Before burkas, there were bananas
English translation of my article in Der Freitag 10.07.2018, after Boris Johnson’s resignation
The first time I met Boris Johnson was when I interviewed him for TV, when he was editor of The Spectator. He looked harassed, as it was press day. At the end of the exchange he smiled glumly and said: “Look here, you don’t by any chance have an article that you’d like to put in the Spectator?”
There was a two-page gap in the magazine and he had three hours to fill it.
Insouciance, though a French word, has become a core value of England’s conservative elite. It’s not just about coolness under fire: it is the conviction that, since market forces will sort most things out — or failing that, one’s servants — the default option in any crisis is to do nothing.
Unfortunately, what works for running a small magazine does not work for running a country. After losing the mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’ in the June 2017 election, the Conservatives adopted a policy of doing nothing. They proposed no concrete form for Brexit. They took a year even to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement.
But last Friday they had to write down, on three sheets of paper, the form of Brexit they would take into the negotiations. As everybody except them had predicted, this caused the cabinet to implode. Having signed the document, to which he presented no alternative, Johnson resigned 48 hours later, following the resignation of David Davis, minister in charge of the negotiations.
Johnson’s resignation letter summed up the problem acutely. “The dream is dying”, he wrote. The act that was supposed to free Britain from the tutelage of Brussels would, in fact, reduce it to the “status of a colony”.
In 2016 Johnson took the lead in selling the dream of hard Brexit to the British people. He made the unsupportable promise that, by halting payments to Brussels, Britain would find an extra £350m a week to spend on healthcare. When facts escaped his mind on the campaign trail, he made them up: on a soapbox in Stafford he told shoppers that the EU had banned the sale of bananas in “bunches of more than two or three”.
David Davis, who also resigned, had assured voters that a round of major global trade deals would be signed “within 12 to 24 months” of triggering Article 50. He told MPs there were detailed studies on more than 50 sectors confirmed Brexit would benefit the UK economy, later to admit that there were no detailed studies.
But if the fantasies of the Conservative right have evaporated, the bigger problem is that the softer Brexit plan Theresa May pushed through in her cabinet meeting last week has also evaporated. Large numbers of her MPs do not support it and, as the frustration builds among the party’s dwindling membership, she cannot get it through parliament.
Knowing this, EU negotiator Michel Barnier is likely to insist the final deal is even softer, leaving the UK even more as a “rule taker” in, or close to, the single market and with obligations on migration that come very close to freedom of movement.
Then, or possibly even before then, Theresa May will be overthrown by her own MPs. If she her successor cannot get parliament to ratify the deal done this October, the government will fall.
The Conservatives’ agony, and that of their core voters, is entirely self inflicted. There were always only two possible outcomes to the Brexit negotiations: a Canada-style trade deal that would draw a border across Ireland and breach the terms of the Belfast Agreement, which ended the insurgency there; or a Norway-style deal, leaving the UK a rule taker in the single market and signed up to all four freedoms.
The option of a no-deal Brexit was never taken seriously by civil servants, despite becoming a central theme in the rhetoric of Davis and Johnson: “if we don’t get a good, bespoke deal we will walk away”. The reason it was never seriously considered is that no civil servant could execute an action that destroys the economy and damages the national interest of the country. Even now, with May ordering “no deal” preparations to be ramped up, it is an empty threat.
Almost the last famous thing Boris Johnson said as Foreign Secretary, in response to warnings from major businesses that, outside the customs union they would pull major investments, was “fuck business”. It was not mere flippancy. Throughout the Brexit process, right wing conservatives have insisted that, even if the auto and aerospace industries were to pull out, the new trade deals Britain would do with the US, China and India would create new industries to replace them.
The Brexit “dream”, in Johnson’s case, was a war against existing British capitalism in favour of a speculative capitalism yet to come. Like all Utopians, Johnson has been brought down by history colliding with fantasy.
He compared himself to Churchill, not least by writing one of the worst ever biographies of Churchill. Churchill was a journalist who, using his elite privilege, talked himself into a political world where he made mistake after mistake until, at the moment it mattered, during the Dunkirk crisis, getting one thing right.
One of the best biographies of Churchill, by Robert Rhodes James, is subtitled “A study in failure”. This would make a great title for any book yet to be written about Brexit. Unfortunately, the true damage — to Britain’s reputation, influence, economy and global brand — will not be known for years.
As for Labour, May’s implosion is in part due to the party’s tactics. It, too, refused to spell out a clear design for Brexit, arguing that was the government’s job. Step by step it committed to a transition period, to a form of customs union and, belatedly, a proposal to form a new single market between Britain and the EU. Its own pro-EU wing went crazy with frustration, but in each case Labour forced the Conservatives to move closer and closer to a soft Brexit.
Up to now Corbyn has refused to rule out a second referendum on the final deal. His refusals to rule out have got stronger, the clearer it has become to the xenophobes and Little Englanders that their dream is over.
If there’s an election this October, Corbyn will need to make a final step: commit positively to a Norway-style deal, and to a referendum to ratify what is achieved. Labour’s strongest desire is for the electorate to forget Brexit, and go back to worrying about wages, housing, transport and healthcare. To make that happen, Corbyn needs a simple, positive proposal — something which May, even after two years, has failed to produce.