Friday 25 November 2022

The Brexit silence is breaking

There has been a palpable change in the last week. Brexit is suddenly being more widely talked about again, and not just talked about but questioned and criticised. Despite having scarcely been mentioned in last week’s ‘budget’ statement or Labour’s response, it was that budget which was the spark, although the tinder was already there in the things set out in my post of 4 November.

Why is Brexit being talked about again?

In brief, I suggested that four factors were coming together.

First, the Liz Truss mini-budget had tested almost to destruction the theocratic Brexiter idea that belief could trump reality and the nationalist Brexiter idea that the UK was strong enough to buck what they call ‘the global Establishment’. At the same time, it made economic growth central to defining what Brexit was supposed to deliver.

Second, the disastrous collapse of the mini-budget and, with it, the Truss premiership, brought Rishi Sunak to power on the sole basis of his supposed economic competence and realism.

Third, this happened against a background where opinion polls show ‘the economy’ to be by far the biggest issue of concern to the public.

Fourth, it happened against the background of opinion polls which for many months have shown a growing majority for the view that Brexit was a mistake, and a majority view that Brexit has been economically damaging.

It was thus highly likely that once the delayed Budget statement occurred these things would coalesce around the question of how can the government claim to be economically competent and realistic, and how can it promote growth, if it does not address the economic damage of the unpopular policy of Brexit.

This is exactly what has happened this week, and it has been given added bite by a fifth factor, namely the way that George Eustice’s comments last week finally opened up for debate the inadequacy of the Brexiters’ sole claim to an economic benefit, that of making independent free trade agreements. With that has come a realization that Brexit Britain’s ‘trade honeymoon’ is over, though the red herring of CPTPP membership still lingers.

Although some media coverage talks as if the issue of Brexit has suddenly re-appeared, the truth is that it has never gone away, as anyone reading this blog regularly will know. Whilst media and political attention may have been much reduced, the reality is that neither leaving the EU, nor the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that followed, provided a sustainable resolution to the Brexit debate.

The Brexiters’ political failure

That is partly because of the economic damage but, more fundamentally, because the Brexiters have totally failed to build a political consensus for Brexit. Even now, the only thing they can point to as the basis for such a consensus is the 2016 referendum result. But that narrow victory should have been only the beginning. If they had been serious about embedding Brexit as the new, accepted reality amongst a sustainable and growing majority of people they needed to show that it could work, and also to reach out to those who had opposed it.

Instead, they were not only unable to show it could work but, in many cases, actively decried what was being done as ‘not real Brexit’ whilst at the same time expecting those who had never believed in it to be persuaded to accept something they, themselves, were criticising. As for reaching out to opponents, they simply made no attempt at all. Only ‘true believers’ were regarded as having any right to shape Brexit, whilst remainers were treated with contempt. And so, quietly, and without much political leadership or media attention, opposition to Brexit has hardened amongst almost all of those who had always opposed it whilst the growing evidence of its failure reduced the number who supported it, with 20% of those who voted leave now regretting it. In short, the Brexiters won the referendum, but have failed to ‘seal the deal’ with the British people.

The aftermath of the budget

Now, in the aftermath of the budget, that is coming back to haunt them. Crucially, what is happening is not just a revival of ‘remainer’ criticisms. The pro-Brexit Telegraph is awash with articles bemoaning the “squandering” of Brexit (£) and of its “failure to deliver” benefits (£), to the point of recognizing that it might even be reversed. As for the Express, that other bastion of the true believers, it has recently gone remarkably quiet about Brexit. But, even there, an article by Tim Newark this week pronounced that, with the demise of Truss, “Tory MPs blew their one chance to re-commit to Brexit”.

Most strikingly, in an article in the Mail, veteran political journalist Andrew Neil wrote that “this is the week that Brexit died”. Neil has never declared how he voted in 2016, or whether he voted at all and, to be fair, his interviewing of Brexiters has generally been as robust as it has been of anti-Brexiters, although the tone of his writings does suggest a certain sympathy for Brexit. But, if anything, that gives an added authority to his remarks which, broadly, argue that leaving the EU was “supposed to create a post-Brexit, low-tax, low-regulation, free-wheeling economic environment” and has not done so.

It is not a new critique. The free-market right have been making it for at least a year. The difference now is that the Truss government, which vowed to deliver this version of Brexit, collapsed, and that the Sunak-Hunt budget shows, as Neil and Newark argue, that it will never be delivered. There is a deep flaw in this argument, of course, because neither this nor any other specific version of Brexit was ever proposed at the time of the referendum and nor was it at the 2019 General Election. What these right-wing ‘Singapore’ Brexiters tried to do was to use Brexit as a cover to deliver an agenda which no one was ever asked to vote on, and which it is unlikely a majority would have voted for had it been presented to them.

So, again, it shows the failure to build a political consensus, this time not just for ‘Brexit’ but for their version of Brexit, perhaps because they knew that no such consensus was attainable. In passing, I have never been convinced by the argument of some people who oppose Brexit that ‘low-tax, low-regulation Brexit’ was the ‘real agenda’ all along. Of course it was, by definition, the agenda of those many and powerful Brexiters who wanted that form of Brexit. But to say it was ‘the real agenda’ of Brexit is actually to concede to them the wholly dishonest idea that this was the true and necessary meaning of Brexit.

If one strand of the budget aftermath is right-wing Brexiters bemoaning that they will never get the extreme form of Brexit they wanted, the other strand is to re-open the question about whether the form of Brexit we have is too extreme. This was in evidence in the rumours that surfaced last weekend that the government was considering seeking a ‘Swiss-style Brexit’ for the relationship with the single market. Inevitably that also opens the door to the entire question of Brexit itself, especially given the polls showing clear public opposition to it.

Thus, to take a high-profile example, Piers Morgan – a remainer in 2016, but one who has hitherto been vociferous in arguing that Brexit should go ahead because of the vote – forcefully made the obvious point that “Brexit has been a disaster” and called for a referendum on re-joining. Arch-Brexiters like John Longworth may protest that “there should be no discussion now about EU membership” but to no avail. It is being discussed and it’s likely to go on being.

Back on the endless Brexit doom-loop?

Whether this revived discussion is a sign of moving forward is a moot point, however. The reports about moving to a ‘Swiss-style Brexit’ suggested that, even after all these years, quite basic things about Brexit are still not understood. Thus “senior government sources” apparently still believe that it would be possible to have Swiss-style Brexit without freedom of movement of people, and that the UK could get such a deal “because it is overwhelmingly in the business interests of both sides”. So here we are again, with the same old refusal to understand the single market and its inseparability from freedom of movement, and what is in effect a reprise of the ‘German car makers’ argument. It’s truly pathetic.

And that is even before considering that the Swiss model of multiple bi-lateral agreements with the EU is one that the EU itself regards as cumbersome and unworkable, would never be entertained with Switzerland were the relationship starting again now, and would not even be considered as a basis for EU-UK relations. Indeed, one of the core EU positions from the beginning was that the TCA would contain, in one architecture, the entirety of the post-Brexit arrangements, rather than making piecemeal deals. That certainly isn’t going to change now.

In any case, Sunak quickly disowned these reports (£), and he and Jeremy Hunt seem now to have the idea that post-Brexit barriers to trade can be reduced within the TCA framework. There is indeed some scope for that, although, at most, it is a limited scope, certainly not amounting to anything remotely like the “unfettered trade” Hunt has spoken of. That scope will be reduced to the point of non-existence (£) if, as he pledged this week, Sunak maintains the UK ‘red lines’ of refusing not only freedom of movement, but any role for the ECJ and any alignment with EU regulations. This also seems to bode ill for the ongoing Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations where, astonishingly, it is now reported that Steve Baker’s plan is to revisit the ‘sequencing’ row of the summer of 2017, which David Davis lost. So, once again, we seem to be going round in circles.

