How Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster for the Tories (and the country)

As turmoil within the Tory party festers, at the helm of the infighting is Brexit.

Just a couple of months ago, a small group of right-wing Eurosceptic Conservative libertarians thought they had hit the jackpot in their long-drawn-out project to remake Britain. With Liz Truss in charge, these Brexit-backing, free-market embracing, low-tax fundamentalists believed that they had found the final piece to the jigsaw to remodel the country in their image and embrace the opportunities they believe Brexit offers.

That right-wing libertarian ‘utopia’ lasted just 45 days.

With the economy in disarray and Tory poll ratings nosediving, ‘Sunak the sensible’, the country’s third prime minister in just 50 days, was expected to magically wave the chaos away.

Instead, turmoil within the Tory party festers and at the helm of the infighting is Brexit.

Brexit typically only returns to the media spotlight when there’s not much else to report on. It got cast into media oblivion when the pandemic reared its head, with the constant stream of Boris Johnson scandals, during the excruciating contest for the next Tory leader, and of course the disastrous premiership of Liz Truss.

For some years, conversation on the negative impact of our departure from Europe has been taboo. Governing Tories have insisted that the benefits of ‘taking back control’ were round the corner and about to be savoured.

But with the UK being the second-worst performing economy in the rich world, the only G7 country still lagging behind pre-pandemic growth levels, and predicted to record the worst economic growth of any major country except Russia next year, discussion about Brexit has suddenly returned, with even the pro-Brexit press recognising it can’t be ignored.

‘Swiss-style’ deal

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had already sounded alarm bells among Brexiteers after he said he was seeking ‘unfettered trade’ with the EU, while cautioning that this must be outside the single market.

But Brexit wars returned with a bang when the Sunday Times splashed a report that senior figures are seeking a closer trade relationship with the EU which could include the UK paying into the EU budget and agreeing to freedom of movement. What ensued was an outraged backlash among Tory Brexit hardliners who staunchly oppose any threat of the dilution of Britain’s regulatory freedoms.

“This is a total betrayal. The ERG [European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs] must fight this tooth and nail,” one source told the Mail on Sunday.

Former Brexit Minister David Jones condemned the plan as “100 percent anathema to Brexit,” while ardent Brexiteer Lord Frost was almost having kittens.

“Any approach requiring the UK to align with EU rules to get trade benefits, whether as part of a Swiss-style approach or any other, would be quite unacceptable.

“Boris Johnson and I fought very hard to avoid any such requirements in 2020 and ensure the UK could set its own laws, and we should not contemplate giving this away in future,” Frost told the Sunday Times.

With No 10 keen to pour cold water over the reports, Rishi Sunak quickly ruled out that a Swiss-style deal with Europe was on the cards.

Nonetheless, the damage had been done. It even prompted former Brexit party leader Nigel Farage to threaten a political comeback in response to a potential ‘betrayal of Brexit.’

“I’m not ruling anything out,” Farage told the Sun.

In fact, Farage’s reaction and assessment of Brexit activity tells us a lot about what we need to know about the fallout. The former UKIP leader seems to have a narrative about various so-called betrayals over Brexit, on top of continuously whining about immigration. He, like the right-wing think-tank ideologues, was happy with Liz Truss. Such enthusiasm however is not shared towards Sunak, who he has described as a “total and utter fraud.”

Warning of an ‘insurgency’ against the ‘globalist’ Tories, Farage could take a significant slice of Tory voters, which would, of course, open the door to Labour. Though he might just be making threatening noises in a bid to pull the government to the right.

But then there’s Richard Tice, a mate of Farage’s, who leads Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party. Eying up brewing Tory dissent, Tice has been targeting potential Tory defectors by sending mailouts to Tory councillors in a bid to get them to jump ship amid the turmoil.  Farage continues to play a key role in promoting Reform UK’s messaging, especially on small boat crossings. In November, a poll put Reform UK on 8 percent, marking its highest ever level of support and just one point behind the Green Party.

Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome summed up the reason why Tories are raging over Brexit again – they don’t really trust Rishi Sunak.

