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The case for a liberal Brexit is as strong as Boris Johnson’s principles

Clue: not very. 

The decision to use Boris Johnson as the advocate of a Remain-voting, “liberal”-friendly Brexit underlines how the government has still not faced up to how deeply and fundamentally divisive its drive to take us out of the European Union has become. His speech today was utterly vacuous, and utterly lacking in any details of what this supposed “liberal” Brexit would entail.

The Foreign Secretary once, perhaps, did have the credentials to pull this off. After all, he was twice-elected as Mayor of London, because of his ability to corral a significant number of voters who would otherwise have opted for a candidate of the centre or the left. But all of that went when he made what now all know was a cynical and calculated decision to back the Leave campaign in 2016.

It wasn’t just that Johnson was suspected of having made his decision on whether to back Leave or Remain on the basis of which proposition would strengthen his position inside his party. What eroded trust was the campaign itself.

In the referendum campaign, he was promoter-in-chief of the claim that the NHS would benefit from an additional £350m a week if the country voted to leave. Not a penny of that has been, or ever will be delivered, and even Johnson’s recent attempt to secure another £100m a week fell flat, after he reportedly failed to even mention it at the subsequent Cabinet meeting.

The man who had previously claimed to be the very strongest supporter of Turkish membership of the EU also portrayed that country’s long-delayed and increasingly troubled application to join as an immediate threat to Britain.

In short, Johnson proved that it would be foolish to take him at his word, especially if that meant expecting him to show consistency in the face of the tide of opinion in the Conservative party.

But if Johnson is an unconvincing messenger, he’s not the only problem with claims for a “liberal” Brexit.

Take trade. Here the Brexiters talk about the ability to conclude “free trade” deals with the rest of the world. Their concept of free trade is stuck in the late 19th century, and represents a simplistic focus on tariffs on basic commodities. Inside the EU, though, we get much more than tariff-free trade, but also a single market based on common standards – a regime designed to handle today’s highly sophisticated manufactured goods. Even more importantly it encompasses a wide and continually deepening market in services.

None of that is in prospect from any of the putative free trade deals on offer, even if we believe – in the face of years of experience of negotiating real trade deals – that we could reach a quick deal with the US, Australia or New Zealand.

Then there are citizenship rights. Brexit threatens to strip every Briton of rights to freely travel and work across Europe. It is impossible to see anything on the horizon which would make up for that enormous loss of liberty, but it is not the end of the threat. Because the Brextremists are queuing up to promote proposals to strip British workers of their rights as soon as we leave. Top of their list is ending restrictions on the working hours of hospital doctors – but we can be sure that is only the start.

Other freedoms the EU gives us are also under threat, such as environmental and food safety standards. How many of these are likely to survive the crash trade deal our government is said to want to sign with Donald Trump? For a start we are likely not just to have to accept imports of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, but to allow them in the UK also: if we claim it is safe to eat, how could we justify banning our farmers from the same methods? That matters not just for the food itself, but also for our land and water supply.

The case for a  “liberal”  Brexit is as strong as Boris Johnson’s claim to be a politician of principle. In other words, there is no case at all.

James McGrory is the Executive Director of Open Britain

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

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