Brexit isn’t working but Tories of the Carlton Club can’t admit it
Amid the petrol crisis and labour shortages, hardline MPs continue to celebrate the damage Britain has inflicted on itself
In 1979 the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher fought a successful election campaign with the slogan “Labour isn’t working”. The campaign relied on a profusion of posters purporting to show a long line of unemployed people. It later turned out that this was not a real dole queue but a group of actors hired for the purpose.
This was characteristic of the loose attitude to the facts – what President Obama memorably dubbed “truth decay” – that has become more prevalent in recent years.
It is increasingly apparent that Brexit isn’t working. But this has not prevented the worst crop of cabinet ministers in living memory from denying that the present supply chain shortages and autumn of discontent have anything to do with Brexit.
When it is pointed out by our fellow Europeans – no longer, alas, fellow members of the EU – that the petrol and supply chain crisis has everything to do with Brexit, ministers find themselves reluctantly having to concede that it may have been “a factor”.
In my last column I made mention of a number of metropolitan elite figures who bear considerable responsibility for the meretricious Brexit campaign: the focus was in particular on the three leading culprits, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. But thanks to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph – that shameless Brexit bastion – we now learn that, even when Brexiters like Simon Wolfson, chief executive of Next, are screaming for a relaxation of the clampdown on migrants, a group of Conservative MPs, led by one Sir William Cash, have been celebrating their part in this country’s downfall.
These MPs blithely claim that we would still be “effectively” in the EU if they had not crucially voted down Theresa May’s compromise proposals on three occasions in 2019. They had a celebration of their dubious achievement in that Conservative holy of holies, the Carlton Club. Cash evidently had the temerity to claim that it was “the most important vote since the Norway vote in 1940” – the one that brought down Neville Chamberlain and prepared the way for Churchill as wartime prime minister.
This is a weird comparison, possibly qualifying for what my philosopher friends would call a “category error”. Moreover, as CEM Joad used to say on the old BBC Brains Trust, “it all depends what you mean” – by, in this case, the term “most important”. Most important in bringing freedom from Brussels, as Cash and co would have it? Or most important in limiting the freedom of British citizens in all manner of ways, via a proliferation of bureaucratic controls, and the chaos caused by effectively sending crucial participants in the economy back to mainland Europe? Care homes, supermarkets, petrol stations and ordinary people all are now feeling the effects.
The last post-hoc rationalisation from those members of the Brexit gang who have not, like Lord Wolfson, recognised the error of their ways is that this is the opportunity for British workers to fill the gap, in a major economic structural change. But the world does not work in the way the more naive free marketers would have it: the point is that the British workers with the right skills are simply not there. The HGV problems have been well aired, and are not going away in a hurry. It took a good five years for the Attlee government to restructure the economy after 1945.
Less well aired than the HGV crisis may be a letter to the Financial Times last week in which leading members of the hospitality industry – meant to be a pride and joy of the service sector of the British economy – “urgently ask the government to revise current settlement and pre-settlement schemes and the highly skilled migrants lists”. In other words, a Brexit based on prejudice against workers from continental Europe is a disaster.
Which brings us to the Labour party’s hitherto pusillanimous approach to Brexit. At last there are signs of stirrings in the ranks, with Hilary Benn and others speaking out. But when Sir Keir Starmer says “we need a plan to make Brexit work” I fear he is not going nearly far enough. Yes, we need, in his words, “to sort out our future relationship with Europe”, but I find it difficult to reconcile this intention with his dismissal of a return to the essence of the single market painstakingly negotiated by Thatcher, namely “free movement”.
It is the abandonment of free movement to please the likes of the ineffable Cash that has made us the laughing stock of the world. Oh, and by the way, now that he has made such a major contribution to this nation’s self-inflicted damage, I wonder what Farage’s future plans are. In March 2017 he was quoted as saying: “If Brexit is a disaster, I will go and live abroad.”
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