Don’t ask a question if you don’t know the answer. Good advice to the novice politician. But a better piece of advice to those moderate MPs now toying in exasperation with the dynamite-sticks of a second referendum would be: Don’t ask the question if you don’t know the question.
Westminster is febrile at the moment with MPs engaged in distraction politics. The Prime Minister is right that there are three and only three “end-states” now possible for the UK: cancelling Brexit and revoking Article 50; ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement (with or without some tweak to the Political Declaration that might make it acceptable to some occupants of the Opposition benches); and leaving with no deal signed on 29th March, as already provided for in domestic and EU law.
Some MPs find it difficult to choose between those options. But those are not, by and large, the MPs arguing for a second referendum. The MPs vocally pushing us down that dangerous path are hard-core Remainers, determined to force a cancellation of Brexit and seeking a fig-leaf to cover their shame at rejecting the 2016 referendum, despite having, most of them, been elected to the Commons in 2017 on a manifesto of implementing it.
Why do they need a fig-leaf? Why not just move an amendment at the appropriate time “instructing” the Government to revoke Article 50, as it is now clearly our legal right to do? Because of course they wouldn’t win. So their campaign is aimed at pressuring more sensible MPs into opting for a calamitous referendum that they are confident can be rigged to produce a Remain vote.
The pressure on MPs will mount over Christmas and into the New Year, promoted by the well-funded Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, now re-branded The People’s Vote. At the weekend, it appeared even the Government was succumbing to it, although later Gavin Barwell and David Lidington denied they were discussing a second referendum with Labour MPs.
Mrs May, however, is staunchly holding out against a second referendum. That’s good. Anyone who recalls the bitterness of the referendum on independence for Scotland should be wary of unleashing even stronger forces in a campaign that would last months. “Red Tory scum” was one of the more printable slogans used by the advocates of independence – and that was about the Labour Party. The venom that would be directed at both major parties by disaffected Leavers would surpass that. And they would have no friends to counteract it, since Remainers already feel they owe mainstream Conservatives and Labour nothing. The surest defence against the chaos of a second referendum is in fact that most MPs, especially Labour MPs, who had close exposure to the bitterness of Scotland’s referendum, are rightly terrified of the damage one would do our democratic fabric.
But that danger to the nation apart, there are formidable obstacles to the holding of another referendum. With a minimum 22-week timetable needed, an extension to Article 50 would have to be agreed unanimously by the EU and provision made for the election of MEPs at the end of May – elections that could turn out to be a complete farce and result in a wipe-out of the two main parties.
In addition to the Second Referendum Act itself, there would also need to be legislation clarifying what counted as legitimate referendum expenses. The High Court has found that the Electoral Commission did not understand the law on expenses it was meant to apply, and, while this is under appeal, the position is obviously legally unsatisfactory.
And what of the Electoral Commission itself? A body made up largely of open Remain supporters, it has refused to respond to a dossier of complaints against the Remain campaign submitted by Priti Patel while repeatedly investigating Vote Leave. This has delegitimised them utterly in the eyes of many Leavers. Without a root and branch clearout, there would be a question over their capacity to supervise a referendum fairly.
But what question would be on the ballot paper? That is the nub of the problem with a second referendum.
Because in the case of a second referendum, the question probably determines the answer. And it will certainly determine the legitimacy accorded to the referendum by many, if not all, of the voters.
So what would the question be (especially after a fractious and volatile Parliament had riddled the Government’s Second Referendum Bill with unpredictable amendments)? To the fanatics of the People’s Vote campaign, it is pellucidly clear that it should be a binary choice between the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Government and the revocation of our Article 50 notice, leading to our remaining as an EU Member State. They claim, with pious solicitude for the nation’s welfare, that it would be reckless to give an untutored electorate the dangerous option of leaving the EU with no deal.
But this of course would (deliberately as far as the People’s Vote people are concerned) disenfranchise the huge body of Leavers who think the Government’s deal stinks. How would I vote, given that choice? How would the West Midlands and Cornwall vote? How would the Tory backbenches vote and indeed half the Cabinet and Jeremy Corbyn? We would have noting acceptable to vote for. Whether or not this insult to the electorate would result in the mass boycott some Leavers are already contemplating, the legitimacy of the poll would be destroyed from day one.
