The UK’s ideological struggle with #Brexit

Gavin Barwell with Theresa May in Belfast, July 2018. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Over the holiday break I read Gavin Barwell’s Chief of Staff, Notes from Downing Street. As a tale of intrigue, vengeance, backstabbing, delusions (multiple) and incompetence (widespread) it could hardly be bettered.

As you read through the book one thing becomes clear, beyond doubt. The Brexit fights in the cabinet and the wider Tory party that Barwell documents were fights for the ideological soul of the party.

For the most ardent Brexiters, leaving the EU was a means to an end. The end was the completion of what the regarded as the Thatcher revolution, a revolution to turn the UK into a low tax, lightly regulated, entrepreneurial driven economy. Shaking off the shackles of Brussels would allow this to happen. Britannia Unbound. Nigel Farage, one of the main drivers of Brexit, said as much a couple of days ago in an article in the Daily Telegraph, which called for a Thatcher-like leader to replace Boris Johnson.

Ranged against the ultra-Brexiters were the economic pragmatists, Tories who accepted the decision to leave the EU but wanted to do so in such a way as to minimise economic damage. But they were never certain how to do this. They were groping in the dark. Because no country had ever left a prosperous trade bloc before, recreating a border with that bloc which would put new barriers to trade in place, while trying to ensure that there would be no economic costs to so doing. Keep all the benefits, avoid all the obligations. Johnson was not the only one who believed that there was cake to be had for free. They all did.

It is almost an iron law of politics that where there is doubt and uncertainty extremists will be only too willing to claim that they, and they alone, have the answers. The pendulum of politics will swing in their direction. This is what happened with Brexit.

What if?

Barwell was offered the job as Theresa May’s chief of staff the day after she “lost” the 2017 general election. She had gone into that election with a 20-point lead over Labour and a 16-seat majority. She lost that lead, and her majority, over an ill-fated manifesto launch.

The manifesto included a proposal that old people would have to cash in their assets to pay for care. The proposal was immediately dubbed a “dementia tax” and was critical in wiping out her poll lead. She ended up depending on the votes of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party to stay in office.

It will forever be one of the great ifs of history how Brexit might have unfolded if May’s electoral gamble had of paid off and she came back in 2017 with an increased majority. I do not believe that it would have changed the fundamentals of Brexit, especially her decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.

That decision was first signalled at the 2016 Conservative party conference and copper fastened in Lancaster House speech of January 2017. But an increased majority might have given her the flexibility to craft a more intelligent Brexit than the one Boris Johnson finally delivered.


As the Brexit negotiations unfolded, May became more and more aware of the danger the “out of everything European” approach held for the unity of the United Kingdom. Her opponents, including Johnson, denied the existence of the problem. We are where we are because of this refusal to face reality.

Barwell makes clear that the Irish border question blindsided the entire Brexiteratti, not to mention practically every other Tory politician as well. Former prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair had warned about the issue beforehand. But their advice was disregarded as just more “project fear”.

From Barwell we learn that Boris Johnson, foreign secretary in May’s government until he resigned over the Chequers proposals, thought the Irish border issue a “gnat”, a tail that should not be wagging the Brexit dog, a plot cooked up by the EU to keep the UK in its Customs Union, a problem that could be solved by technology. David Davis, then the Brexit Secretary, said the same thing in a recent interview with the UK in a Changing Europe research group.

The Brexit “Irish problem” was this. Since the 1920s, when the island of Ireland was partitioned, there had always been a trade and security border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The security border was ramped up during the years of the “Troubles”. Irish and UK membership of the EU allowed for the dismantlement of the trade border, especially after the Single Market came into force in 1992.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an end to violence, allowed for the dismantlement of the security border. By the time of the Brexit vote in 2016, there was no physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, even if there was an invisible constitutional border.

Brexit was about rebuilding a border between the UK and the EU. Which would also have meant a new border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, unless a way was found for that not to happen.

