Boris Johnson will let others take the lead on Brexit to protect his support
IF the first casualty of war is the truth, then the looming ‘sausage war’ of Brexit has been long underway.
Five years ago, as the EU’s referendum campaign entered its final stages, Michael Gove argued in an interview with BBC Scotland that immigration rules would be “for Scotland to decide” whether the UK was leaving the EU. This claim – later described as a ‘lie and a half’ by Nicola Sturgeon – was backed by former Labor MP and Scottish Voting Leave campaign leader Tom Harris, who immediately tried to explain to the Prime Minister how Scotland could ‘have a greater degree of control over immigration policy’ after Brexit.
In fact, we have lost the great advantage of freedom of movement and only won a tough, restrictive and internationally despised immigration regime that impoverishes us all.
Other totally empty promises were also made. The Scottish Parliament would ‘take back control of fisheries, agriculture and important social and environmental areas’ according to an official ‘Leave’ leaflet widely circulated in June 2016, giving Holyrood ‘even more power for the Scottish people’ .
In fact, the Scottish Parliament has been severely undermined and this process continues under a tough right-wing Conservative government implacably hostile to power sharing.
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I have attended every meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations and every time, without fail, a Tory minister claimed that Brexit was going to be wonderful for ‘every part of the UK’ (an obviously false mantra particularly dear to the Secretary from State Against Scotland) although when the details were pressed, the answer still did not come. All of this rhetoric was, and is, as deceptively empty as the most empty ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ slogans I actually heard Teresa May say in the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. In fact, the collective inability of the entire UK government to nominate – at any point over the past five years – let alone begin to reap concrete benefits from Brexit remains glaring.
Yet the deception continues.
Just this week, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss – the once remaining who, two days before the EU vote, tweeted that the campaign for the leave “couldn’t name a country with which we would get a better trade deal if we left the EU ”- asserted in her new incarnation as Global Britain’s Boudicca (but hey, a job is a job) that the SNP would voluntarily deny Scottish companies the opportunity to get what they claimed to be the “benefits” of an Australian trade agreement, although in reality such an agreement will seriously damage Scottish agriculture.
But the price for the most outrageous recent contribution to this snow job blizzard must go to “Lord” Frost (above), never elected as much as a bowling club committee but now the Cabinet Minister. tasked with bringing home the Brits Bacon from Brexit.
“Lord” Frost, or his deputy Lindsay Appleby (now promoted to UK head of mission in Brussels), were regulars at JMC meetings. They would confidently answer every question trying to show how purposeful and reasonable they were, unlike the malicious idiots in the EU who still didn’t appreciate the UK’s iron determination to take back control of everything, y including the progressive march of history.
Their negotiation failures are therefore no surprise, given their extraordinary and misplaced self-satisfaction. Nor is their reluctance to acknowledge these errors, hence Frost’s use of the word “underrated” to describe what he says went wrong with the Northern Ireland protocol. In fact, the only thing he wrongly estimated was his own ability.
But there is another reason for this failure that brings the deliberate dishonesty of the Leave campaign back to the fore. It is now very clear that anything that was negotiated the UK government never intended to take as final. ‘Do Brexit’ was a political slogan, designed only to win an election. Once that election was in the bag, the Tories always intended to be as tough as they could on the treaty, pushing its boundaries, rejecting the EU’s understanding of its interpretation and seeking to reconcile the Conservatives’ claims of “no barriers in the Irish Sea” with the reality of a land border with the EU by rejecting or denying what had been explicitly agreed.
This land border does not need to be a trade barrier if there is mutual respect for regulations and standards. This would be the sensible way to proceed, as the EU has demonstrated on several occasions, most recently with its proposals on veterinary inspections.
But the ideological hate (that’s not too strong a word) that Brexiteers have for all EU rules has always meant that such a compromise could never happen.
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Johnson and Gove will therefore continue with this elegant approach, using Frost and Appleby as front men, to ensure the continued support of hardliners in Northern Ireland as well as theirs at home, and in so doing, retain power and the ability to use it for whatever purpose they want, which is the real goal of Brexit.
A happy ending is hard to see. The EU won’t blink, but perhaps perpetual irritation would serve the Conservatives’ goal well, giving an economic enemy to be publicly angered against as things go from bad to worse, even as nature destructive of this low level regulatory conflict would be horrific for Northern Ireland and the island at large.
The only silver lining in the midst of this gloom might be that the international community led by an American president with roots in Ireland could make a difference by challenging the lies inherent in the Brexit project from the start.
This could lead to a breaking of the impasse, even if it will be opposed by the new leadership of the DUP for whom the stake is the Union and their political survival, not trade. But that won’t solve the problem for Scotland. This requires independent membership of the EU.