Andrew RT Davies AM is the Welsh Conservative Leader and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.
You wouldn’t believe it to read the papers, but last week’s leaks were an exercise in distraction and diversion, designed to deflect attention away from the job and to rekindle the fading hopes of a small – but vocal – minority who will stop at nothing to get their way.
The headline figures will have raised a smile in the Blair household, but that doesn’t make them any more trustworthy than his own dodgy dossier – and they’re likely to be about as reliable as the Treasury forecasts peddled out in the weeks and months ahead of the referendum.
We have endured a “decade of dubious forecasts”, and at the risk of sending my Twitter feed into meltdown (…whisper it quietly…) this tradition of so-called ‘experts’ telling the public how to think is starting to wear thin.
Lest we forget that we were told – in no uncertain terms – that the mere act of a vote to leave the European Union would represent “an immediate and profound shock to our economy”; pushing us into recession, and unleashing a tsunami of economic devastation that would sweep away as many as 800,000 jobs.
The reality has been far more prosaic, and the positive outlook for the economy has defied the bleak prophecies. Even David Cameron now admits that Brexit hasn’t turned out so bad after all. That’s why it’s time for the merchants of doom and gloom to give project fear its last rites and get on with the job of delivering the will of the people.
So where do we go from here? Given Britain’s unique circumstances, a bespoke deal is the only one that will cut the mustard. The EU knows this, and Jean-Claude Juncker is now admitting publicly that the EU27 may be forced to give Britain a better deal, as powerful competing interests enter the foray during Stage Two of the negotiations. We must be ready to take advantage, and to secure the best possible outcome for the UK.
Heaven forbid, it might even allow the EU to wake up to the political realities of the twenty-first century, and to develop a better understanding of the growing frustration across Member States at the irrepressible march to ever closer political union.
But what does Brexit mean to us as a nation? Whilst there is room for debate and discussion around the finer points of the ‘end state’ of Brexit, some basic tenets are clearly non-negotiable. The people voted for legal and constitutional independence from the European Union. The rallying cry of the Vote Leave campaign was to “Take Back Control” – of our money, of our trade, and of our borders. It is our duty to deliver all three, undiluted.
From a UK perspective, to retain membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union is to remain a rule-taker, divested of any influence. It would see the UK forced to accept free movement, to pay into annual EU budgets, and would preclude the signing of any independent free trade deals. No sensible nation would voluntarily enter into such an arrangement. And to do so would be to betray each and every principle underpinning the campaign to leave. But the most vehement champions of a soft (non) Brexit know this already. That’s what makes leaks of this kind so damaging.
It’s not the content of the forecasts, it’s their timing. Designed to inflict maximum damage to the harmony in Cabinet and to undermine our position in the negotiations.
The dossier itself is easy to handle. Don’t forget, we’ve heard it all before. GDP would shrink, then stagnate, they said. (Yet we’ve actually witnessed six successive quarters of growth.) Unemployment like we’d never seen, they said. 800,000 jobs lost, we were told. (In fact, unemployment has fallen by 200,000 since the referendum and more people are in work than ever before.) What about the claim that borrowing would need to rise after a vote to leave? (On the contrary, borrowing fell to £46 billion in 2016/17.) In fact, you have to wonder how many of the authors behind the Treasury’s infamous pre-referendum ‘Dossier of Doom’ were involved in the latest effort.
I don’t doubt that the most strident opposition to Brexit is sincere. But if their concern for the economic well-being of UK citizens is genuine, then they must also acknowledge that their forecasts have proven incorrect before – not to mention the harm that their campaign risks doing.
The clock is ticking on the Brexit negotiations and spreading confusion in this manner will only undermine the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand and put Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to Downing Street. It’s time to call off the attack dogs, and get on with the job of delivering the ‘Spirit of Brexit’.
I have always believed that the concerns expressed by the Remain voice must be addressed, and the best talent from every political background must be harnessed if we are to take advantage of the opportunities ahead. None the less, we need to shake off the collective shackles of a negative ‘civil servant mind-set’ that this is all too hard too do. We need to pool our resources and approach the negotiations with a positive and united front – remain and leave alike.
But it cuts both ways. As Brexiteers, we have a responsibility to reinvigorate the spirit of opportunity that the referendum uncorked. The poorest parts of the UK are looking to us to come good on our promises. In Wales, Cornwall, and Grimsby the vote to leave was driven by a visceral desire to disrupt the status quo – not preserve it. We must not let them down.