Boris Johnson gave a speech about the next stage of Brexit earlier this week in Greenwich. The initial reactions mostly focused on how this was the UK Government setting out its stall that was at odds with the line the Commission’s negotiator Barnier outlined the same day. Then there was the issue of not inviting the CBI and Institute for Directors along to listen, a bit of attention to some weird gestures Johnson made, and some laughs at the waffle at the beginning of the speech (full text here).

But dig into the speech a bit deeper… and the hollower it gets.

Forgive me the potential error of taking a Johnson speech at face value, but beyond the oddities of the well-fed nymphs and cupids, the prose is actually semi lucid, implying someone other than Johnson himself wrote the speech.

Yet while it might be lucid, I struggle with the implications of the words.

Here are the choice extracts.

at the outset I wish to reassure our friends [in the EU] about one thing: to lay one myth to rest.

We will not engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom


We are not leaving the EU to undermine European standards, we will not engage in any kind of dumping whether commercial, or social, or environmental


There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules.

The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas – better, in many respects, than those of the EU – without the compulsion of a treaty.


we have so often been told that we must choose between full access to the EU market, along with accepting its rules and courts on the Norway model, or a free trade agreement, which opens up markets and avoids the full panoply of EU regulation, like the Canada deal.

Well folks I hope you’ve got the message by now.

We have made our choice: we want a comprehensive free trade agreement, similar to Canada’s

In other words: we have taken back control, not that we are going to use it.

This is what I mean by the title of this blog post – placebo sovereignty.

And then, by extension, hope that the people of the UK who have been braying to leave the EU do not notice that nothing much has changed.

Or, expressed differently, we do not have a problem with the standards you have set, but we do have a problem with how you have set them.

Based on this caller’s conversation with James O’Brien there’s perhaps a chance a slew of Brexiters might actually not notice. But the EU is not static – things change, Regulations and Directives pass, and some of those might eventually have an impact on the UK that is not fully to Brexiters’ liking, and then the lack of actual sovereignty might bite.

But my second concern is a deeper one.

If leaving the EU is not about actually making concrete and practical changes, then what the hell is the point of seeing through this complex and expensive undertaking? This ends up the most costly placebo ever invented. And then logically Brexit has just become an end in itself, not a means to achieve a demonstrably different UK.

Now of course the EU will not swallow this. Trust us, little will change and we are not malevolent (especially when expressed by Boris Johnson), will not cut it in Brussels. The EU, as a community of law, will rightly want all commitments formulated in a legally binding manner.

But as a starting pitch for the next stage of Brexit, Johnson’s prescription is lacking some crucial ingredient. What is the point of taking back control, if so little is to change having done so?

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