Grant Shapps should give Obama his campaign line back

The Conservative chairman borrows Obama's "don't give them the keys back" line. But it's his party that crashed the car again.

It's well known that most Conservative cabinet ministers supported Barack Obama's re-election and in an interview in today's Independent, Tory chairman Grant Shapps borrows one of the US president's favourite campaign lines.

Shapps tells the paper: "We are in a global race. Britain is on the right track, don't go back. Don't give the keys to the guys who crashed the car in the first place. Do you want to go through all this pain again?"

Obama told a Democratic fundraiser in May 2010: "So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back.  No! You can’t drive! We don't want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! We just got the car out!" He used the analogy again at a labour day rally in Milwaukee in September of that year.

It's a good line, but unfortunately for Shapps it's not one the Conservatives have any right to use. While the US economy enjoyed a sustained recovery under Obama (with 13 consecutive quarters of growth), the UK fell into a double-dip recession (and is at risk of a triple-dip). To adapt Obama's analogy, the Tories didn't drive the car out of the ditch; they drove it back in (you could call it a double-ditch recession).

When Labour left office, the economy was recovering, with growth of 0.4 per cent in Q3 of 2009, 0.4 per cent in Q4, 0.6 per cent in Q1 of 2010 and 0.7 per cent in Q2 (see this table for the full data). Since then, it has stagnated. Over the last year, the US economy has grown by 2.3 per cent, while the UK hasn't grown at all. As a result, while the US economy is now 2.3 per cent above its pre-recession peak, the UK remains 3.1 per cent below.

If and when Shapps's party boasts a comparable record, he might be entitled to borrow Obama's line. But until then, he should gracefully return it to its original owner.

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps speaks at the party's conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.