“Brexit has failed.” Thus, Nigel Farage this week, speaking on BBC Newsnight. His point was that British Tory politicians had failed in making the most of what he still sees as its opportunities and were driving business out of the country. Still, quite a moment. The British right is now in full-blown crisis.
It’s too early to declare that Brexit as a historical act is defeated. Whatever the outcome of the next general election, it’s almost impossible to imagine the project being reversed – even if the EU wanted Britain back. But it isn’t too early to say that purist Brexit has been defeated: Brexit as a quasi-religious cult is dying out.
In politics you can measure the depth of trouble a party, or ideology, is in by the energy it expends, not in dealing with the problems of the real world, but on future leadership campaigns.
And that is just what’s happening now on the Tory right. When Rishi Sunak’s era ends, the crown will pass not back to Boris Johnson, it seems, but to the Tories’ fourth female leader. The only question is which one. Kemi Badenoch, currently the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, has offended the purist Brexiters by being sensible on the Retained EU Law Bill, interestingly positioning herself as “provocative… but not mad”.
The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, by contrast, ramped up the anti-migrant rhetoric on 15 May in a speech to the National Conservatism Conference in London, to a point where there is no Tory space to her right.
And the Leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, in her role as Lord President of the Council triumphantly roused the wrinkled loins of ancient Tory England by parading during the coronation through Westminster Abbey with a very large sword.
So, what’s the political divide here? Everywhere, Conservatives are covertly arguing about that Farage critique – that they’ve all been a bit rubbish – without actually being able to use the word Brexit. The intense argument about immigration numbers (recently I pointed out that the last net figures were half a million, but the next set may be close to double that) is a proxy debate about the true meaning of Brexit.
Why? Because if you tell people that the purpose of leaving the EU was to keep migrants out, and then, because your under-trained economy needs them, you do precisely the opposite, you have a problem. You can try to divert attention by talking only about the Channel boat crossings – or, indeed, Keir Starmer’s views on a woman’s possession of a penis – but that won’t take you very far.
We also know that this is really an argument about Brexit because on the face of it, it’s an unnecessary one: a programme to train and pay British workers to do abattoir, truck-driving and agricultural work can happen perfectly well alongside a short-term tactic of using migrant labour to plug holes in the market. Having spent quite a bit of my adolescent years picking fruit and working in potato fields, I have some sympathy with the argument about doing more ourselves.
Yet, as its members position themselves for a future contest, the Tory cabinet is trying to divide itself into pro-economic migration and anti-economic migration. Some of the same chaotic energy is applied to the growth problem in general – looser planning laws to allow us to build the houses we need, or the protection of Green England? It is hard to refute the Farage argument that the Conservatives have no idea what they really want to do with Brexit.
The most intriguing evidence of this came in the recent confrontation between Kemi Badenoch and the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MP Brexit hardliners over the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill in the House of Lords. Her decision to abandon the – frankly crackers – plan to obliterate some 4,000 pieces of law inherited from the EU by the end of this year, with no proper parliamentary oversight, is the clearest sign that Sunak has turned his back on Brexit purism. If we weren’t sure after the Windsor framework on the Northern Ireland protocol, we sure as hell know now.
The REUL plan was crackers because, in the first place, lacking anything like enough time for Commons scrutiny, replacement rules would have been implemented by civil servants and ministers, not MPs. So much for parliamentary sovereignty. As one prominent Brexit champion put it: “I fought to take back control from Brussels and pass it to Westminster – not to Whitehall.”
It was crackers in the second place because it would have plunged business into a long period of uncertainty just when investment is desperately needed. Senior Conservatives believe the REUL plan would have paralysed Whitehall for more than a year, with the worst disruption happening early next year… Chaos neatly planned in time for a general election.
Finally, it was three-times crackers because it wasn’t necessary. Faced with such a tangle of legislation, the sensible thing would have been to comb through it for the bits that really mattered using the “Pareto rule” on prioritising, taught in business school, which suggests a small percentage of causes have an outsized impact. And in fact, this is what the government had already started to do: on the Solvency II regime for insurance, on purchasing controls, and on data protection – all of real consequence – ministers had chosen primary legislation.
Many of the rest of the 4,000 inherited laws are either “pass-through legislation” which derive from the UN, or – as in the case of civil aviation, which is governed by the 1944 Chicago Convention – other international agreements, and so cannot be obliterated; or else they are thoroughly trivial.
Hearing of this from her civil servants, Badenoch decided to do the obvious thing and gut the legislation even before the Lords began to do the job for her.
The consequence was that she has been savagely attacked by Brexit purists, who say her hopes of leadership are now over. As a former standard bearer of the right – in last year’s leadership contest, she emphasised Brexit, her fiscal responsibility and truth-telling on “woke” issues – this would have been painful.
Badenoch may have calculated that the ERG is no longer particularly potent – and that with Brexit falling in popularity around the country, her interests are better served by pragmatism than purism.
She may also conclude that what the Tory base really wants is somebody whose rhetoric they can agree with – laugh with, nod at – in the snug bar of the St George and Dragon. But also someone who wouldn’t dream of taking their alcohol-scented prejudices and translating them immediately into law; someone who speaks like them, but can be relied upon to protect them from their own more whiffy instincts.
That’s the sweet spot. The Conservative Party has always been more pragmatic than it sounds. But Brexit as its article of faith, its go-to newspaper rhetoric, is dying off. Fixing the rules for a new world in which Britain can do well enough after leaving the EU is proving a detailed, complex, somewhat dreary task.
Despite the hysteria over Labour’s plans to extend the franchise to younger voters and European residents in the UK, there is no Starmer plot to return the country to the EU. That remains too high-risk, too divisive. But if Labour won a majority or was able to govern in a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the likelihood of its plan for a series of sectoral deals with the EU solidifying into something that felt like returning to the single market would become higher.
The failure of the Johnson, Truss and Sunak governments to find a business-friendly, voter-friendly plan for post-Brexit Britain is what the immigration argument and the collapse of the REUL legislation is really all about. It was the moment when headline-grabbing optimism met the obdurate real world at quite a whack. “Brexit has failed.”
This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List