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10 July 2022

When Boris goes...

The Tories have kicked out a prime minister whose name will inexorably be linked with Brexit. The tragedy of Boris Johnson is that he had no idea what to do with it. If you look at the crowded field of candidates to replace him, there is not a single one who does either. When that successor loses the next elections, he or she will be replaced by Sir Keir Starmer, who also has no clue what to do with Brexit.

What the Tories, who are called the Stupid Party for a reason, probably don’t realise is that the campaign against Johnson has been about Brexit. Don’t be fooled by commentators who say that not a single contender favours a Brexit reversal. Of course they don’t. Sir Keir also ruled out a Brexit reversal. This is not about what current politicians say they will do. This is about what their successors will do after they have failed.

Michael Heseltine framed the phrase that if Boris goes, Brexit goes. Together with his co-conspirator, Lord Adonis, Lord Heseltine was one of the leading voices of the second referendum campaign. The two leaders of the UK’s European Movement now see an opportunity.

I was no fan of the second referendum campaign, because I felt that democratic choices have to be respected. But now is a good time for that campaign to start: so long as one takes a long view. The Brexiteers live in the illusion that Brexit is irreversible. But they don’t understand the deep implications of Brexit. The hard part of Brexit was not leaving, difficult as it may have been. The much trickier part is making it work. The economic impact is entirely about what you make of it. I used to argue that Brexit would bring a certain loss in economic output from trade friction, and an uncertain gain from new growth opportunities. There has already been a loss. But there has not been any gain whatsoever. The combined impact is therefore negative, not dramatically so, but still negative.

One of the few to have understood that clearly was Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser, and leader of the official Brexit campaign in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. To make Brexit work is not about low taxes. It would have required a social revolution, a departure from a feudal, Oxbridge-dominanted economy to a modern high-tech powerhouse, in which the best the brightest don’t join banks, or media organisations, but seek careers in start-ups and eventually strive to launch their own company. Levelling up does not mean a fast train to northeast England or more buses. It should have been about biotech, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and crypto. For that to happen, the government should really have recruited the weirdos and misfits, and gotten rid of the Sir Humphreys. Johnson got the first leg of Brexit done. And he had no interest in the second.

This revolution I am talking about does not play out on the left-right political spectrum. This is not about Thatcherism, Blairism or other 20th century social market ideologies. Brexit can be a success or failure under various combinations of taxes and government spending. What Brexit does require is an entrepreneurial business model. This starts with education. Britain’s educational system is hopelessly stuck in the past. Even subjects like computer science are still in the 20th century. At the GCSE level they are teaching students how printers work. If you want to become truly excellent at the technologies of the 21st century, you don’t need 19th century skills.

Remember that all the biggest technological breakthroughs in modern computer science were developed in the private sector by companies like Google, and by people with a diverse academic background. This is not a world in which success is a path from a private school to an elite university to an investment bank. That path was well-protected against intruders.

When I arrived in Britain for the first time in the 1980s, like so many Germany I initially struggled to understand the origin of the anti-EU sentiment. As a journalist who observed Johnson operate in the corridors - and pubs - of Brussels, it dawned on me that this is about personal power. Johnson had enough skill to drive everyone up the wall. But he would never have achieved high political office in Europe. The elites that govern the EU have different backgrounds. You can understand Brexit as an attempt by Etonians to protect their status in society. The irony of elite protectionism is that gets you out of the EU, but does not entrench that success afterwards.

For me, the Johnson premiership ended when Cummings left. He was a flawed operator: too arrogant, and too naive about politics. But he understood the nature of the transition that was needed. We are now back to politics as usual. Just listen to the Tory leadership contenders squabbling over tax cuts.

This is why I believe that this is not the worst time to sow the seeds for a Brexit reversal. Like exotic plants that take years to germinate in the ground, that movement, too, may seem to get nowhere, until one day, the time is just right.

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