Friday 30 December 2022

Brexit is slowly being discredited, but there’s still a long way to go

I had intended my previous post to be the last of 2022. Yet, even during what could be expected to be the relative quiet of the holiday period, there has been enough Brexit news to warrant another one. As Nick Tyrone wrote in one of his recent ‘Week in Brexitland’ posts, his initial worry that there would be weeks when he did not have enough to write about proved false, and the problem is, more, what to leave out. I have found the same thing.

That this is so reflects the fact that Brexit remains both an unfolding process and a deeply controversial one. That, in itself, is indicative of some of the failures of Brexiters. One is the way they treated winning the referendum as if it were the end of the matter, rather than the beginning. Another is the way that they failed to create, or even to try to create, a durable consensus for their project. Of course, more fundamentally, it is also because the passage of time has revealed ever more clearly the flaws of that project, and that most of the warnings about it were right.

It is also a testament to the refusal of erstwhile remainers to be cowed by the insults, bullying and intimidation they have been subjected to ever since the referendum, ranging from being called ‘remoaner cry babies’ right up to ‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. As a result, and despite having relatively little political leadership, the consequences of Brexit have been kept in the public domain and have received a growing amount of media attention.

The economic failure of Brexit

Although it may not seem like it, we are still only in the very early period of experiencing the realities of Brexit. Yet it is already clear that the post-Brexit public narrative has started to settle to the view that it has been a failure, especially economically, something begrudgingly acknowledged by Brexiters themselves. They now try to object that this is a premature judgement, and that it will take decades to assess Brexit. But, even leaving aside the fact that this wasn’t what they promised when selling their project, it isn’t a defensible objection.

The creation of new barriers to trade with the EU is having exactly the effect that any sensible person expected: trade with the EU is now more difficult. This can no longer be ascribed to ‘teething problems’. A British Chambers of Commerce report (£) just before Christmas shows that it is becoming structurally embedded in both trade and international supply chains. This shouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this blog, as it is exactly what I said was under way once the transition period ended. And there was never any prospect of an independent trade policy compensating for this loss by trade agreements with non-EU countries and groups, with or without a US trade deal, and this, too, has been borne out by what has happened since the end of the transition period.

Of course trade is only one component of the economy, but it has consequences for higher inflation, lower economic growth, and a lower tax take. These things, in turn, feed through into the pay claims being made by unions, and the strikes resulting from (in the main) the government’s assertion that it cannot afford to meet them. At the same time, without reducing total net migration in the way many leave voters wanted and expected, the end of freedom of movement of people is having severe consequences for many sectors of the economy, including health and social care. Recent polling shows that 63% of people think that Brexit is the main or a contributing factor to labour shortages.

These adverse economic consequences were not mitigated but significantly intensified by Liz Truss’s attempt to deliver what was hailed by Brexiters at the time as a ‘true Brexit budget’. That experiment is now dead, although its consequences live on (£). So, too, do the perennial Brexiter promises of a deregulatory bonanza. Yet that has limited electoral support, being unappealing not least to key parts of the leave voting coalition, and no economic rationale for a global trading country which simply isn’t big enough to operate its own, national, regulatory systems. It’s not completely impossible that some sectors may turn out to benefit from regulatory freedom from the EU, but the template for this – the Covid vaccine roll out – is based on the lie, albeit widely believed, that it required Brexit.

Thus, overall, the latest calculation from the widely cited analysis by John Springford of the Centre for European Reform (CER), which came out just before Christmas, is that the economic consequence by the second quarter of 2022 had been to reduce UK GDP by 5.5%. The consequence, which was widely picked up on by the media, is an estimated loss in tax revenues for the year to June 2022 of £40 billion. There is a legitimate debate about these figures – they could be higher or lower – but no reputable economist now denies that the impact has been negative.

Public opinion is slowly shifting

The evident economic failure of Brexit is probably the biggest reason why public opinion is turning against it. However, erstwhile remainers need to be careful not to over-estimate that. For one thing, if there is an economic recovery, for all that it would not vindicate Brexit, it might well affect opinion about Brexit. More importantly, although the trend in opinion polls shows a clear and growing increase in the gap between those who think Brexit was a mistake and those who think it was right, it is not an overwhelming change. The largest gap recorded was 56%-32% in early November 2022, but it has been smaller in each of the three polls since then, and there have been odd points since the end of the transition period when ‘right to leave’ had small leads. It’s also of note that ‘don’t knows’ have rarely shifted from the 12% mark.

