Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. File
Sean O’Grady, The Independent
Whatever the fate now of Boris Johnson – which can no longer include a return to power – there is hope in the spring air. Hope, that, after some seven years of Brexit agonies, our long national nightmare may be drawing to a close. Like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and so many other of the dramatis personae, Brexit is slowly but perceptibly fading into the distance, morphing from live national debate into a topic for lively historical debate, rather like the Iraq War, Suez or appeasement before it.
Increasingly, and thankfully, it seems to be losing its power to divide families and friends, and to poison our political system. There’s no denying that the malign economic, cultural and geopolitical consequences of Brexit will reverberate for years (if not decades) to come, and no doubt we’re worse off out; but there is some sense that the British have at last become exhausted by civil war.
Take, as a recent example, the Eurosceptic “rebellion” on Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal, the Windsor Framework. It might actually be the moment when Brexit got “done” at last, but the European Research Group, self-styled Spartans, were having none of that; and so, fronted by the slightly Gilbert and Sullivan-esque figure of Mark Francois, they organised one of their famous revolts.
Now, in the past, during David Cameron and Theresa May’s tenures, they could have held the government to ransom, wrecked any Brexit deal that fell short of the purity standards they dictated, and indeed destroyed prime ministers. The ERG was perhaps 80 to 100-strong (it was always a fluid sort of gang), and it was undoubtedly powerful, being instrumental in creating the messy deal we have today.
But now look at their works, and rejoice. They could muster a mere 22 rebels (albeit with a wider penumbra of abstentions), and Sunak’s deal sailed through the Commons. It would have done so even without Labour support. There were no ministerial resignations, no storming out even by past ERG alumni such as Suella Braverman or Steve Baker; and Baker even went so far as to deride Johnson’s support for the feeble revolt as turning him into a “pound shop Nigel Farage”. Ouch!
It ought to be plain even to the least perceptive members of the ERG that their best days are behind them, that Sunak can safely ignore them, and that Johnson and Liz Truss are merely using them to try and get back into the saddle.
A new politics, whether Remainers and Leavers like it or not, is emerging. Labour is no longer committed to a second referendum, let alone re-joining the single market, customs Union or the EU. The nations would be better off if there was some great group swell to re-join, but the polls show that another referendum battle is too horrible to contemplate, despite growing buyers’ remorse over Brexit.
Keir Starmer these days only wants a nicer, cuddlier relationship with Europe; and so does Sunak, who is making some progress in his personal diplomacy with Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen. Now the SNP and Liberal Democrats are the only remotely powerful forces in favour of opening old wounds again. Brexit, then, is losing its potency. Like those other national schisms of the past I mention, it can never be properly dead and buried, because there has been so much passion invested in it; likewise, there are some who’ll still take angry sides between Churchill and Chamberlain over the Munich agreement.
For so long as the EU exists and prospers, the possibility of reversing Brexit remains, and will rightly be an option. For now, however, as we stumble through what promise to be the lean, mean 2020s, Brexit, as a source of painful, corrosive acrimony, will at last subside.
There is, of course, one caveat to that — the Tory party in opposition when they lose the next election. There, and there alone, Brexit will still have the destructive power to smash a great historic party once again.
Freed from the responsibilities of power and the choices that governing forces upon politicians, the Tories will be free to elect a new leader who enables fresh fantasies about Brexit, coupled with some old Trussian delusions about growth and Johnsonian delusions of national grandeur.
Some figures such as Braverman or Kemi Badenoch will emerge to promise the better yesterday and Brexit “done properly”, and the salve will be eagerly applied by the membership. They will make Steve Baker look like a centrist. The party will then split. The rest of the nation can look over the garden wall and observe the mayhem, and feel glad that that lot are no longer trying to run the country. Even if they can’t, the rest of us can move on.