Donald Trump’s starring role in the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday marked a fitting end to the courtship of the US president by Boris Johnson. Just think: before the president lost convincingly to Joe Biden, our prime minister – a master of procrastination and prevarication – was holding out for a Trump victory and a world-beating UK-US trade deal, which might well have involved a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson enthusiasts tell us what a brilliant tactic it was for the prime minister to take the negotiations with the EU to 11th hour, but the likelihood is that a deal of some sort was only decided on when the US option disappeared. As it is, the deal is most certainly thin, as described by Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer: it does not cover the 80% of our economy accounted for by services, and involves massive increases in bureaucratic form-filling for businesses from manufacturers to road hauliers and wine merchants, not to mention British citizens in general. It particularly hurts the young, who are overwhelmingly against Brexit.
Before going on, I should like to wish readers, including green-ink Brexiters, a Happy New Lockdown. Life must go on, which is why not just this government, but governments around the world, have imposed lockdowns of one sort or another. But in this country, we are close to being world leaders in the degree to which the economy and people are suffering.
In which context, the mantra seems to be “lock down because the NHS can’t cope”. One cannot help concluding that our pathetic performance vis-a-vis, say, Germany, is not unconnected with a decade of austerity. The health service was ill-prepared for Covid: the government should have learned years ago that every winter there are pressures on hospital capacity, and that it is a false economy not to allow enough spare capacity in hospitals.
But back to Brexit, which, so far from being “done”, has only just begun – begun, that is, to cause chaos and disappointment throughout the land, not least to those “red wall” voters with whom Starmer seems obsessed. I know being leader of a Labour opposition is one of the most difficult jobs in politics, but I think he is paying too much attention to the minority of Labour Brexit voters. He should be proud of his record as a Remainer, and be hammering these Brexiter charlatans in the cabinet continually. I can hardly wait for most of this generation of so-called Conservative politicians to be swept away by an electorate that has finally absorbed what has been done in their name.
Johnson recently claimed that leaving the EU was not a “rupture” from “our friends” on the continent (oddly enough, we are still in Europe). This is a man who had an expensive education. Brexit constitutes a huge rupture with continental Europe, and our friends know it. Hence, notwithstanding the way we tried their patience to the limit, President Macron referred to the way the British had been treated to “lies and false promises”; Michel Barnier said “a divorce is nothing to celebrate”; and the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, came close to saying “please come back one day”.
The extreme rightwing Eurosceptic “bastards” – Sir John Major’s description – who hijacked what was once the genuine Conservative and Unionist party affect to be the disciples of Margaret Thatcher, and often cite her celebrated Bruges speech of 1988. What they fail to quote is what she said about the single market, which she and my old friend Lord Cockfield did so much to create.
What she said was that the moving force behind the creation of the single market was “the aim of a Europe open to enterprise”.
“By getting rid of barriers,” she said, “by making it possible for companies to operate on a European scale, we can best compete with the US, Japan and other new economic powers.” And she meant it: her papers in the Churchill archives at Cambridge bring out her enthusiasm for the project.
Single market? Those crazed Brexit cabinet ministers had to have the single market explained to them by our former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, when they met after the referendum result. They didn’t even know the difference between the customs union, with its zero tariffs for intra-EU trade, and the single market, which gradually eliminated non-tariff barriers.
So how thin is this “deal”? It has been compared by a great expert on European affairs, Brendan Donnelly of the Federal Trust, to the Cheshire cat: as you examine it, the details disappear and only the grin remains. No-deal would have involved the imposition of crippling tariffs on major exporters such as the motor industry and further erosion of our depleted industrial base.
For which relief, much thanks. But the act of leaving the single market reimposes the non-tariff barriers removed for frictionless trade.
Johnson’s “deal” takes us from Brexit tier 4 to Brexit tier 3. It avoids a catastrophe but is still a disaster.
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