Comment

The pro-Brussels establishment is painting Brexit as an economic disaster to reverse it

The British economy has weathered the past six years surprisingly well

A corrosive and essentially false story of British economic failure is taking hold in the public mind. The claims are being pushed by a large part of the Westminster media, echoed and amplified across the world.

It is becoming an article of faith that the UK has underperformed ruinously since the referendum, lagging under every key metric and plagued by a collapse of trade, investment, and sterling.

The narrative is coming from assorted think tanks and is being weaponised by the pro-Brussels establishment in an attempt to bounce Britain into the EU single market, and therefore to insert this country into an unworkable half-way house — in the EU without voting rights —  to prepare the ground for a rejoiner campaign in the future.

The economic assertions are going largely unchallenged. Parts of the Government are behaving almost as if they believe the worst.

The most irritating headline — since the most demonstrably false — is that the pound is spiraling into crisis and has become an emerging market currency. A certain analyst at a large US bank has been pushing this line with messianic zeal for at least a year. 

The Bank of England’s sterling exchange rate index has actually risen slightly over the last five years. The pound and the euro have mostly moved in tandem since 2017. The real story in the exchange markets is the exorbitant strength of the dollar, soaring to a 20-year high against almost every non-pegged currency.

It is more or less accepted as a given in this country and across Europe that the UK economy did particularly badly during the pandemic, especially since the episode coincided with the start of Brexit in tooth and claw. But the story is not even close to being true.

A study for the House of Common Library by Daniel Harari concluded that real GDP was 0.7pc above pre-pandemic levels in the UK at the end of the first quarter, compared to 0.3pc in France, zero in Italy, minus 0.6pc in Japan, and minus 0.9pc in Germany.

Many would think that the fairest way to judge relative performance since the Referendum is to compare the UK with Western Europe’s Big Four. I totted up the annual growth figures for each economy from 2016 through to the end of 2021 (IMF data), adding the first quarter of 2022. It is quick and dirty. The growth is not compounded. But it gives you a rough idea.  

The accumulated growth totals are: UK (6.8pc), France (6.2pc), Germany (5.5pc), Spain (5pc), and Italy (2.1pc). What strikes one immediately looking at the IMF tables is that there is no visible effect from Brexit, unlike the eurozone debt crisis, which really did lead to calamitous losses across southern Europe from 2011 to 2014.

I expected greater trauma from the initial upheaval in trade, confidence and investment. It is remarkable that the jobs have continued to grow in the City of London even though the EU offered zilch on service access in exchange for keeping its full access to the UK market for goods, where it has a fat trade surplus. Only 7,000 jobs were lost to EU financial centres, far from the Gothic warnings of up to 200,000.

So what does the Centre for European Reform do to conjure a disaster from the post-Brexit data? It uses a Doppelgänger algorithm of economies around the world said to match the UK but which have done better over the last five years. It then extrapolates the findings to conclude that 5.2pc of GDP has been shaved off UK economic growth since the Referendum (not all due to Brexit anyway, if you read it closely)

The headline figure of 5.2pc has been irresistible for Twitter and has spread through the European press and beyond. Le Monde ran a story on Thursday entitled "Brexit: Six Years of British Economic Decay" that was based on the claim.

In the same genre, the New York Times says Boris Johnson's Britain is "Finally Sinking Giggling into the Sea", though what it describes as chronic failure could equally apply to most of Western democracies facing a cost crisis and broken medical systems. France's parliamentary elections on Sunday were a primordial scream against just such 'failures'.

The CER's top weight in the Doppelgänger basket is the US (31pc), which happens to be at the tail end of a colossal fiscal experiment, funded dollar for dollar by an obliging Federal Reserve. Washington let rip under Trump and doubled the dose under Biden. As the world's largest producer of both oil and gas, the US economy is shielded from the energy shock. It is hardly a relevant benchmark for a UK linked to the EU's energy system.

Several others such as New Zealand (14pc), Norway (8pc) or Australia (5pc) are commodity exporters and therefore beneficiaries of sky-high raw materials prices.

The Office for Budget Responsibility thinks Brexit might shave 4pc off GDP over a ten-year period. That is plausible but little more than a guess. Roughly half the putative damage comes from trade barriers, but as Lord Frost told UK in a Changing Europe on Thursday the models used to calculate such gains and losses rely on studies of ex-Communist and autarkic basket cases suddenly enjoying windfall gains from opening up. That is hardly relevant. 

The other half is imputed from lower productivity due to less immigration, but the UK is not in fact restricting immigration that much, and the opposite theoretical case can be made in any case. Singapore is limiting inflows of workers under its 'lean labour policy' in order to raise productivity.   

Let me be clear. There are many aspects of Brexit that cause me heartburn, not least the state of union, the intractable conflict over the Ulster Protocol, and Downing Street’s assault on the non-EU Court of Human Rights (which we should uphold). But the macroeconomic consequence of the Referendum is not one of them, which is not to belittle specific headaches faced by individual exporters.

The UK may well have a horrible year ahead as we grapple with the global inflation shock, but it is hard to see how the eurozone will do any better. It faces the same energy shock — or worse — and is already prey to an incipient sovereign debt crisis as the European Central Bank winds down bond purchases. The old pathologies of a dysfunctional split-tier currency union are resurfacing.

The latest spate of stories on the costs of Brexit mostly contain the same tropes. One is that goods trade has shrivelled by 13.6pc. Yet a slice of this commerce had no value added for the economy. Many containers of clothes, toys, or electronics from East Asia used to go to UK ports for warehousing before reshipment to the Continent. They now go to EU ports directly. The trade loss is a statistical illusion. 

Supply chains have been rationalised to avoid the multiple criss-crossing of manufacturing components. The tiny marginal gain that encouraged much of the cross-Channel back and forth  — to the detriment of CO2 emissions and clogged roads — has been eliminated by customs frictions. Is Britain a net loser or a net winner when German car companies in the Midlands switch to local subtractors under import substitution?

The worst trope is to quote forecasts by a body such as the OECD that has misread the effects of Brexit and the relative performance of the UK every year with heroic regularity, and to present the claim as a fait accompli

The OECD now says the UK will be the G7’s zero-growth laggard in 2023. Perhaps it will be, given that Rishi Sunak’s fiscal austerity leads the pack. But remember that the OECD said the same thing during the pandemic, forecasting that the UK would trail in bottom place as the developed world recovered in 2021.

In the end the UK was the G7’s star performer with growth of 7.4pc, viz 2.8pc in Germany and 1.6pc in Japan. The OECD entirely missed Andy Haldane’s ‘coiled spring’ rebound.

As for rejoining the single market, such a move would scarcely nudge the macroeconomic needle. What it would do is to place this country back under an unaccountable and unsackable government in Brussels, perpetuating Britain's civil war on Brexit. Those Tory ministers toying with such a notion are out of their minds.