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A gloomy forecast

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Forecasts? Oh, those forecasts! After telling us all for ages that they didn’t exist, or weren’t quite ready, or that the dog had eaten them, the Government was obliged grudgingly to admit that HM Treasury’s region-by-region economic forecasts of the impact of Brexit on the economy, were actually a thing and weren’t actually all that encouraging.

The Treasury had reached the perhaps unsurprising conclusion that losing unrestricted access to our largest export markets and paying £40bn for the privilege might not be very good for the economy. The best-case scenario for Wales (if we stay in the single market and customs union) is the economy shrinking by 2% over the next 15 years. A full-fat, breakfast-means-breakfast, chips-with-everything Brexit will set Wales back a whopping 8%.

Ministers went into Brexit damage limitation mode. Don’t panic! Said Brexit minister Steve Baker. These forecasts are just the same sort of crap we in the Government base all our economic policy on. They’re always wrong! Brexit will be just fine.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is now on serious leadership manoeuvres, drawled a question to the Minister to the effect that a chap down the boozer had told him the forecasts weren’t just wrong, they were bent. Was the Treasury deliberately fiddling the figures, talking the British economy down and trying to sabotage Brexit?

Yup, said the Minister. That chap is spot on.

The Minister was later forced into a grovelling apology, after accepting that the chap might have said something a bit different. In an effectively led government, a minister who called another Government department a pack of fraudsters would be swimming with the fishes. That Steve Baker is still in place shows the extent to which Theresa May has dropped the reins, lost the stirrups and is now holding on for dear life to a clump of mane as about seventy of the Tory Party’s top nutters furiously spank the country towards a precipice.

Coming to prominence as a spanker is Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, who on Tuesday put his weighty paddle in on the Conservative Home website, in defence of Mogg. The economic forecasts were no more trustworthy than Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier. A small but vocal minority are trying to sabotage Brexit, led by ‘so-called experts’ (i.e. experts) telling the country how to think.

RT railed against the civil service mentality that is trying to keep the UK in the customs union and single market, when “no sensible nation would voluntarily enter into such an arrangement” (Norway, that’s you on the naughty step). “The rallying cry of the Vote Leave campaign was to “Take Back Control” – of our money, of our trade, and of our borders. It is our duty to deliver all three, undiluted.”

Anyone who believes there is such a thing as ‘undiluted control’ of our own money is deluded. Brussels never had control of our money. The strength of our money is the product of the strength of our economy, and of how international markets perceive our currency as a store of value. Puzzlingly, the referendum result value did not exactly send the value of Sterling soaring up.

Capital and money are the truly international forces that many Brexit voters were kicking off against in the first place. You can of course, if you want, try to control the coming and going of money in the same way you try to control the coming and going of people. Capital controls, like the barbed wire Brexiters want to see around our borders, are rarely the sign of a happy population or a strong economy.

May is not long for this world. The miasma of incompetence that has hung around her administration since last June gets thicker and more putrid by the week. It is a measure of how far the Tory party is drifting from election-winning Cameron centrism that people are now discussing, in all seriousness, the prospect of Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their spotty state school swot hanger-on Gove mounting a successful putsch.

The only thing preventing May’s departure is the near-universal acknowledgement that we are deep into frying pans and fires territory here. However incompetent and divisive the PM may be, it is hard to identify a more competent alternative who stands any chance of uniting the Party.

Gove and Rees-Mogg have the virtue of clear, classical liberal free market views and the ability to articulate them, and Boris believes whatever it is expedient for him to believe.

Their vision is not without its appeal. But those who advocate a freewheelin’ low-regulation, low tax, Singapore-style economy should explain to the country how it is we hope to get there, and how an economic model which has been hugely successful for a couple of authoritarian far eastern city states can translate to a nation as large and diverse as the UK.

Politically, the hard Brexit dream is undeliverable. The Conservatives seem to have forgotten that they didn’t exactly win last June’s election, and are kidding themselves if they think that the Boris-Mogg-Gove model could be pushed through Parliament. They also refuse to be frank with voters about the costs, as identified by HM Treasury or otherwise, of making Brexit happen.

“The poorest parts of the UK”, RT reminded us “are looking to us to come good on our promises. In Wales, Cornwall, and Grimsby the vote to leave was driven by a visceral desire to disrupt the status quo – not preserve it.”

