SOMETIMES you get a strong feeling from the outset when a particular job is created that it will not need to be filled once the incumbent has left it.
Usually, this is because there was absolutely no need for the post in the first place.
Such was the case when Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed Minister for Brexit Opportunities (and Government Efficiency) in February. The role lasted all of about seven months, until he was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Prime Minister Liz Truss’s radical Cabinet reshuffle this week.
It was absolutely no surprise to hear that no one was to be appointed to fill the role Mr Rees-Mogg was vacating.
The new Cabinet position found for the arch-Brexiter is, however, surely a surprise.
And it will perhaps seem like a curious appointment to many businesses in the UK which have been laid low by the impact of the Tories’ hard Brexit.
Many businesses have been hit hard, at the worst possible of times, by Brexit-fuelled skills and labour shortages and mind-boggling hurdles erected wilfully by the Johnson administration along a previously seamless export path to countries in the world’s largest free trade bloc (the European Union and broader European Economic Area).
Yet Mr Rees-Mogg has chosen, rather than acknowledging the reality of Brexit, to present it as something which provides opportunities.
He offered his opinion, shortly after his February appointment, that “the evidence that Brexit has caused trade drops is few and far between”.
It was a truly incredible comment, even by the standards of the ideologically blinkered Brexiters.
He also proclaimed: “I think Brexit has been extremely beneficial for the country.”
For Mr Rees-Mogg and his Brexit allies, exiting the EU seems to be all about ideology, and they have appeared most chuffed with themselves for achieving the folly.
However, Brexit has plainly been very bad for business and will continue to be so.
This makes Mr Rees-Mogg’s latest appointment particularly interesting.
A report on Brexit published in February by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier, told a very different story to that put forward by Mr Rees-Mogg.
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The Parliament’s oldest select committee concluded “it is clear that EU exit has had an impact” on UK trade volumes and that “new border arrangements have added costs to business”.
And Dame Meg summed the situation up well back in February, declaring: “One of the great promises of Brexit was freeing British businesses to give them the headroom to maximise their productivity and contribution to the economy – even more desperately needed now on the long road to recovery from the pandemic.
“Yet the only detectable impact so far is increased costs, paperwork and border delays.”
The independent Office for Budget Responsibility declared last October that Britain’s supply bottlenecks had been “exacerbated by changes in the migration and trading regimes following Brexit”.
Mr Rees-Mogg might want to take all of this on board in his new role.
The fact of the matter is the Conservative Government has made a tremendous noise about trade deals with the likes of Australia and New Zealand that offer tiny benefits relative to huge losses stemming from the end of frictionless trade with the EU. We also of course have the major impediment to the economy created by the Tory clampdown on immigration post-Brexit, following the loss of the enormous benefit of free movement of people with the Johnson administration’s hard Brexit.
The Theresa May government’s forecasts, published in November 2018, showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from EEA countries. We have, sadly, had the clampdown on immigration from the EU and broader EEA which seemed to be what Brexit was mainly about for many of its supporters.
The UK Government’s own impact assessment of the Australia trade deal shows a boost to GDP from this of just 0.08% by 2035.
The forecast New Zealand trade agreement benefits are even smaller than those projected from the Australia deal. The Department for International Trade has observed its “sensitivity analysis…suggests the estimated impact on long run GDP could vary between 0.02% and 0.03% (0.023% and 0.034% respectively, to three decimal places)”.
Mr Rees-Mogg appears to view Britain as something of a colossus on the world economic stage.
However, in his new post, which is a very important one, a realistic view of the world, and the UK’s place in it in the current century, would seem like an absolutely necessary starting point.
So he should absorb all the things exporters have said about the impact of Brexit on overseas sales, and he should listen to businesses unable to fulfil their potential because of the skills and labour crisis. And he should weigh the huge macroeconomic effect of Brexit laid out in the Theresa May government forecasts and compare this with the tiny gains from the new trade deals the UK has so desperately pursued.
During his time as Minister for Brexit Opportunities (and Government Efficiency), such opportunities of course remained conspicuous by their absence. This is no surprise. They had been elusive for nearly six years by the time Mr Rees-Mogg was appointed to that post back in February. Such a reality has contrasted starkly with the Brexiters’ big talk in the run-up to the referendum on EU membership in June 2016 and ever since.
The word from 10 Downing Street was that the “Brexit opportunities” role would be spread “across departments”.
If departments take a realistic view, this should not add much to workloads, given there are no perceptible opportunities to pursue. Then again, if it is demanded they find some opportunities, this could involve a time-consuming wild goose chase.