‘Brex­iter prom­ises of easy trade deals were, as Jo John­son ruth­lessly ex­poses, fan­tas­ti­cal lies’

The Observer - - Front Page -

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.

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