The writer is a former Conservative deputy prime minister
What a week it has been in politics. Far from the promise of “no border in the Irish Sea”, we are now threatened with a trade war over Boris Johnson’s government’s decision to overturn its own treaty commitments on Northern Ireland. There is a new demand for a Scottish devolution referendum, another attempt to break up the UK.
The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unraveling, bringing with it the usual Brexiter reaction that this country should abandon the post-war European Convention on Human Rights, based on democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law and set up in part as a beacon of hope to the countless millions enslaved under communist dictatorship.
Queues are back. During the last war they reflected the dire threat we faced, but at least there was a common enemy. We realized that we were all in it together. This time Brexit has forced a million Europeans to go home. There are queues to see doctors, queues at A&E departments, queues at airports, queues at ports, queues at passport offices. Farmers turn their unharvested crops back into the soil.
The government’s solution is to issue visas only to the most skilled and talented immigrants trained by some of the most impoverished countries on earth while simultaneously cutting aid programs designed to help those countries encourage their people to stay there.
The second resignation of one of Boris Johnson’s ethics advisers has taken place, unable to live with the strain of the job. There may be no replacement — we are now in an ethics-free zone.
And every day a carefully selected group of Conservative ministers parade the airways. Every day they take their carefully orchestrated line.
Meanwhile the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has predicted that the UK will grind to a halt in 2023. Only Russia is performing worse out of the G20 group of wealthy nations. The pound drifts against both the dollar and the euro.
I wrote last week that the gardener’s instinct in me had detected a new spring for those who know Brexit to be a disaster. My argument was the mounting evidence of its consequences and of a growing resistance. This week those shoots have flourished, with headlines ranging from “The Remainers are regrouping amid the total failure to capitalize on Brexit” to “Spooked investors sell sterling.”
The characterization of those who disagree with Brexit as Brussels stooges has always been a particularly amateur interpretation of history. As a minister in Tory governments for 17 years, under Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, I was never sent to Brussels to argue any case except that of British self-interest. This was exactly the same national position as other members of the EU took in our search for an agreement to make us all stronger, richer and more powerful together.
The surprise should not be that Remainers are regrouping. It is that it took us so long. British people are realizing that they have been taken in by a tissue of lies. There was never going to be any upside to compensate for the loss of our closest market. Millions of Turks were never going to flood our country. The bonfire of regulations that was to set us free has so far enabled us to drink beer with a crown on the glass (something, in fact, we were always able to do). Six years after the referendum we have a proposed brand new government bill to search for euro red tape. You could not make it up.
Research from The Times indicates that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s department has quietly quadrupled in size. It may become part of the country’s greatest job creation scheme as lawyers look for loopholes and accountants devise avoidance schemes. The many civil servants Margaret Thatcher sent to Brussels to design the single market can be re-employed destroying it.
Regulations form the structure that determines whether humans live in a zoo or a civilized society. They are detailed and nitpicking because, while the vast majority of citizens are decent, honorable folk, a tiny minority are not. Civil servants anticipate abuses and seek to prevent them, and so they should.
Of course the prime minister will fight for his Brexit legacy. I coined the phrase “If Boris goes, Brexit goes”. More than any other single person he got Brexit done — or, more realistically, half done. It now needs to be undone, and the quicker the better.
Many Conservatives know this. It is time they spoke up, as Tobias Ellwood did recently, calling for the UK to rejoin the single market. There is no point in being in politics just to follow a party line. In 1968, I rebelled against my party over its opposition to the Labor’s Race Relations Bill. More recently, in 2017, I was sacked as an adviser to the Theresa May government because I wanted parliament to have their say on the Brexit legislation.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said Lord Heseltine’s support for an amendment calling for parliament to have the final say on a Brexit deal justified his dismissal.
Brexit was achieved by a small group who never gave up, exploiting every grievance and deceiving large numbers of people into believing our problems were someone else’s fault. Foreigners, Brussels, civil servants, immigrants — the finger was pointed everywhere.
History is made of bigger issues: national pride; our place in the world. They are worth fighting for. This prime minister is not.