Opinion: Amidst Cabinet discord and U-turns, what’s happened to the promised benefits of Brexit?

On 19th February, the BBC reported that a proposed ban on ‘fur and foie gras’, cited as a key Brexit benefit for animal rights, had been dropped due to Cabinet opposition. The government’s U-turn, whilst of limited importance in the grand scheme of Brexit and its consequences, perfectly exemplifies how competing visions of “Brexit Britain” will continue to prevent supposed Brexit benefits from ever standing a chance of being realised.

For those who don’t know, foie gras is a French dish made from the fattened liver of a duck or goose, whereby the caged birds are force-fed absurd amounts of grain so that their livers swell up to about ten times their normal size by the time the birds are ready for slaughter. Understandably, this barbaric production process is banned in the UK, however EU single market laws have for many years prevented a ban on imports from elsewhere.

Consequently, last year, supposedly freed from the shackles of restrictive EU trade policies, the Government announced this ban alongside a ban on importing fur, as part of a series of post-Brexit animal welfare reforms. However, last Saturday it was revealed that the Government was set to reverse its foie gras policy after Cabinet opposition, with the chief opponent of the ban being none other than Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees Mogg, who cited concerns about personal choice. Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had argued against the fur ban because of the military’s use of bearskins for the hats of Guardsmen.

The fact that such minority opinions can overrule clear public consensus (a 2021 poll showed a 72% support for a fur ban) is a disgrace in itself. However, the problem goes much deeper than this. This Cabinet’s divide on animal welfare vs consumer rights is emblematic of much deeper divides amongst Brexit supporters regarding what Brexit actually means to them. From the beginning, the Leave Campaign was nothing more than a loose coalition of cross-ideological political factions, with the left’s vision of a progressive post-Brexit state focused on welfare reforms and nationalisation clearly incompatible with the right’s vision of a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’. What’s more, key divisions have emerged from within the Cabinet itself about what Brexit actually means to ministers, with the protectionist wing led by the likes of Michael Gove and George Eustice coming to blows with Liz Truss’s globalist wing over the potential impacts of a free-trade deal with Australia on British farming last May.

These huge splits within the government have resulted in a wealth of contradictory policies, with the government failing to meet the bold promises made during the Brexit campaign. Just last month the Government refuted Labour’s suggestion to remove VAT from gas and energy bills, to help poorer families cope with the cost of living crisis, despite Vote Leave themselves advertising VAT removal as a potential benefit of Brexit back in 2016.

So without all these forgotten benefits where, exactly, are we left? With new and exciting trade deals that promise to undercut British farmers or with lorry queues stretching from Dover to the Outer Hebrides? There’s a certain amount of irony in a Brexit Opportunities Minister post, designed to exploit these benefits, being set up two years after we left the EU. Yet again I’m sure the Government would argue they were too focused on the pandemic to even consider such issues. Either way, surely now, as covid recedes, we’ll be able to find these hidden Brexit opportunities, right?

Whilst I mock, leaving the EU has undoubtedly given us the opportunity to do some things differently, even if it has come with many obvious costs. One Brexit argument that always made sense in principle was leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidises farmers based on the amount of land used for agriculture, rather than agricultural output or the environmental quality of that land. In theory, a nationally-based alternative could subsidise farmers based on their use of environmentally friendly practices and in doing so, repair our degraded ecosystems with the Government’s CAP replacement scheme aimed at doing just that. However, for such a scheme to emerge, it will take years to assess whether the government’s rhetoric is matched by the reality on the ground, with some MPs already warning that the new system could increase our reliance on food imports.

In truth, the endless debate about whether the perceived benefits of Brexit outweigh the costs no longer matters – Brexit Britain is our new reality and will be for decades to come. However, unless Johnson can resolve the internal divisions within his Cabinet and decide on a consistent vision for a post-Brexit Britain, none of the supposed benefits, that these ministers spent so much effort convincing people were worth the costs, even stand a chance of being delivered.

Image: Fattening of ducks in single cages with force-feeding for the production of fatty liver (“foie gras”) in France (2012), L214 – Ethique & Animaux//CC BY 3.0

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