Nor is the growing support for re-joining in the event of another referendum, for all that it stands at 45% to 32% in the latest poll, overwhelming. Only a few weeks ago, a different poll gave the result of 45%-41%. That was an outlier amongst recent polls, and from a pollster whose methodology appears to generate more support for staying out than other firms, but the point still holds that opinion is turning but only slowly and only somewhat.

It’s also true that the direction of travel favours re-joining, and that demographics are likely to favour it even more. But any honest assessment of the polling evidence would have to conclude that the country remains fairly evenly divided, and any sensible political analyst would recognize that it could change, decisively, in either direction in response to events and in the course of any future referendum campaign.

There is still a bedrock vote of something like 35% to 40% for Brexit, and depending on how ‘don’t knows’ respond, and on turnout, majority support for Brexit could easily be rekindled from that base. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, prior to the 2016 referendum, many polls showed a lead for remain, and that the final survey before the vote had both sides on 45%. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that, were a new referendum to be announced tomorrow, the polls could quickly get back to that kind of figure from where they are now

So, whilst Brexiters have lost the early post-Brexit battle for control of the narrative, the situation is still potentially fluid. Moreover, whilst the media are increasingly attentive to the negative effects of Brexit, the two main Westminster parties continue largely to ignore them. That is partly because the opinion polls do not, at least as yet, make it a safe issue for them to engage with, not just in terms of the split of opinion, but because of the enduring strength with which different opinions are held.

For opponents of Brexit to really force the damage it has done on to the political agenda, let alone to open a path to a referendum on re-joining, and then to win such a referendum, bedrock support for Brexit needs to get screwed right down, and for a long period. Exactly how low is hard to say, but my guess is it will never go below 20%, so the target would be somewhere in the range of 20% to 30%, and the lower within that the better.

Even then, as I’ve discussed before, and as Philip Stephens argued in the Financial Times yesterday (£), the EU will not risk “a new and deep entanglement until they are sure the British will not change their minds again”, which can’t be assured until the Tories change policy, whether or not they are in government. Stephens reckons that won’t happen until they have suffered two electoral defeats. Consistently low polling support for Brexit would encourage that change, as well as reassuring the EU.

In the meantime, what Stephens rightly says that EU would welcome, what is getting traction in the polls, and what ought to embolden Labour, is support for a closer relationship with the EU, including amongst 30% of leave voters. Even that, though, should be treated with some caution, as it may well reflect a continued belief that, but for EU ‘punishment’, the UK could enjoy some membership benefits without the corresponding obligations.

Brexiters have not given up

Overall, my point is that anti-Brexiters, or remainers, or re-joiners (or whatever term we might use) should not become complacent about public opinion, and should be prepared for a long haul. That may be an unwelcome diagnosis, but it’s one which I think the Brexiters are already very much alive to. That partly explains the continuation of the lies, disinformation and the misleading claims that prevent post-Brexit Britain from facing up to what it has done to itself.

For Brexiters, there are three reasons for continuing in this way. First, it is a way of shoring up their bedrock support so that it doesn’t reach the perilously low level I just mentioned. Secondly, it is a way of gaslighting those who are wavering about Brexit, by making it too confusing and complicated to understand. And, thirdly, it maintains the toxicity of the Brexit issue, scaring off those politicians who might otherwise try to address it.

For example, the latest Springford/ CER figures for Brexit economic damage were immediately denounced by, amongst others, Jacob Rees-Mogg. One aspect of his response, which is partly to do with his character but is not confined to him, is the sheer spitefulness of the tone, and the insinuations that the CER research is biased to suit its funders’ supposedly ‘Brexit hating’ agenda. Of course that is a particularly ironic charge from Brexiters like Rees-Mogg, given their enmeshment with the nexus of pro-Brexit ‘Tufton Street’ thinktanks which refuse even to declare who funds them. But it serves to poison the very notion of public, evidence-based debate by continually seeking to discredit any honest attempt to provide the evidence such debate needs, and it feeds the cynicism within which post-truth politics flourishes.