Needless to say, all this gave the hard Brexiters a fit of the vapours, with a 'new Tory civil war’ threatened and a revival of all the tired old talk of Brexit ‘betrayal’. In the process, there was a reminder of precisely the cultism with prevented them from building a consensus, with a “senior Tory backbencher” saying that “I and many of my colleagues have never regarded Rishi as a true Brexiteer”. Meanwhile, remain-voting Hunt was called on to “personally deny” the rumours, as a heretic might be called on to publicly recant. Outside the Tory Party, Nigel Farage made his habitual threat to ‘return to front-line politics’ if the government were to seek to ‘betray’ Brexit with a Swiss-style deal (he has apparently forgotten all the times he advocated such a model).

These reactions can also be seen as a re-hash of all the debates since 2016. They show that, even if Sunak is genuinely an ‘economic realist’ who can see the damage Brexit is causing, he, like any Tory leader, is hamstrung by the fanaticism of the Brexit Ultras in his party, a fanaticism which far from having been assuaged by Brexit has been inflamed by it. Equally, they show how, despite the idea that Brexit would kill off the external threat to the Tory Party from Farage, he continues to have the capacity to scare, and hence to control, it.

But this time is different

However, despite their familiarity, what is happening now is more than simply a re-run of old myths and old arguments. Before Britain left the EU, it was still possible for Brexiters to promise Brexit benefits and to decry ‘Project Fear’. Now, although they still try to do so, there is more than enough evidence to see the realities, especially the economic realities, of Brexit. That includes the evidence that the central premise of Brexit as regards trade – that increased trade barriers with the EU would be more than off-set by growing trade with non-EU countries – has been discredited.  

In short, Brexit is no longer hypothetical and that, in principle, makes a rational discussion of its economic consequences easier or, at least, ought to make an irrational discussion more difficult. That is made more so by the collapse of the Truss mini-budget because it so manifestly discredited the Brexiters’ claims that economic reality could be wished away, as the province of the ‘remainer Establishment’. Relatedly, the fact that the ‘intellectual’ basis of the mini-budget came from precisely the same group of economists who provided the economic case for Brexit itself has served to further undermine that case. Whenever their fantasies meet reality they fall apart.

And this extends beyond the purely economic frame. Especially as a result of the Ukraine war, the realities of the shared geo-political interests of the EU and the UK are more obvious. So, too, can it be seen that, far from ‘getting Brexit done’ with an ‘oven-ready deal’, the Northern Ireland issue that proved so central in the Brexit process has not, in fact been resolved. And since that is in large part because Brexiters have insisted that what was agreed and signed up to should not really be binding, then that undermines their equally loud insistence that every other aspect of the Brexit Boris Johnson agreed is, for all time, sacrosanct.

Moreover, before Britain left the EU, Brexiters could claim that they were seeking to ensure that ‘true Brexit’ was delivered. But, now, they are adamant that it has not been delivered. So often have they said that was we have got is ‘Brexit in name only’ (BRINO) that it takes away the force of their attempt to portray a softer Brexit than we currently have as BRINO. For if we really only have BRINO then why not have a different, less expensive BRINO? Or no Brexit at all? Or, to put it another way, if they insist that ‘Brexit has died’ because the ‘benefits’ (as they cast them) of a low-tax, low-regulation economy have been killed off, then the argument (in their terms) for undertaking Brexit has disappeared. So why not soften, or even reverse, it?

All of this means that the current, revived, Brexit debate is occurring against a different background to that of the pre-2020 debate. In one way, that background is worse for erstwhile remainers because, of course, there is no prospect of ‘remaining’, as sometimes seemed possible up until the result of the 2019 election. In another way, it is much worse for the Brexiters, because the very fact it is occurring is a sign of Brexit’s failure and, as the desperate tone of their attempts to ‘save’ Brexit shows, they know that it is a fragile and unpopular project. As if to provide a timely metaphor, this week Unboxed, the rebranded version of the Festival of Brexit, came to an end amid a welter of criticisms of it for being unpopular failure (£) and a waste of public money.

That unpopularity in turn means that the biggest battering-ram argument they used to constantly invoke, that Brexit is “the will of the people”, is now little more than a crumbling cudgel. Which people? The ones who, not just in the odd survey, but over and over again in every opinion poll say in a clear majority that Brexit was a mistake? Just for how long and how far can a referendum, the mandate of which has now been fully discharged, be used in defence of a version of Brexit that was not even the subject of that vote?

It all comes down to the Labour Party now

So in all these ways, something important is changing in the Brexit saga and that has become apparent this week. It is possible that the latest debate will all die down again, but that is unlikely because the underlying issues of the damage, especially the economic damage, of Brexit will persist. So, assuming economic performance continues to be the defining theme of Sunak’s government, then the debate will continue, and with it the daily new examples of Brexit’s failure and damage.

However, the unchanged dynamics of the Tory Party mean that Sunak will not be able to address, still less resolve, the problems of Brexit. There’s certainly little sign he can end the Northern Ireland Protocol row, because of those dynamics. It’s not even clear he will be able to stop adding to the damage, for example by dropping the EU Retained Law Bill, now widely recognized as being a recipe for administrative and business chaos but beloved by the Brexit Ultras in his party.

So if dealing with the damage of Brexit is to happen in any reasonable time-frame then it will fall to the Labour Party, assuming they win the next election. In any case, they can hardly stay mute as the Brexit debate revives. That makes it crucial, as pollster Peter Kellner argues, that Labour go into the next election with a clear policy to undo the worst of the economic damage of Brexit. It has to be clear, because otherwise they will not have a clear mandate if they win. And it needs to go well beyond the timidity, and vacuity, of ‘making Brexit work’ to some form of single market membership and a customs treaty.

In turn, that means breaking with its caution about immigration, the legacy not just of Brexit but of Gordon Brown’s ‘Mrs Duffy’ moment in 2010, and still in evidence this week in Keir Starmer’s comments about immigration at the CBI conference. In any case, the salience to the public of immigration as a political issue has steadily fallen from its peak in 2015, when 71% thought it was one of the top three most important issues facing the country, to as low as 14% in April 2020 and 22% at the beginning of October this year. It’s true that this has since risen to 37%, but that is almost certainly because the survey treats “immigration and asylum” as one issue which, for that matter, almost certainly makes all of the scores higher than they would be for ‘immigration’ alone. In short, Labour needs to be sure they are not fighting yesterday’s political battles on immigration.

As the staunchly Labour-supporting Associate Editor of the Mirror, Kevin Maguire, put it this week, Labour is “out of step with public opinion” on Brexit. I would put it more strongly than that. For once, Labour has a rare, perhaps generational, chance to stake out a position which is true to its values and those of its leader – for no one can seriously doubt, as they could of Corbyn, that Starmer thinks Brexit was a huge mistake – and which catches the tidal flow of the public mood, makes its economic policy credible, and is in the national interest. It’s a huge prize, if Labour can grab it.

Central to that happening is for this emergent new Brexit context to be fully understood and, in particular, for Labour to lose their apparent terror of being branded ‘enemies of the people’. That headline, with all the wider freight it carries, comes from 2016. Times have changed: Brexit has changed them. The people have changed: time and Brexit have changed them. The country and the world have changed: Brexit can change with them. But can Labour change? That remains to be seen but, right now, it is the only question that really matters.

Friday 18 November 2022

The charge sheet against Brexit’s guilty men just keeps growing

The long-awaited Budget – in all but name – has now arrived, but the public could be forgiven for not realising the extent to which it is a Brexit budget, given the near taboo in the Conservative and Labour parties on mentioning the economic consequences of Brexit. I discussed that silence in a Byline Times article this week, describing it as being ‘Lady Chatterley’s Brexit’, and won’t labour the general point here (the article is free to read). In any case, I’m hardly the only person making the same observation, both in the UK and abroad.

