Brexit is back whether either party likes it or not
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There were some really disturbing new figures on Covid today, confirming a sharp rise in cases of the Indian variant (a 160% increase over the last week). It looks like his doubling time is only five days, even scarier than the Kent variant’s 14-day doubling time that caused such devastation in January.
But at No.10 and across major Whitehall departments, it wasn’t the pandemic that was the hot political issue at the time, it was Brexit. Or rather, the post-Brexit trade deal with Australia that sparked a fairly tense turf war between International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Environment Secretary (and former Cornish farmer) George Eustice.
Earlier this week, the FT lifted the veil over the feud over Truss’ duty-free plan, revealing it was backed by Brexit Minister Lord Frost, while Eustice had the backing of Michael Gove. A clear meeting took place this morning to sort out the issue, and early leaks suggest Truss came out happier.
The ultimate arbiter is of course Boris Johnson, who chaired the meeting. And he practically gave the game in PMQ on Wednesday with his bold speech on the ability of UK farmers to ‘get the most out of free trade’.
It didn’t sound like the protective quotas Eustice was hoping for. Harry Cole of the Sun have the scoop revealing that the plan is for a 15-year transition to tariff-free status, which seems like a big win for Truss but may be enough to keep Eustice from having to resign.
What’s striking about this particular line is that it’s not the classic divide between Leftovers and Brexiteers that it might have been under Theresa May. It sounds more like “Truss-Tafarians” than “Cornish Georgians”. In fact, Eustice’s allies sourly point out that Truss actually campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum (famously Tweeter “I support the rest because I think it is in the economic interest of Great Britain”). She has since claimed she was wrong.
In contrast, Eustice himself has a long track record of wanting to get out of the EU, dating back to his UKIP days. He even resigned from the May government to protest his efforts on the issue. Yet Eustice’s sin, like Michael Gove’s, must be seen as an overly pragmatic Brexiteer. Since the vote on the leave, he has made no secret of his desire for a viable exit which involves compromises. It is not only about the interests of the farmers, it is about an adaptable Toryism.
Johnson, who has written two columns for and against Brexit, may now be siding firmly with Truss because, like her, he has the zeal of a convert. And that’s why a normally lackluster turf war in Whitehall for agriculture is really gaining in importance: because it’s a test case for Brexit itself, and how far the PM wants to go to wrap it up. trade deals with other countries to send a message about the British smokehouse.
Even if this deal goes through, it will only represent a tiny part of the UK’s overall trade. Instead, it’s the signal that a successful deal sends to the United States and South America, where the great agricultural opportunities (and dangers) lie, that seems most important to the Prime Minister.
The real problem isn’t the hormones in the beef or the chlorine on the chicken, but the lead in Johnson’s pencil on Brexit. When Truss said negotiators were ‘in a sprint’ to get a framework deal by June, it looked a lot like a Brexit manhood test, with the results read at the G7 summit in Cornwall (ironically, the Eustice’s backyard, and now it looks like a sprint followed by a transition marathon).
Some farmers, like some fishermen, will feel that this was not the Brexit they voted for. But that would be in line with Johnson’s law – now think about the later approach to trying to strike a low and dirty trade deal that he hopes maybe he can improve later by paying farmers money (as he did it with the fishermen). Will he also think his protocol problems in Northern Ireland can be solved by a similar 15-year transition?
Meanwhile, more Labor MPs believe it is time their party understood this whole issue. In our latest Commons People podcastKeir Starmer’s new PPS, Sharon Hodgson, told us, “We have to stop being afraid of tiger sting, we have to stop being afraid that it will bother people to actually point out that his Brexit had holes in it. , we’re not getting the best Brexit we could have had. “
Hodgson, who for years represented Sunderland, the crucible of the Vote Leave referendum victory, stressed that there would be “freedoms and flexibility” from Brexit, but said more Leave voters were now admitting that there would be “short-term pain”. Her case was similar to that of Rachel Reeves, who recently said Labor should point out the holes in Johnson’s exit deal.
As always, the key is how to frame the debate. Hodgson was born and raised in the North East and carries an authenticity that stems from her roots in her region. And when she says ‘we’re not trying to sort it out by saying it could be improved’, adding that it’s time for a ‘better’ Brexit, she may be laying the groundwork for Starmer to be just as frank.
Honesty about the downsides of the deal and a willingness to make things better may resonate more than Labor silence, and certainly more than the ‘we told you’ whisper.
Starmer told the PLP this week: “We have to build a post-austerity, post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain.” We may not be fully free from austerity, let alone the pandemic, for a few more years. And it is likely that we will not be ‘post-Brexit’ by the time of the general election in the fall of 2023. Today suggests that both sides, in different ways, are preparing for this brutal fact.