To the extent that Rees-Mogg criticises the CER estimate on substantive grounds rather than smears, he does so by the equally disingenuous device of raising questions about the model (and especially the comparator countries used) which have already been answered by Springford and others. By raising those questions again, rather than responding to the answers given, honest debate is again confounded.

It’s irrelevant to object that Rees-Mogg’s article was ‘only’ in the Express. The reason why Rees-Mogg placed it there was precisely in order to reach the core leave-voting audience, who very likely have not read the CER report and its responses to the questions about its methodology, in order to mislead them. And this matters if Brexit is to retain that core support and, in the process, ensure that it is too divisive and toxic for politicians to admit and address the problems it is causing.

Equally misleading was an article, again in the Express but given a veneer of official support when tweeted approvingly by Trade Minister Greg Hands, boasting that the UK had made an agreement with South Korea that would boost pork trade by “up to” £1 million over five years. Not only is the scale puny, but the deal merely mirrors a similar agreement between South Korea and the EU made three months ago. Perhaps, though, the government is learning that such bathos doesn’t do much for the Brexit cause, for last week it announced that it would not be “appropriate” to publish an estimate of the value of its plans to enhance the UK’s trade agreement with Israel. The reason can only be that the value is trivial or, even, that its terms are damaging to the UK in some way, yet still, somehow, it is claimed as a Brexit achievement. More gaslighting.

Meanwhile, using a similar trick to that for which they were castigated by the UK Statistics Authority just a couple of weeks before, Conservatives like Penny Mordaunt are pretending that joining CPTPP (if it happens) will be “worth nearly £9 trillion”. The first version of the trick was to adduce to the UK’s trade deals (including rollovers of EU deals and that with the EU itself), the entirety of UK trade with those countries. Mordaunt’s version is even more grotesque, in that the figure she cites is the total GDP of all of the members of CPTPP, rather than an estimate of what membership would be worth to the UK in terms of extra trade. In fact, the government’s official estimates are that it could eventually be worth £3.3 billion (that is billion, not trillion) a year, and with that could come significant damage to UK agriculture.

There’s room for some debate about the exact impact, as it would depend on how CPTPP membership was configured at the time of accession, and on the nature of whatever deals the UK already had or did not have with those members prior to accession. Equally, there are potential trade-offs in that, to the extent that CPTPP might involve closer alignment to US regulatory standards and processes, it might make it harder to maintain, or move closer to, EU regulatory standards, for example under a future Labour government (indeed some Brexiters see it, for ideological rather than economic reasons, as desirable for precisely that reason, which is one index of how bogus their claims to patriotism are).

The point here is not, necessarily, that CPTPP accession is a bad idea. It is that it comes with complex trade-offs and with the caveat that it is not a huge economic prize. It certainly won’t compensate for lower trade with the EU. Still it might conceivably be said that, given that Brexit has happened, it’s better than not doing it, if only as damage limitation.

What is very much the point is that the whole Brexit debate in the UK is still mired in dishonesty. That dishonesty is what prevents the country moving forward, let alone moving on from, Brexit. That’s partly just because, by definition, it precludes truthful politics. But it’s also because as well as being stuck in dishonesty, this dishonesty is of an apparently endlessly cyclical, repetitive nature. That is to say that it doesn’t, for the most part, offer new lies in place of old ones so much as constantly recycle the old lies in new guises.

For example, all the Rees-Mogg stuff about the supposed lack of credibility of economic models is effectively just another outing for the ‘Project Fear’ attack line. Similarly, the boosterish claims about trade deals are just a continuation of the basic lie about ‘Global Britain’ being able to escape the geographical realities of regional trade.

The continuing poison of Farage

However, the most damaging of the latest examples of repetitious Brexiter dishonesty comes, perhaps not surprisingly, from political bottom-feeder Nigel Farage. Confronted with widespread claims, and especially those of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) that I mentioned earlier, that Brexit has failed to have any benefits, his response in a recent interview is a microcosm of the mess the country is in, a mess to which he is a leading contributor.

On display are, first, versions of all the things I have just mentioned: a spiteful and divisive comment about the BCC as a ‘remainer’ redoubt, and the usual canards about global trade opportunities and unspecified deregulatory changes. Second, and far more damaging, is a brief but totally false and self-serving account of what has caused the problems the BCC identified. He derides Boris Johnson for having proclaimed his “oven-ready deal” as “the best free trade deal you’ve ever seen” when, in fact, Farage says, although the trade deal was tariff and quota free it still means what he calls “extra customs checks” which, he accepts, the BCC is right to complain about.

