Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 2 September 2019

Do Conservative MPs really think they can cope with the consequences of No Deal?

Dear Conservative MP

You are no doubt bracing yourself for the short term consequences of crashing out of the EU. But you still feel that once we get over the shortages of food, fuel and medicines, things can get back to normal again after three mad, Brexit obsessed years. But have you thought about what the new normal will be? It will be anything but normal, and it will not be a nice time to be a government MP.

The first and most obvious departure from recent normality is the breakdown of peace in Northern Ireland. A hard border is an inevitable result of crashing out. That border is the end of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), and anyone who tells you otherwise knows nothing about Northern Ireland or hates the GFA. Stormont government, already broken for two years, has almost no chance of being put back together. We will have permanent direct rule, and a gradual escalation of violence that will first require mainland police, and then the army, to quell. Will you be comfortable as being one of those that made this happen?

You may think that is a small political cost because the mainland and its voters have never cared too much about what happens in Ireland. That is why terrorism will eventually spread to the mainland. Will the Conservative party then be forgiven for throwing away a peace that was won with so much difficulty and had endured for decades? Do you fancy being a minister for Northern Ireland?

That is not the only part of the UK that will be giving the government grief. A No Deal Brexit will make a majority of Scottish voters favour independence. Ignoring the SNP’s calls for a new referendum cannot be sustained without civil unrest, and attempts to do so will only harden opposition to the Union. It is quite likely that the government will fight and lose a referendum at some stage, and then it will be bogged down in the negotiations that this loss will require. Do you want to be a Conservative and Unionist Party MP in a government that broke the Union? Do you fancy being a minister for Scottish affairs?

You might think that at least Brexit is done and over as an issue. You would be wrong. It will be replaced with desperate attempts by the UK government to get a trade agreement with the EU. What were Brexit negotiations will become trade negotiations. In these negotiations the EU will insist on something like the backstop. The UK government will initially refuse. With no agreement in sight, yet more firms will leave the UK and many will collapse or shed jobs. Will you be comfortable with knowing that was a consequence of your actions? Do you fancy being a Business department minister trying to decide which firms to bail out and which to go under?

Did you really believe that a trade deal with other countries, and particularly the United States, would provide any sort of compensation for a reduction in EU trade and the UK economy after a No Deal exit? Trying to get these trade deals will take a lot of political time and energy. In reality the UK will be lucky to replicate the trade deals that we already had through the EU. As long as Trump is in power a trade deal with the US will either involve serious damage to the UK or it will not happen, and even a Trump deal might be blocked in Congress without the backstop. How will you explain either to your constituents after all the talk of Global Britain?

A lot of these costs of a No Deal Brexit can be covered up in the short term by money from the government that it does not have. According to the Resolution Foundation the old fiscal rules have already been broken, and after crashing out of the EU it is going to get much worse. UK borrowing will grow and grow as a share of GDP, as the impact of a No Deal Brexit on the public finances become clear. Are you happy that you will be helping to trash the Tories reputation among many for economic competence? Fancy a job at the Treasury during this period?

Farmers in particular will need large subsidies after they find they cannot sell their goods to the EU. New trade deals with other countries will be unable to compensate. At some stage lots of farmers will go out of business. Some may be your constituents. How do you think they will regard you as someone who helped this happen? Perhaps you will be a minister at DEFRA talking directly to even more of them.

The post-No Deal government will also have to suffer a series of international humiliations as the UK’s importance in international affairs gradually diminishes. One of the things that we could be forced to relinquish in the absence of EU support is the UK’s permanent seat at the UN. Our ability to look after our overseas interests will be steadily compromised as the money runs out. It is difficult to predict what these humiliations will be but don’t expect any other country to come to our aid. We are in the era of international regional groupings and we will not be part of one. Is that what you became an MP to achieve? A job in the Foreign Office perhaps trying to talk to people who don’t want to talk to you?

