Voices: From Boris’s ‘boosterism’ to Hunt’s ‘declinism’ (that’s code for ‘Brexit has failed’)
Perhaps because he was so clearly associated with the NHS for so long, Jeremy Hunt has something of the concerned house doctor about him.
He was one of our longer-serving health secretaries, and he loved the job so much he refused to move out of it when Theresa May tried to reshuffle him. He was an effective and respected member of the Heath Select Committee, and a voice of reason during the pandemic. Now, though, he has another patient on his hands – the post-Brexit economy; and at a time when Britain is once again being thought of as “the sick man of a Europe”.
The symptoms of the British disease are strikingly similar to those seen at its first onset in the 1970s, before the nation joined Europe: high inflation, a weak currency and public finances, struggling public services and labour unrest. Now, there is a recrudescence of the traditional sickness – and Mr Hunt is charged with keeping the patient’s hopes up.
Hence his remarks in his keynote speech about “declinism”. Alone in the highest echelons of the cabinet and his party, Hunt is prepared to venture – however guardedly – that Brexit has been a mistake (though, of necessity, he has to add that it was the “will of the British people”, and we have to therefore make the best, limit the damage and grab what few opportunities Brexit does offer up).
“Declinism” as he calls it, is a sort of coded acknowledgement for “Brexit has failed”.
So he sounded very much like he was addressing himself when he addressed his audience: “Just this month columnists from both left and the right have talked about an 'existential crisis', 'Britain teetering on the edge' and that 'all we can hope for…is that things don’t get worse'.
“I welcome the debate – but Chancellors, too, are allowed their say. And I say simply this: declinism about Britain is just wrong. It has always been wrong in the past – and it is wrong today”.
Perhaps, as he surveyed the carnage he inherited after the Kwarteng Budget, Hunt himself witnessed from his new post in the Treasury that Britain was indeed teetering on the edge. Indeed, he pretty much said as much as he dismantled his predecessor’s dash for growth.
In physician mode, Hunt is indicating to us that we’ve had a sort of economic heart attack, and things may get worse before they get better – “restraint” on public spending and pay, and no tax cuts. He was also, implicitly, renouncing not just the reckless Truss-Kwarteng gamble on tax cuts for growth, but also the senseless “boosterism” of Boris Johnson.
How right that is – and how much harm the twin Johnson doctrines of cakeism and boosterism have done to the country over the past few years. “Declinism” is where we are because Brexit has failed – and Johnson has failed – over the best part of a decade.
After a couple of terms as cheery pro-EU, pro-migration, liberal mayor of multicultural London, for reasons entirely down to personal political calculation, Johnson hitched his wagon to the Brexit cause – one he never really believed in – and certainly did not expect to win in the EU referendum.
In 2016 Johnson used all of his charm (it has faded now, but he once had star quality) and showmanship, and invited the British people to believe that they could enjoy all the benefits of EU membership without any of the costs.
His self-declared philosophy was that “when it comes to cake, I am very much in favour of having cake and eating it”. Presenting himself as a more respectable version of Nigel Farage, he promised the country that it would “prosper mightily” whatever happened. He almost seemed to believe in his own magical thinking. By the 2019 general election, the senseless “boosterism” had extended across every area of national life: “levelling up”, “building back better” – and of course we would “get Brexit done”.
A fine campaigner, Johnson was just about the worst person to put in charge of a complex international negotiation. The UK emerged with a botched, flawed Brexit treaty Johnson hadn’t read before he signed it, and was confident he could bluster his way to renegotiate once the problems – such as the Northern Ireland Protocol – inevitably emerged. Johnson was also a poor fit for the pandemic – as we now know only too well.
And so here we are, with businesses and farms fearing for the future. No matter how many times we chant “believe in Britain”, international investors aren’t investing. Hard-headed fund managers and transnational corporations were never impressed by Boris going around in a hi-viz jacket and a hard hat putting his thumbs up.
Yet, even as they have quietly tried to forget their bumptious former leader, neither Hunt – nor any Tory – dare even discuss whether Brexit has failed. So Hunt has invented this proxy – a phantom enemy of “declinism” – to attack people who say the British economy is doomed.
Everyone knows that the UK’s unique economic problem is Brexit. Last autumn the true believers in "Global Britain" were the Tory grassroots, for whom even Johnson – constrained by Sunak and tainted green by his eco-passions – wasn’t authentic enough. Under Truss, Britain tested the tenets of Brexit to destruction.
But even now a faction in the Tory party refuse to accept their defeat at the hands of reality. The Trussians have organised themselves into the Conservative Growth Group, and there is talk of Liz making an "intervention" in the tax debate. Meanwhile, Farage and the Tory-ultras moan about wanting “real” Brexit 2.0, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (which has nothing to do with the EU), cutting migration even further, and scrapping the UK-EU free trade agreement, attempting instead to trade with the EU under WTO terms – the hardest of hard Brexits.
The mood is against the Brextremists, though. The British people are pragmatic, and they can see that Brexit isn’t working. It has not lived up to its promise. Grotesquely so: after Johnson cynically ousted Theresa May – whose fatal problem was her inability to believe that two and two could make five – Johnson’s insane optimism reached messianic proportions.
In a typical act of self-parody – for politics has always been a performance art and a game to him that he personally cannot lose – Johnson declared this on his first day as prime minister: “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong again. The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”.
Well, they didn’t. Britain did.
So this may not be the Brexit that about half the nation ever wanted, but it is the one Johnson negotiated, agreed, campaigned for and delivered. It is here. And now his party and the country is lumbered with it, and no one more so than the realist Hunt. Feel his pain.