Little Nell was a tragic character in Charles Dickens’s sentimental novel The Old Curiosity Shop – a work that once prompted Oscar Wilde to observe that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”. And so it is with the political death throes of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – compulsive liar, narcissist, and Brexiteer-in-chief. Over the last six years, he has done huge damage to the United Kingdom’s security, prosperity, and reputation; endangered the integrity of the union itself; driven a coach and horses through the country’s unwritten constitution; and corrupted Westminster politics. So – laugh away.
Johnson just delivered his resignation speech in Downing Street – in which the words “I resign” never featured. Rather, Johnson noted that the Tories would now proceed to elect a new leader who would become prime minister and that he would stay on in the meantime. That, of course, would follow precedent – as when, for example, Theresa May was defenestrated. But, in the case of Johnson, it is highly controversial. Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, had already tweeted that the idea of Johnson staying on in a caretaker capacity was “ludicrous. The man’s never taken care of anything in his life”. Keir Starmer, Labour leader, was equally adamant that Johnson must go now (presumably leaving the caretaking function to some stand-in, such as the relatively anodyne Dominic Raab). Otherwise, Starmer will attempt, via a motion of no confidence in the government, to bring about a snap general election. To succeed, this tactic would require the votes of at least some disaffected Tories – which is perhaps doubtful now that, with Johnson on his way out, all the emphasis will be upon restoring party unity.
That may be easier said than done. There is no clear front-runner in the leadership contest to come, the party is riven by factional disputes, and there are profound disagreements within it over how to respond to the country’s deepening economic crisis. So, even if the Tories can avoid a general election until they have installed a new prime minister, it may not be long before he or she is forced to hold a national vote anyway, to break some political impasse and seek a personal mandate.
All this makes Starmer’s big speech on EU policy, delivered on 4 July, especially timely. Starmer spelled out that a future Labour government would not attempt to reverse Brexit. There would be no question of trying to re-enter the single market or the customs union, and no return to freedom of movement. Instead, the focus would be on “making Brexit work” – improving the relationship with the EU as far as possible within the framework of the existing withdrawal agreement.
First and foremost, that will require a pragmatic solution to the artificially stoked confrontation over the Northern Ireland protocol. A key step will be an agreement with the European Union on plant and animal health standards (which, in reality, will need a UK commitment to abide by the relevant EU rules) – and then the expansion of the deal to cover trade not just across the Irish Sea but across the Channel as well. This would greatly ease the new bureaucratic burden that has had such a devastating effect on Britain’s overall trade with the EU since Brexit. The government would seek a raft of other practical fixes for the relationship, ranging from mutual recognition of professional qualifications to the restoration of scientific cooperation. Crucially, Starmer recognises that “strengthening security cooperation with friends and allies is vital” – whether the problem is Vladimir Putin or organised crime, Britain under a Labour government would work as closely with the EU as possible.
Starmer’s acknowledgement of the irreversibility of Brexit disappointed – even enraged – many Remainers. But it is shrewd. There is an enduring danger that, in a campaign for a snap general election, the Tories – aided as ever by the right-wing press – would try to rekindle the fires of Europhobia and brand Labour a party of closet Remainers.
Beyond electoral considerations, it is the right stance to take anyway. Britain has experienced six years of divisive and debilitating arguments over Brexit; the country cannot continue indefinitely relitigating past decisions – even supposing there was any appetite within the EU for a major renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. As Starmer observed, “nothing about revisiting those rows will help stimulate growth or bring down food prices or help British business thrive in the modern world. It would simply be a recipe for more division, it would distract us from taking on the challenges facing people, and it would ensure Britain remained stuck for another decade”.
Brexit was a terrible mistake. It damaged not just the UK’s economy, security, and reputation but, perhaps most dangerously, its political and social cohesion. It would be satisfying for Remainers such as this author if those who made the mistake would admit the error of their ways and agree to try to reverse it. But this is simply not going to happen, so Labour should try to move on.
The country has made its bed and must now lie in it. In the medium term, this may be a humbling but salutary experience for a nation that has had difficulty escaping the shadow of its glorious past and accepting its relatively diminished status in the modern world. More immediately, the main priorities are to shore up a collapsing economy and to do so in ways that redress the unsustainable inequalities of wealth and opportunity – and between regions and generations – that threaten to tear the nation’s social contract apart. If an early general election can produce a new government that recognises and takes on these challenges, the EU and friends further afield will find Britain a more constructive partner than it has been for many years.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.