That is a most likely case scenario. Worst case is that No Deal shortages mean Johnson fails to win the forthcoming General Election, and you become an opposition MP, for perhaps a very long time. Or these shortages lead to civil disorder, and the government takes upon itself emergency powers that reflect its authoritarian streak. Objections from parliament, or even laws passed, are ignored as the government has already threatened to do. Are you comfotable working in the Home Office in such circumstances, dealing with this but also hundreds of EU citizens wrongly denied permanent residence?

You say that if I vote against the government to stop a No Deal Brexit I will lose my job at the next election. But is a government MP a job you really want, if that government is going to spend all its time fighting fires in Northern Ireland and Scotland, pleading with other countries for disadvantageous trade deals, borrowing more just to keep trying to avoid raising taxes, fending off angry farmers whose lives you have helped ruin, and watching the UK’s standing in the world gradually decline? Not to mention trying to talk to angry constituents who cannot get their medication in what doctors call the biggest crisis the NHS has ever faced.

Perhaps it is better to do what you know is right, so that during the subsequent chaos you can hold your head high and say you tried to stop it happening.

Yours sincerely

Simon Wren-Lewis


  1. Excellent! But oh so depressing.

  2. This post is fantastic because it spells out specific consequences of no-deal brexit and not some GDP numbers. Things might well have been different if the remainers talked more about these instead of going on about rather abstract GDP forecasts.

  3. All very likely consequences of no deal.
    But my pet theory is that the UK might get into trouble with its balance of payments. I mean, if the government sabotages exports, the Pound drops and foreign investors lose confidence, how long can the UK finance its imports? And what will it have to sell off?

  4. Very good. Now do one for Labour MPs explaining why, if there turns out to be no Commons majority either for a second referendum or for revoking Article 50 outright--which there almost certainly is not--they'll need to use their control of the order paper to vote May's original Brexit deal through, even if they think Brexit was a terrible idea.

  5. I agree that trade deals will be hard to come by (and will take years), but why do you feel a breakdown of peace in NI is inevitable? Very few people want that, and in the age of digital crime fighting, catching the perpetrators is much easier than it was in the 70s/80s

  6. I realise this article is mainly aimed at Brexit, but, like most commentators (especially, but not only, English ones), you assume that Scottish independence is a bad thing. A bad thing for who? As an economic expert you must be aware that the GERS statistics are rigged to show Scottish dependence on England. You must be aware of the McCrone Report which gave a very different picture of the Scottish economy. You must also know that it was suppressed for obvious reasons. You must know that Norway's present wealth oil funds is not the case in Scotland, and the reason why that is so.

    So try to be a bit more impartial, even if you then have less ammunition.

  7. Excellent. You only left out the thousands of small businesses collapsing under the combined impact of frozen supply chains and impenetrable WTO-régime red tape.

  8. It is a great relief to know that someone at least knows what the consequences of Brexit are. Thank goodness for economists!
    So, since you know what the outcome is, what are you doing about it? Have you mortgaged your house and bought any particular currency? Invested heavily in those things where there will be shortages? Bought gold? Shorted Sterling??
    I mean: since you can see the outcome, you have surely acted to enrich yourself? You'd be a fool not to. That's just basic economics, isn't it??

  9. It's clear by now that the Brexiteers *like* the chaos. They'll blame it on Labour/UK beaucrats/the EU/Johnny Foreigner/Remainers/Jews/Muslims/etc.


  10. Very minor - “bail out” not “bale out”. Interesting comments.

  11. Shock horror! Gasp! The truth! Has it really come to that? Three years lies and obfuscation fails? The only sane action by whatever government is still around before Hallowe'en, is to rescind the Article 50 application to leave.

    That such a move is sane, of course dooms it. Have a nice.

  12. As an American Anglophile (my brother-in-law and ex-wife are both English) Brexit has always seemed like anti-immigrant aversion magnified into economy-gutting hara-kiri. And that was before Hard Berexit became default.

    Question: If another referendum on Brexit were held today, what would UK voters choose?

  13. Thank you for your point of view and the explanations. It seems like the problems that exist with being in the EU (whatever they are) should be worked on, modified or talked out - in order to make belonging to the EU better. Not just a wholesale walk-off. But politicians are not often statesmen...

  14. Will any of this be new information to the MP's that chose Mr Johnson as the party leader?


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