No deal would be an act of economic self-harm – but the Brexiteers are trying to normalise it

An option once regarded as unthinkable is being rebranded as a comfortable alternative. 

NS

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Though it is now hard to recall, the Brexiteers used to insist that “no deal” was not an option because the UK would inevitably get a good deal. In July 2017, Boris Johnson declared: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.” Liam Fox boasted in the same month that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. David Davis assured the public in June 2017: “You can be sure there will be a deal”.

Their reluctance to openly contemplate a no deal was understandable. As senior civil servants privately warned Davis before his resignation, such a scenario could lead to shortages of food, medicine and fuel within a fortnight, and chaos at ports (the head of Amazon UK, meanwhile, predicted “civil unrest” in a meeting with ministers last week). The government’s own impact assessment found that no deal would reduce economic growth by eight per cent of GDP over the next 15 years.

But after rejecting every conceivable deal with the EU, the Brexiteers are now normalising no deal. Johnson, who declared in March that the UK would do “very well” under the latter scenario, has let it be known that he believes no deal would be preferable to Theresa May’s Chequers plan. Fox has insisted that the government is not “bluffing” and has warned that the economic impact on the EU would be “severe” (an estimated loss of 1.5 per cent of GDP compared to the UK’s eight per cent). Dominic Raab, Davis’s successor as Brexit Secretary, has declared that Britain will “thrive” if forced to leave with no deal. Jacob Rees-Mogg remarked last week: “I think we are heading to WTO and I think WTO is nothing to be frightened of.”

Trading under World Trade Organisation rules, as Rees-Mogg suggests, sounds innocuous but its consequences would not be. The UK would be left as the only state in the world acting on this basis and incur punitive tariffs (Mauritania, which previously held this status, has recently signed 20 preferential trade agreements).

Nor would adopting this pariah model be as simple as the Brexiteers suggest. After leaving the EU, which accounts for 43 per cent of UK exports and half of imports, Britain would be forced to negotiate independent WTO membership (it is currently subsumed within the EU). Should some of the body’s 162 member states raise objections, the UK would be left in economic limbo. Were Britain to propose tariff-free bilateral trade with the EU, for instance, it would be forced to offer the same terms to other WTO members under the “most-favoured nation” rule, which prohibits discrimination.

No deal, then, would not be a comfortable outcome for the UK but the greatest act of economic self-harm by any major country since the war. Yet just like Brexit itself, which many regarded as unthinkable before 2016, no deal is now being normalised. A YouGov/Sunday Times poll published yesterday found that 38 per cent of voters support this option (similar to pre-referendum levels of support for EU withdrawal). The pro-EU Conservative former cabinet minister Justine Greening has suggested that no deal should be one of three proposals put to the public in a new referendum to the disdain of fellow Remainers. In a representative democracy, they say, it is reckless to allow the people to vote for such a harmful course.

Some Remainers console themselves with the belief that no deal is an impossibility. The overwhelming majority of MPs oppose it and the government cannot conceivably “prepare” in the time that remains (the UK is due to leave the EU in eight months’ time). But after a succession of “impossible” political events, it would be careless to assume that Britain will not be left in the worst of all worlds.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.