This was first posted on Facebook on 20th January 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
Brexit has no benefits.
Two days ago, a fleet of lorries, employed in the pre-Brexit days to transport live shellfish from Scotland to buyers in the EU, travelled to London to protest the effects of Brexit on the fishing industry. Brexiters had told the fishing industry that leaving the EU would mean an end to Brussels “red tape” about catching fish, people employed in the fishing industry had believed them and voted for Brexit, – of course what it meant was, that live shellfish, needing to be transported fast in refrigerated lorries to their overseas markets, were being held up too long by the terms of the trade deal, to be worth buying.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson only just won a government vote on a Lords amendment to the Trade Bill – the amendment passed, by a majority of only 11 votes. Given the Tories have a majority of 80 MPs, how did this happen?
Those of us who voted Remain & stayed Remainers have been pointing out that Brexit has no benefits for years, and Leavers have been mocking this, calling piously on the benefits of “sovereignity”
Boris Johnson realised in 2016 that his best chance of becoming Prime Minister was to join the Leave campaign. But he was peculiarly aware that the reasons Leave were giving for Brexit were BS: he had himself invented many of them. Many of the anti-EU stories circulating in the British media were made up by Johnson when he was working for the Telegraph as their Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s and reinventing himself from “Al Johnson” (family and close friends still call him Al) to the public personality “Boris”.
Boris Johnson wanted to be Prime Minister, knew the Leave campaign was his best chance of getting to 10 Downing Street, and also knew the Leave claims about tbe awfulness of the EU were all rubbish and wouldn’t stand up to any factual analysis.
Parliamentary committees, given enough time and a free hand to investigate, are absolute demons for factual analysis.
The proper procedure for a change as huge as going from being an equal partner in the EU to having a monstrous sprawling “trade deal” (which covers all sorts of things besides trade) with the EU, would have been to give Parliamentary committees lots of time to look at the deal in detail.
This, Boris Johnson could not afford to have MPs do. If he were to campaign to become Prime Minister on the basis that he would “get Brexit done”, and by two specific dates – 31st October 2019 to get the UK out of the EU and beyond saving by withdrawing the Article 50 notice: 31st December 2020 to get the UK out of the transition period when the trade deal negotiated in 2020 would be applied – he could not afford to let there be any honest and detailed public analysis of Brexit and especially not of the trade deal that replaced our EU membership.
Theresa May was under the impression that she could begin negotiating the trade deal that would replace our EU membership as soon as she invoked Article 50 in 2017. But the EU doesn’t negotiate separate trade deals with EU members: so no trade deal negotiation could even begin until the UK had left the EU. Hence the transition period. Boris Johnson campaigned in 2019 with careful confusion between the Withdrawal Agreement deal (which set the terms of the transition period, and with the Northern Ireland protocol, beyond) with the actual trade deal, negotiations for which could not begin til 1st February 2020.
In February 2020, the EU was already preparing for the coronavirus pandemic, and were ready to offer the UK a long extension on the transition period, which we could have accepted any time up til 30th June 2020: Boris Johnson steadily refused that. His triumph as Prime Minister was to happen on 31st December 2020, and he had no intention of putting it off for purely practical, responsible reasons, like focussing on getting the UK through a global pandemic.
Of course Boris Johnson had originally intended for the UK to leave the EU on 31st October 2019 without any transition period at all, and only then to begin negotiating a trade deal. This he was prevented from doing by a hung Parliament which couldn’t make up its collective mind to get rid of Boris Johnson, but was determined to prevent Johnson’s goal of crashing out without a transition.
Any other Prime Minister – than Boris Johnson would have ensured Parliament had time to scrutinise the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU – all of the EU parliaments are scrutinising it even now, having applied it only provisionally: only the UK has, again, Boris Johnson’s doing, enacted the trade deal into law without even any pretence of scrutiny, in one day on 30th December 2020. This trade deal now replaces our EU membership, and has been in force for less than three weeks. The EU set the re-negotiation terms of the deal on a five-year cycle, as this fits the EU’s pattern of elections and appointments.
This trade deal, as we Remainers had warned all along, means we have surrendered the real power of being a strong partner within the EU, to the faux shadow of “sovereignty“.
But it is important to note: Boris Johnson, not the EU, ensured that the trade deal wouldn’t be given even the kind of scrutiny you would give to a used car you were thinking of buying, let alone the level you might put into a house you intended to purchase and live in.
Because Boris Johnson was uniquely positioned both to know that the arguments justifying Brexit were false, and to want to get Brexit done anyway because that was the platform on which he became Prime Minister.
