Boris Johnson – Peter Geoghegan: Rich donors are the only winners in Johnson’s race to the bottom
BORIS Johnson does not like confrontation. As the prime minister’s former lover Petronella Wyatt recalled a couple of years ago, here is a man who will “do anything to avoid an argument”. Even if it means telling bare-faced lies.
Wyatt’s words were ringing in my ears when I watched Johnson present his Brexit deal at a press conference on Christmas Eve. While the prime minister was winning plaudits in the press for securing any sort of agreement at all with the European Union, I found myself constantly struck by the cognitive dissonance of what he was actually saying.
British exporters, Johnson declared, would “do even more business with our European friends” – by, eh, leaving the single market and customs union. Our fishermen would see a “prodigious” increase in catches. Post-Brexit Britain would “spread opportunity” and free trade in equal measure.
You don’t need to be a philosophy professor to see the logical inconsistency in all this. “Global Britain” and “levelling up” aren’t two sides of the same coin, they aren’t even the same currency.
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So how would Johnson square the Brexit circle, I wondered as I watched his Yuletide address? How would he avoid making some people who had trusted him very angry? Barely a month later, we can start to see the answer. He isn’t even going to try.
In a contest between “the left behind” and “buccaneering Britain”, there will only be one winner. And it won’t be the former steel towns and pit villages.
Politics is essentially the art of reallocating scarce resources. You can have your cake or you can eat it. You can’t do both. The defining feature of Johnson’s character, of course, is a refusal to admit this. He will say whatever it takes to get what he want, and to avoid a row.
Already the reality of Johnson’s fluid relationship with the truth is coming home to roost. Scottish fishermen, mired in red tape in Britain, are sailing to Denmark to land their catch. Having given the Democratic Unionists his word that there would be no border in the Irish Sea, the prime minister has delivered just that.
Johnson is a buffoon, but he is not a fool. He knows that the bromides about free trade and economic redistribution are just that, empty words. What matters is what his government does. That’s why the moves Westminster has made since the turn of the year are so significant – and these point to where post-Brexit Britain is really headed.
This week the prime minister was reported to be holding talks with business leaders about “cutting red tape” and turning Britain outside the EU into “the Singapore of Europe”. By conjuring up Singapore, you can be sure that Johnson does not mean that in the future 80% of Britain’s housing will be publicly owned – although he is probably envious of the city-state’s political system, where the same party always wins.
Singapore for Johnson means one thing: deregulation. As a former member of the European Research Group told me in an interview for my latest book, Brexit, for hardline Eurosceptic Tories, was always about cutting regulations and standards.
As the transition came to an end in December, Johnson was promising that Britain would uphold the highest global standards. Indeed, the prime minister made a point of saying that there could be disputes with the EU on the horizon as Britain wanted to raise the bar in areas such as animal welfare.
What a difference a few weeks makes. Now British ministers are considering “reform” of workers’ protections enshrined in EU law, including the 48-hour working week. Hands up who thinks this reform will mean stronger rights for workers?
Reports suggest that we could soon see changes to our statutory entitlements on rest breaks, overtime pay and the requirement on businesses to log daily working hours. That’s a curious definition of “levelling up”.
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You can tell a lot about a politician by who he surrounds himself with. Among the sycophants and no-names that populate Johnson’s cabinet are some of the most fervent advocates for slashing workers’ rights.
Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss were co-authors of a 2012 anthology entitled Britannia Unchained that declared that government regulation had left the British “among the worst idlers in the world”. Now this quartet are foreign, home, business international trade secretary, respectively.
Kwarteng was only appointed earlier this month, in what could be read as a clear signal for the direction of Brexit Britain’s direction of travel. The new business secretary has previously written that any company’s first 12 staff should be treated as self-employed “with no questions” asked and that firms with up to three employees should be exempt from the minimum wage, maternity leave and unfair dismissal claims.
WORKERS’ rights are not the only area that Johnson seems keen to race to the bottom. Westminster has moved fast to dismantle environmental protections.
Pesticides are a case in point. When the EU introduced ban on neonicotinoids – which have proved deadly to bees and aquatic life – three years ago, Britain supported the move and said it would keep these standards after Brexit. But on January 8, just a week after the Brexit deal came into force, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a statement approving the use of the pesticide in the UK.
Then there are the various crony capitalist projects that Johnson – and particularly chancellor Rishi Sunak – has given his imprimatur to. The most glaring is the establishment of a series of “free ports”.
The EU is phasing out these customs-free zones amid long-running concerns about money laundering and tax avoidance in them. (Curiously, this week the Scottish government announced that it too would be jumping on the free port bandwagon, albeit rebranded as “green ports”.)
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ALL of this will be music to the ears of Brexit’s financial backers. While the vote to leave the EU in 2016 could not have been won without considerable working-class support, the money driving Brexit has long come from those with most to gain from turning the country into “Singapore on Thames”.
Hedge fund managers such as Jeremy Hosking, former Conservative party treasurer Peter Cruddas and Tory donors Michael Hintze, Crispin Odey and David Lilley all spent big on Brexit. A bonfire of regulation is overwhelmingly supported by the tiny number of super-rich donors who bankroll the Conservatives.
The irony in all this is that Johnson owes his “stonking” majority in Westminster to the former Labour voters in so-called “red wall” seats who will be hardest hit by a free market Brexit.
Having promised to level up, Johnson will deliver poorer living standards and less protection. But then again when did this prime minister ever care about having lied to the people he claims to cherish?
Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor at openDemocracy. The paperback edition of his latest book Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics was published earlier this month by Head of Zeus.