Blog: However grim the UK’s situation, Tory MPs have one rule: don’t mention Brexit – iNews

However grim the UK’s situation, Tory MPs have one rule: don’t mention Brexit

Everyone can see that it is failing, but pretending it can work is a precondition for positions of authority

November 16, 2022 1:15 pm(Updated 2:53 pm)

It’s nothing to do with Brexit. That’s the key thing to remember. No matter what happens, or how grim it gets, or how obvious the cause, one rule applies: don’t mention Brexit. It is the thing which cannot be named, the great black hole which squats in the centre of our political debate, affecting everything around it but impossible to see with the naked eye.

Rishi Sunak was asked about it this morning. Had it contributed in any way to the economic downturn? Cue clenched jaws and hesitant frowns. He looked like a man asked to comment about his mother-in-law’s dress sense.

He ran from the substance of the question. It was all about global factors, you see. Covid. Putin. Anything but Brexit.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt faced a similar question over the weekend. It’s testament to the obviousness of what is happening that these questions are being asked at all. Not so long ago, journalists were as mute as politicians about what was happening. But now, the damage is so obvious that even the most willfully blind commentator finds it difficult to maintain their sense of denial.

“What I don’t accept is the premise that Brexit will make us poorer,” the former Remainer replied, reading aloud from the default generic Brexit script in his head. You have to see it “in the round”.

The trouble for Sunak and Hunt, and indeed all of us, is that the benefits of Brexit have so far proved illusory, while the disadvantages are grinding this country into the earth. A fall in GDP growth. A fall in European imports. A fall in investment.

It is not the sole cause of what is happening to us. The economy never fully recovered from the financial crash and austerity. Covid and Putin have had a role. But it is a key factor. And the only factor which may never be sensibly discussed.

Brexit increasingly resembles the war on drugs. Everyone can see that it is failing, but pretending it can work is a precondition for positions of authority. So people have to mouth their unconvincing support for it while they’re in office, then speak their mind once they’ve left.

Take Michael Saunders, an external member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. He left earlier this month and now speaks with a degree of clarity he did not previously enjoy. “The UK economy as a whole has been permanently damaged by Brexit,” he told Bloomberg TV earlier this week. “If we hadn’t had Brexit, we probably wouldn’t be talking about an austerity budget this week. The need for tax rises, spending cuts wouldn’t be there, if Brexit hadn’t reduced the economy’s potential output so much.”

Former environment secretary George Eustice has undergone his own epiphany. He’s now prepared to speak the truth about the trade deal the UK did with Australia.

“Since I now enjoy the freedom of the backbenches, I no longer have to put such a positive gloss on what was agreed,” he told MPs this week. “The first step is to recognise that the Australia trade deal is not actually a very good deal for the UK.” We “gave away far too much for far too little in return”, he added. And why was that? Because of the “arbitrary targets” for the conclusion of a deal.

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This has always been one of the core problems with the UK’s post-Brexit trade posture, beyond its own objective quantitative deficiencies. Trade deals became the political symbol for Brexit success. As it happens, it was always nonsense – the Government’s own estimates suggest the deal with Australia will increase UK GDP by 0.02 per cent annually, and even then only after 15 years. But regardless, they were the one area where prime ministers could construct the narrative of a win.

That created a power dynamic in negotiations. Trading partners could afford to sit and wait. Britain was desperate. It was there for the taking, having constructed its partner’s own negotiating leverage.

As if to highlight the impact of Saunders and Eustice’s comments, Paris overtook London as Europe’s most valued stock market this week, for the first time since records began. Since the Brexit vote, Paris’ CAC-40 index is up 47 per cent and London’s FTSE 100 just 16 per cent.

This used to be the sort of thing which analysts dismissed, back in the halcyon days of 2016. It was unthinkable that anywhere could overtake London as the capital of European finance. Now it’s happening.

The world understands what’s happening to us, even if we don’t. “The British voted in favour of Brexit in the belief that they would take control and become a stronger country if they managed to throw off the yoke of Europe,” the Spanish newspaper El Español said this summer. “Well, the exact opposite seems to be happening.”

The US magazine Foreign Policy similarly put its finger on the problem: “The real difficulty for this government lies in Downing Street’s ideological approach to those parts of Europe Putin is not currently invading – in other words the disastrous impact Brexit has had on trade and ties with the European Union.”

It’s only here that we live under the Brexit omerta, unable to speak freely about the cause of our hardship. We’re like one of those problem families that people laugh about around their own dinner table, but is dumbly unaware of its own failings.

The problem isn’t political. It’s not about revenge on Leavers or vindication for Remainers. It is practical. You cannot solve a problem unless you are able to clearly and explicitly evaluate it. And right now we lack the basic ability to do that.

So instead we plunge into another period of pain, without the words to even describe why it is happening. We are the victims of a conspiracy we’ve launched against ourselves.

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