Cambridge spies and Brexiters have a lot in common
The chaos caused by Brexit is here for all but the most pigheaded Brexiters to see. Why, no less a figure than the minister for Brexit “opportunities”, one Jacob Rees-Mogg, finds himself having to delay further implementation of customs bureaucracy because of the damage even he can see in front of him. Bringing in full checks the government had agreed in order “to get Brexit done” would, said Rees-Mogg, have been “an act of self-harm”, adding an extra £1bn to the already enormous cost of Brexit. No, I am not making this up.
There was another priceless example of what a nonsensical government we have when Conor Burns, the minister of state for Northern Ireland, appeared on Channel 4 News last Wednesday.
Holding a vast pile of documentation given to him in despair by a road haulier, he complained that this was the kind of form-filling lorry drivers had to cope with to qualify for entry from Brexit Britain to Northern Ireland.
The minister seemed blissfully unaware that the bundle of bumf he was displaying was the consequence of his own government’s Brexit policies. Like the Democratic Unionist party, he was complaining about the Northern Ireland protocol, the arrangement negotiated by Boris Johnson under which border controls were introduced between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because the latter remains, with the republic of Ireland, in the single market, and the former, owing to Brexit, does not.
Johnson’s attempts to go back, in the case of Northern Ireland, on yet another of his words may be in the domestic and international news; but businesses all over the country are also struggling with the excessive form-filling and extra costs of the Brexit trade war that this government has inflicted on itself.
To take just one example: reader Edward Fishlock, a wine merchant in Wadebridge, Cornwall, has emailed me with a horrifying account of the time-wasting and extra costs involved in conducting his business; he receives precious little support from his local (Conservative) MP. This kind of Brexit self-harm is being experienced all over the country.
Of course the government blames the severe recrudescence of inflation, and the deleterious impact on people’s spending power of world events outside its control. However, as economist Adam Posen of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics points out, the UK is particularly vulnerable to “external shocks”.
Brexit has been accompanied by “an erosion of trust in UK governments to run disciplined economic policies”. The pound has once again become a vulnerable currency in international markets. Since that referendum result it has been devalued by some 12% against the average of other major currencies. International Monetary Fund calculations indicate that inflation is rising faster here than in our former EU partners – a forecast 7.4% this year in the UK, compared with 5.3% in the euro area. As Posen says, the difference is “largely due to Britain’s departure from the EU”.
I have covered many a sterling crisis over the years. It is important to distinguish between necessary adjustments when a currency becomes uncompetitive and losses of confidence that start a downward spiral, and thereby an upward spiral in inflation.
Of course there is an obvious solution to both the Northern Irish and sterling crises: a nation that still styles itself Great Britain could rejoin the single market. In which context it is worth remembering that Daniel, now Lord, Hannan – one of the most influential people behind Brexit – said in 2015 that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”. Again, the founder of the Referendum party, James Goldsmith, was, according to his biographer, a firm believer in remaining in the single market. It’s a funny old world.
The Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper gives a superb account of the malign forces that culminated in Brexit in his book Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. But it is not just the economic self-harm that rankles. Kuper draws an intriguing comparison between the prewar and wartime Cambridge spies who were acting for the Soviet Union and the Oxford Brexiters. Putin most certainly wanted Brexit and the breakup of the European Union. Fortunately, the Ukraine crisis seems to be having a beneficent effect on the EU – certainly not what he wanted.
While he admits his comparison between the Cambridge and Oxford sets isn’t entirely fair, Kuper states: “Though both betrayed Britain’s interests in the service of Moscow, the Brexiters did it by mistake.”
One can only hope, to quote the chorus in The Clouds, by Aristophanes: “Mark here how rarely it succeeds/To build our trust on guilty deeds.”
• This article was amended on 16 May 2022 to clarify that the border controls were introduced between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not just England.