Coming in from the ColdThe Brexit Reset Needed After the Resignation of Lord Frost
Mike Buckley explains why he has helped to set up a new Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations
Lord David Frost’s resignation from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet brings back into focus a question that has been central to Brexit since its inception: what and who is it for?
The departure of the Government’s chief Brexit negotiator was unsurprising. He wanted to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol twice – first in July and then at the end of November, arguing that the EU was unwilling to sufficiently reduce goods checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. Without a signal from Johnson that he would get the go ahead in the new year to do so, it would have been hard for him to continue in his position.
But Lord Frost’s resignation letter speaks to a wider critique of Government policy. “Brexit is now secure,” he wrote. “The challenge for the Government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us,” going on to express frustration that Brexit had not yet led to a “lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy”.
A similar view was expressed by Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine. “Instead of bold free trade deals and making use of our new freedoms, the protectionists are winning,” he wrote in the Telegraph. Britain, he said, “is ending up with the opposite of what Brexit’s architects hoped to create,” outside the EU but in danger of importing the “European model.” “Look around and you can see all kinds of Brexit opportunities not being taken.” What was the point, he asks, “if Brexit freedoms are never going to be used”.
In a sense, Lord Frost and Nelson are right. Brexit gives the UK the right to diverge from European standards, but it has not been a priority for the Government.
In part, this is a recognition of hard facts. Business and industry groups are largely against divergence, seeing it as needless and costly. The planned post-Brexit safety regime for chemicals, for example, which would cost the industry up to £1 billion to implement, has been postponed and may never come into force.
In the same vein, businesses are “not persuaded” of the need to replace the European CE safety standard with an equivalent UKCA scheme. Under pressure from manufacturers, it has been delayed and remains hugely unpopular. Financial services executives similarly remain sceptical of rule changes.
In part, this may be a welcome recognition that divergence is only worthwhile if benefits outweigh costs. “Meaningful divergence lies only in areas where there is strong rationale, combined with minimal constraints and costs,” advised a report from the Tony Blair Institute. The Government may have taken note.
It should also have noted public opinion, which is uniformly against deregulation. Think tank IPPR found that less than 15% of the public favour relaxing or removing EU standards. Indeed, if change is to occur most would rather standards were strengthened, the opposite of Lord Frost and Nelson’s hopes.
In other areas, however, the Government is adrift from public opinion. When the Prime Minister signed his final Brexit deal a year ago it was supported by only 24% of the population – 49% wanted a closer relationship, with around half that number favouring eventual re-entry.
A year on, the public remains more favourable towards the EU than its Government. The European Council on Foreign Relations argued recently that Johnson “seems to need the perennial fights of a permanent Brexit”. Yet, “the British public do not have any particular animus towards the EU”. While they “value British sovereignty and independence they would support a foreign policy that worked cooperatively with the bloc”.
Britain, it suggests, should recognise that the EU remains our most valuable security ally and admit that there are no “vast untapped commercial opportunities on the far side of the world that can compensate for the loss of the EU single market”.
Available data bears this out. In October, the Office for Budget Responsibility reported the impact of Brexit was consistent with its assumption that the leaving the EU would “reduce our long run GDP by around 4%”. Both imports and exports with the EU have been hit, matching their assumption of a 15 per cent reduction in each.
In raw numbers, this means a huge loss to the economy. In October alone that 15% hit meant a reduction in goods trade of £12.6 billion. The Centre for European Reform, like the Office for Budget Responsibility, calculates that this will be an ongoing hit – over time making the country and all of us poorer.
The good news is that none of this needs to be permanent. Agreements and treaties can be changed and priorities reset. The political relationship between the UK and EU, currently tense due to Johnson’s failure to fully implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, can be repaired.
Indeed, the final Brexit deal, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, has a review clause built-in to facilitate discussion and eventual change.
The first review is scheduled for 2025. By that point, the UK government of the day should be ready with a series of proposed amendments that would improve the lives of the British people, the health of our economy and the ability of security and police forces to cooperate with European allies.
That’s why we have established a new commission – the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations – to examine the Brexit outcomes as they stand and to propose amendments that could be made three years from now.
The Commission is politically independent which gives us the freedom to speak to all sides, and to make our findings and recommendations available to all. Our sole focus is working with leaders in sectors affected by Brexit to understand the challenges that they are experiencing and what changes would rectify them.
We will work with all sides, including the EU, to develop recommendations. The conclusion should be an achievable form of Brexit more aligned with public opinion and the needs of business, industry and civil society.
We hope that the Commission can help us move on from denials of all too obvious problems and the reluctance to face hard truths. Brexit was done – as promised and as voted for by the British people in 2016. But, its doing has consequences across Britain’s economy, society and politics. It is time we had a reasoned debate about where Boris Johnson’s Brexit deals have left us, and what we might want to change when the opportunity arises.
Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central
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