Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Don't copy us, we're British

  • ‘Project Fear’ did little to sway the vote, but rather increased public distrust in the UK government. (Photo: The European Union)

If any European country decides that a vote on EU membership might be for them, they shouldn’t use Britain in 2016 as a good model to follow.

That, at least, was the message of British MPs on the Public Accounts committee in their report published Wednesday (11 April) on the conduct of the June vote. It’s fair to say that few Brits – whether Brexiteers or Remainers – would disagree that the process was botched.

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  • The Leave campaign told voters that leaving the EU would be without cost and that it would in fact boost the British economy. (Photo: Reuters)

A referendum that produces a result that the government has not prepared for and which the prime minister would rather resign over than implement can hardly be seen as a triumph.

Referendums are by their nature divisive, especially when they are used to resolve an internal party debate – such as EU membership – that had become, in the words of liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, ‘a catfight in a Tory party that got out of hand’.

It hardly helps that the government machine has effectively been co-opted before and after the referendum.

'Project Fear' failed

Ahead of the 1975 referendum on the UK’s continued EEC membership, civil servants in the Cabinet Office prepared for a possible UK exit from the then EEC with detailed contingency plans focusing on the length of time required for withdrawal to be negotiated, the financial consequences of leaving and issues such as subsidy payments to farmers, tariffs and future trading arrangements with Europe.

That didn’t happen in 2016. Instead, the government machine found itself pitched into the centre of the campaign on behalf of the Remain side.

The government spent £9.3 million (€11 million) on circulating a leaflet with, as it turned out, wildly over-inflated warnings of instant recession in the wake of a ‘Leave’ vote.

‘Project Fear’ did little to sway the vote but they did succeed in increasing public distrust in government, tarnishing the reputation of David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne and, just as importantly, civil servants – particularly in the Treasury.

Unlike the politicians, the civil servants kept their jobs after June 23rd. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Head of the Civil Service, acknowledged that the use of the government machine contributed to a perception that the civil service was biased.

But they, and the leaders of other public bodies, were put on notice not to look like they were interfering in politics.

Having been among the warning voices about the possible economic consequences of Brexit – albeit it in carefully nuanced language – Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, now finds himself a marked man among Brexiteers.

Prime minister Theresa May's government is still wrestling with her predecessor’s failure to prepare the ground for a ‘Leave’ vote.

Brexit minister David Davis admitted to MPs in March that the civil service has not done any economic modelling on the consequences of different post-2019 options.

This laissez-faire approach won’t wash a second time.

Unwanted realism

Yet, having watched the Cameron government over-egg the pudding by warning of post-Brexit oblivion, Theresa May has gone to the opposite extreme.

Any business or individual casting doubt on the glory of Brexit, risks being vilified by the Eurosceptic media and cold-shouldered by ministers.

Earlier this week, Noel Quinn, CEO of banking giant HSBC, stated that some of its major clients were asking for trades to be conducted through their Paris operations rather than London, and were looking to shift their headquarters from London to continental Europe.

Despite the widespread fears among a number of major companies about the EU exit, Quinn is one of the few prepared to put his head above the parapet. The failure of ‘Project Fear’ appears to mean that the realism of experts is unwanted.

The Leave campaign told voters that exiting the EU was without cost and would in fact bring an economic boost to the UK.

It’s too early to say definitively that they are wrong – the value of the pound may have crashed but most sectors of the economy have continued business as usual since last June.

In all likelihood, however, the UK is going to revert to a WTO trade arrangement with the EU.

If the reality of Brexit means more expensive holidays and grocery bills, job losses and new constitutional problems in Scotland and Northern Ireland - the public mood will shift.

As the debacle of 2016 demonstrated, failure to prepare costs credibility and careers. The rest of the EU-27 should take note.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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