Suffice to say, it was a silence barely broken in yesterday’s announcement. Jeremy Hunt spoke vaguely of making use of “Brexit benefits” whilst Rachel Reeves’ response, although in other ways robust, merely mentioned in passing Labour's intention of “fixing the holes in the government’s Brexit deal”. Yet in the accompanying OBR report it was once again laid out what Brexit meant for the economy. It was left to smaller parties, most notably the Green’s indefatigable Caroline Lucas, to point this out, and also to point out that his silence about it made a mockery of the Chancellor’s claims to ‘honesty’ about the country’s financial situation. As Paul Johnson of the IFS said earlier this week, Brexit “has had a substantially negative effect on the UK economy”.

There’s really no room for serious doubt about that anymore and, in a sense, this Budget is the latest instalment of the so-called ‘punishment budget’, much mocked by Brexiters as ‘hysterical’ and ‘Project Fear’, that George Osborne warned would be necessary if the UK voted to leave the EU. That ‘punishment budget’ would have involved £30 billion of measures, half tax increases and half spending cuts. It didn’t happen in the immediate way Osborne had threatened, but has developed more gradually, and actually we can now see how modest his proposals were compared with the scale of damage Brexit has done. For, even before these latest announcements, Sunak’s March 2021 budget had already introduced record tax increases of £29 billion to (almost) cover the costs of Brexit at that point.

It's a Brexit Budget in another sense, too, arising as it does from the catastrophic failure of the Truss mini-budget, that ended her premiership. For that was explicitly hailed by Brexiters (£) as being the budget that would finally begin to deliver true Brexit, and was drawn up by pro-Brexit politicians, surrounded by pro-Brexit ideologues in explicit rejection of the supposedly anti-Brexit Establishment in the form of civil servants, the OBR, the Bank of England (BoE) and all the other bugbears of Brexit’s gimcrack revolutionaries. It left a £55 billion ‘black hole’ to fill, and massive reputational damage.

The Observer columnist Sonia Sodha is certainly right to argue that the concept of a ‘fiscal blackhole’ is misleading, and that there were different and better ways to respond to this mess. But that the mess had to be responded to isn’t in doubt, and this Budget is the government’s way of doing so. So, during an interview with Bloomberg’s Lizzy Burden (whose coverage of Brexit has been consistently excellent), former member of the BoE monetary committee Michael Saunders was equally right to say “without Brexit, we wouldn’t be talking about austerity this week”.

That is damning, but we could also turn all this round on its head. The post-Brexit economic debate has been almost entirely one where both remainers and independent economists point to the damage that has been done, whilst Brexiters and pro-Brexit economists deny it. It’s as if the important question were: was ‘Project Fear’ right? But Brexit was sold on the basis that it would positive for the country. In that sense, the clearest indictment of its failure is that literally no-one is suggesting that Britain’s fiscal position is better as a result of Brexit. 

Failure: conformity assessment

If the Budget is the most high-profile, even if under-acknowledged, example of Brexit’s mounting failure, others are, more or less quietly, gradually being admitted. At the quieter end of the spectrum, this week Business Secretary Grant Shapps announced another extension to the introduction of compulsory UKCA marking, and to the end to the validity of CE marking, on goods sold in the UK. Originally due to come into force in January 2022, the deadline had already been extended to January 1 2023 but, as I remarked a couple of weeks ago, it was all but impossible that firms would be ready to meet this.

This week’s statement extended the deadline to the end of 2024. But it would not be at all surprising, and the latest announcement hints at this, if these extensions go on and on being made until, eventually, the entire UKCA idea is dropped. It’s also by no means unlikely that the same will end up being true of the now four times delayed introduction of import controls on EU goods, currently postponed until the end of 2023.

This whole saga of conformity assessment marking, which I’ve been discussing on and off since March 2021, is a microcosm of Brexit folly, imposing a double regulatory burden on manufacturing firms which sell in both the UK and the EU. It arises solely from a theocratic, ‘sovereignty at all costs’ approach to Brexit. It had no economic or business rationale, and indeed Shapps’ announcement implicitly acknowledges that UKCA marking constitutes a cost for businesses and a distraction from their priorities. Also implicit is that those businesses which have begun to comply have already incurred costs, and if the whole scheme ends up being abandoned then those costs will be a total waste of money. For that matter, what are firms who are not currently ready to comply meant to do now? Continue to prepare for something that may never happen? Or take a bet that there is no need to do so?

As well as being a stupid idea, UKCA marking was stupidly done. The original timescales were always unrealistic, and, like many other aspects of Brexit, it would have been far better to have created a genuine – and long – transition period. The issue wasn’t just business preparedness but, again as with many aspects of Brexit, the time needed to prepare the regulatory infrastructure to register and certify the new markings (even though, just to hammer home the full nonsense of the idea, the actual product standards need not change at all). But the Brexiters have always been not just unrealistic but totally reckless in pushing for an early and quick Brexit, starting with the massive pressure they put on Theresa May to trigger Article 50. If there is a rational explanation for that, it is the wholly disreputable one that they knew how slender and flawed a mandate they had for Brexit, and were determined to ram it through whilst they had a chance.

The decision to postpone UKCA is, in one sense, a sensible one, in that at least it is better than insisting on the previous unworkable deadline. What would be far more sensible, of course, would be to abandon it completely, now, rather than defer it. But that, presumably, is still in the realm of the politically impossible, for fear that the Brexit Ultras will erupt in fury.

Failure: independent trade policy

Some aspects of the UKCA fiasco are present in one of this week’s louder admissions of Brexit failure, the wholesale denunciation of the UK’s trade deals with Australia and New Zealand by George Eustice. There are multiple important aspects of this. One is that Eustice, formerly DEFRA Secretary, was closely and directly involved in the negotiation of those deals. Another is that he is a long-standing Brexiter, originally a European parliamentary candidate UKIP (in that respect his intervention has some parallels with that of Theresa Villiers over the scrapping of EU retained law, discussed in last week’s post). So although none of his criticisms are new, having been made extensively by commentators, including me, for years, they are significant in showing how they are starting to be admitted by Brexiters themselves.

That’s particularly so given that the UK’s capacity to make its own free trade agreements is not just any old aspect of Brexit. It is repeatedly and vociferously claimed by Brexiters to be amongst the most crucial of Brexit dividends, and these two trade deals are so far the entirety of that dividend. Moreover, it was repeatedly claimed by the government that these deals were good for British farmers. Now, Eustice reveals in public that the critics were right, and that both the Australia and New Zealand deals conceded British interests, especially farming interests, with no compensating return. The reason, as again all informed observers have repeatedly said, was because the deals were rushed (£), giving the other countries anything they wanted, solely in order to ‘prove’ to the public that Brexit had benefits.

At the same time, Eustice made an astonishing attack on the competence of Crawford Falconer, now the most senior civil servant in the Department of International Trade. But, unlike other Brexiter attacks on the civil service, this was made against someone originally brought into the Civil Service, by Liam Fox, precisely as an antidote to the supposedly obstructive remainer ethos of the career civil service. He came from the infamous pro-Brexit thinktank the Legatum Institute, having been, along with Shanker Singham, one of the hard Brexiters’ go-to trade experts.

So, again, this is revealing of much about the entire Brexit process: its unnecessary haste, its emphasis on the symbolism of sovereignty, its disdain for established expertise in favour of ideological fervour, and, of course, the ever-present Brexiter dishonesty in the lies told about how wonderful these deals were for Britain and for British farmers. Not only that, but the government, and specifically Liz Truss when Trade Secretary, were warned at the time of the dangers but pressed on regardless. And to all that can be added the side-lining of parliamentary scrutiny of the deals, ironically one of the things claimed to be of value in being able to make them independently of the EU (a claim itself based on another lie, since, whilst still a member, the UK had chosen to exempt itself from holding parliamentary votes on the ratification of EU trade deals).