“… whoever kicked off the row by speaking to the Sunday Times was talking about removing trade barriers over the next 10 years or so, and unless the prime minister proves a true political miracle worker, the Conservatives probably won’t be in government for more than two,” Hill wrote in the Guardian.

Desperate to pacify Brexiteers and quell rebellion within his own party, when addressing the Swiss-style Brexit clamour for the first time at a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Birmingham, the prime minister stressed his pro-Brexit credentials as a PM who supported Leave in the 2016 referendum – unlike his predecessor.

He insisted that “regulatory freedom” to diverge on EU standards was a key advantage and would not be sacrificed in any future talks to try to break down trade barriers with Brussels.

Speaking of the need to unleash the ‘enormous benefits and opportunities’ of Brexit, Sunak said:

“Under my leadership, the UK will not assume any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU law.”

An ERG member of the CBI gave a stern warning that there “can be no backsliding.”

Though Sunak has long recognised the need to flatter Brexiteers. During the leadership contest in the summer, he brandished his Leave credentials and pledged to review the thousands of EU laws ‘getting in the way’ of British businesses to trigger a ‘new Big Bang.’ Writing for The Telegraph, the former chancellor said it’s time to “capitalise on the freedoms” Brexit gave Britain, and “put our foot on the accelerator.”

Big Bang Brexit

Amid brewing Brexit wars, it was reported this week that the government is using Brexit to dismantle protections to the financial system introduced after 2008, as a result of lobbying by the banks.

First reported in the Financial Times, according to insiders, the government will relax the ring-fencing of banks as part of efforts to deregulate the City of London and get a ‘Big Bang’ out of Brexit. The aim of ring-fencing is to protect UK retail banking from shocks that derive from elsewhere in the financial markets. It was introduced by the government in response to the global financial crisis in 2008. Advocates of Brexit believe abolishing it presents an opportunity to eliminate what they see as unnecessary rules and regulations holding back growth.

Despite some ‘Big Bang’ reforms getting underway, some of the world’s biggest banks are under pressure to move more traders from London into EU cities, the latest being the prime minister’s old boss, Goldman Sachs. A report this week show that Goldman is moving London traders to Milan, in the latest example of roles moving to the continent after Brexit. According to unnamed sources, the Wall Street giant is relocating staff as it bolsters European offices in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU. And it’s not just banks. In June, Euronext NV relocated from London and opened a data centre in Bergamo, just outside Milan.

With major financial players jumping ship because of Brexit, Eurosceptic Tories are certainly having a torrid time of late. Not only was their freedom-loving Brexit puppet replaced, but a recent spate of reports show people are turning their back on Brexit – even Leave voters. A recent poll by YouGov showed that only 32 percent of the British public believe it was right to leave the EU. One in five people who voted Brexit now believe it was the wrong decision.

Meanwhile, many businesses are showing similar disdain or nonchalance towards Brexit. A study by the British Chambers of Commerce shows that the flagship bill to purge EU laws is not high on the priority list for British businesses. A survey of bosses reveal that most UK businesses have no interest in or understanding of the government’s flagship “Brexit freedoms” plan to scrap EU regulations.

Brexit disasters

Being passionately pro-Europe, I have to admit, I love a good Brexit disaster story, pointing the finger in an annoying ‘I told you so’ way. The catastrophe that is Brexit six years since the vote and almost three years since we officially left the Bloc, gives Remainers plenty to wryly smile about.

Except for the fact that a vote that was called to lay to rest problems that begun under Thatcher and ended up as a quarrel between two old Etonians – Cameron and Johnson – but went on to inflict enormous harm on the country and make us the laughingstock of Europe, isn’t really a laughing matter.

It looks like it has taken an epic cost of living crisis and the Bank of England governor admitting that Britain’s economy is performing worse than those in the eurozone and the US to turn the tide on public opinion on Brexit, when actually its calamities have been festering for years.

