Did Boris Johnson really understand the consequences of leaving the Customs Union when he promised to “deliver Brexit”

A blog post from Dominic Cummings suggests that Boris Johnson didn’t realise the implications of leaving the Customs Union until October 2020, and when he found out he “looked around the room with appalled disbelief and shook his head”

Here is part of that post:

It wasn’t until 25 September 2020*** that he finally understood even vaguely what leaving the Customs Union meant. I will never forget the look on his face when, after listening to Frost in a meeting** on the final stage of the negotiation, he said, ‘No no no Frosty, fuck this, what happens with a deal?’ And Frost looked up from his paper and said, ‘PM, this is what happens with a deal, that’s what leaving the Customs Union means.’ The PM’s face was priceless. He sat back in his chair and looked around the room with appalled disbelief and shook his head. Horrified officials’ phones pinged around the Cabinet table. One very senior official texted me, ‘Now I realise how you managed to get Brexit done 😂’. As Hunter S Thompson said, humour in politics is usually dark.

The full post is worth reading, but it is also deeply alarming.

In 2019 the Tories won a General Election with a promise to “Get Brexit Done”. At the time the words sent a shudder down the spine. Going into the referendum, the Leave campaign was vague and contradictory on what leaving would mean. That’s set people up for disappointment — there was never a clear vision of what it would be, and the “sun-lit uplands” were never more than the sum of a load of inconsistent hopes.

Soon after the referendum, Alistair Campbell did a blog post which he argued for a “referendum on a proper choice of options after real debate”. Others suggested a referendum after negotiating what leaving would mean with the choice of “Remaining in the EU or leaving with this deal”. He was right. That would have been a great deal closer to respecting the result of the referendum than telling people what Leave meant after they had voted for it.

The parliamentary log jam that followed the referendum was an inevitable consequence of not being clear on that “Leave” meant, as slogans like “Brexit means Brexit” met MPs saying “How do we do this without wrecking the country?”

Where Theresa May might genuinely have been trying to do that, he successor was plainly out of his depth. Requiring Conservative candidates in 2019 to agree to support his deal (without saying what it was) was a remarkable evisceration of democracy. We elect MPs to represent their constituents. Churchill was spot on in his comment that the first duty of an MP is to the well-being of the country, then to their constituents, and then their party. 2019 Conservative candidates were being asked to put party loyalty (or loyalty to one strand of their party) above all else. The likes of Rory Stewart and Dominic Grieve were put outside their party. The shambles of the last five years of Conservative government seems an inevitable consequence of this.

That same blog post from Dominic Cummings has a damning comment that “we had to keep the PM out of the negotiations as much as possible. He didn’t understand them”. Johnson won his early reputation by writing pieces as the Brussels correspondent of The Daily Telegraph by being more entertaining than accurate. That’s not a good trait in a Prime Minister. It’s just possible that he was able campaign to “Get Brexit Done” and sleep at night by not understanding the damage he was doing. That’s a damning indictment.

Writing this in the 2024 General Election campaign what strikes me is that the country is saddled with Johnson’s failure of understanding.

We have people who are getting angry and disappointed that the “sun-lit uplands” have not materialised.

There isn’t an easy way back — re-joining can’t happen until there is broad cross-party consensus. In the mean time we’re living with the consequences of Tory opportunism. The thought that the Prime Minister who negotiated Brexit didn’t really understand it should send a shudder down the spine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *