Brexit (and Boris) torpedoed

The battle of Brexit has finally been joined as Boris Johnson is blown out of the water by his own brother.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 November 2018

Jo Johnson's surprise resignation over Theresa May's Brexit plans have been criticised by his brother, Boris. Image: PA Images.When the Argentinian dictatorship of General Galtieri seized the Falkland Islands, known to them as the Malvinas, in 1982, Parliament echoed with the rage of wounded, Anglo-British patriotism. It endorsed the dispatch of a “task force” to ensure Britain’s claim. As the ships sailed across the equator the balance of public opinion opposed the use of force. Then, Thatcher ordered HMS Conqueror to torpedo the antiquated Argentinian battleship Belgrano. The nuclear-powered submarine sunk its target. Over 300 of its crew drowned in the South Atlantic. The ruthless display ensured war would follow. Opinion swung decisively behind the Prime Minister. While some of his soldiers and pilots fought hard, Galtieri's bravado display of puffed up aggrandisement collapsed, humiliated by an utter lack of preparedness for a real battle.

Today, it is the Generalissimo of Brexitannia, Boris Johnson, who has been torpedoed. After two long years of preparation the battle of Brexit has finally been joined by a well-aimed, perfectly executed strike which has holed the Leave campaign that he led below the water line. The torpedo was the stunning resignation statement of his younger brother Jo Johnson MP. Johnson junior was Theresa May’s loyal Minister of Transport. Now, he has pulled out of the government denouncing its negotiations with the EU as a catastrophe of statecraft while clinically skewering his brother’s braggadocio. He has pledged to vote against the prime minister’s deal with the EU should it reach the House of Commons, where its defeat is now likely. He has called for a People’s Vote instead, to endorse remaining in the European Union.

Johnson junior was a Remainer, like all ‘sensible’ ruling class conservatives including the prime minister, and he backed her attempt to deliver a Brexit that ‘works’. But the prime minister could not escape its contradictions. As I have shown the EU is above all a union of regulation. This is its central achievement: a customs union and single market, accomplished with the British, who played a central role in its creation over the course of 40 years. Regulation is not the same as sharing traditional sovereignty and for EU members like the UK who are outside of the Eurozone the classic pillars of sovereignty remain overwhelmingly national. Such is its strength, whatever happens to the common currency, Europe’s regulatory union will continue. Its advantages explain the commitment to continued membership of countries strongly opposed to many of the EU policies. It offers over 500 million people a growing cosmos of opportunity across all their nations with shared human rights and high environmental, safety and employment standards as well as an exceptional open market for capital and business – both manufacturing and services.

 The proponents of hard-Brexit desire an Anglo-America dominated globe of deregulated capitalism.

The vote for Brexit led by Boris Johnson claimed that Britain could have all the economic advantages of participating in the European space without applying its rules. Behind this absurd claim was and still is an alternative worldview. The proponents of hard-Brexit desire an Anglo-America dominated globe of deregulated capitalism. For all of his apparent indifference to leaving the EU, for which he is rightly criticised, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has been consistent – and consistently right – in pointing this out. Describing his desired version of Brexit to Der Spiegel last week he said, “we wouldn't be trying to face towards the deregulated economy of the United States, which the one wing of the Tory Party is trying to do all the time”.

Viewed from within the parochial insanity of Britain’s Brexit breakdown, the argument seems to have become an incomprehensible squabble about whether or not it is “vassalage” for the country to endorse an Irish “back-stop to the back-stop”. Step outside and the issue is clear and important. Should a country like the UK remain within the European regulated space and its model of capitalism (supported by Japan and China) or should it seek to embrace a deregulated model spearheaded by the Trump administration (supported by Russia and Saudi Arabia)?

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn prefer the former while wishing to “respect” the referendum. Both want to retain regulation and ensure continuity of trade. Their shared desire for a pragmatic outcome collides with the reality that it is not possible to remain within a regulated space while not being regulated by it. At least, there is no point to it. This simple truth is driven home by Jo Johnson in his statement. Rightly, he ignores the Irish backstop and concentrates on the core issue. He summarised his judgment to the Daily Mail

“[Brexit] was meant to be about a brave new future as a deregulated economy. But we’re signing up to the common rule book on standards and health and safety, the environment and all the rest of it. It’s completely incoherent”. He added, it is “riddled with such contradictions as to make no sense at all now at any level”.