I’ve seen several people say firmly “this won’t go on, the British people won’t put up with it” – without any apparent understanding that this will go on for five years, it doesn’t matter what the British people think of it: the trade deal says these terms can be re-negotiated in five years time. The UK has enacted that into law. Brexit is killing off the UK’s fishing industry, just as Remainers said it would: the lies about losing Brussels red tape were more appealing than any warning about the exchange of EU membership for a magic-beans trade deal.
Sure, in the fairy story, Jack may have accepted five beans for a perfectly good milch cow but it’s OK because those five beans grew a magic beanstalk all the way to treasure in the sky, but in real life, if you take five beans from a stranger who wants your milch cow, what you’ve got is five rotten beans and no milk and there’s no treasure in the sky.
The drivers who took those lorries to London probably voted Leave. Most of the Scottish fishing industry did. They’re chewing on those rotten beans and watching their livelihood trot away on someone else’s string. and it is finally occurring to them – as it occurs to every long con victim eventually – that the pleasant lies they were told by that friendly guy who seemed to have their interests at heart, were just a con.
The Conservative MPs who were selected to stand for election in December 2019, understood their job was to support Brexit and support Boris Johnson. Any word aganst Brexit, any undermining of Boris Johnson as supreme authority in the Tory government, would mean punishment, up to and including losing the Whip and having to sit as an Independent MP until Boris Johnson has forgiven you.
But Boris Johnson has been dropping strong hints for months now that he’s tired of being in such an underpaid, underrespected job as Prime Minister, living in the mingy little quarters at 10 Downing Street, having to pay the Downing Street catering staff for his meals unless he or Carrie prepare their own food, having to walk through offices to use the Rose Garden, not allowed – thanks to the lockdown – to use the Prime Minister’s official country residence, Chequers, as often as he’d like to. So defying Boris Johnson is maybe not as big an issue now as it would have loomed in January 2020 – especially to all the brand-new Tory MPs who were very conscious they owed their jobs to Boris Johnson’s clever campaigning for Brexit in Labour heartlands.
The Trade Bill is
“to make provision about the implementation of international trade agreements; to make provision establishing the Trade Remedies Authority and conferring functions on it; and to make provision about the collection and disclosure of information relating to trade.”
Prior to Brexit, of course, the UK benefited from the EU’s trade deals: 2020 was the first year the UK had had to negotiate its own trade deals in decades. The Trade Bill has just gone through the Lords committee scrutinising it, and they sent it back to the Commons with a number of amendments, most of which (such as the one which would have stopped a trade deal that undermined the Government’s ability to deliver free and universal public health and care services) were handily voted down by the government’s MPs – this one, defending the NHS, was voted down in the Commons 357 to 266. Another, mandating that UK trade agreements shouldn’t allow discrimination within the UK internal market against Northern Ireland goods and services, or against services provided to customers in Northern Ireland, also lost 357 to 274.
But one amendment stands out. The Lords had proposed an amendment that would ban trade deals with countries that committed genocide.
Everyone, without exception, agrees that genocide is bad.
Virtually all governments and all international bodies, almost without exception, will do anything rather than admit “this country we want to deal with committed genocide”. Where genoicide is punished, it is almost invariably because a more powerful country sees a benefit to itself in punishing the other country – not because they always punish genocide.
This amendment would have empowered UK courts to rule that a country had committed genocide and therefore that the UK should not have a trade deal with it. This would have been an astonishing, radical step. Specifically, this amendment would have given the High Court of England and Wales the power to revoke bilateral international trade agreements unilaterally, if the High Court found a country had committed genocide.
Cynically, I wonder how often the High Court would have let itself use this power. But I don’t need to wonder: the UK government voted down this amendment 319 to 308.
33 Tory MPs rebelled against Boris Johnson and voted to support this amendment: 9 abstained.
We needn’t think that they were suddenly impelled by a profound moral impetus: the rebellion was led by Iain Duncan Smith, who has never been profoundly moral about anything.
China’s mistreatment of Uighar Muslims is inarguable and indefensible. I do not defend it when I point out that politicians who have never pretended to care about anti-Muslim persecution elsewhere are using the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Muslims as a political justification to attack China.
In particular, I don’t think Iain Duncan Smith would ever care about Muslims being mistreated if he were not able to take up a cause against China supported by the Trump administration (Trump’s outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though indifferent to the mistreatment of Muslims elsewhere, tweeted in support of the Uighar Muslims and imposed new US trade sanctions on China, this week).
But the scale of the rebellion/abstention – reducing Boris Johnson’s comfortable majority to 11 – I think was because Tory MPs saw this as an opportunity finally to point out a benefit of Brexit – the UK would be empowered to revoke trade deals with countries found guilty of genocide by an English court.
And they lost.