2019 09 Editorial – Brexit Regardless Of Suffering

Brexit Regardless Of Suffering

Boris Johnson’s “do or die” determination to leave the European Union (EU) on 31 October, is moving inexorably towards a no-deal exit. The prorogation of parliament for five weeks or so is a clear move to prevent MPs holding up the process of leaving without a deal. Johnson insists that there will still be enough time to thoroughly debate Brexit before the Queen’s Speech on 14 October which will open a new session of parliament. The Speech will lay out a programme for government, and include spending on infrastructure projects, more funding for education, the police and the NHS, and the inevitable tax cuts. An obvious precursor of an early general election. Bribe the voters and ask for their support.

[This was written before Johnson’s spectacular defeats when Parliament re-assembled.]

A no-deal Brexit would create problems at the Irish border, perhaps more severe than those at British ports. Johnson is aware of this, seeing Ireland as a vulnerable part of the EU in economic terms, so putting pressure on the backstop makes sense. He sees it as limiting the UK’s options outside the EU. Hence his desire to shelve it. In a letter last month to European Council President Donald Tusk, he described the backstop as being ”inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination outside the EU”. Its destination being a reassertion of its position in the world, dictating to others what is consistent with the interests of the UK. Something it is unable to do within the EU.

Johnson has claimed all along that he wants the UK to leave with a deal and he continues to believe it could happen. But fine words butter no parsnips. His cabinet colleagues, largely appointed for their opposition to the EU, are relaxed about a no-deal Brexit and would settle for a clean break rather than support a deal that locks the UK, one way or another, into the EU. Some senior cabinet members have come to his aid in support of the suspension of parliament. However, at this point it needs to be said that Johnson, Rees-Mogg and co. would never have won the referendum without promising an easy exit. It was said by Tory ministers that the day after we leave the EU the rest of the world will rush to offer the UK beneficial trade deals. And pigs might fly.

“Operation Yellowhammer”, a leaked Cabinet Office report on the likely consequences of leaving without a deal, makes depressing reading. It forecasts a difficult period for the UK economy, with chaos at the ports, food, fuel and medicine shortages, job losses, a plunging pound, and much more. Hard Brexiteers, with their supporters in the press, have described this as “Project Fear”, dismissing its findings. If so, why would the government, seemingly hell bent on leaving the EU without a deal, produce such a damning report?

The report reflects the views of Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading exponent of a no-deal Brexit. In July last year, he admitted that it could take “a very long time” – over a period of fifty years – before the UK really reaped the benefits from leaving the EU. Although Rees-Mogg himself won’t have to wait that long. A company in which he is a major shareholder is set for a massive windfall gain once the UK leaves the EU, and he will personally benefit from this.

All parts of the economy would be hit badly, none more so than agriculture which would lose its EU subsidies. Replacement of the loss would cost the UK exchequer about £4.5 billion a year. Recipients of the subsidy include 48 landowning MPs and members of the Lords. Within the list there are about 12 Tory backbenchers, with the rest mostly Tory and Independent members of the House of Lords. And EU tariffs on UK agriproducts will have an immediate and devastating effect on the UK.

The pro-Brexit press is filled with optimism about trade deals with the rest of the world, particularly with the USA. For the Daily Express in particular, President Trump’s promise of a ‘good’ deal for the UK is evidence enough. But Trump is not the final arbiter of trade deals. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives has made it clear that, “there will be no trade deal with the USA if Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord; no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing Congress.” If the Good Friday accord was undermined any trade deal that was agreed would be based on an “America first” dictum.

The parliamentary troops are gathering to prevent a no-deal. To stop Johnson, Corbyn wanted MPs on all sides of the Commons to support an alternative temporary government with him as leader. This would hopefully arrange an extension to Article 50 until an acceptable deal is agreed. Initially, this would involve a successful vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government, after which MPs would have 14 days to support a government acceptable to a majority of MPs.

However, opposition to Corbyn’s scheme from the Liberal Democrats and Tory backbenchers put a halt to that. They feared a Corbyn-led government, even for a temporary period, more than they fear leaving the EU. It’s now planned to use legislative methods to thwart a no-deal. But with the suspension of parliament time is a constraining factor. Action will need to be early and decisive.

The decision  to suspend Parliament makes a no-deal exit on 31 October more likely. Followed possibly by a general election when Johnson could claim to have succeeded where Theresa May failed, and pulling the rug from under the feet of the Brexit party which would have little reason to oppose the Tories. The real negotiations affecting the UK’s future would then begin. Within a short period the economy would take a hit in many areas. Some EU countries are set up for a no-deal, Germany being a case in point. But Ireland, an EU member, would take a big hit, even though the negative effects would be spread as thinly as possible across the entire EU.

Labour’s late change of heart, switching from Brexit ambiguity to a commitment to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU doesn’t appear to have convinced the voters. Recent polls show the Tories with a strong lead over Labour. This could be due to an early ‘Boris bounce’, an allowance usually made to a new leader. The polls also show that voters are drawn to his cheeky chappie style of doing politics. Symptomatic of this is his refusal to do interviews, thus avoiding direct questions from journalists. Last month, Channel 4 News accused Downing Street of freezing it out of a planned interview at the G7 Summit because of criticism of Johnson by its head of news. Everything is tightly controlled by Johnson’s Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings and his team.

The coming weeks are critical for the future of the UK. Whether a vote of no confidence is held and the repercussions of the result. But perhaps more important for Labour, whether the voters feel optimistic about the UK’s future in or out of the EU. Whatever happens, Labour will have a hard time persuading voters that Johnson and his fellow cabinet deregulators and neo-liberals promises of good times ahead for all are just so much hot air.