It looks like a case of ‘déja vu all over again’, as they say.
Just over a year ago we were asking ourselves whether there would be an agreement with the EU or not. Then, the Prime Minister surprised everyone with a last-minute deal – at the expense of Northern Ireland – that the Conservatives presented to the electorate and successfully campaigned to the tune of ‘Get Brexit Done’.
So, why are we asking ourselves the same question once again?
The answer lies not in the price of fish, or the obvious distraction of the pandemic, but in the ideologies driving the Government.
The reason we are asking ourselves whether there will be no deal with the EU is because that is the current Government’s preferred option – and that of the Brexiteer hardliners on the backbenches. They have not tried to hide this.
Throughout the debates around the UK’s membership of the EU, there has been an assumption from the pro-remain side that common sense would prevail. ‘Common sense’ in this case being that the economic argument for staying in, or remaining closely aligned to the EU as the UK’s largest market, would come up trumps. But it never did.
That is because, for the ‘hard Brexiteers’ (the real winners of the 2019 election, who are now in government), Brexit was first and foremost about sovereignty, whatever the economic costs. Only when fully out of the European Union, without any constraining alignments with EU standards that come with market access, could the UK aspire to an ‘Australian-style’ relationship with Europe. This is, essentially, code for a ‘no deal’, although Australia is currently negotiating a free trade deal with the EU.
The reference to Australia is telling. For the hard Brexiteers there was always an alternative to the EU in the guise of other English-speaking countries. Free trade deals with the USA, Australia, and New Zealand would help smooth the economic shock of dropping out of the EU.
This trade strategy (if we can call it that) was allied with a domestic political agenda. Brexit was not just about leaving the EU but about shaking up Britain itself. First it was necessary to reclaim Northern Ireland, having effectively abandoned it in the 2019 deal. This helps explain the Government’s willingness to renege on the terms of agreement with the EU, as it admitted back in September.
Also on the political agenda is the recent hostility towards Parliament and the civil service led by the recently ousted Dominic Cummings. Cummings, as senior advisor to the Prime Minister, embodied the reckless approach to policy and politics that appeared to have paid dividends when seeking to get Britain out of the EU. However, the limits of that approach were reached when the pandemic struck.
Lastly, the bracing air of sovereignty was supposed to give Britain new purpose. However, instead it seems to have galvanised calls for Scottish independence, divided England and propelled Northern Ireland towards eventual unity with the Republic, however much the UK government now wants it back.
Brace yourselves for a no deal – because this has been the game plan all along.