Boris Johnson’s resignation letter is the halitosis of a rotting body politic

The UK is in the midst of a multi-layered political and constitutional breakdown.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 July 2018
Boris Johnson speaks at a Vote Leave campaign event, 2016.

Boris Johnson speaks at a Vote Leave campaign event, 2016. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images.

At last. After two years of weird, stifling repression, a realisation. There cannot be a Brexit ‘Independence Day!’ There can be only different ways of being within our European domain. Boris Johnson, formerly the UK’s Foreign Secretary and the face of Brexit, and David Davis a long-time anti-European who headed the special Brexit department, were finally obliged to sup with reality and threw up.

Both resigned from their high offices of state after a cabinet away-day meeting at the Prime Minister’s country house of Chequers, on Friday 6 July. This agreed to propose to the EU a future relationship based on a single ‘rule book’ for goods that will in effect be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. The approach is spelt out in the White Paper issued yesterday. The inescapable reason for this is, as I’ve shown, that our lives in the UK are inextricably part of Europe’s magnificent regulated space – one that Britain helped to create. Given this, the Chequers’ proposals are the least form of integration possible. But a form of integration they are. In the words of the White Paper: “the UK would make an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with the relevant EU rules… [with] participation by the UK in those EU agencies that provide authorisations for goods in highly regulated sectors”.  

Boris Johnson and David Davis were finally obliged to sup with reality and threw up

Over the weekend the two senior ministers decided they could not advocate such an outcome – although they are incapable of proposing a credible, worked out alternative. For none exists this side of either the EU agreeing to abolish itself, or the de-industrialisation and deregulation of the UK behind hard borders along with a flight of capital. (Polly Toynbee has a compelling description of this as advocated by hard-Brexiteer Patrick Minford.)

Are the resignations and divisions now roiling the Tory party a sign of “chaos” or clarification, disintegration or coherence? The difficulty, especially for those outside Britain trying to make sense of events here, is that they are all these things at once.

The showdown will continue. The immediate confrontation with the hard-line full Brexit brigade will be of momentous importance. In the longer run Brexit is doomed and renewed British membership of an EU that is itself likely to change considerably will take place.

As for the current showdown, two leading advocates of a complete rupture with the EU are Johnson himself and Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, who has denounced the White Paper as “yellow”.

In terms of the two resigning personalities, we don’t need to spend time on David Davis. He was a noble and courageous fighter for liberty in 2009. The lone member of parliament to take action when he saw that our fundamental freedoms were threatened by New Labour’s database state and detention without trial. Since 2016, however, his role as Secretary of State for Brexit has been hapless. It is brilliantly dissected by Ian Dunt who sets out how there was “nothing behind the swagger”.

Johnson’s resignation is more interesting because he hopes it will provide a launch for his desire to become Prime Minister. He let it be known immediately that he regarded the Chequers meeting and its outcome to be the equivalent of “polishing a turd”. This was reported verbatim across the press and by the BBC and I apologise for reproducing the Foreign Secretary’s view of his colleagues’ efforts. They in turn thought, “It takes one to know one”.

I am proud to have served as Foreign Secretary. It is with sadness that I step down: here is my letter explaining why.

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) July 9, 2018

The way he spent his last hours as Foreign Secretary is a perfect warning. Johnson hired a professional photographer. The results show him from multiple angles posing over his letter of resignation, expensive fountain pen in hand. The lighting is perfect, the hair tousled just so, the eyes focussed on the viewer with a seductive look, while historic wall panels and leather-topped desk emit an ill-deserved patina of tradition. He only left his official residence for the last time after the newspapers had gone to press so that the swiftly released, stage-managed images of him could dominate the front pages. For two years his stint as Foreign Secretary may have been a continuous stream of diplomatic gaffs and blunders that damaged Britain’s standing thanks to his laziness and incompetence. In contrast, Johnson’s command of detail when it comes to his projecting himself is unmatched.

The would-be leader of the country’s independence revolution is a narcissus who sees no further than his own reflection. The shine is wearing off, however. Most papers declined to act as his mirror.

