Now a struggle starts for the soul of our nation

Published by The i paper (28th December, 2020)

So in the end, a bad deal was better for Boris Johnson than no deal. We can give thanks for the barest of minimums: this erratic prime minister decided not to drive his country over a cliff edge. But behind the frantic spin from his cheerleaders, we know this is a bad deal even before ploughing through hundreds of pages of dense text since any form of Brexit is more damaging to national interests than staying in the European Union. It makes life harder for businesses, students and tourists by shackling them with red tape while reducing prosperity, weakening global influence, undermining security and casting adrift key sectors of crucial importance.

The symbol of Johnson’s myopic stance was his focus on fishing that nearly sank the deal. This industry is important but contributes less than half a billion pounds to our economy. However the prime minister fought harder to protect its 8,000 coastal jobs than for the financial services sector, left largely to swim for itself despite being worth £132bn a year and providing more than one million British jobs. Clearly he sees it as more important to save a few boatloads of herring and mackerel than to protect behemoths such as banking and insurance when trawling for support in the murky waters of populism.

No one can deny this is a triumphant moment for Johnson and the zealots he chose to lead even if the discussions with Brussels will drag on for years. Five years ago he was seen as a joker and they were just a gang of frothing fanatics on the fringe of conservative politics. Since then their alliance has won a referendum, taken over their party, kicked out moderates, picked off two prime ministers, beaten soft Brexit and delivered a hardline deal few of them dreamed really possible. Like many others, I underestimated them. Meanwhile the Tories have shifted from coalition with Nick Clegg to severing ties with Europe on terms that please Nigel Farage.

So the English nationalists won and our nation lost. Political scientists will focus on this sect’s campaigning skill. Economists must try to untangle their impact in terms of lost growth and trade. Historians can bicker over how voters were seduced by a mythical vision of sovereignty, arguing over the importance of contributions made by our colonial heritage, the financial crash, David Cameron’s foolish appeasement of the hard right and Labour’s self-destructive shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. But all of us must accept the sad reality of the country’s new status this week.

The European ideal of borderless freedoms, peace and unity has ended for Britain. It is painful to hear the patronising hypocrisy of Brexiteers who talk suddenly of unity having spent years driving open divisions. But now there is a new battle: to shape our country as it strikes out into lonely new waters. The pandemic, which exposed the terrifying incompetence of our political masters, has made this more challenging. Yet while we hear Johnson preach his empty mantra of equality and ‘levelling up’, we saw his true colours exposed again in the days before Christmas.

Even for this putrid prime minister, it stank that Johnson gave the spread-betting tycoon Peter Cruddas a peerage. It is bad enough that he is a major Tory donor; we have become sadly inured in Britain’s soiled political system to seeing rich people buy themselves posh titles and lifetime berths in parliament. But this is a man who during his brief stint as Tory party treasurer was caught by undercover journalists peddling political influence and selling access to a previous prime minister. Johnson has rewarded him, despite these corrupt practices, with a seat in the House of Lords in defiance of concerns from the Lords Appointments Commission.

After Cruddas sued the newspaper for libel, judges in the court of appeal declared his behaviour to be dishonest when they partially backed his case. ‘The following is clear,’ said Lord Justice Jackson five years ago. ‘Mr Cruddas was effectively saying to the journalists that if they donated large sums to the Conservative Party, they would have an opportunity to influence Government policy and to gain unfair commercial advantage through confidential meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers. That was unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong.’

Johnson revived his brand of duplicitous journalism to offer ludicrous explanations for why he overruled the commission. This is the sort of story many Britons delude themselves takes place in the developing world. And it arises after shocking cronyism in the doling out of vast state contracts to supply protective gear in the pandemic, which even had the bloke who poured pints at the health secretary’s local pub cash in. Then there was the sleazy tale of the developer Richard Desmond who lobbied housing minister Robert Jenrick at a fundraising dinner, bunged the Tories a few quid and attempted to evade a £45m payment for community benefit after Jenrick reversed the decision of his officials.

The prime minister has long demonstrated his contempt for norms of both political and personal behaviour. Now he is at the helm of a British political system that appears to allow the sale of knighthoods and peerages to party donors. This sleazy peerage, like many of those contracts handed out amid the panic of pandemic or the decision to keep a bullying home secretary who breached ministerial code, shows how Johnson constantly pushes the boundaries of decency – just like his populist soulmates in some other places. This is the struggle we now face: to renew the soul and spirit of our nation under a shameless prime minister who poses as a man of the people while aiding the rich, protecting the powerful and diminishing our democracy. 

The Brexit battle is over but the fight goes on

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