As Boris Johnson led the Conservatives into last December’s General Election, he repeatedly promised that a vote for his party would ensure the UK’s departure from the European Union would be swift and painless. He had an agreement with our former partners that was ready to go. “We’ve just got to put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes, and Bob’s your uncle,” he said.
Those who believed that promise may now add it to the litany of lies on which our Prime Minister has built his career.
Not only is there no oven-ready deal, there is no deal at all.
On Friday, Johnson said it was time for us to get ready to trade next year without any agreement in place. Talks between the UK and the EU over a post-Brexit trade agreement were over, added a Downing Street spokesman.
How, precisely, we are supposed to “get ready” for this most undesirable outcome is not clear. Traditionalists among you may think it is the responsibility of the PM to “get ready” for a situation in which he has detonated a bomb beneath the UK’s most valuable trading partnership.
But, then, Johnson has never been one for taking responsibility, has he? Rather, he has coasted through life – first as a highly paid newspaper columnist, then as mayor of London, and now as Prime Minister – on a wave of bullshit. Beneath that artfully affable, tousle-haired, Latin-spouting persona there exists nothing but self-interest.
Back in 2016, during the EU referendum campaign, Johnson and his fellow travellers in the Leave campaign were utterly dismissive of any concerns about how Brexit might negatively affect the UK. Those who suggested that downsides might exist were attacked for being part of a “Project Fear” conspiracy. The truth, we were told, was that the UK could comfortably leave the EU while retaining all the benefits of membership. The European bloc would give the UK whatever it demanded in negotiations over a post-Brexit deal. Johnson reminded us that he was pro having cake and eating cake.
Much of this was familiar to people in Scotland who, two years previously, had heard then-SNP leader Alex Salmond dismiss concerns about his independence plans with the same confidence – of course an independent Scotland would get what it wanted from the UK, of course there would be a currency union, of course we would flourish.
Johnson, like Salmond before him, dismisses detailed questions as malign because he doesn’t actually have the answers. It’s far easier to attack the questioner than it is to address complex problems which don’t have straightforward solutions.
Of course, should it transpire that no trade agreement can be brokered with the EU, then we can expect to hear how this is the fault of European leaders. Brexiteers will point to the breakdown in negotiations and say that they told us the EU couldn’t be trusted. The failure of these Little Britons will be dressed up as the failure of of our European neighbours.
Both Scottish and British nationalism are infected with an exceptionalism that allows proponents to tell themselves that their demands have not been met because of the failings of others; we would live in perpetually sunlit uplands if only the other side would allow us to have and eat their cake.
Our politics is now infantile and selfish. If we don’t get precisely what we want then it’s never our own fault, but the result of the bad faith of others.
But if British companies end up facing tariffs on trade with the EU then the blame will lie squarely with Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers. Those who blithely insisted that a deal with the EU was oven ready will have this mess on their hands.
Some will, quite rightly, point out that a no-deal Brexit is precisely what many Leave campaigners really wanted. They may have promised a painless departure from the EU with benefits retained but, in their hearts, they wanted nothing but the complete destruction of the UK’s partnership with our European neighbours.
I am not convinced that this is what Johnson wanted. Rather, I don’t believe he thought that far ahead.
This is a man, after all, who had been pro-EU until it became apparent to him that leading the Leave campaign would help him fulfil his ambition of becoming prime minister. Johnson’s every calculation is based on how best his own interests might be served and damn the rest of us.
So now we face the unedifying prospect of our Prime Minister explaining that, in fact, a no-deal Brexit is entirely preferable to the one he had claimed was oven ready. If this further antagonises our former EU partners, then this denigration of relations will be a price he considers worth paying.
Meanwhile, Scottish Nationalists will use the chaos created by the Prime Minister and the rabble of wing-nuts and cranks who populate the Brexiteer ranks to argue that the break-up of the United Kingdom is not only desirable, it is absolutely necessary.
They will tell us that only by breaking free of this long-standing partnership will Scotland flourish.
They will tell us that Scottish independence will have nothing but upsides and that departure from the UK will be easy and painless. Those who dare question the wisdom of putting constitutional wrangling at the centre of our politics will be dismissed as agents of Project Fear
The breakdown of talks between the European Union and the UK should act as a warning to anyone who believes that nationalism is a recipe for anything other than chaos.