News of a meeting between senior politicians, business leaders, and former civil servants to discuss Brexit, its failure, and what to do about the resulting mess, came as a surprise to everybody, expect those who were in the room.
Ditchley Park summit
The fact that Conservative and Labour politicians were present was not unusual – cross-party meetings on Brexit have been relatively common since 2016. What was new, was the presence of leading politicians from both Leave and Remain.
Perhaps this meeting was inevitable. Perhaps after almost a decade of failed statecraft, the grown-ups (if that is indeed what they are) were always going to meet to begin mapping a pathway towards calmer, more prosperous, waters. One has to welcome them taking this first, small step in the right direction. However, if we have learnt anything from British politics in the 21st century, it is that the tail wags the dog, especially on the conservative right.
When, in 2006, David Cameron described UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”, he could not have predicted that the Conservative Party would go on to claim this mantle. In its behaviours, pronouncements, and policies, the Conservatives now embody the party Cameron derided. While some are beginning to recognise the critical need to discuss the consequences of Brexit openly and honestly, the party of government comes across as being little better than a UKIP council on an extended day trip to London – angrily anti-European, ideologically driven, and lacking the competence required to govern effectively.
Ideologically driven Brexit policies
It is in this context that any positive news regarding Brexit should be considered.
Conciliatory conversations between Leave and Remain politicians are welcome, but many of those who are closest to power not only deny that Brexit has done any damage but are fully committed to causing more while they can.
The proposed retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill epitomises this. If passed as drafted, this bill will grant government extraordinary powers to rip up or dramatically rewrite approximately 4,000 regulations that derive from EU law. This is not only an extraordinary power grab that would weaken parliament to the considerable benefit of an executive that represents a minority of the electorate, but also a deliberate effort by the ideologues to deepen the fissure between the UK and the EU.
They believe that doing this will defend Brexit from nefarious ‘Rejoiners’. They do not care about the potential economic costs. The Brexit ideologues in the Conservative Party have always been comfortable with the idea that the price of their revolution is somebody else’s job, business, or livelihood, even if they never openly say so. Their support for the retained EU law bill reflects this outlook.
A better deal
For Rishi Sunak, this creates a serious dilemma. While he may have voted leave, he is not like these Brexiters. Sunak cares about the economy and will, when necessary, prioritise it over Brexit ideology. When Boris Johnson flirted with the idea of scrapping the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, it was Sunak who, fearing a trade war, tempered the views of his more pugnacious colleagues in cabinet.
Now that he is prime minister, Sunak’s views do not seem to have changed. He has overseen an unmistakable improvement in the tone of the government’s engagement with the EU (albeit from a very low base) and has now secured a deal on the protocol. This is a notable achievement, and one that sets Sunak apart from his predecessors, but it will not be welcomed by all in his party.
The tail is wagging the dog
Johnson purged the pragmatists. Sunak may well be the last one left. He stands all but alone in a party filled with economic and constitutional vandals, the acolytes of Nigel Farage, who represent living evidence of his political success and the failure of Conservative moderates.
Securing a deal on the protocol may prove to be the high-water mark of Sunak’s premiership. Now let’s see if his deal will be accepted by his party.
Time and again, the ideologues have proven that they will get their way and they are unlikely to see any need to stop now. The tail is always preparing to wag the dog, and those discussing how to clear up the Brexit mess would do well to prepare for things to get worse before they are in a position to make them better.
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