UK is caught adrift by Johnson’s Brexit fantasy – as Ukraine shows need for solidarity | Martin kettle
JTwo years ago, during the first Covid lockdown, Boris Johnson came face to face with a reality he had hitherto seemed reluctant to admit: the unwelcome truth that he was not the all- powerful from all over the UK. Because health policy is a devolved issue, on Covid he was England’s sole Prime Minister.
To be an effective leader, therefore, he would have to go against his instincts and cooperate. Predictably, Johnson turned out not to be very good at cooperating, and as a result, efficiency suffered. Imposing and then easing Covid restrictions around the UK has become increasingly confusing and politically driven. A global health issue has intertwined with Johnson’s denial, narcissism over petty differences between governments and his increasingly chaotic management of the Conservative Party in Westminster. In short, Johnson himself has become part of the problem in the fight against Covid.
Two years later, we are witnessing something similar again. This time, the challenge of good governance and the efficiency of public authorities is being played out on the European scene, and not on the national scene. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brexit had allowed Johnson to promote a foreign policy who indulged his old-school British Prime Minister instincts as he imagined, strutting his wordy stuff – or at least as much as international Covid restrictions would allow – as the leader of what he describes as a newly restored and independent world power. But the war in Europe challenged this illusion head-on.
In the task of confronting Russian aggression and rebuilding a democratic Ukraine, the path to efficiency also requires clear-headed cooperation and the building of alliances. It’s not easy among so many nations with different interests and histories. But it does mean that it is more important than usual to build trust between European nations in the long term. Yet in Johnson, Britain has a leader who is not suited for this badly needed task of cooperation. He is, to say the least, an unreliable ally.
If any moment embodied this problem in visual terms, it was this sequence of a seemingly isolated Johnson during official photo ops at the NATO summit in Brussels on March 24. For a few awkward moments, he seemingly stands alone, staring into the distance for someone to talk to among Western leaders who gather and greet each other with handshakes and smiles. Johnson’s embarrassment was only brief and should not be overstated, but the image spoke to wider realities – to Britain’s self-inflicted isolation on the world stage after Brexit, and a unquestionable level of suspicion towards Johnson among foreign governments.
This is not to say that Johnson or Britain have played an unimportant role in the Ukraine conflict so far, let alone a reprehensible one. Britain’s military support for Ukraine before and after the invasion has been significant, significant and continuous. London would also play an important role in pressing others to take war crimes cases to the International Criminal Court. And the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, possesses repeatedly and publicly praised contributions from the UK and Johnson.
Nevertheless, the picture is mixed. Britain has been slow to impose tough sanctions, the pace of which has been driven mainly by the United States, which imposed new measures against Russian banks and officials on Wednesday, and by the EU, which flagged this week a ban on Russian coal and ships that could become a full embargo on Russian fossil energy products. Britain also continues to be a very deliberate laggard on refugees, imposing visa requirements of a complexity and severity unmatched by any other European country.
Nor has Britain matched its anti-Russian rhetoric with evidence of the kind of serious long-term strategic resets the EU and Germany have embarked on. Johnson is expected to say some big things on energy Thursday, but there’s no evidence he’s leading the international effort. This is hardly surprising, since most of the key decisions on sanctions are taken by Washington and Brussels. Britain has no seat at these tables. This is partly the result of Brexit and partly a reflection on Johnson’s own character. In truth, the two cannot be separated.
Just as Johnson finally realized two years ago that he could not make Covid policy for the whole of the UK, he is now almost certainly aware that Brexit is not the success he claimed to be . The benefits of Brexit for the government document, published in January, embodies this absurdity in over 100 glossy pages full of exaggerated claims and outlandish speculation. By indulging in this nonsense, Johnson is leaving the door open for the conservative right to carry out an economic program of deregulation that will only make matters worse. But it also weakens Britain’s ability to play its part alongside those who should be its allies.
The evidence of the damage of Brexit is clearly visible. This is particularly true in the UK economy, where severe labor shortages in low-skilled sectors are now being hit by Covid-induced rising food costs, rising fuel prices and related shortages to Ukraine. Growth forecasts are downgraded, supply chains are under increasing pressure, and even Rishi Sunak admitted last week that Britain’s poor trade performance could in part be the result of Brexit. While Britain’s cost-of-living crisis cannot be entirely kicked out of Brexit, there is no doubt that it is a significant part of the problem and, moreover, there is no end in view of the difficulties it engenders.
The same goes for the problems with the British borders, the control of which was supposed to be the great price of Brexit. Johnson seems to have barely understood that secure borders are only secure if there are effective controls on both sides and that this requires cooperation, especially with Ireland and France. Instead, the two are treated almost with indifference. If Britain reneges on or fails to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol while insisting that Russia must respect and uphold international law, the chorus of contempt will stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals and it will be fully deserved.
The tragedy, at a time when the whole of Europe must come together to protect its values and freedoms against Russia, is that Britain under Johnson is failing, at best, to play the role important in this alliance for which its size and resources equip it. At worst, continuing to play the Brexit games under a leader for whom others have so little respect or trust could even undermine an alliance on which, ultimately, we will all depend.