RT is absolutely right about this, but disrupting the status quo has never happened without a price. The voters who were conned into thinking their lives might improve by lashing out against international markets and immigration are the ones who will be worst hit by the kind of Brexit RT wants.

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A question of power

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by Matthew Paul

For anyone who stood as a candidate for ChangeUK in 2019, and watched over the course of the six-week European Parliament election campaign as mild enthusiasm on the part of the British public cooled into vague embarrassment before crystallising into disgust, it’s nice to see the Remoaners on the rebound. Brexit is back in the news, and causing big trouble for Boris Johnson.

“But Brexit”, you exclaim, “is done! Didn’t we have a General Election to sort that out? Didn’t our MPs vote for an oven-ready deal, back on 20th December last year?”

They did, but if the deal was supposed to be oven-ready, Boris left the plastic bag full of giblets inside and it is causing a terrible stink. Those unpalatable entrails are the ongoing and irreconcilable tensions between wanting our own laws and trade arrangements, and  maintaining an open border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The United Kingdom is one single market; Wales cannot exclude or impose tariffs on goods from Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, and vice versa. This was the case for nearly three hundred years before the UK joined the EEC in 1973; when it did join, UK citizens swapped one single market of (then) 56 million for a single market that grew to ten times that size. The advantages of this, to our exporting economy, were obvious. 

Leaving that wider single market creates a problem, which is also obvious. There is a land border between the UK and Ireland, which international law (the Good Friday Agreement) says must remain open. If the UK uses its freedom from EU tyranny to strike new trade deals and to remove ‘foreign laws’ around food safety and product standards –which was the whole point of Brexit– it compromises the integrity of European product standards by allowing chlorinated chicken etc etc to pass, unchecked and untaxed, into the EU.

There is no reason why the EU should put up with this, and throughout Brexit talks the Commission made it clear that retaining an open border in Ireland is non-negotiable. There is only one straightforward alternative: a customs border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. In June 2018, Theresa May was leaning in that direction, but this proposed solution –breaking up the territorial integrity of the UK to protect the integrity of the EU single market– was so detestable to the Spartans of the ERG that they passed a law specifically to stop May from doing it.

Fast forward to December 2019, and the same Spartans, cowed by Boris’ ruthless public execution of the 21 Remainers who rebelled against his Government’s Brexit policy, followed the PM like sheep through the Ayes lobby to endorse his oven-ready deal with an Irish Sea border as its defining characteristic. Boris said at the time that this would not create paperwork for businesses exporting goods from NI to the rest of the UK. He lied: the deal dictates that the UK keeps the NI/ ROI border open, implements the EU customs code in Northern Ireland, and obliges exporters to fill in declarations on goods going between NI and the rest of the UK.

Perhaps Boris just thought no-one would notice, even though everyone did. Perhaps he thought the EU would quietly back down on imposing the customs code. If this was the Government’s plan, it reinforces the impression that the Government is incapable of planning past lunchtime. The EU continued to insist stoutly on the terms of the deal being honoured. Finding himself well down in the game, Boris kicked over the card table. He presented the House of Commons with the Internal Market Bill, section 45 of which gives the Government power simply to ignore or override the Northern Ireland Protocol, to allow seamless trade and consistent regulation between all constituent parts of the UK. 

M’learned friends, blanching at the idea of tearing up treaties, were the first to cry foul. The government’s top lawyer, Sir Jonathan Jones, walked out of his job in despair. On Wednesday Lord Keen –the Government’s law officer for Scotland– resigned too, rather than adopt the intellectual contortions necessary to support the Bill. Even Robert Buckland, the likeable if impressionable Lord Chancellor, who previously mounted a sorry-faced hostage-video defence of Boris’s prorogation of Parliament and would be about as likely as the woolsack he sits on to rebel against Government policy, is shuffling uncomfortably. It’s not just the Remoaners, either; unless dark Lord of the Sith Michael Howard, and former Attorney-General and basso-profondo Brexithorn Sir Geoffrey Cox are now to be classed as Remoaners. 

