Boris Johnson’s real scandal: Brexit

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Not before time, Boris Johnson resigned as leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. The Guardian reports that Johnson’s leadership “tumbled under a wave of sordid allegations and refusal to tell the truth”. But his real scandal is elsewhere, with Brexit.

In 2013, when Boris Johnson was not yet pro-Brexit, he wrote that “the question of [European Union] EU membership is no longer of paramount importance for the destiny of this country. And he said that “most of our problems are not caused by Brussels, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, laziness, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in human and physical capital and infrastructure”.

More specifically, Johnson asked, “Why are we always, person for person, so much less productive than the Germans? The answer has nothing to do with the EU. Nonetheless, Johnson has thrown his weight behind Brexit.

Johnson’s entry into the Leave campaign mattered. As one research put it, “Polls have certainly persistently suggested that voters were more likely to believe what Johnson said about Brexit than they were the statements of any other politician.” His celebrity status, his ‘Anglicism’ and his nationalistic leanings have all contributed to the Brexit cause.

More worryingly, after cynically embracing the cause of Brexit, Johnson compared the EU to the Nazis. He said that “Napoleon, Hitler, various people have tried this, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods. In voting Leave, Johnson suggested that Britons would once again be “Europe’s heroes” as they were when fighting the Nazis. Given the EU’s commitment to the rule of law and its overall goal of peace, this comparison was as inaccurate as it was childish.

But politically it worked and he quickly became Foreign Secretary under Theresa May after the successful Brexit vote in June 2016. He then became Prime Minister in 2019, after campaigning to “get Brexit done” despite the evidence that it would make the UK significantly poorer.

But given his preference for showmanship over politics, Johnson has done a poor job. Consequently, in December 2020, as the Brexit deadline approached with no deal, Boris Johnson was forced to make a desperate appeal to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, for an invitation to Brussels to draft a real OK.

Johnson’s charade was that Brexit would not alter his trading relationship with the EU. Nevertheless, border controls in all their detail began in January 2021. As a result, UK exports to the EU fell significantly at the start of 2021. UK businesses eventually adjusted, but they absorbed the costs trade compliance in the process.

In October 2021, the UK began to experience major food and petrol shortages, partly due to the loss of around 10,000 EU lorry drivers. In response, the Johnson government was forced to start offering temporary visas to EU truckers.

Then there was Northern Ireland. When Ireland and the United Kingdom were both part of the European Union, there were no tariff barriers between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the UK’s departure from the EU, this trading relationship has been disrupted. The Johnson government negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol to avoid a hard border between itself and the Republic of Ireland, which retains its EU membership.

The protocol, however, transformed the Irish Sea “border” between the UK and Northern Ireland into a border between the UK and the EU. In response, Johnson began to suggest that the protocol itself could be repealed despite having signed it himself under international law.

Refugees have also played an illusory role in the Brexit debate. In April 2022, Johnson’s Home Office announced that it would begin sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. While the Johnson government claimed the deal was in line with the UN Refugee Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees disagreed. Home Office staff and Prince Charles opposed the plan.

The sheer emptiness of Brexit was on display at a Conservative conference in March 2022 where Johnson compared the Brexit vote to the bravery of Ukrainians fighting against Russian invaders. Johnson lost the irony that Russia invaded Ukraine because Ukrainians wanted to associate more closely with the EU. There was also the bit of a problem that voting in a referendum isn’t quite the same as risking your life to face an invading army.

Boris Johnson’s real scandal is Brexit. The UK is poorer.

Kenneth A. Reinert is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Global Commerce and Policy Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

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