Britain doesn’t need ‘reform’. It just needs to rejoin the EU

Brussels: It was Dr Johnson, not Boris Johnson, who declared “patriotism is a last refuge of the scoundrel”. Some years have passed since Johnson, Shirley Williams and I were guests of an institute outside Moscow. We were there to explain what we hoped were the wonders of western democracy – the freedom, the politics and the economic policies – to Russian politicians and academics who were glorying in having shaken off the constraints of the Soviet Union.

Alas, the glory days were not to last. Along came the so-called oligarchs, and then Putin. The ancient Greek word oligarkhía meant “rule by the few”. But in the post-Soviet world it came to denote a group of people who stripped the nation of its prime economic assets and became very rich – more plutocrats than oligarchs. We all know the consequences: the collapse of the Soviet Union evolved into rule by dictatorship, with the plutocrats fleeing abroad from Putin.

The democratic values Williams, Johnson and I spoke about on that visit became seriously threatened during Johnson’s premiership. The public is being reminded of this by a television series which brings back the horrors of Johnson’s openly contemptuous suspension of parliament – known as “proroguing” – in order to have his way over Brexit. It also brings out the chaotic way in which Johnson conducted his premiership. This is important because there is an energetic and vociferous element on the right of the Tory party that wishes to bring the miscreant back.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Government, backed by the formidable team of former premiers John Major and Gordon Brown, is urging fundamental reforms in the civil service and cabinet – that is, in the machinery of government. The Labour party – the government in waiting – is showing an active interest in all this.

Great though my admiration is for the people involved in this exercise, I have to say that we have been here before – many times. Indeed, I am tempted to say that reshuffling the governmental deckchairs is a last refuge of – I won’t call them scoundrels, but of oppositions nervous of their prospective inheritance. It was noteworthy that Lord Butler of Brockwell, a former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, wrote a letter to the Times last week implying that in his – pre-Johnson – day, things worked quite smoothly as they were.

There is a famous line in Lampedusa’s The Leopard in which Prince Tancredi says: “If things are to remain the same, things have to change.” The approach to government of Keir Starmer’s predecessors Harold Wilson and Tony Blair was on the lines of “things have got to change”, but in due course the approach to government remained very much the same.

The machinery of government does not always have to endure the wrecking tactics of people such as Johnson and his sometime henchman Dominic “Eye Test” Cummings. It seems to me that, while there must always be scope for improvement, the more fundamental problem Starmer should be focusing on has less to do with the machinery of government than with, let’s face it, the mistaken policies that have brought the economy to where it is.

Entry to the European Union, and later the single market, had a benign effect on a British economy that had some obvious long-term ailments. But along came 10 years of needless austerity, whose damage was, and increasingly still is, compounded by the self-harm of Brexit.

The Centre for European Reform has recently produced a disturbing study of the devastating impact of surrendering the trading privileges of membership of the nearby single market for the cloud cuckoo land of pathetically inadequate – or what prove to be nonexistent – trade deals with far-off nations such as Canada, Australia and India. The much-vaunted trade deal with the US suffered the fate of the Titanic; but, never mind, there is a trade deal with Texas instead.

When Starmer and his prospective chancellor, Rachel Reeves, weigh up the situation, they must surely accept Brown’s advice that the British economy needs to be put on a “war footing”. A necessary condition of this must surely be a return to the EU’s customs union and single market.

Meanwhile: back to the scoundrel. Can the rumours really be true that Johnson plans to campaign in the so-called “red wall” seats where he lied through his teeth about the advantages of Brexit?

Perhaps he could take with him a copy of the front page of the Daily Express of the eighth of this month: “BREXIT IS A GREAT BRITISH SUCCESS STORY WORTH BILLIONS”. No, I did not make this up.