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Friday, 21 July 2017

The Tories' Dilemma: 'Hard Brexit' or Continued Austerity

Mrs May appeared to think that she could do three impossible things on becoming Prime Minister: now she has come to realise that not only is each of them unfeasible in itself, but that they are mutually exclusive.

First, she did not even consider an alternative to the continuance of the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne austerity, so that had to be maintained, as near intact as possible.

Second, although she had been an unconvinced remainer, she was prepared to embrace the idea of a 'hard' Brexit: though she had no idea what this might mean, so she appointed not one, not two, but three Brexiteer Secretaries of State to come up with the policies that would be needed.

And thirdly, she wanted to be a 'compassionate conservative': at zero cost [because finding any 'new money' would, by definition, breach austerity].

Then she called an election in which she thought that she could defeat Labour purely on the grounds of the intellectual and moral deficiencies of the party's leader. Because he had decades of experience of not being a conformist or conventional politician, Corbyn almost won: and Mrs May had to clear out her inept kitchen cabinet and begin to respect ministers who she was reported to have wanted to dispense with.

Meanwhile Philip Hammond as Chancellor of the Exchequer was becoming buried in 'The Treasury View', a centuries-old tradition which insists that any new expenditure is unnecessary and any unnecessary expenditure must be opposed; regardless of the social and moral benefits that the expenditure is predicted to deliver to taxpayers. Thus he learned that stopping the free movement of people from the EU into the UK, and movement the other way, would cost billions of poundsworth of new expenditure in frontier police recruitment, training and salaries, and in the construction of immigration and emigration control points and the IT backup that would be needed to make such controls achievable at all. Add to that the cost of building modern port controls that could prevent smuggling and validate the contents, provenance, ownership, insurance and compliance with health-and-safety requirements [et cetera] of every item in every cargo and every private piece of luggage - and staffing them with men and women as tough as eighteenth-century revenue officers, in sufficient numbers, adequately well-trained and remunerated and backed up by the most advanced IT - that would be more billions.

A 'hard Brexit' would not only interrupt much trade with Europe, and permanently end more - it would thereby cause massive unemployment and demands for billions more in social payments. Most firms that trade significantly with Europe would experience catastrophic falls in sales, which would force some to cull their workforces and many to declare bankruptcy and their inability to pay their debts and their taxes. The government's income would plummet as the demands of a desperate population became clamorous. Not only would austerity have to be abandoned: government would become untenable in the context of democracy.

Thus minsters have been running around, meeting groups of representatives - particularly from the business communities - whom the May team had ignored in their first year in office. Now the government is indicating that Brexit will be 'soft', and nobody or no firm will find themselves at a 'cliff edge'. There will be a 'transition period' as long as Mr Barnier will be allowed to concede; followed by a shoddy compromise which lets the Treasury maintain at least the skeleton of austerity in place. On that basis of squalid surrender to the ghosts of Clegg and Osborne, a sort of exit from the EU Commission and Parliament, and a limitation of the powers of the European Court 'of Justice' [sic] will be found; and Britain will remain within the EU otherwise. Any alternative is unaffordable in the context of Treasury thinking: and The Treasury Rules: OK?

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