Post-Brexit policy does not need to be like this – no, it really does not – but there are no other post-Brexit policies in town

13th March 2021

The best blogger about Brexit is Chris Grey and his weekly blog is a valuable resource in understanding Brexit as it has gone along.

In particular, the blog correctly emphasises that at each step there were choices made and not made – that things could have gone differently – and how (usually) the bad decisions ended up being made.

As the tricks of mind of hindsight and evasion begin to have their effects on the collective memory, Grey’s blog will be a crucial reminder of how things were at the time.

His post this week, however, is a detailed – and brutal and delightful – critique of a recent column by the new Brexit cabinet minister David Frost – and it is not only a critique but also a warning.

The warning is that the current government is – out of the various options available – choosing one which is especially damaging for the United Kingdom.

But the option being chosen is – in the minds of the Brexiter ministers – validated by the experience (so far) of ‘getting Brexit done’.

Of course, for the reasons that Grey sets out, the Brexiter ministers have drawn the wrong lessons from this formative experience.

Part of this is down to personalities – in particular the personalities of Frost and prime minister Boris Johnson.

And politics often does come down just to personalities. 



There is a risk that a preoccupation on personalities means that the lack of alternative policies being promoted is overlooked.

For although the Frost-Johnson approach is, as Grey avers, ‘a sorry mixture of blather, nonsense, disingenuity and dishonesty’ – it also has another quality.

It is the only post-Brexit policy in town.

The Labour opposition has no post-Brexit policy – and is (no doubt for strategic and tactical reasons) opting not to put forward an alternative policy.

Those who are former remainers and are seeking the United Kingdom to (re)join the European Union do not have a post-Brexit policy as such – unless simply not wanting to be outside the European Union can be a policy.

And the moderate and practical Conservatives who might have advocated a more constructive post-Brexit policy were largely purged from the house of commons at the last general election.

So there is a vacuum where an alternative, constructive post-Brexit policy should be.

In contrast to this void, Frost-Johnson not only have a policy but also maintain that the policy is validated by the experience so far of Brexit – and so it has a certain superficial plausibility.

And until and unless there is another post-Brexit policy in town – which accepts the brute political fact of Brexit but seeks to go in another direction – then the Frost-Johnson approach will face no challenge other than from reality.

Such an alternative, constructive policy is perfectly possible – as Grey’s blog and other commentary shows, there are choices available.

But unless the politics of this post-Brexit period change radically, the Frost-Johnson approach has the political town to itself – and it is very good at misdirection and evasion when things go wrong.

Although commentators can point this out in real-time that will make no difference unless opposition politicians also act in real-time to put forward other post-Brexit policies.

And – yes, the Frost-Johnson post-Brexit approach can and should be blamed for many things, but it cannot be blamed for a lack of policy and political alternatives.


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34 thoughts on “Post-Brexit policy does not need to be like this – no, it really does not – but there are no other post-Brexit policies in town”

  1. I enjoyed this as always, but it’s really difficult to see what such an alternative policy would be.

    Obviously rejoining the SM and CU would remove most problems at a stroke, but that would involve the UK becoming a rule-taker, which is not a sustainable situation. Brexiters would see it as Remain by the back door, and they’d be right, since if you’re going to be in the SM and CU, you might as well be in the EU.

    The essential problem is that all kinds of Brexit are a downgrade on what we had before, so I fear we’re just going to have to take the punishment until it becomes politically acceptable to talk about the process of rejoining.

    1. Yes. Because it is inevitable that because of the numbers (they are 27 and we are one), the geography (we are close neighbours) and the reality of the evolving global economic forces (China, India, USA, new tech and automation etc etc) the UK is going to end up just adhering to the vast majority of the SM / CU regulations anyway just so we can trade.

      The UK is going to need to attach itself to one of the world’s free trade area superpowers.

      And it makes sense to do so with the one closest to us, with whom we have most in common with and already trade most with.

    2. that would involve the UK becoming a rule-taker

      But that’s precisely what we are right now; and – pointedly – in the current arrangement, takers of rules which may well be (and so far, have been) damaging to the UK.

      Following SM and CU rules would at least have the merit of being advantageous to us.

    3. Getting into the Customs Union does involve the UK being a rule taker, but it is a big step up from where we are now. It isn’t yet time to take that step, as people haven’t yet realised just what an appalling situation we have got ourselves into.

      I think once we have got enough people to realise that we are suffering, and what its cause is, then is the time to take what needs to be presented as a small step, to join the CU.

