Having last week announced his intention to leave Parliament after 34 years, Former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley used his final Prime Minister’s Questions to wish Theresa May “Godspeed”. The member for Hitchen and Harpenden also asked his party leader if she still recognized, when it comes to the UK’s Article 50 negotiations, “that to get a reasonable deal we must accept that no deal is better than a bad deal”?
May famously used this phrase in her pivotal Lancaster House speech on Brexit in January. In stark contrast to her predecessor, who foolishly declared up front his support for Remain in last summer’s referendum on European Union membership, whatever the outcome of his “renegotiation”, May took a much tougher line.
Last week, though, faced with Lilley’s typically astute question, the Prime Minister conspicuously avoided the “no deal” construction. One reason is that, ahead of June 8th, the Tories are claiming a Labour government would oversee a “chaotic Brexit”. That’s a harder sell if May, too, is emphasizing an outcome that, to much of the public, seems scary.
Her newfound reticence is also designed, as the election approaches, to attract swing-voters who backed Remain. Tough talk is warranted when laying out your stall to Brussels and the EU27. Sounding more emollient is useful when appealing to the domestic centre-ground.
When it comes to Brexit, the political game-playing is of course on-going. With pre-election talk of tactical voting, local non-aggression pacts between opposition parties and Tony Blair vowing to “fight” Brexit, much of the political and media class is still in referendum mode.
Beyond Westminster, meanwhile, the majority of the public, not least the corporate world, is sick of Remain-Leave antics. Far from political bickering, they want to hear more about the UK’s opportunities outside the EU and for the government to get on with Brexit.
That was the spirit behind a major one-day conference in London last week. Dubbed Prosperity UK, it was the brainchild of the investor and Leave-voter Paul Marshall and paid-up Remainer Jonathan Hill – Britain’s former EU Commissioner.
“Beyond this rhetorical war, Brexit will be neither a catastrophe nor a liberation,” Hill told delegates, who were mostly from business and academia. “There will be winners and losers and to say so isn’t Remoaner defeatism,” Hill insisted. “Neither is it swivel-eyed utopianism to see new and exciting opportunities for the UK outside the EU”.
Of the countless interesting thoughts I heard from panelists at this conference, here are three. Luis de la Calle, Mexico’s former trade negotiator, was remarkably upbeat about Britain’s ability to cut beneficial free-trade agreements (FTAs) outside the EU. The UK has “strong historic relationships” and a “world-class services sector” that doesn’t benefit much from many of the EU’s FTAs. The combination, Calle observed, means “Britain is probably the only country on earth that can realistically cut trade deals with the US, China and India as well as the EU”. Such deals, if they happened, would cover two-thirds of the global economy. The EU’s trade deals, tough to achieve given intra-EU conflicts, cover less than a tenth.
Crawford Falconer spoke about the World Trade Organisation – the supra-national body that oversees global trade. As New Zealand’s former Trade Ambassador, he rightly sees the WTO as “fundamental to the stability and growth of the post-war world and vital to our future”. The UK “has a massive opportunity to provide global economic leadership,” Falconer said, acting independently within the WTO, rather than as one of 28 EU nations. “The UK can forge links and drive free trade around the world, at a time when leadership is desperately needed”.
Shanker Singham, the British Director of the Legatum Institute’s Special Trade Commission, widely seen as a source of impartial trade expertise, spoke on the single market. Coming out “means some disruption, but is manageable” he said. Singham also observed that leaving the single market, rather THAN weakening UK financial regulation as many suggest, “actually provides a useful opportunity to put consumer interests front and centre”.
I’d add two more points. While FTAs are highly desirable, they’re not the be all and end all. We should strike them when we can. But the EU has no FTA with the US – and American exports to the EU totaled €247bn last year. All economies have “access” to the single market from outside the EU – as will the UK. The US and China have no FTA, likewise the EU and China. These three economies account for the bulk of global trade. Relying largely on WTO rules, then, is by no means a disaster.
If we’re offered a bad EU trade deal, we should, as Lilley says, reject it. If the EU and UK can’t agree an FTA within the 2-year Article 50 window, trade won’t cease. And if both sides end up paying relatively low WTO export tariffs, Britain will be quids-in given our EU trade deficit. The Prime Minister gets this – even if, pre-election, she is toning down the rhetoric.
My second observation is the need to distinguish clearly between “no deal” on trade and “just walking away”. The first is a coherent and sensible position. The second, a failure to agree on matters such as cooperation on air traffic control and mutual customs recognition, would be mad. Of course such issues will be agreed – we’re talking about the continuation of essentially administrative protocols that already exist and are uncontroversial.
Lurid scare-stories about “planes falling from the sky” and “lines of lorries at Dover” if Britain has the audacity to reject, for a time, a disadvantageous EU trade deal, are just that. With the national interest at stake, such rhetorical nonsense should stop. But it obviously won’t.