We do not talk about Brexit any more. So it is easy to forget about the origins of a damaging trend of lying and denial in politics. They in fact go further back than Johnson’s premiership, to a vote in 2016, and to the cynical falsehoods told by the Leave campaign — the £350 million dividend for the NHS, the incendiary claim that Turkey was close to securing EU membership.
Today, on Brexit’s sixth anniversary, it is worth reminding ourselves what the 2016 triumph of a campaign based on lies has done to British politics. It has forced those in charge into a lasting state of denial. They must (still) advocate for a project that they know cannot deliver on its promises.
To oppose it means expulsion from any top jobs in politics — even those in opposition. To champion it is either to tell outright lies or to turn a blind eye to fundamental truths, as if you were stupid.Remember Dominic Raab in 2018 suggesting that he “hadn’t quite understood” the significance of the Dover-Calais crossing to Britain’s goods trade, or Karen Bradley, then the Northern Ireland secretary, telling a journalist that she hadn’t known nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties.
Even the scrupulous Theresa May was reduced to chanting mad slogans to cover the gap between her claims and reality. Only shameless liars can survive in such an atmosphere. The lying isn’t all down to Johnson. And it won’t end when he goes.
The state of denial has spread from Westminster to the rest of the country. We would rather not think about Brexit. Its effects have been somewhat masked by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine — Johnson insists it is too early to tell what is causing what — yet economists are now starting to untangle the three.
A report published this week by the Resolution Foundation and LSE finds that a hefty chunk of the cost-of-living crisis is down to Brexit. The average worker is on course to suffer more than £470 in lost pay each year by 2030, compared with what would have happened if Remain had won. It found that Brexit is damaging productivity, too: a key measure of economic output and already a long-standing problem in Britain.
Ministers say pay rises for workers are only sustainable if they are backed by productivity gains. Yet the report estimated that by 2030 productivity would actually be reduced by 1.3 per cent — equivalent to losing a quarter of the efficiency gains of the last decade. Those pay rises may be some way off. Will Brexit help level up the economy, as the Government has claimed? Not according to this report, which finds leaving the EU will hit the North-East of England hardest.
The report chimes with other findings. There has been a collapse in business investment since Brexit and it has not recovered — the UK lags far behind other industrialised countries, despite generous tax breaks by Rishi Sunak to try and push it up. Since the pandemic other G7 nations have bounced back in terms of trade. Britain has lagged.
Will the reality ever hit home? On Brexit, politicians divide into two types. There are the brazen, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who still stick to the lie that Brexit will benefit the UK. Then there are the foot-shufflers and eye-contact avoiders, a category which encompasses most of the Government and the Opposition.
(When the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, was asked last week to list the benefits of Brexit he avoided the economy altogether and suggested that it helped Britain respond rapidly to the situation in Ukraine.)
But we need someone to tell the truth about Brexit. As the Brexiteer Iain Martin wrote recently in the Times, frankly addressing the problems it has caused is the only way to start to fix them. To that I would add another reason: making politics more truthful.
It is comforting to tell ourselves that Johnson is the source of the lies and the cure is to get rid of him. But as any fisherman will tell you, fish rot not from the head but from the guts. At the centre of British politics is a lie. Telling the truth about Brexit is the only way to make politics honest again.