About a year ago, Yorkshire Bylines launched the Davis Downside Dossier, since when it has become our most widely read and shared page. The name comes from the MP David Davis’ now infamous boast from October 2016 when he was Brexit minister, that there would be no downsides to Brexit and considerable upsides.
We know now that he was wrong. Brexit was a gamble with Britain’s future, heedless of risk, and the dossier continues to chronicle the growing problems and difficulties that have blighted our exit from the European Union. Davis later told MPs it was his “democratic duty to make the consequences [of Brexit] clear”. The dossier shows how badly he failed in that duty.
Among the problems are the shortages and the extra costs, the delays and bureaucratic frictions both in matters of trade and personal circumstances affecting millions of people. Separately, our Digby Jones Index covers the actual and potential job losses due to plant closures or operations transferred to the EU that would otherwise have remained here.
What does the dossier tell us?
Firstly, that the number of downsides, far from being zero, exceeds the upsides by a factor of more than 20 to 1. Secondly, that the upsides such as they are, tend to be relatively minor, like reintroducing the crown stamp on pint glasses, or marginally lowering the cost of imported shellfish, or saving 20p on bottles of Australian wine.
Some downsides to be fair are also trivial. Having to pay a €7 ETIAS fee before entering the Schengen area is hardly crippling and outside the zone we may have had to pay it anyway. Neither is occasionally waiting longer in the non-EU queues at European airports. But for many people, other downsides come with a huge personal price tag. Restrictions on the amount of time spent in the Schengen area (the 90 days out of any 180-day maximum period), mean many second home owners have had to sell up. Others have given up on future retirement plans.
Companies have relocated some or all operations into the EU and many employees have been forced into life-changing decisions to move with their families to other countries.
Entire industries have been badly affected, the worst perhaps being among our coastal communities. Fishermen who had high hopes of a better future after Brexit now see only negative consequences. Supply chains, farming, food production, hospitality and social care have all suffered chronic labour shortages after many EU workers left due to covid and are unable to return under new immigration rules.
Trade with customers in the EU is now subject to complex paperwork and export procedures, adding costs and negatively affecting UK PLC’s competitiveness.
The position of the City of London has been weakened. In April, one survey alone revealed more than 400 financial firms in Britain had shifted activities, staff and a combined £1 trillion pounds in assets into hubs in the EU, due to Brexit.
Our dossier is, of course, no substitute for a rigorous, official analysis of Brexit. But unfortunately, the government has steadfastly refused to provide one. It is not difficult to see why.
Brexit is clearly not delivering any genuine upsides. If it was, its advocates would be demanding the launch of expensive advertising campaigns to trumpet its success from every billboard. That they are not doing so, tells us all we need to know.
Instead, they offer ‘benefits’ that on closer examination are either illusory or we could have enjoyed whilst a member of the EU. Our Brexit Benefits Myths sets the record straight on these claims.
What precisely did Davis promise?
Davis’ reckless and oft-repeated 2016 claim that there would be ‘no downsides’ to Brexit, only considerable upsides, was not just giving one hostage to fortune but a whole battalion of them. In hindsight it was utter folly. And in reality, even worse than it appears at first sight.
To get the full sense of just how wrong he was, it’s worth going back to that day in October 2016 when Davis spoke from the dispatch box. His claim of no downsides was predicated on Britain securing four ‘main aims’. Here are his exact words (with added emphasis):
“I highlighted three of the four main aims that we are after. One is to regain control of our borders. Another is to get back control of our laws. The one I did not list was our aim to keep our justice and security arrangements at least as strong as they are. Finally, and most importantly in this context, the United Kingdom must aim to maintain the best possible open access to European markets and vice versa. If we can achieve all that, there will be no downside to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides.”David Davis 10 October 2016
So, how well did Davis’ successor Lord Frost do in delivering his four aims? We have more control over our borders although Home Secretary Patel seems unable to make use of it. And our laws, in GB if not totally in Northern Ireland, are all made exclusively in Westminster.
What about justice and security? It’s hard to know what he had in mind here but even if our security is marginally less than what it was without access to EU databases, none of the current 380 plus downsides appear to have come about as a result of weakened security.
