It should be no surprise with Dominic Cummings at the heart of government that two key elements of the Leave strategy are still in play.
The first is to reduce the significance of decades of UK membership of the EU by creating the idea that Brexit is a single, simple event. A moment. Something defined. Finite. 31 October. Brexit Day. This is important because if Brexit is an event, it means people can see an end, a light at the end of the tunnel, a return to normality.
Yet the truth is very different. As Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and others know full well.
Brexit is not an event. It is a process. And the tunnel is long. With no light in sight.
Brexit has been poisoning our politics, our economy and our relationships for the last three years. Businesses relocating to France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands is a part of Brexit. The collapse in inward investment is Brexit. The hike in weekly family food bills is Brexit. The hormone replacement therapy (HRT) shortage is Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to suspend our parliament as the world looks on in astonishment is Brexit.
All of this is Brexit.
And it is just the beginning.
Think about it. The EU has been woven by successive governments into decisions relating to our laws, our borders, our security and our economy for the last 45 years. Clearly the process of leaving is going to be a little more difficult than changing banks.
But this – the truth – doesn’t suit Johnson or Farage. Their leap-before-you-look political machismo means we must not ask too many questions before it is too late. Like dodgy used-car salesmen, they are masters of the small print. Sign on the dotted line, give us your bank details, drive away the car but of course, there is no refund when the wheels come off...
Which leads to the second part of the Leave strategy being played out in government: simplicity.
People were told Leave would be as easy as Remain. Mull over that for a second. It is easier to get up and go somewhere else than to stay where you are. It’s easier to move house than stay put.
“The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want,’’ said Gove during the 2016 campaign. “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history,” said Liam Fox in July 2017. “There are plenty of people who now think the cost of getting out would be virtually nil and the cost of staying in would be very high,” said Johnson in March 2016. Yet the total spend for Brexit preparations has now topped £6bn, with legal disputes over contracts for ghost ships.
And the government machine is now part of the operation, with the £100m “get ready for Brexit” campaign, effectively breaching purdah rules. I am still awaiting a reply from Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to my letter on this issue.
The truth is, no deal means no deals on anything. It would be the start of years – even decades – of negotiations from a position of total weakness. It would hike prices, hit incomes, kill jobs, weaken our national security and standing in the world. And it risks the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland.
It would be the start of years of politicians rocking up on the evening news pointing fingers at each other and Brussels whilst our housing crisis grows, our NHS suffers and the poorest are hit even harder. And as our country turns in on itself and attitudes harden, there is the risk people will turn on each other and divisions will grow.
The government knows which port it is sailing to, yet wants to present all winds as favourable. It is seeking no deal, and with it, a decade or more of Brexit hardship and anxiety for a country already on edge. This week showed the force of those headwinds as Johnson lost his first four votes, sacked 21 Tory MPs, saw his own brother quit his government and pushed Amber Rudd to quit the cabinet as well as giving up the Tory whip.
What the country needs now is real leadership and we have seen that in the Commons this week. Politicians willing to put the national interest before party interest and set a new course to break the deadlock. MPs willing to communicate honestly these two truths: Brexit is a process, with years of painful ramifications to come; and Brexit is as hard as anything our country has faced in modern history.
Our country needs more time. A short extension to rule out an extreme and dangerous no-deal Brexit and set a new course based on three Cs: clarity, because we now know so much more than three years ago; closure through a new and binding people’s vote with a defined Brexit or the option to remain; and coming together to rebuild relationships after years of painful politics and division.
Mary Creagh is Labour MP for Wakefield and is chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee
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