Stephen Booth is Director of Policy and Research at Open Europe.
As the ongoing Brexit saga continues to drag towards the 29th March without resolution, every announcement or scrap of economic news is greeted by hard-line Remainers or Brexiters as proof positive of their arguments. Nuance is no use to either extreme in this debate. In reality, since the referendum, there have been positives and negatives but, overall, the economy has held up relatively well compared with the political wreckage that Brexit has been causing in Westminster.
After retail sales figures outstripped forecasts in January, the consultancy Oliver Wyman suggested the reason for this pleasant surprise was that consumers might be stockpiling for a No Deal Brexit. This might have tallied had the boost been attributed to a spike in the purchase of tinned baked beans, but Office of National Statistics figures illustrated that sales of discounted clothing were the biggest driver. Are we really stockpiling jumpers?
Japanese carmaker Honda’s decision last week to close its Swindon plant provided the latest opportunity to confirm our prejudices. Some rushed to cite Brexit as the cause, before Takahiro Hachigo, Honda’s chief executive, stated that “Brexit was not taken into account” in the decision. Moves towards emissions-free vehicles, over capacity at the Swindon plant and the removal of tariffs under a new EU-Japan trade deal seem to be the prime reasons for the closure. After all, Honda is not closing its UK plant in favour of another location inside the EU market, or another European country with more certain access to it. Indeed, it is also closing its plant in Turkey, which has a customs union with the EU.
However, Brexiters should not take comfort from this episode. Rightly or wrongly, many outside the UK see Brexit as damaging to “Brand Britain”. Equally, it is very hard for companies like Honda to “blame” Brexit because they risk a consumer backlash. Blithely dismissing businesses’ legitimate concerns about uncertainty or the impact of a No Deal Brexit as a rerun of “Project Fear” does nothing to dispel this instinct. Even if only a minor contributing factor, Brexit uncertainty was a very useful excuse, at the very least, for Honda to pull the plug in Britain. To reiterate the degree of uncertainty facing businesses, we are just five weeks away from a potential No Deal Brexit and we are still eagerly awaiting an announcement of what tariffs the government intends to levy on imports from all over the world.
Ultimately, each isolated case is complicated and can only tell us so much. The wider reality is that, in 2016 and 2017, UK growth was sluggish in comparison to the global upswing. But in its January forecast, the IMF forecasts that, following an orderly Brexit, the UK growth rate will converge with France and Germany at around 1.5 per cent in 2019 and 2020. The European Commission expects the UK to marginally outpace Germany in 2019.
According to Gertjan Vlieghe, an External Member of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, the reason for the UK’s comparative underperformance is that while business investment has grown strongly across the G7, it has stalled in Britain. Given the seismic nature of the Brexit vote and the political fallout it would be surprising if many businesses weren’t hesitant to invest. Getting a deal through which provides for an orderly Brexit might unlock some pent-up investment. However, it is difficult to see how a No Deal Brexit or Article 50 extension in the hope of a second referendum would provide businesses with the confidence they crave.
On the other hand, despite a weakening of the pound, consumer spending has on the whole remained buoyant and reflects the UK’s strong labour market performance. Employment is at record high levels, and wages are rising faster than inflation. The Government recently posted its largest January revenue surplus since records began in 1993.
Looking to the longer term, the UK’s economic fundamentals remain strong. A flexible labour market, a well-regarded legal system, and comparatively favourable demographics relative to the major European economies are all valuable assets. In and of itself, Brexit will not be a life or death matter for the economy. As consumers and supply chains adjust to whatever new trade barriers arise on both sides of the Channel, there will be winners and losers. This is the inevitable reality of altering years of deep economic integration.
However, onlookers and potential foreign investors might wonder whether the fundamentals of our politics are as sound. Parliament has so far been found desperately wanting in what is only the first stage of Brexit. Many MPs on either side are still intent on debating Brexit as a matter of principle rather than pragmatism, two-and-a-half years after the referendum campaign. There must be major doubts about their ability to wrestle with the real-world challenges and decisions required to reshape Britain for the big, wide world outside the EU.