Thursday 18 May 2017

The Brexit election: but what about Brexit?

Theresa May framed the calling of the general election in terms of Brexit, but what is truly remarkable is in how little it is actually being discussed. You have to take a step back to see just how peculiar this is. Whatever side you were on in the referendum, leaving the EU is the biggest national event since the Second World War – far bigger than the decision to join – and it’s also possibly the most unusual political event in any developed democracy in living memory. When else has such a country decided unilaterally to re-write almost all its foreign and economic policy, and to seek to simultaneously detach and re-attach itself on unknown terms to the global trade system?

In those circumstances, one might expect an intense debate about the ins and outs of what Brexit will mean and how it will be pursued. It is no good saying that this was settled by last year’s referendum. That vote, whatever else can be said about it, only opened up new issues. It was a vote to leave the EU, certainly, but it was not a vote for anything else in particular. The way it is now taken forward will affect every single area of daily life, from air travel through to nuclear waste disposal, and every industry from fishing to computer game design. And the very existence of the country as a United Kingdom will be called into question.

So where is the detailed discussion of different options and their consequences? What exactly does the government’s White Paper Brexit plan, endorsed in the Tory manifesto, mean? Is ‘no deal better than a bad deal’? How would a ‘bad deal’ be defined? What does a ‘no deal’ scenario look like? Most extraordinary of all, where is the discussion of the costs of the Brexit plan? Every single other policy, from whatever party, is relentlessly scrutinised for affordability. How will this or that spending pledge be paid for? Yet no questions at all are asked about the cost of Brexit, even though in any realistic scenario it will be in the high billions of pounds, with reductions of GDP/capita in the range of 6.3% to 9.5% according to an authoritative study by MIT. Even halve the lowest estimate, and that is an economic disaster in prospect; at the higher end, which might by the same token be an under-estimate, it will be a catastrophe.

What will the effect on employment be? How will the tax take be affected? What is the impact on that totemic issue of recent years, the fiscal deficit? What about the balance of payments? Will the UK’s credit rating be affected? Will sterling’s status as a reserve currency be affected? And what about the value of sterling, anyway? Brexit has seen a huge currency depreciation which at any other time would have been a massive election issue. So why isn’t it being talked about except, sporadically, in muted terms of rising inflation?

Beyond the economics, where is the discussion of what foreign policy looks like post-Brexit? Trump’s election, itself one of the biggest issues of recent times, even were Brexit not happening, in combination with Brexit means that Britain’s place in the world and its core alliances are all in flux. But this has barely been mentioned by any party. For that matter, one might think that the fate of the over one million Britons living in the EU and who are directly affected by Brexit would merit some significant debate – not least since at least some of them have a vote in this election. But they are hardly discussed.

That this bizarre situation is being allowed to exist is partly a matter of the failure of journalists to ask any of these questions. It is also the responsibility of the two main political parties themselves (the LibDems are certainly making Brexit central, but focus mainly on the case for a second referendum). The Tories are content to let the only Brexit-related issue be which of May or Corbyn will be able to negotiate ‘the best deal’ – with no sense whatsoever of what that deal would be. Instead, the Tory manifesto re-iterates the White Paper commitments to a form of Brexit that was neither voted for in the Referendum nor advocated by many leading leavers. That is, to leave the single market and customs union, prioritising immigration control. But there is no explanation of why this is the preferred approach, how it will work in practice even if achieved, nor what costs – financial or otherwise – it will entail, and no one bothers to ask. So, for example, the news of Tory manifesto launch was dominated by discussion of social care funding. Yet the very viability of the care system, which is heavily dependent on EU workers, is in peril because of Brexit.

Labour are simply in a mess on Brexit, without a policy position that makes any sense at all. Their manifesto statement about wanting to retain the “benefits” of the single market and customs union but without being members of either is meaningless and in consequence so are the rest of their pieties about the kind of deal they would seek if in government or even support if in opposition. Nor are they asking any significant questions of the Tories about their policy in a misguided attempt to assert that the election is not, in fact, anything much to do with Brexit. Yet all of the issues that they are mainlining on will inevitably be hugely affected by Brexit, the NHS being just one obvious example. They are not even making the point that the outgoing Tory administration has foisted the greatest instability in living memory on the UK and yet are now insisting that only the Tory party can provide ‘strong and stable’ leadership. Nor do they mention how by calling this election Theresa May has blown two out of the already tiny twenty-four month time frame for the Article 50 negotiations.

The most extraordinary things about all this is that the only half-way intellectually respectable justification put forward for Brexit was that it would mean that the British electorate could choose and dispose of its political direction of travel via the general election ballot box. But what is now in prospect is the use of that ballot box to endorse a scarcely specified, barely discussed and yet central, historic policy. Although commentators are saying that this is the first election in recent times where there has been a very clear distinction between the main parties, on the core issue of Brexit they are both committed to a virtually identical hard Brexit.

This matters hugely, because on the basis of the result – presumably, a large win for the Tories - a mandate will be claimed to enact Brexit pretty much as they want. Included in the Tory manifesto is, again, the phrase that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ – giving cover for an outcome absolutely at odds with what voters were led to expect during the referendum campaign. Yet in her manifesto launch speech the PM said that the consequences of not getting the right deal would be “dire”. So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow ‘no deal’ to be an option?

And it is certainly not just remainers who should worry about this. It is perfectly conceivable, and consistent with the manifesto, for Brexit to entail, possibly in backdoor form, many of the regulatory and legal institutions of the EU. In fact, if that does not happen then the stated preferred aim of creating a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU is unachievable. It’s noteworthy that the manifesto is not even explicit about leaving the ECJ (which isn’t mentioned directly). So what are voters endorsing if they vote to allow this ‘deep and special partnership’ to be an option?

So we have an election ostensibly about, and in the middle of, the biggest strategic and economic change that this country has made in the lifetime of most voters, and with consequences which will last for decades, but the actual nature of that change is barely being talked about, certainly not at any level of detail. With this farcical election on top of a farcical referendum we drift every more rapidly not, in fact, to the jolly, trouser-dropping British farce with which this all started, but to the theatre of the absurd: nihilistic, incomprehensible, dark and slightly mad.

Addenda (19 May 2017):

1. Comments now disabled on this blog due to volumes of spam
2. My briefing, 'The Business of Brexit: What happens next?' is now available.

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