From Labour shortages to empty supermarket shelves; enormous queues at ferry ports to higher inflation rates than any country in the G7; the abolition of the Erasmus programme to fresh pains for the fishing industry; a tangle of new rules for musicians and actors to anaemic economic growth – the measurably dire effects of Brexit are multiple and impact many forms of work, business, family and social life.

new report by the London School of Economic found that Brexit added almost £6bn to UK food bills in the two years to the end of 2021, as a result of extra red tape. Consequently, the average household bill saw a rise in its food bills of £210 in the same period, with poorer households disproportionately affected.

In October, the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibly (OBR) said the impact of Brexit on the UK economy will be worse in the long-run compared to the Covid-19 pandemic. Richard Hughes said leaving the EU would reduce Britain’s potential GDP by about 4 percent in the long term. He said forecasts showed the pandemic would reduce GDP “by a further 2 percent.”

“In the long term it is the case that Brexit has a bigger impact than the pandemic,” Hughes told the BBC.Called to heal divisions among Conservatives over Europe, Brexit, in wreaking colossal damage and aiding a potential collapse of the party, is the epitome of irony.

For disintegrating Tories, the ‘B’ word must be like whining mosquito buzzing round their head that won’t go away. Far from giving the Tories the closure they wanted, Brexit has left them in tatters.

But where does it leave Labour?

With ‘Get Brexit done’ Boris successfully managing to snatch northern ‘Red Wall’ voters, Brexit has continued to be a potential trap for the opposition. As such, Keir Starmer is treating the subject with extreme caution. As Andrew Marr notes in a piece on Brexit and Labour in the New Statesman: “Keir Starmer sounds more absolutist against reopening the debate than Rees-Mogg himself.”

Following Sunak’s position that a Swiss-style freedom movement is “a red line for me,” despite arguing the opposite during his Labour leadership bid, Starmer is also pandering to the Leave vote. There are glimmers of hope though for a softer Brexit from Labour, with the Labour leader talking about a stronger trading relationship with the EU and reducing red tape for business.

For Remainers like me, Brexit is a disaster. We knew it would be when we ticked Remain in the ballot box. And it’s going to take bold leadership to change the direction of this unmitigated disaster.

But with the public now thinking Brexit was the wrong decision, wouldn’t it be the perfect time for Labour to capitalise on this? 

Right-wing media watch – Tory press changes its tune on Matt Hancock

‘Callous Matt Hancock dumped university sweetheart’ moralised the Daily Mail, after the former health secretary’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo was exposed by the Sun in June 2021. ‘Hypocrite Hancock’, ‘Humiliated Hancock’, ‘Hancock quits his job – and marriage,’ were among the headlines in what proved to be an old-fashioned field day for the red-tops.

Fast-forward almost 18 months and the disgraced MP has been elevated to an almost heroic status by the same press that instigated his downfall, following his barefaced appearance on ITV’s hit reality show I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here.

Sorry everyone, but Matt Hancock is the real winner of I’m a Celebrity’ was a headline in the Telegraph this week. According to the article, the independent MP for West Suffolk who was suspended from the Tory party after announcing he would take part in the show, played a PR blinder by going into the jungle.

In another Hancock-endorsing piece, the same newspaper reported on why the former health secretary could ‘return to the Tory fold sooner than you might think.’ It reminds of Hancock’s overt support of Rishi Sunak, which, combined with the challenges the government face in keeping the Tories together, means, his wait to have the whip restored could be shorter.

Sticking up for the MP was the Mail, which had led the ‘callous Hancock’ narrative when the lockdown affair with his aide dominated every media outlet’s editorial agenda. ‘Fans accuse Mike Tindall of ‘bullying’ Matt Hancock by purposefully ‘flattening’ the MP during Celebrity Cyclone challenge, wrote the Mail this week.

Following Hancock’s close embrace of Gina Coladangelo, who had travelled to Australia to meet him on his exit from the jungle, which bore a sickening resemblance to the one plastered over the front pages exposing their affair, the Mail gushed over the couple not being able to ‘keep their hands off each other as they return to their hotel after reuniting…

Plenty has been written about Hancock’s desperate and seemingly successful bid to sanitise his image, with commentators wide and far trying to make sense of it. ‘Jungle washing’ was even invented to describe Hancock’s behaviour. Whereas earlier generations of politicians in reputational trouble (think Profumo) would have spent a lifetime of charitable good works by way of repentance, now three weeks of celebrity does the trick.

