Richard North, 22/02/2018  

It's only the Daily Mail so you can't expect anything much in the reality stakes. And, for yesterday's dose of unreality, we had the headline, "Brexit gloom debunked: Experts' report says leaving the EU could BOOST the UK economy by 4 percent".

The text tells us: "Official forecasts of a major hit to the economy from leaving the EU are flawed, a report says today". The report itself is from a group which calls itself "Economists for Free Trade", entitled "Alternative Brexit Economic Analysis" and, according to the Mail, "It challenges leaked Whitehall analysis that predicts Brexit will mean much lower growth". Instead, we are told, the 20-page study says "UK output could be 4 percent higher after 15 years".

The authors are Roger Bootle, Gerard Lyons, Patrick Minford and Julian Jessop, chief economist at the IEA. And such is their prestige that Jessop gets a slot on the BBC4 Today programme to explain how the group's "detective work" predicted this marvellous Brexit boost.

The report gets a hit in the Express, as one might expect, and also The Sun. And, with its usual level of hubris, home of the "ultras", Brexit Central pitches in to condemn the "Lies, damned lies and Whitehall models". This, it gaily informs us, is "the take-home message" from the quartet.

Entering into the fray on this is the Financial Times which questions the assumptions on which the Economists for Free Trade base their report. From this, one might expect a critical appraisal but, in this case, the author Chris Giles, the paper's economics editor, goes much further. He calls the assumptions "absurd".

Latterly, Giles describes his "take" in more forthright terms, writing: "If you put rubbish into an economic model (and spuriously multiply by 5), rubbish spews out".

Looking at the assumptions made, we see the quartet have based their calculations on the surmise that the UK will have no tariffs with the rest of the world and that non-tariff barriers with the third countries with whom we trade are eliminated. Then, startlingly, they assume the "border costs" with the EU will be zero. They are very specific on this, writing: "We have assumed for the purposes of modelling that border costs are effectively zero".

So, we have the UK which is not only leaving the EU. Mrs May is adamant that we are also leaving the Customs Union (which, indeed we must) and the Single Market. Endless amounts have been written about the consequences of this and recently we even saw reports that the Dutch were preparing to appoint a further 750 border officials.

Yet, according to Messrs Bootle, Lyons, Minford and Jessop, the UK status as third country, exporting to and importing from EU member states, will have no cost implications whatsoever – nothing, nada … zero. This is not just absurd. It is insulting. It is a supreme expression of arrogance from four men who have so transcended reality that they think we're all stupid enough to believe their tosh.

Partly, of course, they're right. They got a decent amount of exposure from a legacy media that should have known better. But this is a media which has no respect for its public and will feed it rubbish without any compunction. And then the Brexit Central piece is written by Kevin Dowd, professor of finance and economics at Durham University. He is a member of Economists for Free Trade. He also has no shame.

Nor is he alone. Only yesterday, I was reporting on a Secretary of State for Brexit who had made the fundamental mistake of confusing mutual recognition of standards with mutual recognition of conformity assessment. This is a mistake he should not have made. It was not a passing slip of the tongue, but an error made in a pre-prepared speech, hedged with additional related errors, to be used as the basis for the UK's post-Brexit policy.

The core error is one widely disseminated by Legatum Institute's "guru", Shanker Singham, a snake oil salesman who has come from nowhere on Brexit to worm his way into the establishment where he feeds his nonsense into the system with dire effect.

And then we have the ERG, 62 MPs from which have broken cover as signatories to an issue-illiterate letter to Mrs May, which is stunning for its lack of grasp of fundamentals.

It is very hard to believe that these people, all of them MPs, are even adults – including my once good friend Owen Paterson. The letter is the gibbering of children who are demanding of the Prime Minister things that no UK government could pursue and which, if implemented, would precipitate an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

As with the Economists for Free Trade, their ideas are beyond absurd. The suggestion that the UK should assume "full regulatory authority" and thus be prepared to "change British laws and rules once we leave" is a guarantee that the EU takes rigorous step to defend the "integrity of the Single Market", as it has always said it would do.

But it is the "demand" that any "implementation period" should be based on WTO principles that is effectively a recipe for a hard Brexit which would mean us breaking off from the current negotiations walking away to a troubled and uncertain future.

The most ridiculous thing about this letter, though, is that it isn't even practical politics. Yesterday we saw the publication of the government's Draft Text for Discussion on the implementation period.

Although his has not been approved by the cabinet, it largely concedes all the EU's proposals, although it leaves the period open, allowing it to be extended if necessary, albeit at a price.

Inevitably, that has led to squeals of "betrayal" from the usual suspects, but not one of those so voluble in the condemnation of the government's position is man enough to concede that their (collective) behaviour has been instrumental in closing down our options, so that the "vassal state" interim period is virtually the only we can salvage a Brexit with anything less than savage economic damage.

Even then, Mrs May is trimming round the edges on immigration, which may prejudice the whole deal, and then there remains the Irish border question which is no closer to a resolution than it ever has been – only to have people who really should know better calling for the Good Friday Agreement to be terminated.

All we needed was for Jeremy Corbyn to pile in and demand that the UK enters into a customs union with the EU after Brexit and we would have completed our descent into the madhouse. And that is precisely what he has just done, melding his brand of absurdity into the general cacophony, as he wrongly argues that this would alleviate the Irish border problem.

In what must qualify for the best illustration of lack of self-awareness this century, Paul Blomfield, Labour's shadow Brexit minister, then tells us: "The time for meaningless soundbites and conflicting statements is over".

And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, we have a new Brexit bus prowling the streets of London, mercifully without Mr Johnson as a passenger, projecting a message of supreme irrelevance to people who are probably past caring. As the song goes, "the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, all day long …

This, it seems to me, is about the only thing the vast politico-media collective has achieved in the 20 months since the referendum. It has managed to turn the debate on the most important political event since the war into an utter shambles – white noise lacking even the slightest of coherence, driving the public to despair

It didn't have to be this way, this descent into madness, and I don't think anyone could have predicted just how bad it was going to get. But when you think that we have perhaps another three years of this before we get close to functioning fully outside the EU, it makes you wonder how much more of this we can all take.

Looking at it from a personal perspective, I've written over 600 pieces on Brexit – nearly 800,000 words – since the referendum. At this rate, I have more than a thousand to write before I'm done. 

Whether, with over two million words under my belt by then - all on the same subject - I will still be sane, is a matter of conjecture. At least I will have an excuse if I'm not. What will be everybody else's, I wonder.

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