Frustration with politicians will spread yet further, with worrying consequencesby Alex Dean / February 28, 2018 / Leave a comment
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images Brexit talks come closer to collapse with each passing week. Today the headline is that the government is imploding over the Irish border problem, and in no small way. The truth is that EU departure was always going to go badly. An overwhelming majority of experts lined up to warn of the risks Brexit posed in 2016. Dismissed as “Project Fear,” their story since the referendum has been one of gradual vindication. The first question is when voters will wake up to what’s happening. At the moment, absent a referendum or another general election, the average Briton has tuned out. The second question is who they will turn their fury on when they do. To see the problem, refamiliarise yourself with the arguments made by Leavers before the Brexit vote—and later by the government, which absorbed the message. The Irish border issue was held up as a classic example of Remainer scaremongering, dismissed out of hand by senior Brexiteers. Chief among them was Boris Johnson, who until days ago insisted there was no need for any physical infrastructure. He has now performed a spectacular U-turn. Elsewhere the Leavers were just as nonchalant. The EU needed us more than we needed it. A trade deal would be the “easiest in human history.” The thinking was that Britain would saunter its way through negotiations. The problem is one of expectations. In a blistering speech today, John Major said “The ultra Brexiteers have been mistaken—wrong—in nearly all they have said or promised to the British people.” He’s right. Voters were not prepared for the chaotic reality of Brexit, and they certainly have not been prepared for a no deal outcome. One hopes it won’t come to that. If we are lucky, the government will get a grip and Britain will strike a free trade agreement some years down the line which gives us some access to the EU market, though far less than we enjoy now. But that’s the best case scenario. If talks collapse over the border issue or another sticking point, this would usher in a period of unprecedented economic disruption. When the folly of the Brexit project sinks in, who will take the blame? Perhaps it will be Leavers specifically, who refused to be honest with voters. Maybe support will grow for a second referendum and we’ll go back in—or reapply to join. It’s certainly conceivable. Major argued in favour of precisely this outcome today. But this is not the only possibility. Also plausible is that Remainers will be singled out, accused of killing off the project with their pessimism. Or that the European Union will shoulder the blame, viewed as having held Britain to ransom. Eurosceptic sentiment could harden further. But I suspect that the blame will fall more widely: on the political class as a whole. For the normal voter the lesson from the Brexit experience will be clear: politicians have let us down yet again. Just 15 per cent of Britons today say they trust MPs. What will happen to that number when the Leave camp’s lies are finally exposed? The implications are serious. The Brexit vote itself has been interpreted as an expression of anti-political sentiment. But if the biggest democratic exercise in British history turns out to have been a con, we could end up somewhere more tumultuous still. And in such an environment, a certain type of politician tends to mop up the discontent. And it’s not always the good guys.