It is an extraordinary story: a kind of reverse Fake News. Instead of people being led to believe something false, the public appear not to believe something that is actually true. Perhaps the Russians have been fiddling with out brains again. Or maybe we just have a higher tolerance for hardship when it’s self-inflicted.
At any rate, there seems to be a widespread assumption that Project Fear – the claims made before the 2016 referendum about the damage Brexit might inflict – was disproved by events. That it was all a Remaniac scare story. In fact, the forecasts made by the Treasury and others turned out to be uncharacteristically accurate.
The then Chancellor, George Osborne, forecast in 2016 that Britain would lose 6% of GDP by 2030 and that British families would be worse off by £4,300. It was of course daft to put a cash figure on the loss, but the reality is that we are already well on the way to seeing Project Fear fulfilled. The Bank of England confirmed in May that the UK had already lost 2% in predicted growth, and 4% from family incomes. This amounts to some £900 per family. And that’s in only 2 years.
Families are worse off because inflation has picked up while wages have continued to stagnate. Food price inflation is largely a result of the 15% devaluation of the pound – not far short of the collapse of the Turkish lira – which makes imports more expensive. Our wilting wages are largely a result of poor productivity, faltering inward investment and a general lack of confidence in the economy because of – well – Brexit. The UK economy has been growing – albeit slowly. The point is that it would have grown much faster had Brexit not happened. We have squandered the best years of the global economic recovery.
The current chancellor, Philip Hammond, aroused fury from the Moggists by claiming that government borrowing will have to increase by £80bn by 2033 as a result of a no deal Brexit. Even under Theresa May’s discredited Withdrawal Agreement, much of that is already locked in. Even if we stay in the Customs Union, and bits of the single market, British trade will falter and trade in many services, 80% of the UK economy, will be stuffed. Everyone knows this in Brussels, which is why they are happy with May’s deal – they know it will hurt.
Britons abroad may have to pay increased charges on credit cards. Daily Mail-reading expats in sunny Spain could lose access to their pensions, which some might see as poetic justice. Banks and financial services companies will be unable to operate as they do at present and the government has advised them to set up subsidiaries in the EU. Jacob Rees Mogg’s wealth management company has already been there, done that.
Dominic Raab famously poo-poohed warnings of civil disobedience and army trucks at the ports – but that too is now only a matter of weeks away. “You’ll still be able to enjoy a BLT sandwich,” he said, which is reassuring. Has he noticed the £400 a year increase in Scottish families’ annual basket of essential foods?
Brexiteers have been trying to place the blame for Brexit on the EU, as if it’s all their fault that we’re leaving the biggest and most comprehensive free trading bloc on the planet. The disruption, bureaucracy and expense of Brexit is not the consequence of this act of wilful self-harm, but punishment inflicted on us by Brussels. Perhaps that’s what many people already believe.
But many Brits seem quite content to take it on the chin. As members of the BBC Question Time audience never fail to remind us: we put up with much worse during World War 2. Many Brexiteers genuinely think we are dealing with an oppressive foreign power, like Nazi Germany. It all sounds a bit Dad’s Army, as if we’re heading for a war without casualties. Who do you think you are kidding Mr Barnier if you think we’ll pay 40 billion euros and let you annex Northern Ireland.
The whole point of Brexit was to leave the Customs Union and the European Single Market. That means, by definition, that Britain becomes a third country and under the laws of the hallowed World Trade Organisation, has to become subject to the same rules and terms of trade that the EU applies to other countries. That means tariffs, non-tariff barriers, sanitary and phytosanitary checks and regulatory divergence. It’s what we voted for – well, around half of UK voters.
But it is irrational for a trading nation to impede commerce with its largest trading partner. Realising this, Theresa May has tried through her Withdrawal Agreement to take Britain back into the single market and Customs Union in all but name, in the process accepting that we will have no say in making the rules. The Brexiteer. John Redwood MP, is right: this is worse than being in the European Union itself.
And this weekend, as the government implodes and MPs reject May’s deal, a no deal Brexit is not just a remote possibility; it is an imminent reality. In reality, it is what Brexit means, has always meant. There may be some kind of a deal struck in next month that covers the divorce bill and secures the rights of EU citizens in the UK, but the prospects for any kind of settled deal on future trade is vanishingly small, as the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has conceded.
Tory Brexiteers don’t really want a Chequers-style deal anyway. They believe it would entangle the UK in all the rules and regulations of the European Single Market. They want to liberate chlorinated chickens and hormone-fed beef from Brussels red tape. Theresa May’s suggestion that Britain might accept rulings from the European Court of Justice, without being formally under its jurisdiction, was acceptable to Brussels. But it was a recipe for “vassalage” according to Jacob Rees Mogg.
The hard Brexiteers number only about 40 or so right wing Tory MPs, but they are within an ace of achieving their dream. This is to turn Britain into a low-cost, low-regulation, low-wage Singapore which will flood the EU with cheap exports. They think voters will accept this insecure future because they’ll be compensated in the form of cheap food from Africa and Latin America which will arrive in Britain without having to pay the tariffs charged by the EU or meet its environmental standards.
It will be a remarkable free market experiment – resembling the economic policies of 1970s Chile, but without the Junta. Few people in Britain would willingly vote for it. But we’d better suck it up because in the eyes of Brexit Tories, we already have.