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15 September 2021updated 19 Sep 2021 11:23am

The gloom of leading Brexiteers signals a dark outlook for “independent” Britain

As supermarket shelves lie bare, even prominent Leave voters are beginning to doubt the wisdom of being outside the single market.

By Philip Collins

To pay attention to the speeches of EU relations minister David Frost in the House of Lords is to witness a man who has fallen in too deep and who is gradually giving up. Quite what prompted this former ambassador to Denmark to throw in his lot with Boris Johnson and the madcap caper of Brexit is anyone’s guess. There will probably be a film in due course – “Frost/Johnson” – but, for now, the noble lord’s saturnine rhetoric about the protocol he himself negotiated is one tip-off among many that Brexit isn’t exactly working out.

The more visible signs are the gaps on the shelves of the supermarkets. We are short of 100,000 lorry drivers. KFC, Nando’s and Greggs are running low on chicken for want of processors and there aren’t enough workers in the abattoirs, so a pig cull is now likely. The food and drink industry is £2bn down, in the first half of this year, in its sales to the European Union. The industry is also shy of about half a million workers. The possibility that the Home Office would put lorry drivers, even temporarily, on the “Shortage Occupations List” fell foul of Priti Patel’s unerring instinct for doing exactly the wrong thing, quickly. The Confederation of British Industry has said that labour shortages could last for two years.

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Frost must be looking forward to Christmas and wondering how he can get the turkeys delivered. He has sounded increasingly desperate in recent months as he has sought to extend the grace period to delay the very controls he voted for. In the command paper on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol that Frost submitted this summer, checks on the Irish border would be replaced by trusting suppliers not to smuggle. It was, in effect, an admission that the protocol was a terrible idea in the first place. One wondered, for neither the first nor the last time, whether Frost had twigged that leaving the EU meant being on the wrong side of a huge market.

The evidence is slowly coming in. Exports of beef to the continent were 24 per cent down, and exports of cheese 26 per cent down, in the first half of 2021 compared with the same period last year. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculated that the tariff barriers in the new protocols will reduce productivity by 4 per cent relative to staying in the EU. Both imports and exports, it estimates, will be 15 per cent lower than they might have been.

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The prominent advocates of Brexit have all but given up describing the alleged virtues of their pet project. The only partial exception is Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, who is dutifully blowing the trumpet around the city walls about the various meagre trade deals she has signed. None of them is likely to have a material impact on GDP as they are either tiny, or replicate a deal we had as a member of the EU, or both. The government’s own assessment of the 2020 agreement with Japan, for example, suggested that it would increase UK GDP by 0.07 per cent over the next 15 years.

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All this raises the question of whether any prominent Brexiteers are beginning to doubt the wisdom of the idea. Dominic Cummings, always one of the most thoughtful of their number, has said that time is needed before the success or failure of the project can be assessed, but he does at least have the intellectual honesty to accept that the verdict might be negative. It would be interesting to hear from Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, an enthusiastic advocate of Brexit who never takes the flak for it, on the great economic improvements he envisaged. Apart from the reduction of immigration (or the creation of labour shortages, as that is also known) and controlling free movement, what might he say? The Conservative Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom wrote a piece for Politics Home recently that, for all her attempt to be upbeat, was so thin on the upside it might have been drafted in Brussels.

The truth is that it will take more than disobliging economic numbers to persuade the Brexit gang that they were in error. None of these aggregate figures, as impressive as they are, really lands with them. They are subject, as every piece of data will be, to an argument about whether they can be justly attributed to Brexit or not. The coronavirus pandemic has effectively killed off any prospect of a clear verdict ever being entered on the impact of Brexit. The shortage of lorry drivers is obviously the result of tighter immigration restrictions but it has, it is true, been exacerbated by Covid. It is easy, for anyone who wants to close their mind to what is happening, to blame the virus and absolve the ideology.

Brexit was never about the economic virtues of independence. That is all ex post facto justification dreamt up by Liz Truss. It was a philosophical and psychological project led by people who really believed that Brussels was both intent on and capable of enacting a single European nation. They were all making a bet that the EU would fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. They thought it was a dated and residual bureaucracy in a world of markets and loose networks. What an irony that the legacy of their half-understanding is a huge increase of paperwork in Northern Ireland.

Granted the time that Dominic Cummings thinks is necessary, it is surely inevitable that future governments, once the argument has become less toxic, will take Britain closer to the EU rather than further away. We will creep back to an inferior, outside version of the market access we once had on the inside. On a 50-year view it will prove to be a colossal waste of time and money, all so that the Rishis and Lizzes and Andreas could briefly feel they were doing something to control the destiny of Britain.

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor