Britain’s decision to depart the European Union was unwelcome in Ireland, but the form of departure chosen and the new complexion of British politics which emerged, makes damage limitation unlikely.

Liz Truss has assumed leadership in the UK six years after the Brexit referendum and three years after the ascent of her predecessor Boris Johnson, who was the choice of the Tory party in 2019 with a mandate to “get Brexit done”. He went on to win a general election, but he did not get Brexit done, at least not the version sold to the electorate by the Leave campaign in 2016.

The UK was invited to choose economic prosperity courtesy of new trade deals outside Europe, unshackled at last from the dead hand of Brussels, along with extra money for the National Health Service (NHS) and lower immigration.

None of these outcomes have been delivered. Exports to Europe have been poor, the balance of the payments deficit is ballooning and so is government borrowing, sterling has weakened, the NHS is struggling for funds and the UK is now scrambling for workers from further afield.

He did not get Brexit done, at least not the version sold to the electorate by the Leave campaign in 2016

Of the last four Tory leaders, not one has been a convinced Brexiteer. Cameron triggered the referendum but campaigned for Remain, as did Theresa May. Johnson picked Leave at the last moment, having allegedly drafted two conflicting articles for the Daily Telegraph, one arguing for Remain, the other for Leave. It would be nice to script a coin-toss for the Johnson biopic, but political calculation is the more likely explanation.

Liz Truss supported Remain and her more recent antagonistic positions on Europe display the zeal of the convert. Thus, three of the last four Tory leaders were against Brexit. Three and a half, if you can imagine Johnson tossing a coin as he chose which article to file with the Telegraph.

It is important to recall that most Conservative MPs were against Brexit before the referendum and the party had traditionally been more Europe-friendly than Labour. Increasingly under Theresa May and decisively under Johnson, the party has purged its more centrist elements, the Brexiteer faction has taken over and the party has changed its tune.


The defining feature is no longer Euroscepticism, it is Europhobia, a desire to continue the battle against the EU after it has been won. The UK is out of the political structures, out of the single market and out of the customs union.

There is no free movement and the writ of the European Court no longer runs in the king’s dominions. A win is a win. But the anti-Europe campaign goes on.

Why the intense Europhobia as the marker of Conservative party policy? The UK is outside the EU – this is what the voters chose against the advice of most prominent Tory politicians in 2016, but a constructive relationship could nonetheless have been sought and has been freely on offer.

It could take the form of a better working relationship with both single market and customs union, if only from the outside. Fewer non-tariff barriers, less form-filling, less delay and cost. Theresa May was deposed by Johnson largely because she was willing to fashion a better post-Brexit accommodation.

Instead, there is a constant stirring of tensions and the threat of a trade war if the UK unilaterally breaches its treaty obligations, enshrined in Johnson’s “oven-ready deal” of late 2019. The best explanation is that pragmatism has been abandoned in favour of denialism. Brexit was a strategic blunder, especially the “hard” version the Johnson premiership delivered, but this cannot be admitted. It must be maintained that Brexit has not been a failure and any difficulties which have arisen are the fault of others, the wily EU and the scheming Remainers.

It may take a change of government before damage limitation becomes the policy imperative

This denialist Conservative party is the inheritance of Liz Truss, the Remain campaigner and one-time member of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Her willingness to provoke a destructive and pointless conflict with the EU, by unilaterally reneging on the Northern Ireland provisions of the withdrawal agreement, derives from this denialism – it is the EU’s fault.

It is inconceivable that the UK will, under a Conservative or even a Labour government, seek a reversal of Brexit for the foreseeable future and an application to rejoin would hardly be welcome.

However, it is open to the UK to retain regulatory alignment in merchandise trade, which would permit some form of improved access to the single market. Non-members Norway and Switzerland have deals along these lines. Customs checks could be minimised too – Turkey is a kind of associate member of the customs union.

Liz Truss has given no indication that she favours moves in this direction and it may take a change of government before damage limitation becomes the policy imperative.