      Yes, some sovereignty-fetishists would object, although they never seem to object to other collectives of nations, like NATO or WTO. But the step would be a) clearly driven by economics, b) too small to require a referendum and c) popular, as it will involve prices coming down.

      I would love us to rejoin the EU, but it isn’t going to happen for a long time, not least because why would the EU want us?

      1. The holding and winning of a UK referendum to rejoin would be sufficient contrition* for the EU, I think. A very large fatted calf would be brought forth.

        *terms and conditions apply

        1. IHMO (as a Yank, watching appalled from across the Pond), the EU might not want the UK back in for a generation or two.

          The UK has blown its reputation of stability and rationality with Brexit. It’s clear that a powerfully leveraged faction is willing to trash everything, including the UK itself, for insane whims.

          The UK is not a party one invites into one’s house.

          1. Generally I agree with your analysis.

            However, I think you underestimate the widespread change of heart that would be required in the UK to satisfy my condition of its holding and winning a referendum to rejoin. That is what might take a generation or two, not the EU accepting the UK back after such a change of heart.

          2. As a remainer, I have to say that in my view the EU is actually better off without the UK, given the current state of its politics. Brexit-supporting MEPs would take very opportunity to sow dissent within the EU (as indeed Brexiters are now trying to do from outside it), and one hopes that the Commission will be less in thrall to ‘deregulation’ and ‘liberalisation’ and more committed to a ‘social Europe’ now that we’re gone.

      2. although they never seem to object to other collectives of nations, like NATO or WTO

        Implicit in this observation is what I think is the crux of the matter: The dominant Leaver factions never had a Post-Brexit policy in the usual sense of policy, they just had a visceral hatred of the EU and of continental Europe in general (esp. Germany and France).

        Any attempt to establish an alternative Post-Brexit policy will have to grapple with and ideally neutralise that hatred, or it will constantly derail any attempts at a more rational relationship. How can Europe relate to the UK if any agreement, no matter how small and mutually beneficial, could be shot to pieces by the next general election result?

  2. This is yet another example where the critical question is whether enough people care for it to matter. The judgement, even from those who do have principles and even policies for our post-Brexit reality, is that these dare not speak their name for fear of toxic association.

    On the one hand if Brexit, and particularly this Brexit, is a devastating act of national self harm built on dangerous political currents, making proposals about how to mitigate its impact and improve the outcomes risks sharing responsibility, or at least offering tacit support, for a catastrophe. Johnson and his regime are determined to ensnare the opposition in what they are doing: his jibes at Starmer in PMQs about daring to oppose government policy show this repeatedly.

    On the other hand, principled opposition to Johnson and Frost and alternative proposals for a post-Brexit future, especially if that involves any form of co-operation with the EU, let alone any hint of freedom of movement, risks bringing down the full-throated venom of the Faragists and they are dominant in the Conservative Party and in almost all the electoral battles that will determine the next government.

    I suspect a lot of politicians across the spectrum, and even in the Conservative Party, would love to see a more rational and pragmatic approach to the relationship with the EU but dare not say so, let alone propose it. Yes, there are always choices to be made, but these also have to reflect previous choices and there are very few realistic options around until a great majority of people want and care about something different to the current approach.

    1. One might hope that real consequences such as food shortages and unemployment would make people care, and look for something different. Unfortunately all these consequences of Brexit will turn out to be the fault of the EU: just as the world financial crisis of 2008 was the fault of the then Labour government

      1. IMHO, this makes the likelihood of a turn towards outright fascism in the UK very likely.

        Somebody needs to be held responsible for the pain, and the people who deliberately inflicted that pain are in charge.

  3. At a general election 37% of the electorate can decide which party forms the government and gets to enact its policies.
    5 years later a different 37% may get to have a go. A policy of Rejoin (if they will have us) could be legitimately enacted.
    The current governments mistakes are not permanent. The UK continues to be a rule taker if we wish to sell a tin of beans in the EU or anywhere else. We just have less influence in the making of those rules.

  4. As part of the development of an alternative policy, some honest reflection and stocktake of where we are as a country might be valuable. The change in our relationship with Europe due to Brexit should lead to a reassessment of who we are in the world – an honest one though, not halcyon-days-of-yore fantasies about buccaneering and China seas.

    Our strengths in services might suggest those as an early area about which to work towards agreement with the EU. Our exceptional scientific and inventive capabilities suggest we might look at how those could help the country in the long term rather than successes always being sold to overseas companies. Our global experience might suggest more constructive ways to engage with the EU as we do with other countries and blocs.

    Lots of possibilities. Just a bit of honesty required.

