Richard North, 24/05/2016  

The one thing that is being utterly destroyed by this referendum campaign is the idea that it is possible to have a grown-up political debate in this country. Certainly, any adult not already of that mind, and happening accidentally on the cretinous Mr Johnson in full flight, would come to that conclusion – as even his co-campaigners admit that their champion is something of a "mixed blessing".

Actually, that is the kindest of all possible constructions one can put on the activities of this walking embarrassment – a man who actually makes you feel ashamed to be associated with the leave campaign.

Again we see reported another self-indulgent rant on EU regulation, again bringing in bananas – alongside hairdryers and vacuum cleaners – but with puerile truculence as he attempted to justify his earlier errors in typical Johnsonian fashion, by refusing to accept that he'd got anything wrong.

Last week he was roundly mocked for wrongly claiming that EU law prohibited bananas from being sold in clusters "of more than two or three bananas". But yesterday, addressing a crowd in York, the cretin reminded his audience that he had said "there was an EU directive on bananas", but then claimed that "the Remain campaign got very angry - they said that I was wrong".

This, of course, is deliberately to evade the point. No one at the time disputed the existence of EU law on the matter (even if Paxman and Richard Corbett were later to claim the marketing standard had been repealed). The issue was that Johnson had got the detail wrong – not least the fact that the law had no domestic application.

The key point, though, is made by pro-Brexit Labour donor John Mills who – as one of the very few duty grown-ups - said Johnson was being "unrealistic". "I think we are over-regulated", he told the Mail, "but the idea that all these regulations are going to disappear on the 24th of June is frankly unrealistic and you might be able to unpick some of them but I don't think there's going to be a bonfire".

This is actually a sensible comment, so much so that a grown-up campaign with anything approaching message discipline would keep the lid on Johnson and make sure that only the grown-ups were heard.

The best Mills can do, though, is admit that Johnson's style of campaigning has drawbacks, and observe: "Boris is Boris, I mean he's a plus and a minus to be honest, I think he's in that sort of category", adding: "Boris has always had a bit of a tendency to go off piste but he does it in a half-loveable way and he's a mixed blessing".

Quite how "mixed" is that "blessing" is indicated by an article in the Financial Times headed: "The deregulation delusion" in which, once stripped of the obligatory pro-EU propaganda, actually attempts an adult discussion on regulation.

The whole debate, says Martin Sandbu, is marred by a lack of critical thinking around how regulation affects the economy, in which event, "to treat regulations axiomatically as costs to doing businesses is bit like treating traffic rules axiomatically as costs of driving".

"There is, to be very generous", he says, "a sense in which traffic rules impose a bit of effort on drivers. And it is certainly true that bad traffic rules can make traffic slow and unsafe. But it is just as certain that all but the worst rules are better than no rules at all".

In economic terms, Sandbu tells us, there are three broad reasons why this is so, both for traffic and for the economy: information, externalities and co-ordination.

On the road, street markings, signs and costly requirements to keep the surface at a certain standard help you predict the driving conditions and the behaviour of other drivers. The importance of information in economics should be just as easy to grasp: a lack of knowledge about the good or service you are considering buying is akin to a transaction cost. Imperfect information can even make markets break down altogether.

Thus Sandbu asserts, far from being costs to doing business, regulations that improve buyers' ability to know what they are paying for - labelling requirements and minimum standards - facilitate market transactions. And that explains why regulation has grown and why efficient economies will continue to regulate activity comprehensively.

The second point, "externalities", should also be straightforward. There are limits on how you can drive because your reckless driving can harm others. Similarly, there are prohibitions on how and what businesses can do. Some of those have to do with protecting their workers and if improving work conditions leads to greater wellbeing of workers, then the "cost to business" of doing so overestimates the cost to the economy.

Besides, says Sandbu, there are reasons to think some worker protections, including higher minimum wages and other rules that make labour costlier for employers, can improve productivity.

Finally, we have "co-ordination". Why require cars to drive on a specific side of the street? Because the benefits to all of co-ordinating on right or left vastly outweighs any difference in the merit of which particular rule is chosen. And this is hugely relevant to the Brexit debate.

Sandbu recalls his colleague Philip Stephens who regaled readers a few years ago with the tale of the British dust-up over a European noise limit on lawnmowers.

The supposed Brussels over-reach had, it turned out, been instigated and steered through the legislative process by the British government at the behest of UK manufacturers, who were finding their lawnmowers locked out of the German market because of Berlin’s national noise rules. "Sure enough, the new, Europe-wide, decibel ceiling put the British producers back in the game".

None of this, says Sandbu, shows that any particular European (or indeed British) regulation is fit for purposes. But it does three things.

First, that an efficient economy will be a comprehensively well-regulated one, not an unregulated one. Second, therefore, that a post-Brexit UK economy would not be less regulated than today, any more than other non-EU economies have remained radically unregulated: just look at the US. Finally, that positing freer trade as an alternative to common regulation is to deeply misunderstand the complexity of modern economic activity, and therefore of trade.

The reason why empirical estimates show Europe's single market to boost trade so much more than simple free trade deals, and why modern free trade deals are really about harmonised regulation, is that common rules are increasingly a prerequisite for efficient trade.

Sandbu thereby concludes that, to be open to international trade today means to be willing to make rules together. That is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the case for Brexit. Rather than a cost of doing business, good rules make it possible.

And there, exposed for those who are willing to see it, is the utter fatuity of Boris Johnson – this vain, stupid, shallow man who is doing such enormous damage to the cause, turning away anyone who does not want to buy into dog-whistle euroscepticism.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that Sandbu makes the case for Brexit. Common rules, he says, are increasingly a prerequisite for efficient trade. And what is good for 28 Member States of the European Union is even better of the 185 or so states in the global trading system. To get the greatest benefit from the economies of scale, we need to break out of "little Europe" and re-engage at a global level.

This is the point I made on Sunday, and an extremely powerful point it is. But as long as Vote Leave are committed a "deregulation" agenda, we simply cannot progress.

And that is the wider truth. A campaign obsessed with bleating about the NHS - and the facile claim of saving £350 million a week - is going nowhere. We are being dragged down to the lowest common denominator, with the leering buffoon Johnson destroying our efforts to be taken seriously.

The greater delusion, therefore, is that there is any room left in political campaigning for grown-ups. At the moment, this does not look to be the case.

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