This devastating, undeniable verdict describes the deal the cabinet will try to come to and then present to parliament. It may not get that far. If it does Jo Johnson’s intervention has probably ensured it will be voted down. For, simultaneously, he has strengthened three blocks of votes against the deal.

  • • He has inspired Tory remainers like himself to risk a demand for a People’s Vote, as he has spelt out why any such deal is far-worse than staying in.
  • • He has made it much more difficult for his own party’s Brexiteers to support the deal as a 'step in the right direction'.
  • • And he has made it harder for Labour MPs to cross the floor and support the government, on the grounds that the deal will deliver Brexit and thus ‘respect’ the referendum, for as he shows, it fails to do so.

The alternative is a so called ‘No-deal’. This means in fact a deal with Washington. Given the forces working for such a change of direction and their influence, the possibility should not be underestimated. Their weakness is that they hide their aims and the costs from public gaze. Jo Johnson is clear about this too. He describes the immense “real pain” after studying the consequences, from medical shortages to the strangulation of supplies through Dover, as set out in detailed government briefing papers. He does not deny that the country can “ultimately survive”. But he states:

“my message to my brother and to all Leave campaigners is that inflicting such serious economic and political harm on the country… cannot be what you wanted nor did the 2016 referendum provide any mandate for it”.

The last point is the decisive, democratic one. Brexit supporters have no right to impose any such outcome even if secretly they believed this is what it would involve.

As for his brother himself, Boris Johnson seems never to have bothered to think about the realities, other than his own self-projection. In today’s Daily Telegraph he dismisses Jo’s measured, fraternal rebuke and claims ‘No deal’ would be no problem at all. “There might be some temporary effects, but as with the Millennium Bug I do not think the planes would fall from the sky or that medicines would have to rationed, or any of the other nonsense”, he writes.

If acted on, this vacuous phrasemaking, waiving aside all analysis, would cast a million people into unemployment. Napoleon advised that, “To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty”. Boris Johnson was 18 in the Falklands War and 20 when Thatcher hit her prime in its aftermath. He dreamed of becoming her. At the conclusion to the final TV referendum debate, Boris Johnson summoned his countrymen to declare “independence” and speak up for “hundreds of millions” across the EU deprived of their democratic voice, as if he was the blessed Margaret leading those groaning under Communism to the freedom of the West.

It seems poetic justice that a state, once so skilled in divide and rule, should see its last days flicker with the jealousies of sibling rivalry.

Instead, he became the United Kingdom’s home-grown would-be Galtieri only to be deflated by his own brother. It seems poetic justice that a historic, empire state, once so skilled in divide and rule, should see its last days flicker with the jealousies of sibling rivalry.  For the second time in a decade the future of British politics has been shaped by fratricide, following on from Ed Miliband’s devastation of his older, Blairite brother’s ambition to lead the Labour Party. But theirs was a mere argument in opposition, over how to best recover from defeat. A quarrel dispatched into history by Jeremy Corbyn. This week, the showdown over Brexit within the ruling Tory government has brought late-Britain’s family-pandyism to a different magnitude of seriousness as battle is joined over the country’s role in the world.

When battle is joined, outcomes are hard to predict. The Leave campaign promised an easy, money-saving separation from the EU. But the country might still end up paying the costs of breaking from European regulations to embrace a Trump-style free market nationalism. For the danger of the People’s Vote campaign as advocated by Jo Johnson is the way it is purely about restoring the UK’s role within the European marketplace. That a member of a British government should demand more democracy is as welcome as it is surprising. But a campaign to reverse Brexit entirely based on a negative critique of its costs will not convince anyone who has set their face against being “ruled by Brussels”. If a new referendum on Brexit is also led by a Johnson, let alone two, we already know the outcome: the country will be the loser. 

Anthony Barnett’s recent talk on Albion’s Call can be watched on YouTube.

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