The Brexit challenges to come for Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

When Dorothy saw that the Wizard of Oz was a fraud, she was furious: “You are a very bad man.”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Boris Johnson’s best hope of flourishing in Brexit Britain, following the victory for his deal this week in parliament, is that he will turn out to be the opposite: a very bad man (he’s too late to change that) but a very good wizard.

Specifically, he is staking his future on every serious economist being utterly wrong. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that Britain’s economy will be four per cent smaller under this kind of Brexit than had we stayed in the European Union. Admittedly, that forecast was made before the precise terms of last week’s deal were known; but the essence of the agreement—an end to frictionless trade; more obstacles facing British service companies operating in the EU, especially in finance; difficulties for British companies relying on workers from the EU—is much as the OBR envisaged. Its next, revised, forecast is likely to be much the same.

Four per cent is not chicken feed. It amounts to almost £90bn a year, every year, or £1,300 per person. It means fewer good jobs, especially in the struggling towns that switched to the Conservatives a year ago. Even if the true figure turns out to be different—whether higher or lower—it will mean less to spend for us as individuals and for the government, which will need plenty of money for the NHS, social care, “levelling up” places that have been left behind and more. And that’s before the government can start reducing public sector debt, let alone cutting taxes.

Johnson, therefore, needs the economists to be completely wrong if Britain is to “prosper mightily,” as he repeatedly predicts, not just to show that he can keep at least one promise, but because he needs a buoyant economy if he is to have any chance of implementing all the policies in his election manifesto a year ago to “build back better.” Hence the need for wizardry.

What if he is wrong and the economists broadly right? The tidy answer is to say that the game will be up for him. However, life, and modern economies especially, are never tidy. 2021 is likely to see significant growth from 2020’s Covid-devastated GDP figures. If national income is up by, say, eight per cent, saying that it should be 12 per cent may not cut much ice. In the short run, Johnson might be successful in deflecting blame for our underperforming economy.

In those circumstances his real problems will come in two or three years’ time, when the drag on Britain’s prosperity will be hard to deny. Johnson will not just have been proved wrong about Brexit. His ambitions for the NHS, the north’s struggling towns, social care, take-home pay and the rest will be thwarted—and the next general election will be rapidly approaching.

His best option then will be to say that Brexit is a huge change and that its costs have come before its benefits. He will promise Britain’s arrival in the sunlit uplands in the next parliament. His message will be: “We have done the hard work, don’t throw it all away now.”

We should, however, be unsurprised if Johnson’s ebullient tone masks the lack of any plausible policies for reaching that happy goal. If he has failed to be the inverse of the Wizard of Oz, perhaps he will campaign as the inverse of King Lear: “I will do such things—what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the glories of the earth!”  

All this gives Keir Starmer a huge opportunity. He has the chance to repeat what he has done so successfully with Covid, and hold Johnson to account for the likely failures of the government’s Brexit strategy. On Christmas Eve, and in this week’s parliamentary debate, he promised to do just that. In the debate his critique of the deal was forensic. Johnson looked uncomfortable, especially when Starmer exposed the contradiction between the political benefits of sovereignty and the economic costs of violating the principles of a level playing field.

However, a powerful critique is not enough. At some point, Labour’s leader will need to set out his own strategy and tell us what he wants Britain’s relationship with the EU to be in, say, ten years’ time. When he was shadow Brexit minister, the party wanted Britain to retain the benefits of the customs union, the single market, the European Arrest Warrant, and membership of such projects as Erasmus for students. Does he still regard those things as essential ambitions for the next Labour government?

Underpinning that question is another, more fundamental one. Does Starmer still share the view of every serious economist that Brexit is terrible for our prosperity in general—and for the “red-wall” voters that Labour has lost in particular? If so, the logic of his current stance is to pursue a policy that will weaken the economy and create a darker future for the very group whose votes he seeks. On Christmas Eve, after the UK-EU deal was announced, Sam Coates of Sky News asked him if Brexit had any advantages for Britain. Starmer ducked the question. He has had a week to devise a more considered statement on the matter. In this week’s parliamentary debate he ducked it again.

Moreover, he has told the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot that he wants to ignore Europe at the next general election, with no mention of it on candidates’ leaflets. Echoes here of David Cameron in 2006, early in his time as opposition leader, wanting his party to “stop banging on about Europe.” Understandable, now as then: impossible, now as then.

Perhaps Starmer is simply keeping his cards close to his chest. Maybe he has a clear view, which he will unveil next year, of the harm Brexit is doing and how to put things right. Maybe he has decided to stick for the moment to short-term tactics, and leave for another day the presentation of his strategy for Britain’s future relationship with the EU. To plan with care, and to take his time, is not unreasonable. This is, after all, the defining challenge of our age. Tackling Covid is more urgent but, in the long run, sorting out Britain’s place in our continent and our world is the more important task.

What, then, are Starmer’s true long-term objectives? Leading pro-European members of the Labour Party, inside and outside parliament, fear that tactics are all he has. Some of them suspect that he is keeping his future strategy under wraps not because he is biding his time but because it doesn’t exist. That would help to explain why he wants to ignore Europe at the next election. Time may banish those fears. But for the moment, the appropriate quotation comes not from Shakespeare or a children’s classic, but from a slogan for Wendy’s fast-food chain in 1984 that quickly entered the bloodstream of American politics: “Where’s the beef?”

This blog was first published by Prospect