In his editorial in the October 2022 print edition of Signing timePeter Jukes argues that Liz Truss ushers in Brexit endgame
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It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When David Cameron took over as Tory leader in 2005, he wanted to transform his electoral reputation as a “bad party”. With the help of eco-friendly policies, greater ethnic diversity in his MPs and a vow to preserve the National Health Service, he hoped to transform the lazy rump of Thatcherism into a shining butterfly to dazzle and attract a wider electorate, and become the ‘true heirs of Blair’.
The credit crunch, austerity and the coalition with the Lib Dems tarnished Cameron’s colours. But electoral success brought more problems. Devouring Nick Clegg’s party in the 2015 general election, Cameron lost the deflecting protection of his left flank, and it was his attempt to destroy the right flank – to eliminate the UKIP threat once and for all – that really ended in disaster. His bet on the European referendum in 2016 and his sudden resignation as leader destroyed the possibilities of a more centrist conservative party.
Brexit has turned Cameron’s butterfly into the chrysalis of something much darker and backward looking.
The past six years of Brexit chaos – four prime ministers and six chancellors – underscored that the ‘draft scare’ he and George Osborne mumbled about in the referendum was, at least, an understatement of the economic and political damage coming.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might not have realized the ugly forces they were incubating. Their blank faces on the morning of the Vote Leave victory suggested they were stunned by the disaster of their own success. Like the so-called Broadway crooks in Mel Brooks The producers, their fleece investor scam only worked if their terrible game Spring for Hitler was a flop and no one looked closely at the books. With a slap on the hands, they would all end up in jail.
Theresa May tried to contain the extreme forces that were growing within her party over the next three years with a soft-to-hard Brexit deal: no single market or freedom of movement, but alignment with EU standards EU to reduce trade barriers and with a workaround to avoid a land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
But May’s Parliament was plagued by rebellions and conspiracies. Europe’s delicate economic decoupling has both inflamed and been inflamed by various cultural conflicts around identity, immigration, national history and Empire. By now, Brexit was fracturing into a myriad of demands, with increasingly extreme versions of what ‘leaving’ actually meant to gain currency and – like Gresham’s Law – driving the plans for good faith with appeals to the catastrophic cliff edge of a “no”. OK’ exit.
Like so many religious or political utopias, the “sunny highlands” of EU exit have become an impossible promise: any failure or heresy of it is a source of terror and unrest. With Nigel Farage still on the right and the powerful European Parliamentary Research Group conspiring against her, May was ousted and replaced by the most prominent face of the Vote Leave campaign – Boris Johnson – who eventually became ‘king of the world’ and entered at number 10. in July 2019.
Johnson’s first few months were tumultuous and generally broke the rules. First he tried to illegally prorogue Parliament, then kicked out moderate rebels, and finally drove to the country in a rare winter election with a promise to “get Brexit done”. It worked, for a while. Compared to the apparent paralysis of Parliament and Labor opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson won the Tories their biggest parliamentary majority since 1987. But almost immediately the pandemic changed the political landscape.
Johnson’s Brexit was – essentially – a cultural Brexit. His effective appeal was a mish-mash of nationalist rhetoric and what (expelled conservative and rebel former attorney general) Dominic Grieve calls economic ‘boosterism’. With his half-forgotten Latin tags and quotes from Shakespeare, Johnson embodied a new type of “One Nation” conservative: English nationalism with an Etonian accent, which turns his own bigotry into a joke.
Foreigners and dastardly Europeans were much laughed at, but the offer was – at least to the white working class of the northern towns and villages – that he would act in the best interests of his narrow-minded nation. Johnson’s “upgrading” program and towns and cities plan may have been poorly executed, poorly funded and used as a “hog barrel” to prop up Conservative seats. But even by securing donations from oligarchs, providing a VIP lane for COVID business deals and redecorating his Downing Street apartments in lavish style – at least he made a gesture of public solidarity.
Johnson’s downfall came because he broke even that meager promise of a nationalist, spirited Brexit. At first he made people laugh; voters thought he would be a fun person to party with. But then the public found out that Johnson broke the lockdown rules he imposed on us – and he lied. He went to private parties we weren’t invited to while the Queen mourned Prince Philip and the rest of us silently and socially distanced our respects to hundreds of thousands of lost relatives. In our darkest hours he didn’t laugh with us, but at we.
Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss, has none of that personal and symbolic baggage to weigh her down. She doesn’t have the problem of the public souring on her charisma, because she has no charisma at all. She doesn’t lie about leveling or unevenness, because honestly, she doesn’t care. Its “culture wars” are limited to presenting themselves as an act of homage to Margaret Thatcher.
Nothing like a new leader, freed from the clutter of expectations, to give a failing party a fresh start. Judging by opinion polls, Truss has nothing to do with a new leader for a fresh start. Why?
From Cameron’s golden butterfly to the chrysalis of May and Johnson, the Conservative Party has been through quite a reverse Brexit metamorphosis. It is now reduced to the primitive worm of a Truss idea: an economic proposal to “aim for growth” while ignoring the most obvious constraint to growth – Brexit.
We can all see that Truss and Kwarteng’s mini budget is an extreme version of American libertarian capitalism that was discredited 40 years ago (and before that in the 1930s). The fact that it was drawn from a network of ‘think tanks’ with extensive ties to US black money donations and corporate interests in fossil fuels, tobacco and health care private is perhaps the only rational explanation for why these discredited theories still survive.
Cutting taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on infrastructure and benefits in this economic moment is the surest way to ensure that an impending economic downturn turns into a deeper crisis. Already, market fundamentalist advisers from Truss and Kwarteng (many of whom come from the Tufton Street lobbying network) have proven they don’t understand market fundamentals.
The pound fell to its lowest level since the 1980s. In addition to rising import and energy prices, lack of confidence in UK government debt caused a credit rating downgrade and a increase in interest rates for mortgagees. This nasty trifecta would normally be offset by cheaper exports if Brexit hadn’t frozen our borders leaving the EU as drastically as it did. Compared to other OECD countries, which have seen their exports increase by 10-20% since the coronavirus lockdowns, ours have stagnated. At 8.3%, Britain now has one of the highest trade deficits in developed or emerging markets, and the worst since records began in 1955.
In the words of former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Britain – at the bottom of the G7 league for growth – is “like an emerging market turning into a submerged market”.
So, at the end of the day, Brexit really means Brexit: Britain’s exit and isolation from the major economic nations of the world. It may have been masked by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there is no longer any way to avoid it. Leaving the EU under the conditions we imposed was an act of massive self-harm or, as the American economist and former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, Adam Posen, put it, “the first time in history that a nation has declared a trade war against itself”.
The music has stopped and – rather than Cameron, May or Johnson – it is Liz Truss who is dealing with the consequences of a decade of divide and rule by Tories. His demise, and that of his party, will not solve the underlying problem of the dire state of our trade relations with our closest neighbours. But it will hasten the final burial of a bankrupt idea whose rotten stench can no longer be ignored.
This article appeared as an editorial in the October 2022 print edition of the Byline Times. Buy your copy now
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