Some of the pearl-clutching over the sanctity of international law is misplaced. As De Gaulle observed, “Les traités, voyez-vous, sont comme les jeunes filles et les roses: ça dure ce que ça dure.” The EU regards any emanation of international law that questions the acquis Communautaire with withering contempt, and owes zillions of dollars in WTO fines for breaching international law with state aid to Airbus. 

It comes down to a question of power, to a clear-headed assessment of whether or not you are going to win, and to whether the prize to be gained offsets the reputational damage of reneging on international obligations. Tearing up a treaty signed only months before is crass and looks weak. Kicking over the card table when you’re losing isn’t a great move if the other player then shoots you dead.

If the Government really wants to scare people about the effects of the Coronavirus, it could do worse than loop videos of Boris in December compared to Boris now. The hoo-ha over the Internal Market Bill is one more unforced mistake; the thickening miasma of incompetence and bad judgement is weakening this Government like a nasty dose of the Covid. On Tuesday, Boris fiddled with his phone through PMQs while Ed Miliband –Ed Miliband!– cut the hopelessly depleted Prime Minister to bits in front of a drolly amused House; Boris put up less resistance than a bacon sandwich.

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Opinion: The Big Question Facing Kier Starmer – Jonathan Edwards

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In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis the election victory of Sir Kier Starmer as Labour Leader didn’t achieve the column inches one would normally expect.  As is customary, I would like to wish Kier well in his role.  I can not claim to know him as a person having only conversed on a few occasions, however I have respect for his debating ability, his considered tone and his eye for detail.  I consider him a serious politician.

The challenges he faces are enormous of course.   Labour have now lost four Westminster elections on the bounce.  His decision making must quickly shift from efforts to unify his party to the far more important task of presenting a credible challenge to the Conservative party at the next Westminster election.

Labour has a defining choice to make, and this decision will have far reaching consequences for all political parties operating in the British State.  On the one hand, Labour could revert to its usual tribal inward-looking tendencies.  However, essentially this would mean writing off the next election as a part of a wider rebuilding strategy aimed at the 2029 election.  A stark admission as it would mean Labour having been out of power at Westminster level for twenty years at best.

Alternatively, Kier Starmer could acknowledge that Labour on their own will not be able to challenge the Tories for power at the next Westminster election.  This path would then require Starmer reaching out to all the other opposition parties in Westminster apart from the DUP.  I am talking about more than just coordination of parliamentary activity in Westminster.  In a first past the post electoral system we are talking about the need for non-aggression pacts, and a joint programme of government.  I would go as far as to suggest that the government itself would need to be a unity administration delivering on the agreed programme.

Parliamentary boundary changes makes the task even more pressing.  Whatever one thinks of his opportunistic politics, Boris Johnson has succeeded in unifying the right of the political spectrum.   However, the centre and left have a host of parties vying for support.  In a political system based for two horse races, the end result is brutal as we saw in December.

What sort of programme could Plaid Cymru, SNP, Green, Liberals, SDLP, Alliance and Labour unite around?  There would be little difficulty in agreeing a progressive economic and social policy platform.  A proportional voting system would be a must to enable all parties to compete equally in subsequent elections.  The big challenge for me seems to be the constitutional question when it comes to Scotland and Wales.   For Plaid Cymru and the SNP there would need to be a commitment for a fully Confederal system leaving only foreign affairs, defence, and macro-economic policy reserved – the sort of settlement promised by Cameron and Brown on the eve of the Scottish independence poll.  This should be supported with House of Lords reform into an elected Senate of the Nations of the British State.   Both Wales and Scotland would also require the statutory right to hold independence referenda at time of their own choosing.  This should be uncontroversial as it is the policy of the Labour Welsh Government.

This is the very simple choice facing the new leader of the Labour party.  Does he want to be Prime Minister, or effectively a plumber performing a re-patching job on a tired and insular party.

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What’s the point of immigrants?

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by Matthew Paul

What do points make? Passports! Or at least the opportunity to get yourself a visa stamp allowing you –if you didn’t win the lottery of life by being born British– the unmissable opportunity to reside and work in the United Kingdom post-Brexit.

Some suggest that the only skills required at the end of the transition period will be an aptitude at barbecuing rats, or the strength to push around Covid-19 death carts while ringing a bell, but in the event that the UK’s economic and cultural life carries on after Brexit more or less as before, we will still face a chasmic shortage of workers in the agricultural, hospitality and care sectors.

