So Johnson ‘got Brexit done’. Is that really anything to boast about?

Meme by the author

The two-year anniversary of Brexit day on 31 January, coupled with Johnson’s lamentable popularity ratings (not so much sinking as drowning), have prompted Number 10 to unleash a flurry of misleading pro-Brexit propaganda. The aim appears to be to rally Brexit supporters with images of the Union Jack linked to positive words like “freedom” and to win over the doubters with lists of bogus claims of Brexit benefits presented as “facts”. In doing this, government ministers and MPs are re-animating zombie lies that have already been decapitated with truth, evidence and real facts in the not-so-distant past. Gaslighting the public like this is just one of the reasons our current government is branded the worst in British history. They are truly shameless.

It is debatable whether Boris Johnson “got Brexit done”, as we are still operating under grace periods for some customs checks and the Northern Ireland protocol is still the subject of discussion. Setting that aside, there are five main claims to ‘Brexit benefits’ being trumpeted:

  • Taking control of our borders: ending freedom of movement, replacing it with a points-based immigration system. FALSE!

Note the link the Conservatives make between “freedom of movement” and control of our borders. You had to give up YOUR freedom to live, study, work, set up a business or retire in thirty-one countries, forever, to keep out a few thousand illegal immigrants. Except, look at the news. Are there fewer illegal immigrants now that you’ve been forced to make that massive sacrifice? Not a bit of it. Indeed, freedom of movement never made a scrap of difference to illegal immigration, the clue being in the word “illegal”. [ a term, incidentally, which has been mis-applied by the Home Office to asylum seekers in an attempt to vilify them. Ed]

Freedom of movement was an extraordinary right which opened up opportunities for personal growth, cultural exchange and enrichment beyond financial prosperity.

Some Brexiters said freedom of movement was discriminatory, because those who came from EU countries enjoyed the same rights as home-grown citizens, while immigrants from other countries did not. That is a misrepresentation, since it worked on the basis of reciprocity: we Brits enjoyed the same rights as EU citizens in their countries, which is not true of any other non-EU country.

It is this element of reciprocity that Brexiters have studiously ignored. They’ve always talked about the loss of freedom of movement as if it was something they did to other people, rather than to us – to you and to me. Look at it this way: we have lost that freedom in thirty-one countries (those in the EU and EFTA); those thirty-one countries have only lost it in one (the UK). What an extraordinary loss that is for no benefit whatsoever, either tangible or intangible.

We always had control of our borders while in the EU, as EU countries have amply demonstrated during the covid pandemic when, at different times, one or other of them used their sovereign rights to close their border to the UK. That’s what happens when you have a government that is perceived to be mismanaging the pandemic and a threat not just to its own citizens, but to people the world over.

  • Striking new free trade deals: over 70 countries, worth over £760 billion. FALSE!

What an abject lie this is. We already had 69 of those deals while in the EU. All the Department of International Trade had to do was roll them over — copy and paste them, substituting ‘UK’ wherever they saw ‘EU’; except some countries saw it as an opportunity to negotiate slightly more favourable terms. After all, a market of 66 million people is not as attractive as a market of 447 million. As an example, the Japan trade deal only gives us zero per cent tariffs on that portion of the EU’s quota not used up by EU countries. We are literally left with the scraps from the EU’s trade deal.

Remember how the Brexiters banged on about the EU taking too long to do deals and that we would be more nimble after Brexit and strike bigger and better trade deals more swiftly? The 69 roll-over deals, which are worth £746.7 billion of the total £760 billion, were supposed to be signed, sealed and delivered by midnight on 29 March, 2019. The fact that these ‘cut and paste’ negotiations limped on for more than five years just goes to prove what ignoramuses populate our government when it comes to understanding how to negotiate a trade deal.

It is better to take time and get the details right, than to sell out British families, businesses and industries, with the sole purpose of grabbing headlines and garnering likes on social media. The Australian trade deal is worth a paltry £13.3 billion in trade and estimated by the Department for International Trade to yield between 0.01 and 0.02 per cent of GDP over a fifteen-year period. For that, we will sacrifice our farming sector, our animal, conservation and environmental protections, and our food standards. It is a moral outrage that our government is palming off this vandalism as a “Brexit benefit”.

  • Securing the fastest vaccine roll-out: avoiding cumbersome EU bureaucracy. FALSE!

As MHRA director-general Dr June Raine pointed out at the time, the UK approved its vaccines under EU law, making use of an emergency provision in Article 5(2) of EU Medicines Directive 2001/83/EC. This enabled the MHRA to begin reviewing the vaccine product before it was finalised. It was described as being like telling a story in chapters or episodes, rather than waiting until the whole book is written. The data submitted to the two bodies were exactly the same and both bodies looked at the same things, including results from the lab and clinical trials in humans, manufacturing and quality controls, product sampling, and testing of the final product.

Any other EU country could have taken the same path as the UK. They chose not to, because at the time they had a different priority to the UK: while our government was desperate to stem the high death toll – the highest in Europe – EU countries suffered from higher vaccine scepticism. They calculated more lives would ultimately be lost if they could not convince those people that the research process had been thorough. The difference between the two approaches was less than 3 weeks (first doses administered in the UK on 8 December 2020 and in the EU on 27 December 2020). While the UK was the first EU country out of the gate, it soon lost that first-mover advantage.

