‘Brexiter promises of easy trade deals were, as Jo Johnson ruthlessly exposes, fantastical lies’
The division in the Johnson family over the EU mirrors and, to some extent, has created the divisions in the country. Without Boris, Leave would not have won. But the resignation of his brother Jo on Friday, and his devastating explanation, may prove to be the catalyst for reversing the catastrophe of 2016.
Boris’s opportunistic reinvention from liberal Tory to Trumpite populist helped win the day for Farage et al, but was never wholly convincing even as it triumphed. Jo has remained true to the liberal Tory tradition of the rest of his family and his cri de coeur last week for the EU and pragmatic internationalism would have been endorsed in every respect by Macmillan, Heath and Heseltine. It is now vital for the country that Jo, not Boris, wins an argument that, as the former says, represents “the greatest crisis since the Second World War”.
The resignation marks the end of the phony political conflict – that one way or another Britain will muddle through the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019 more or less unscathed. Labour can carry on using the crisis for party advantage, pressing for an impossible general election given the terms of the Fixedterm Parliaments Act, while not declaring its position. Meanwhile, Mrs May’s first obligation is not to deliver a deal that is in the national interest but rather one that keeps her warring party from disintegrating. The interests of economy, prosperity, trade, defence, security and peace can all go hang as third-rate politicians vie for party advantage. Jo Johnson has triggered a potential change in the rules of engagement.
The conviction of his letter, arguing that the emerging Brexit deal is “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”, is indisputable. Never has Britain lost so uniformly and so completely on every position it has staked. Whether discussing our ongoing payments to the EU, the nature of our future trading relationship or the necessity to retain an open Irish border, Britain has been outmanoeuvred and out-negotiated. Brexiters claim that the bad faith and incompetence of May and her fifth-columnist civil service negotiators are the cause. The reality is that Britain’s position was incoherent from the start – simultaneously wanting the benefits of EU membership even while leaving. Moreover, a country of 65 million people is simply weaker than the EU of 450 million, which is doing no more than properly protecting its interests. Brexiter promises of easy trade deals and all the rest, as Jo Johnson ruthlessly exposes, were fantastical lies.
The result, as he writes, is that the country faces the choice of either the chaos of a no deal – risking depression, food and medical shortages and the collapse of the Dover-Calais transport link – or mitigating that debacle by never-ending “vassalage” to EU regulations in a customs union and single market from which we dare not depart because of the economic damage. We will accept EU rules, make contributions to its budget, but play no part in making them. It is this choice that Johnson thinks is so unacceptable he cannot be part of a government that has delivered it – and he wants to put the realities democratically before the British people in a second referendum.
The present crisis has alarming echoes of the run-up to both the First and Second World wars whose legacy we reflect on so sombrely today. In both cases, Britain was both half in and half out of Europe, sending mixed messages about its commitment to the European order. We would not commit to defend Belgium against German aggression until too late in August 1914, while in 1938 the disaster of Munich merely deferred war for months. As Churchill said, Europe is where the weather comes from – a truth our diplomacy should permanently acknowledge. It is as true today as in 1914, 1918 and 1939.
We must give the British people an opportunity, through a new referendum, to give their verdict on our real options as we move towards the fateful deadline.