Photograph by Sara Morris, post-production by the Retouching Shed

Why did it all go to pieces?

The Tories won’t recover until they face up to the disaster of Brexit
October 28, 2022

It is unsettling when the Great Unsayable suddenly becomes sayable, taken for granted even, as if it were part of the conventional wisdom: the sort of thing people have been saying for years. I had this weird feeling when I saw the headline in the Daily Telegraph of 15th October: “Project Fear was right all along”. Jeremy Warner, the paper’s garlanded economics columnist, went on to say that “Downbeat projections by the Treasury and others on the economic consequences of leaving the EU, contemptuously dismissed at the time by Brexit campaigners as ‘Project Fear’, have… turned out to be overwhelmingly correct.” If anything, he said, they “underestimated both the calamitous loss of international standing and the scale of the damage that six years of policy confusion and ineptitude has imposed on the country.”

I can’t think of anything quite so shocking being said in public since Lytton Strachey encountered Vanessa Bell in a Bloomsbury drawing room in 1908 and, spotting a stain on her dress, asked: “Semen?” Right up to this moment, the slightest hint that Brexit had any downside was strengstens verboten in the pages of the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Sun, or indeed round the cabinet table in Number 10. Columnists who might have thought of uttering this heresy were shunted aside to less controversial subjects, such as transgender rights or the offside rule.

Almost as remarkable is the way in which Warner places the damage in a six-year continuum. Only now is it becoming salonfähig to declare that Brexit has not been neatly “delivered”, like a parcel or a baby. Instead, it goes on being an unholy mess, bringing down prime ministers in shoals (Warner correctly predicted that Liz Truss could not survive—she resigned five days later), turning the UK into a subject of global derision and making life intolerable for fruit and vegetable farms, hospitals and care homes, bars and bistros, none of which can get the staff now that we have “taken back control of our borders”. 

Truss’s mini-budget—which turned into a maxi-disaster—was driven by the urge to break the country out of the low-growth fiscal rectitude that she inherited from previous administrations, which had been championed by Rishi Sunak and which Boris Johnson had been trying to undermine throughout his misbegotten years in power. Truss’s belated recognition that her beloved agenda of economic growth could not get off the ground without letting in more unskilled migrants was clearly a factor in Suella Braverman’s explosive resignation as home secretary. Since being given a dismal encore by Rishi Sunak as a sop to the right, Braverman makes her predecessor Priti Patel look like Martin Luther King. Now I come to think of it, Braverman too declared that “I have a dream”, only hers is of seeing a flight packed with asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda. She will have to find another airline: the obscure carrier that signed up for the Rwanda mission pulled out, finding it too distasteful.

Policy under the past three short-term prime ministers has been a desperate search to demonstrate the concrete benefits brought by leaving the EU. Poignantly, even in her blink-and-you-missed-it resignation speech, Truss was still mourning the failure of her vision of a Britain that “would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit”.

The Johnson years were a time less of “splendid isolation” than sociopathic diplomacy

Throughout the period since the referendum, political debate has been stuck in denial, reinforced by the Labour party’s terror of allowing any substantial debate on the issue. Judging by the attention given to the European Union in the House of Commons, the bloc might as well not exist. These days, the faraway country of which we know little seems to be France. It is impossible to imagine any prime minister before Truss who, when asked whether they regarded the president of France as a friend, would have replied that “the jury’s out”. 

Truss’s defenders excused this as a joke, but it was a joke intended to tickle the fancy of her Europhobe audience during the tense moments of her leadership campaign. Johnson certainly earned his honorific as the “Britain Trump” through his reluctance to engage with any leaders in western Europe, though he had a weakness for Viktor Orbán, the Hungary Trump. His prickly English -nationalism was made embarrassingly plain by his refusal during the pandemic to work sensibly with the first ministers of Scotland and Wales. The Johnson years were a time not so much of “splendid isolation” as of sociopathic diplomacy. The self-styled “Brexit Spartans” of the European Research Group (ERG) have been calling the shots out of all proportion to their numbers. At least Leonidas had 300 with him at Thermopylae.

