The foreign secretary’s trumpeted olive branch to ‘Remain’ voters reaffirmed his opposition to the one thing that could be construed as a ‘liberal Brexit’, finds Keir Bradwell
On the same day the home affairs select committee warned that Britain’s immigration system is completely unprepared for Brexit, the foreign secretary lamented that the prime minister’s current Brexit plans are simply not turbulent enough. After all, nothing says ‘Valentine’s Day’ quite like a blundering Brexit intervention from Boris Johnson.
The speech brought with it a litany of ludicrous suggestions. The ‘Boris bridge’ to France saw an unexpected return from the policy graveyard, while Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown were co-opted into a narrative about excessive European Union regulations. Even a crass reference to ‘cheapo flights to stag parties’ was thrown in for good measure. All of this, however, was designed to distract from the speech’s real message: the denunciation of the single market, a suggestion that cutting ourselves off from Europe is somehow internationalist, and a reiteration of the ‘take back control’ narrative that so divided the country in 2016.
The argument against the single market continues to make little economic sense. Johnson paid no attention to the fact that two-thirds of our trade consists of components, rather than finished products, and therefore to leave the single market would cause huge disruption to the pan-European supply chains in which the United Kingdom participates. Big industrial companies, often based in poorer parts of the UK – like Airbus, which employs 11,000 people in north Wales and Bristol, and Nissan, which employs 7,000 in Sunderland – are liable to bear the brunt of a hard Brexit. The single market makes British industry more competitive, allowing our manufacturers to work without the barriers to trade that would make component manufacturing so much more expensive for foreign businesses. If we are to leave the EU, it is vital to keep as close as possible to our current trading arrangements, to minimise the impact on Britain’s poorest regions.
If Johnson believes in a ‘global Europe’, he is advocating the wrong sort of exit. He suggested that our relatively high defence spending meant we would always be integral to Europe, and that our wider internationalism as a nation – there are more Britons living in Australia than in the EU – would help us weather Brexit. In doing so, he ignored the broader point – that the world looks at Brexit and sees a nation in retreat. By ending freedom of movement and attempting to distance ourselves from some of our most steadfast allies, we inevitably look narrow-minded and isolationist. Johnson forgets that Europe has never constrained our ability to act as a nation on the global stage – our interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and more recent good relations with China demonstrate that much. Indeed, to leave the single market is to become part of a far smaller economy and community, and therefore hold much less sway with the rest of the world.
In a speech billed as a compromise, with talk of a ‘liberal Brexit’ and a mention of John Stuart Mill, Johnson was not as conciliatory as many of us had hoped. He claimed that it would be ‘disastrous’ to reverse Brexit, citing ‘feelings of betrayal’. He conveniently forgot, of course, that the 16-point margin in favour of a referendum on the final terms of Brexit is a result of the feelings of betrayal created by the ‘Leave’ campaign. The unwelcome return of ‘take back control’, one of the Leave campaign’s most notorious slogans, brought back memories of a campaign that led to a stark rise in hate crime, misplaced beliefs about the role of the EU in British politics, and, of course, the clanger that voting leave would give us £350m a week for the National Health Service.
If there was one thing Johnson got right in his speech, it was where he admitted he was ‘running the risk of causing further irritation’. Of course, acknowledging that his speech might do more to harm than good did not stop him making it, and none of this ‘liberal Brexit’ talk will allay the fears of those whose livelihoods are on the line. Indeed, even the one apparent concession – that Britain would seek to remain part of Erasmus – is not really one at all when you consider it is only Brexit that has thrown our participation in the scheme into doubt in the first place.
Johnson said he would woo us with a bold gift of conciliation; what he delivered was the equivalent of some sad old petrol station flowers.
Keir Bradwell is a member of Progress. He tweets at @keirbradwell
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