, as the EU’s wily yet polite Brexit negotiator throughout the five years of negotiations after 2016. By the time Brexit took effect last year, the notion of an imploding EU had bitten the dust, and so too the longstanding anti-European trope of the Brussels bogeyman. Instead, the near universal worry was about what we were losing in the EU divorce settlement—and virtually all commentators agreed it was a lot.  

Bountiful Brexit

Had the essentially negative, anti-EU version of Brexit been its sole incarnation, it would probably not have won the 2016 referendum, let alone been implemented thereafter. The referendum went “Leave” by just 52-48, and in Theresa May’s shambolic hung parliament of 2017-2019, proposals for a second referendum—or a deal keeping Britain in a close economic association with the EU, including alignment with its customs union—were defeated by fine margins. 

However, in the 2016 referendum campaign a more positive image of Brexit took centre stage—Brexit as plenty. The “£350m a week” for the NHS painted on the side of Johnson’s bus, and freedom of the seas for the fisherman who were constantly conveying Nigel Farage on stunts and photoshoots, were only the start. As celebrity “Boris” moved from referendum victory in 2016 to replace the enfeebled May as prime minister in 2019, “Brexit as plenty” became his dominant motif. Brexit stopped being essentially anti-EU and became instead a vision of a newly rich Britain prospering in all its regions—a Brexit mission christened “levelling up” and made a central rhetorical theme for the Johnson government after 2019, when it conquered Labour’s northern so-called Red Wall.     

Johnson’s forte was to associate Brexit constantly with food and his own love of the stuff. “There are deep underlying connections between food and wealth,” says Lancaster. “We all, consciously or not, regularly speak about money using the metaphor of food. We talk of people bringing home the bacon, being breadwinners, having a ton of dough.”

In the 2016 referendum, many of Johnson’s campaign trips were to food outlets or producers. There was a biscuit factory in Lancashire (“I’ve never seen so much dough in all my life. But never forget, no matter how much dough they have here, it’s nothing like the dough we are sending to Brussels every day, £50m quid’s worth!”) and a fish factory in Lowestoft (“they’re pinching our fish,” posing with a live lobster and later joking about claws and clauses in European treaties), among others.

After the 2016 referendum, it was Johnson who introduced the “we can have our cake and eat it” metaphor—another image of plenty that dominated the subsequent tortuous Brexit negotiations, though they were incomprehensible to most people. Taking aim at May after resigning as foreign secretary in 2018 on the grounds that she was selling out, his argument was basically that she had given away too much cake. More than 1,200 media articles between 2016 and 2018 with Brexit in the title refer to cake in the text. Two new words appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, “cakeism” and “cakeist,” courtesy of Johnson.

Even his opponents fell for cakeism. “I try to discourage talk of cake amongst my colleagues,” said May’s chancellor Philip Hammond, only to add: “We can maximise the size of the cake and each enjoy a bigger piece.” Bank of England governor Mark Carney mocked the idea that Brexit would be a “smooth path to a land of cake and consumption,” thereby conjuring precisely the image Johnson intended. Hansard records a whopping 449 references to cake in parliamentary debates between June 2016 and December 2019. “MPs on both sides were speaking about Brexit as cake, regardless of whether they were for or against,” says Lancaster. “Johnson’s phrase had completely transformed the way Brexit was being perceived.”

Make it stop

By the time Johnson had ousted May in July 2019, the image of “Brexit as plenty” was being effectively challenged, including in two enormous marches of pro-Europeans in central London calling for a second referendum to stop Brexit in its tracks. This was a bitterly fought public and parliamentary battle throughout the summer and autumn of 2019. But because Brexit hadn’t yet happened and the losses weren’t yet realised, and because Labour was led by the ineffective Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson succeeded in manoeuvring from “Brexit as plenty” to a third theme.

Now, he said, whatever your views of Brexit, the argument had to stop, and could only be stopped by implementing the barebones Brexit deal he had negotiated with the EU shortly before calling a general election in October 2019. “Brexit as plenty” now became a claim about the imperative to resolve three years of national chaos so that the country could get back to “normal.” Johnson pulled off this tactical messaging coup with another compelling food image. Brexit was now “oven-ready,” requiring only a general election mandate to seal the deal and end the years of debilitating controversy.

Brexit has become the word that dare not speak its name

This “oven-ready deal” that would “Get Brexit Done” dominated the 2019 general election campaign, and Johnson comprehensively defeated Corbyn, whose command over positive images of anything was by now virtually nil. Johnson’s campaign was practically a food fest from its very launch, when he declared: “It’s there! You just whack it in the microwave [laughter]. Gas mark, gas mark, I don’t know, I’m not very good at cooking, but you know [more laughter], gas mark four. It’s there! It is ready to go! Prick the lid. Put it in [more laughter]. And then we can get on.” 

As the 2019 campaign got underway, Johnson went to a crisp factory in Northern Ireland, then to a bakery in Somerset, then to a Cornish clotted cream factory, and so on. His last campaign event before polling day was a pie factory in Derby where, taking a beef and ale pie out of the oven with his trademark “Get Brexit Done” pinny, he told the journalists: “This is the ‘Get Brexit Done’ pie! This is the perfect metaphor for what we’re going to do in the run-up to Christmas if we can get a working majority. We have a deal. It’s ready to go. You saw how easy it is. We put it in, slam it in the oven, take it out, there it is. Get Brexit done.”

