Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech was high on rhetoric and short on answers

Remainers aren’t worried about John Stuart Mill - they’re worried about policy.

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Boris Johnson and I don’t have much in common but we do share a university, albeit one we attended several decades apart. Listening to his big Brexit address at Policy Exchange, I found myself gripped by unwanted flashbacks to my time there and the speeches one would occasionally have to endure in tutorial when someone – usually but not exclusively someone from a famous private school like Johnson’s – hadn’t done the reading but did have a big argument they knew could get them through the hour.

Similarly, Johnson’s speech hung together as far as the essay question he had set himself – “Is Brexit a great liberal cause?”- went, but unfortunately it fell apart as far as the actual thing the government needs to solve; which is “What did Remainers fear to lose in the referendum, and how can they be reassured?”

The problem is that most Remainers didn’t vote to stay in the European Union because of a high-minded commitment to the institutions of the EU or an ideological sense that it was better for liberalism, or conservativism, or social democracy or socialism or whatever creed you care to name. Those that did are beyond the reach of Johnson or the government anyway. Most Remainers voted to stay in the EU because of concern about what leaving would look like, and the disruption it might cause, and it was on that subject that the speech was thinnest.

Where it did succeed in offering reassurance was the passages in which Johnson effectively pledged that in some sectors nothing would change, i.e. security and foreign affairs – for both of which the British government hopes it will effectively remain in the EU. (The same is true of science and research.)

It was when the speech entered the murkier areas – the ones where the government as a whole, and perhaps Johnson as an individual, is less clear on what they want – that it fell apart. Frankly, you can give as many fine monologues about the importance of setting our own tariffs, but the fear that occupies the minds of many Remainers, particularly those in Northern Ireland, is that Brexit means a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The only way you can prevent that is a significant measure of customs and regulatory alignment, which Johnson appeared to rule out in the speech.

Ditto, while the passages about British citizens still enjoying visa-free holidays might have been amusing, the actual point of voter concern is that they or their spouses will no longer be able to live, work and move in together freely in the EU area as they do now.

If Boris Johnson wants to make a success of Brexit, let alone to win back the Remainers it lost at the 2017 election, it needs to engage seriously with what the actual fears of the actual people who voted Remain are, and indeed engage seriously with the issues around delivering Brexit more broadly, not deliver 45 minutes of flannel about John Stuart Mill.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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