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We can thank Brexit for one thing: it’s a lesson in how to spot opportunists, liars and zealots

As immigration creeps up the opinion polls as a topic of concern here, we would do well to pay attention

Coming up to eight years since the Brexit referendum, four to the day since Brexit proper was celebrated with Big Ben bongs and a countdown clock projected on to Number 10, and one thing we know: Liz Truss was not wrong about the cheese (find her 2014 cheese speech and add some joy to your week).

Britain’s latest effort to pull off a “multibillion-pound trade deal” – this time with Canada – has ground to a halt over cheese. A landmark deal with India is stuck over disagreement about whisky tariffs and business visas. There is much agitation over new customs checks and predicted 14-hour queues for EU checks at Dover with the looming new EU entry/exit system, not to mention the latest French outrage which will restrict British second-home owners to 90-day stays. And many remember Boris Johnson’s assurances that “nothing will change” for Britons wanting to travel, live and work in Europe.

This is not a snide Irish/EU take on the current state of Brexit; all these topics occupied a single page of the London Times last Friday.

Meanwhile, the DUP is staggering back to Stormont under the pitiful self-delusion that it’s all someone else’s fault.


As the party wrestles with a powerful case of amnesia and accuses everyone else of offending its notion of democracy, it is important to remember its role in this.

In his 2020 book Democracy for Sale, Peter Geoghegan explored the extraordinary case of the little Northern Ireland party which somehow found £435,000 (€508,000) to spend on a large advertising campaign promoting Brexit in England, where it had never put forward a single candidate. For context, the DUP’s entire income for 2022 was £426,175. Geoghegan contended that the money was channelled to the DUP through the official Vote Leave campaign because the latter had almost used up its £7 million limit. This was denied. But where did the money come from to begin with?

It all remains a sorrowful mystery, much like the DUP’s startling £1.5 billion confidence-and-supply deal to save Theresa May’s government which coincided neatly with the then northern secretary’s surprising decision not to backdate mandatory donor details to 2014, ensuring that the mystery donor would never be named. The small issue of precisely where the trade border would go in the event of the DUP’s success was lost in the excitement.

These details should be remembered when the party ascribes impure motives and skulduggery to others and worth some reflection in an election year as we watch topics plunge and soar in domestic concerns. In Monday’s Irish Times/Ipsos B&A snapshot poll, immigration topped the list of spontaneous mentions at 24 per cent. Housing was five points behind. Nothing else – not climate change, not cost of living, not crime – came within 20 points of immigration.

This contains echoes of recent British history. Ten years ago, only 11 per cent of people polled in Britain regarded the EU as an important issue. As for immigration, surveys had begun to show a hardening of attitudes following Ukip’s success in the 2014 local elections. Then again, a 2015 Ipsos Mori “perils of perception” poll suggested that Britons believed on average that a quarter of the population were immigrants; the actual figure was half that.

No one seemed too interested in straightening out the perceptions. The Tories were too busy trying to catch Nigel Farage’s momentum. In a BBC/Populus poll, the EU came ninth in a question about news importance but, just a few months later, three-quarters said they wanted an in/out referendum while nearly half said they would probably or definitely vote to leave. Just like that.

It took a mountain of cash and figures such as Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove with Farage on the continuity wing to fashion these elements into a juggernaut run with a steel fist, a talent for sloganeering and a shameless, lying mindset.

The strategy was clear as day on the Leave side. It placed immigration second and third – control of borders and immigration – in its “Why vote Leave” campaign materials (the UK’s financial contribution to the EU took first). And suddenly more than half of Leave voters were citing immigration as important to making their Brexit voting decision.

This is what the DUP’s murky donation helped achieve.

The absence of guilt or remorse among them or the main Brexit actors is remarkable. With exhausting predictability, former MP and prominent Brexiteer Ann Widdecombe probably spoke for many of them when she was asked on LBC this week if an apology might be forthcoming. No, the only thing she regretted about Brexit is that “it wasn’t done properly”, she boomed, accusing the EU of victimising Britain with its visa rules by “making it as difficult as possible”.

Last week the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) leader Alice Weidel hailed Brexit as “dead right”, calling it a model for Germany.

Weidel clearly hasn’t read up on the fate of her “dead right” role models. Boris Johnson – disgraced. Dominic Cummings – ignominiously fired. Nigel Farage – a presenter on the 20th biggest news website in the UK. Michael Gove – an uncharacteristically silent levelling up secretary.

Steve Baker – penitent, now serving quietly as Minister of State for Northern Ireland. David Davies – backbencher. Priti Patel – backbencher. Jacob Rees-Mogg – backbencher. Peter Bone – disgraced. David Frost – most ludicrously appointed a lord; his latest, reliably wrong Telegraph column claims that “Trump has captured the new conservative zeitgeist”.

David Cameron – who called and lost the 2016 referendum, back as foreign secretary.

The only positive aspect of Brexit is the lessons it continues to send in how to spot the performative hams, the opportunists, the liars and the zealots. We would do well to heed them.