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11 December 2020

Boris Johnson won’t escape blame for Brexit forever

Johnson may be remembered as the Prime Minister who crashed the British economy on purpose.

By Jonn Elledge

A no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson told the world back in September 2019, would be a “failure of statecraft”. The June before that, he said the odds of it happening were “a million-to-one against – but it is vital that we prepare”. Boris Johnson, though, has never been one to feel bound by the words of Boris Johnson, and not only have we not prepared, but last night he said that an “Australian relationship” with the EU – that’s no deal, to those of us who don’t have a potentially fatal allergy to ever speaking the truth – was “a strong possibility”. In some parts of The Discourse, the question is already shifting from “could no deal happen” to “who is to blame”.

I have a friend with whom, for reasons that have long stopped being clear to me, I often argue about politics. When the Labour Party fails to find its arse with both hands, gets it handed to it on a platter, or otherwise does something embarrassing and arse-related, my friend, not unreasonably, blames the Labour Party. When the Conservative Party does the same, however – which it has, with distressing regularity, these last few years, laying waste to the country in the process – my friend still blames the Labour party, only this time it’s because it didn’t find a way of stopping it.

[See also: Why the EU would prefer a no-deal Brexit to a deal undermining the European social model]

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, because of the sheer quantity of the internet that has been dedicated to working out who’s to blame for Apocalypse A Fortnight From Next Friday, without blame ever, somehow, managing to alight on the obvious candidate of “Vote Leave and the Conservative Party leadership, who are literally the ones who have done it”. 

For some it’s Jo Swinson, whose brief leadership of the Liberal Democrats (no, really, that happened) consisted mainly of pushing for a “stop Brexit” election which handed the Brexit-loving Conservative Party an 80-seat majority, and resulted in her losing her own too. For others it’s Lexiters, whose left-wing Euroscepticism feels like such an unnatural brew that they must be to blame, even though there are only about four of them; or Jeremy Corbyn, who arguably could have done more to change things, but I can’t quite shake the sense that many of his critics would blame him nonetheless, even if he had. 

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For still others, most bafflingly of all, it’s simply “Remainers”, who were so shocked and horrified by the referendum result that they wouldn’t accept a soft Brexit, and kept demanding silly things like a second referendum instead. Never mind that a soft Brexit was never on the table, or that “Remainers” aren’t an organisation, or that at no point since the term “Remainer” was coined has anyone in Downing Street given even the slightest of figs what they think: no deal is still, somehow, their fault, and not the fault of those who’ve spent years or decades enthusiastically advocating for it. It’s like blaming a criminal’s irritating, do-good-ing neighbour for somehow driving him to crime. 

[See also: Are Boris Johnson’s theatrics cover for a Brexit deal or no deal?​]

This may be the most optimistic sentence I have ever written, but: I don’t think Johnson himself can escape the blame forever. I don’t just mean because a lot of things are, clearly and objectively, his fault, but because the British public likes to blame its leaders even when they’re innocent. We’d find a reason to hate him soon enough even if things were going well, and things are very obviously not going well. 

Things, indeed, could be about to get a lot worse.  A government dossier setting out a “reasonable worst-case scenario” written in September warned of shortages of food, medicine and (worst of all, to the British mind) petrol; huge queues and long delays at ports; and rising prices for pretty much everything. All this is without even mentioning the small matter of Ireland, or the fact we’re still in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. In 2018, when KFC ran out of chicken, some members of the public called the police: the idea that the entire country will quietly accept food and petrol shortages as a price worth paying for “sovereignty” would be laughable, if only any of us could stop crying, which we probably can’t.

What happens then? No doubt ministers would do their best to push the blame onto foreigners or Remainers. Human nature being what it is, that’ll probably work, though I suspect we’ll keep blaming ministers too, because that’s what we’ve always done. At some point, if we’re lucky, the government will go crawling back to Brussels to beg for a trade deal under any terms, and then, aside from the small loss of all this country’s credibility and a sizeable chunk of GDP, things might start to go back to normal.

But the Leave tendency will have the stab in the back narrative that they’ve been longing for all along, and it’s likely to keep poisoning our politics for decades. And Boris Johnson will forever be remembered as the Prime Minister who crashed the British economy on purpose. 

But he will, at least, be remembered. Perhaps that’s all he ever wanted.

[See also: Is the government preparing to cave over Brexit, or is something else going on?]