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Jo Johnson’s Brexit muddle

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Currently in Los Angeles, which is coping with an enormous forest fire and the aftermath of a crazed gunman shooting dead 13 people at a suburban bar, I woke up today to the news that the transport minister and Remain supporter Jo Johnson had resigned from the government over the Brexit negotiation.

In this account of why he resigned, he says one thing on which Remainers and Brexiteers will doubtless agree.

This is the appalling way Theresa May has conducted the negotiation, bringing Parliament to the brink of a choice between a terrible deal that betrays the Brexit vote and leaving with no deal at all.

As Johnson says, the deal Mrs May is apparently about to present to Parliament is truly terrible:

“… an agreement that will leave our country economically weakened, with no say in the EU rules it must follow and years of uncertainty for business… Instead of Britain ‘taking back control’, we will cede control to other European countries. This democratic deficit inherent in the Prime Minister’s proposal is a travesty of Brexit. 

…The proposed Withdrawal Agreement parks many of the biggest issues about our future relationship with Europe into a boundless transitionary period. This is a con on the British people: there is no evidence that the kind of Brexit that we’ve failed to negotiate while we are still members can be magically agreed once the UK has lost its seat at the table.”

All too correct. But he also says this: “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.

The vassalage bit is right; but chaos from no-deal? David Davis told the BBC Today programme yesterday that, contrary to popular assumptions, many preparations for no-deal had in fact been made.

If no-deal does threaten chaos, as Johnson says he knows from being a transport minister, it will be because departments such as his own have not properly prepared for it. Wilfully to leave the country unprepared for no-deal, in order to use this effectively to blackmail it into accepting whatever deal Mrs May presents, would be a truly appalling abuse of democracy if that were indeed the case.

However, having chilled our marrow about no-deal Johnson then lurches from side to side. For he says this:

“Yet for all its challenges and for all the real pain it would cause us as we adapt to new barriers to trade with our biggest market, we can ultimately survive these difficulties. I believe it would be a grave mistake for the government to ram through this deal by once again unleashing Project Fear. A ‘no deal’ outcome of this sort may well be better than the never ending purgatory the Prime Minister is offering the country.”

But then he promptly lurches to the other side again by calling for a second referendum:

“Given that the reality of Brexit has turned out to be so far from what was once promised, the democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say”. 

This is just wrong on so many levels. The issue of the terms on which Britain would leave the EU was not on the referendum question. Nor were the demands the EU was likely to make of Britain if it chose to stay. The vote was on a simple choice: to leave or to remain.

Johnson asks: “Is it more democratic to rely on a three year old vote based on what an idealised Brexit might offer, or to have a vote based on what we know it does actually entail”?

“Idealised Brexit”? He’s got to be kidding! Voters were bombarded without remission by apocalyptic warnings, from ostensibly stellar authorities such as the Treasury or CBI, of the unutterably terrible consequences of leaving the EU. The country voted to leave even in the teeth of all that.

As for having a second referendum on the basis that we now “know what it does actually entail”, he’s got to be kidding again. We haven’t got a clue what either leaving or remaining would actually entail in practice, since the claims are so partisan and contested on all sides.

Whatever the truth of it, the Remainer establishment has certainly created the impression that no-deal would be an unmitigated disaster. Brexiteer cynics say this has been deliberate: to present such an invidious choice that there would be a clamour for a second referendum. But a second referendum would be a transparent attempt to ignore, and try to reverse, the clearly expressed wish of the people to leave the EU.

Of course, it would have been nice if the EU had offered a deal to Britain’s advantage. But that was never going to happen. The EU was never going to agree to anything that would cause it any disadvantage – unless a negotiating gun was put to its head. Instead, it put a gun to ours.

At the beginning of this agonising debacle, Mrs May had the weapon in her hand. The EU needed the UK more than the UK needed the EU. Desperate for compromise, she chose instead to play the supplicant.

She should have told the EU right from the start that the UK was leaving with no deal, because whatever the short-term disadvantages the UK would in due course take the EU to the cleaners. The EU would then have given ground to avoid their red-line of no-deal which would be so much not in their interests.

Instead, it became clear that no-deal was Mrs May’s own red line. For her, vassalage was better than no-deal. The result was that she turned a strong hand into a disastrously weak one.

We are where we are. Britain voted to leave the EU. That’s what it must do. If that means no-deal, so be it. If Parliament doesn’t grasp that, the damage it will itself do to democratic legitimacy and public trust in those who govern us will be irreparable.

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