The biggest and second-biggest policy commitments of this election have gone almost entirely unnoticed.
The second-biggest was made by Jeremy Corbyn, in which he committed to continuing free movement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. In a refreshing change from the usual approach of Labour leaders past, he didn’t advocate for it in terms of the benefits to the United Kingdom’s GDP, but instead in terms of the social benefits and the opportunities available to young people here in the UK to travel elsewhere in Europe. Yet from a policy perspective, the GDP impact of retaining the free movement of people (and with it single market membership) is not small beer economically. It also marks the end of the failure I criticised to publicly advocate for the leadership’s preferred end state.
While I think Labour is gravely underestimating the amount of extra, and broad-based tax rises it will need to meet the scale of its policy targets, it’s infinitely easier to achieve their other aims if the United Kingdom stays within the single market – and infinitely easier for almost every other party to achieve its policy aims, too.
The biggest was the government’s commitment that the standstill transition between the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union – the period in which we will continue to follow all the EU’s laws, still be a member of the single market and customs union, but no longer set or make those laws – will end at the end of 2020, regardless.
No free trade agreement with the EU has been negotiated so quickly, and the EU-UK trade deal is unprecedented because usually trade deals are about decreasing regulatory divergence in order to facilitate trade – this trade deal is about increasing regulatory divergence. But the coverage of it was largely framed around the failure of Boris Johnson to keep his promise to take us out of the EU on 31 October “come what may”.
I, personally, am highly dubious about whether or not Johnson will actually keep his word and end the standstill transition on 31 December 2020 come what may. The economic shock of a no-deal Brexit, while lessened by the longer run-up, would still be a hell of a thing for a government to weather. And we, as yet, have little evidence that this Downing Street is actually willing to do any of the unpopular things that “planning for no deal” would actually require.
However, I don’t think the first way to cover “the government has promised that, if it can’t secure a trade agreement in record time, it will instead inflict a probable economic shock on the country” is by adding the suffix “but he’s probably lying”. Boris Johnson has pledged to a Brexit strategy that carries with it a very high possibility of a no-deal Brexit, while Jeremy Corbyn has committed to one that removes the final obstacle to an soft one. If this is “a Brexit election”, that distinction matters a great deal.