Whilst it is revealing, and to that extent welcome, that Eustice has now confirmed what so many had said all along, it is hardly to his credit that he did not have the spine to do so whilst still in government, when he described the Australia deal as “a good agreement”. Even more disgraceful is the fact that Rishi Sunak implicitly agrees – calling the Australia deal “one-sided” and saying that future trade deals will “not sacrifice quality for speed” – and yet intends to push on to the final ratification of both deals by passing the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill. Again, the reason is presumably fear of how his Brexiter MPs would react if he did otherwise.

It’s difficult to over-state how despicable and just plain absurd this situation is: that in the name of sovereignty, and for fear of those who proclaim sovereignty’s benefits, the British government is going to make international agreements which are damaging to the national interest and to a strategically, historically and culturally key sector of the economy.

Two kinds of failure

It's important to differentiate two aspects of the damage Brexit is doing, albeit that they interact. One, encapsulated by the budget, and shown almost daily by the growing economic evidence, is to do with what has been lost – especially in trade, investment, and labour market flexibility – by virtue of leaving the EU, and particularly the single market and customs union. The other is to do with the abject failure and utter incompetence of what is being created as an alternative to EU membership. That includes the stupidity and waste of UKCA and other regulatory duplications, as well as the creation of duff trade deals. But it goes much wider than that.

No realistic strategy

In a sense, the issue is that there is simply no post-Brexit economic strategy at all or, to the extent that there is, it is wholly unrealistic. The most obvious idea, that leaving the EU enables greater gains through globalizing trade was always nonsense, partly because of the constraints of geography but also because it was based on the falsehood of there being an either/or choice between EU trade and world trade as an EU member. In fact, being in the EU facilitated both, whereas being out significantly impairs EU trade whilst barely, if at all, shifting the dial on trade with the rest of world.

That aside, such strategy as there is has been based on boosterism and hubris about Britain as a world-leading innovation hub, but it is all talk and very little walk. The historian David Edgerton gives a defining example in the sorry story of the Britishvolt gigafactory, concluding that “Brexit Britain has faked it but not made it”. Another case is the replacement for the Galileo Project, which is still in limbo, a situation arising from a complicated chain of events but ultimately rooting back to Theresa May’s refusal to accept the EU’s terms for continued participation in the EU’s system (at the time, she said that “as a global player we are not short of options”). And the post-Galileo situation is part of the wider issue of the UK’s Space policy, where, as Peggy Hollinger of the Financial Times put it this week (£), “the government’s ambition in the sector is at odds with its strategy”, an ambition she goes on to criticise for its “incoherence”.

This hubris, boosterism and lack of realism shares, along with the ideas of the UK being able to dictate global terms of trade and of being able to act as a global regulator, the common root of a fantasy about Britain’s global significance, perhaps encapsulated in the endless invocation during the referendum and afterwards of the power that being “the world’s fifth largest economy” bestowed. It was based on an illusion: there are three economic superpowers and they are the US, the EU and China. After that, being fifth, tenth or even fiftieth comes to much the same thing in terms of setting terms.

Dither and uncertainty

But the situation it is worse than that. Even at the domestic level, there has been no coherence in what the government has tried to do with its post-Brexit ‘freedoms’. Farming policy is a prime example where, leaving aside the issue of trade deal impacts, the Environmental Land Management System (ELMS), set out in March 2021 as the post-CAP system for England is already mired in uncertainty. Under Truss, it seemed that it would be reviewed and replaced, then that was called into doubt when Sunak came to power, but now it appears that it will indeed be scrapped. There are related doubts about whether the post-Brexit ban on the export of live animals will be reversed.

This is just one part of a wider picture in which, according to the Social Market Foundation, uncertainty about regulatory policy across the economy is inhibiting growth. It is an uncertainty which is massively enhanced by the EU Retained Law Bill which, despite noises to the contrary, is still in process, with the potential for as yet unspecified regulations to be changed or scrapped as early as next year. That uncertainty is not helped by the almost daily drip of articles from influential Brexiters proposing all sorts of regulatory changes which are either not specified or which airily suggest things like departing from the GDPR framework with no apparent understanding of how this would poleaxe UK businesses and other organizations. And there is also the ongoing uncertainty of which Brexit faction will win out over whether there is a maximalist or a minimalist immigration policy, a question about which the Budget statement remained resolutely agnostic.

All of this is without even discussing the continuing uncertainties over the Northern Ireland Protocol. These bear heavily on the people of Northern Ireland, and especially on the fragile politics of the post-GFA devolved institutions. At the same time, they mean a continuing cloud over the UK’s international reputation, with its threat to break international law still present, if perhaps more muted than it has been. And, again, there is still no clear strategy about this, any more than there has ever been. Instead, there has been denial, dishonesty or – which is most apparent now – drift. Certainly there is no sign that Sunak’s government have any idea how to proceed except for promising to resolve matters in time for the anniversary of the GFA, apparently under US pressure (as I suggested would happen in last week’s post). Exactly how that is supposed to happen no one knows, least of all, it would seem, Sunak himself.

The guilty men (and, yes, they are mainly men)

None of this uncertainty has been helped by the massive churn of ministers in many departments, itself an artefact of the post-Brexit political instability that has seen five Prime Ministers and two General Elections since the referendum. However, it goes much deeper than that. Both the damage done ‘by Brexit’ and the damage created by what is being done ‘with Brexit’ can be traced back to the total ignorance, wilful dishonesty, and reckless irresponsibility of those who proposed and campaigned for Brexit without the tiniest understanding of how to do it – something we have seen play out since 2016 – and without any understanding of what to do with it, something which is now playing out ever more clearly.

We know who they are*, these latter-day guilty men, from Farage through Johnson, Gove, Hannan, Paterson, Rees-Mogg, Francois, Duncan Smith, Baker, Cash and any number more, right through to Sunak (and, yes, women, too, like Stuart and Hoey). We know who their henchmen in the media are, the Hartley-Brewers and the Heaths and their innumerable clones. We know who gave them their tiny shred of intellectual ballast, the Minfords and the Littlewoods and the Howes, or their skin-deep patina of business credibility, the Martins and the Longworths and the Dysons. We saw their promises, their falsehoods, their evasions, and their lies, and they are all on record. On record, too, is all the spite and ridicule and bile they threw at those who warned them, who pleaded with them, not to inflict this on our country.

And as I’ve suggested in this post, their guilt is not just for having campaigned for Brexit but for all they have done since. I don’t usually quote Tweets unless they are posted by public figures, but this, from Dr Simon Ubsdell this week, is a perfect summary: “The worst crime of Brexit is not the dark skulduggery that secured it in the first place. It is the relentless mendacity, the shameless fraud, the arrogant deception, the unremitting shiftiness that has driven it ever since”.

It would be comforting to think that they will pay a price, these guilty men, if not through public arraignment then by dint of private remorse. They will not. That falls to the rest of us. We’re paying, literally, in literally devalued pounds and pence, as in this week’s budget, and the bill will go on rising. We’re paying, too, in the more intangible currency of a country whose reputation is sullied abroad and which is shabbier and meaner for those who live in it. A diminished and dolorous land whose only route to salvation lies in the honesty stolen by its guilty men and which, even now, or at least for now, eludes us.


*Others who have drawn this comparison, such as ‘Cato the Younger’, Anthony Seldon and, most recently, Tom McTague configure the list of names differently, but the charge sheet is much the same.

Friday 11 November 2022

In the doldrums

Brexit is in one of its periodic doldrums. That’s not to say that all the ongoing problems and miseries it has created have abated, or that the almost daily reminders of them have ceased. And of course the perennially unresolved Northern Ireland Protocol row continues.