There are multiple layers of deceit to disentangle here. Whilst it’s true that at the time of the 2019 General Election Johnson often tried to imply that his oven-ready deal was the completed trade deal, Farage knows full well that it wasn’t anything of the sort and that it was only the Withdrawal Agreement. Yet he stood down the Brexit Party in Tory held seats, effectively endorsing the Withdrawal Agreement, and moreover he justified doing so on the grounds that Johnson had promised there would be a Canadian-style trade deal with the EU. Promised, note: Farage knew it was something for the future, and was not the same as the ‘oven-ready deal’. So he is now pretending to have been conned, as some voters undoubtedly were, by Johnson’s lie, when in fact he was complicit in it.

But it gets worse. Farage wanted and was promised a Canada-style deal, and that is what Johnson delivered (it was slightly ‘better’ than the Canada-EU deal in the extent of its tariff reduction, but it was of the same type). The extra customs checks, and other trade frictions, that Farage is now apparently complaining about were part and parcel of such an arrangement, and could only be avoided by a customs union and by single market membership, neither of which Farage supports. So his implication is that there could have been a Brexit trade deal which would have enacted hard Brexit whilst avoiding the barriers to trade created by hard Brexit, if only the government had “really believed” in Brexit.

Not only is it a lie, but it is exactly the same lie that Johnson told with his cakeist promises, right up until the point when he lied that his trade deal with the EU avoided non-tariff barriers to trade. For that matter, it is the same lie as David Davis told when he said that Theresa May’s government had found a way to have “the exact same benefits” of the single market and customs union membership whilst belonging to neither. Thus Farage’s line, confronted with the evidence that Johnson could not deliver the impossible claims he made for Brexit, is to tell the same lies that Johnson told, as if it were 2016 again. Or, in other words, to respond to those who feel cheated by cheating them again.

As with articles in the Express, it’s easy, but misguided, to say that interviews like this, on GB News, should be ignored. But, again, they are aimed at, and influential amongst, the leave-voting core and get endlessly recycled within leaver networks. Like it or not, Farage has the capacity to mobilise a significant chunk of the electorate which, in turn, has an impact on the agenda of other political parties.

A marathon not a sprint

What’s striking is just how many words it takes to unpick just a couple of minutes of Farage’s interview, because of the way his apparently straightforward comments contain nested, dishonest claims. This is how gaslighting works: for the average listener it is all but impossible to unpack what is being said and to evaluate it, and quite boring to read or listen to anyone who tries to do so.

Farage is especially, if malignly, adept at it, but exactly the same techniques are used by other leading Brexiters. It can be seen when, for example, they reel off lists of trade deals which are being done, to give an impression of economic success, or when they present negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol as if they didn’t arise from the government having reneged on the deal it signed with the EU, and sold to voters.

It’s notable that the BCC report, to which Farage was responding, called for an “honest dialogue” about the trade impacts of Brexit. It’s a call made repeatedly by all kinds of people and groups about all sorts of aspects of Brexit, and one I’ve repeatedly reported on and echoed on this blog. It is that honesty which Brexiters are determined to resist, using all the tricks described above, and many more besides.

As we finish another year of the Brexit disaster, this remains the key issue. The Brexiters are now on the defensive in the face of growing public and media judgements that Brexit was a mistake, and worse than a mistake. But they are not going to give in, and if they can possibly manage it they will stymie all attempts to be honest about Brexit. Even if they can’t con a majority into thinking Brexit has been a success, they want at all costs to maintain the absurd situation where, despite most people thinking Brexit is a mistake, there is no political means to even begin to deal with, let alone reverse, that mistake.

So it is for the rest of us, so far as we can, whenever we can and wherever we can, to keep chipping away, to keep challenging the lies, to keep reminding anyone who will listen of the promises made and broken, and of the damage that has been done and will go on being done. It is tiring, dispiriting and sometimes boring to do so. But it is remarkable how, even at this still early stage of Brexit, the tide of opinion has started to shift against Brexit. That shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it can be built upon. It will be a marathon, not a sprint, but, so far, it’s a race the Brexiters are losing.

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