The US’s nightmare is finally over but the UK’s is just beginning

Much of the damage that Donald Trump has caused to the US can be repaired. Brexit, alas, is irreversible.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The first US presidential race ever to be contested by two candidates with hair transplants is over. The one who has never once been seen laughing has been defeated. Joe Biden has won, and how delicious that Arizona should be one of the states to seal his victory. Donald Trump, the bone-spur draft dodger, lost Arizona after mocking the Vietnam heroism of its late senator, John McCain.

How wonderful, too, to see so many young Americans of every background dancing in their city streets because their four-year nightmare is over. 

But it is hard to watch those joyous celebrations without a degree of envy, for Britain’s nightmare is far from over. Indeed it is growing steadily worse, and Trump’s defeat leaves us alone in our misery. We are still governed, or misgoverned, by an aberrant nationalist populist whom the vanquished president regarded as “Britain Trump”.

Boris Johnson may be less extreme than Trump, and less overtly nasty and graceless, but even before the Covid-19 crisis both men had brought turmoil, strife and international opprobrium to what were relatively normal, prosperous and respected countries less than five years ago. 

Like Trump, Johnson is a shameless opportunist, a purveyor of snake-oil, who gained power through a duplicitous promise to make Britain great again by liberating it from the oppressive shackles of the European Union.

Like Trump, he is an act, a consummate performer, an amoral – or immoral – narcissist with little genuine interest in helping the left behind and disadvantaged that he purports to champion. Like Trump, he tramples on democratic norms, divides rather than unites, exploits grievances rather than address them, opts for simplistic slogans and easy headlines over complex policy, demonises opponents, disdains the law, scorns facts and ignores detail.

[see also: Why Joe Biden’s US election victory is good news for Boris Johnson]

Like the departing president of the now Disunited States, the Prime Minister of the now Disunited Kingdom has unleashed the people’s darkest impulses and sought to raise, not lower, the proverbial drawbridge. While Trump sought to extricate his country from all supranational organisations, Johnson has led the UK out of what is arguably the greatest experiment in multinational cooperation in human history, one that has finally brought peace to the perpetually warring tribes of Europe – the EU.

Almost, but not quite, led us out. Although 52 months have passed since Johnson’s Brexiteers promised the easiest trade deal in history during the EU referendum, although the Conservatives won last December’s general election by promising an “oven-ready” deal with the bloc that forms by far our largest trading partner, no deal has yet transpired and we have now begun the final, final, week of talks before time really, really does run out. 

Until now Johnson appears to have followed Trump’s negotiating strategy. As he admiringly told a private meeting in 2018, if the US president was negotiating Brexit “he’d go in hard...There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually, you might get somewhere.”

That strategy has failed, and Biden’s victory ramps up the pressure on Johnson to compromise. The Irish-American president-elect is far less likely than Trump to agree a swift compensatory trade deal with the UK, especially if Johnson jeopardises the Good Friday agreement by reneging on last year’s Withdrawal Agreement.

[see also: Why the real special relationship is between the US and Ireland]

But it is now too late to strike anything more than a skeletal deal at best, and too late for a Covid-stricken Britain to avoid yet more upheaval when the transition period expires in barely 50 days.

The unimpeachably independent National Audit Office issued a grim report last week warning of “widespread disruption” – deal or no-deal – because of the government’s failure adequately to prepare businesses, hauliers, ports, software systems and customs agents for new border controls.

It also noted, in language all the more powerful for being understated, that “despite the devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis...the Johnson government chose not to extend the transition period. In doing so, it has effectively gambled that the UK can withstand the inevitable disruption from its preferred outcome, with minimal time to prepare – and that more time wouldn’t have improved readiness. This is a high-risk bet, made riskier still with every week that passes without clarity on the outcome of the negotiations and in which the resurgence of coronavirus demands ever greater government and public attention, forcing most of the country into lockdown.”

It is no good ministers trying to blame businesses for failing to step up their preparations. How could they, when they still do not know whether there will be a deal, or what its terms will be, and most are struggling simply to survive? We are in this predicament because Johnson has long ignored the pleas of business leaders for certainty and respite, and opted not to extend the transition period for cynical political reasons. As he told another private meeting in 2018: “fuck business.”

[see also: John Lewis chooses not to furlough workers – exposing Rishi Sunak’s big mistake]

Longer term, moreover, the government has failed to spell out any plausible alternative to a national economic model that has long been based on the UK attracting global investors seeking access to the European single market. 

Indeed it is hard to see why anyone would invest in Britain at a time when its economy is in freefall due to the pandemic, some sort of new barriers to trade with the EU are inevitable, the country’s budget and current account deficits are ballooning, and taxes are bound to rise. Small wonder that the FTSE index has fallen 22 per cent this year, that Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating, and that only 39 per cent of respondents to a recent YouGov poll still think we were right to leave the EU.

Most galling of all, Johnson must also know deep down that Britain is making a grievous mistake by leaving the EU. He was never a fanatical Leaver, merely an opportunist who saw Brexit as a route to power. Like Trump, he is a wrecker, but much of the damage Trump has caused to the US can be repaired. Brexit, alas, is irreversible.

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

Free trial CSS