As Americans fix their 2016 error, we in the UK are doubling down on ours: Brexit

This article is more than 1 month old
Jonathan Freedland

It is a kind of madness that a thin deal or no deal is government policy. Labour has a choice to make, and fast

Government messaging for Brexit on Tottenham Court Road, London, 23 November.
Government messaging for Brexit on Tottenham Court Road, London, 23 November. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock
Government messaging for Brexit on Tottenham Court Road, London, 23 November. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Last modified on Fri 27 Nov 2020 23.37 EST

Envy is an unworthy emotion, and yet I feel it. It first struck on Monday, as Joe Biden announced his top tier of cabinet appointments, naming a team of calm, competent, deeply experienced lieutenants that will contrast sharply with Britain’s cabinet of all the talentless. The green-eyed demon struck again on Thursday as I watched Biden issue a series of Thanksgiving messages with a warmth and humanity alien to the man he will succeed. It’s clearer every day that in electing Biden and rejecting Donald Trump, Americans are moving to undo the great error they made in 2016. I envy that – because we are still stuck with ours.

Of course Trumpism will live on in some form, but in January 2021 Americans will formally conclude the chapter that opened with Trump’s victory four years ago. In the same month, we will start our Brexit story in earnest, leaving the European Union not just in name but in practice. As America’s encounter with the reality of 2016-vintage populist nationalism ends, so ours will begin.

Even with just weeks to go, it’s still not clear whether we will end the EU transition period on 1 January with a deal or without one: you can find signs pointing to both outcomes. But let’s say a deal is done and ratified in these remaining 30-odd days. That will be greeted with relief, since a no deal crash-out remains the stuff of nightmares. And yet such relief must not obscure the fact that even an agreed exit will ravage our economy more deeply than the pandemic, which itself has shaken us to the core.

A study by Thomas Sampson of the London School of Economics finds that while the coronavirus has inflicted greater short-term pain, by 2035 it’s the scars of Brexit that we will be bearing. His estimate is that Covid-19 reduces future UK GDP by 2.1%, in present value terms, but Brexit shrinks it by nearly twice as much: 3.7%. And that’s if we get a deal (the figure rises to 5.7% without one). Remember, this is not a disaster inflicted by nature or disease: we are doing this to ourselves.

I can hear the inevitable response from leavers and exhausted remainers alike: “All right, all right – but the debate is over. Britons voted for Brexit, again, by giving Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority in 2019. It’s done.” But there are two important replies.

The first is that Johnson’s win was on the promise of an “oven-ready” deal that simply needed a thumbs-up from the voters. And yet here we are, almost a year later, with no agreement. The Brexit that won ratification last December was sold on a false prospectus, bogusly claiming a degree of resolution that was not there. As Naomi Smith of the Brexit-sceptical group Best for Britain puts it: what happens when voters discover that Johnson’s oven-ready deal is “uncooked and frozen in the middle”? Such an outcome is highly likely. Even those most optimistic about a breakthrough suspect that any final agreement with Brussels will be thin in the extreme, covering only the barest necessities – “skinnier than a 90s supermodel”, in the words of one EU watcher.

The second reply points to the obvious difference between December 2020 and December 2019: we are in the midst of a vicious and deadly pandemic. Wherever you stood on Brexit before, you can surely see that now – in the depth of a winter wave of the virus, with most of the country in various degrees of lockdown and with businesses ailing and overwhelmed – is the very worst time to be forcing a radical overhaul of supply chains and trading arrangements with our nearest neighbours.

If you doubt it, listen to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry as it warns that supplies of crucial medicines, including any new vaccine against the coronavirus, could be disrupted by Brexit, whether of the no-deal or thin-deal variety. “We don’t need this extra red tape, extra complexity, extra cost and extra delay getting in the way of our supply chain at a time where we’re trying to deal with Covid,” the group says.

The country’s food supply is “imperilled” too, according to Bloomberg, which reports that manufacturers and distributors already strained by Christmas and Covid “are warning that the food supply chain is at capacity and can’t cope with any further shocks”. Unilever, producer of countless household brands, is pleading with the government to “keep the ports and roads open”, lest supermarket shelves go empty. And yet it’s at this very moment that the government is launching a new customs system for cross-border hauliers: the trial will be rolled out on 23 December, hours before Christmas and only eight days before the system becomes compulsory.

It’s a kind of madness to be doing all this now, and yet the government will not be swayed. What of the opposition? If there is a last-minute deal, Labour will have a choice to make. It believes it cannot vote against an agreement, for that would be to countenance no deal. But the shadow cabinet is split between abstention and voting with the government. I’m told that the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, Emily Thornberry and others want to abstain, while Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer lean towards backing any agreement.

Abstention has obvious drawbacks. It looks like the very Brexit fence-sitting that cost Labour so dear a year ago. “Abstaining on the biggest issue of the day? Very hard to explain that on the doorstep,” says one shadow minister. And yet to vote with Boris Johnson is to dip Labour’s fingers in the Brexit blood, to share the blame when things go wrong. Starmer will be left arguing that when he voted yes, he was backing the principle of securing a deal, not endorsing this particular deal. That, too, may struggle to cut through. And let’s not forget: the most immediate elections are in Scotland, where a Boris-backing Brexit vote will not exactly boost Labour’s chances.

It will be a tough call, but when Starmer makes it he might remember two things. First, Brexit was always a terrible idea, but it’s lunacy now, and he need not carry its taint. Second, he is the leader of the opposition – and if anything cries out to be opposed, it is this.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.