LLast week, after spending two joyous days at the Tory conference in Birmingham, I spent a long afternoon an hour’s drive away in the cathedral city of Worcester. The plan was to sample the mood of a place once seen as key to British elections: remember “The Worcester Woman,” the swing-vote stereotype that was talked about in the New Labor years? But I was also there to gather further evidence of the extent to which Britain’s current problems are affecting middle-class and affluent places that might once have weathered any economic storm.
No wonder people said they were worried and scared. Some spoke of grown children who were suddenly terrified that a mortgage was unaffordable; others described a new and disturbing habit of conserving gas and electricity. The music of autumn’s increasingly terrifying mood – from conversations canceled local Christmas markets until possible three-hour power outages – reported almost every conversation I had.
The mention of politics did indeed elicit very interesting responses. “I just miss Boris,” said Julie, who works in the city branch of Boots, and told me she had long since become accustomed to talking to her customers about the impossibility of their lives. As she and a few others saw it, Johnson successfully managed the Covid vaccination program and brought a bit of glamor and humor to the dreary world of politics, which has now returned to print. They also voiced what I heard several times recently: the belief that he represented the last hope that Brexit would somehow pave the way for a happier and more prosperous country, a dream that died when he left Downing Street.
This is obviously a very generous opinion from a man who has told as many self-serving lies about leaving the EU as he has about most other things. Perhaps at the root of some lingering attachment to it is the refusal of many people to admit how much they have been duped. But this look at life before and after Johnson underscores what is now settling among all but the most hardened Brexit supporters: the quiet, slightly painful realization that all those optimistic visions of life outside the EU will not come true, even if the crises caused by Vladimir Putin eventually subside.
The British, being British, have yet to cause widespread anger. Although they probably should, no one is going to take to the streets and demand any sort of retribution for Brexit. But if you want to understand the current political moment – and some of the reasons for it Conservatives exploded so suddenly and spectacularly – here is a strangely missed part of the story.
No matter who people blame for our current predicament, one stark fact is inescapable. The future that 17 million voters bought six years ago has now collapsed into its complete opposite. In the summer of 2016, let’s not forget, Johnson, Michael Gove and former Labor MP Gisela Stewart put their names together in article in the Sun who insisted that once Brexit happens “the NHS will be stronger, class sizes smaller and taxes lower. We’ll have more money for our priorities, higher wages and lower fuel bills.”
A year later, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who still seems to be trying to sniff out the undisclosed “The possibilities of Brexit” – he assured everyone who wanted to listen that leaving the EU will open the way to much cheaper food, which means that people’s disposable income will increase. Brexit is not the only thing that has shown the impossibility of these dreams, but that is not the point: it was both foolish and dangerous to make such promises, and now we are living with the consequences.
Post-Brexit politics is proving impossible for Liz Truss and her government. They want life outside the EU to mean a Darwinian economy, cuts in public spending and a smaller welfare state – not what millions of Leave supporters thought they wanted in the 2016 referendum, and not what the Tories have proposed in the next two elections . Meanwhile, the attempt to wriggle out of Brexit’s endless constraints in pursuit of growth threatens to tie the government in knots. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary who embodies all the nastiness and closed-mindedness of modern conservatism, says she wants to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands“. But Downing Street is signaling what it wants liberalize the UK’s immigration system, a move that would surely send a certain type of Brexit voter into fits of rage. It’s a mess because the logic of the Truss and its allies’ position won’t hold: if the Brexit revolution that overturned Conservative politics and brought them to power collapses, the reason for their success is also the guarantee of their failure.
Given its long-standing refusal to question our exit from the EU, Keir Starmer’s Labor Party faces some comparable controversies, but appears tentatively trying to find a way out. One of the most exciting moments of the past two weeks of political theater came during Starmer’s speaking at a conference in Liverpool when Starmer mentioned the B-word and tentatively talked about what the Brexit disasters mean for people’s views on politics. Many of those who voted for Brexit, he said, did so because they wanted “democratic control over their lives … opportunities for the next generation, communities they are proud of, public services they can count on”. It was a bit of a rosy reading of recent history, but it was almost true. He added: “Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you have been let down.” His claim that he will somehow make Brexit work still sounds very dubious, but it’s a start: an acknowledgment, at least, of the lies and cynicism that got us here.
Whether the mounting frustration and resentment will simply mean a smooth transition from the Tories to Labor is another matter. Tony Blair finally told the truth about the war in Iraq played their part in the huge crisis of public confidence that led to Brexit and the never-ending political tide that followed. Now the hoaxes of 2016 are being exposed in an even more toxic political environment filled with conspiracy theories and polarization. Anyone who thinks that a climate of cynicism, fear and misplaced hope will get politics on the right track should perhaps consider recent events in Italy, Sweden and France – and, closer to home, that momentary nostalgia for the reckless, authoritarian style of leadership Johnson combined with his showbiz aspects. Once Truss is out of the way, Brexit’s central paradox may yet materialize: a terrifying blow to the very policies whose failure should have killed it to death.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his Politics Weekly UK podcast, search for ‘Politics Weekly UK’ on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you find your podcasts. New series every Thursday