Bait and switch: how Gove sold Brexit to Britain

Picture of magician's equipment including top hat, white gloves and a wand
Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

On a cool, overcast Tuesday in April 2016 somewhere in the Westminster village, Michael Gove fronted a press conference for Vote Leave, the campaign he co-chaired with Boris Johnson. His speech had been drafted by Oliver Lewis, head of research for the campaign, and Gove delivered it in his usual confident style.

It set out the campaign’s aims for Brexit and talked of “a happy journey to a better future. But, crucially, a journey where we would be in control, whose pace and direction we would determine for ourselves. And whose destination we could choose”.

The ‘destination’ Gove outlined that day was to remain inside the single market and part of the “free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey”.

Looking back, it seems clear now that it was a classic bait and switch routine, where something splendidly enticing is offered only to be replaced later by an inferior product at a much higher price. That or – only slightly less plausible – the entire leadership of the official leave campaign had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, on the greatest issue facing our country.

The entire 35-minute speech is available on YouTube and the key section begins 17:52 seconds in:

Here is the text of that key paragraph:

“There is a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey that all European nations have access to, regardless of whether they are in or out of the euro or EU. After we vote to leave, we will remain in this zone. The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and the Ukraine would remain part of this free trade area – and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus – is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining UKIP”.

Michael Gove 19 April 2016

It was followed by laughter from the audience. How ridiculous was that? Britain leaving the single market? Not a chance. I assume UKIP are now waiting for an application from Jean-Claude Juncker to arrive any day. Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Ukraine will indeed be part of that free trade zone while Britain, alone with Belarus, will not.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent fiscal outlook estimates that leaving the single market with a free trade deal will cut 4 percent off GDP – about £80bn a year – rising to 6.1 percent (£120bn) without a deal. Yet Gove, Johnson and a government packed with Vote Leave personnel, including speech writer Oliver Lewis (now a senior adviser in No 10), has segued from one to the other with barely a moment’s thought.

Had Britain remained in the single market, the speech would have made sense and would perhaps have laid the groundwork for a coherent policy to ensure a smooth Brexit, at minimal cost, which most people in this country would have barely noticed.

If a demonstration was ever needed of why journalists, even ex ones like Gove, shouldn’t be allowed near anything more important than a whelk stall, this is it. 

Not only were Gove’s own reassuring predictions wrong, but he went out of his way to rubbish warnings from the remain camp – which he first distorted, then ridiculed before denouncing them as preposterous in a flurry of ludicrous rhetoric.

The warnings have turned out to be entirely warranted while Gove, in a bizarre twist, has wound up negotiating something he specifically denied would happen. Let’s take a few examples (there are plenty of others) from his speech, which in hindsight make Gove look even more ridiculous than usual.

How about: “There is no arbitrary deadline which we must meet to secure our future”.

This is rich with irony given that Boris Johnson has done nothing except set arbitrary deadlines, even going out of his way to reject an extension. The absolute ‘final’ one comes up next month, but don’t hold your breath.

And don’t laugh at this one. “It would not be in any nation’s interest artificially to accelerate the process and no responsible government would hit the start button on a two-year legal process without preparing appropriately. Nor would it be in anyone’s interest to hurry parliamentary processes.”

Parliament is to be given a few days to scrutinise the 600+ pages of dense legal text in the EU-UK treaty (assuming there is one). As for “preparing appropriately”, government plans for the end of the transition were recently described by the head of the Road Haulage Association as “a shambles – an absolute crisis”.

“And yet we are somehow expected to believe that if Britain left the organisation which gave us the economic disaster of the euro and turned the world’s richest continent into its slowest growing, that it’s this country which would be acting irrationally.

The UK economy suffered the worst slump in Europe in the second quarter of 2020 and has consistently lagged the eurozone’s growth rate since 2016 and it is therefore Britain which is pulling the continent’s growth rate down.

An FT report that compares the average of G7 economies shows that the cost of covid-19 to the UK is set to be over 80 percent higher, while we’re on course to suffer a 90 percent deeper decline in economic output in 2020 and almost 60 percent more deaths. What was that about being irrational?

Gove ridiculed warnings about immigration controls and the impact on soccer, scoffing at the idea that, “Our football teams would be denuded of foreign players”.

