In the classic Bond film Live And Let Die, a henchman advises 007 that the reason he must be thrown out of an airplane at 30,000 feet is his indiscretion with the chief criminal’s moll. “That type of mistake is tough to bounce back from,” the henchman reflects. The same can be said of Brexit, for Britain’s bumbling Tories.
It is now the task of Liz Truss to try to bounce back, and her effort may be short-lived. One never knows what will happen in the world and logic cannot be assumed in politics, but the legacy she’s been handed by her Conservative predecessors is dire, the next election could be soon.
Labour is no longer led by Jeremy Corbyn, the cranky socialist who was the greatest gift ever handed to the Tories, but rather the stolid and plausible Sir Keir Starmer. Polls show Labour comfortably ahead, as well it should be given more than a decade of calamitous Conservative rule.
Against this background, it is sadly provincial for the Israeli media to be mainly concerned with Truss’s supposed devotion to the Jewish state, as if London were still calling colonial shots of some sort. Truss will not save Israel from itself with Zionism; she has bigger problems, such as the chaos and instability now plaguing one of the world’s major economies (and one of Israel’s main trading partners).
Ironically, the biggest challenge Truss faces is the disaster of Brexit, which her party blundered into and which she had personally opposed. To the damage caused by Britain’s exit from the European Union we can add the new prime minister’s personal integrity, because unlike more principled Tories who had campaigned (incompetently) for Remain, like former prime minister David Cameron, she has changed her tune and now masquerades as a Euroskeptic. She runs around annoying the Europeans with pesky plans to review all EU laws still remaining on British statutes.
When assessing the degree of the Brexit error, we should remember that it was not a Tory project. It was an effort by Cameron to appease the Euroskeptics wing by allowing a referendum in which he assumed their folly would be rejected. In his arrogance and detachment, the elitist Cameron simply forgot that when a proposal is a folly, that does not reduce its chances of being adopted in a referendum.
Support for leaving the EU cut across party lines: some hard-Left Labourites, like Corbyn, actually supported it because they viewed the EU as a capitalist construct, like anything removed from the worldviews of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. For the far-right likes of Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party (which threatened the Tories by splitting the nationalist vote), EU membership treasonously handed some of Britain’s sovereignty to a multinational conspiracy (leading to the clever slogan “Take Back Control”).
That much of that control would be handed back to Brussels in trade deals and other arrangements was too complicated a narrative and didn’t matter much. Neither did the rest of the campaign’s nonsense, including the master lie that the UK sends £350 million (about a half billion dollars back then, before the decline of the pound) each week to the EU, a sum that if recouped could be rerouted to the National Health Service (anyone with a taste for mendacity can find a fuller list on the Internet).
There was probably no serious person in Britain who believed any of it, especially the purveyors. Theirs was a cynicism typical of the cheating populist right globally these days (gerrymandering was once a scourge of the US Democrats, but it has been elevated to an art by today’s Republicans, who are also transparently scheming to overturn the 2024 election should it not go their way).
So fuzzy was the thinking during the 2016 campaign that some of the more racist Brexit backers voted against the EU while confusing it with the Commonwealth, the club of former British colonies that is the real reason for the presence of Jamaicans and Pakistanis in their green and pleasant land.
The Leave campaign ended up winning by 52% to 48%, given its final boost by lazy millennials who couldn’t move themselves to vote but oppose the consequence of their inaction overwhelmingly. In fact, support for Leave correlates almost totally with age, meaning those who will be saddled with it longest opposed it most. Something similar awaits secular young Israelis who think nothing is at stake in the coming election.
Brexit - the last needed thing
BREXIT, OF course, was the last thing needed by a country whose primary business is finance, which has historically depended on international trade, and whose English language had primed its people for exploiting economies of scale like the EU – which rivals the US for the world’s largest economy. They also enjoyed being able to retire in sunny Portugal or travel anywhere on a whim.
Most studies find that Brexit has cost Britain over 5% in lost GDP; the country fell from first to fifth in the ranking of states winning EU scientific research funding; exports of services fell £100 billion below the pre-Brexit expectations; farmers are reeling and inflation has powered past 10%.
Add to that the bad luck of the COVID disaster and the Ukraine war that caused a global energy crisis. In the UK, energy costs are up over 50% on the year and are expected to triple next winter because of an over-reliance on natural gas that no one had time to contemplate while feuding over Brexit, and which has proven inopportune during Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Fittingly, it was the shambolic Boris Johnson’s support for Leave that was probably the decisive factor in this insanity. As prime minister he was wildly incompetent, overseeing one of the worst COVID policies of any developed country and leaving the EU on terms guaranteed to damage Britain. He became enveloped in a series of scandals – outrageous to some, comical to others – and was ultimately forced from office by his own party.
He presented as a buffoon by design, and it was convincing. He did not have much integrity, but these days that is rarely found in high office. He certainly did possess charm, charisma and humor, which in sufficient quantity and at certain junctures in history can be enough to get a person elected to office.
The 47-year-old Truss has none of these things. She ascends to 10 Downing St. via balloting among 142,000 party members, and it is difficult to see her winning an election by the public at large, among whom she is unpopular.
If she tried to reverse Brexit, which is theoretically still possible, she would electrify the world (and spark more agonies in Britain, but also probably some delight). That seems to not be in her colorless character.
Truss is the third woman prime minister out of the last eight overall, and that is to Britain’s credit. But her legacy is far more likely to resemble Theresa May’s than Margaret Thatcher’s.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is a managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.