To grasp what is really happening you need to understand that the UK is going through a multi-layered political and constitutional breakdown. Brexit is no mere expression of its disintegration. It shapes it and makes its own significant contribution. It amplifies the damage, while postponing the necessary solutions.

Like all false opportunities, it cannot achieve its aims. As the prime minister has discovered, the only possible Brexit is one that means the UK remains within the orbit of the EU, which the nationalist spirit of Brexit requires us to leave.

For Johnson the result means the country will have “the status of a colony”. It is easy to mock such claims. But they were responsible for winning the referendum. They also give the inhuman economics of Brexit a form of nationalist appeal. They need a determined, positive response.

This in turn demands that we make sense of the apparently senseless. Liam Fox gave the most exquisite articulation of the breakdown Brexit represents. Fox is a long time hard-line, free-trade Leaver. May promoted him to be international trade secretary. Last July, he told the BBC, “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history”. Everyone laughed, even at the time.

It’s important to look back to what was said last year when the hopes of Brexit were still fresh. For their long drawn-out frustration is generating an intense fury. Except for Caroline Lucas the solitary, towering Green MP, none of the parties are capable of addressing the rage sweeping through Brexit supporters.

His explanation was flabbergasting. The “only reason”, Fox said, that it might not prove to be so very easy, would be if “politics gets in the way of economics”.

Rarely has a nutshell so neatly contained the kernel of its own self-contradiction. I remember shaking my head, both at the self-assurance in Liam Fox’s tone of voice and the dismissive way he referred to “politics” as if it was ‘mere politics’ – some silly obstacle from a by-gone, collectivist age.

How could politics not “get in the way” when the European Union is a political project (even if its character is contested)? More important, with respect to Britain and Brexit the motivation for exiting the EU is political. What else is the cry of ‘take back control’? So to suggest that Brexit will be easy unless politics “gets in the way” is absurd. This was the greatest deceit of the referendum. One for which both sides were responsible, the Remainers led by David Cameron just as much as the Leaver side led by Boris Johnson. It was not that the Leave side said it would release money for the NHS when it would not, or that the Remain side said it would lead to an immediate economic disaster when it wouldn’t. It was that they both said it was straightforward and could be done. The choice they jointly offered was a falsehood. Only an already broken political system would have allowed this.

An even more extraordinary expression of the breakdown is the emergence of Jacob Rees-Mogg, not just as the leader of the hard Brexit group of MPs known as the European Research Group, but as a figure of real influence. It seems that the country’s fate now lies with his calculations as to whether or not to his group should sink the May government and her Chequers proposals (assuming Europe agree to a deal along the lines it sets out, after the necessary further concessions).

Last Autumn Rees Mogg was touted as a possible challenger to lead the Tory Party and occupy 10 Downing Street. The Daily Telegraph ran one of those false denials which lift the skirt to flash ambition. It was modestly headlined, “I don't want to be Prime Minister, but if I was, here's what the Conservative Party would do.” In effect, it is Rees Mogg’s manifesto. He is an extraordinarily wealthy hedge fund speculator who has made tens of millions without the ability to sharpen a pencil let alone manufacture one. This lent his grasp of economics special authority and understandably he felt the need to share it with the public as he set out his stall. “There is no money at all”, he told us, “except for that earned in the private sector”.

This was not a slip of the tongue in an interview, it is part of Rees-Mogg’s considered pitch for power, a principle for the country’s government.

By way of explaining his claim (to repeat it, “There is no money at all, except for that earned in the private sector”) he helpfully provides an example: “Public sector workers may pay tax, but that merely circulates money between departments; tax paid by NHS workers comes and goes from the consolidated fund with some administrative expense in between”. I suppose it follows that if the employment of an NHS nurse is taken over by a private for-profit provider at the same rate of pay, it becomes money. But I won’t ask any reader to comprehend such a worldview. Except to say it is the logical conclusion of a neoliberal ideology – in which only the market generates value.

