The first rule of the Brexit election is: you do not talk about Brexit

This campaign has an air of unreality but danger lurks just around the corner

December 05, 2019
Boris Johnson adjusts his safety headphones during a visit at Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes. Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/WPA Rota/Press Association Images
Boris Johnson adjusts his safety headphones during a visit at Red Bull Racing in Milton Keynes. Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/WPA Rota/Press Association Images

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, we are going to the polls in one week. Normally we would expect that to dominate the national conversation. An election is the ultimate expression of democracy. It is precious. The winner will govern vast areas of our lives for the next five years. The stakes this particular time could not be higher. And yet the country feels conspicuously disengaged. The papers are more interested in whether world leaders laughed at Donald Trump. How did we get here—and where do we go now?

In short, we have had to undergo a process of mass forgetting. We have apparently forgotten everything the government has done since 2017. We have forgotten the debacle of the Brexit negotiations under two different prime ministers. We have forgotten the policy to take us out of the EU with no deal. We have forgotten the implicit threat to deport three million EU citizens, which the government only withdrew in August 2018 and still signals for those who do not achieve settled status. We have even forgotten the Windrush scandal, the acme of the hostile environment, which saw black Britons deprived of their medical treatment, stripped of their dignity and in some cases removed from the country.

We have forgotten Boris Johnson’s own brief and dismal record: his unlawful prorogation, shameless politicisation of the monarchy, attempts to frustrate the will of parliament, and the chilling afternoon when he stood in the chamber to dismiss death threats against MPs as “humbug.” Nobody talks about it. Nobody remembers it.

We have forgotten, too, the low points of the Tory election campaign. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments on Grenfell, the prime minister’s inaction on the Yorkshire floods and the Conservative press office’s active disinformation, renaming its account “Fact Check UK” during the leaders’ debate: all have faded from view.

And we have forgotten Brexit. Not once has Johnson faced a credible attack for failing to take us out of the EU on 31st October, even though that was the central pledge of his premiership and the main reason we are in fact holding this election. We have heard almost nothing about the actual Brexit deal on the table. Almost nobody mentions the job losses and business closures from leaving the customs union; or the clobbering of our most lucrative industries which depend on regulatory alignment with the EU; or the harm to our society and reputation by ending the free movement of people. Nobody at all discusses the goods shortages and border chaos that would result if, as the Conservatives have threatened, there is no trade deal at the end of the transition next December. And Northern Ireland, which will now see trade barriers with Great Britain for the first time, has been left to its political fate.

Johnson hasn’t needed to turn this into a “people vs parliament” election because, on Brexit at least, his opponents have ceded the ground to him. Labour has been hamstrung by its own difficult compromise position. The Lib Dems have been winded by their tactical error of pledging to revoke Article 50 without a referendum. And Nigel Farage has removed himself from the conversation altogether. A few days ago he tweeted to demand how Johnson could be a supporter of the Union when he was planning an economic border in the Irish Sea—but he effectively now supports that deal as well.

The only real Brexit outrage the Labour Party has seized on concerns the NHS—specifically, as part of the future trade deal with the US. This may be cutting through with the public, and the leaked negotiating documents do indeed reveal that medicines have been discussed. At this week’s NATO summit Donald Trump insisted that he wants “absolutely nothing to do with the NHS” and had “never even thought about it, honestly,” which is about as reassuring as a shark in a municipal swimming pool promising to wear armbands. The truth is that Johnson will be desperate for a deal and Trump knows that perfectly well. The president will be able to exert all the leverage he could ever wish for. But it is remarkable that we are more interested in discussing a deal that we will only negotiate after 2020 than the far more impactful deal we will start negotiating in a few weeks’ time—the future agreement with the EU.

In one respect the Tories have, of course, attempted to talk about Brexit: in the aftermath of last week’s London Bridge attack, Home Secretary Priti Patel penned a particularly cynical article in the Telegraph entitled “EU membership is incompatible with the vigorous border security we need,” illustrated with a photograph of her and Johnson visiting the scene of the attack. It was not only the foulest type of scaremongering; it was not only, in the context of that attack, utterly irrelevant; it was also an outright lie. EU membership has given us Europol, the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, the Passenger Names Record Directive and the Prüm Convention. Shared databases, intelligence-gathering and security cooperation at EU level have helped to prevent crime and punish criminals. As anyone who has ever arrived at a UK airport knows, border officials check everyone’s identity before allowing them into the country. There is nothing about the EU that makes us unsafe and a great deal that makes us safer.

The greatest problem with an election is that in the absence of a proportional voting system, we must simply guess who stands the best chance of defeating the worst candidate and hope enough of us have agreed on it. In dozens of seats progressive voters must make complex calculations about the likelihood of a Tory majority; whether Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP or Plaid stand the best chance of preventing it in their seat; and what would happen if a hung parliament did follow. There are millions of people who fear both a Johnson and Corbyn majority and would actively choose that hung parliament. Whichever national outcome we want, we have only the blunt instrument of a single vote to attempt to enact it. Thus conscience does make psephologists of us all.

But here’s the rub. The first rule of this election may be that we do not talk about Brexit. But if we don’t stop the Conservatives we will talk about nothing else. We see what the Conservatives are prepared to do in order to win. We see the dishonesty. We see them use the murder of two supporters of prison rehabilitation to advocate for tougher sentencing. We see the economic and social damage looming. And we have one week to stop it.