Brexit is now the Conservative Party’s sacred cow. Not so much policy as religious faith. The merest hint of criticism is regarded as apostasy by a party dangerously in thrall to an agenda that threatens to shatter the United Kingdom and leave England stuck in a permanent economic slow lane, isolated from its neighbours and friendless in an uncertain world.
The Conservative commentator Iain Dale told Telegraph readers in September that “not everything can be blamed on Brexit”. This is not the issue. The real problem is that in Tory ranks nothing can be blamed on Brexit.
Iain Duncan Smith says lazy journalists were wrong to blame Brexit for driver shortages. His backbench colleague Peter Bone was adamant, and told the Daily Express, “I don’t buy the idea that [the driver shortage] has got anything to do with Brexit”. This despite road hauliers and the CBI telling them Brexit played a significant part in the shortages.
Brexit has become a dangerous sacred cow
The reason for the party’s defensive attitude is clear. There are few if any Brexit upsides hoving into view. If there were, Brexit supporters would be far less inclined to bristle and spring to its defence when critics point out the slightest downside. The absence of any tangible benefits in the short or medium term has made Brexit a cantankerous sacred cow.
And unlike with Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous attempt to force through the poll tax, a policy that faced opposition from within her own cabinet, Brexit is entirely ring fenced from blame as it rampages though the economy. Johnson’s hand-picked band of political placemen and non-entities have sworn fealty to him and refuse to contemplate the suggestion that Brexit is anything less than a panacea for all of Britain’s ills. Any sign of wavering would be political suicide in any case, whatever their private thoughts.
Robert Shrimsley, chief political commentator and UK editor at large of the Financial Times writes that not only are the Tories “waving away uncomfortable truths, they have created a climate where opponents are nervous of raising them”, arguing that people no longer want to hear about Brexit.
Out in the real world, the nation’s precious industrial base is loaded with taxes, undermined and atrophied. Exporting to our best customer, on which we depend for our future prosperity, has been made slower, more costly and more bureaucratic, something which according to the PM’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, Johnson only realised when in the very final stages of the trade negotiations. His face apparently was a picture of “absolute disbelief”.
The massive cost of saving Johnson’s face
Saving Johnson’s ‘face’ is another reason Brexit always escapes unscathed. Admitting that it was a colossal error is now unthinkable. The party has sunk far too much political capital into it for that to happen. So, remember that ‘face (how could you forget it?) saving’; it is going to be the most expensive policy ever undertaken by a British government, exceeding even the cost of the covid pandemic.
As a down payment in March, Sunak introduced tax increases worth £30bn–£40bn a year, much of it falling on business but certain to be passed on to consumers. It was the reverse of Johnson’s pre-referendum boast that he was going to “lift the burden – £600 million a week [£30 billion a year] lifted off the backs of British industry and business.”
He didn’t actually lift any of the burden; in fact, he doubled it.
To protect the innocence of the sacred cow, Chancellor Rishi Sunak had to airily dismiss the 4 percent drop in GDP due to Brexit, forecast by the statutorily independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) – equating to approximately £100bn and worth perhaps £35bn a year in lost tax revenue. He said “that’s what they think” as if it was just a guess on their part and of little consequence compared with a Brexiter’s simple faith that all will be well anyway.
The OBR is perhaps the only body to consistently call out the impact of Brexit yet, addressing peers, Lord Frost said he thought the figure was “a long way out”, although he didn’t offer to tell us in which direction. We can perhaps guess what he wants you to think.
And it isn’t only shortages or the economic impact. The looming crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol, the decision to permit raw sewage to be pumped into rivers, and the record numbers of refugees crossing the English Channel, are also incontrovertibly linked to Brexit.
One begins to wonder how long the unhappy truth can go unacknowledged by either of the main parties?
Where is the future growth coming from?
The OBR forecast of sluggish economic growth and falling living standards is hardly calculated to forestall the waning support for Brexit.
Indeed, it’s hard to see where any great spur to Britain’s medium-term wealth is going to come from. Figures produced by the OBR suggest all of the post-Brexit trade deals will generate a paltry gain of between £3 and £7 per person over the next 15 years. But the loss of trade through Brexit is equivalent to £1,250 per person over the same time period.
Lord Frost has suggested the government will use its new-found freedom to diverge from EU regulations to counter the loss and boost the economy, but as Bob Hancké points out in an LSE (London School of Economics) blog, the UK is constrained by its own ‘iron cage’.
Hancké argues that diverging to any great extent from EU standards risks retaliatory measures from the EU, with significant losses for UK businesses and potentially the economy as a whole. Avoiding those risks means constantly choosing the lesser evil between losses in EU trade and gains in non-EU trade, but:
“The size of the EU, and the weight in the UK’s trade basket, almost invariably leads to one conclusion for the now sovereign UK: minimise the EU-related losses by adopting EU standards.”
The Cabinet recently had an away day as they struggle to define what “levelling up” means, let alone deliver it. This government will, like all previous ones, find that implementing its agenda costs money. At every turn it will find the path to prosperity and more spending is blocked by its own sacred cow.
Who will slay the sacred cow?
The recent blizzard of sleaze allegations swirling around the prime minister has caused quite a dramatic slump in the polls, along with the news that a clear majority (53 percent) would vote to rejoin the EU. It may indicate the scales are starting to fall from the eyes of many voters, especially younger ones and those who didn’t vote in 2016. Majority support for Brexit is now limited to people aged 65 and over, which should be a cause for circumspection in Downing Street, for obvious reasons.
No matter how hard Brexiters scan the distant horizon for proof that Brexit is working, that proof will never come. There will be no Brexit redemption. It’s like hoping for evidence to turn up that the world is actually flat, or confirmation that perpetual motion has been discovered.
Eventually, someone will have to slay the sacred cow. Who will it be?