How the Brexit virus is turning the UK into a rogue state

The siren call of national greatness has blinded Britain to its true self-interest. 

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Once again a lethal virus is sweeping Britain, threatening our health, our economy, our very way of life. I’m not talking about the second wave of Covid-19, grim though that promises to be. I’m talking about the Brexit virus.

This one does not attack our lungs. It attacks our reason with its siren call of independence, regeneration and national greatness. It blinds us to our true self-interest. It renders us unable to distinguish between right and wrong, between truth and lies. It induces amnesia – an inability to notice that what we are told today blatantly contradicts what we were promised yesterday.

This virus emanates not from some wet market in central China, but from Downing Street, the heart of our own government. It was introduced by Dominic Cummings, an apostle of “creative destruction” who is not even a member of the Conservative Party. He recruited a prime minister unrestrained by conscience or principle as its willing “super-spreader”. And the most dramatic manifestation yet of its resurgence is this pair's willingness to break international law.

There is no wriggle room, no room for nuance, here. Laws cannot be partly or slightly broken. There can be no defence for the government’s proclaimed readiness to renege on the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. That agreement was agreed freely and enthusiastically by Johnson’s government last October. It was debated, and approved with hefty majorities, by parliament last December and January. It was hailed as “fantastic” and “wonderful” by Johnson, who proceeded to win December’s general election by boasting of his “great new oven-ready deal”. 

There is a name for countries that renege on their international obligations. They are called rogue states, and that is what Britain is in imminent danger of becoming now that the Brexit virus has debilitated so much of its body politic.

Who would have thought that the Conservative Party – once synonymous with pragmatism, family values, fiscal rectitude, free trade, Unionism, the institutional status quo and, above all else, law and order – would choose such a manifest charlatan as Johnson to be its leader in the first place, let alone connive in his present anarchy? 

A few brave Tory bigwigs – John Major, Theresa May, Geoffrey Cox, Michael Howard – are speaking out, but shamefully most Conservative MPs, the Attorney General and the Justice Secretary included, appear ready to endorse the government’s lawbreaking, just as they did when it prorogued parliament last autumn.

The Tory press is little better. Who would have thought the once staid and crusty Daily Telegraph would run an editorial headlined “Breaking the Withdrawal Agreement is the Least Worst Option”, or apologia entitled “The Bad Faith EU is Furious that the UK Now Has a Backstop of Its Own” or “The UK Has to Defend Itself Against Predatory Diplomacy, Deal or No Deal”. 

Most alarming is the spread of the virus among a general public once renowned for its caution, moderation and distrust of ideologues. It does not seem to matter that all those promises with which Johnson, Cummings and their fellow Leave campaigners seduced the country during the 2016 EU referendum – vast Brexit dividends for the NHS, quick and easy trade deals, curbs on immigration, taking back control, “global Britain”, cakes that you can both have and eat – have proved utterly bogus.

It does not seem to matter that Brexit, far from delivering Britain to some glorious Promised Land, has led to four years of bitter social strife, severe economic disruption, the very real threat of Scottish secession, international marginalisation, subservience to Donald Trump’s US and a bitter divorce from the bloc of 27 states that presently accounts for roughly half our imports and exports. 

“EU politicians will be banging down the door for a trade deal,” Johnson promised in 2016. “It’s overwhelmingly in their interests. Not only do we buy more cars than anybody else, we drink more Italian wine...They’re not going to put that at risk.”

As in Trump’s America, we appear to have reached some sort of tipping point. An alarming number of people now blithely ignore the constant, incontrovertible evidence of Johnson’s perfidy, lies and incompetence. On the contrary, the more the Prime Minister’s conduct is condemned by the sane and sensible, the more they choose to see him as the victim of a malign, self-serving establishment bent on thwarting the “will of the people”

To cite just one example of how the infection rate is soaring, read the online comments – more than 5,000 – that readers posted beneath the article which John Major and Tony Blair, two former prime ministers, published in the Sunday Times yesterday (13 September), warning that reneging on the Withdrawal Agreement would jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland, destroy trust in Britain and make other trade deals much harder to secure.

Roughly half were vitriolic, poisonous and hostile. “The dynamic duo are at it again, kicking the UK when we need their support,” one declared. “Two utter Remainers... why do you print what they say?”, proclaimed another. “They are disloyal, unpatriotic – and habitually favour the interests of the EU over their own country,” said a third. And these were from paid-up subscribers of a relatively upmarket paper, not some screechy tabloid. 

But here is the really frightening thing: there is no vaccine for this deadly, insidious virus – and none anywhere in sight.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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