In the fairytale land of Brexit, we’re trading with the world. It’s a fantasy | Nick Cohen


In a time of bogus conspiracy theories, the only real conspiracy is the conspiracy of silence. No one should be able to deny that Britain is in an economic and political crisis brought on by Brexit. Yet the government won’t talk about it. The opposition dare not mention it. The rightwing press won’t cover it. And broadcasters fear they will be damned as biased if they admit it. Rather than face reality, we live in an imaginary Britain, a land of make-believe, where the political class act out parts as if they are on a film set.

We have the hardest of possible Brexits because the Conservative right insisted we must leave the European customs union and single market. Every promise they made to the public is turning to ashes in their mouths as a result. Take trade. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s Vote Leave swore to the electorate in 2016 that Brexit would free Britain to strike deals “with major economies like China and India”. It was just another in the interminable list of false pledges they made, safe in the knowledge that, by the time the truth came out, Brexit would be done. Yet, even now, they try to maintain the pretence. Last week, the Sun announced that Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, had created a post-Brexit “Enhanced Trade Partnership” with Delhi. Already it had “created” 1,540 jobs, courtesy of the Indian tech firm Tata Consultancy Services.

It was pure propaganda: utter bullshit. No one knows what “Enhanced Trade Partnership” means, the former government trade official David Henig told me. I asked Truss’s department when it was signed and how might exporters read its terms. They can’t. There’s nothing there beyond a “commitment” to a “long-term India-UK partnership” and the hope of drawing up a “road map”. The UK and India have signed no agreement. Tata Consultancy is already in Britain. Indeed, it was ranked as the “UK’s top employer”. Truss’s department accepts Tata’s new jobs are “not linked directly” to the alleged partnership.

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Perhaps later this year, Britain and India will agree to reduce a few tariffs and harmonise a few standards. There won’t be a real free-trade deal with India, however. Liam Fox promised one in 2017, but could not deliver because India wanted greater freedom of movement for its people into Britain and, in any event, the Indian government is committed to protecting large parts of its economy.

The Sun and much of the rightwing press would rather tell us fairy stories with happy-ever-after endings than admit their mistake in selling Brexit to their cozened readers.

The government, too, must try to keep us trapped in a joyless version of Disney World. It cannot tell the truth to its voters or, I suspect, to itself. I met Truss before we left the EU. She carried the secret smile of the zealot convinced they are in possession of a truth the uninitiated could never grasp. The glow of the convinced fanatic shone from her face, as if it was emitting a harsh, fluorescent light. The oldest question in journalism is: are they lying or are they genuinely that stupid? I am sure I am being too kind but my impression was that Truss was genuinely stupid enough to believe her Brexit promises.

Now she is being “mugged by reality” – a phrase conservatives once used about naive liberals, yet it applies to them in spades. My sources report that Truss changes her mind constantly and civil servants are exhausting themselves as they try to keep up with her contradictory demands. She insists her special advisers rewrite her civil servants’ briefs to make them more ideologically palatable, as if Conservative political appointees can make Britain great again by redrafting the country in Microsoft Word.

Reworking reality is preferable to accepting that Brexit has left us ripe for exploitation. Like a conman eyeing a mark, the world can sense our neediness. Last year, a desperate Truss unilaterally suspended tariffs imposed by the EU on US goods. She hoped that a grateful America would respond by dropping its tariffs on Scotch whisky, which have cost jobs and £500m in sales. The US was certainly grateful. It accepted the gift but gave nothing in return.

I’d get used to humiliation if I were a Tory. I grant you that, one day, there will be a trade deal with the US, but only when the Conservatives break their promises to farmers and consumers about never allowing in US chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef. I am not being over-cynical. They are already pushing through a trade bill that will allow them to do just that.

The new cold war, Hong Kong and the persecution of Uighurs make a trade deal with China impossible, so that’s another Vote Leave promise gone. Instead, the government is, in apparent seriousness, proposing that Britain join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Alert readers will know that these islands are not Pacific islands. They will understand that, like every country in the world, we trade most with our neighbours and our neighbours are Europeans. We are a part of Europe, “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”, as John Donne said. The Conservatives have ripped us from our only possible home.

I can see why Truss, Johnson and Gove hope no one will notice that their hard Brexit has seen the people of Northern Ireland suffer the consequences of a border in the Irish Sea, Amsterdam overtake London as Europe’s largest share-trading centre and businesses drown in paperwork. They lied to the nation and to themselves and don’t want to suffer the consequences. Their spinning and diversionary tactics are to be expected.

For the life of me, however, I do not understand why Labour and those parts of the broadcast media outside the control of the political right play along with the deception and pretend that the world as it is does not exist. It’s as if Britain were a Victorian family keeping up appearances. As if not just a government with every reason to conceal, but the opposition and media are bound by a promise to never wash Britain’s dirty laundry in public – even as its stink becomes overwhelming.



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