I have nothing to say on yesterday’s agreement that cannot be found in what Chris Grey or Ian Dunt writes. The difference in tone between the two seems to me to depend on different assessments of how far down the road the Irish border issue can be kicked. What I want to do instead is ask why public opinion seems oblivious to the failures of all those claims before the negotiations that ‘we hold all the cards’ compared to the reality that the UK has largely agreed to the terms set out by the EU.
I think as good a place to start as any is this poll result from ORB.
The view of the overwhelming majority of economists, and all the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD, and now even the government, is that leaving the EU will involve significant economic costs. Yet despite all this the poll above shows as many people think we will be better off leaving as think we will be worse off. This is the kind of polling that should stop everyone in their tracks, much like the polls before the US election that said more people trusted Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.
The result in this poll is all the more incredible because so far people are worse off as a result of Brexit. They are worse off because a depreciation immediately after the vote led to higher import prices that have not been matched by rising nominal wages. We have moved from the top to the bottom of the OECD growth league table. A belief that we will be better off has to involve Brexit in some way reversing what has already happened.
I can think of two classes of explanation for this apparent paradox. The first is that people are fully aware of what experts and the government thinks, but ignores this because they simply do not trust experts. Instead they fall back on simple ideas like there will be less immigrants after Brexit so they will be better off. Ideas that experts also say are wrong, but where experts are again ignored.
If that is the line you want to take, then it has a clear implication. The implication is never hold a referendum on anything. It is not normally a good idea to take decisions where you ignore all expertise.
There is however a second and much simpler explanation for the poll result shown above. I know about the view of the overwhelming majority of economists, the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD and now even the government, and so do most people reading this blog or who read the Financial Times and a few other newspapers. But do people who pay far less attention to economics and politics know this? How would they know this?
They will know very little about it from reading the papers that campaigned so hard for Brexit in the first place. At best the information will be reported in a dismissive way with some reference to how economists always get things wrong. (Hence, by the way, a distrust of economists, because most of the media is either unable or unwilling to make the distinction between conditional and unconditional forecasts.) Against such reports will be a constant stream of comment and reporting extolling the imagined benefits of Brexit.
The UK government wants a Brexit that will involve the UK not just ending free movement, but leaving the Single Market for goods and services and leaving any customs union with the EU. It is a form of Brexit not dictated by the referendum result but by the wishes of the Brexiters in the Conservative party. The only people who can stop this happening are other Conservative MPs, but many have said that these MPs will only be able to defy their government if public opinion swings against Brexit.