Saturday, 16 September 2017

Boris Johnson, digging for Brexit

Photo by Peter Adams

"If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" - Anon

The quote above is an old adage, sometimes referred to as former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey's First Law of Holes. Translated, it essentially means that when you are trapped in an unsustainable position on something, it's best to just admit it and stop dragging it out.

Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary to Her Majesty's Government has surfaced in a flurry of articles in the last few days, having invoked a campaign message from the Vote Leave campaign. He insists that the UK is still in a position to get £350m spare each year to spend on the NHS when it leaves the EU. The problem is that his pledge is built on flawed numbers. The Vote Leave campaign erroneously asserted that EU membership cost the UK something akin to £350m per week, or £50m per day.

Fact-checking website Full Fact debunked this claim almost 2 years ago in the run-up to the referendum, citing the UK Statistics Authority. The number is not a fact, they claimed, saying that it is "potentially misleading". How is this so?

Photo by Peter Adams

Firstly, the UK has received a rebate from the EU for years. The UK also gets some of the money it puts in back from the EU in the form of EU spending on things like agriculture and regional development, to alleviate poverty in the UK's poorest regions. This money we receive back effectively cuts the so-called £350m a week figure roughly in half, according to Full Fact number crunchers.

The Foreign Secretary's comments come at a sensitive time in the life of Theresa May's fragile premiership. Having failed to secure a majority in the snap election in June, Mrs May has since vowed to stay on as Prime Minister until at least the next election, due in May 2022. She made it through the summer, but her poll lead has evaporated almost entirely. Some polls put Labour in the lead by a narrow margin. Some are tied.

The mood within the Conservative Party suggests that the PM's vow to stay might not come to pass, if the party stays true to its ways. Ailing or weakened leaders have typically not lasted a terribly long time and once they lose that shine, the party can make dramatic if not ruthless decisions to ensure its own survival.

In November 1990, Margaret Thatcher vowed to "fight on...fight to win", after narrowly failing to win the first round of a leadership ballot. She resigned as Prime Minister the next day. In October 2003, leader Iain Duncan Smith made an attempt to rescue his failing leadership when he addressed the party faithful at the 2003 conference, saying "I promise you - I will fight, fight and fight again to save the country that I love". He was ousted as leader within the month.

The Foreign Secretary's words come as a form of enticement to leave voters who need encouragement or better still, a reason to vote for the Tories. The election served as a re-alignment for the parties, with UKIP's collapse offering millions of votes to the main parties in a once-in-a-generation opportunity. UKIP is now in the process of evaporating into a super-concentrated version of itself with a smaller audience; it is too busy holding yet another leadership ballot, the third since the referendum, to be in a position to provide meaningful resistance to the main parties' views on Brexit.

Much of this benefited the Tories but increased engagement from younger voters has helped Labour avoid falling behind too much, despite its internal inconsistencies over Brexit. Economic weakness as the Brexit negotiations intensify could be a crunch point for the May administration. Low interest rates have helped keep job creation going but wages are falling in real terms.

Pressure to scrap the 1% wage cap for public sector employees has grown considerably, especially in the NHS, where some have called for a rise of 3.9% to offset the real terms fall in earnings over the last few years. Mrs May's claim that there is no "magic money tree" looks very difficult to comprehend when considering the sudden availability of money to secure the DUP deal and looks like a bad joke, when you realise that £140m of public money got spent on a snap election that the governing party didn't actually win.

The Tories are stuck in a hole and Brexit could bury them when people begin to realise it has resulted in them becoming materially worse off than they otherwise would have been. The Eurozone economy, labelled sclerotic and weak during the referendum campaign is actually growing faster than the UK economy now, according to the latest data. This could be just the beginning of a new chapter in UK history, where the UK economy grows and the government is able to avoid technical recessions, but when it surveys the performance of the UK relative to its peers, it will see how we have underperformed our neighbours, having cut our nose off, despite the face. In this hole, the Foreign Secretary can't resist the urge to get his shovel out and test the ground to dig just a little deeper.

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