Whenever the next election might be – and most Conservative MPs want it to be as far away as possible – it’s generally agreed that it ought to take place once Brexit is concluded. There are two good reasons for that: first, to ensure that Leave voters are not going to the ballot box in frustration to protest against a lack of progress, and second to rule out any further attempts to claim the process can be blocked or reversed.
But why stop there? “We have honoured the will of the people” is a good thing to be able to say, but it is inherently retrospective. Standing on what you have done is good, but you also need to illustrate current and ongoing improvements in people’s lives. The most famous victim of this distinction was Winston Churchill, who went into the 1945 General Election having defeated Nazi Germany (but not yet Japan), for which he might have expected to be rewarded, only to find himself outdone by a positive vision of what came next.
So while carrying out Brexit is certainly a minimum requirement for electoral success, it is not enough, in itself, enough to win a new mandate to govern post-Brexit Britain. One element of doing so must be to use newly-gained freedoms to make Brexit work for people in their daily lives.
Understandably, a huge share of the Government’s bandwidth is currently taken up by the task of extricating ourselves from the EU. But we must not become so absorbed by the challenges of today that we neglect the opportunities of tomorrow. If there are to be three years from Brexit in April 2019 to the next General Election, then the Government must make them count – not just announcing policies that will help hard-pressed workers and their families, but doing so early enough that their positive effects will be felt in people’s pockets before the election.
One practical, beneficial and easy to communicate change would be to use Brexit to reduce food prices.
Inside the EU – and, Labour should note, inside the Customs Union – we levy sizeable tariffs on imports, particularly of food. A recent Policy Exchange report cites estimates that food prices in the UK are 17 per cent higher than they would be outside the EU.
This was always a known effect of joining the European project. Heath’s 1971 White Paper on joining the Common Market forecast increases in the price of food of two and a half per cent per year for six years – which makes it all the more strange that Nick Clegg and others talk as though Brexit will inevitably make food more expensive, a claim derided by Shanker Singham of Legatum‘s Trade Commission as “a ludicrous position…scaremongering of the worst kind.”
Escaping the Common External Tariff will allow British customers to buy food from the vast majority of the world’s producers, who live outside the EU, at a lower price. Indeed, as early as last August The Guardian was reporting enthusiasm among farmers in Africa for access to the UK market at less punitive rates. Liberalising that trade would benefit both parties – the windfalls of greater trade would make life easier for British consumers feeling the pinch and aid millions of people in developing nations in a sustainable way. Greater development through trade would help to improve global stability and reduce the need for aid spending over time, too.
Getting it right, however, rests on political decisions. The ideal scenario would involve three things: a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU, ensuring that tariffs do not obstruct existing imports; Free Trade Agreements with other non-EU nations, which Liam Fox’s department is working on; and a more liberal standard position for UK import tariffs, which would need to be established in our new schedule at the WTO.
Of the three, only the last is completely in the Government’s gift. The first could be vulnerable to the EU’s desire to be seen to punish its departing member, although doing so would involve a good deal of self-harm, and the second still involves bilateral negotiations, though in less fraught circumstances and perhaps with more reasonable partners than the EU institutions. The key to success in the third lies in striking the right balance. Lower food import tariffs too much, some warn, and you give third party countries no incentive to strike deals which would lower their own barriers to British exports.
That logic is sound, but there is still room for manoeuvre. An independent UK could reduce tariffs to below the EU rate, while still retaining some tariff to barter away in FTA negotiations if it so wished.
Brexit offers an opportunity to shrink a key component of the cost of living – food makes up 16 per cent of annual bills for low income families – that Labour would find extremely difficult to oppose.
To see the electoral potential, consider that recent British political battles have largely been fought between two propositions: the good news that there are more jobs, and the bad news that many are still struggling to get by. Cutting the price of food successfully would change lives for the better and offer the chance to seize crucial political ground. More jobs and lower food bills – now there’s a retail offer.