More of the same

What also continues is the rather lame and repetitious attempt by Brexit ideologues, which I discussed last week, to refute the now irrefutable fact of Brexit’s economic failure. This week, the baton was passed to Larry Elliott, the Lexiter Economics Editor of the Guardian, and Telegraph columnist Roger Bootle (£), one of the members of Patrick Minford’s now disbanded Economists for Brexit group. I call it ‘baton passing’ because there is an inescapable sense of, if not actual coordination, then, at least, shared endeavour in what these people write. For example, Elliott, like Robert Tombs last week, invokes an IEA-dominated ‘Briefings for Britain’ report as his evidence for the lack of Brexit damage, showing, incidentally, the latest strange conjunction of left and right that Brexit has created.

The main line that all of them currently share is the deeply illogical one that, since the UK is experiencing severe economic problems, and since other countries are experiencing severe economic problems, then ‘therefore’ the UK’s economic problems cannot be due to Brexit. They also invariably anchor their dismissal of all negative economic assessments of Brexit in what they take to be the failure of the pre-referendum short-term economic forecasts of a vote to leave.

That is a tricky claim to unpick, because it’s true that remain campaigners were at fault in using it as if it were an unconditional prediction. In fact it was based, like all such forecasts, on numerous assumptions, some of which were not met (e.g. that David Cameron would, as he had promised, immediately trigger Article 50, or that the Bank Of England would not make any interventions to stabilize financial markets, which in the event it did). So although the worst warnings proved false, and perhaps would have done so even if all the assumptions had been met, that isn’t the slam-dunk the Brexiters imagine it to be. Anyway, whilst the remain campaign did use those forecasts in a highly simplified and therefore misleading way, that’s not something which those whose campaign included slogans like ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ and ‘Turkey’s joining the EU’ are in a good position to criticize, frankly.

In any case, why keep bringing all this up now? The answer is that it is in order to pursue another deeply illogical argument: that since a warning of possible damage was (supposedly) once proven false, then ‘therefore’ all warnings of damage are false, and ‘therefore’ all reports of damage are false. The same goes for another commonality in the current round of Brexiter denial, shared by both Elliott and Bootle, along with Dominic Lawson as discussed last week, which is to take Mark Carney’s recent, and highly questionable, claim that due to Brexit the UK economy has fallen from being 90% the size of Germany’s in 2016 to being 70% of its size now. But, even if that is bogus, to keep repeating it is again to suggest that since one statement of the damage of Brexit is false then ‘therefore’ all such statements are false.

Bootle, whose article is slightly more balanced than most of them, does concede that Brexit has adversely impacted trade and investment, something Elliott ignores or dismisses, but both of them continue to insist that the benefits of Brexit remain in the future. That’s something else they share with the other Brexiter apologists discussed last week, though the important issue is the ever-present one that they undoubtedly have totally different ideas of what those benefits would be.

We can expect all this to rumble tediously on at the abstract level of arguing over macro-economic indicators, even as just about every business affected by Brexit groans under its impact. Those complaining include Next’s Chief Executive Lord Wolfson, an advocate of Brexit but now one of the many saying “this is not the Brexit I wanted”. Yet again the issue is the multiple meanings of Brexit, and the original sin of the Vote Leave campaign’s deliberate refusal to specify any particular one. I won’t discuss Wolfson’s latest intervention here because I did so on the previous occasion when he said the same thing, along with some other pro-Brexit business leaders, almost a year ago, in a post entitled ‘Not my Brexit’, and, depressingly, most of it still applies, a sign of the glacial slowness of the entire Brexit debate.

Reality wins, but painfully slowly

Also rumbling on is the gradual death of all the hopes and promises of Brexiters. This week it was finally announced that the plan to replace the Royal Yacht Britannia has been shelved. It was one of those symbols, like restoring Imperial units of measurement (of which we have heard nothing since the pathetic ‘public consultation’), that used to swell Brexiter hearts and hopes (£). Those hopes have now been dashed on the prosaic, but revealing, fact that Brexit Britain is simply too poor to afford such fripperies, and with potential Russian attacks on undersea internet cables the Navy has better uses for £250 million than a Boris Johnson vanity project.

Rather more substantive are the new concerns that have been raised about the reckless plan to scrap EU retained law by the end of next year, the more reckless as it has emerged this week that there is an even greater volume of law affected than was previously realised. This plan is also symbolic, though in a particularly asinine sense since the symbolism of getting rid of ‘foreign law’ is negated by the fact that, as retained EU law, it was written in to UK law by parliament as part of Brexit. Not to mention the fact that much of it was heavily influenced by UK priorities when an EU member. But, unlike the yacht plan, it is something that has the potential to cause real chaos.

That possibility reveals the underlying reality that, far from being some horrible regulatory burden holding the UK back, most of it is the vital regulatory infrastructure than enables to the UK to function at all. To properly go through, check, adopt, amend or repeal all this might take decades, according to law and policy commentator David Allen Green. Originally conceived by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the legislation involved was strongly endorsed by Rishi Sunak during his original (failed) leadership campaign, but there have been rumours for weeks that, with Rees-Mogg out of the government, Sunak wants to delay or even abandon it.

Already Rees-Mogg is fighting back from the backbenches, with a ludicrous article in the Telegraph (£) that simply denies all the practicalities. It was robustly taken apart by legal expert George Peretz KC, but legal issues aside Rees-Mogg is on shaky political ground when he insists that those questioning – or, as he puts it, “squealing” about – the legislation do so out of opposition to Brexit itself. For what is significant about the latest reports is that the concerns come from a committed Brexiter, Theresa Villiers, on the grounds of their impracticality. Again, reality is gradually winning out against Brexiter fantasies, but only at a crawl. As Nick Tyrone put it this week “Brexit is melting - but slowly”.

Northern Ireland: stasis

It's worth recalling the most notable role Villiers played in the Brexit referendum. For it was she, then the Northern Ireland Secretary, who used the weight of that office to echo Boris Johnson in saying that Brexit would have no implications for the Irish border. It is of course that falsehood, or what has arisen from it, which is now the main reason why the present doldrums are likely to be only a temporary calm. Most of us are so inured to it that what is actually astonishing hardly registers now: a full three years since the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed, almost two years since it supposedly came into operation, and some eighteen months since the UK first unilaterally extended the grace periods on some of its provisions, the fundamental nature of the Protocol is still not settled and is still under negotiation.

The process has itself effectively been in the doldrums for over a year, to some large degree because of the political chaos of having  had three Prime Ministers during that period. In public, at least, nothing much has changed in terms of UK demands since the July 2021 Command Paper, or in terms of the EU position since the October 2021 proposals for adjustments to the Protocol (apart from the EU unilaterally granting an assurance of the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland). Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) Bill continues to trundle through Parliament, whilst, formally, EU infringement proceedings against the UK for its failure to implement the original terms also continue.

The sense is that neither the UK nor the EU really know what to do. The EU position seems to be to wait and see how the politics plays out in the UK, whilst the UK government seems to just be hoping that something turns up. Both sides, of course, have many other things to occupy them. But this limbo can’t continue forever, not least because of where that leaves Northern Ireland and Northern Irish politics. By not, as he had promised – or threatened – immediately triggering Assembly elections, and this week continuing to postpone setting a date for them, the current Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, has apparently acknowledged that the likely outcome would not change anything in the absence of a resolution to the negotiations with the EU.

In so doing, the government has either deliberately or by default accepted that what exists is now what I have called a ‘quadrilemma’, in which restoring functioning devolved government is one of the moving parts along with the original ‘trilemma’ of hard Brexit/ no land border/ no sea border. One likely outcome of this quadrilemma is that no conceivable version of the NIP would be accepted by the DUP, unless it softens its demands, and if that is so then devolved government is in effect permanently suspended, with all that implies for the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA), which will be 25 years old next year.