How did this advanced Brexosis gain such a hold on the Conservative party in and out of parliament? We need, I think, to follow two lines of inquiry: the first involves going back to the months before the referendum of June 2016; the second, tracing with some care the personal role of Johnson himself through the years from then to now. We need to see how we got here before we can hazard any guesses about where to go next.

It’s notorious that before coming out for Leave on 21st February 2016, Johnson wrote two drafts for his Telegraph column that week, one in favour of staying in, one in favour of getting out. What is less often recalled is how wildly he wobbled, both before and after taking the plunge, as to what leaving was to mean in practical terms and how far out Britain ought ideally to be.

The previous summer, Johnson had floated the idea of holding two referendums: we would vote for or against membership on current terms but, instead of actually leaving, we would then renegotiate a better deal, followed by a second referendum to approve the new terms. Even after coming out for Leave in February, he still appeared to hanker for something along these lines, as did the former Tory leader Michael Howard. But David Cameron ridiculed the suggestion. 

Johnson and many other Leavers had another obvious option available: the UK could enjoy arrangements with the EU like Norway’s and Iceland’s, or slightly different, like Switzerland’s: not in the EU but enjoying full access (or close) to the single market. For hardliners, though, this looked like the worst of both worlds: having to accept EU rules but having no say in their making. This may not have troubled Johnson, who refuses to accept the existence of inherent trade-offs, as he made clear with his notorious jest: “I am pro having my cake and pro eating it.” On 11th March, Johnson switched to the Canadian option of a more minimal free-trade agreement. But the EU-Canada agreement had already taken seven years to negotiate and was not even then complete; replicating it would have involved rules and regulations that the red-blooded Brexotics would not stomach. 

Finally, Michael Gove, speaking for Johnson and the rest of Vote Leave, made it clear on 19th April—dangerously close to the actual referendum date—that Out would mean Out: no membership of the single market, no membership of the European Free Trade Association. We would be as Out as Albania: no significant tariffs on industrial and agricultural goods, but little agreement on services, no “passporting” rights for the City and no access to EU deals with the outside world. This was an arrangement that the prime minister of Albania said was decidedly suboptimal for an economy like the UK’s (Albania itself has been trying to get into the EU since 2009). Anyway, we landed on something suspiciously like the Albanian option after Boris Johnson and the ERG scuppered Theresa May’s deal, condemning it as Brexit In Name Only because it left the UK bound to the EU in such a way that meant, in their view, we would never really leave.

A mini-budget turned into a maxi-disaster © Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo A mini-budget turned into a maxi-disaster © Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

A mini-budget turned into a maxi-disaster © Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

By resigning over this issue following the infamous “Chequers summit”, Johnson secured the leadership after May’s defenestration, but was bound hand and foot to the Spartans, with the weird consequence that he had to misrepresent his own “oven-ready” deal as a giant leap for freedom and absolute sovereignty. In reality, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that was struck on Christmas Eve 2020 turned out to be a good deal more constraining.

To quote the summary put out by the European Commission, the agreement “goes well beyond traditional free trade agreements and provides a solid basis for preserving our longstanding friendship and cooperation.” In particular: “Both parties have committed to ensuring a robust level playing field by maintaining high levels of protection in areas such as environmental protection, the fight against climate change and carbon pricing, social and labour rights, tax transparency and state aid, with effective domestic enforcement, a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for both parties to take remedial measures.” And all that’s before we get on to a fisheries agreement that preserves a huge share of the catch for continental fishermen and, for Northern Ireland, that pesky border in the Irish Sea.

How then did the wizards of the self-styled star chamber of Eurosceptic lawyers and MPs (a trumpery imitation of the real thing led by Bill Cash) reconcile themselves to this settlement, which on the surface would appear to contain many of the things they hate? What they argued was that the TCA enshrined the legal sovereignty of the UK and that a “robust”—a word that often signals upcoming bluster—UK government could weasel out of anything it found inconvenient. If the EU protested, then under the TCA we could give 12 months’ notice to quit or, as some of the ultras suggested, wait to renegotiate the whole thing in five years’ time. In other words, the main reason for signing up to this agreement was the ease with which we could get out of it. Not exactly a friendly start to what Michael Gove called a new “special relationship between sovereign equals”. 