First, such a statement is clearly mad, being profoundly dissociated from reality. That a person holding such a view can be seen as credible spokesman for the future of the UK is itself evidence of the British breakdown. Second, all of us can hold bizarre views, especially when it comes to economics. Rees Mogg’s claim embellishes the larger breakdown because it has never been called out. The failure to deal with his nonsense so that it remains no more than marginal, reproduces the larger, cultural collapse of the British political world.

From the tortured lipstick of the Prime Minister’s smile, via Tony Blair’s lavishly-funded Institute for Global Change, to the flexing tattoos of the builder saying Out means Out and Boris Johnson’s grotesque language (“fuck business” was his response according to the Financial Times when asked about concerns of corporations), the United Kingdom has entered the white-water passage of the end of a regime.

The United Kingdom has entered the white-water passage of the end of a regime

To conclude with Boris Johnson’s resignation missive itself, which he and others regard a rallying cry. It smells like the halitosis of a body politic rotting from the inside. Its central claim is that to accept the sway of EU regulations is to go into negotiations with “white flags fluttering” as we will have be “surrendering control over our rulebook for goods and agrifoods”. In this he echoes the lengthy, supposed demolition of the Chequers proposal by Martin Howe, who concludes that the UK will be “firmly stuck in the EU’s regulatory tar-pit”. Apparently this will prevent the UK from “developing our economy away from trade with the EU towards trade with high growth areas of the rest of the world”. Howe is right that the UK will be inside the EU’s regulated space. But this does not prevents trade with other areas, on the contrary.

As for being a tar-pit… Johnson makes the Chequers acceptance of EU regulation the central reason for his denunciation of the proposal in his letter of resignation. Doing so, he pens the incoherence of Brexitism to perfection. When he was Mayor of London, he tells us, the EU prevented him from making large lorries safer and less likely to kill cyclists. He adds, young female cyclists in particular. Even if we allow him this embellishment to improve ‘the story’, his account is the opposite of what happened, as the EU supported his call while it was the UK government that dragged its feet. The dishonesty was widely reported. The Channel 4 Fact Check concluded, “Boris Johnson lied about EU safety regulation in his resignation letter”.

It is no mere dishonesty, however. Johnson deploys his story to prove his principle point, that within the EU the UK is not an “independent country”. Johnson claims that it was the UK’s subordination to it that frustrated the wishes of the British. He writes, “If a country cannot pass a law to save the lives of female cyclists - when that proposal is supported at every level of UK Government – then I don’t see how that country can truly be called independent”. Actually, in 2014 when he was Mayor of London, UK officialdom resisted the desired changes to make lorries safer. It was the EU parliament that sought to have them legislated! The BBC quotes Johnson saying at the time, “I am deeply concerned at the position of the British government and urge them to embrace this vital issue.”

It is true that Johnson was onto the danger and the need for regulation first. But it was the EU and not the British government that then supported the cause. The opposite of the claim made in his letter of resignation. The episode demonstrates the advantages of affiliation to Brussels, compared to slothful rule by Westminster. Indeed not only can a country be independent within the EU, perhaps it can’t be truly safe outside it. Even with the scandal of ‘dieselgate’, when it comes to vehicle safety, as David Ward shows, the “tar-pit” of EU regulation has saved tens of thousands of lives.

Also, let’s not forget when it comes to the question of Britain’s independence and Boris Johnson, that he celebrates the description of London as the “Eighth Emirate” and revels in the sale of the country’s assets to Arab states. 

What will happen now? The Prime Minister appeared relaxed, even happy, as she defended the Chequers proposal in the Commons. She must feel that she has put up with the insults and opportunism of Boris Johnson for two years but in the process provided so much rope he has finally hung himself. Now, she needs to face down the threat from Rees Mogg and his ultras who want a no-deal outcome as the only way to sever the country from the EU. Britain will therefore be faced with a choice between the inconceivable, which neither business, the unions nor the civil service can allow and the sad: a country in but not of the EU still searching for its soul. 

This is the third of a mini-series. The first is on winning Britain's Civil War, the second on the unsung role of Regulation

The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett

“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman
“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times
“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism... This is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications

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