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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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A hammer blow to our country

Published by The i paper (19th August, 2019)

As someone whose father has severe dementia and daughter has profound disabilities, I am well aware of the depth of the social care crisis confronting this country with starved services, diminishing facilities and dwindling staff. There has been endless talk and much hand-wringing, but no real action to solve a scandal causing immense distress to many families. We have seen 17 white papers, green papers and reviews of funding over the past two decades, while Theresa May’s government delayed a promised green paper six times during its disastrous tenure.

So I was sceptical when Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street  and promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all.’ He had, after all, taken minimal interest in this unglamorous issue during his rollercoaster career in politics and journalism. He was also one of the key apostles of Brexit, which has intensified the staffing crisis as my own family has seen. Now we learn that far from fixing the crisis, he is happily cruising towards no-deal departure that would tip this already ‘fragile’ sector over the edge by driving up costs and closing down care homes.

This is not my conclusion. It comes from Yellowhammer, the government’s secret internal planning documents setting out the anticipated impact of no-deal – a scenario that looks increasingly likely under the leadership of Johnson and his fanatical puppet-master Dominic Cummings. The papers, leaked to The Sunday Times, set out the frightening future facing this country in just ten weeks time with shortages of fuel, food and medicine, logistical chaos for firms, surging bills for consumers, rising civil disorder, businesses shifting jobs abroad, farmers hit hardest and the return of a hard border in Ireland.

The document must be treated cautiously, of course. It may over-estimate damage – or turn out too optimistic. As always with such a leak, there are questions over why the papers were handed to journalists and who benefits, with all sorts of machiavellian interpretations flying around. Inevitably, ministers desperately sought to downplay their own documents. Yet as we enter probably the most contentious period of my life at Westminster, one that threatens major constitutional crisis and exacerbation of alarming societal divisions, this leak underlines the hideous realities of sudden rupture with our most important allies and trading partners.

Theresa Villiers, whose seat in cabinet underlines the talent void in politics, claimed there was ‘no reason why the UK’s only land border should be any less open after Brexit than it is today’ while the ludicrous Owen Paterson said the Irish border issue was ‘blown up out of all proportion.’ Former chancellor Philip Hammond is routinely mocked by ultras who have seized control of the Tory party. But he was right to point out no-one voted for no deal since we were assured we would leave with agreement.

The detail underlines two points about Brexit. First, the disgusting duplicity of those that led us into this debacle. Voters were assured by its architects that leaving the European Union would be easy, that we held all the cards, that a deal would be simple. Tory MEP Daniel Hannan insisted ‘nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market’ – yet now we confront the disaster of no deal. Even in his leadership campaign last month, Johnson told the public that prospects of no-deal were ‘a million to one’ – while claiming negativity about crashing out was ‘wildly overdone.’ No wonder so many people, especially younger generations seeing their future set on fire, have such little faith in politicians after seeing these charlatans play incendiary games.

Brexit has always been about Tory party internal politics. This was the reason for the foolish referendum, it is the reason Johnson demands departure on Halloween night and it is the reason Jeremy Corbyn’s appeasement is such a betrayal of his party. Those that backed this concept will continue to blame others for failure rather than admit to their own mistakes, but Yellowhammer underlines the damage it can cause to this country. Indeed, it is hard to think of another act of similar national self-immolation in recent British history – made all the crazier by the timing, as the world looks increasingly likely to topple into economic downturn amid growing turbulence.

If Brexiteers had been more honest, arguing we face perhaps a decade of pain to reset our global stance, I would have more respect for them. Instead they chose to lie, lie and lie again – and were rewarded by their self-obsessed party with Downing Street.

My objection to Brexit was not based on love of Brussels, despite sharing Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the single market and admiring free movement. It was a conclusion based on the fact that our nation had spent decades positioning itself as the open gateway to Europe, exploiting trade and linguistic advantages but avoiding fiscal and regulatory excesses. The complexity of unpicking this tangle of ties was glaringly obvious.

So the second point exposed now with sharp clarity is how forcing through Brexit without a deal is a deeply unpatriotic act. And those flip-flopping ministers such as Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock, those MPs staying silent to keep their seats, those business leaders failing to speak out and those journalists ignoring truth, are among the most culpable.

Brexit is defended on grounds of democracy, but as I have seen reporting from autocratic states, this noble system of government is about far more than the simple act of voting. It is about accountability, fairness, freedom, rights and trust. Democracy is not the tyranny of a one-off majority. It is the ability to challenge our rulers, question our decisions and, above all, to change our minds – especially when confronted with fresh facts in changing times.

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