Why Boris Johnson can't solve the UK's crisis

22 December 2020

3:36 AM

22 December 2020

3:36 AM

The Brexit and Covid crises have merged into one. As of today, 21 December, France has blocked trucks from crossing the Channel as fears about a new strain of Covid — ‘the Kent virus’ to coin a phrase — sweep the continent. Perishable food was rotting, approach roads were jammed… it was as if we were living under a wartime blockade. By the time you read this, the French may have shifted from an outright ban to stringent health checks on exports and imports, but the pressure will still be on.

In less than a fortnight, on 1 January, we will have the real Brexit. It will be either without a deal or with a thin deal. Whatever it is, it will lead to vast increases in bureaucracy, delays, queues and costs falling on a Covid-battered country that cannot take much more.

Surely if there were a word of truth in the stereotype we still half believe of the British as a pragmatic commonsensical people, the Prime Minister would seek to do less harm. He would agree with Nicola Sturgeon that ‘the new Covid strain means we face a profoundly serious situation, and it demands our 100 per cent attention,’ and ask for an extension to the Brexit talks beyond the New Year Eve deadline.

Sometimes the best thing to do with a ball is thump it as hard and far as you can into the long grass. Today is the day to thump it. Boris Johnson would say words to the effect that Britain and Europe need to manage Covid first and sort out the details of Brexit later. Britain does not have the capacity to deal with both. There are days when it looks as if Britain does not have the capacity to deal with either. Indeed, Johnson should not have waited until now but said as much in April.

He didn’t say it then and he won’t say it today for a simple and, for many disillusioned British men and women, bitter reason. There is no innate common sense the British somehow imbue with their mothers’ milk. All that old patriotic stuff about the English never falling for wild continental theories and preferring to muddle along and compromise has turned out to be so much trash.

Johnson cannot muddle through the Covid and Brexit crises by taking a sensible step back from the brink. Like a prisoner being sent at gunpoint into a minefield, he can only trudge forward.

The story of Britain since 2016 is the story of a country caught in a right-wing ratchet effect analogous to the purity spirals that have torn apart the identitarian left. The spiralling begins when a community or country pledges itself to support a project that has no agreed practical meaning and no upper limit — anti-racism on the left, national sovereignty on the right. Because there is no consensus on what precisely the faithful are trying to achieve, extremists can always pose as the pure representatives of the cause and cast anyone who advocates compromise as a ‘saboteur’ and ‘enemy of the people’ on the right or deceitful possessor of unconscious biases on the left. The journalist Gavin Haynes, who has researched and explained the left’s purity spirals better than anyone, describes a process of moral outbidding and public denunciations, accompanied by the policing of purity through loyalty tests, humiliation and demands for self-censorship.

If we look at Brexit through the same lens, we see David Cameron’s failure to define what a vote to leave the European Union would mean was fatal for Britain. By not saying whether we could leave and stay in the single market or leave and stay in the customs union or leave and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court, the referendum created a broad and vague concept of Brexit that was wide open to exploitation. Because there was no upper limit on what Brexit meant, extremists could insist that compromise sullied the purity of national sovereignty.

The resulting purity spiral destroyed Theresa May’s premiership. She showed how little she understood the new politics when she said as she resigned in May 2019 that we should ‘never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’

Not on the right it doesn’t. The lesson of the collapse of the Cameron and May governments is that the Brexit right can always outbid the supporters of compromise and say that the elite or the establishment has convinced them to betray the Brexit cause. So powerful is the taboo they have created that Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench were saying today that they would not, perhaps dare not, break the spell by calling for an extension to the talks.

If Johnson were to defend the best interests of the people of this country by asking for an extension, his former friends would accuse him of trying to sabotage Brexit and secretly wanting to keep us in EU vassalage forever. Johnson knows it. At no point in the past four and a half years has he levelled with the Brexiters, let alone the public, and explained the hard choices the country faces. He knows what they would do to him if he did.

Or as the right-wing MP John Redwood put it today, ‘The last thing we want is more uncertainty by asking for an extension to talks with the EU. They have spent four and a half years offering us a rotten deal to undermine Brexit so how would an extension help?’

Alert readers will have noticed the playground phrasing at once. If a deal with the EU is ‘a rotten deal to undermine Brexit,’ then the giddying descent of the purity spiral must end with a no-deal Brexit.

Anand Menon, the director of UK in Changing Europe, tells me the Covid crisis may help the Brexit right. With ports already closed and traffic jams stretching down the M2, it could slip the chaos of no-deal past the public and blame it on the pandemic. He doubts the tactic would work, and so do I. Even with Johnson’s thin deal, the miserable impact of Brexit will be impossible to avoid. We cannot escape our rendezvous with reality.

But then I have been saying that since 2016, and the purity spiral has kept swirling downwards. But I do know this: the further we go down, the greater the crash when we hit bottom.

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