But what is behind the right-wing press’s change of heart towards the shamed and discredited former Tory minister and MP?

Firstly, sex sells. The likes of the Mail know that publishing images of Hancock groping his scantily clad girlfriend are going to sell well. 

It was one of the most controversial and sensationalist stories of 2021 so why not capitalise on it with a new angle, which, given Hancock’s success in finishing in third place meets the public’s obvious new-found support for the former health secretary. Why revisit old wounds by mulling over his glaring misdemeanours during the pandemic, which more than probably led to the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of people? Of course we still await the outcome of the Covid inquiry but the relatives of the bereaved have little doubt of Hancock’s culpability.

Then there’s the distraction tactic, which the Tory media has mastered to a fine art. Hancock’s involvement in the show has been widely followed and reported on in the media during a time when in-fighting and bickering is brewing within Tory ranks over Brexit, immigration, the Autumn Statement, the economy and more. Hancock’s antics offer some light reprisal from the Tory HQ catastrophe and the press knows it, hence his adoring elevation.

With the public now seemingly on Hancock’s side, giving him accolade and attention could be just what warring Tories, whose own popularity is plummeting as the polls show, need – The Telegraph all but admits it!

On the outside, it might look like Hancock was the winner from his jungle escapades, seemingly profiting from what is generally seen as his incompetent spell as health secretary. Financially, he might be laughing all the way to the bank, having amassed a cool £400k for just appearing on the show. Though when it comes to the unscrupulous right-wing media, they will chew you up and spit you out without blinking an eye, and no-doubt when the Hancock hysteria blows over, he’ll be cast back into the opprobrium bin, having been used as a convenient distraction when the Tories needed it the most.

Woke bashing of the week – Woke-scorning press fulminate over ‘transgender Christ’ comments

Hold the frontpage, call the ‘woke’ police… ‘Jesus may have been transgender!’ Yep, the right-wing, woke-bashing press got incredibly excited this week about a dean who didn’t rule out Christ may have been transgender.

‘It’s heresy!’ cried the Mail, as worshippers are left ‘in tears’ as ‘Cambridge dean claims Jesus may have been TRANSGENDER after a row over Christ’s wound having a ‘vaginal appearance.’

The excitement involved a dean of Trinity College backing up a junior research fellow who displayed Renaissance and Medieval paintings of the crucifixion that depicted a wound which he likened to a vagina during a service.

The ridiculous story’s source was The Telegraph, which says it can disclose that Dr Michael Banner, the Dean of Trinity College, said such a view was “legitimate” after a row over a sermon by a Cambridge research student that claimed Christ had a “trans body.”

Worshippers at the “truly shocking” address told The Telegraph they were left “in tears” and felt excluded from the church, with one shouting “heresy” at the Dean upon leaving.

The article went on that Dr Banner’s response, as seen by The Telegraph, defended how the sermon “suggested that we might think about these images of Christ’s male/female body as providing us with ways of thinking about issues around transgender questions today.”

If there is one thing the right-wing Tory newspapers are good at – apart from woke-bashing – is finding an unknown person – ideally a lefty – who has said or done something a bit random, strange or daft, blow it up out of all sense of proportion into a massive deal, fulminating and moralising about it, while suggesting it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.

It this instance, it helped that the central character of the story was an academic – right-wingers don’t tend to like academics. Cambridge academics in particular seem to be a source of contempt for The Telegraph. The ‘transgender Christ’ article even linked to a separate story about Cambridge University, which in the author’s words (who incidentally is unashamedly anti-woke Douglas Murray) “has long been a frontrunner in the idiot social justice activities of our time”. Murray’s article links to a previous piece in The Telegraph on Cambridge University having the country’s ‘most woke vice-chancellor.’

And so, it goes on and on.

But giving the ‘transgender Jesus’ story even more ‘juice’ was the fact that the protagonist wasn’t just an academic at Cambridge, but he was also a Church of England vicar – the best of leftists!

Yep, sadly, the story had woke-bashing clickbait written all over it.  

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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