    1. Unfortunately, “halcyon-days-of-yore fantasies” are currently being reheated in renewed talk of the “Indo-Pacific tilt”. This, presumably, will involve doing trade deals with countries in the area, but as they’re not the hated EU, there will be no complaining of “loss of sovereignty”. I sometimes think that what the Brexiters would like most of all would be to cut England adrift from the the rest of these islands (maybe losing the poorer northern parts as well) and moor it in the Pacific – preferably close to Australia, as a member of the much-vaunted “Anglosphere”. Obviously this is an absurd fantasy on my part – but it’s no more absurd that Brexiter fantasies about destroying the EU.

  5. A reasonable policy for the large and growing number of Brexit sceptics is to press for a different configuration of trade-offs – with greater weight to those that reduce border reduce border friction, improve labour and personal mobility and further trade, especially trade in services. The government’s policy remains cake-based and in denial of trade-offs – with bellicose posturing in the place of where reality-based hard choices should be made. It is not the case that the government is choosing sovereignty over the economy. It is trying to deny that it has made this choice, and cannot even explain what it means by sovereignty in an interconnected world or how the UK might benefit from it.

    The opportunity therefore exists for an opposition to present a particular pattern of workable trade-offs to the public, and call out Johnson and Frost for their failure to own the painful consequences the choices they have made (and are now denying) in the WA and TCA. “We’d give higher priority to jobs and small businesses, and to better and mutually advantageous relations with our European neighbours” doesn’t seem like a bad pitch.

  6. Thanks, Mr Green. Can see why Frost-Johnson is a bit more catchy than Johnson-Frost, but really this is wholly Johnson’s responsibility. Epic Narcissist (with a capital N for sure) that he is, he will do anything he can to shift the blame for this and all the other messed to anyone else, but it must not be allowed. The Johnson dungheap, catastrophe, trail of disaster, can think of plenty cruder epithets but not sure your editorial self would let them through but Johnson himself must be front, forward and central. He is attempting to build a personality cult, but that cult must become the Ratner of Politics.
    On the substantive point, yes of course it is well past time for the Opposition to oppose, and to oppose creatively. Letting it become one miserable, all-enveloping mess isn’t good enough. So Sir Keir, find a policy like keeping the promise to NHS staff on pay rises within the EU to build a reputation of doing the right thing. Step by step.

  7. It was very helpful to draw attention to the excellent Brexit Blog – and one could also cite the Prospect profile published before Frost was ennobled, which is highly revealing (and worrying). I cannot see the government taking any other direction than the calamitous and deeply damaging one that it is now doing. For the Brexiters, Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of stoking up resentments and grievances that can all be blamed on the wicked “Brussels” and that distract attention from what is actually happening in terms of trade – not to mention terrible damage to our international reputation. For all its talk of “global Britain”, the government seems to be in thrall to an autarkic obsession, and one seriously wonders what they’re going to want to disengage from next – the European Convention on Human Rights? UNESCO (again)? All in the name of “sovereignty”, of course.

  8. It is no surprise that it is the only government policy. The Tories purged all moderates before the last election. There are now only Brexit fanatics and fanaticism knows only dogma. Reality means nothing to them except to be denied. Everything and everyone will be sacrificed on the altar of this chimera of sovereignty.

  9. Thanks for an insightful blog and post. Forgive a comment from afar in Canada. I think that the Overton window on Brexit has now closed. There can be no thought of an anti-Brexit policy until the constitutional issues of the four nations exposed by Brexit have been resolved. I don’t think the U.K. as presently constituted could even think about a return to the E.U. before the four nations have resolved their constitutional problems. Brexit will have to be endured until it is resolved Who would consider returning or not to the E.U. This decade will be consumed with the questions or devolution and/or independence, with the post-Brexit economic malaise as its constant background. Sadly, one should expect a fraught topic such as the division of power, pre-filled as it is with acrimony, to be further inflamed by the effects on ordinary people of the coming decade of economic malaise. Disclaimer: I know I’m wrong 50% of the time; I just never know with which half I’m involved at any given moment. I am open to correction. Thanks again.

  10. DOES ANYONE KNOW whether the Treasury’s economic modelling system takes into full account the formerly UK based businesses relocating to the EU (and to other countries with better deals than we have with the EU)?

    Also, is the economic model forward-looking (ie able to say this damage is calculated as X in the next 12 months and subsequently rising exponentially to Y in 5 years from now)?

    Does the Treasury economic model take into account the changing configuration of trade routes between the EU, the UK and Ireland? Currently shipping is moving away from routes that take goods on to Ireland or the EU via the UK, putting UK ports at risk of decay and insolvency.

