There appears to be a slight sense of jubilation emerging, even among sensible people, that the very worst of Brexits might be avoided.
Ireland and the EU, though not the UK, just yet, are intimating that a Brexit deal could be done. What that would mean for British people is that the very worst impacts of Brexit – the ones that involve food shortages, fuel shortages, medicine shortages and widespread civil unrest (and this is the government’s own analysis) – would not come to pass.
“Hallelujah!” appears to be the word of the hour. What rubbish.
That there is even a glimmer of a chance that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and the rest deserve any kind of credit for narrowly avoiding the worst iteration of a crisis that is 100 per cent their fault is obscene.
We have, we are told, moved in to the “tunnel” phase of the negotiations. A wondrously apt phrase, except that, by comparison, the tunnel in which we have spent the last three years has been fairly well illuminated, and the destination at the end is only darkness.
If UK leaves the EU in three weeks’ time – still very much an “if”, at this stage, despite the “no ifs, no buts” drivel Gavin Williamson and other government ministers are prepared to spout on the radio – it should do absolutely nothing to conceal the self-evident fact that Brexit represents the most colossal failure of statecraft in this country’s history.
That should not be a controversial statement, not even for Brexiteers. Of course, for Brexiteers, Brexit is a success, against the odds. But it is nevertheless still true that the UK will have been taken out of the European Union by accident, by a government led by a prime minister, David Cameron, who didn’t want it to happen.
Whether Boris Johnson actually wanted to win the referendum is a much debated point. It is certainly true that he didn’t think he would, and didn’t consider losing an obstacle to his career (there would still have been a Tory leadership election in 2019. He would have been in a very strong position to win it).
And it is certainly true that, should we leave the EU on 31 October, we will do so on terms that will be orders of magnitude more economically harmful than anyone ever promised. “I am a fan of the single market, I would vote to stay in the single market,” Johnson said before the referendum.
We will not be staying in the single market. We will be putting up barriers to trade with the largest free trade bloc in the world, which also has the immense advantage of being our geographical neighbours.
The contours of the deal that appears to be forming is one that leaves Northern Ireland effectively within the EU’s customs union, but also able to benefit from any future trade deals the UK might strike. “Benefit” is a word used very loosely indeed. All sensible analysis indicates that barriers to trade that will come in to force by leaving the EU will shrink GDP by up to 7 per cent by 2030. And new trade deals with other countries could mitigate those losses by 0.5 per cent. That forecast is unlikely to come to pass with any real precision, but the idea it could be out by the kind of degree that makes Brexit economically worthwhile is absurd.
Asked exactly what the deal meant, all Johnson would say is this: “I can certainly tell you we will not see anything that prevents the whole of the United Kingdom from taking full advantage of the opportunities of Brexit.”
It remains to be seen whether the DUP and the ERG support the deal, if this is what it looks like and should it ever come before the Commons. They have been scathing of similar-looking deals in the past.
In the medium-to-long term, the real risk such a deal poses to Brexit is altogether different.
The best hope for Brexiteers, and the outcome forecasted by all major investment banks, is that a negotiated Brexit will not lead to an economic cliff edge but instead open a slow puncture. The latter is arguably more harmful. What Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest hope is that the gradual depletion of the British economy will be slow enough to obscure any real discernible point at which people notice their economic prospects and life chances have diminished.
A cliff edge is a call to action. A slow puncture is not.
But special status for Northern Ireland is potentially problematic. If a small part of the United Kingdom in effect retains the economic benefits of EU membership despite having left, and flourishes while the rest of the UK declines, it will serve as a Remain call to arms. This is a highly likely outcome. It is why most Northern Irish businesses loved the backstop. For them, it was the best of both worlds. Only a small band of Union Jack-waving unionist politicians disliked it.
There is a very real prospect that, in the coming decade, a resurgent Belfast will serve as a living, breathing testament to Brexit – one of the stupidest things any major country has ever done. It will be a reminder that will pose significant problems for Johnson, Gove and the rest, whose last best hope is that the people never quite work out what was taken from them, for no cause beyond their own crushing vanity.
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