That leaves trade. What did the “best possible access” to the single market mean? For that we can go back to his tweet of 4 February 2016, where he spelled it out.
One assumes that is what he meant, otherwise he went into the negotiation with very limited ambition and in the end this is precisely what Lord Frost secured. Perhaps it was even slightly better than Canada’s, It was the first the EU has ever reached allowing zero tariffs and zero quotas.
So, Davis cannot claim we somehow fell a long way short. He cannot hide behind his own caveats. All four of his ‘aims’ were achieved either fully or in large measure and in return he promised there would be no downsides at all.
Note the certainty, the absolute confidence. There was to be no downsides at all. Not a single one.
Davis by the way is a man with a master’s degree in business. He was appointed Europe minister by John Major in 1994, a position he held until the 1997 general election. When he made his ‘no downside’ comments he was minister for Brexit, and yet he appears to have zero understanding of how business or the EU actually works and what the single market is.
How did he manage to get it so wrong?
This is easier to answer than you might think. Brexit went wrong through ignorance, hubris and a complete absence of realism that looking back seems almost tragicomic.
Davis thought we could have all the benefits of membership because we were “too valuable” to the EU for them not offer big concessions. These are quotes from the text of a speech he gave on 4 February 2016:
“To see our importance to Europe, you only need to walk down the street. More than a quarter of all cars sold in this country are Mercedes, BMWs, Audis or VWs. And those are just some of the German brands. We are Europe’s second largest, and fastest growing car market.
“We are too valuable a market for Europe to shut off.
“Access to our market is more important to Europe than our access to theirs.”David Davis 4 February 2016
It is the Digby Jones syndrome. Jones said there would not be a single job lost after Brexit (“we should kill that canard now”) because “we are so important”.
Davis even advised the Confederation of British Industry – who were worried about losing access to the single market in which they had “huge sunk costs in distribution and supply networks” – to relax, because there could be “no doubt that such access would continue in the event of British exit”. No doubt. No doubt at all, presumably?
In short, he assumed or gambled that the UK would be granted specially privileged third country ‘access’ (this does not mean ‘trading with’, since every country in the world trades with the EU) to the single market under the same terms we had as a member. Davis, wilfully or otherwise, misled both the British people and British industry.
Davis and reality collide
By January 2017, he and reality had suffered an enforced coming together. Someone must have taken him to one side and patiently explained how the EU worked. His tune changed and he told his fellow Tory MP Anna Soubry that:
“I am afraid that it is very difficult to see how we can leave the European Union and still stay inside the single market, with all the commitments that go with that.”David Davis 24 January 2017
Nonetheless, the fantasy persisted. In the same answer, he went on to claim that he could still negotiate a “comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”. This is another Davis utterance that will be forever remembered.
Brexit, he told the House, was “the biggest question we will face in a generation” and therefore (don’t laugh at this), “it is our democratic duty to make the consequences clear”. Our democratic duty.
The consequences were anything but clear, democratic duty or not, perhaps because he couldn’t bring himself to see any of the quite obvious ones. He preferred instead those offered by Professor Sir Patrick Minford, virtually the world’s only economist to see any benefit in Brexit, and even he forecast that it would “mostly eliminate manufacturing.”
The Davis Downside Dossier continues to be testament to the ever-widening gap that separates the actual ‘benefits’ of Brexit from what was promised, and the even wider gulf with what we had.
The downsides are the price we are all paying for Brexit
The downsides, closing in on 400 and still rising, are the result of losing a reckless gamble with the nation’s future prosperity at stake. Davis, like Michael Gove, smugly thought we held all the cards. That we were ‘so important’ we could demand membership rights without the obligations, and a 90 percent discount on the fees.
Let us be clear. They had no idea whether or not we held strong cards. Plenty of experts were telling them they were wrong.
In a no-limit game, they kept upping the ante. They literally bet the house on getting a deal that was always impossible. When the cards were revealed, the EU held an unbeatable royal flush, the highest-value hand in poker, while we had a lowly pair of tens.
This generation, and likely the next too, is effectively saddled with Vote Leave’s gambling debt.