Politics

Brexit is again, whether or not one occasion likes it or not

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There were some really worrying new numbers on Covid today that confirmed a sharp increase in the Indian variant (a 160% increase over the past week). It seems that its doubling time is only five days, even more frightening than the Kent variant’s 14-day doubling time that caused such havoc in January.

But at # 10 and in key departments across Whitehall, it wasn’t the pandemic that was the hot political topic of the day, it was Brexit. Or rather, the post-Brexit trade deal with Australia that caused a rather tense turf war between International Trade Minister Liz Truss and Environment Minister (and former Cornish farmer) George Eustice.

Earlier this week, the FT lifted the dispute over Truss’ duty-free plan, revealing that it was backed by Brexit Minister Lord Frost, while Eustice had the backing of Michael Gove. There was an open air meeting this morning to beat things up, and early leaks suggest Truss turned out all the happier.

The ultimate referee, of course, is Boris Johnson who chaired the meeting. And he betrayed the game on PMQs on Wednesday with his bold speech on the ability of British farmers to “get the most out of free trade”.

That didn’t sound like the protection rates Eustice had hoped for. Harry Cole of The Sun has the overview that a 15-year transition to the duty-free status is planned. This seems like a big win for Truss, but it may be enough to avoid having to step down for Eustice.

What is striking about this particular series is that it is not the classic separation between Remainers and Brexiteers that could have existed under Theresa May. It’s more like “Truss-Tafarians” versus “Cornish Georgians”. In fact, Eustice allies sourly point out that Truss actually campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum (known to tweet: “I continue to support what I believe is in Britain’s economic interest”). She has since claimed she got it wrong.

In contrast, Eustice itself has a long track record of leaving the EU, dating back to its UKIP days. He even resigned from the May government to protest the fact that she had brought herself to her knees on the matter. But Eustice’s sin, like that of Michael Gove, is to be viewed as a pragmatic Brexiter. Since the vacation vote, he’s made no secret of wanting a workable exit that involves compromises. It’s not just about farmers’ interests, it’s about adaptable Toryism.

Johnson, who is known to have written two columns for and against Brexit, may now be firmly on Truss’s side because, like her, he has the zeal of a convert. And that’s why a normally boring Whitehall turf war over agriculture really comes into play: because it’s a test case for Brexit itself and how far the Prime Minister wants to go to get trade deals with other countries to send a message about the freebooting of Britain .

Even if this deal goes through, it will constitute a tiny fraction of all British trade. Instead, it is the signal that a successful deal sends to the US and South America, where great agricultural opportunities (and threats) lie, that seems to matter most to the Prime Minister.

The real problem is not the hormones in beef or chlorine in chickens, but lead in Johnson’s pencil in Brexit. When Truss said the negotiators were “in the sprint” to get a framework agreement by June, it felt a lot like a Brexit virility test. The results were read out at the G7 summit in Cornwall (ironically Eustice’s backyard, and it now seems like a sprint followed by a marathon of transition).

Some farmers, like some fishermen, will feel that this was not the Brexit they voted for. But it would be in line with Johnson’s approach – think later – to try to get a dirty trade deal that he hopes he can later improve by throwing money at farmers (as he did with fishermen Has). Will he also believe that his protocol problems in Northern Ireland can be resolved through a similar 15 year transition?

Meanwhile, more Labor MPs think it is time for their party to grasp the nettle of this whole matter. On our latest Commons People podcast, Keir Starmer’s new PPS Sharon Hodgson told us, “We have to stop being scared of poking the tiger, we have to stop being scared that this will upset people in order to actually move on to its Brexit to point out We had holes, we are not getting the best Brexit we could have had. “

Hodgson, who has represented Sunderland, the melting pot of the referendum on electoral leave victory for years, stressed that Brexit had “freedoms and flexibility” but said more holiday voters would now admit that there would be “short-term pain”. Her case was similar to that of Rachel Reeves, who recently said Labor should point out the loopholes in Johnson’s exit deal.

As always, the key is how to shape the debate. Born and raised in the Northeast, Hodgson has an authenticity that comes from being rooted in her region. And when she says, “We’re not trying to undo this by saying that this could actually be improved,” and adding that it is time for a “better” Brexit, she may be laying the foundation for Starmer to be similar is open.

Honesty about the drawbacks of the deal and a willingness to improve things can resonate more than the Labor Party’s silence and certainly more than the muttering, “We told you.” Starmer told the PLP this week, “We need to build a post-austerity, post-Brexit and post-pandemic Britain.”

We may not be entirely free of austerity measures for a few more years, let alone the pandemic. And it is likely that by the time of the general election in autumn 2023 we will not be “post-Brexit”. Today, this indicates that both parties are preparing for this brutal fact in different ways.

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