Headline in The Sun: “Premier League set to be massive loser in Brexit battle amid fears Europe’s top talents will NOT be given visas” (30 Oct 2020)

“And heaven help us if we fell ill, as citizens from a country outside the EU we would be barred from all of Europe’s hospitals and left to expire unmourned in some foreign field.”

That’s exactly what will happen if you are a British-only citizen in the EU, unless you buy private medical insurance. The BBC website says: “The EHIC will no longer be valid for most UK citizens. A government website says you should buy travel insurance with healthcare cover before you go on holiday”.

Getting into his stride, Gove went on ridiculing Remainers, “The City of London would become a ghost town, our manufacturing industries would be sanctioned more punitively than even communist North Korea, decades would pass before a single British Land Rover or Mr Kipling cake could ever again be sold in France and in the meantime our farmers would have been driven from the land by poverty worse than the Potato Famine.”

Le Figaro described The City as a “ghost town” this week adding that, “As the deadline approaches, anguish returns in force to the future of this gigantic cash machine.” JLR are to build the new Land Rover Defender at their plant in Nitra, Slovakia and the agricultural industry is so concerned they have launched a campaign to Save British Farming, fearing a bleak future as the government drives them from the land – although it is offering lump sums to cushion the blow.

“German car manufacturers, who sell £16.2 billion more to us each year than we sell to them, will insist their government maintains access to our markets.”

I wonder where those German car makers have got to? If they are coming over the hill like a cheap western, they’re leaving it mighty late.

“The idea that all of them [Germany, France and Italy] – and 24 other nations – would have as their highest economic priority in the months ahead making it more difficult to sell to Britain – and the belief that they would bend all their diplomatic, political and financial muscle to that sole end – is preposterous.”

Preposterous: adjective, contrary to reason or common sense; utterly absurd or ridiculous.  Perhaps the EU 27 don’t think it’s that irrational to preserve the integrity of the single market against an ex-member who wants access in order to undercut their own industries.

“Why would any of them wish to commit an act of profound economic self-harm? And if any of them did, why would the other EU nations let them?”

Why indeed? Britain has decided to make it more difficult to sell to the EU in an act of profound economic self harm. The EU27 can do nothing except look on in sad amazement.

“Leaving the EU would thus help the poorest nations in the world to advance and it would help the poorest people in this country to make ends meet. This is just one of a number of ways in which leaving the European Union allows us to advance more progressive policies.”

This week, the chancellor announced we were cutting the foreign aid budget which helps those poorer nations. Plus, the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative means the 50 or so least-developed countries in the world export everything except weapons and ammunition tariff free to the EU, so it’s hard to see what more Britain can do as a solitary nation.

As for helping poor people in this country, presumably by reducing tariffs, our new Global Tariffs are not that different to the EU’s. Making food cheaper probably means lowering standards and opening up the UK market to the US agri-food industry.

This one is particularly rich:

“And we don’t know how efficiently that money is allocated to those who really need it because of the opaque nature of the EU’s bureaucracy. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence the money sticks to bureaucratic fingers rather than going to the frontline.

The government is mired in accusations of cronyism if not outright corruption, on a scale any bent EU bureaucrat could only dream of. Over £10bn was spent on PPE this year using single bidder contracts, many of which went to companies with no experience, only political connections. Quite a lot of referrals started in the private offices of government ministers.

Gove himself is the subject of legal proceedings in respect to the £840,000 contract awarded to Public First, a company run by associates of his without a tendering process or even being advertised.

“But many EU regulations such as the Clinical Trials Directive, which has slowed down and made more expensive the testing of new cancer drugs…”

I assume he realises that the first company in the world to come up with a coronavirus vaccine was BioNTech SE, a German biotechnology company based in Mainz. So much for an EU directive slowing things down.

That such a man could rise to Cabinet level is an indictment of both our education and political systems. How someone with an Oxford University degree could wind up so dim is at first a puzzle and then perhaps a key to understanding why Britain has been in decline for so long.

As the trade talks reach the final reckoning this week, it is instructive to look back on what Gove promised and what is actually being delivered. It is bait and switch writ large.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that JLR (not Ineos) are to build the new Land Rover Defender at their plant in Slovakia. Ineos are bulding The Grenadier, a copy of the old model Defender at a newly acquired plant in France.

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