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17 January 2020

Evening Call: I am really starting to hope I was wrong about Brexit

I’ve spent years yelling at anybody who cares to listen that Brexit was a bad idea. If it turns out that I’m right about that, I won’t find any comfort in the fact.

By Jonn Elledge

In the grip of insomnia a few nights back, I realised something important: I really, really want to have been wrong about Brexit.

There were many reasons that I was opposed to the national project that Britain embarked upon in 2016 and may still be trying to complete when we’re all dead and cold. But a big one is because I thought it would leave this country and its people substantially worse off. That leaving the world’s largest free trade area with no idea what comes next would muck up the economy; that scrapping freedom of movement would do untold harm to the lives of both Brits in Europe and the Europeans who had made their homes here.

Well – we lost. And so now I find I would very much like to have been wrong about all that. My ideal outcome now is that pro-Brexit economist extraordinaire Patrick Minford was right and that the economy does brilliantly outside the EU, while the millions of European citizens on these shores, and their families, are all allowed to continue about their lives entirely unaffected by the mess built by Nigel Farage.

Two bits of news today have got me thinking about all this again. One makes me think that there is at least a chance, however slim, I am getting my wish. The other is making me very nervous I am not.

The less bad news first. This morning, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt told the BBC’s Today Programme that Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay had told him that Britain will not automatically deport any EU citizens who haven’t got settled status by the June 2021 deadline.

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This, given the British state’s history of hilariously long queues, would obviously be a good thing. It minimises the chance that some European citizen somewhere – possibly somebody with British-born children – will find kicked out of this country because of nothing more than bureaucratic incompetence.

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And yet. In October, the Home Office minister Brandon Lewis told German newspaper Die Welt: “If EU citizens until this point of time have not registered and have no adequate reason for it, then the valid immigration rules will be applied” – which sounds uncomfortably like the exact opposite of what Verhofstadt said this morning. And honestly, would you trust the Home Office not to press the button marked “deport” at the first opportunity?

That, remember, is the good news. The bad is this: retail sales fell sharply in December, a month when you would traditionally expect them to not to. This, according to the Office for National Statistics, was the fifth month running without growth.

This isn’t entirely down to Brexit, of course: it may be partly about uncertainty rather than Brexit itself, partly about unrelated factors like a general slow down. Nonetheless, this does not feel like the sort of behaviour you’d expect in an economy that’s about to let slip its European chains and fly.

I’ve spent years now yelling at anybody who cares to listen that Brexit was a bad idea. If it turns out I’m right about that, though, I won’t find any comfort in the fact. Now that it’s happening and there’s no way out, I’d really quite like to be wrong.

Good day for…

Mark Carney, the outgoing Bank of England governor, who has a new job. He’ll be advising the government on how to persuade the financial sector to help in the fight against climate change in the run-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow this November.

This may mean it’s a good day for the planet, too, but it’s frankly too early to tell.

Bad day for…

Privacy on social media. A report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is demanding that the big tech firms release their data, so that researchers can determine what effect use of networks like Twitter and Facebook has on children’s mental health. The data would, the report promises, be anonymous. More here.

Quote of the day

“Why don’t we have a can do, positive approach?”

The Brexit Party’s Richard Tice asks why it’s so hard to get Big Ben to bong to announce Brexit. The answer – that the bell does not currently have a clapper, that there is currently no floor on which to stand to install one, and that replacing that floor will cost a six-figure sum – doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Everybody’s talking about…

The Labour leadership race (“Thank god,” one of the NS politics team was heard to mutter yesterday, “because otherwise we’d have nothing to write about at the moment.”) 

Two good pieces on that on the NS today. Patrick on how the Bakers’ Union endorsement means that Rebecca Long-Bailey is extremely likely to make it through to the next stage of the contest; and George asks, will London Mayor Sadiq Khan endorse fellow human rights lawyer Keir Starmer?

Everybody should be talking about…

This week’s New Statesman cover story, and the question posed therein. You can read John Gray’s essay on why the left keeps losing here.