FOR a man who has supposedly been handed the task of restoring the Conservatives’ credibility, Jeremy Hunt has a funny way of going about things.
Not only does he look absolutely determined to emulate the grave errors of the recent past with another grim wave of austerity, while the population at large continues to suffer the effects of previous savage measures which are sadly baked in, but his view on Brexit seems exceedingly bizarre.
Were the Tories’ hopelessness on the economy not so catastrophic for millions of households, it would have been difficult indeed to resist the urge to laugh out loud when hearing Mr Hunt declare on Sunday that the UK could make a “tremendous success” of Brexit.
Given the seriousness of the mess the Conservatives have created, however, and the current foolish banging of the austerity drum, the reaction to the new Chancellor’s remark was rather one of incredulity, and utter frustration.
Mr Hunt must, surely, have been watching the same huge post-Brexit damage unfold as the rest of the population.
He served in the Cabinet of the Theresa May government, so you would have thought he might have remembered the enormous cost of the Tories’ chosen type of Brexit that was made utterly plain in the forecasts drawn up by this administration. These predictions were published in November 2018 but they sadly did not prevent the Conservatives from continuing with their drive to leave not only the European Union but also the single market and customs union.
No doubt the Leavers will not want to hear these forecasts again but it is surely worth reiterating them in the context of Mr Hunt’s view that the Tories can somehow make a “tremendous success” of what in the end was a hard Brexit. And given the rest of what he had to say on Sunday about the UK’s departure from the EU.
The forecasts 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 European Economic Area countries.
As Mr Hunt must know, the Tories have clamped down hugely on immigration, creating massive skills and labour shortages which have weighed very heavily indeed on the UK economy.
While the damage of Brexit has piled up in myriad, obvious and major ways, any meaningful benefits of EU departure have remained conspicuous by their absence. This is no surprise because it never appeared there were any such benefits.
It is, Mr Hunt will also presumably know, now more than six years on from the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU, a result which occurred in spite of big majorities in Scotland and the likes of London to remain in the world’s largest free trade bloc.
So quite how Mr Hunt thinks Brexit is suddenly going to be a “tremendous success” is impossible to fathom, even taking account of the seeming willingness of some Tory former Remainers to now embrace the folly of leaving the EU most enthusiastically. Former prime minister Liz Truss is, of course, a passionate convert to the Brexit cause.
There was no shortage of truly incredible statements from Mr Hunt on Brexit in his interview on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, in which he declared: “I believe we can make a tremendous success of it but it’s not going to happen automatically.”
Mr Hunt also had this to say: “What I don’t accept is the premise that Brexit will make us poorer.”
It is difficult to find words to convey adequately just how astounding a statement this was from Mr Hunt. However, the reality of the situation speaks for itself.
Brexit has surely already made the UK and its citizens poorer, in terms of the damage done to date to the economy, and there is much more to come. As well as the calamitous effect of labour and skills shortages, we have seen exports hammered and supply chains thrown into chaos, while the hit to sterling’s value from Brexit has fuelled import prices and overall inflation.
And how on earth does the proclamation from Mr Hunt that he will not accept “Brexit will make us poorer” square in any way whatsoever with the forecasts made by the Theresa May government in which he held senior positions?
Furthermore, just how exactly does Mr Hunt reconcile his beliefs with what the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has said about Brexit? Or does he think the OBR is wrong?
The OBR said in March: “Our forecast continues to assume that leaving the EU will result in the UK’s total imports and exports being 15 per cent lower than had the UK remained a member state. This fall in the trade intensity of UK output is likely to reduce the level of potential productivity, though the size of this effect is uncertain; we assume productivity is ultimately four per cent lower after a 15-year period. None of the new free trade agreements (FTAs) or other regulatory changes announced so far would be sufficient to have a material impact on our forecast.”
Mr Hunt declared on Sunday: “I don’t deny there are costs to a decision like Brexit but there are also opportunities and you have to see it in the round. And I think what happened with Brexit was because… literally within months of formally leaving the EU, we had a once-in-a-century pandemic, which has meant the process of outlining what the opportunities are has taken longer but I think we need to do that now because we’ve decided to do it and we need to make it a success.”
The pandemic began nearly four years after the Brexit vote. So the apparent attempt from Mr Hunt to justify the absence of Brexit “opportunities” seems like no kind of excuse at all. It makes the classic “dog ate my homework” claim look like a very good attempt at an excuse.
Brexit opportunities, even small ones, remain utterly elusive.
Mr Hunt’s “I don’t deny there are costs” remark surely rather skates over the enormity of the Brexit damage.
And there continues to be absolutely nothing to suggest Brexit could in any way be a “tremendous success”, on a rational economic basis rather than for those ideologically entrenched Tories who appear not to care about the real-world impact.
In contrast, the damage has been plain for all to see. And it will continue over the years and decades, unless there is a dramatic change of heart on membership of the European single market.
Mr Hunt started out as a Remainer but his declaration that he does not accept “the premise that Brexit will make us poorer” is surely somewhere way beyond unsettling, especially given he is now Chancellor of the Exchequer.
An ability to analyse the economic effects of things would seem like an important basic skill for this job. Then again, Mr Hunt seems unable to see what the awful austerity drive of the David Cameron and George Osborne government, of which he was part, did to the economy.
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