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The Brexit frog has been truly boiled... but we’re too exhausted to notice

We’ll find that our splendid isolation is an illusion … we’ll likely end up ‘voluntarily’ shadowing EU rules

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
09 December 2020

he Brexit frog has been truly boiled. We’re so focused on the last obstacles to a final deal, that we haven’t noticed how uncomfortable our surroundings have become. Each step Britain has taken in the post referendum world has been in the direction of a hard Brexit. We now face a rupture with our closest neighbours that only a small minority of a small majority would have supported back in 2016.  

We’re out of the single market that Margaret Thatcher pioneered; out of the customs union too, with 50,000 new customs officers and lorry parks in Kent to show for it. None of that was inevitable four years ago — indeed many of the most prominent supporters of Brexit said the reverse. Yes, if there’s a last-minute deal there will be no tariffs on manufactured goods — but there is no trade agreement at all on the services industries like finance that make up 80 per cent of the UK economy.  

Like a frog, if we had been thrown straight into the hot water back then, we would have jumped out — or perhaps never jumped in. But slowly, via internal Tory battles and Labour miscalculations, leadership changes and elections, we’ve reached a world where January 1, 2021 will mark the largest act of protectionism in our history. The country is too exhausted to care.  

As a political casualty of the Brexit wars myself, I too understand the strong urge to move on. But just before we do, let’s do a quick audit of the winners.

Clear victors are the “sovereigntists”—those who, perfectly honourably, could never accept the European Union laws and court rulings that were the price we paid for the collective economic, social and security benefits of membership. What makes their victory impressive is that there were so few of them.  

Even among Eurosceptics, most wanted to be in a “common market”. But now we’re out of that. At every turn these last four years, the economy has been sacrificed to maintain the purity of sovereignty.  

We’ll find, I suspect, that our splendid isolation is an illusion, and that we’ll end up “voluntarily” shadowing the EU rules and standards that we once helped shape.  But like the poor frog, we won’t notice that we’re no longer masters of our future.

Another set of victors are the “interventionists” — those who saw the EU as an agent of globalisation, and who want big government to shield our communities from its cold winds.  

This was why socialists were against us joining the EEC in the first place. Gone is the dream of a “Singapore-on-the-Thames” harboured by the financial backers of Brexit. Their problem was that all the urban areas of the country that might have been attracted to this buccaneering vision supported Remain.

It was the left behind towns, pensioners, the fishing communities and the rural areas that were looking for protection from change. That’s where the Conservative Party now draws its support — proudly boasting that it has swapped the support of the professional graduate classes for the marginalised working class.  

These people certainly need a more effective champion than Labour has proved to be, but is it a good long-term trade for the Tories? As you can see from the current speculation, it can easily lead to a policy agenda where you bail-out ailing industries and try to preserve farm subsidies, raising corporation and capital gains taxes to pay for them. It may be populist, but I doubt that’s a recipe for long-term success in a modern economy.  

Another group of winners, sadly, are the nationalists. Here in England they have got their black passport back in blue form. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the prize is bigger. History may show the nationalists there to be the biggest beneficiaries of Brexit — which is ironic as they didn’t vote for it.  

A united, if federated, Ireland is a realistic prospect, being forged each day on the ground by the Withdrawal Agreement, while the Scottish National Party is all-too-confident about another independence referendum. Granting it is a price Labour leader Keir Starmer will pay to be in government after the next election.

There is a final group of winners. The Brussels negotiating team. Holding all the cards, they set out with the goal of making leaving the EU so unattractive that no other nation would follow us. Indeed, in the years since Brexit, that prospect has got less and less likely. Now everyone can see the water is boiling, no one else wants to jump in.