Jhe definition of a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. So decided veteran Washington journalist Michael Kinsley, who would surely welcome the classic example of the form served up on Thursday by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the satirically titled minister for Brexit opportunities.
During a visit to the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone, high-vis vest over his double-breasted suit, Rees-Mogg announced that the government was yet again delaying the imposition of post-Brexit border controls on imports from the EU. He asked the public to celebrate the move, on the grounds that it would save £1billion a year and help beleaguered consumers by avoiding an increase in the cost of imported food. Implementation of post-Brexit controls, says the minister“would have been an act of self-harm”.
You read correctly. Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-outgoing and longtime EU repellent, is now repeating lines from the Remainer campaign. He admits that fully implementing Brexit, honoring the 2016 promise to regain control of Britain’s borders, would be “an act of self-harm”.
There’s a lot to attack here, starting with the gall to hail this decision as ‘saving’ the Brits £1billion, when it was £1billion the Brits would never have had to spend at all if it hadn’t been for Brexit. Or you can share the the outrage of British farmers, dismayed that, thanks to Brexit, they have found themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage: they now face onerous and costly checks when shipping their goods across the Channel, while French, Italian or Spanish farmers do not no longer have to deal with these hassles to move their products the other way. Or you could worry with the British Veterinary Association warning that failure to check food imports exposes Britain to ‘catastrophic’ animal diseases such as African swine fever – a risk that was reduced when the Britain was part of the “integrated and highly responsive EU system”. monitoring systems”. Or you can join in the lamentations of the UK Major Ports Group, whose members have spent hundreds of millions of pounds building screening facilities, which now sit idle as ‘bespoke white elephants’.
But put all that aside for a moment and get the full meaning of Rees-Mogg’s admission. He and his fellow Brexiteers looked forward to these border controls, seeing them not just as a price to pay for leaving the EU, but as a real benefit. Britain would finally be free to set its own food standards, higher than those of the EU. And yet now the Minister admits that putting up barriers only makes food more expensive for British consumers and risks bankrupting British farmers: it is precisely the act of self-harm that has always been said. The irony of hearing Rees-Mogg declare that “free trade is extremely beneficial to consumers” after he and his comrades removed us from the largest and most successful free trade bloc in the world – the market single European – would be funny if it were not. it’s not that bitter.
Suddenly, the minister for Brexit opportunities has implicitly admitted there are none – or at the very least all opportunities are outweighed by costs so high they represent economic self-harm. In the long history of Britain’s unnecessary and needless departure from the EU, Rees-Mogg’s admission should count as a milestone.
Which isn’t to say the Tories won’t keep beating the Brexit drum, hoping it will rally the electoral coalition they convened in 2019. But the sound, always hollow, will now be even hollower: thanks to Rees-Mogg, Brexiters themselves have admitted it.
This not only counts as a twist in the Brexit saga, but also for the life expectancy of this government. Because Brexit was the founding goal of this government. While the best that even the most vocal defenders of this project can promise is a delay in its realization, it is clear: the engine is gone. And without such a goal, a destination to aim for, the ruling parties drift and become vulnerable.
If the two usual determinants of the popularity of an incumbent administration are the economy and the personal position of the leader, these now combine dangerously for the conservatives. The cost of living crisis is both deep and widespread, reaching families who previously coped, albeit struggling. It is the mother who lives off a can of soup for herself so that her children can eat; it is the parent who forces the children to change into pajamas when they come home from school, to avoid wearing out their uniforms.
But this crisis is running parallel to Partygate, with each revelation of leniency in Downing Street insulting not only those who followed the rules and denied themselves contact with loved ones during lockdown, but all those who did not have the money to put bread on the table, let alone pay for a suitcase full of booze. It’s a Marie-Antoinette government, pampering itself while too many people go hungry.
The usual alibis no longer work. The much-heralded rollout of vaccines is increasingly being offset in the public mind by both Partygate and the handling of the first phase of the pandemic: evidenced by this week’s High Court ruling to dismiss people from hospitals into care homes was “irrational” and illegal. A new survey shows a sharp drop in the number of voters ready to forgive these first decisions just because they are happy to have received the blow.
Law and order no longer offer their traditional comforts to Tories either, not when new figures show overall crime has risen 18% in the past two years, with the proportion of those charged falling to just 5 .8%. On nearly every issue, from inflation to immigration, from taxation to housing and the NHS, large majorities think the government is mishandling things. It is only on defense and terrorism that the Conservatives get positive marks. No wonder they like to hail Boris Johnson as Ukraine’s leader, although that has limited political value: surely most voters feel that today’s Labor Party would do nothing different.
Under normal circumstances, you’d say that’s fatal for Johnson. He is behind Labor and Keir Starmer on the big two: the economy and leadership. People are much worse off than they were and they have lost all faith in him. His government is stripped of its defining purpose, leaving it exposed to daily gusts and scandals.
And yet, while the evidence is strong that voters are breaking away from this government, they are not yet fully convinced by the alternative. The old line says that governments lose elections, rather than oppositions that win them. But changing governments is a two-step process: first, the electorate moves away from the ruling party; then he walks towards the challenger. Labor and Starmer have work to do on this second leg. But the first phase is well underway – and Rees-Mogg’s accidental truth revealed a reason.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
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