Sunday, July 21, 2024

Why Starmer should now play prosecutor on Brexit -Dlight News

After the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, the new chancellor developed a simple but brutal political strategy. In every speech or interview George Osborne blamed Labour for the financial crisis, the UK’s subsequent economic plight and the austerity he argued it necessitated. You can debate its honesty, but the tactic was highly effective. The Tories remorselessly and successfully prosecuted a case against their predecessors for more than a decade.

Barring the most extraordinary shock, Labour now has the chance to return the favour. Naturally, Keir Starmer wants to look forward but there is an exception to be made. As England’s former chief prosecutor, he has one last case. Labour should commission an audit of Brexit and, in true Osborne style, relentlessly apportion blame for its conclusions.

Given the modesty of his ambitions for closer relations with the EU and his desire to win back Leave voters, Starmer chose not to make this an election issue. But once victory is secured he must hammer the point home. This need not be part of a covert plan to ease the UK into rejoining the EU or single market. Starmer cannot renege on his pledges not to do so — though clearly this gambit would serve that purpose in the longer term. 

There are good political and economic reasons for commissioning a thorough official review of the impact of Brexit. The first and simplest is that it has not been done. Respected think-tanks have examined it and the Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated the overall effect on trade and GDP. But there has been no comprehensive government study to examine the consequences, sector by sector and region by region. Nor has there been a cost-benefit analysis on the impact of regulatory divergence on various sectors. The Conservatives had no incentive to do it — they did not want to hear the answers. But it is quite an omission.

This leads to the political case. Politicians often make the mistake of giving up the fight once they have won. But few victories are eternal. Many prominent Leavers are already arguing that the failures are not their fault because the process was sabotaged by its opponents. The “Remainers’ Brexit” excuse is akin to the old hard-left defence of communism: it has not been properly tried.

So the audit would clarify that Britain’s Brexit was very much the Leavers’ model, one of the cleanest and hardest options imaginable and the one demanded by the most hardline Tory Leavers as well as Nigel Farage. Labour should ensure they are made to own a project that voters increasingly see as a mistake. The political value is made obvious by just how little Rishi Sunak has wanted to talk about the party’s flagship policy in this campaign.

Given Farage’s expected success in this election, it is even more important to remind voters that “these are the people who brought you Britain’s botched Brexit”. Naming and prosecuting the “guilty men” is essential to Labour keeping Reform UK down.

But not all arguments are about low politics. Brexit has had real-world impacts on almost every industry; its full effects are still not felt because the UK continually delayed introducing its own regulatory checks. The government and the country need a full understanding of how business sectors are adversely impacted. If Starmer is to secure even incremental improvements, he must first understand what is needed.

The inverse is also true. Ministers need to understand where any advantage has accrued or damage would be done by realignment. Where Brexit freedoms have thrown up genuine opportunities, they must be seized more emphatically.

There is little to suggest the OBR’s assessment of the 4 per cent hit to GDP over 15 years is badly wrong. But once you examine the detail, the picture becomes more nuanced and complex. Brexit is more a slow puncture than a blowout. In every industry there will be winners and losers.

A recent report by UK in a Changing Europe showed a significant hit to trade in goods by volume, with the UK becoming more reliant on the EU as other exports fell (not solely because of Brexit). But it also showed that service exports have held up well: the UK still enjoys a significant global reputation and it is possible that the EU trade agreement left sufficient loopholes for businesses to find a way round the restrictions.

Against this, recent data from the Department for Business and Trade shows a fall in the number of foreign direct investment projects in the UK, down 6 per cent on last year and 31 per cent below the pre-Brexit peak.

An audit cannot ignore political benefits. Brexit delivered the promised control over EU immigration, even if critics argue that the Tories did not use those powers wisely. In economic terms the move to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will do little to boost GDP but there are diplomatic advantages.

For many Rejoiners, such a report will be the starting gun for a new campaign to push Labour towards a return to the EU orbit, perhaps in a second term. This may be a reason for Starmer to be uneasy about reopening an old wound, studiously avoided during the campaign.

But Brexit was the most momentous political event of the last 50 years. It might be nice if the government had a detailed sense of how it is working out.

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