Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray stands outside Parliament in London as Britain and the European Union agree on a provisional free-trade agreement. File/Associated Press
Vince Cable, The Independent
Very few people, including those voting on the new EU trade agreement in parliament, will have read the vast tome and its appendices. Yet Brexiteers have pronounced themselves broadly pleased and Remainers have repeated the familiar arguments against leaving: both in suitably melodramatic terms.
After weeks of theological argument around “sovereignty” and “level playing fields” Britain has recovered sovereignty from the European Court of Justice but surrendered it instead to (European) dispute panels with similar enforcement powers. Britain has accepted the principle that where there is market access there will also be a “level playing field” in respect of regulation. The only difference is that the UK will no longer have any say in creating the regulations.
Conversely, we will gain regulatory freedom where we no longer have agreed access to the European market, as with financial services. A bittersweet exchange given that 42 per cent of our exports to the EU are services. Meanwhile, a few more fish have been given blue British passports but the fishermen still feel betrayed.
I confess to being largely unmoved by the “historic” agreement: not because I don’t care but because the die was cast. The nature of Brexit itself was clear four years ago. Monsieur Michel Barnier had a chart, which he showed to all of us who visited him, describing the hierarchy of agreements which were open to the UK. The least ambitious was “Canada”. That was all the UK could hope for following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech indicating that Britain would leave both the single market (which Britain had been instrumental in creating) and the customs union which we had joined in 1975. Surprise! Surprise! We have duly got what was on offer all along.
Once the option of reopening Brexit through a referendum disappeared after a disastrous general election, it was plain that a trade deal would have to be done. Some claim to be pleasantly surprised that an agreement was reached at all. They should not be. Too many people fell hook, line and sinker for the government tactic of talking up the threat of “no deal”. This was always a low probability event. But what was presented as a tough negotiating strategy for dealing with the EU – whose negotiators were unfazed by it – was highly effective in softening up the British public.
One of the many mistakes made by opponents of Brexit was to be duped into dramatising the no-deal threat. The consequence of this misjudgement is that the prime minister is now able to claim that this very limited agreement, far inferior in trade terms to the one we have until Thursday, has somehow produced a windfall benefit of £660bn to the UK economy.
And, more seriously, Sir Keir Starmer is now left claiming that his Labour troops have “no alternative” but to vote for an agreement that they have opposed all along. He has been caught in a Tory vice, where it is allegedly “this deal or no deal”. Of course, no such thing is true, since other, better deals were available. The uncomfortable fact is that the opposition has been comprehensively outwitted by a prime minister they underestimated and treated as a buffoon.
Johnson has, after all, delivered Brexit for his own supporters; successfully completed a negotiation based on the premise of damage limitation; kept his party together and marginalised the nationalist right by absorbing it. I am not a fan of his and, perhaps naively, think our leaders should also take into account something called the national interest. But in purely party political terms Johnson has been a success. Despite a very rocky year for the government, the Labour Party can barely edge a single digit poll lead over the Conservatives.
The challenge now for opponents of Brexit is to get beyond regret and recrimination. The public is bored to tears by the whole subject, and the tiny group of irreconcilables who want to move straight to an argument about rejoining will not get a fair hearing for a decade or more. Instead, we need to map out a post-Brexit – and post-Covid – future, assessing honestly the country’s considerable strengths and its weaknesses.
The liability side of the balance sheet includes second rate infrastructure and vocational training, pervasive short-termism in financial markets, an over-centralised government machine and a badly frayed social contract. The asset side includes some outstanding companies in advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and creative industries; exceptional scientific research capability; an entrepreneurial culture and a generally more positive approach to diversity than elsewhere.
In the spirit of trying to be forward-looking and positive, I have put together some proposals with think tank Radix for a new, invigorated Industrial Strategy building on the work of the coalition government and like-minded Labour and Conservative figures from Peter Mandelson to Michael Heseltine.
The central objective is to move beyond the chronic uncertainty and short-term thinking of the last few years to a genuinely long-term framework for investment. And to see the public and private sectors as essentially cooperative and complementary, each doing what the other does not.
There are already good models for this. Manufacturing industries like automobiles, aerospace and pharmaceuticals and the supply chains around renewable energy and trains have recent experience of working with governments. We have institutions in place like the Catapult network to support innovation. And there are apparently plans in government to relaunch the Green Investment Bank to give a green backbone to future investment. But what is sorely lacking at present is political leadership, public investment freed from the short-term control of the Treasury, and a consequent capacity for the private sector to plan in the long term.
There is plenty for political parties to disagree about. But the country desperately needs to be anchored by a few secure, consensus-based institutions which, especially in the economic sphere, are not part of the perpetual tribal dogfight that is British politics. We have one or two. The independent Bank of England has become a success story. The Climate Change Commission is becoming another. What we need now is a comparable structure for the “real” economy committed to productivity and sustainable growth.
Such a European (and Asian) approach would disappoint the hard-core, Atlanticist, economic libertarians of the Tory party and Brexit movement. But I suspect that the prime minister will feel he has already delivered for them on Brexit and needs some new friends. He will make a lot of friends if he steers post-Brexit Britain in the direction of being a bit more European, even perhaps more German (but don’t mention the war). And keep the red, white and blue flag flying there. In a very British way, we must make the best of a bad Brexit job.
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