That anniversary is significant in all kinds of ways, including likely US displeasure with the UK if, by the time it falls, the Assembly is still not functioning. It is hard to feel sympathy with the DUP, given its support for hard Brexit, but it is certainly possible to do so for the unionist community. For the way things have developed was always one possible version of the way in which Brexit, unless in the very softest of forms, and perhaps even then, was bound to de-stabilise the fragile calibration of the GFA.

This is exactly what Tony Blair and John Major warned of in 2016 and exactly what Villiers, Johnson and other Brexiters denied. As for the consequences of the specific form the NIP took, for all that Heaton-Harris now says that these were not known when it was agreed, they were spelt out in detail in a civil service briefing at the time. In any case, the core objection of unionists is not to the details of its operation but to the basic principle of a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It’s simply absurd to pretend that this was an unforeseen consequence of the 2019 deal: it was the front and centre of that deal.

However, as everyone knows, the main barrier to Sunak agreeing a deal with the EU lies less in Belfast than in London, with his own fractured party. This week, Maros Sefovic has again been making very conciliatory statements about flexibility, and it’s clear that a deal is there for the doing (£). But that’s been true for a long time. Whether Sunak can and will do it remains unclear.

Sunak: no discernible agenda

In fact, Sunak’s entire agenda as Prime Minister, beyond that of clearing up the mess of the Truss mini-budget, is difficult to discern, and nowhere more so than as regards the NIP. So far as I know he has very little knowledge of, or prior interest in, Northern Ireland, although to his credit he attended the British-Irish Council summit this week, the first Prime Minister to do so since 2007. It’s known, or at least reported, that as Chancellor he opposed taking a ‘hard’ (i.e. illegal) line on the negotiations by pursuing the NIP Bill, apparently for fear of the economic consequences, but his overall position is ambiguous.

Similarly, it is unclear how he might approach the EU. There is some mood music that the tone of his interactions with EU leaders have been positive, with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney making some especially optimistic comments, and he seems to have had harmonious meetings with Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen this week. Nevertheless, he is extremely inexperienced in foreign policy, and his blunder in only going to COP27 under pressure either indicates a maladroitness in international affairs, or a lack of interest in them compared with domestic issues or, worse, that he initially saw ignoring COP27 not just as having lower priority than those issues but as a way of signaling sympathy to the right of his party that he, like them, is sceptical about Net Zero.

Even if that wasn’t the case, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if Sunak’s overwhelming priority is to prevent another outbreak of Tory civil war. And given that the ERG and like-minded Tory MPs are likely to oppose any deal with the EU over the NIP, it’s questionable whether he will be strong enough to over-ride them, even assuming he wanted to.

Same old Tory Party

That isn’t going to change however long the process drags on for, and it isn’t going to be resolved by the ongoing ‘technical talks’ because it is a political decision. In fact, by having gone on for so long, it is now very likely to intertwine with what happens over EU retained law. The ERG might conceivably swallow ‘backsliding’ on one of these, if only to avoid the sheer absurdity of potentially bringing down yet another leader, but not both. And with them and the Tory right generally - including someone I’d been happily unaware of before, Lee Anderson, but who even on first encounter seems worthy of a special award for his prolier than thou self-importance, nastiness and ignorance - frothing with spittle-flecked anger over asylum seekers, how long before their existing disdain for Sunak ‘the socialist’ turns into open revolt?

These three issues are linked not just in being pre-occupations of the Tory Right, but in showing the persistence of Brexity post-truth politics. For, as Professor Gerhard Schnyder sets out in his latest Brexit Impact Tracker, hopes that the collapse of the Truss mini-budget in the face of reality would be a turning point towards realism and pragmatism have proved over-optimistic, except in terms of the forthcoming budget and then only in a limited way, if at all. It’s notable, for example, that Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch seems still to be talking down the validity of OBR calculations.

Certainly as regards the scrapping of EU retained law, along with Rees-Mogg’s continuing denial of reality, David Jones of the ERG  is quoted as saying (£) he “absolutely believed” it could be completed by the end of 2023. Regarding asylum seekers, it is reported that “Ministers insist that the arrival of small boats must simply be stopped, but Home Office staff say the focus should now be on improving the dysfunctional asylum processing system”. And, of course, as regards the NIP, Brexit Ultras have simply never accepted the basic reality that hard Brexit entails a border. The one way in which the NIP issue is different is that, if Sunak does completely give in to the Tory right, which would put the UK on the path of breaking international law as well as a potential trade war, he might very well encounter a rebellion from the other wing of the party.

Politics on hold

For now, almost everything in UK politics is on hold until the Budget statement, but it is hard to see how the NIP can be left unresolved for very long after that. Perhaps it will be settled via some fudge that the DUP and ERG will accept. Perhaps, too, the scrapping of EU retained law will quietly be extended to the almost indefinite future. Perhaps, as happened under Johnson and looked set to continue under Truss, there will be a gradual loosening of immigration restrictions. Perhaps, even, and if only for the most disreputable of reasons, a fair, workable and legal asylum system will be established, including a sensible agreement with France.

Indeed perhaps Brexit itself will be permanently in the political doldrums, a constant drag on the British economy and on British international standing, yet scarcely discussed as if it were the habitual drunken lechery of an elderly uncle at family parties: unpleasant to contemplate and considered in bad taste to mention, until he finally dies at which point everyone says how much they loathed him.

Or perhaps this is just a hiatus until the next crisis, such as a massive rebellion from the Brexit Ultras over one or other, or all, of the NIP, retained law, and immigration. That would require the Ultras to be willing to place extreme dogma ahead of both practicality and political loyalty, but that is not exactly to put an outlandish strain on the imagination.

It’s not easy to say which scenario is the more likely, nor which is the more depressing.

Friday 4 November 2022

Can’t pay? Won’t pay!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that, “the current political chaos and economic turmoil have served to crystallize what has actually been under way for a while. Having won the 2016 vote for Brexit, the Brexiters have comprehensively lost the battle for the post-Brexit narrative which began at the end of the transition period, when the reality of being outside the EU began. There have been ebbs and flows in that battle but, although there will continue to be skirmishes, it is now effectively over”.

It's the economy, stupid!

We can see the consequences of that playing out now, and they are doing so in a particular way and for particular reasons. Those reasons are the arrival of Sunak, and the nature of the implosion of the brief Truss premiership that led to it. For Truss did two things. Firstly, she tested almost to destruction the theocratic Brexiter idea that belief could trump reality and the nationalist Brexiter idea that the UK was strong enough to buck what they call ‘the global Establishment’. Secondly, she made the central pitch of her post-Brexit vision economic performance and, specifically, economic growth. When that pitch fell apart so disastrously that brought Sunak to power on the sole basis of being ‘realistic’ and ‘economically competent’.

All this happened against a broader background of growing public concern about the economy. Since February 2022 it has been seen as the most important issue facing the country, which hadn’t been the case since May 2014. Currently, a whopping 70% of the public think ‘the economy’ is the most important issue, way ahead of the next most important (health, 43%), something likely to be exacerbated by yesterday’s interest rate rise and Bank of England forecast of a long recession. And this isn’t just about ‘the economy’ in the abstract: for example, 34% of people are less confident than they were last year that they can feed themselves and their families. At the same time, the latest polls show that 53% of people think Brexit has had a negative effect on the economy, and only 12% that it has had a positive effect.

So Sunak’s central claim of realism and economic competence is important in terms of voters’ priorities and it also necessarily brings into focus the economic damage of Brexit. How can that realistically be denied, and how can any claim to economic competence be sustained for as long as it is denied? This in turn brings into focus not just Brexit but the way that Brexit morphed into the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and customs union. The Brexiters won that battle in the first six months of Theresa May’s premiership but, now, it is just beginning to be re-litigated. How could it not be, if growth and economic competence are central to politics?

