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20 January 2020

Sajid Javid has made clear the UK’s Brexit position. So why do so many think the government is bluffing?

The Chancellor’s rhetoric isn’t a surprise but the government has yet to match that commitment in reality. 

By Stephen Bush

Sajid Javid has spooked British businesses by telling the Financial Times that: “There will not be alignment [with the European Union], we will not be a rule-taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union – and we will do this by the end of the year.”

This feels a bit like Javid spooking British businesses by announcing his name and job title, but there you go. The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto was a thin document, but what it lacked in breadth it made up for with incredible specificity: putting the UK on course for a low-alignment, low-trade Brexit.

So why do so many still act as though the government is bluffing? Well, it’s partly because while Javid’s rhetoric isn’t a surprise, the government has yet to match that commitment in reality. Dom Cummings’s criticism of the last government – that it wasn’t embarking on the necessary level of infrastructure spend to become a genuine third country – remains just as true of Boris Johnson’s government as it was of Theresa May’s. May at least had the excuse of being constrained by the 2017 election result, but if we’re leaving on 31 December, why wasn’t there an emergency budget shortly after the election?

Under May, there was an obvious answer to that: because her preferred Brexit destination kept us in a customs union with the EU. And when we looked at Johnson’s lack of preparation for a no-deal Brexit in autumn last year, there was an answer to that, too: in the end, he decided he could live with a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

So now we’re again facing a government whose political posture isn’t matched by policy commitment and has a series of commitments on tax, spending and debt that can’t be reconciled with one another even before you add a Brexit that takes us out of the regulatory and customs orbit of the EU. And therefore the assumption for a lot of people is that we’re in for a similar kind of movie with a similar kind of ending: one in which the government U-turns on everything and we end up with a softer Brexit than the one currently advertised.

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But I wouldn’t be so sure; both May and Johnson’s U-turns had an outside pretext called the 2017 parliament. Johnson’s 80-seat majority makes it harder to see what the rhetorical excuse this government could concoct for going back on its promises. But one way or another, the government’s promises on alignment – and their consequences as to how the UK looks after Brexit – are a lot more important than anything else that the government has announced, hinted or leaked about its future plans.

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