As the UK reels under the double impact of the pandemic and recession, the Brexit deadline is coming over the horizon, argues Martin Hall
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Johnson’s vision of post-Brexit Britain was, in his words, as the Superman of global trade, with lucrative trade deals being struck left, right and centre.
Not to strain an analogy to breaking point, but Covid-19 and stalled trade talks with the US and EU are looking very much like Tory Kryptonite at present. Then there is the matter of provoking China and the likely effect on trade that will have.
Even before lockdown was eventually triggered and the effects of Covid on the economy began to be felt, the UK suffered its worst contraction since 1979, with a quarterly fall of 2.2%.
There won’t be a deal with the US this side of the November presidential election. Quite simply, the US has more important fish to fry at present, given its own economic crash and the aforementioned election; and that’s without considering the difficulties of the upcoming negotiations, and the likely public backlash in the UK regarding the NHS being on the table. That’s the NHS that we’ve all been clapping for these last few months, and which has just seen its doctors awarded with a pay rise, but not its nurses.
The talks with the EU are, as ever, an exercise in brinksmanship on both sides, bringing the prospect of no deal that much closer. While the Tory tabloids continue to rant and rave about perfidious Europeans, a month ago Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, announced that one of the blocks was a lack of clarity on what the UK plans to do regarding state aid.
This brings up the problem of opposition, and the extent to which the Labour Party has abrogated its responsibilities on this topic as on others. Now it is led by the remainer-in-chief, Sir Keir Starmer, what can Labour say about the talks and the general situation that will not further cement its position as an anti-Brexit party in the eyes of voters? Having not taken the opportunity to set out its vision for post-Brexit Britain that the 2017 general election offered, instead spending two years sliding towards remain, it let the right shape both sides of the debate: pro-free trade delusional Tories on one hand; anti-democratic pro-free trade Labour on the other.
Of course, it’s not surprising that Starmer is being relatively silent – in doing so risking the wrath of the fanatical Remainer wing of Labour – as he’s not in material terms in a position to do much, given the Tories’ 80 seat majority, which came about primarily because he and the rest of the anti-Corbyn right destroyed Labour’s chances of winning that election.
There’s no doubt he would like to reverse Brexit, but he can’t.
However, as he doesn’t support an increase in state aid, he also can’t say anything useful about the trade talks that doesn’t position him and Labour to the right of the Tories on a key question of importance for leave voters. If pushed, he’ll end up arguing that Britain signed up to a level playing field regarding rights in the Political Declaration, bemoan the fact that this wasn’t in the Withdrawal Agreement, and fail to argue for any of the positives of there being wiggle room on this front, instead focussing on threats to the EU’s veneer of rights.
The overall strategy will be to watch it all go wrong from the side-lines and hope that reminding the country of Johnson’s broken promises will go down well in the polls, leading to increased support for re-joining. In this regard, he’ll be hoping the endlessly delayed Russia report will give him further ammunition by revealing large-scale interference in the referendum, which has become the philosopher’s stone of remainers everywhere, with about the same level of relationship to reality.
To return to the government, Johnson’s position of strength in December is being eroded on a number of fronts, and goodwill is largely dependent on his ability to deliver the next stage of the Brexit process in a way that doesn’t risk greater economic meltdown than is seen as strictly necessary by his MPs. Is his position under threat? Not yet, but the Tories are notoriously trigger-happy with leaders, and they’ve the majority to do it and argue that such a move would not require a general election.
Rishi Sunak has been described recently as Britain’s most popular politician, perhaps because he’s the one signing the cheques, rather than announcing the deaths, and due to his smooth, calm demeanour and ability to sound prime ministerial, which is in contrast to Johnson’s bluster.
Are we going to see a challenge yet? No, we’re not, but the stakes are extremely high for Johnson in the coming weeks. The bungled, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to the pandemic is continuing, with the latest example being fairly arbitrary quarantines being brought in for travellers from countries with fewer C-19 deaths than the UK. The trade deal with the US is not going to happen this year. He is risking further confrontation with China.
A little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for Johnson is that both sides in the EU trade talks do want a deal, as neither the bloc nor Britain wants to create more uncertainty and trade disruption in the context of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. It may be that a simplified trade agreement gets agreed, with other issues being dealt with in a more bespoke fashion. Fishing rights, the role of the ECJ and the aforementioned competition policy do remain a major stumbling block, though, and nothing is certain.
What we do know is that the time is ticking, and the window for negotiation shrinking daily, in the context of other and greater pressures caused by the pandemic. No deal looms, and the attendant consequences will play out in a country already forecast to have the deepest downturn of any major economy.
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