The Brexit Falstaff can’t bluff his way through any longer

Way back in the mid-1960s, during a quiet summer, a former journalist turned public relations man persuaded the chairman of a public company to conduct a search for the Loch Ness monster.

Quiet summers used to be known in Fleet Street as the “silly season”. One day, the PR man responsible for what was essentially a publicity stunt was called into the chairman’s office. The chairman, a retired general, was in a state of panic. “What on earth are we going to do if we find the monster?” he said.

“It’s all right, sir, no need to worry. There is no monster.”

I am reminded of this episode by the way those Brexiters who have not already admitted their gross disservice to a once-admired nation have been arguing that the government should do more to promote the advantages of Brexit. They have a slight problem: just as there is no Loch Ness monster, there are no advantages to Brexit.

Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, and the damage is getting worse. I fear that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, so impressive in his forensic demolition of prime minister (still!) Boris Johnson during PMQs, is living in cloud cuckoo land if he really believes that “there’s no case for rejoining [the EU], so we have to make it work”. There is every case for rejoining the EU: the only question is how much economic and social damage will have to accrue before reality dawns.

Reality takes time to dawn; but when it does, it does so in spades. Tories have been tying themselves in knots over when and how to give the prime minister his marching orders. But the voters have not. For far too long they gave Johnson the benefit of the doubt – I am still reeling from the shock of hearing a distinguished establishment figure saying before Christmas: “I am beginning to warm to Boris.” But this Falstaffian joker has finally been rumbled: the respondents to recent polls have, in effect, taken on the role of Henry V in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two in addressing Falstaff: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers/How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.”

So far the damage caused by Brexit has been shrouded by the understandable obsession with Covid. However, it is well described in an important survey by Jonty Bloom in the current issue of the New European: “The UK is forcing self-inflicted defeats upon its exporters, service and manufacturing sectors and economy, time and time again, with no victories to offset the losses.” He quotes the economist Adam Posen describing Brexit as “a trade war, but a war the UK has declared on itself”.

During the first year of Brexit, Bloom writes, faced with the proliferation of red tape that cropped up not because of Brussels but owing to the departure from Brussels, “a fifth of small British businesses” decided exporting to the EU was not worth the candle. Now, “food and drink exports to the EU have fallen by a quarter since 2019”. And according to the Centre for European Reform, UK goods trade is almost 16% lower than it would have been without the “sovereignty” of Brexit. As one of my favourite Roman poets, Juvenal, wrote: “Difficile est saturam non scribere” (it is hard not to write satire).

The complexity of Brexit rules of origin regulations for trade is such that exporters needed an extra year to attempt to cope with documentary requirements – some 300m extra customs declarations are to be required when the postponed rules start applying. In order to administer this nonsense, some 50,000 extra customs officials are needed.

This is wholly unproductive. With the advent of the European single market in 1993, the removal of customs controls produced huge gains in productivity. We are now in a world of unproductive time-wasting – all part of the 4%-plus loss of annual income and output that is the inevitable result of Brexit.

As the disillusioned former Tory chief secretary to the Treasury and justice minister David Gauke writes in the current New Statesman: “The reality is that Brexit means … putting up taxes because the economy is smaller than it otherwise would have been, erecting trade barriers and imposing new regulatory burdens on business.” Gauke adds that “the increasing tendency is to blame Johnson’s big state instincts for this predictable turn of events”.

The trouble is that Johnson packed the cabinet that is now conspiring against him with Brexiters. Whether or not David Davis was in Brutus mood urging Johnson “in the name of God” to go, let us beware the words of the Third Citizen in Julius Caesar: “I fear there will a worse come in his place.”

Wake up, Sir Keir, and please attack Brexit for what it is!

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