Public opinion on the Leave vote may be turning, but the PM faces no real oppositionby Oliver Kamm / April 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
More Britons oppose Brexit than welcome it. That’s the finding of a Times/YouGov poll published this week: 45 per cent of voters believe that, with hindsight, the referendum vote was a mistake, whereas 43 per cent support it. The poll may be a statistical blip. Perhaps British voters, despite the narrow majority for Brexit last June, are so committed to that outcome that they’ll bear heavy costs to secure it. But my hunch is that many voters opted for Brexit in the belief that it would have no costs at all. On that point, they are certain to be disappointed.
A cautionary tale of the effects of Brexit appeared the day after the votes were cast. The leader of Cornwall’s council said that the authority would be taking “urgent steps to ensure that the UK Government protects Cornwall’s position in any negotiations.” EU subsidies for the Cornish economy have amounted to an average of £60m a year over the last ten years. Cornish voters went decisively for Brexit in the referendum, by 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Were they under the impression that the EU would continue the subventions even while the UK dispensed with the obligations of membership? The most rational explanation is that they were.
Similarly, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has admitted that British workers will not be able to fill jobs currently done by EU migrants for “years and years,” and hence that Britain will continue to admit low-skilled migrant workers in hospitality, agriculture and social care. Were Brexit voters, determined that Britain should “take back control” of its borders, aware that this would happen? It is all but certain that they were not.
Of course Britain can prosper outside the EU. What it cannot do is enjoy all the current benefits of EU membership without paying the costs. Almost all economists warned what the costs would be, even if the magnitude of these is as yet unknowable. The costs will consist in lower output and less efficiency than would otherwise be the case, because of reduced flows of goods, services, investment and labour. The economic mechanisms by which open trade—the elimination of non-tariff barriers within a single market, and not only the removal of tariffs—boosts the real incomes of both parties is well known. They will work less effectively outside the EU and outside the single market. If Brexit is to work—or, at least, if the damage is to be limited—then Britain’s voters and taxpayers need to know about these costs and the government needs to tell them clearly rather than fall back on grandiloquent and increasingly absurd paeans to free trade.
If voters recognise the costs and are willing to pay them, then all well and good. Brexit will be a done deal and Britain will be happier for it knowing that its sovereignty has been slightly expanded. But sovereignty is not an absolute. Every treaty that Britain enters into, including any free trade agreements that it manages to secure after Brexit, by definition involves giving up the power to do something in order to secure countervailing benefits. What Britain is giving up with Brexit is immense, for gains that are likely to be trifling and symbolic.
This ought to be the dominant issue of the general election. Those politicians who, through conviction or calculation, urged a vote for Brexit should suffer electoral retribution. It was immediately clear after the referendum that Brexit’s most voluble advocates had no idea how to implement it. With absolutely no mandate, Theresa May has since resolved that Britain will leave the single market regardless of cost and despite the fact that Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland are all part of the single market without being members of the EU. Tragically for the country, the most salient issue of the election is instead the state of the opposition. Labour is led, in job title if nothing else, by a man who is extravagantly obviously unfit for the job. Jeremy Corbyn has a nugatory grasp of policy detail and a short temper when his limitations are exposed. Polls suggest that many Labour voters were unaware of nominal official support for a Remain vote in the referendum campaign, during which Corbyn decided to go on holiday.
The Tories will gain a landslide at Westminster next month (though overwhelmingly in English seats) because of the vanity of a man who has no purpose in life but to hold on to his job and who lacks the personal dignity to resign. The damage to Brexiteers will be in individual cases rather than to a collective cause.
Those casualties will probably be few, however. I’ll take satisfaction where I can. Kate Hoey, a prominent Labour Brexiteer, may be at risk in Vauxhall in south London from the Liberal Democrats. I take an especially close interest in her result as I voted for her in 1989, and at the 1992 and 1997 general elections. I deeply regret it. Contrary to her sometime reputation as a Labour moderate, Hoey campaigned for Brexit last year alongside Nigel Farage, the then leader of a racist party, and has more recently echoed the foreign-policy propaganda of the Putin regime about chemical warfare in Syria. I hope Hoey loses. But the overall general election result will confirm the dismal prospect of an isolated and isolationist Britain whose political system no longer accords with the conventions of two-party politics or expresses the traditions of liberal-democratic internationalism.