For so long as those things frame the terms of debate, rather than vague, boosterish stuff about ‘sunny uplands’, ‘Brexit freedoms’ and ‘sovereignty’, or populist slogans about ‘delivering the will of the people’, there can be only one outcome. To take just one recent example, in the words of Assistant Editor of the Daily Telegraph Jeremy Warner, “from an economic perspective there has been zero payback [for Brexit], and particularly in the area of international trade and reputation, considerable harm”. He continues by saying that those trying to “hide behind” the various global shocks that have served to conceal the impact of Brexit “delude themselves”.

An emerging consensus

This is now slowly emerging as the collective consensus, perhaps rather in the same way that the 1956 Suez Crisis, which at the time bitterly divided political opinion, gradually became established as a byword for national humiliation and disastrous folly. It has been many decades since anyone seriously disputed that. Admittedly we are not quite there with Brexit, yet, which in any case is a far bigger collective trauma than Suez. Writing in The Spectator, Matthew Parris expressed the current situation well:

“Where during these recent, turbulent years, can we identify any big wrong turning that … Britain took? The answer is lurking … but never quite surfacing. It is there in the collective unconscious of a nation but hardly acknowledged because its acknowledgement is just too painful, too ready to take us to war again – to war with each other and with ourselves. It is among the reasons the dream of an uptick in economic growth eludes us … Brexit isn’t working. We should never have left: and if we were implacably resolved to leave, we should have stayed in the single market.”

The Truss-Sunak handover is enabling this unacknowledged truth to be more widely and more loudly spoken. Shortly after its release a fortnight ago, I referred to the excellent Financial Times video cataloguing the economic damage of Brexit. Within a few days it had had three million views, and no doubt that figure is higher now. Then, last week, a shorter but equally excellent video by the BBC’s Ros Atkins, carrying essentially the same message, went viral. Tellingly, in terms of my point about the impact of Truss-Sunak, the FT film begins with the mini-budget and the BBC’s with Sunak’s promise to ‘build the economy’.

Round up the usual suspects

Unsurprisingly, with this heavy artillery pounding on the economics of Brexit, and the changing political mood, there has been an attempted counter-offensive. Because it came from the BBC, Atkins’ video, especially, had sufficient reach that Brexiters couldn’t ignore it and, of course, because it came from the BBC they subsumed it into their familiar critique of the Corporation’s supposed (though wrongly so, as Emily Maitlis recently argued) anti-Brexit bias.

Thus the ever-splenetic arch-Brexiter John Longworth, writing in the capital letter strewn style that, like the green ink letters of a former era, invariably denotes the author being a total loon, proposed that we look at “THE FACTS” instead of the Atkins video. With tragic inevitability, these were ‘the facts’ supplied by the Brexit Facts4EU website, a source whose credibility might unfairly be compared with Pravda, but perhaps not unreasonably with the Tooting Popular Front Gazette since, like Communism, Brexit has become the revolution that would have been perfect if only it had been properly tried. At all events, Brexit Facts4EU has in its own estimation produced a “demolition” of the Atkins video, using “official facts”, no less, even though such officialdom is usually seen by Brexiters as the mark of ‘the Establishment’. It also “demands” another programme, featuring – guess what? –  pro-Brexit economists “such as Julian Jessop, Andrew Lilico, Liam Halligan, Professor Patrick Minford, the IEA, and others”.

In a similar way, in the Daily Telegraph (£), Professor Robert Tombs, one of the 41 – yes, 41! – self-proclaimed ‘brains for Brexit’, was also busy denouncing the new ‘Project Fear’ (surely the most vacuous political slogan ever devised). Tombs, an eminent Professor of French History, makes no claim to credentials in economics or business, but, like the rookie art critic who may not know much about art, he knows what he likes. What he likes, and refers his readers to, is yet another of the interminable Brexiter websites, this time ‘Briefings for Britain’, for its, of course, completely unbiased assessment of the economic impacts from long-time pro-Brexit economists Graham Gudgin, Julian Jessop and Harry Western. And – again, guess what? – according to them it’s all going pretty well, and the only reason to doubt that comes from remainer economists producing “ideological” analysis.

Meanwhile, in the Daily Mail, Dominic Lawson was also outraged by the Atkins video, although much of his article was taken up with a ‘guilt by association’ critique of Mark Carney’s recent assertion that the UK economy has gone from being 90% of the size of Germany’s in 2016 to 70% now. As Lawson says, it’s an assertion that has been heavily criticised by Professor Jonathan Portes, whom he rightly refers to as both an eminent economist and as one not known as a particular fan of Brexit. But so what? For as Lawson acknowledges, the Carney claim didn’t feature in Atkins’ video.

That red herring aside, the Lawson article is an exercise in denial. Like Brexit Facts4EU and Briefings for Britain, he relies for his critique of Atkins on one of the tiny minority of pro-Brexit economists, once again the former IEA Chief Economist Julian Jessop, before finally falling back on the familiar but absurd defence that “for many millions who voted for Brexit, it was not just, or even at all, about GDP”. The absurdity is obvious. If this is the case, then why make such a song and dance about how Brexit isn’t bad for the economy? And why did the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 explicitly claim that it would be good for the economy, whilst vociferously denouncing suggestions to the contrary as Project Fear? And why, even now, is the government still pumping out ridiculous lies about the value of post-Brexit trade deals?

Crucially, it isn’t 2016 anymore, so how does the ‘not about GDP’ line now work as an argument in the context of Truss' and Sunak’s focus on the economy? Just as 70% of the public now think ‘the economy’ is the most important issue facing the country, only 18% think it is ‘Britain leaving the EU’ (perhaps reflecting that many see it as ‘done’). By contrast, at its highest, in December 2019, leaving the EU was seen as the most important issue by 71% and the economy by only 26%. In fact, throughout the period July 2016 to March 2020 more people thought the Brexit issue was the most important facing the country than thought it was the economy. (Of course these figures don’t say anything about whether or not people think that leaving the EU matters more than the economic effects of doing so, and they certainly don’t measure support for Brexit at different times. They just measure perceptions of what policy area is currently the most important. Source for all figures is the YouGov tracker.)

What makes a good expert?

Back, though, to the praise Lawson accords Jonathan Portes. He does so, fairly obviously, because on this occasion it was about a point that it suited him to do so, noting that “Portes still thinks that Brexit is not beneficial to the economy, but is prepared to reassess the extent of that as events develop”. Lawson is correct to take an openness to evidence and reason as an important quality and guarantor of reliability, but doesn’t follow through on its wider implications on where we should look for expertise. No doubt amongst the large majority of economists who think Brexit is economically damaging there are some whose opposition to Brexit is so doctrinaire that they would never reassess their position. But that doesn’t apply to most of them who, like Portes, would be guided by the available evidence, because that is central to their professional values which long precede and go far deeper than their views on Brexit.

The same is true of the vast majority of those who are not economists by profession or training, but who are economically literate and/or who have expert knowledge and/or experience of business, trade, regulation and all the other things which lie under the bonnet of the headline economics of Brexit. Speaking as someone in that category, I’m not opposed to Brexit despite evidence of it being an economic success, but because evidence and reason suggest it is, and is bound to be, an economic failure. And like, I imagine, most people in this category (in fact, like most of the general public), membership or otherwise of the EU wasn’t a burning issue before the referendum and only became so during or afterwards. It’s not the result of some lifetime of investment in the cause of EU membership.

But let’s turn that round. Does anyone seriously think that there is any conceivable evidence that would lead any of the small group of high-profile economists always invoked in support of Brexit – people who have been advocates of, and intellectually invested in, Brexit for, in some cases, decades before it happened - to change their minds? Have any of them ever even proposed such evidential tests?

