As part of our special edition looking at five years since the EU referendum, Alastair Campbell looks at the silence of the Leavers
Weatherspoon’s boss Tim Martin inevitably attracted heaps of scorn when recently bemoaning staff shortages for his pubs, and demanding the government allow more EU migrants to fill the gap. But at least he was prepared to face that scorn to point out an unfortunate if inevitable consequence of the Brexit he had helped to bring about.
Most of his fellow Brexit warriors have preferred instead to run for the hills. The new Brexit battle cry seems to be: ‘Don’t mention the war, in case anyone remembers that we were the people who started it …’
David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox have morphed from being Brexit experts to become Covid experts, if by ‘expert’ we mean that they are regularly invited onto flagship BBC programmes to give their view, without ever being asked why they got so much wrong in their previous field of expertise.
On the rare occasion they do face a question about the B-word, Davis chuckles, IDS coughs, Fox sighs, and all three complain that, sadly, the Europeans have created the wrong sort of Brexit. Taking Back Control is all very well, but not if it means forfeiting the ability to blame the EU when it turns out we have lost more than we gained in doing so.
‘The wrong sort of Brexit’ is a line of defence now adopted by none other than David Frost, the government’s chief Brexit negotiator, who stood so proudly and so smugly behind Boris Johnson as the prime minister signed an agreement he had almost certainly never read, and who now laments the deal-clinching Northern Ireland Protocol of which he was once so proud and so smug.
It was not as though anyone warned them, was it, that to make Brexit happen, you would need either a hard border on the island of Ireland, or a border down the Irish Sea that would mean Northern Ireland was treated differently to the rest of the UK? Nor did anyone point out that this would create all manner of economic and political problems for the region… well, apart from Tony Blair and John Major five years ago and many times since. And apart from the Irish government until they were sick of saying it, and the European negotiators who kept trying to spell out the realities, but were met with Johnson’s populist bluster, and Frost’s insistence that things would work out fine.
Fair to say, they are not working out fine, but heaven forfend anyone should think it is Johnson’s or Frost’s fault … No, those bloody Europeans made them sign the Protocol, of course they did. ‘How were we supposed to know it would have the effect they said it would? Why should we implement it just because we agreed to?’
And what of Arlene Foster, how must she be feeling about life these days, having fought so hard for Brexit despite a majority in Northern Ireland not wanting it, having supported Johnson as Tory leader on the basis he would be “a fabulous friend to Northern Ireland”, and now part of that long list of people to learn that if you hitch your wagon to Johnson, the chances are you’ll one day regret it? Now in her final month as first minister, a child of Brexit devoured by Brexit, and its inevitable contradictions, on which she is now silent, as well as powerless.
Kate Hoey, another Ulsterwoman who flew the Brexit flag, not least from the back of the boat she shared with Nigel Farage as they sailed down the Thames to rage at EU fisheries policy, and promise UK fishermen a bright new future freed from the shackles of Brussels… where is she now? Sitting in the House of Lords, where else, alongside other Brexit-supporting ex-Labour MPs, Gisela Stuart and John Mann, similarly very quiet these days when it comes to Brexit.
As for Farage, he remains high profile of course, because his profile is his living. So he piles into any debate which allows him to say ‘woke,’ and milks his Brexit fame to become one of Cameo’s star turns, delivering video messages to anyone who wants one, and failing to spot that when someone called ‘Hugh Janus’ paid a few quid to get ‘a personalised message from Nigel’, it was a piss-take, just to hear the words ‘hello, huge anus’ fall from Farage’s lips. But when was the last time you heard Farage talk fishing, or farming, or indeed any of the other sectors promised they would thrive, and now realising they were lied to by people like him?