Conspiracy of silence

Brexit took effect in January last year and we are now in a fourth phase. Although its effects are generally agreed to be negative, it has become the word that dare not speak its name. The position is radically different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where political leaders have been willing to speak up against Brexit or, in the case of the DUP, are opposed to Johnson’s deal because of its Northern Ireland protocol, which has had the effect of keeping the province practically within the EU and diverting trade from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland across the unimpeded land border.

In the mouth of Johnson, the fourth phase of Brexit is now a contradictory jumble. He said Brexit was done when his deal passed through parliament, and there were even reports that the word “Brexit” would be banned, with focus instead on the opportunities of Britain’s newly liberated status. But within months he and David Frost—who resigned as Brexit minister within a year over policy disagreements—were proclaiming the Northern Ireland protocol to be a disaster which had to be renegotiated. Then, as Johnson came under lethal pressure from Partygate in late 2021 and early 2022 and needed to rally the Brexit true believers who made him prime minister, Brexit was restored as the defining Tory achievement of his premiership. Michael Heseltine and I—as president and chair of the European Movement, respectively—were hailed by pro-Johnson columnists in the Telegraph and Mail as proof positive of Johnson’s indispensability, because of interviews and tweets in which we said: “if Boris goes, Brexit goes.” 

So, far from being done, Brexit for Johnson is now a fragile plant in danger of being swept away in a gust of political wind, and which hasn’t even taken root in Northern Ireland. He and his ministers are even threatening to activate the emergency Article 16 of the protocol, which they believe permits them to suspend it entirely. 

Starmer is in a similar bind. Convinced by his pollsters that the popularity of Brexit was a major obstacle to regaining the Red Wall, he decided to vote for Johnson’s deal at the end of 2020, and then spent 2021 trying to say as little as possible about it. As problems mounted, he urged the government to “make Brexit work,” but with few details as to how this should be done and an outright rejection of any substantive renegotiation of Johnson’s deal. On a visit to Newcastle in February, he even said that there was “no case” for rejoining the EU. So for him and Johnson, Brexit in 2022 is both a done deal—and an undone deal. Either done or undone, it has to be made to “work.” 

Back to reality

Meanwhile, in the real world, Brexit has moved from food to famine—empty supermarket shelves, HGV driver shortages, fuel panics, endless queues and obstacles at the channel ports, red tape in simple business and personal transactions involving the EU, and a permanent loss of trade and wealth. The publication this January of a government paper on “The Benefits of Brexit,” setting out “how the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU,” attracted virtually no attention, nor was it intended to. Its highlights were reintroducing “our iconic blue passports,” “reviewing the EU ban on imperial markings and sales” and “enabling businesses to use a crown stamp symbol on pint glasses.” 

The ardent Brexiteer Daniel Hannan, notorious for saying before the referendum that “absolutely nobody” was “talking about threatening our place in the single market,” has said: “Overall, I’m afraid, the document is thin, watery, tasteless gruel.” Like Frost, Hannan argues that only a ruthlessly free-market deregulatory Brexit will unleash the benefits they previously promised. But neither Johnson nor virtually any of his potential successors is now proposing to go down that path. On the contrary, they are putting up taxes and boosting social spending in the quest to “level up” and “build back better” after Covid and Brexit. Michael Gove, who broke decisively with Cameron on Brexit before even Johnson in 2016, is now “levelling-up secretary” and barely mentions Brexit.

“Neither the 2016 referendum nor the 2019 general election was fought on the basis that Brexit would usher in a brave new world of deregulation,” writes David Gauke, once a rising Tory star and a mainstream minister in the 2010s who supported May but would not go the whole Brexit hog with Johnson. “The country pays a high price for regulatory freedom—as events in Northern Ireland continue to demonstrate—but the benefits continue to disappoint even the most ardent of Brexiteers.” 

That price is likely to get higher very soon. Thanks to Brexit palpably not working even by the government’s own admission, Sinn Féin is now Northern Ireland’s leading party. Under its charismatic leader Mary Lou McDonald, the party, once allied to IRA terrorism, may soon be running the Republic of Ireland too if its huge, partly Brexit-induced poll lead is sustained. The argument that Brexit isn’t working is equally the theme of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and even Mark Drakeford in Wales, and privately the entire business leadership of England—although they speak warily in public for fear of offending Johnson’s ministers.  

In the face of disintegrating relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the growing security threat from Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, and the inevitable need for closer relations with Biden’s US, virtually any conceivable Tory leader after Johnson will be more pragmatic and start the process of moving closer to the EU, including new and better agreements on trade and co-operation. A relaunched Johnson may be forced down the same road. 

So, welcome to the next phase of Brexit—“de-Brexit.” It has yet to find its leaders and its metaphors. But I suspect we aren’t far from escaping from the burning Brexit cinema and enjoying the freedom to re-enter the EU single market, along with the food to be had from trading more with our European partners. There will be the cakeism of more trade, more wealth and greater security. And Johnson and Farage will eventually become a distant memory.