Monday, 20 April 2020

Seizing the 'opportunity'

Responding to suggestions that Brexit should be delayed in the light of the pandemic, the response from the PM’s office has been blunt and forthright: “We will not ask to extend the transition period and if the EU asks we will say ‘no’”. Given that the government is being forced to give all its attention to the pandemic, and that the same is true of all the EU member states, expecting meaningful negotiations to take place at present is just plain daft. It’s no surprise that the IMF is urging a delay, on the basis that adding further uncertainty at present is an unnecessary additional pain. And the UK’s justification for proceeding regardless (“…we need legislative and economic flexibility to manage the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic”) is patent nonsense; there is nothing that the UK government has done or is seeking to do which EU rules would prevent. In fact, it’s worse than that – the UK Government has failed to take advantage of EU actions and policies which could have helped.
Pushing ahead regardless is not, however, as illogical as it appears to many; from a Brexiteer’s viewpoint it makes perfect sense to see the pandemic as an opportunity, not a problem. That leads me to suspect that they’re unlikely to back down, although many are assuming that they eventually will. The logic is that it will be difficult – probably impossible – to disentangle the impact of Brexit on the economy from the impact of the pandemic. The pandemic thus provides a convenient scapegoat for the damage which Brexit will wreak. From that perspective, Covid-19 isn’t a problem complicating Brexit (which is the way the IMF and most other observers see it), it’s an opportunity to deliver the hardest of Brexits and attribute the problems to something else entirely. Not only does arguing that Brexit adds more uncertainty and damage not counter that logic, it strengthens it. The more damage that Brexit is likely to cause, the more advantage there is in doing it as quickly as possible before it becomes possible to disentangle the two factors.
The problem we face isn’t in the government’s logic at all; it’s in the underlying premise from which they start. If the ‘freedom’ which Brexit confers is inherently a good thing despite its probable economic impact (which many Brexiteers believe, although I’m still not entirely sure about Johnson himself who obviously saw it primarily as his pathway to power), then arguing about the impact isn’t going to change their minds, particularly if they have a golden opportunity to hide that impact behind something else. Any change of course depends not on economic logic but on political logic: Johnson, given his original motive for supporting Brexit, would need to be convinced that pushing ahead is a route to losing power. When it becomes obvious that the current situation isn’t a short-term one, and the extent of the government’s incompetence becomes irrefutable, such a shift in political opinions may well occur; but it doesn’t look imminent to me at present.

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