It’s not exactly gone as Leavers planned, has it? We’ve reached the stage where they’re angrily blaming everyone else for the outcome, while simultaneously trying to claim that it’s glorious. It’s hard not to wince watching them doing the splits.
For it turns out that many of the things that Remainers said were true. It wasn’t possible to leave the EU with the exact same benefits. It wasn’t the easiest deal in history. The eagles aren’t coming and the German carmakers didn’t come to Britain’s rescue. As I write, it looks more likely than not that Britain will fail to secure any deal at all with the EU. Even if it does secure one, it will be skimpy and we can still expect disruption if it takes effect as expected on 1 January 2021.
You would think that would make Leavers pause for thought. If Remainers were right about this, what else might they have been right about? But no, every new development is interpreted in line with their preconceived world view. The EU is being unreasonable. The EU is ponderous and sclerotic. It’s all down to the fifth columnist efforts of quisling Remainers.
The EU is certainly being short-sighted. It has prioritised its own immediate interests in negotiations ahead of having a stable relationship with a close neighbour (though it would take some effrontery for Leavers to make that criticism, given the antics of the British government, which have often been calculated to offend their negotiating partners in the pursuit of easy popularity at home even when they hinder the prospects of getting a deal). But it is entitled to take whatever view of its interests that it wishes. It is not obliged to accommodate Britain, nor was it ever likely that it would go out of its way to do so, given that the choice to leave the EU was Britain’s. Mewling that it is being unreasonable is childish, especially from people who averred that Britain held all the cards. Do I repeat myself? Yes, I repeat myself.
The EU does not move quickly. That was well-known before the referendum. There was never any reason to hope that a great deal would be wrapped up quickly. It was evident in advance of the referendum that the atmosphere for negotiations would be fraught and progress difficult. Again, I repeat myself.
The idea that the British position is being sabotaged by those who lack faith in the project is risible. The government is stuffed full of Leave loyalists. They just don’t seem to be up to the job. Worse, they don’t seem to know what they want to achieve.
So we come to the real-world effects. The OBR predicts that Brexit with a thin deal will cumulatively hit Britain’s GDP by 4%. If no deal is secured, you can lop a further 2% off that. The Governor of the Bank of England sees no deal Brexit as more costly than Covid-19.
Britain’s ports are already seizing up. The financial impact on the UK’s biggest shippers from the port congestion crippling the country’s container supply chains could amount to over £15bn. You might argue that some of this relates to Covid-19 and Christmas, and so it does. But it was the government’s conscious decision to time the end of the transition period for now. This chaos is self-inflicted.
The government’s own reasonable worst-case scenario warns that flow rates of medicines and medical products “could initially reduce to 60-80% over three months which, if unmitigated, would impact on the supply of medicines and medical products across the UK“. Food supplies will be disrupted and price rises are likely. Around one in 20 local authorities are at risk of financial collapse. Is this what Leavers used to call Project Fear?
Yet Leavers greet every setback with a ratcheting up of rhetoric, doubling down each time. Tory MPs are currently calling for gunboats to be despatched to patrol fishing grounds (fishing grounds which, incidentally, have for the most part never been under exclusive British control at any point in history). Their Martingale system is on a long losing streak with reality but they’re not going to quit betting on Brexit till they’ve lost everything they stood up for.
So far, Brexit has led diehard loyalists to help destabilise the union, libertarians to embrace red tape and free traders to bay for tariffs. It turns out, those weren’t their real priorities. Their greatest motivation was a visceral and limitless hatred of the EU. Everything else was subordinate.
What this means is that those arguing to mitigate the effects of Brexit should not waste their time trying to persuade Leavers of their error. They are beyond reach.
Nor is it necessary. The proportion of the public that have concluded that it was right to leave the EU has steadily fallen over the year and has now dropped below 40%. It is already the case that a plurality would accept rejoining the EU (note, a plurality oppose leaving with no deal). If the moment of truth is as disruptive as seems likely, both of these trends look set to continue.
Britain is not going to be rejoining the EU in the short term. Inertia and exhaustion will see to that. But Brexit will never be a national project and will never command consensus support. Relations with the EU look set to be a defining faultline in British politics for the foreseeable future. And for the foreseeable future, Britain looks set to fall further behind relative to its comparators as a consequence.