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What next for Brexit after its puppet master departs?

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It is not too much of a stretch to say that without Boris Johnson, Brexit would never have happened.

Soon after the 2016 referendum I attended an in-person briefing by the polling guru Sir John Curtice who said that — as far as it was ever possible to completely isolate these things — it was probable that Johnson’s personal brand had swung the narrow win for Leave.

Johnson’s argument for his own personal political mandate these last 48 hours is partly based on that knowledge. It’s not just Borisian bravado to say: ‘no Boris Johnson, then no Brexit’. 

But now he’s gone, or going, what next for the project that is surely his defining political legacy? If Johnson’s personality delivered Brexit, to what extent can we expect the departure of Johnson to now change it?

Part of the answer to that question lies in his own journey to No 10, and how permanently he has reshaped the Tory party by the force of that political personality, pushing it closer to the Farragist fringes, at least when it came to leaving the EU.

Theresa May’s dithering played a part, as did Labour’s failure to embrace common ground when the chance arose, but when Johnson saw his opportunity it required the jettisoning of those — like the former chancellor Philip Hammond — who had argued for an economic centre ground.

Even after winning that 80-seat majority in 2019, there was no tacking back to the centre. In deference to the sovereigntist faction that had put Johnson in Downing Street, Lord David Frost was sent to Brussels in 2020 to obtain any deal, however destructive to the economy, that cut the apron strings with Brussels.

The results of that are now plain to see, but arguably more damaging than the hit to exports and long-term growth has been the intellectual corrosion of government required first to make such a deal, and then continue to sell it to the public as a grand success.

In his resignation letter Rishi Sunak told Johnson that the public understood that you couldn’t both cut taxes and splurge on public services, and were ready to “hear that truth”. The problem is that, on so many levels, the public has been lied to about the basics for a long time.

Johnson was the PM who, at the height of the fuel crisis last October, claimed the crunching of UK labour markets was evident of a shift to a “high-wage economy”, but it wasn’t. 

Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg recently claimed removing parts of retained EU law will provide a “significant boost” to productivity, but it won’t.

The government likes to intimate that its “world-beating” trade deals will offset the costs of Frost’s high-friction trade deal with our largest trading partner by far but — as MPs on the international trade select committee said this week — they won’t.

We can argue about models and numbers, but building barriers with the massive and rich single market on our doorstep comes with obvious costs.

The Resolution Foundation calculates real pay is set to be £470 lower per worker each year, on average, than it would otherwise have been. Contrary to the ‘global Britain’ narrative, the UK economy is becoming more closed as a result of Brexit, not more open.

The likes of Rees-Mogg and Frost brush off such work as the output of those with “axes to grind”, but Sunak and other economic literates in the Tory party know perfectly well what Brexit has done to UK labour markets, competitiveness and productivity.

The personal mendacity that led to Johnson’s downfall — the fibs about what he knew about Chris Pincher or the Covid-19 lockdown parties, or who paid for the wallpaper in the Downing Street flat — is ultimately a distraction from a much deeper-seated dishonesty with the public that Sunak rightly identifies.

However, whether Sunak or his ilk believe they could be honest about that, and still win a leadership contest in the Tory party that Johnson has left behind, will be the next leg of the Brexit story.

Because when it comes to Brexit, dishonesty has become a chronic condition for the British polity. And that affects Labour as well as the Tories, as Sir Keir Starmer’s tepid speech this week on how Labour would improve things showed.

Starmer rightly promised to normalise relations with Brussels by defusing the crisis over Northern Ireland. But many of his pledges to “make Brexit better” by fixing conformity assessment, and adding mobility provisions and veterinary deals (all while staying outside the Customs Union and Single Market) were still shot through with a lack of realism about the trade-offs inherent to giving up EU membership.

What no one, on either side, can say — and this will no doubt apply to whoever wins the Tory party leadership contest — is that Johnson’s Brexit has left the UK in a long-term predicament. We must choose between the subjugation of a Norway-style relationship or the self-harm of the status quo.

In Brussels, it is fair to say, expectations are rock-bottom. When it comes to the immediate source of EU-UK friction, the assumption in Brussels is that legislation to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol will continue to work its way through the Commons.

If it does, this will garner a response. As one EU official puts it, “lots of pencils are being sharpened” in the EU’s legal service as it prepares its retaliation for a bill that would put the UK in breach of international treaty commitments and could ultimately trigger a trade war with Brussels.

The fear is that for the next Tory leader, the Northern Ireland bill is another inherited prospectus filled with false promises that may yet prove very difficult to step back from.

The unilateral solutions it proposes are not designed to find a middle ground, but to appease the “star chamber” of the Conservative party’s European Research Group and the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.

The hope must be that the new Tory leader can reverse course from the political cul-de-sac that Johnson, aided and abetted by the foreign secretary Liz Truss, has driven the party into over the Northern Ireland question.

But no one is holding their breath in Brussels. “They’re crazy, the lot of them,” as one wearied insider with long experience of dealing with Brexit Britain these last six years tells me. “We’ve given up on them long ago.”

Brexit in numbers

This week’s chart provides a snapshot of the kinds of difficulties that the UK’s post-Brexit labour markets are facing, courtesy of a report by my colleague Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu on the amount of fruit and veg that is going unpicked because of a shortage of workers.

The government has allowed for 40,000 seasonal worker visas to be issued this year set against a National Farmers’ Union estimated demand of 70,000 workers.

As a result, one farmer says 2mn iceberg lettuces remain unpicked, while a survey of British Berry Growers’ members found that annual waste that could be attributed solely to a lack of access to pickers almost doubled in value from 2020 to 2021, from £18.7mn to £36.5mn.

As always in a post-Brexit world there are complex factors (a lot of pickers were Ukrainian, so the war has clearly not helped) but the government’s decision to turn down a recommendation from MPs to extend the scheme beyond 2024 fills the industry with foreboding.

And, finally, four unmissable Brexit stories

Boris Johnson has been the most remarkable and colourful British politician of his generation. As the man who took the UK out of the EU, he can also claim to be the most consequential. Chief features writer Henry Mance looks back at the career of the outgoing prime minister.

Robert Shrimsley looks at the runners and riders wishing to replace Johnson. From the frontrunners like Nadhim Zahawi and Liz Truss to those who have been preparing for a long time like Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt and the young pretenders like Suella Braverman. Two of the biggest divisions between the candidates, he writes, will be over character and the economy.

To most foreign observers, writes Gideon Rachman, the root of Britain’s current troubles is obvious: Brexit. The 2016 referendum destabilised Britain’s politics, seriously damaged the economy and ruptured the country’s trade and diplomatic relations with its European allies. Questions about Boris Johnson’s integrity raise doubts about the project.

Away from Westminster and English farmers are preparing for the end of EU subsidies in 2027. I recently visited a dairy farm in Charlton Musgrove, Somerset, owned by Tom Kimber who is making plans to cope with the expected financial shortfall.

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