Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 20 November 2019

How to disguise a really big lie? Put it on a bus.

The Tories, and particularly their leader, lie all the time. It is quite shameless. But there is a corollary to this. If your whole campaign is based on one big huge lie, make it your main slogan. Because, even today, many voters still think you wouldn’t dare lie about something so important. Unfortunately recent history suggests otherwise.

We all remember the £350 million for the NHS lie in the 2016 referendum. It was famously on a bus. Except it seems that a good part of the voting population has forgotten the reason that slogan is notorious. It was a huge lie, the opposite of the truth. The have forgotten because the Tories have a new bus with a new slogan that a lot of voters appear to believe. In reality it is as big a lie as the one made during the referendum.

Also consider the key Tory slogans in the last two elections. In 2015 it was “Strong Leadership, A Clear Economic Plan And A Brighter, More Secure Future”. Within a year the ‘strong leader’ had resigned, businesses were unable to plan and the UK’s future was anything but secure. In 2017 who could forget “Strong and Stable”. May lasted two years but no one would call those years stable.

In 2019 we have “Get Brexit Done”. I can confidently tell you that this is in the true tradition of the earlier slogans. A more truthful slogan would be “If you liked the last three years of Brexit deadlock, vote Tory”. Here is why.

It is true that Johnson will get enough MPs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) if he wins the General Election. But the truth that much of the media has hidden is that the WA was always going to be easy if the UK government was prepared to put a customs border in the Irish Sea. Johnson got that agreement because he capitulated on a red line that he, his fellow MPs and the DUP had forced on Theresa May. Why did the ERG allow Johnson to get away with that? Because they saw a brand new opportunity for a No Deal exit at the end of 2020.

What the WA does not specify is the nature of the trading arrangement between the EU and the UK excluding Northern Ireland. This relationship has always been the sticking point in getting the WA done, and why it has taken so long. The WA does nothing towards saying what that relationship will be, except that it is unlikely to involve being in the EU’s Customs Union or Single Market. Johnson says he wants a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, but FTAs normally take over 5 years to negotiate.

Johnson has given himself just a year, until the end of 2020. On that date the transition agreement, where we stay in the EU in everything except name and voting rights, comes to an end. Johnson has pledged to not seek an extension beyond 2020, even though one is on offer. That pledge was the basis for getting Farage to withdraw his candidates from Tory seats. The problem is that no one will be able to negotiate an FTA within a year.

Here is the ERG’s big hope, and why Farage withdrew. If Johnson keeps to his word, we face a new cliff edge at the end of 2020. Unless he breaks his word, we will drop out of the EU with no FTA at all. (The great Michael Dougan puts it very clearly here, although I’m not sure about the shirt.) This would be disastrous for the UK economy, but it is what the ERG have been trying to get since 2016. If he breaks his word expect all hell to break loose within the Tory party. If he decides on No Deal, all hell will break out in the Tory party, and parliament might well try to force an extension on him. In other words the next year will be just like the last three.

More generally negotiating an FTA is difficult and time consuming stuff, because it involves UK interests of various kinds that will be trying to get the government’s attention. It will mean that Brexit remains constantly in the news and taking up politicians’ time. This is partly because the government has not thought a lot about how to deal with the many difficult problems an FTA presents, preferring as usual to pretend any difficulty does not exist. Once again, as Chris Grey notes, the EU are much better prepared.

I know I go on about the media a lot, but all this should be common knowledge beyond those who research these things. It clearly is not, with plenty of voters prepared to vote Conservative despite all Johnson’s failings because they believe he will end the Brexit turmoil. This is not about journalists taking sides, but stating facts. I have heard plenty of journalists ask Conservatives whether it is credible to get an FTA done in 1 year, but with little or no follow up.

As just one example, I heard a Conservative MP (I think it was Vicky Ford. Chelmsford) defending the FTA in a year nonsense by saying most of the deal was already done, with no follow-up by the interviewer. What she appeared to mean is that we currently trade with no tariffs with the EU so that will be the basis for negotiations. But of course that is nonsense. The negotiations will start as if the UK was a country with No Deal with the EU, and the UK will have to make the case for moving towards our current position as a member of the EU.

That case will involve all kinds of complications which Tory ministers will find it hard to resolve. For example zero tariffs will only be possible if the UK agrees to adopt all the regulations the EU has which could influence competition, which is most EU regulations. The Tory government wants to get rid of many of those regulations. That means the UK cannot have zero tariffs, because the EU cannot allow an outside country to undercut their own producers because of weaker labour or environmental regulations.

Then there are all the specific thorny issues, like fishing. Tony Connelly brilliantly fillets the complexity here, but in essence the UK cannot exclude other countries from its waters (the dream that led many fishermen to vote for Brexit) and still expect to sell most of its fish to the EU tariff free.

So as far as Brexit is concerned passing the WA is the beginning not the end. If you really want the issue over with, Labour are the much better option. The deal Labour are likely to negotiate within 3 months of taking office will be much softer: almost certainly staying in the EU’s customs union and something close to being in the Single Market, if not in the Single Market. That is why it can be negotiated quickly. We then have a new referendum on that deal within six months.

The contrast between Labour and the Conservatives is clear. Under Labour Brexit is settled by the people in the Autumn of 2020. Under the Conservatives we face a new cliff edge at the end of 2020, and possibly negotiations for another five or more years, or alternatively a No Deal Brexit with all the consequences that will bring. If you want to get Brexit done, don’t vote Tory.

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