While Farage keeps on trilling and shilling, other leading lights of the Brexit campaign have simply vanished from public view, among them cabinet ministers. There was a time you could not turn on the radio or TV without hearing the über-Etonian tones of Jacob Rees-Mogg telling us how Brexit would lead to cheaper food, cheaper clothes, cheaper holidays, less red tape, greater competitiveness, a stronger economy, more power… now that none of those things have turned out to be true, he has gone from ubiquity to invisibility, perhaps hiding away in agony that his beloved Catholic Church will these days marry twice-divorced proven liars who pay for abortions as a way of keeping their child tally to single figures.
Here is another one for you… this could be a question in a pub quiz once they’re back: Who is Steve Barclay? Go on, dig deep, jog your memory – he was another one, never off the airwaves explaining how well it was all going when he was Brexit Secretary, now in the Treasury as Chief Secretary, but on the economic consequences of Brexit… well, I just put his name into Google, clicked on ‘news,’ and fair to say, he doesn’t make any, and he certainly doesn’t talk about the economic consequences of Brexit.
What are we to make of Dominic Raab? Such an ardent campaigner, now surely the lowest profile foreign secretary in our history, and when he does venture out, it is rarely to invite us to dance on the sunlit uplands, for they are not there; and nor it is to exploit the greater power that Brexit has delivered to our diplomacy, for in truth it has made us weaker and less respected around the world.
Michael Gove, though charged with trying to sort out some of the mess he and his fellow Brexit liars and charlatans delivered, is remarkably low profile compared with during other stages of his Brexit career. Better than anyone else in the cabinet at slithering out of tricky question areas, even he is finding there are too many circles to be squared, so best to keep your head down, take your son to Champions League games abroad, and enjoy a bit of special privilege self-isolation.
Also, was I alone in finding it odd that during seven hours of testimony at his recent select committee appearance, Dominic Cummings, for whom the entire exercise was designed to feed his ‘I was always right’ narrative on Covid, did not find a way to make his role in winning for Leave part of that narrative? Is he too now so embarrassed by the reality of what it has delivered that, like Johnson, he prefers to have his life dominated by a pandemic created by others, than the Brexit mayhem created by them?
Andrea Jenkyns, Nadine Dorries, Theresa Villiers, Mark Francois, Bill Cash, Steve Baker… so many Tory MPs who made their names in the fight for Brexit, now scattered to the winds, and, on the campaign to which they gave so much, largely silent as the grave. Arron Banks, too – it used to be I could hardly tweet the B-word without him retorting how wrong I would be proved when all the Brexit promises were delivered. These days, not a word. And where is Daniel Hannan, self-styled intellectual godfather to the whole project, yet less voluble in explaining away its downsides, than he was when he was so confident there would be none?
So yes, we can all laugh at Tim Martin. But wouldn’t it be nice, too, if Brexit’s other business cheerleaders, like James Dyson or Jim Ratcliffe, or that single Brexit economist who kept being wheeled out, whose name I have forgotten, but who assured us there would only be upsides, would also give us the benefit of their wisdom and their analysis now, five years after the champagne corks stopped popping?
Can any single one of the Brexit Army, from General Johnson down, say without shame or dishonesty, that Brexit is working out either as they said it would, or wanted it to? If so, why have so many of them fallen so silent?
Five years on, I think exactly the same about Brexit today as I did when I cast my vote, and am happy to shout it just as loudly. Mistake. Disaster. Worst act of national self-harm in our lifetime. I wonder if deep down, some of these chancers might be beginning to feel the same.
Certainly, if I had devoted my life to fighting for a change as big as Brexit, I would never stop shouting it from the rooftops; I would have written books and made films galore to make sure people never forgot the scale and significance of what had been achieved. The winners are behaving as though they lost. It’s quite weird, when you reflect on it.
Might the silence of the victors suggest that though they are fully fledged creatures and exploiters of the post-truth world, for that is how they won, they are not yet fully-fledged creatures of the post-shame world? We know Johnson has no shame, for we see it day in day out. But for these lesser characters in the Brexit story, might there just be the slightest smidgen of shame at the gulf between what was promised, and what is now ensuing? Certainly, if they are proud of what they have created, ‘don’t mention the war’ is a very odd way of showing it.
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