So how about a binary choice between Leave the EU on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Government and Leave the EU with no deal? This at least has the logic of respecting the outcome of the 2016 referendum. We voted then to Leave the EU and now we could vote on the subsidiary question of the terms we will be leaving on. Great. But press reports have left us in little doubt that his would merely be a ploy by Cabinet Remainers, who would fully expect that Parliament, by prior arrangement with Labour Remainers, would amend the Bill so as to add Remain to the ballot or to eliminate No Deal in favour of Remain. The transparent dishonesty in such a stratagem would probably bring down the Government, since you can be sure that those Labour Leavers will not be there to support the Government when a No Confidence motion is debated.
So try another combination. It is after all a good question whether the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement should be on the ballot at all. It is a poor, sickly thing. Nobody likes it. The only campaigners for it would be the Prime Minister, those members of the Cabinet willing, however reluctantly, to speak up for it and the ever popular CBI and associated big business lobbies. But lobbyists do not a ground campaign make and, admirably devoted though Mrs May is to doorstep campaigning, it will be tough for her and her small band of Ministers (those who aren’t campaigning for another option) to get out the millions of leaflets that both Remain and Leave distributed last time. (I suppose there is a way round this: get the taxpayer to print and post the leaflets to every household in the country. I wonder how that would go down.)
On that basis, let’s drop the Withdrawal Agreement from the ballot and just go with Leave and Remain. But this looks a bit unimaginative. Didn’t we do this in 2016?
There have also been suggestions that a threshold should be set, say 60% of those voting or 40% of the total electorate, before any change to the status quo would be effective. It was, after all, an ex post facto Remainer complaint against the 2016 referendum that there was no such threshold. But what is the status quo? That we are still, just, a member of the EU, or that we have decided to quit? Cold towels all round.
Looking beyond a binary vote, there are many schemes for a double-vote, either on a single ballot paper, or in two polls a week or so apart. Some of these involve preferential voting. The double votes all inherently skew the poll in a particular direction. Take the combination whereby a first ballot is between Leave and Remain and a second (assuming Leave wins) on the question Leave with no deal or Leave on the Government’s terms. How can that handle somebody who would like to leave provided he or she knew whether we would be leaving with no deal or with the Withdrawal Agreement?
Preferential voting has its own problems. We know from the Mayoral elections in London, for example, that many voters do not cast a second choice vote. This may be the result of deliberation, but it could also because they value their second vote less. Imagine in a tight contest that Leave won on the second preferences of only half the people who gave a first preference. We would never hear the end of it. Once again, legitimacy would be the issue.
There is an entire nerdish literature on the making of complex choices such as this, replete with modern Games Theory and the more antique Condorcet Paradox. All of it points to the conclusion that preferential voting tends to produce very strange results. To cut through the abstruse theorising, a group of the Great and the Good has come up with an idea that there should be a Citizens’ Assembly, randomly chosen, to deliberate on what the question should be. I’ll just leave that thought there without further comment.
And then there are the campaigns. Under current law, there are very loose limits, rightly, on what can be said in an election or referendum to promote one side or another. Fact checking can be done by the media and commentators of course, but that was done in 2016. What controls will Remain, who have whinged on endlessly about “Leave lies” want to put on the utterances of campaigners and who is to police them? And the Russians? Will we have to close down social media for a few months to keep those bogeymen out?
The closer one looks, the clearer it is that a second referendum is not a means of healing and uniting the country. It is not even necessarily a means of reaching a decision. At least one Tory Remainer has implied that, if Leave with no deal was on the ballot paper and it won, she still wouldn’t vote for it. And yet she is one of the most active proponents of a second referendum.
The calls for a second referendum originate from a solidly pro-Remain group that wants to win by having a rigged question that excludes one of the three options facing the country (the one, as it happens, that Parliament has already legislated for). They are not interested in legitimacy. They only want to slow and stop the Brexit juggernaut at any cost. It is astonishing that people like Tony Blair, Sir John Major and Roland Rudd are willing to put the country through this because they cannot accept the decision made by the people in 2016. It would be an error of cardinal significance if the House of Commons were to follow them down that self-destructive path.
A true economic miracle is happening. An extraordinary leap in the UK’s global export trade has occurred – a complete reverse of the ‘Doomsday’ predictions of the Treasury, Bank of England and Department for Business in London both before after the Brexit vote.
According to figures published by the UK Office of National Statistics in November – in the second calendar year following the EU referendum – exports to non-EU countries were £342 billion while exports to EU countries were £274 billion.
In the same period, the growth in exports continued to outstrip the growth in imports, almost halving the UK’s trade deficit from £23.4 billion to £15.8 billion. Most exceptionally, since the referendum, exports have increased by £111 billion to £610 billion.
