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The Tories lied their way to Brexit. What is this but sleaze? | William Keegan


There is a close link between the parliamentary sleaze scandal and – you’ve guessed it – Brexit.

The plotters who tried scandalously to exonerate Owen Paterson and undermine the course of parliamentary justice were all Brexiters – some of them extremely so. From Paterson himself to the prime minister, who attended the dinner where the plot was hatched, taking in the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who enthusiastically supported it, they all share responsibility for what is now being increasingly recognised as the catastrophe of Brexit. For, make no mistake about it, Brexit was, and remains, a sleazy operation.

What is the common factor behind the problems we read about daily, from the crisis in Northern Ireland to the supply chain issues that bedevil normal life in Britain? It is that, thanks to Brexit, we have left the single market.

However, I refer to Great Britain, which does not include Northern Ireland. When we move to the United Kingdom, which comprises Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we find that under the “protocol” negotiated by Johnson and his lickspittle Lord Frost, Northern Ireland remained inside the single market. This was always going to cause friction, and we may now be heading for the climax.

But a central feature of the Brexiters’ sleaze operation in the run-up to the 2016 referendum was that we would not leave the single market. In his new book It’s The Leader, Stupid, Andrew Adonis reminds us in a perceptive essay on what he calls Nigel Farage’s “reverse takeover” of the Conservative party that “the Vote Leave: Take Control website explicitly argued that Britain [my italics] would stay in the single market via membership of the European Economic Area, yet leaving the single market became a red line subsequently”.

As we Remainers (and Rejoiners) have discovered to our, and the nation’s, cost, the huge benefits of membership of the single market were simply taken for granted until they began to disappear.

The Leave-Remain controversy has for a time had echoes of the Dreyfus affair in early 20th century France – a divisive issue, best not raised in polite company. But recently I have abandoned all caution and raised it with many people I have bumped into, just to get their reaction – of which a typical Brexiter’s one is: “They didn’t tell us it was going to be like this.”

Which brings us to that sleaziest of misrepresentations, which struck the loudest chord during the Leave campaign: £350m a week for the NHS. As they used to say – and no doubt still do – in school exams: “Compare and contrast.” In this case, compare and contrast that £350m a week with Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s estimate that the blow to the UK’s long-run productivity from Brexit has been mounting towards 4% of gross domestic product annually.

As my fellow commentator Martin Wolf of the Financial Times pointed out last week, that is £80bn a year. Moreover, the OBR’s estimate is regarded as conservative by some thinktanks, which put the annual loss nearer to 6%, or well over £100bn. By contrast, the “benefits” to the NHS of £350m a week would have amounted to £18bn a year – and they were always mythical anyway.

Now, in common with many, I have been disappointed, to put it mildly, with the Labour party’s poor performance over Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer has been in his element attacking parliamentary sleaze, but this slogan “Make Brexit Work” is surely doomed – unless it is some “cunning plan”, as popularised in the Blackadder television series. Maybe the plan is to capitalise when it becomes obvious to all that Brexit isn’t working and, furthermore, cannot work.

Our future, both economically and politically, lies in Europe, and what we are being subjected to at present is a dangerous historical aberration. Luckily, there is a body called European Movement UK, which is doing its best to rebuild relations with continental Europe step by step: its projects range from alleviating the problems in road haulage and farming to trying to restore visa-free travel for musicians.

Meanwhile, the damage mounts, one of the principal reasons being a collapse of some 15% in our exports to and imports from our principal market. Our prime minister fancies himself as a classical scholar. I wonder if he recalls Aristotle’s observation that “one of the most important subjects about which all men deliberate” is “imports and exports”?

He should certainly be aware of Aristotle’s insights into the “fatal flaw” in leaders’ characters: hubris, or arrogance. Johnson has been displaying this in spades.



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