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Monday, November 29, 2021

Was I right to support Brexit? If this is ‘Global Britain’, I’m starting to wonder

As a Europhile who voted Brexit with a heavy and broken heart, I’m always on the lookout for evidence suggesting that I made the wrong choice. I clung on perhaps too long to the hope that the EU would reform. But what really tipped it for me was the vision sold by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others: that we’d swap a parochial European policy for a world of “Global Britain”. So not “drawbridge up”, but “out, and into the world”.

It’s a testable thesis. If correct, then Britain would visibly rewire itself and strike bold trade deals to deepen links with far-flung allies. We’d repair old alliances and strike up a new relationship with Europe. We’d kill populism at home and have stable government in Westminster. We’d strengthen the Union, with Brexit making Scottish independence unworkable. Less red tape would mean more freedom to liberalise, innovate and grow – moving away from the EU’s failing model.

I was recalling this earlier this week at the Margaret Thatcher conference – sponsored by the Daily Telegraph – held just before the Prime Minister joined for dinner and made a second attempt at his Peppa Pig speech. I chaired a debate between Vince Cable and Dan Hannan, who hold similar views on trade but differ on Europe. Hannan spoke – as he always does – with the infectious energy of a revivalist preacher, filling the hall with the Brexity optimism that carried the vote five years ago. Cable was in “I told you so” Remoaner mode. It was time to see who was right.

My main quarrel was with Hannan. Where are these sunlit uplands? What happened to us staying close to Europe? The latest figures show our service exports to the EU falling twice as fast as those to the rest of the world, although the pandemic skews everything. But the idea of Britain becoming the EU’s single best ally has taken a bit of a knock after the vaccine wars and Northern Ireland rows.

And those new alliances? We can all cheer Liz Truss as she Instagrams her way around the world working on dozens of trade deals. If you’re a Brexiteer you can even suspend disbelief by not looking too closely at the nature of those deals. But if you do, you see the flaw: most of them are rolled-over EU agreements. Where new ground is broken, Brexit Britain seems to be treading with terrified caution.

Take the Australian deal – which has yet to be signed. It ought to be huge: Australia is the perfect partner with whom we share a language, a sovereign and much more. But our new trade deal with them is being phased in over 15 years, as if free trade is a huge threat from which Britain needs to be protected. We needed a far-shorter timetable offering immediate visa-free access for Aussies: we need skilled workers to fill our vacancies. This is what global Britain is supposed to be about.

In public, ministers talk as if Britain is now the world’s free-trading superstar. The new Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, was denouncing protectionism as a giant evil just a few days ago. But inside the Government, Tory protectionists are ready to swoop – warning about growth hormones injected into Australian cows or (one of Michael Gove’s favourites) the chlorine wash used on American chickens. Such arguments take place behind closed doors and, to a depressing extent, the protectionists win.

Take, for example, the row a few weeks ago over steel imports. The Trade Remedies Authority, set up to “defend UK economic interests” from unfair competition, wanted to abolish surcharges on tin cans and other imports. A dull case, but a good test for the basic notion of free trade. British steelmakers protested, and the Prime Minister had to take sides – so he went with the protectionists. It was the first test case for the new free-trade watchdog and doesn’t bode well.

Look around and you can see all kinds of Brexit opportunities not being taken. We are now free to ditch the notorious GDPR rules which (among many other bureaucratic burdens) ask everyone who visits any website to read a legalistic warning. No one in Whitehall can see the point of all this, but it’s still here. The EU Mortgage Credit Directive no longer controls our mortgage market. But the old credit rules are still in place, locking some 170,000 homeowners into higher interest rates than they need to pay.

As chancellor, George Osborne tried to sue the EU to stop it imposing a cap on bankers’ bonuses – seeing it as an attack on the City of London’s power. Brexit brings freedom to abolish this cap, but it’s still there. Scrapping it might look a bit too much like action. Meanwhile, the EU tries to lure more bankers away from London and into its single market.

David Frost, the Brexit minister, is struggling to hide his frustration with all this. He has fought as hard as anyone in government for a clean Brexit deal. He fights still, over the Northern Ireland Protocol, but even seems to be wondering what the fighting is for if the Brexit freedoms are never going to be used. He closed the Thatcher conference by saying that the recipe for a country’s success is well-known: regulatory restraint and low taxes. He didn’t need to point out that the Tories are lifting taxes to a 71-year high.

His other point was more candid. Invoking the language of Thatcher’s Bruges speech, he said that Britain had not rolled back the frontiers of the European Union “only to import that European model”. But this is, quite clearly, what he thinks is happening now: that Britain is ending up with the opposite of what many of Brexit’s architects hoped to create.

As a force for political stability, Brexit (eventually) delivered. Britain is now one of the few countries in Europe with no populists in parliament. Leaving the EU did not, in the end, supercharge the case for Scottish independence. But the idea of Brexit exerting its own gravitational pull – dragging taxes down and pushing trade up – is starting to look like a fantasy.

If speeches in the House of Commons are anything to go by, there is no end of Tories who think Global Britain was more than a sound bite and that Britain does deserve a future of free trade and low taxes. It will be up to them to steer their government – and their Prime Minister – in this direction.

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