The decision to use Boris Johnson as the advocate of a Remain-voting, “liberal”-friendly Brexit underlines how the government has still not faced up to how deeply and fundamentally divisive its drive to take us out of the European Union has become. His speech today was utterly vacuous, and utterly lacking in any details of what this supposed “liberal” Brexit would entail.
The Foreign Secretary once, perhaps, did have the credentials to pull this off. After all, he was twice-elected as Mayor of London, because of his ability to corral a significant number of voters who would otherwise have opted for a candidate of the centre or the left. But all of that went when he made what now all know was a cynical and calculated decision to back the Leave campaign in 2016.
It wasn’t just that Johnson was suspected of having made his decision on whether to back Leave or Remain on the basis of which proposition would strengthen his position inside his party. What eroded trust was the campaign itself.
In the referendum campaign, he was promoter-in-chief of the claim that the NHS would benefit from an additional £350m a week if the country voted to leave. Not a penny of that has been, or ever will be delivered, and even Johnson’s recent attempt to secure another £100m a week fell flat, after he reportedly failed to even mention it at the subsequent Cabinet meeting.
The man who had previously claimed to be the very strongest supporter of Turkish membership of the EU also portrayed that country’s long-delayed and increasingly troubled application to join as an immediate threat to Britain.
In short, Johnson proved that it would be foolish to take him at his word, especially if that meant expecting him to show consistency in the face of the tide of opinion in the Conservative party.
But if Johnson is an unconvincing messenger, he’s not the only problem with claims for a “liberal” Brexit.
Take trade. Here the Brexiters talk about the ability to conclude “free trade” deals with the rest of the world. Their concept of free trade is stuck in the late 19th century, and represents a simplistic focus on tariffs on basic commodities. Inside the EU, though, we get much more than tariff-free trade, but also a single market based on common standards – a regime designed to handle today’s highly sophisticated manufactured goods. Even more importantly it encompasses a wide and continually deepening market in services.
None of that is in prospect from any of the putative free trade deals on offer, even if we believe – in the face of years of experience of negotiating real trade deals – that we could reach a quick deal with the US, Australia or New Zealand.
Then there are citizenship rights. Brexit threatens to strip every Briton of rights to freely travel and work across Europe. It is impossible to see anything on the horizon which would make up for that enormous loss of liberty, but it is not the end of the threat. Because the Brextremists are queuing up to promote proposals to strip British workers of their rights as soon as we leave. Top of their list is ending restrictions on the working hours of hospital doctors – but we can be sure that is only the start.
Other freedoms the EU gives us are also under threat, such as environmental and food safety standards. How many of these are likely to survive the crash trade deal our government is said to want to sign with Donald Trump? For a start we are likely not just to have to accept imports of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, but to allow them in the UK also: if we claim it is safe to eat, how could we justify banning our farmers from the same methods? That matters not just for the food itself, but also for our land and water supply.
The case for a “liberal” Brexit is as strong as Boris Johnson’s claim to be a politician of principle. In other words, there is no case at all.
James McGrory is the Executive Director of Open Britain