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‘The Brexit Lies that Literally Made Us All Poorer’

Iain Overton examines the lack of consequences for the Brexiters that promised us sunny uplands

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson led the Vote Leave campaign for the 2016 EU Referendum. Photo: PA/Alamy

The Brexit Lies that Literally Made Us All Poorer

Iain Overton examines the lack of consequences for the Brexiters that promised us sunny uplands

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It is a common truth that there were exaggerations made during the Leave campaign’s Brexit drive, just as many of the prophetic words by Remainers about the harm leaving the EU would do to the UK – dismissed at the time as ‘Project Fear’ – have come to pass. 

But an exact and official audit of false claims and – sometimes – downright lies has not been made and we are poorer for it.

There has been no comprehensive government review of the mistruths, no official body established to ensure that such extensive false claims on the political podium are not repeated, and certainly there has been no censure – through fines, stripping of office or even sentencing – of those from whose mouths the lies cascaded.

Indeed, since the EU Referendum, many of those at the forefront of the lies have seen their careers and profiles soar. 

Of course, many would say that is what general elections are for – if you don’t believe the party seeking power, vote for the other one. But the mistruths are worth revisiting, especially as Britain stands in crisis. Where are the promised sunny uplands and honey for tea?

The challenge of holding people to account, though, is that many politicians framed leaving the EU in broad-brush, utopian terms. Things could only get better, they intoned, without providing proof or detail. However, some did claim specifics.

Perhaps the richest claim came from one of the richest MPs. In July 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that Brexit would reduce clothes, food and wine costs by 20%. Did it? For people completing the weekly big shop, or parents on budgets buying clothes that their children have outgrown, the answer is clearly ‘no’. 

In July of that year, Aldi’s ‘back to school’ uniform set cost £3.75. In July 2022, it was priced at £5. An increase of 33%. Even taking into account inflation, the set should be worth £4.25, so that is still an increase of 17%. 

Importantly, if Rees-Mogg had predicted correctly, the uniform set should be worth £3. This means, based on his own prediction – six years after his proclamation – basic school clothing cost 66.6% more than he had promised. The number of the beast is coincidence, but rather apt.

What about food? In July 2017, the cheapest The Grocer’s basket of 33 common food goods was Asda’s at £47.63. Today, the same basket cost £74.16. What should have been a decrease to £38.10 has actually increased some 97%.

And wine? Co-op’s £17 bottles of own-label champagne in July 2017 are now worth £19.50. Again, the reduction predicted by Rees-Mogg of bubbles for £13.60 is actually up 43%. Has Rees-Mogg been condemned for this? Not officially. Impunity reigns and lies are normalised.

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Other hollow promises were made by other old Etonians.

In May 2015, it was claimed that Britain’s energy bills would be slashed by £2 billion a year if voters backed Brexit, because ministers could scrap the ‘unfair’ VAT tax on gas and electricity. According to the Daily Mail, “Boris Johnson… today claimed Brexit would benefit the poorest families because they pay three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households”.

The average domestic energy bill in 2017 was just over £1,200. Today it is £2,300. It’s true to say that Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine have caused energy costs to sky-rocket – although UK energy prices are now reportedly higher than in comparable economies like France and Italy. The fact remains, however, that the then future Prime Minister promised a brighter future, and if he had the confidence to prophesy, he should be held to account for it. 

That is not all. In typical Johnsonian fashion, when you scour his speeches and articles, he preferred the big claims to the specifics. On the occasions when he was specific, however, his predictions almost invariably fell flat.

In a 2016 article, Johnson claimed that a company called Reid Steel was an example of a business that would benefit massively from Brexit. “The only thing that was holding them back,” Johnson wrote, “was EU regulation… They are desperate to get out of the EU, and they are right”. That year, Reid Steel filed annual accounts showing a profit of £4.5 million. In 2022, when the world was promised to be its oyster, it made a profit of just £2.3 million – a decrease of 61% when inflation is factored in (the profits of 2016 being worth some £5.7 million today. In 2021, they did post slightly better profits but still not as high as this pre-Brexit level).

Again, there are global forces impacting the economy that will impact heavy industry – from COVID-19 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But surely, if Brexit delivered, it should have made the UK more resilient to these changes and shocks, not less. 

But it is not just the political classes whose promises have been as good as dust. Other arch-Brexiters claimed futures of wealth and benefit that also garnered headlines.

Tim Martin of Wetherspoon fame was reported in the Sun as having calculated that Brexit would offer a saving of 3.5p per meal. But his pubs’ serving costs have risen – even above inflation.

A 2017 meal of soup and salad from Aldershot would cost you £8.35. Today it’s £12.45. The soup with bread rose some 63% from £2.30 to £3.75. And the Mediterranean salad with a drink increased some 44% from £6.05 to £8.70. Inflation would have increased the prices to just £2.82 and £7.42 respectively.

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The few economists who favoured Brexit also made woeful predictions.

The Express reported in November 2015 of an economist claiming that quitting the EU would cause the cost of living to fall by 8%. Professor Patrick Minford, a free marketeer beloved by Liz Truss, wrote that post-Brexit Britain “would receive a welfare gain of 4% of GDP, with consumer prices falling 8%”. This is bunkum, but Minford still keeps his professorship, no matter how wrong he was.

The deeper concern of all these lies is just how much they have gone unexamined by the newspapers that printed them. There has been no soul-searching; no awareness that they could have given mistruths the oxygen of publicity. No mea culpa that an entire nation was gaslit into voting for something that has been shown – repeatedly – to have caused immense economic harm to so many in this country. Truth and trust in the media has become an invariable victim on Brexit’s barricades. And its close cousin – accountability – has followed soon after.

No remorse, no apology, no consequence. The liars still hold power and we are all, literally, poorer for it.

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