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  1. Politics
9 January 2017

What Iain Duncan Smith once did for welfare, he now wants to do for trade

The man who knew too little.

By Jonn Elledge

A lot of terrible things happened in 2016, but one thing that momentarily looked like it might be good was when I thought we’d finally heard the last of Iain Duncan Smith. After six years of buggering up the welfare system – during which he was, vexingly, unsackable – IDS finally quit last March to spend more time with his euroscepticism. Today, even though this is the most right-wing, europhobic, pretending-to-be-concerned-about-the-poor-even-while-repeatedly-screwing-them government in living memory, IDS, somehow, isn’t in it.

You would think, then, he might have shut up. You would think wrong. Last Wednesday, for some reason, he was on the Today programme, evading questions about Brexit – not in the clever-clever debating society style which politicians normally favour, but in the manner of a man who genuinely doesn’t understand what he is even being asked.

His answers were, naturally, incoherent. But the way in which they were incoherent, I feel, speak volumes about the extent to which the Leavers are drunk on their own Koolaid, so let’s attempt a close reading.

“It’s all very well to say the UK government doesn’t know its own position. The truth is the European Union doesn’t know its own position because they are at odds with each other over what they think should happen.”

There’s an elision in that phrase, “the truth is”. It’s a sort of non-contradiction contradiction, implying that the assertion in the second sentence invalidates the one in the first.

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Except, it doesn’t. The UK government doesn’t know its own position. And unlike the EU, it doesn’t have the excuse of being 27 different countries.

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Moving on:

“Mrs Merkel was very clear at a meeting… of senior business people around Europe… that as far as they were concerned they would run the negotiations, because they did not want to have a mess over trade with their best trading partner.”

It’s not clear who the “they” is who are expecting to run the negotiations. The business leaders? The German government? Who? I don’t want to sneer too much about that – we all sometimes go a bit Prescott when speaking out loud – but it does make it hard to work out what he’s going on about.

Either way, one imagines, 26 other national governments might have something to say about the situation. IDS has convinced himself Britain will get a good deal through the tried and tested technique of simply ignoring all the people who are incentivised to give us a bad one.

You may conclude that the point IDS is making here is the same one we’ve heard ad nauseam from Panglossian Leavers: that German manufacturers will be so determined that Britain remains open for business that the EU will be falling over itself to keep us in the single market. But you’d be wrong about that, too, because when John Humphrys asks exactly what the government’s objective is – “not the details and how you get there. What is the objective?” – IDS poured forth thusly:

“Yes, it’s very simple, we are leaving the European Union… it’s absolutely clear, we are leaving the rule of European law, we are taking back control of our borders, which she’s made very clear, and we will then look to make arrangements with the European Union over what kind of trading system they would want with us also including our services.”

In other words, as the price of putting an end to freedom of movement, Britain is to leave the single market. We will also, IDS added (I’m not quoting that bit, because we’re not getting any younger), leave the customs union, too.

This shouldn’t be a surprise: the government, as Stephen has argued, has been pretty clear about this being its intention. It’s just that most of us are still refusing to believe it because it’s quite catastrophically stupid.

That’s because these institutions are not in fact the dastardly creation of faceless Brussels bureaucrats who want to ruin our lives through the medium of slightly straighter bananas. They serve a practical purpose: to increase cross-border trade. The single market allows common standards and free movement of goods, capital and services as well as people; the customs union means that no customs are charged on goods travelling between European countries.

Abandoning those things would give the UK a way out of freedom of movement (which will be brilliant for our farming industry, social care homes and so forth). But charging fees every time someone wants to take a sack of potatoes across the channels would also mean a massive drop in trade, which will likely harm the economy.

I’m not at all sure from his interview that IDS understands any of this. The mysterious “they” referred to above do “not want to have a mess over trade with their best trading partner”. But if we leave either the single market or the customs union, that is what we will get – not because of continental bloody mindedness, but because we’ll be dismantling a system created for the express purpose of making trade neater and simpler.

It’s perhaps a little mean-spirited to fisk a single interview with one Tory backbencher quite so extensively. This is complicated stuff, and we’d all be liable to talk nonsense if someone pointed a microphone at us and started asking questions about it.

But I’ve done it anyway for two reasons. One is that this interview feels emblematic of the entire eurosceptic tendency. They’ve convinced themselves that the single market was about bureaucracy. Actually, it was about the exact opposite, replacing 28 different sets of regulations and a bunch of feed with one streamlined system. A hard Brexit will effectively mean the biggest creation of red tape in decades, which is the exact opposite of what the Tories think they are about.

The other is that IDS himself is emblematic of a different problem: the Dunning-Kruger effect. To put it bluntly: he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. It was clear at the DWP, when the humiliating failure of universal credit was the fault of everybody but himself. It was clear in 2013, when he replied to unhelpful statistics with a breezy rejection of the entire notion of evidence-based policy making. And now it’s clear in the guff he’s spouting about Britain’s entire system of trade.

This was infuriating enough when it was just him. But now this is government policy.

During parts of that Today Programme interview, you can hear former Blair adviser Jonathan Powell outright laughing at some of IDS’ more bizarre assertions. I laughed too, at the time. Thinking back, though, I feel more tempted to cry.