Despite the furious intonations of the Labour right, much of the liberal press and a smorgasbord of Blairite comedians and pop scientists, the principal explanation for the Conservative party’s majority of 80 can be relayed in three words: Get Brexit Done.
For all the talk of Russian espionage and Irish republicanism, in hindsight Jeremy Corbyn’s gambit of strategic ambiguity, combined with a soft Brexit, was incapacitated as soon as Boris Johnson returned from Brussels with a deal last October. The same applied to the argument put forward by John McDonnell and Keir Starmer – more popular with much of Labour’s membership, though less plausible – that a second referendum would “break the impasse”. The withdrawal agreement offered precisely this, only better: rather than offering more of the same, it seemed to provide closure on an issue which had plagued the country’s front pages, kitchen tables and workplaces for years. It explains how, in just over six months, the Tories went from 9% in last May’s European elections – their worst ever result in a national vote – to their biggest Westminster win since 1987.
Yet it now appears, for the government at least, that the withdrawal agreement is, if not worthless, secondary to British law. Late on Sunday evening the Financial Times alleged that sections of the internal market bill, set to be published this week, will “eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement” relating to state aid and Northern Ireland. This is happening because, as one government source told the Politico website, the withdrawal agreement is full of “internal contradictions”, and that these must be resolved to “safeguard British interests”. In other words, Britain wants to unilaterally override an international treaty it agreed to less than a year ago.
The principal contradiction is, of course, Northern Ireland. The withdrawal agreement implicitly specifies a closer economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland than between the former and the rest of the UK. It is for this reason that the right-wing Democratic Unionist party, which supported the May government after June 2017, refused to endorse Johnson’s new deal last October and, to a large extent, why a general election followed thereafter. The facts haven’t changed; rather, the government appears to be openly conceding it never intended to deliver on a promise so utterly central to last year’s triumph. The seemingly ebullient scenes of October 2019 – with messrs Johnson, Juncker and Barnier claiming agreement – were choreographed to break a domestic electoral deadlock more than a diplomatic one with Europe.
Of course, this may all be a gambit to force a trade deal closer to London’s preferences than those of Dublin or Brussels. And yet it may not, with the move – should it transpire – putting any hopes of an agreement on ice. Those who claim the former regard recent events as merely the latest piece of Brexiteer spectacle – another pseudo-event to shift the debate further right. Yet this may be incorrect: the leaked trade negotiations between Britain and the US, disclosed by Labour in the final weeks of last year’s election campaign, seemingly exposed how a precondition for any trade deal between Washington and London was the absence of a customs union between Britain and the EU. As the document itself clearly stated:
“USTR (United States Trade Representative) were also clear that the UK-EU situation would be determinative: there would be all to play for in a no deal situation but UK commitment to the customs union and single market would make a UK-US FTA (free trade agreement) a non-starter.”
Under normal conditions, ‘no deal’ would have been immensely difficult for the government to execute, though entirely plausible given their large majority. Yet Covid-19 has altered the landscape, strengthening Johnson’s hand. Given the economy has collapsed in a manner unknown in peacetime – with transit of goods and people massively down and the government running at least a £350bn deficit this year – this might be, counter-intuitively, the ideal time for ‘no deal’. While it might take a chunk out of the economy and cause job losses, the impacts will be marginal compared to the damage already inflicted by the pandemic. What’s more, even if the consequences of ‘no deal’ are particularly egregious, the government can blame not only Brussels intransigence but a global healthcare crisis. The public will be left struggling to discern where one challenge ends and the other begins.
That the government won a majority based on a set of promises it discarded within nine months speaks not only to its lack of integrity, but to the indolence of Britain’s media. This indolence underpins an increasingly fetid political culture: when Labour disclosed those vital documents between Britain and America, the media gleefully spun the issue into one of Russian interference. This was primarily a diversion on their part – many would have grasped that the opposition had publicised a story of momentous public interest which they had overlooked – but it also reflected how the media had decided that any Johnson government was preferable to a Corbyn one. This explains why more attention was given to a completely fictitious account of a Labour member assaulting a Tory party aide – tweeted by three of the country’s most powerful political editors – than to whether the government’s “oven-ready” deal was actually deliverable. While Labour undoubtedly had questions to answer over allegations of antisemitism, that the issue informed nearly half of Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil – an interview the prime minister refused to sit – is absurd given that Britain was, and remains, in the middle of its most dramatic constitutional crisis for a century.
Our government lies routinely, and the basis of its mandate is potentially undermined if Sunday’s revelations are true. Yet it does this because it can, its deceit supported by a media that prefers to confuse gossip and partisan talking points for issues that actually matter. This applies not only to the right wing tabloids – the predictably mendacious Mail and Sun – but the BBC and Guardian too. All of the above preferred to attack Labour in 2019, almost always on the basis of utter nonsense, than to scrutinise the government’s central document in an election for which primary issue was leaving the EU.
Most troubling of all is that this venal, self-serving ecology of information – too frequently passing from Fleet Street and Broadcasting House to Whitehall – sets the terms of debate not only on Brexit, but climate change, our failing economic model and the housing crisis too. If our government and its mandate are built on a pack of lies, this is only because too much of our fourth estate doesn’t care. Even now, rather than look in the mirror, journalists are the first to congratulate themselves, assuring one another they aren’t just judge and jury for the body politic but, in a ‘free speech crisis’ of their own confection, victim, martyr and saint.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.