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30 October 2019

Leader: The Brexit election

Above all, December’s general election will determine whether the UK leaves the EU after 46 years of engagement with the European project.

By New Statesman

If Boris Johnson had kept his word, Britain would by now have left the European Union. The Prime Minister’s failure was both predictable and predicted. Though MPs have struggled to agree on much else, it had long been clear that there was a parliamentary majority to prevent the UK leaving by 31 October.

The Prime Minister could have sought to pass his Brexit deal by the new deadline of 31 January 2020, but instead, like Theresa May before him, he has gambled on an early general election. For the first time since Mr Johnson entered office, the country will now have its say on his record. That is as it should be. Mr Johnson was elected Conservative leader in July by only 0.14 per cent of the population: 92,153 unrepresentative party members. As he proceeded to victory, we warned that the Conservatives were electing a mendacious and incompetent charlatan. Mr Johnson’s conduct in office has confirmed this judgement.

When asked before his election about the possibility of suspending parliament, he replied: “I am not attracted to archaic devices like proroguing. Let’s get this thing [Brexit] done as a proud representative democracy.” Yet once in office, he announced the suspension of parliament for five weeks. Only the intervention of the Supreme Court prevented Mr Johnson from unforgivably marginalising MPs.

The Prime Minister transformed his party from a broad church into a narrow sect by removing the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, including Rory Stewart (who writes this week’s Diary on page nine), although ten have since had it restored. Those such as the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who claimed that the Prime Minister stood in the One Nation tradition have been exposed as either cynical or naive.

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The general election will be fought on multiple issues: the climate crisis, the economy, the decay of the public realm and the future of the Union. But, above all, it will determine whether the UK leaves the EU after 46 years of engagement with the European project.

Mr Johnson’s contention is that his Brexit deal represents the best possible outcome after the 2016 referendum. Yet, in every respect, it is inferior to Britain’s current membership. Based on the government’s own forecasts, the deal would reduce economic growth by 6.7 per cent of GDP between now and 2034. The average person would be £2,250 a year poorer 15 years from now.

The Prime Minister, who previously vowed never to tolerate the creation of a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, only achieved his Brexit deal by once more breaking his word. In doing so, he has further imperilled the Union and gifted the Scottish National Party a potent riposte: why should there be special treatment for Northern Ireland but not for Scotland?

Although Mr Johnson has vowed to maintain “the highest possible standards” for workers’ rights and environmental protections, his deal would allow the UK to diverge significantly from the EU. The right has never been closer to achieving its vision of a small-state, free-market Britain, unshackled from Europe and aligned with the global “Anglosphere”.

The 12 December contest will shape Britain’s fate not merely for years but for decades. Mr Johnson, who has irrevocably tarnished the office of prime minister in the short time that he has held it, must now answer to the country. 

Trouble in Remainia

The Leave vote at the 2016 EU referendum bewildered many liberals. It should not have done. The result reflected profound economic and social discontent across multiple areas: the austerity and wage stagnation that followed the 2008 financial crisis, the mistrust sown by the Iraq War and the expenses scandal, and the failure of politicians to account for higher immigration.

After MPs again failed to vote for a second Brexit referendum, the People’s Vote campaign has descended into public infighting. The former spin doctors Alastair Campbell (of the Iraq War), Tom Baldwin (of the disastrous 2015 Labour election campaign), James McGrory (of the disastrous 2015 Liberal Democrat election campaign), twice-disgraced former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson and the PR tycoon Roland Rudd have indulged in an unsightly blame game. But rather than berating each other, they would do better to reflect on why they have all continually misunderstood the present. 

This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone