Philip Hammond’s recent budget – are you old enough to remember it? – was completely overshadowed by the gloomy analysis of our economy, present and future, presented by the Office for Budget Responsibility on the same day.
Politically, the chancellor was constrained by the knowledge that the minority of deranged Brexiters who seem to be running this government were out for his blood. However, he managed, with limited room for manoeuvre, to ward off the hyenas for the time being. Why, the prime minister – who had earlier contemplated sacking him – even turned up for the Treasury’s post-budget drinks.
One of those out for his blood, a certain Michael Gove, is on record as not believing in expertise – except, presumably, his own. Gove was not one of the Brexiters who publicly urged the chancellor to massage the official forecasts to produce a favourable outcome for Brexit: that dubious honour lies with John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg. However, I expect that, privately, Gove was with them in spirit – or perhaps devilry.
At all events, Gove evidently conspired with the egregious Boris Johnson to tell Theresa May to fire the non-believers in her cabinet, and strengthen the cabal that wants to crash out of the EU and pursue a low-tax, minimum-regulation programme that could make the present austerity policy look like a vicarage tea party.
Meanwhile, people should not be deceived by reports of possible breakthroughs in our negotiations with the other 27 members of the EU – a union in which I, and a growing number of the public I meet, hope we shall remain. The fact is that it is still the policy of this supine government to abandon our privileged position within the customs union and the single market, and take a leap in the dark.
One sometimes wonders: do the extreme Brexiters, and their fellow travellers, ever ask themselves, as most ordinary citizens do from an early age, about the company they keep? Has it not occurred to them that our friends overseas think that, by heading for Brexit, Britain seems to be having a collective nervous breakdown?
Have they not noticed that our enemies thoroughly approve of Brexit? Messrs Gove and Johnson presumably paid attention occasionally to their history teachers. They must be aware of the British tradition of trying to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Quite apart from the economic considerations, can they sleep at night when considering that President Putin sees Brexit as a full-frontal attack on Nato and the cohesion of Europe?
And what about my old friend David Davis? His resistance to full disclosure of the government’s honest assessment of the economic consequences of Brexit sits ill with his decades-long campaign for more open government.
As the economic damage of even the prospect of Brexit becomes more apparent by the week, does Davis ever look back to the wise words he uttered in the Commons on 26 November 2002? “Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting … we should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards.” He added: “Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.”
As Observer reader David Crawford wrote last week: the referendum ballot paper “made no mention of the single market” and the guidance, probably not read by most people, merely warned of the risks of losing “full” access to the single market, not of crashing out altogether.
The government is trying to make the best of a bad job by recognising the need for an industrial strategy – anathema to Mrs Thatcher’s governments – with the emphasis on the advanced technology in which it believes the UK has a comparative advantage. But as the veteran British industrialist Tom Brown points out in his book Tragedy and Challenge, an enthralling account of Britain’s industrial decline, the best market for our advanced exports is the EU, from which the Brexiters wish to depart, not the distant, and much smaller, markets on which they waste their fantasies.
Brown’s book constitutes a stark reminder of how successive governments have wasted so much time in the search for the Holy Grail.
After monetarism and the ERM, they saw salvation in the pursuit of inflation targets. In a seminal lecture last week on the mishandling of our relationship with the rest of the EU by both Tony Blair and David Cameron, Sir Ivan Rogers, formerly our ambassador to the EU, noted the connection between that obsession with inflation and the referendum disaster.
In his previous capacity as principal private secretary to the prime minister, Rogers witnessed what proved to be a fatal misjudgment. While other countries were phasing in entry from eastern Europe into their labour forces, Tony Blair was urged by Bank of England governor Mervyn King “to open the labour market without transition on the grounds that it would help lower wage growth and inflation”.
And here we are …
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