    I don’t know how the Treasury model is constructed … and I wonder whether it’s up to the job of forecasting developments on Brexit.

    I’m a lot more worried about the prospects for a speedy (and probably permanent) collapse in UK business over many sectors than many of the pundits seem to be. I don’t see Brexit as causing “just” a slow puncture to the British economy, I genuinely fear a “domino style” collapse like that of the 2008 banking fiasco.

  11. Thank you DAG. A very good post and the blog by Chris Grey too.
    All I can say from my end of the whole sorry nonsense as I wander around my little Italian town is I am still being laughed at. After four years/five years from my greengrocer to my physiotherapist and from my doctor to the guy who mends my car. All in a very sympathetic Italian way of course because they’ve had their fair share of idiots running their country.

    1. I’m afraid we’re being laughed at the length and breadth of Italy. As much as Italians enjoy deriding their own politicians, and I think they’re much more politically informed than the British, they express mostly amused bewilderment at the UK government’s behaviour. One thing in particular which stands out, in my experience, is their undisguised loathing of Johnson.

  12. I greive for all we have lost in leaving the EU but realistically don’t believe we could possibly rejoin for many years.

    However the opposition owe it to all those losing their business and income to highlight that this is a consequence of the brexit choices of the ultras. That the fault does not lie with the individuals involved or the evil EU and mitigations are available.

    Polls indicated a majority think brexit a bad policy. Be bold. Challenge the brexiters lies.

    As someone commented the Tories successfully created the narrative that labour were responsible for the worldwide financial crash. Opposition silence would enable the myth that our economic losses are not solely at the door of the Tories choice if brexit.

  13. It seems -to me- quite evident that the problem of
    the UK (also the problem of many other democracies,
    but with so far lesser impact) comes from the
    opinion-shaping sources on display today.
    There’s no lack of spin-doctors to spin half-truths into
    seemingly solid realities.
    As long as these sources are not questioned by a
    sizable majority of citizens, change is unlikely.

  14. 1. It doesn’t seem possible to obtain a long-term UK government that is not Conservative under the existing FPTP electoral system and the existing media controllers. And neither of those are likely to change whilst the Cons are able to win the majority of the UK’s elections (see which is of course a self-reinforcing system. That is why the media owners continually reinforce it. And they have no interest in enabling ‘moderate’ Cons, only in reinforcing ‘their’ extremist puppets.
    2. It would take a long-term effort to push through a Rejoin strategy within and for the UK. Given 1 that would be strangled at birth, but even if (say) a Lab-Lib-SNP coalition were to hold sway for one term it would really struggle to switch over to a different stable pattern, sufficient to put the case within the UK. Either for Rejoin, or for that matter for electoral change to PR.
    3. And it is mostly unlikely that the EU would welcome back an unchanged UK where the stable norm would be likely to revert to Conservative control, in turn controlled by a very undesirable media.
    4. Therefore the fastest and surest route for the people of the UK to Rejoin the EU (or EEA/EFTA/etc) is to do so as something other than the UK. And the fastest and surest way to do this is to break up the UK. This might have lots of other consequences (e.g. loss of P5, loss of strategic nuclear deterrent, loss of global military capability, considerable problems within NATO, real issues for GBP and City, positions of the various Crown territories, etc). Whether Scotland would break free faster than Irish reunification could take place I am unsure, but both would inevitably by different paths rapidly Rejoin the EU. Whether Wales could break free of England is less clear, but one should no longer assume that the question would not be repeatedly posed. And once shorn of pretensions to past grandeur it would be easier for England to then Rejoin as a rather more chastened conversation would be taking place. The fragments rejoining would make for a more stable EU construct than for the UK as a whole to rejoin.
    5. The slower and less desirable pathway is for the UK to economically implode and to fight out a bitter internal cultural civil war. That culture-narrative combined with Con political strategy and global economic reality makes this quite a likely pathway, but less attractive and a longer term effort. Irrespective of whether on pathway 4 or 5 the pre-requisite is to not accept any new Con lies, and to not allow past ones to be forgotten.
    6. The worst possible pathway is that Brexit UK manages to bring about the collapse of the EU, which is of course clearly the unchanged aim of many of the Brexit protagonists. Down that pathway it is unrealistic to expect that NATO and the western alliance would hold together.
    7. So Rejoiners have no choice except to settle in for a long game with some pretty unpleasant tactics in pursuit of the Rejoin aim. One should not assume that it is only Brexiters who can bring down the walls of the temple, salt the fields, and poison the wells. At a cultural level Rejoiners will only succeed if they push towards a more rather than less polarising debate – saying “that’s all right then” is the middle road for appeasers, and look where that gets when confronted with the extremists of Brexit (see the dead zone in the middle ground in NI if unsure – where are the SDLP now ?). Economically most of the anti-Brexit heavy lifting will be done by the realities of macro-economics. But incessant lawfare will be required to hobble & harass the Cons at every opportunity. And attempts to build a viable non-Con-controlled media platform/ecology will be vital. In all this one should expect that Lab UK-level strategy will be to let others do the heavy lifting.

