With Biden elected, a no-deal Brexit would make Britain a pariah. It can't happen

This article is more than 2 months old
Polly Toynbee

These are the end days when Boris Johnson must finally confront his own lies: the humiliation will be eye-watering

Police officers marshall lorries queuing near Ashford, Kent
Police officers marshall lorries queuing near Ashford, Kent Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Police officers marshall lorries queuing near Ashford, Kent Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 09.28 EST

With stubborn folly, this government pursues its only trademark policy: “Get Brexit done”, and damn any consequences. Never mind the tectonic shift in global politics that has just shaken the ground beneath their feet.

Yesterday in the House of Lords it was still trying to push through its international law-breaking bill that could turn Britain into a rogue state. It knew it faced a monumental rebellion from its own side after the last Lords debate, led by the former lord chief justice Lord Judge, the ex-Tory leader Michael Howard, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. All lined up to block the breaking of international law in the internal markets bill that would renege on the EU withdrawal agreement and its Northern Irish protocol.

Politics is mercurial, with Donald Trump the loser – for now, a spent force. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage and their Brexiter band now look like abandoned passengers on a flimsy life-raft cut loose from a sinking mothership.

Joe Biden memorably nailed Johnson as Trump’s “physical and emotional clone”. Unforgotten is that fawning picture of Gove grinning, thumbs-up, with Trump; with Rupert Murdoch, mentor to both men, lurking in the background. Murdoch jumped the Trump ship at the very last moment: he always rats when power wanes. John Major, in his autobiography, said he saw power evaporate the day Murdoch dumped him. If the old monster turns towards Labour as he did in 1996 (only once Tony Blair’s imminent victory was certain), the failure of Brexit will be one reason why.

The Murdoch empire was key to that vote, which tore Britain apart, and its results are about to prove as chaotic and prosperity-sapping as “project fear” warned in 2016. Already public opinion is swinging against it: asked “in hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” people say “wrong” by 54% to 46%.

Hammering on with the internal markets bill is supposed to be a show of Brexiters’ defiance before this week’s critical EU negotiations. But this is a last hurrah. Their Brexit balloon is deflating fast because no deal, and breaking the Northern Irish protocol, has now become an impossibility.

Biden says “Ireland will be written on my soul” when he dies. He was a key player in the peace process: inviting Gerry Adams to the US, against British wishes, proved to be a pivotal point in the IRA turning away from violence. Reneging on the Northern Ireland protocol now would make the UK a pariah.

So it won’t happen. There will be a deal, those law-breaking clauses will be abandoned, the UK will promise that goods entering Northern Ireland will meet EU standards so the Irish border stays open.

The coming humiliation will be eye-watering: the unresolved questions go right to the heart of Brexit itself. Disagreements over fisheries may be fixed with a five-year transition, but the other issues are fundamental. Irate Brexiters are right to protest that there’s no point in giving up our EU place if signing a trade deal means obeying their food, environment, work and animal welfare standards. No point at all. Ditto, why submit ourselves to their refereeing courts ensuring a level playing field for business subsidies without a voice in those rules? Why indeed.

These are the end days, when Johnson must finally confront his own lies: there is no “oven–ready” easiest deal in history. A deal will concede the damaging pointlessness of this whole farrago. The EU will be courteous, but no face-savers can hide a humbling capitulation. And it won’t end there. The deal will be thin, only slightly easing the damage fast unfolding.

Wasting four long years to prepare, our importers, exporters, manufacturers, hauliers, the professions and financiers still don’t know what rules, tariffs, quotas, licences, certificates, data or paperwork they’ll require: government webinars list possible options. The National Audit Office warned last week that our borders faced “a risk of widespread disruption”.

The (Tory-controlled) Local Government Association just sent up a flare: councils with ports are unprepared, with frontline staff focusing on Covid. Portsmouth’s leader, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, tells me his anxieties. His council owns the thriving port, which imports 65% of Britain’s bananas, 9,000 racehorses and turbine blades from the Isle of Wight, and sees hundreds of lorries a day. But there’s only room for 15 trucks between the motorway and the dock, and the government has warned him that up to 70% of companies aren’t ready. “We know 50% don’t speak English, so explaining is hard.”

The slightest delay means drivers have to stop and sleep. The plan is to stack the lorries along one side of the dual carriageway near Winchester. Vernon-Jackson says: “The Channel Islands have no bakery; their food shelves empty in 48 hours if we delay.” He worries about gridlock in the city too: “There’ll be no way through for the navy, the university and worse still, the Queen Alexandra hospital.” What should the government have done to help? “We need new freight gates and port facilities. How can that be ready, when we don’t even know if we’ll get funds? Why so late?”

The killer for the Tories will be if a widespread view takes hold that their Brexit was a terrible error. But without doubt, they will be charged with inexcusable incompetence, wasting four years and still bungling it right down to the wire. Brexit and Covid will merge into similar tales of breathtaking maladministration. The tilt in the global political axis has just tipped against them.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.