How Brexit Britain was boiled out of its senses over 1,286 days

A deal brings almighty relief. But there’s still reason to be very afraid

October 17, 2019
Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images
Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

1,286 days. That’s how long it has taken to slide from “the day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards” (Michael Gove, 9th April 2016) to “Everyone who has campaigned against no deal [must now]… put their vote where their mouth is” (Damian Green, 17th October 2019), or to put the latter more plainly “any deal will do.”

Theresa May’s former deputy is banging a drum that every loyalist Conservative will now be beating until the Commons votes on Boris Johnson’s deal, assuming it gets that far.

But Green was a referendum Remainer who was then seen as a voice for a relatively soft Brexit after the vote. He, and anyone else from his side of the party, who now swallows Johnson’s deal must digest along with it all the official and other economic analysis which shows how this form of departure, a sharper break for the British mainland than under May’s UK-wide backstop, will depress cross-channel trade and with it prosperity considerably more than would ever have happened under Plan A.

And it’s not only the soft Brexiteers who are having to make painful concessions. The Tory right, and indeed Johnson himself, have previously said it would not be conscionable to divide our kingdom with new trade borders in the Irish Sea. Well, the unthinkable has had to be thought there. And in areas such as VAT Northern Ireland now looks likely to end up bound in more closely to Dublin than it would have been under the May plan.

Arguably an even bigger concession for the free market right, with its dream of a deregulated Singapore-style offshore economy, is the insistence in the political declaration that the UK must uphold current standards in areas such as the “environment, climate change and relevant tax matters.” That had to stay in there, presumably, to assuage European anxieties about being undercut, but it could also help Johnson woo over those wavering Labour MPs, most from heavily Leave seats, who feel duty bound by the 2016 result to find a way to “get Brexit done.”

Those Labour MPs will now also feel, with special intensity, the heat that the government will seek to apply right across the opposition benches as well as towards potential anti-hard Brexit rebels among the Conservatives and the 20-odd former Tories who have been officially banished. Johnson’s own Tweet heralding his deal smashed the ball into parliament’s court to “#GetBrexitDone” “on Saturday,” so that politics could move on to other things. No doubt that line could resonate in an exhausted country. Indeed, seeing as Johnson signed on the dotted line without securing the support of the Democratic Unionists he will likely need to get this deal through the Commons, it is possible that—as the Guardian’s reliably sharp Lisa O’Carroll has suggested—the whole political purpose of today is not to make anything real happen, but rather to set up a winning pitch for a general election based on sweeping recalcitrant parliamentarians out of the way.

Over three years, hopes and expectations for Brexit have been slow-boiled like the frog that fails to notice its fate. An exhausted country might, indeed, gratefully embrace anybody who can promise to “make it stop.” And all the MPs who have so feared no deal will not be immune from the temptation to let down their guard now that the government appears to have a plan to avert it.

And yet they should resist.

Why? The damaging disruption to future trade is just the start. The “political declaration” is nothing more than that name suggests, some political words that can be rewritten, a hopelessly weak guarantee for anyone seriously concerned about those environmental and social standards. But more imminent than either of these future threats is a procedural trap.

If MPs finally pass the meaningful vote on Saturday, and the government then starts to legislate for its deal it likely wriggles free of the constraints that the Benn Act imposed upon it to avoid no deal. As the legislation wends its way through, the hardline Brexiteers who have been happy to nod the deal through the first stages could then peel away, meaning that the deal never becomes enacted and, with Johnson again indicating he won’t ask for an extension, we could end up back in the territory where the UK would fall out without a deal.

That is of course what some hardliners would prefer anyway, but what everyone else is desperate to avoid. Can MPs really trust a prime minister who has made a talisman out of an arbitrary date for departing and played fast and loose with so many of the rules, to ensure that everything is done to avoid this? Even after three years of slowly sinking expectations, that is still a risk that is simply too grisly to run.

This is a hard Brexit deal negotiated by the frontman of Vote Leave himself, and as such confronts the UK with a much starker choice than ideas from Labour or anyone else about a “credible” soft Brexit option. As a result, the case for a new referendum has become stronger, not weaker. MPs who would have originally planned to hop out of a boiling cauldron must not now be deterred from leaping free by how long it has taken to bubble.