Britain’s population is getting older, and the disinclination many Britons demonstrate towards looking after elderly relatives means that unglamorous, low-paid jobs in the care sector are always available to anyone who cares to do them. British consumers demand fresh, locally-produced food, but display little enthusiasm to pick it themselves, and react with bewildered indignation when people who are less picky about their work come over ‘ere and pick it for them.

The Government are probably right that a lot of people who voted to leave the EU in 2016 did so, at least in part, because they dislike mass immigration. Such people are also thicker on the ground in the ‘red wall’ seats that Boris turned blue –for the first time in living memory– in December. The Government has promises to keep with these voters, and stopping people they don’t like coming into the country is a good deal cheaper, at least in the short term, than building thumping great infrastructure projects or finding 50,000 new nurses. Probably from abroad.

On Wednesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel released details of a points-based system, modelled on Australia’s highly restrictive immigration rules, to clamp down on all the EU citizens who have been coming over ‘ere etc etc. Three characteristics are basic requirements to qualify for a residence and work permit: an offer of work from an approved sponsor [20 points], a job at “appropriate skill level” [20 points], and the ability to speak English (ble mae’r Gymraeg?) at a “required level” [10 points].

Once those requirements are satisfied, an applicant clears the final hurdle by earning 20 more points. A salary above £25,600 might get you that, so long as the government-approved going rate for the job isn’t higher. Working in a designated shortage occupation is also worth 20. Educational attainment is less highly regarded; a bachelor’s or master’s level degree counts for nothing. Arty-farty doctorates get you just ten points; only proper PhDs in difficult stuff like AI and rocket science get you over the line.

The Government’s statisticians reckon that around 70% of the EEA citizens who have come to Britain since 2004 would be ineligible for a visa under the new rules. Foreigners aside, not many British people in Britain would now be eligible to come to Britain. Priti Patel’s own parents –who came to the UK from Uganda and set up a successful chain of newsagents– certainly wouldn’t. Hypocrisy and Priti Patel are not exactly strangers; when she wasn’t busy this week trying to illegitimise her own residency in the UK, she was on Sky News telling a confused Kay Burley, who had heard somewhere that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might, at some point, have dabbled a bit in drugs, that there is no such thing as dabbling in drugs.

To prevent against labour shortages, the Government means to draw on the current pool of around 3.5 million EU citizens resident in the UK (of whom 3.2 million have applied for settled status). To top up seasonal labour markets, there will be a limited scheme of 10,000 short-term permits for agricultural work. Given that 60,000 people were engaged in seasonal work on farms in 2018, less than 1% of whom were British, this looks some way short of enough. And this assumes full uptake, which can’t be guaranteed. Seasonal labour schemes don’t afford workers anything like the certainty and ability to plan their futures –working up from seasonal labour into more permanent and fulfilling work– that free movement allowed.

The Government’s projections of the effectiveness of its points-based system also fail to take into account the chilling effect of an overall hostile environment for immigrants. EEA migration into the UK has crashed since the electorate’s decision in 2016 to repudiate EU membership. A large proportion of the workers who arrived in the mid 2000s from accession countries have already returned home.

This doesn’t mean that we are actually going to run short of nurses in our hospitals, or that bums will go unwiped lower down the food chain of the care sector. We will continue to fill jobs in the NHS and nursing homes by plundering the medically qualified workforces of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which does neither us nor them much good. Exploiting the schools and universities of countries which can ill-afford to train doctors and nurses is a cynical and immoral way to staff the NHS. It also creates more permanent migration; unlike EU citizens who hop on Ryanair when they get fed up with the rain, it is far less likely that immigrants from the third world will ever decide to move back to their country of origin.

The ability to come and go, and to move around the continent in search of work has underpinned the UK’s dynamic jobs market for nearly twenty years. To give Brexiters what they want in seriously and permanently reducing unskilled migration into the UK, we will have to give them what they almost certainly don’t want. Low paid work in the agricultural and hospitality sectors. Whipping away benefits or tax credits if they turn down that sort of job. In the immortal words of the man who this week tweeted his outrage from a long passport queue at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport: “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for.”

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