Doubters will say it is a temporary blip caused by the falling pound. Not true. The boom is in new markets, and largely in new products and services, too. UK exports not just increased but doubled in hitherto obscure countries such as Oman and Macedonia. Exports to distant Kazakhstan climbed to $2 billion, only slightly less than the UK’s exports to Austria, worth $2.43 billion in 2017, which like many EU nations buys very little from the UK.
In the 12 months to September, the value of UK exports grew by some 4.4%, including strong growth in the manufacturing sector. Indeed, HMRC stated that exports of goods had shown “robust growth in every single region of the UK”. The number of Welsh SMEs which export doubled during the last two years to 52%.
Curiously, none of this has been spotted by any of the UK’s headline media – the BBC, Sky News or the FT. Not a peep from the new editor of the Daily Mail. Even The Economist was asleep on the job. Meanwhile, various government departments are spending much of their time issuing ‘Death in Brexit’ forecasts in a co-ordinated campaign with the Bank of England and other allies – and rarely champion our achievements.
Four years ago I was interviewed by Richard Cockett, The Economist’s UK business editor. I told him the UK was experiencing an unparalleled SME boom. How did I know, he asked? Since leaving the FT as a technology correspondent and columnist in 2003, my small team in central London has maintained a uniquely comprehensive database of more than 70,000 UK smaller companies.
As a result, daily we receive an avalanche of success stories. In the food and drink sector alone, if you want whisky marmalade or beetroot ketchup, or 500 new gin varieties or more than 1,000 new craft beers launched since 2011, our very brave, risk-adoring micro-SMEs will deliver.
If a New York cathedral needs a new, hand-made organ that £3 million contract comes to Britain. We sell sand to Saudi Arabia, china to China, and Turkish delight to Turkey. In the ultra-competitive auto components sector, UK exports are up 20%. Luxury goods, consumer goods, clever instrumentation for NASA and crucial cerebral input into US defence projects are all avidly listed in our dataset.
And yet, in our view the true importance of the export boom is as much political as economic. It proves that a No-Deal exit from the EU – or what I much prefer to call ‘Our Own Deal’ – is by far the best option, and far less damaging and disruptive than the ‘experts’ at the Bank of England, IoD, CBI, OECD and World Bank have forecast.
Far from being the ‘poverty and isolation’ scenario predicted by the chin tremblers who endlessly appear on Radio 4, the UK will be far much dependent on the EU in as little as five years.
Fears about UK-made cars from Japanese firms such as Nissan and Toyota being cut off from Europe are groundless. First, the UK could retaliate against BMW and VW – something no post-Merkel German politician would tolerate. Any anti-Japanese actions by the French would result in the rapid diminution of the £4 billion annual exports of French cosmetics to Japan. And the French know it, no matter what Macron might bluster.
But the export explosion is not the only piece of recent great news for the UK – there is more. First, in October 2018 Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, invited the UK to become part of the Pacific free trade pact – although this is dependent on the UK leaving the EU’s Customs Union. It would make the UK the sole geographically-distant member of the grouping, helping the country to rebuild trading links around the Pacific Ocean that stretch back more than two centuries.
Next, BP’s huge Claire Ridge oilfield, west of the Shetlands, just came on stream, providing no less than £42 billion in revenues over the next 25 years. It is a development much envied across energy-starved Europe – and there are more oilfields to come.
At this critical moment in the Brexit saga, it is vital the UK now wakes up to the much brighter future it has outside of the EU, and vital that Mrs May copies the bravery of our SME exporters. The so-called ‘No-Deal’, a term that needlessly frightens ordinary citizens, should indeed be re-named ‘Our Own Deal’, in which we invite all nations to trade with us on fair trade, low or no tariff, basis.
The UK economy will soon be in a solidly secure position to refuse any damaging ‘deal’ from the European Commission. Perhaps it was always the height of imbecility to think we could ever get a good deal from the Commission.
Finally, the tide of history is in our favour, even in Europe. The current, sub-optimal generation of European politicians – Cameron, Merkel, Juncker – will soon ‘be history’. Merkel goes next year – and every EU Commissioner will be replaced, too.
As Brexit talks limp from one embarrassment to the next, a No-Deal option will not be the doomsday Theresa May, the financial and property elites, and the heads of the UK’s top organisations and PLCs have long predicted. In fact the UK should never have negotiated with the Commission – from whom no fair deal was ever possible. The UK should introduce its own deal, ‘Our Deal Now’, in which we offer all nations fair trade agreements with no or low tariffs.
For hundreds of thousands of small UK companies, a complete split from the EU can’t come soon enough.
