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Brexit election

This is, according to several of the parties and at least one national broadcaster, a Brexit election. And indeed, whatever finally motivates individual voters they are being offered a wide spectrum of ways out of the Brexit “impasse”.

How deliverable they are is another matter.

This applies particularly to the two largest parties. The Conservatives are correct to claim that a majority would allow them to ensure that the UK leaves the EU by the end of January.

But whether Brexit will feel “done” at that point, given the future relationship negotiations that will follow immediately, is another matter entirely.

The refusal to countenance an extension beyond December 2020 means they are putting themselves — and the EU — under tremendous pressure to agree and sign-off a trade deal by that date.

We doubt whether this is achievable.

The EU is concerned not about where the UK is starting from but where it wants to go: it will insist ambitions for on some level playing field conditions even for a bare-bones deal on goods.

The EU will be concerned about talk of “buying British” and support for struggling businesses after we leave, even if the manifesto suggests the UK is seeking a licence in other areas to diverge up, not down.

The manifesto is silent on other key areas: services, data, aviation and even security cooperation.

When it comes to the Labour Party, practical problems are again glossed over.

Yes, a new deal could be negotiated with the EU, though it may not be as plain sailing as Labour assumes, and whether, in practice, renegotiation could be completed and a referendum held on the outcome within six months is, at best, open to question.

Moreover, there will be no final deal to vote on in that referendum. A Labour government would have negotiated a non-binding political declaration.

The ambition to define a closer relationship with the EU than that proposed by the Conservatives is clear – but the detail is not.

We don’t know what they mean by ‘close alignment with the single market’ nor what ‘joint UK-EU trade deals’ might imply.

The former could mean anything from something implying significant new non-tariff barriers to full participation in the single market. As for the latter, if the party is after anything more than early consultation on deals, it stands to be disappointed.

For an issue so central to the future of the UK economy, the manifestos are strangely reluctant to talk about the impact of Brexit – and how it will affect their ability to finance the bigger state they all seek.

The Conservative plan implies a significant negative economic and fiscal impact. The best case of a free trade agreement would lead to an annual fiscal shortfall of at least £6 billion and potentially as much as £20 billion.

A no-deal exit to trade on WTO terms from December 2020 could push that as high as £28 billion.

Under any plausible scenario, this would be likely to mean that the Conservatives would not be able to meet their tax and spending ambitions without violating their own fiscal rules.

By contrast, the impact of a Labour Brexit would be slightly allow some positive ‘catch up’ growth largely offsetting the relatively small negative impacts of a much softer Brexit.

And the Liberal Democrats could indeed bank a “Remain bonus”; we put it at £12 billion in 2024-5, close to their estimate of £14 billion.

And the contrast is all the more striking because, beyond repeating that “getting Brexit done” will lead to all kinds of new opportunities, the Conservatives are vague about what these might be.

Indeed, there is far more emphasis on the benefits of ending the Brexit-induced “paralysis” of the last few years than there is on what the party sees as the economic benefits of Brexit.

The party ambitiously announces an intention to have 80 per cent of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years, starting with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

However, two of the substantive pledges made — that the NHS will not be “on the table” in any trade deal, that the UK will not roll back environmental or labour regulations will make any trade deal either harder to reach or more limited in scope.

And the simple fact is that, however deep these deals might be, they cannot compensate for significantly impaired trade with the EU.

Manifestos are to elections as crackers are to Christmas.

Intrinsically linked in the minds of enthusiasts, yet hugely unpredictable in terms of quality. It’s only by opening them that you’ll know whether you’ve ended up with useful trinkets, or more useless tat.

With these manifestos, our sense is that the initial impression on popping them open might be one of pleasant surprise.

The contents look substantive enough at first glance. But just wait till the novelty opener — the blue one in particular — comes into contact with a real bottle.

By Anand Menon, director and Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in Times Red Box.


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