The way Boris Johnson has taken credit for the achievements of the vaccine task force, the NHS and all the volunteers who assisted in the delivery of jabs, then used the early success of the programme as a stick with which to beat the EU and try to shore up falling support for Brexit, is typical of the malignancy at the heart of this government.

To see the vaccination programme used as a shield for Johnson’s lies and law-breaking should sicken us all.

Meme by the author
  • Axing red tape and bureaucracy: ending the tampon tax; simplifying alcohol duty rates, and removing the ban on selling in pounds and ounces. FALSE/FOOLISH!

Anyone who has been paying attention in Dover will know that it is precisely because Brexit has raised trade barriers and has led to the same bureaucratic procedures previously reserved for non-EU trade now being applied to EU trade, that red tape has been increased, not cut. Michael Gove estimated what Boris Johnson dismissed as “extra faff” is costing British businesses between £9 billion and £15 billion a year, which is a great deal more than the £7.9 billion average annual net contribution we made to the EU in our last five years of membership.

Of course, these costs get passed on to consumers. This has resulted in higher prices for families’ weekly shop, ‘shrinkflation’ where companies reduce the size of the packet rather than raise the price directly and interruption to supplies. It is simply extraordinary that the government is pretending this is a Brexit benefit.

Nobody has identified any red tape that businesses want to cut, other than Brexit zealots like Jacob Rees-Mogg; he wants to cut environmental protection measures to “Indian levels”. The continuing crisis of raw sewage being pumped into our rivers and seas should be a warning to us all of what happens when government relaxes EU environmental regulation. Over the years, governments have had myriad red tape cutting initiatives and it has generally been found that each regulation exists for a good reason. Boris Johnson tried inviting business to suggest changes and he, too, came up empty-handed.

Specifically on the tampon tax, it’s too bad we have to debunk this lie yet again (although perhaps we should be grateful that the government has not resuscitated the one about Brexit allowing us to eliminate pulse fishing, which they originally put about at the same time as they began to push the tampon tax lie). (Rather inconveniently for Brexiters, France banned pulse fishing in 2019, almost 18 months before the UK did.)

Once more for the Brexiters at the back, we could have abolished the tampon tax while in the EU, as Ireland did, but a Tory government chose not to. A Labour government later reduced VAT on tampons to 5 per cent, and a change of EU rules in 2016 made it possible to abolish it altogether, which the Conservative government did not get around to doing until 2021. Even if Tory mythology around tampon tax were true, is an estimated saving of £3.30 per year per menstruating consumer really worth the pain of Brexit?

Simplifying duty rates on alcohol is a good idea, and has previously been identified as an area where EU law requires reform. The UK has not done it yet, but government announced a consultation in autumn 2021. Meanwhile, where there were once 3 duty bands for wine, according to alcohol content, the Treasury have now introduced 27: a staggering increase in red tape! And, as is so often the case, our high tax on alcohol was our choice:

As to selling in pounds and ounces, are they really going to claim this as a benefit? Nobody born after 1999 (about 28 per cent of the population) has used pounds and ounces, and a fair few million of those born before that date don’t remember them. Metrification began in 1965, well before the UK joined the European Common Market. This is our trivial-minded, nationalist-populist government chasing the UKIP nostalgia vote. It would be a waste of money to pursue it.

  • Strengthening our standards: going further on environmental standards, animal welfare and product safety. FALSE!

This example of egregious, Orwellian double-speak is particularly galling given the ongoing raw sewage discharge scandal, the relaxation of regulations on bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and the harmful impact of trade deals like that recently signed with Australia, which allows poor animal welfare standards in through the back door.

The entire business case for Brexit, put forward by Patrick Minford (ranked 40th out of 40 leading economists in 2019), rested on abolishing environmental protections and workers’ rights. Hopefully the British public is now waking up to just how harmful Brexit is to their interests. Surely, for the sake of nutrition as well as food security, we want good quality home-grown food rather than more cheaply produced imports with a higher risk to our health?

Surprisingly, the government left “freeports” off its list of so-called Brexit benefits. Then again, Johnson brought those up in parliament in the debate on Sue Gray’s “update”, when he was flailing around, not resigning like any decent minister or MP would when caught in such flagrant and repeated breaches of the ministerial code, not to mention for having lied to parliament. There is no honour in the man. As to freeports:

  1. The EU has freeports, so we did not have to leave to have them.
  2. Indeed, we too had freeports while we were in the EU, until the Conservatives allowed the legislation to lapse in 2012.
  3. Freeports do not level up, they “lateralise”, that is, they result in the transfer of jobs from one town to another.
  4. Freeports are not the magical solution that Conservatives are selling them as.

Over the past five years, the government has demonstrated that defining Brexit benefits is like nailing jelly to the proverbial wall. On that score, we are no further along than we were on that memorable day when Michael Gove tried to pin down David Davis on the subject of Brexit benefits, back in March 2017.

GOVE: I know that your ministry and your colleagues have been asked to explore policy changes that come about as a result of our having left the EU, things that we could do outside that we couldn’t do within. Which are the most exciting of the ideas that have so far been put forward?

DAVIS: I don’t do excitement.

GOVE: Let me use a synonym – alluring, engaging, interesting, provocative, or worthy of being shared with this committee?

DAVIS: I don’t do provocative either.

Surely it is time to admit that there are no benefits to Brexit, that it has been a mistake that has not delivered what was promised and it is time now to consider how we fix the colossal mess that this government has made? If that means we need a general election and a new government, so be it. Bring it on.