It would be amusing were it not so serious - a parody of scheming politicians that would not be out of place in the TV comedies of Yes, Prime Minister, or The New Statesman. In the last two weeks, we have seen the occupants of two of the highest offices in the land - The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary - revealed to be, at best, totally at odds with their public pronouncements on Brexit, and at worst, more interested in their own careers than in the real impact of the vote to leave the EU.
First, we had the spectacle of Boris Johnson's 'alternative' Telegraph piece, where just days before he came out in favour of Leave, he argued strongly for the benefits of the UK remaining a full member of the European Union. Look past the usual flummery of a politician who clearly thinks this is all just a jolly jape, and Johnson's piece touches on some of the fundamental dangers of pulling out of the EU. 'Shut your eyes', he implores readers who may be thinking of voting for Brexit, 'Hold your breath...Think of the future. Think of the desire of your children and your grandchildren to live and work in other European countries; to sell things there, to make friends and perhaps to find partners there'.
In this one paragraph, Johnson acknowledges the two great treacheries of the whole Leave campaign: first, the denial of the fact that freedom of EU citizens to move around Europe unencumbered is a boon to us all; and second, far worse, that a vote to leave would deny that freedom not to his own generation - who have enjoyed such benefits in full - but to the generations to come. Johnson knew this before he started out on the Leave campaign, as his alternative article shows, and yet he still chose to put his own immediate, personal concerns and ambitions - his positon in his party, and his chances of the top job - ahead of the long term political interests of his own (and everyone else's) children and grandchildren.
Noting in passing the danger that a Leave vote poses to the break-up of the UK state - irony of ironies, the UK state whose sovereignty he would claim he was protecting through campaigning for Leave - Johnson then outlines the economic argument: the EU 'is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms', he purrs, concluding that 'the membership fee seems rather small for all that access'. That final sentence is key: The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. This from the politician who then toured the country in a vehicle that decried that the £350 million we pay into the EU - in essence, the membership fee - was a waste of money we should somehow repatriate. Just think about that for a second: a public servant - a secretary of state, no less - who knew that the membership fee of the EU is far outweighed by the benefits yet was prepared to sit in a bus for six weeks that had the total opposite position emblazoned on the side.
The kind of mind-set that allows that level of deception should make us all fearful of a Johnson premiership. However, it appears we already have a Prime Minister capable of similar doublespeak. As the Guardian reported this week, a month before the referendum, Theresa May spoke to Goldman Sachs and made the exact same case as Johnson for the EU remaining inside the EU. 'I think the economic arguments are clear', the then Home Secretary said, 'I think being part of a 500 million trading bloc is significant for us'. Moreover, she made it clear that she was fully aware of the economic threats of Brexit, 'if we were not in Europe, I think there would be firms and companies who would be looking to say: do they need to develop a mainland Europe presence rather than a UK presence? So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms'.
That the two most prominent politicians in the UK now campaign most forcefully for Brexit, the polar opposite position to the one they held just weeks earlier, should be of serious national concern. Doubtless, both politicians (and many commentators) would have us believe that their shifting positions are just products of the nature of politics, that there are public messages and private messages, and balancing the two is all part of the political game. But really, that is not good enough. In the first instance, we should note that the ability of our children and grandchildren to enjoy the freedoms Johnson refers to and the economic benefits that May describes, is not a game. It is deadly serious.
Further, it is the particular type of manoeuvring and duplicity around Brexit that should cause us the gravest concern. The Hard Brexit rhetoric of Johnson and May, post referendum, is so stark and fervent that it sets a fearful tone domestically and is also felt around the capitals of Europe, driving a psychological wedge between Leavers and Remainers in the UK, but also between the UK and its European partners. But worse than this - much worse - is the fact that the politicians espousing this rhetoric now appear not to believe it, which undermines further an already tottering political class.
Politicians who occupy high office should set examples of decency and honesty, should lead by example: this kind of political manoeuvring of May and Johnson is categorically not the example we need, and further damages the reputation of politics and politicians in an age when trust in our political system is already so low. We can, and should, demand more of our leading politicians, demand that they set the tone of the entire political class; as the US election campaign vividly shows, we should start making that demand sooner rather than later.
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