The weaselling started almost immediately and is still going on: a raft of EU regulations remain operative under the Withdrawal Act of 2018, to the vast irritation of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his band of ultras. Hence the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which has just started its passage through the Commons, and that aims to remove all unwanted EU law from the statute book by the end of 2023, replacing it where necessary with fresh UK law. This has prompted despair from business groups, trade unions, environmentalists and lawyers. Parliament will be clogged with the bits and pieces for years to come, and further long-term damage to the British economy is inevitable.

The whole interminable farce has been, largely if not wholly, of Johnson’s own making. It is the ripest example of bad governance in Britain since the war. Nor should we forgive or underplay the brutality with which he got his own way. I don’t mean simply by destroying the governments of Cameron and May, but by his turfing out half a dozen permanent secretaries who might have spoken truth to power, and by purging 21 of his leading pro-European MPs—not to mention his high-handed legislation to take control of the Electoral Commission; to discourage the poor from voting by insisting on ID at polling stations; to restrict judicial review; and to clamp down on the right to demonstrate.

We have to move beyond the European issue if we are to restore any sanity to our politics

His behaviour has been uniquely chaotic—we are all aware of that—but many people have still not taken in his personal unpleasantness. Never has a faux bonhomie fooled so many for so long. It’s an indication of the deranged state of the Tory party that so many of its MPs and supporters should have contemplated for a nanosecond Johnson’s return only three months after he was disgraced and booted out in a way that no other British prime minister has ever suffered, or deserved to suffer. To the last, he remained a bully and a liar, trying to arm-twist Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt into supporting his return as prime minister, and claiming to have secured the required 100 nominations with a couple to spare, when the best estimate was that he had somewhere between 50 and 60. People may claim that Truss was the worst PM in history, but she was only a Johnson tribute act.

Nor should we forget the sheer malignity of the Brexotics towards the idea of the EU. Quite simply, most of them wanted it to collapse. Nigel Lawson asserted that “the idea that there is anything to be lost if it breaks up peacefully I find totally unconvincing… It’s passed its sell-by date… I see no purpose in the EU now at all.” Gove hoped that Britain’s leaving might trigger “the democratic liberation of a whole continent.” So far most of the continent shows little sign of wishing to be liberated. 

At no point were the best interests of British industry and commerce—fishermen, carmakers, steel workers, bankers, lawyers and all those in the service industries—the priority for the dominant faction in the Tory party. The sole driving imperative was a lust for absolute national sovereignty and an obsessive refusal to be regulated by international courts and councils, even if we were voting members of those courts and councils. This is identical with Trump’s America First policy. At one time or another, Trump threatened to leave Nato and the World Trade Organisation; actually did withdraw from the Paris agreement on tackling climate change; initiated exit from the World Health Organisation during the pandemic; and abjured multilateral agreements, like the Iran nuclear deal.

Like Trump, Johnson refused at any stage to engage in close consideration of the best or least bad options. He was indefatigable only in the discovery of snazzy new slogans. The most effective of these was “Project Fear”, which has an interesting history. It was let loose in the world by the publicist Rob Shorthouse during the Scottish independence referendum campaign of 2014. The irony is that Shorthouse was working for the unionist campaign Better Together, and the phrase was jokingly suggested as an attack line for the Yes campaign, to encapsulate their complaints about the Unionists’ supposed scaremongering. Alex Salmond gratefully scooped it up and ran with it. After Johnson deployed it, rather more successfully, in the last days of the EU campaign, Project Fear was then taken up on the wilder shores of the anti-lockdown, anti-vax and anti-net zero movements.

What happens when a single issue convulses a large faction in a governing party and becomes an all-devouring obsession? The most famous parallels within the British Conservative party are the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s and tariff reform in the 1900s. One was a free-trade movement, the other a protectionist movement. Both split the party for a generation and consigned it to the wilderness for years. 

How could Sunak avoid such a fate, inheriting as he does a third equally explosive difference over international trade? The answer surely is for him to do the opposite of what Truss did. In her impatience to show her Brexit credentials and prove herself the equal of Boris in cojones, pizzazz and chutzpah, she doubled down, hotting up the Brexit passions rather than cooling them.