A great part of the story of Brexit is about attempts to find a way to solve the “Irish border question”. They all failed until Johnson became prime minister and agreed to put an Irish Sea border between the UK and Northern Ireland as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, something May said no British prime minister could ever agree to. As Farage puts it:

Despite the denials, it was clear to me that Northern Ireland had been sacrificed to keep the rest of the UK out of the Customs Union.

As it stands, there is a great deal of support in Northern Ireland for the “sacrifice” which leave it in both the EU and UK markets. An ideal place to put a manufacturing facility.

Johnson takes over

May could not bridge the ideological divide in the Tory party over the Brexit deal. When she went, the party voted for Boris Johnson as her successor. He then became prime minster.

He appointed David Frost as his Brexit negotiator. Frost had previously been a mid-ranking Foreign Office official, before resigning and becoming CEO of the Scottish Whiskey Association. When Johnson became foreign secretary in May’s government, he recruited Frost as a political advisor.

Frost quickly developed a reputation as a belligerent and pugnacious negotiator. Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform commented about Frost in a Times article

“There has been a feeling in some quarters that he saw diplomacy as a zero sum game and that if the other side did badly you were doing well.”

It is reported that Frost was a believer in a technological solution to the Irish border problem and was holding out for this in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. But in late 2019 he was overruled by Johnson who decided that to “Get Brexit Done” and to ensure that the UK as a whole was not caught in the snare of the EU’s Customs Union, he would accept Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union for goods and that it would follow some Single Market regulations.

With a Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish Protocol, in his back pocket Johnson was able to call an election to “Get Brexit Done” on the basis of his “Oven Ready Deal”. He came back with an 80-seat majority. He was now the undeniable political power in the land.

The trade negotiations

With the Withdrawal Agreement done, the UK was now out of the EU, technically a third country, even if for the length of a transition period than ran until December 2020, it agreed to follow all EU rules and laws, but with no part in EU decision making. It was now able to negotiate a future agreement with the EU.

Which brings us back to the ideological struggle described in Barwell’s book. Now, whether Johnson was ever a true, Thatcherite Brexiter is open to doubt. But that was the side he picked, and it made him prime minister.

In making Frost his Brexit pointman he gave the job to a true Brexiteer, even if Frost’s conversion to the cause may have come somewhat late in the day. There is video evidence of him as CEO of the Scottish Whiskey Association telling a parliamentary committee in 2016 what an economic tragedy it would be if the UK left the Single Market.

By 2020, Frost had gone full-metal Brexit. He told an audience in Brussels that year that not only would Brexit Britain be a stellar economic success, but that when other EU countries say the extent of that success, they would follow the UK out. A Europe of independent, nation states would be restored. As if Germany, France, Spain and the other 27 were not independent, nation states.

In the trade negotiations in 2020, Frost prioritised the full reclamation of British sovereignty over every other consideration. Nothing should be allowed to constrain the political choices the UK would wish to make in the future. Any sort of regulatory alignment with the EU was unacceptable. The UK must be free to diverge from the EU rulebook as and when it wished.

On Christmas Eve 2020, after seven months of negotiations, the UK and the EU signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This was the new trade arrangement between the two that was to slot into place as the UK quit the transition period, the last leg of its journey out of the EU that had begun with the referendum vote in 2016. Brexit would finally be done at midnight on December 31, 2020, when the UK left the customs, market, political and institutional framework behind for good. Sovereignty regained, as Brexiteers loudly proclaimed, Frost chief among them.

Because of the priority given to sovereignty it was a minimalist deal. It offered the UK quota-free and tariff-free access to the European market for manufactured goods and agroindustry products, subject to rules of origin compliance. Goods would have to contain at least 50% UK content to qualify. Goods and food products would have to meet EU standards, as the Scottish shell fishing industry would soon discover. Quota-free and tariff-free did not mean frictionless trade.

