If one wanted a phrase to sum up the defining idiosyncrasy of those who led the Leave campaign and are now members of, or backbench supporters of this Brexit government it is a ‘hubristic absence of judgement’ i.e. disrespectful stupidity. In the 2016 referendum, Brexiters claimed that leaving the EU did not mean leaving the single market and ‘taking back control’ would deliver great opportunities and prosperity. But as we approach the end of the first year of life outside the single market it is impossible to find any of the promised benefits. The irreconcilable claims of the Leave campaign were always the product of disingenuity or stupidity and as such revealed zero respect for their audience. It is a matter of deep regret that the thoroughly undemocratic 2016 referendum campaign was mired in ignorance, lies and sleaze. It should not therefore, come as a surprise that the approach taken in the referendum campaign now permeates this government.
Examples, there are plenty. The Tory plotters who scandalously attempted to exonerate Owen Paterson were all arch-Leavers and, as with Brexit, their disrespectful stupidity ended in a debacle. Despite health experts urging the wearing of masks in crowed areas, Tory MPs blatantly refuse to set an example, justified by the arch-Brexiter, leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg as being unnecessary as the MP’s all know each other – again disrespectful stupidity. As for the Prime Minister’s rambling and shambolic speech to the CBI. With the catastrophe of Brexit becoming clearer by the day, businesses face a very uncertain New Year, yet the PM decided to ignore these concerns and instead proffered a vacuous digression on Peppa Pig world. This disrespectful stupidity was also evident in Mr Johnson’s publication of the contents of a letter to President Macron laying the blame for the migrant crisis at France’s door and merely reviving proposals already rejected.
Despite Mr Johnson’s bluster and deception regarding the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) – e.g. ‘there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade’ – the existence of non-tariff barriers with the EU has resulted in Brexit overtaking Covid in terms of long term economic scaring. Inflation, employers’ national insurance and corporation tax are all set to rise next year, trade and investment have plummeted and hopes of an improvement in the weak trend of productivity since the 2008/9 financial crash remain just that. Against this background an astute, respectful PM would have sought to convince his CBI audience that his government has credible plans for softening the impact of Brexit. But Mr Johnson didn’t bother. He has no interest in, or ability to grasp detail, rendering him incapable of the leadership that the office of PM demands. Rather than face reality, when not performing as a clown in public, he adopts the traditional refuge of scoundrels by seeking to divert attention from the emerging costs of Brexit by blaming Covid, the EU and the French.
Covid has damaged the economy but looking forward, the cause of the growing list of economic problems should properly be laid at the door of the Johnson-Frost TCA which the PM disrespectfully and stupidly heralded as ‘glad tidings of great joy’. The TCA is little more than a minimal tariff reducing trade deal – far removed from the enviable benefits of zero trade barriers the country previously enjoyed within the single market. Desperate to put-off for as long as possible the acute burden – particularly for SMEs – of online paperwork the TCA commits UK traders to, the government has yet again postponed checks on imports from the EU until mid-2022. A rather bizarre interpretation of exercising control.
Although supply chain problems are not unique to the UK, Brexit has exacerbated them. Gaps on supermarket shelfs maybe the most obvious manifestation but ONS data shows that problems are widespread. The fact that some 17 per cent of firms trying to get goods and materials from the EU were unable to do so in October, the loss of EU workers in key sectors e.g. farming and meat processing, as well as the reduction in cabotage can all be directly attributed to Brexit. Potentially more serious for the longer term health of the economy is the fact that the Johnson-Frost deal ignored services – which account for some 70 per cent of GDP. Britain’s financial services now have fewer equivalence rights with the EU than other financial centres such as New York. Moreover, Brussels has made it clear that it intends to bring to an end the patchwork of national arrangements on cross-border selling that allow banks outside the EU to sell services into the bloc, making it inevitable that financial services will join other businesses seeking to avoid hitherto avoidable trade costs by moving activities and jobs to the EU.
Displaying the intolerance of a fundamentalist, Lord Frost – who in a previous incarnation pointed to the considerable advantages of membership of the single market, which he then put at up 8 per cent of GDP, or £1,500 a year per person – declared in a recent speech that he was right to reject a softer version of Brexit and despite the concerns of those at the sharp-end he went on to proclaim that there will be no backsliding on Brexit. Keeping disrespectful stupidity to the fore he sought to blame the ‘forces of entropy, of laziness, of vested interest’ for the failings of the deal he negotiated and now repudiates. Despite Lord Frost’s increasingly extreme zealotry, there are signs that reality is beginning to dawn in more rational areas of government. Plans to impose a UK-only quality mark have been postponed, notionally for a year! Someone below the Johnson-Frost duumvirate has realised that the only practical effect of rejecting the European CE certification would be to further deter business investment. The unelected Lord Frost may have no interest in reasonableness, but it is to be hoped that sharper minds will ensure that his disrespectful attitude towards those he has put in danger will soon be consigned to history.