The post The UK’s unnoticed export boom underlines why a no-deal Brexit is nothing to fear appeared first on BrexitCentral.
The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently gave coverage to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement that Britain will be welcomed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership with “open arms” after it leaves the EU. In a bizarre turn of phrase, the BBC presenter described this as a ‘tonic for Brexiteers’.
The referendum – that decisive, once-in-a-generation ‘People’s Vote’ – took place on 23rd June 2016. Whether you voted Leave or Remain is now moot. To quote one MP: ‘We are all Brexiteers now’. The people of this country gave their clear instruction and the Government must deliver on it. Therefore, the BBC was incorrect. What Prime Minister Abe stated was not a tonic for Brexiteers but a tonic for the whole United Kingdom.
Yet from spring 2018 onwards we have witnessed a co-ordinated and unrelenting media assault on Brexit by multinational companies and their confederations. Day after day, the British public and its Government have been subjected to thinly-veiled threats from those corporations and interest groups with most to gain from the status quo. Their arguments about the dangers of Brexit have been allowed to percolate freely down into our national consciousness without any analysis or rebuttal. We presumed the battle was won and thus have surrendered the business argument.
Suddenly Brexit had stopped being a cut and thrust of differing opinions and become a torrent of carefully orchestrated negativity. What was missing was the voice of businesses that were positive and optimistic about the future of a sovereign Britain – the hundreds and thousands of smaller businesses with no lobbying power and fragmented representation who saw opportunity from Brexit as a catalyst for change. So it was that the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (or, like the Japanese Prime Minister, ABE for short) was founded out of frustration by me and Ed Harden.
ABE set out to give those smaller businesses a banner under which to gather and a mouthpiece to amply their voice. Our great aim was to remind both the Government and the British public that business does not start and end with Airbus and the CBI. In late September, 200 of our business supporters wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in support of a Canada-style free trade deal. We have since, in true entrepreneurial style, grown explosively, nearly doubling in size in a couple of weeks.
We are often asked why we refer to our business supporters as entrepreneurs. In our mind’s eye, it is easy to imagine an entrepreneur as a certain type of person. Someone involved in the tech industry perhaps. Someone modern, disruptive and metropolitan. Indeed, we have a number of supporters who fit those criteria. However, for ABE, being an entrepreneur is about a mindset. To us, entrepreneurship is characterised by adaptability and a positive outlook coupled with a firm sense of self-belief and a willingness to take responsibility. This definition transcends background, sector, geography or gender. As such, we are proud to have the backing of hundreds of entrepreneurs: from the sole traders in the West Midlands to the CEO of a London-based asset manager and all the family businesses, manufacturing firms, haulage companies and fishing boats in between.
Whilst we have had some initial success, we face two great challenges. The first of these is apathy.
Brexit didn’t end with the referendum. That vote was the first shot in a battle that is now being fought hand to hand in the mud with both sides dug in. The public at large are tired by years of political wrangling and are perplexed as to why it is taking so long. Even amongst those small businesses and entrepreneurs who feel passionately about the future of this country many are too busy running their day-to-day activities – investing, training and expanding – to devote time to campaigning. We have tried to counter this by doing their campaigning for them. Seeking their views on a light-touch basis and then doing the leg work to get them heard as one of a hundred voices singing the same tune.
The second great challenge was communication. SMEs don’t have corporate PR firms on eye-watering monthly retainers. Indeed, most don’t even have a separate media department. Even where there was the will to share their view, this was drowned out by the lobbying and closed forums of the big business and establishment set-up. We knew we lacked the resources to broadcast at a conventional level. Instead, using the power of social media and specific, targeted correspondence we have aimed to create enough noise to be heard. Our short-term goal has been to disrupt and interfere with the prevailing message of the big lobby groups. Every time they have a press release ready, we’ll be there putting one of our entrepreneurs forward with a counter that relates to their own business, hitting their statements with real world, real business rebuttals.
We admit that our entrepreneurs don’t and can’t always speak for their thousands of employees. But as the strategic decision-makers for those firms, they have looked at the future and seen a Britain that prospers outside the EU: a free-trading, dynamic Britain whose regulation stays lithe and reactive to changes in the global economy; a Britain that looks resolutely outwards and unrelentingly seeks out new global alliances and partnerships. This Britain cannot exist under the Chequers proposal. ABE will continue to lobby for a Canada-style free trade deal that respects the referendum and allows British business to once again take its place at the top table of global trade.
This great and noble opportunity must not be squandered.
Find our more about the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs at their website
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