The deal was a long way from the Vote Leave promise “that there would be no new trade barriers between the UK and the EU and no fall in UK-EU trade, with the “exact same benefits” delivered through a Free Trade Agreement as the UK had within the Single Market and Customs Union.”

The deal was thin gruel for the services sector. Basically, nothing. And, as Sir Elton John was soon complaining, the ending of freedom of movement and new visa requirements made it close to impossible for upcoming musicians to tour Europe.  (Read more on the impact of Brexit on the services sector)

In 2021 Frost was given a seat in the House of Lord, became Lord Frost, and was made a member of the cabinet with responsibility for relations with the EU. He spent much of 2021 trying to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he now found insulted British sovereignty.

A week before Christmas 2021, he resigned from government. His stated reason was that he was unhappy with the political direction of travel and believed that the “benefits of Brexit” would only be captured if the UK became a low tax, light regulation, small state, entrepreneurial economy. He left government because he thought Johnson was taking it in the opposite direction. Brexit as Thatcherism reborn.

“Brexit is now secure … the challenge for the government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us. You know my concerns about the current direction of travel,” Frost told the prime minister in his resignation letter.

Frost was quickly replaced by Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who had UK/EU relations added to her brief. Truss is a favourite to succeed Johnson as prime minister and consciously models herself on Margaret Thatcher, even posing for copy-cat photo shoots of ones Thatcher did.

It was no secret that EU officials intensely disliked Frost’s confrontation negotiating style, with its single-minded focus on restoring unfettered British sovereignty. There has been much speculation as to whether Truss will adopt a different approach, one that makes deals possible.

Of little consequence

In our view, whether Truss adopts a more “softly-softly” approach or not is of little consequence. The personality of negotiators, of course, makes a difference. It is easier to do business with someone who can “separate the people from the problem” than with someone who constantly bristles with indignation, is forever aggressive and takes everything personally.

Ultimately, however, the long term outcome of any negotiating process is determined by what the French call “le rapport de force”, the strength and leverage that the parties bring to the table. A quick-witted and nimble negotiator from a weaker party may pull of a win here and there. But over time, it is the stronger party that dictates the outcome.

Thankfully, in everyday life, whether personal or business life, or between nations, “le rapport de forceis more evenly balanced, leaving room for negotiating skills to play their part in crafting win-win deals for all parties.

For Johnson/Truss there may be a temptation to kick over the Northern Ireland table to assure the Brexit base that they have not gone soft. A16 of the Protocol allows either side to unilaterally suspend part of the deal in certain circumstances. The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) demand the triggering of A16 every other day.

However, the EU has made it clear that if the UK triggers A16 then it will take countermeasures, up to and including suspension of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Were that to happen, trade between the EU and the UK would become gridlocked very quickly. The UK is very much more dependent on EU imports than the EU is on UK imports. Further, is something is not available from the UK, a substitution can easily be sourced elsewhere in the EU. Can’t get cheddar cheese from the UK? Get it from Ireland.

Would UK voters thank Johnson/Truss if supermarket shelves fall empty because of a trade war with the EU over Northern Ireland? Unlikely.

In a non-too subtle hint to the UK not to play games with the Northern Ireland agreement, President Biden has refused to lift a 25% tariff on UK steel, having just abolished the tariff on EU steel.

As Frost found before he walked, and as Truss will find, absolute sovereignty may be fine in theory, but when you try to exercise it in practice you run into the brick wall of other countries’ sovereignty.

Barwell has done us some service in documenting the torturous route to a Brexit deal inside the Conservative government. His book is incomplete, missing out as it does the period June 2016 to April 2017, and what happened after Johnson took over. Nonetheless, it casts useful light on difficult days.

So far, the best inside account of the negotiations is Barnier’s My Secret Brexit Diary. He was there for the Europeans from the start to the finish. There can never be a comparable British account because of the ever-changing cast of characters on the British side.

Why the constant changing cast? Because the British never knew what they really wanted. They probably still don’t.