After the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, Brexiteers spoke gleefully of the golden age that awaited. “Within two years,” wrote the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, on 14 July 2016, “we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU”. A new agreement with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”, promised the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox. Europeans would be desperate to sell us their cars and wine and cheese, we were told. Such hopes, to put it mildly, have not been fulfilled. Five months after the Brexit negotiations began, Britain has yet to open trade talks with the EU. Leavers have been forced to concede that there will be a transition period of two years from March 2019 during which little will change – and which will bar the UK from signing trade deals with other countries.
Over the same period, Britain has gone from being the fastest-growing G7 economy to the slowest. Real wages have fallen for the past six months (owing to the spike in inflation) and Leavers have been forced to disown most of their campaign promises. Rather than reaping an extra £350m a week for the NHS, the UK is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to lose nearly £300m a week because of Brexit.
In an extraordinary leaked letter to Theresa May, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, denounced the unnamed Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, for refusing to rule out an extended transition period and for failing to prepare for “no deal”. Until recently enemies, Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are plotting together again – and have been denounced by colleagues for forming “a government within a government”.
In truth, two years may well prove insufficient for Britain to reach a new trade agreement with the EU (it took seven years for Canada to achieve a notably less ambitious deal). The technocratic Mr Hammond is far from being a flawless Chancellor. He has rejected the £50bn of housing investment that Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, has demanded, and has resisted Mrs May’s attempts to introduce tougher corporate regulation. However, Mr Hammond is entirely correct to warn that money set aside for no deal would deprive public services of much-needed resources.
Though the Brexiteers wish to pretend otherwise, the risks of no deal are significantly greater to the UK than the EU. Failure to reach an agreement would deprive Brussels of Britain’s budget contributions but, spread across the other 27 member states, each country would have to contribute just 0.1 per cent of GDP more a year. By contrast, though the UK would save 0.4 per cent of GDP, economists estimate no deal would lead to a loss of between 3 and 6 per cent of GDP. With good reason, the only country that currently trades with the rest of the globe under World Trade Organisation rules is Mauritania.
Yet for the Brexiteers, whose defining aim is to wrench the UK free from the EU at any cost, such facts are irrelevant. The higher food costs and job losses that would result from no deal are viewed as a price worth paying.
The true project of many Leavers is to remake Britain as a low-tax, low-regulation dystopia that relinquishes its historic obligations to the poorest. In an interview on The Andrew Marr Show on 12 November 2017, the billionaire entrepreneur James Dyson, a prominent Brexit supporter, called for it to be made “easier to hire and fire” workers and for the abolition of corporation tax (at 19 per cent, the UK’s main rate is already the lowest in the G7).
The Brexiteers can claim a mandate for EU withdrawal but this was not the vision that the public voted for. Many Leave supporters, lured by the chimerical promise of £350m a week for the NHS and an end to free movement, desired a bigger, more interventionist state, not a smaller one. They have been betrayed by mendacious mediocrities such as Mr Johnson.
Rather than reaching out to Remain voters, the Brexiteers have treated their narrow 52-48 referendum victory as though it were a landslide. There is so far no majority among the public for a new referendum or for halting Brexit. Yet as Leavers’ falsehoods are exposed, this option must be retained.
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit