Some of our fellow Brexiteers see No Deal as the highway to a Singapore future – in which a Conservative Government slashes spending, tax and regulation to make Britain the economic powerhouse of Europe. The vision of a faster-growing economy should warm of the heart of every Tory. But the gritty experience of post-referendum politics should have taught us all the difference between the abstract and the concrete.
Any No Deal outcome to the Brexit talks would be mediated through a Commons in which Theresa May has no majority. It is possible that MPs would take fright at it, and seek to postpone Article 50 – in other words, kick it into long grass from which it would never emerge. So there is an ironic chance that No Deal could sink leaving the EU altogether. But whether it did or didn’t, the Government’s room for manoeuvre would be very limited.
Amidst a Commons in which even ten rebels can sink a proposal, there is no chance whatsoever of the Government effecting a radical re-ordering of the state. Nor is the Conservative Party in any condition to attempt it. The very profusion of new Tory groups and initiatives – Onward, Freer, the revived Centre for Policy Studies – is a sign that the Parliamentary Party is searching for fresh ways forward after the Cameron years, with their focus on deficit reduction.
And forget about the prospect of a change of leadership suddenly re-firing the engines of Thatcherism. As we keep pointing out, deposing Theresa May this autumn would provide a new leader, but not a new Commons. Only a general election could give this Boris Javid or Sajid Johnson figure the landslide necessary to refigure Britain. How likely is it that a snap poll would provide one – assuming that Tory MPs consented to an election in the first place?
No, a No Deal outcome presents a spectrum of possibilties from the deeply problematic to the merely unsettling. It cannot be otherwise when much would depend on whether the EU27 joined with us in keeping the wheels of co-operation oiled. This site got stuck in last summer to the debate about what No Deal might mean. The essence of our conclusion was that, with side-deals, the prospect holds no fear.
None the less, whether those deals happen or not is guesswork. The reality of No Deal is not so much a cliff-edge as a cats-cradle of preparation, diplomacy, law – and a time shortage. It isn’t necessary to believe the Project Fear Two tales of medicine shortages and empty shelves (lovingly stoked by Continuity Remain) to conclude that, as Britain adjusted, there would at least be a temporary squeeze on investment, growth and tax revenues.
Of course, there is a lot more to Brexit than the short-term – and the medium-term of even a No Deal Brexit holds out the prospect of the reformed economy rendered unlikely by present Commons arithmetic. This helps to explain why Conservative MPs should now push for Canada Plus Plus Plus. If they can’t get it, they must weigh whether No Deal, with the paradoxical possibility it brings of No Brexit at all, would be worse than attempting the EEA port-in-a-storm.
The department that should be taking the lead in persuading the public of much of this is the Treasury. For it to do so, a front-of-shop-window Chancellor is required: someone with the political and rhetorical skill to set out the range of possibilites that No Deal would bring – and who will work seamlessly with colleagues to deliver an agreed Government plan, such as yesterday’s carefully-honed announcement fronted by Dominic Raab.
He or she would undoubtedly struggle to do so against departmental resistance. For every once in a while, the Treasury pins itself to a policy that collapses. During the early 1980s, this was what you might call decadent keynesianism. During the early 1990s, it was the exchange rate mechanism. Some 15 years on, it was EU membership.
The aftermath of the referendum has left the Treasury shell-shocked. Worse, its credibility was shredded after George Osborne’s politicised forecasts were left in tatters – an immediate recession, half a million unemployed, an 18 per cent fall in the value of homes. By early this year at the latest, it was evident that what was needed at the department to provide new leadership was a politician with the persuasiveness, energy and imagination of Michael Gove.
In the past, we have defended Philip Hammond. The Chancellor has his pluses. He saw from the start that an interventionist industrial policy was ill-timed for the moment when Britain needed business investment post-referendum. He was not well-treated by Theresa May during the election campaign or immediately before it. His economic instincts are sound.
But if one’s measure is preparing the public for No Deal, it is hard to imagine a Chancellor worse-placed. The Treasury is still rolling out those long-term forecasts as though Osborne had never left it. Frankly, Hammond has no more idea of what our GDP or borrowing will be in 15 years than does Russell Grant. And the latter presumably works more co-operatively with any colleagues he has than the Chancellor does.
For it is clear that the release of Hammond’s letter to Nicky Morgan, in which his dismal forecasts were contained, can only have been timed to take the shine off Raab’s day in the sun. The emergence of the letter is also a reminder of the absence of the man. Where is the Chancellor himself? When Soft and Hard Brexiteers were jostling pre-Brexit, it was Greg Clark who took the fight to the latter on the Andrew Marr Show, not Hammond.
Of course, chancellors tend to disappear into the Treasury between budgets – not for nothing did Osborne become known as the Submarine – but Hammond has vanished even more than most. Part of the reason must be the disaster of his first budget, after which he was forced to U-turn on his national insurance plans. His subsequent ones have been easier going. But that is largely because Brexit exigencies have postponed hard decisions.
The Chancellor compared himself to Tigger during his last budget. We duly produced the required illustration. But the comparison wouldn’t have been attempted had not a more persuasive one been made: with Eeyore. The Government needs a front-of-shop persuader at the Treasury, but has a back-of-house technocrat – at this, the most momentous time for Britain’s destiny since the war. And back at the start of the year, May blew her chance to do anything about it.