    Clearly this is rather depressing, but one has to be realistic about the probability of success, and the consequences of the different pathways.

    1. That is unflinching and strategic, bravo. It is “plain as a pikestaff” (©DAG) that revolution and renewal are badly needed and your route 4 above is certainly a convenient and relatively gentle way to achieve them. Indeed, if anything you are underselling the opportunities thereby provided, for example to bring about written constitutions and get rid of FPTP. One could also add that were Ireland to be joined in the EU by the ex-UK nations as members in their own right, the mediating influence of the EU could lead to a British and Irish Benelux where even Ireland might participate fully as a “home nation” again.

      Of course, route 4 would require the EU to hold firm, wait patiently and not be drawn into antagonism no matter what Brexiters say about it. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is exactly what its policy appears to be.

  15. Thank you.

    Regrettably I see very few people setting out the strategic options in public. The media are mostly owned, and the remainder and all the politicians cowed. I see very little future-looking strategy that is also realistic about the magnitude of the task and the difficulties and necessities of treading it.

    It will be necessary for Rejoin to trade as a movement, not a party. Individual parties will get nobbled by the status quo. Labour & Cons have no interest in fighting for Rejoin, both wish to fight within the new Brexit status quo rather than to change that, and of course Cons will win 2/3 of those fights and control the narrative arc. So Rejoin as a movement must be from without that duopoly and seek to shift the Overton window drastically off of their axis. Clearly opportunistically taking advantage of anything that comes along, but not being bound by any awkward necessity to advance only one pure & consistent argument. Every attack dog should be run ! That was what Farage and UKIP did, and one should learn (and Trump et al have done elsewhere).

    There will need to be safe havens to regroup in, and for individuals to meet, greet, assist, learn, and train, as well as doing minor things like paying their mortgages and raising their kids and earning enough to eat. That requires stability and funding so that a sufficiency of careers can be made for long enough by enough people that one can keep going. Generally we call those places think tanks, and the important point is to start with funding. UKIP et al were canny enough to both suborn the UK establishment in obtaining that, but also to go outside the UK to obtain their funding and train/refine/learn their tactics. And people from outside the UK were prepared to put their money into the dog that would fight. This needs to be done so as to enable the Rejoin movement and put it on a solid enough long-term footing.

    Just as the EU now regret having stood aside during the Brexit referendum campaign itself, so I would argue that they need to learn from that. The EU needs to find ways to support and sustain a pro-EU and pro-European narrative within the UK. Unfortunately if one looks at most of the industrial/financial sectors they have no short-term rationale to provide the sustainment as they are in the short-term more motivated to carve up the turkey that has laid itself down on the table. This need for funding for such a movement was evident & absent rep-Brexit, and is even more so post-Brexit so as to support Rejoin.

    That to my mind is where the short-term crux point is: find enough money for a sustain & regroup Rejoin nexus.

    1. Suggest funding for such a fight MAY be available from the UK based businesses that CAN’T move abroad and sell mainly to UK customers (who can only buy if they’ve got the money to do so).

      Possible sources:-
      – independent, non-chain hotels, restaurants, “heritage” site owners, rare breeds groups
      – supermarkets, plant nurseries, farmers and owners of fishing processor plants
      – regional newspapers
      – associations of small businesses

  16. Beware anticipating. The public isn’t ready for your narrative yet. Perhaps there is a lesson in what happened to the Irish tricolour. Designed as a symbol of peace between green and orange, it came into being before such peace existed and has now become, in orange minds, a symbol of their enemy.

    Likewise, a movement to rejoin the EU needs to delay itself in order to catch the wave when it happens. In the meantime, one could start a “Reform” movement, but perhaps even that should await widespread public realisation that Brexit has been a disaster?

    1. How will they know if they are not told ? If the field is left untilled by Remainers then Brexiters will seed their own crop unchallenged. That is indeed what is happening now. Jobs go daily, but no-one says anything. Even the NI issues are scarcely mentioned.

      Waiting to say claim victory later is Labour’s strategy, but that will not get Rejoin.

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