The Observer view on Boris Johnson's imminent no-deal Brexit

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The prime minister’s gung-ho actions will irreparably damage Britain and its reputation

Lorries queue for the port of Dover on the A20 in Kent, in December.
Lorries queue for the port of Dover on the A20 in Kent, in December. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
Lorries queue for the port of Dover on the A20 in Kent, in December. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
Sun 13 Dec 2020 01.15 EST

The shambolic, self-destructive and humiliating consequences of Brexit are finally coming into sharp focus. The emerging picture is worse than its most pessimistic opponents feared. As the mist of lies, illusions and jingoism created by Boris Johnson and other Tory opportunists lifts, we see not the sunlit uplands of a newly liberated nation but endless queues of fuming diesel lorries, fouling the air and blocking the lanes of the Garden of England.

Miles-long lorry jams are but the most visible aspect of the approaching no-deal nightmare. The strangulation of Britain’s ports is already under way. Operators report unprecedented container backlogs, with some deliveries cancelled altogether. This is not a mere logistical, pandemic-related hiccup. It is an augury of panic-inducing food and medicine shortages, rising prices, and huge economic pain.

Any half-sensible prime minister, faced by last spring’s escalating Covid emergency, would have asked the EU for an extension to the Brexit transition period. Brussels would have agreed; and British voters would have understood the delay. But gung-ho Johnson could not see it. Blinded by ego and his schoolboy brand of nostalgic English nationalism, he bumbled on towards the abyss. Now it beckons inexorably.

This weekend’s talk of “sending in the gunboats” to repel French fishing boats is as ridiculous as it is damaging. Is the prime minister, channelling Churchill in his no-deal bunker, really preparing to take up arms against our closest European allies? And please don’t claim this is a clever bluff or last-minute negotiating ploy. It’s simply more evidence of government incompetence and shameful irresponsibility.

The devastating chain reaction consequent on a no-deal exit will touch every corner of this land. Businesses of all stripes, exporters or not, will be punished by the ensuing downturn, which LSE modelling predicts will slash GDP by 8% over a decade. Already struggling communities will be worse hit. The jobs of voters in “red wall” seats in the Midlands and north of England that backed the Tories last year are in the sectors at highest risk from no deal and Covid. As with the pandemic, they will pay a disproportionate price. This is levelling down with a vengeance.

Johnson’s main excuse for no-deal failure – that the EU offer infringes British sovereignty – reveals a deep ignorance. Sovereignty matters. But it is not indivisible, nor was it ever. In today’s real world – a world foreign to a man trapped in Kiplingesque imperial fantasy – sovereignty is shared and pooled, for the greater good and in a nation’s self-interest.

Any trade deal, with anyone, requires sovereign concessions. There is no earthly reason why common rules cannot be agreed with the EU on this mutually beneficial basis, and calmly updated, when required, through future negotiations.

No-deal Brexit not only irreparably damages Britain. It hurts our closest neighbours, too – old friends such as the Dutch, Irish and Danes, as well as competitors such as France. They will not quickly forgive a wantonly hostile act that undermines their principles and prosperity, nor should they. In the acrimonious blame game that Johnson appears determined to play, Britain’s reputation will be permanently trashed.

People who take the Tories at their word – and there were nearly 14 million at last December’s election – have good cause today to believe they have been lied to on a truly epic scale. In June 2019, Johnson declared the chances of no deal were “a million-to-one against”. No deal would be “a failure of statecraft”. Now he says it will be “wonderful”. Is he a fool or knave? Answer: both.

If he can grasp nothing else, Johnson – who was reportedly heard singing Waltzing Matilda in Downing Street last week – should remember that the song’s jolly swagman, with whom he clearly identifies, ultimately drowns in a billabong. With a bit of luck, no-deal will be Johnson’s last waltz.