By contrast, it is worth examining how earlier Tory PMs dealt with a similar challenge, both to the national economy and to the unity of their party. In 1879, the ageing Benjamin Disraeli came under pressure during a severe agricultural depression caused by four wet summers running. Wheat was coming in from the American Midwest, harvested by new machinery and transported by steam instead of sail at a fraction of the old cost. Elsewhere in Europe, governments were scurrying to slap tariffs on manufacturers as well as on imported food. Why did Disraeli not do the same in Britain, given that his warnings of the 1840s against free trade had finally come true?

The old fox, now leading the country from the House of Lords (“I am dead: dead but in the Elysian Fields,” he said) wanted to take the heat out of the issue. He told his fellow peers that it was all very well to quote “rusty phrases of mine forty years ago”, but it would be politically impossible to re-impose the Corn Laws. The issue was settled, and the masses newly enfranchised by his 1867 Reform Act had become accustomed to cheap food. Though landowners might be suffering, there had been “a change for the better in the condition of the industrial world”, and it would be stupid to jeopardise this progress by reopening the argument.

Dizzy’s instinct to depoliticise the question was imitated by Stanley Baldwin. The tariff question had torn the party apart again and kept it out of power for years. All through the 1920s, Baldwin ducked and weaved. In 1921, he supported removing the wartime food price guarantees for farmers imposed in 1917. Then, in 1923, he went to the country on a programme of tariff reform, and lost. By the 1930s he was ardently pushing for the famous “agreement to differ” on the tariff question. As exhausted as Dizzy had been half a century earlier, he told the civil servant Thomas Jones: “I shall carry on for this parliament and use what prestige I have to keep our fellows together. We shall put the tariff through and if it does well, it will drop out of party politics, very much like free trade did.” 

That’s pretty much our situation now. We have to move through and beyond the European issue if we are to restore any consistency or sanity to our politics. Sunak was first elected to parliament only in 2015, when the Brexit craze was gripping the party. He is still only 42, young enough to develop a fresh approach to Europe that finds the right mix of collaboration and independence.

A triumphant Rishi Sunak—his approach in office should be precisely the opposite of Liz Truss’s © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images A triumphant Rishi Sunak—his approach in office should be precisely the opposite of Liz Truss’s © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A triumphant Rishi Sunak—his approach in office should be precisely the opposite of Liz Truss’s © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

But the issue can be defused only by a searching examination of the fuse box. This can’t be done just by setting up yet another Mega Department for Making Sense of Europe. Only some sort of high-powered inquiry, containing politicians and experts of all sorts—including the more rational Leavers like Daniel Hannan and Larry Elliott—and chaired by someone like William Hague, can, by going through the issues sector by sector, provide the authoritative cover for the new prime minister to impose realistic solutions. No doubt Keir Starmer will be leery of supporting any such undertaking, regarding it as a poor second to an immediate general election. But if put forward in good faith as a patriotic duty rather than a device to get the Tories out of the hole they have dug for themselves, it would be hard to resist an appeal to cooperate. Baldwin and Disraeli would have known exactly how to frame such suasions.

It was, after all, only with all-party support that Ted Heath originally got us into the common market, by coaxing the support of Roy Jenkins and his pro-European Labour rebels. That was the crucial element so conspicuously lacking throughout Theresa May’s troubles, when Jeremy Corbyn refused to offer her any help at all.

Such an approach may seem hard to envisage in today’s toxic atmosphere. Sunak will be taking office in a peculiar ambience. He will be greeted by general exasperation and impatience. But he has at the very least a licence to make an attempt. Is it conceivable that the Tories at their last gasp could rescue some fragments of their shattered old reputation for steadiness and competence? You wouldn’t bet on it, but precisely because you wouldn’t bet on it, an incoming prime minister who sets out a sober unifying programme might, just might, begin to make the nation take itself seriously again. There is always a capacity for surprise in politics. If so, it will be the biggest relief since the lifting of the siege at Mafeking. But the first priority must be to end the conspiracy of silence about Europe.