The wind seems to have gone out of Brexit’s sails. The resignation of Lord Frost and an encounter with economic reality has left Boris Johnson’s European policy drifting aimlessly in the doldrums with much speculation about the direction in which he or his successor will next be blown.
Meanwhile, in the pro-Brexit community, there are increasing signs of impatience at the glacial progress of change; an impatience mixed with more than a little anxiety. It’s not real panic – yet – but give it a few months. The reason for the edginess can perhaps be seen in recent polling figures. Support for Brexit is falling at a rate not far behind the PM’s own plummeting approval rating.
There are understandable fears that voters will soon discover Brexit is not all it was cracked up to be. Nowhere is this becoming clearer than at the world’s oldest weekly magazine The Spectator.
Andrew Neil opposes “generous health and welfare benefits”
Spectator chairman Andrew Neil, writing in The Daily Mail (A year after quitting the moribund EU, why aren’t Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers making the most of our freedom?) says EU economies are “notorious” for saddling workers with higher taxes to pay for “generous health and welfare benefits” and laments that that now appears to be our direction of travel too.
The journalist and broadcaster casts aside any pretence at impartiality and points to several mythical ‘benefits’ of Brexit (vaccine roll out, freeports, alcohol pricing, etc) all of which Britain could have enjoyed as an EU member, but dismisses them as “hardly game-changing” anyway. Neil says the way to transform post-Brexit Britain is via “regulatory reform” to create the sort of “light-touch regulatory environment in which the technologies and entrepreneurs of tomorrow will feel welcome”.
Unfortunately for him, virtually all of today’s technologies and entrepreneurs are demanding regulatory alignment with the EU in order to avoid needless trade barriers.
Moreover, Neil overlooks the fact that Britain was frequently a first mover or world leader in tomorrow’s technologies. Steel hulled ships, steam propulsion, railways, jet engines, motor cars and motor cycles are good examples. We made the first computer and a Briton, Tim Berners-Lee, dreamt up the World Wide Web while working with colleagues at CERN. We have often been at the birth of these industries of the future. This is not really the issue. It’s holding the lead and competing where we tend to fail.
Productivity, about which Neil says nothing, is our real problem and EU membership is key to improving it.
Has Boris Johnson made you better off?
Last month, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, writing in The Telegraph asked: Was I right to support Brexit? If this is ‘Global Britain’, I’m starting to wonder. Europhile Nelson was questioning the assurances given by silver-tongued Brexiter Daniel Hannan before Nelson threw in his lot with Vote Leave.
Now, The Spectator’s American-born economics editor Kate Andrews, in her latest piece for the magazine, asks “Has Boris made you better off?” I suspect she knows that the answer for most readers is no, although Johnson might not have made them very much worse off – yet.
You would have thought as economics editor she would know that Brexit is unlikely to make anybody feel better off next year – or indeed in the years after that as well.
Andrews claims that Johnson’s plan is to “ride out the turbulence” in Downing Street and then draw voters’ attention to the economy before the next election when he will ask: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ She says Johnson is banking on the answer being a resounding yes.
If so, he is bound for disappointment.
Recent analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows the PM is on track to deliver “the worst growth in living standards over the course of any parliamentary term on record” and incomes are at risk of falling in real terms. They forecast that next year will be defined as the “year of the squeeze”.
Tory minister: the government has “very little to offer”
Even members of Johnson’s own government are sceptical, one minister telling Andrews:
“I don’t know how we’re going to answer that question [are you better off] when it inevitably comes up. Unless we’re entirely trusting now that the state can solve all our problems — which it’s comprehensively, blatantly failed to do in the past — we’ve got very little to offer.”
Another Tory MP tells her, “Everyone is rightly focused on scandal right now, but the big fear is that when it all dies down, we will find we have unknowingly strayed into an economic no man’s land. The public isn’t ready for what we find there, and [the government] has no plan to navigate us out”.
Andrews talks about rising inflation and looming tax increases, pointing out that the last time this happened was 1981/82 and that no one under the age of 60 will have much experience of the tax-and-inflation double whammy set to hit next year. A Tory MP says people will be paying more for less, or if they’re really lucky, they’ll be paying more for the same, hardly an ideal platform for the next election.
What was Brexit for?
The former associate director at the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and a Brexit supporter herself, ends with a surprising question for Johnson, “More than five years after the Brexit vote, the Prime Minister has a difficult question to answer: what was it all for?”
Andrews is talking about the biggest change to our relations with our European neighbours for two generations. What was it all for? What kind of a question is that? If you don’t know why you’re doing something it isn’t surprising that you are having problems making a success of it.
Unless Johnson can find a convincing answer, she says voters are likely to ask what the Conservative and Unionist Party itself is for.
Johnson may not need an answer. He will shortly be jettisoned, but the problem for the Tories is that Brexit cannot go over the side with him. The fortunes of Brexit and the party are now so inextricably intertwined they must surely sink together. And to survive at all in the long term, the moderates will eventually have to cut themselves free of the disastrous policy that guides all the others.
More whistling in the dark
This article has singled out The Spectator, but you can find similar examples in most of the pro-Brexit press. There seems to be a growing nervousness among the Brexit cheerleaders and quite a few whistling-in-the-dark articles to keep spirits up. This one from Matther Lynn at The Telegraph is a prime example: A year on from the Brexit trade deal, the doom-mongers got it so wrong. If that were true, one wonders what Neil, Nelson and Andrews have been writing about.
The sorry truth is that there are no big wins about to be delivered, no miracles coming into view. Those elusive benefits of leaving the EU are only ever half-glimpsed by candidates through the drifting smoke and fog of Tory leadership campaigns, whether declared or not, and usually for their own personal advantage.
No sooner has the new leader redecorated the Downing Street flat than the fog closes in again and the benefits disappear once more.
Finally, see this tweet from Nigel Farage’s former deputy at UKIP and later a Tory MEP, David Campbell Bannerman:
This is more in hope than anything else. There will be no ‘fuller delivery’ next year, only more of the same slow decline in trade, growth, living standards and influence.
This article has been updated in response to several readers who pointed out to that a Briton invented the World Wide Web and not the internet.