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14 December 2020

Boris Johnson has no one but himself to blame for the Brexit farce

The EU is certainly playing hardball, but what did Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers expect?  

By Martin Fletcher

Warships in the English Channel? Ten-mile queues at Calais as Britain lays in provisions? Supermarkets and drug companies stockpiling as if preparing for a siege? Car companies suspending production because of disrupted supply lines? Ikea running out of stock? 

This is lunacy. This is peacetime, not 1939. This absurd, surreal melodrama has to end. So should the fatuous photo-ops and jingoistic soundbites of our preening, posturing Prime Minister. UK and EU negotiators should be locked in a bare room, without mobile phones and over Christmas if necessary, until they reach a common sense trade agreement. 

The stakes are far too high to contemplate any other outcome. Johnson’s contention that a no-deal Brexit would be “wonderful”, and that Britain would “prosper mightily” without a deal, is yet more palpable nonsense from the serial liar who won last December’s general election by assuring the country he had an “oven-ready deal”. 

[See also: No EU trade deal can undo the harm Brexit has inflicted on the UK​]

Every credible forecaster agrees that a no-deal Brexit would reduce Britain’s GDP by several percentage points at a time when the country is already mired in its worst economic crisis since 1706. Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, warns that the long-term costs would be even greater than those of the Covid-19 pandemic. Industry would be ravaged by tariffs, custom controls and what the CBI calls a “tidal wave” of red tape. The public would face shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and double-digit price increases. Sterling would plunge. Inward investment would evaporate like water in a desert.

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Nobody voted for that scenario in 2016, 2017 or 2019. It is infinitely worse than anything envisaged by “Project Fear”. Only a criminally reckless prime minister would knowingly inflict such immense damage on his own country. 

The EU is certainly playing hardball, but what did Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers expect? Surely they realised that would be the case before they campaigned for Leave? Surely they realised that Brussels would demand a price for continued access to a single market of 450 million people, that we would not be allowed to have our proverbial cake and eat it? Surely they realised that Johnson’s offensive, bellicose rhetoric, his relentless rubbishing of the EU, and his threat to renege on last year’s solemn Withdrawal Agreement was not the best way to generate trust and good will? 

And if they think that our former friends and allies in Europe are playing hardball, what do they think the Americans, Chinese and Indians will do when we seek to conclude trade deals with them?

[See also: A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory

It is time for our government to abandon its ridiculous fantasies and get real. It is patently obvious, by any reckoning, that we need a deal far more than the 27-state EU. We are going to have to agree some sort of binding regulatory apparatus in return for continued access to the single market, and as the former EU member that fought hardest for the principle of a “level playing field” we should understand that. And are we really going to incur guaranteed across-the-board tariffs now in order to prevent the possibility of punitive, targeted tariffs should we deviate from EU standards later? 

We should also reach a reasonable compromise on fishing rights. The alternative is to sacrifice our huge automotive and agricultural industries to support an iconic but miniscule fishing industry that employs barely 12,000 fishermen and accounts for 0.1 per cent of GDP. A fishing industry that long ago chose to sell many of its licenses to European operators. An industry, moverover, that would be hammered by a no-deal Brexit because it exports most of its catch to the EU.

Johnson said last week that he hoped “sweet reason” would prevail, so he might want to consider some other inconvenient truths. First, nothing would drive Scotland out of the Union faster than the dire economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Second, the UK must eventually agree a trade deal with a neighbouring bloc that accounts for almost half our exports, but we will be in a much weaker position if we walk away now. 

Third, those who would suffer worst from a no-deal Brexit would not be billionaire Leavers such as James Dyson or Jim Ratcliffe who have since demonstrated their faith in Britain by moving operations overseas, or those Brexiteer MPs who have done so much to reduce this country to its present plight, but precisely those “Red Wall” voters of the industrial north and Midlands who returned Johnson to Downing Street last December and whom he now professes to champion.

The remaining obstacles to a trade deal are political, not technical. Johnson harbours Churchillian aspirations. That being the case, he should do the right thing for once in his life. He should show real leadership at last. He should accept that there is always a price to pay for market access and make the necessary compromises. He should finally face down Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and all those other deluded Tory zealots for whom “sovereignty” is a commodity that must never be pooled regardless of the gain, and whose absolute purity must be preserved however vast the cost. 

As it is, we are regaining our “sovereignty” by jeopardising our future as a trading nation, and by destroying the influence we enjoyed as a bridge between the US and Europe. It will not make us richer, more powerful or more respected. On the contrary, it will give us the freedom only to plough a sad and lonely furrow in a world that pities us for our foolishness.

[See also: Brexit emptied so many serious political minds of sense. Now let it be]