In fact it’s this lack of ‘falsifiability’ in Brexiter economics (i.e. that, contrary to one well-known criterion for a good scientific theory, there is no piece of evidence which, if presented, could lead to the theory being proved false) which makes it so flawed. It’s not simply that pro-Brexit economists are in the minority because, after all, they could still be right. It’s that no evidence could conceivably make them admit to being wrong so – unlike the quality Lawson rightly ascribes to Portes – they will never reassess their view. It is also why, although any presentation of evidence will necessarily be selective, there are good reasons to expect that these economists will cherry-pick facts without even attempting to give due weight to context and counter-evidence.

That represents an intellectual failure but, in the currently emerging context, it also represents a political failure. There can be no doubt that the small group of doctrinaire pro-Brexit economists, and the nexus of thinktanks with which they are associated, have had, in their own terms, political success. Partly as a result of a compliant media that gave them huge exposure in the interests of supposed ‘balance’, and partly because they offered an economic ‘simplism’ that chimed with the simplism of the leave campaign generally, they certainly played an important role in securing the vote to leave. But, now, as well as being tarnished by their role in the mini-budget, the continued reliance on the same tiny cast of characters only serves to emphasise how comprehensively Brexit has failed.

For if it had been an even partially successful project of national liberation and renewal then, by now, there would be hordes of new devotees flocking to the cause. Instead it is still, as it always has been, Minford, Jessop, Gudgin, Lilico et al. The same old Brexit warriors, manning the now beleaguered Brexit ramparts.

The revolution has failed

It is another sign of failure that, along with the main defence of denial of the negative economic impacts of the Brexit, there is an auxiliary line of defence that it is ‘too early to judge’, and that the benefits of Brexit will only emerge in time. It’s a line which has been taken in the past by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Digby Jones, amongst others. In the latest skirmishes it is advanced by Andrew Lilico, another of the usual suspects, proposing a 40-year timescale for judgement. But as I’ve pointed out when this argument has been made before, it’s utterly without merit. Not only were no such timescales mentioned when Brexit was sold to voters but, if they were envisaged, then it makes it all the more reckless that the leaving process was undertaken at such breakneck speed, with the early triggering of Article 50 and the refusal to extend the transition period.

In any case, it’s transparently obvious as a means to avoid accountability, not just by deferring judgement for so long as to be politically meaningless but by ensuring that the already evident attempts to claim that Brexit effects can’t be separated out from the impact of other events become irresistible. Effectively, the Brexiters disallow predictions, on the basis that they rely on forecasting models, and then disallow retrospective evaluations, on the basis that they rely on counterfactual models, so Brexit can never be judged; or, more accurately, on the basis of these arguments they disallow all predictions and retrospective evaluations other than their own, so their judgment of Brexit is the only one they accept as valid.

Of course these rear-guard attempts to deny the failure of Brexit don’t all take the form of trying to rebut the evidence that it is so. Some, like Tory MP Tim Loughton, at least implicitly accept it but still flounder about with the idea that “the EU are not making it [trade] easier for us” because of being “sore” that the UK has left. Obviously that ignores that the UK chose to make trade more difficult for itself.

That familiar victimhood narrative, so central to Brexit, is also evident amongst Brexiters like Professor David Blake of Briefings for Britain, who believes that a “remainer coup” has taken place, and Tim Stanley in The Telegraph (£) who accepts that “the Brexit revolution has come to an end”, with both postulating that single market membership may return, and both couching what is happening in terms of ‘the elites’ taking back control. It might be wondered why, if these elites are so powerful, Brexit ever happened in the first place and, as so often, it’s possible to glimpse how much easier it would have been for the Brexiters to sustain their sense of victimhood had it not done so.

What can also be glimpsed in Stanley’s piece is the sheer adolescence of some Brexiters when he gripes that he misses “the hope-filled Sturm und Drang of early Brexit, of the sense of forces unleashed and institutions scaled. One could almost hear the glass shattering in Whitehall”. He is not alone. That same kind of ‘disruptor’ mentality has been a significant strand of Brexit, evident in the nihilism of Dominic Cummings quite as much as the recklessness of the Truss mini-budget. If there is now talk of the adults having to clear up the mess, that is not, as Robert Tombs has it, to patronize those who voted leave. It is to take at their own reckoning the adolescent silliness of so many of those who urged voters to do so, and not even daring to propose it in those terms but instead with promises of prosperity now cruelly broken.

Those broken promises are now all too evident, and not just in headline figures about trade and growth. Increasing attention is now being paid to the disaster – discussed many times on this blog – of double regulation, for example in the cases of the chemicals industry or of the rapidly approaching deadline to make the UKCA mark mandatory. Remember the referendum campaign when, to the extent such things were discussed at all, the ‘simplist’ demand was ‘why should all British businesses comply with the EU regulations when only 12% of them trade with the EU’? Now we see the answer: the alternative is to hamper those businesses which do trade with the EU or which, unknowingly, supply them, by forcing them to follow two sets of regulation.

The ‘Home Office crisis’

Finally, away from economics, but very much in the headlines, we see that far from fixing the ‘migrant crisis’ – a crisis which is in fact a crisis of the abject failure of the Home Office to create adequate processing facilities for the, by international standards, very small number of asylum seekers to the UK – Brexit has inflamed it. That’s partly because the UK is no longer part of Dublin III Regulation, one provision of which can in some cases allow asylum seekers to be returned to the first EU country they arrived in. At the time of the exit negotiations the government claimed that it would negotiate bilateral deals with EU member states to the same effect, but it was yet another Brexit pipe dream, with EU countries responding that Brexit Britain could no longer “count on European solidarity”.

Yet, unlike the economic consequences, there is little sign of political and public awareness that this crisis is in part another Brexit crisis. Instead, there is a literally inflammatory and proto-fascist response stoked by vile talk, including  from the Home Secretary, of an “invasion”. There is also revived suggestion of a ‘Brexit 2.0’, in which the UK leaves the European Convention on Human Rights rather than perform the straightforward administrative task of creating a rapid processing and humane housing scheme for asylum seekers who, even aside from the moral issues, could make a superb contribution to British life including, indeed, to economic prosperity.

All this is not just depressing but shameful and disgusting, as well as being an insufficiently recognized indictment of Brexit and, being an issue where opinion still divides along remainer-leaver lines, a reminder of one of the deep-seated roots of Brexit.

The won’t of the people

Nevertheless, that doesn’t negate the wider way in which Truss’s failure and the advent of the Sunak government is bringing a new public realization of, at least, the economic failure of Brexit. Apart from that being logically entailed for the reasons I gave above, there is also already some opinion poll evidence for it, although it is complex to decipher. Sir John Curtice's analysis does so, in particular by showing that, although the gradual growth of opinion that Brexit was a mistake hasn’t been much affected by the mini-budget, the mini-budget has deepened the negative view of Brexit, and especially amongst those who, whilst having voted leave in 2016, would now vote to rejoin.

So this is in line with my suggestion that the public view has gradually but very clearly shifted to Brexit having been a mistake since the end of the transition period, and is now solidifying as economic issues come to the fore. My expectation would be that, to the extent that these issues are set to dominate the coming political period, this new attention to its negative economic realities will also dominate discussion of Brexit, and that sentiment will turn more widely and more deeply against Brexit, although there must be an upper ceiling to that.

Related to this, for all that for some time to come we will go on hearing the squeals of the usual suspects in their last-ditch defence of the failed project of Brexit, we now very rarely hear what used to be the bullying battle cry of it being ‘the will of the people’. There is a good reason for this. There has barely been an opinion poll since August 2017 which doesn’t show a majority view that Brexit was a mistake. After that date, the split of opinion was often close but since June 2021 it has been inexorably growing so that now, excluding don’t knows (who have run steadily at about 12% throughout), only 39% think it was right whilst 61% think it was wrong to leave. So Brexit is certainly not the will of the people, and, with the central focus of politics now on the economy, politicians need to catch up. Increasingly, voters won’t be willing to pay the price this failed and unpopular project is exacting.