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Brexit: "ultras" on the back foot

2018-09-12 07:27:04

Yesterday should have been a big day for the "ultras". Despite the 140-page "alternative" to Mrs May's Chequers plan, produced by the European Research Group (ERG), having been dumped, they had managed to find another three-letter acronym to produce a plan, ready to show the world that they mean business.

This last-minute substitution was the Economists for Free Trade (EFT), led by Patrick Minford who gave a presentation to the House of Commons, in a press launch fronted by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Their task was to launch the EFT's latest report, this one termed the "World Trade Deal: The Complete Guide by the Economists for Free Trade", a 27-page guide which purported to be a "major new academic study" aimed at demonstrating that the UK would be better off trading with the EU under WTO rules, the so-called "no deal" option.

Outside the "ultras" Holy Trinity of the Express, Mail and Telegraph, the media tends to ignore material produced by the EFT, but this was not to be the case yesterday – and rather to their disadvantage.

Normally, the absence of widespread publicity does not particularly bother the "ultras". Generally, they are not looking for a debate: the case for their form of Brexit that they have managed to concoct is based on a limited set of lies, repeated at intervals by themselves and their allies.

Their technique is the one adopted by the propagandists through the ages. Having told the lies, they repeat them consistently, over and over again, in the certain belief that their supporters and the weak-minded (if there is a difference) will imbibe their doctrines and accept them as the truth.

That aside, their purpose is not to inform or educate. It is simply to create noise, in this case giving that all-important impression that there is a genuine counter to Mrs May's Chequers "plan". And although their "plan" is on their website, few will read it. Most journalists – those that are interested - will work off the shorter press release.

And despite claims of the report being a "new" study, it should come as no surprise that there is precious little new in the 27-page document. Mostly the claims are a rehash of arguments already aired and long-since challenged and discredited.

But then this doesn't normally matter. Even where their claims are so fantastic so as to stretch belief almost to breaking point, the purpose is served. The propaganda aims to muddy the waters and, most times, when their assertions are given an airing by a media schooled in binary narratives based on adversarial politics, they will convey the appearance of a two-sided debate over arguments of equal merit.

Doubtless, that's what Rees-Mogg and his allies hoped for yesterday, reheating the same hackneyed lies in the expectation that the repetition would cement the lies. And in this case, those lies are given added force by the personal intervention of Rees-Mogg, conferring to them his acquired prestige.

To add media appeal, the EFT had invented a publicity "hook" for him, a claimed "boost" to the UK economy of £1.1 trillion over fifteen years that supposedly would come in the wake of a "no deal" Brexit.

Here though, madness is to the fore. Although this headline figure is a dramatic claim, running contrary to every other estimate one can imagine, it isn't actually mentioned in the press release on the website. And in the main report, there is only one mention to the £1.1 trillion.

When one explores the provenance of this sum, however, it emerges as a composite of £650 billion gains to the UK economy, when measured into the "distant future", as against a loss of about £500 billion to the EU (presumably over the same indefinite period). The two added together makes £1.1 trillion. That is their idea of a boost to the UK economy.

And if that is a taste of what the EFT have to offer, not a few journalists have got the message. With Minford the only economist in the room, the Independent remarked that: "Jacob Rees-Mogg's Economists for Free Trade event had only one economist, and that was the least ridiculous thing about it".

As a sub-heading, it offered: "There is no one in the the (sic) Treasury, the Bank of England or on the economics desk at any major bank or investment firm who would consider Jacob Rees-Mogg's analysis to be anything other than deranged", making it fairly plain as to what it thought of the EFT's report.

If any more was needed, it was helpfully supplied. The report, demoted to the status of a "leaflet" was deemed "such bizarre jibberish" that it was "difficult to know where to begin". "This was", said writer Tom Peck, "even within the dire context of the present day, a truly low point of post-shame politics. Absolutely nobody thinks this stuff is true".

To Peck, this went "some way to explaining why Mr Rees-Mogg stared into the middle distance throughout, then launched a sixth-form style attack on 'Project Fear', and how things have not turned out as badly as was foreseen two-and-a-half years ago, chiefly because of a great international economic boom on which Britain missed out".

But, if the work to the Independent was "deranged", to John Crace of the Guardian calls the work "the Brexiters' theatre of the absurd".

"Every other economist", said Crace, "had predicted a no-deal Brexit would lead to a seven percent decline per year in GDP over the next 15 years. But Minford had news for them: they had all been looking at their graphs the wrong way up. If you turned them all upside down then the UK would see an unprecedented seven percent year-on-year increase in GDP. It was simple, if only you knew how. Far from being broke, we were going to have an extra £1.1 trillion to spend".

When it comes to analysis, one might expect the Financial Times to be less colourful, but columnist Chris Giles is only marginally so. "The latest pro-Brexit analysis has got its sums badly wrong", is the headline under which he writes, with the sub-heading: "Assumptions used for the Economists for Free Trade paper are absurd".

He spoils it with his reference to a "pro-Brexit" analysis. There is nothing favourable to Brexit in the "ultra" pitch. But there is little to argue with his assertion that the Economists for Free Trade "achieve their positive results simply because they assume leaving the EU has no trade costs and only potential benefits". There are also no costs associated with deregulation and only benefits.

While there are other commentators who also pitch in with various shades of condemnation – and even the BBC says that the EFT's claims "are based on a number of calculations and assumptions, not all of which stand up to scrutiny" - what makes the difference this time is that the natural supporters afford little comfort. The Telegraph for instance, obsessed as it is with its own man, hijacks Rees-Mogg's "show" to turn it into Johnson launching "a fresh attack on the Prime Minister's 'humiliating' Chequers plan", after he made a surprise appearance at the launch.

Half of the Telegraph's report is written before it breaks away from personality politics, but then only to repeat one of the EFT's more egregious lies. "The EFT report argued", says the paper, "that leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would not be a leap in the dark but rather a 'leap into the normal' because Britain already trades with more than 100 countries under WTO rules".

Nevertheless, the paper does allow Michael Deacon to remark that Rees-Mogg had previously dismissed Treasury economics forecasting as "absurd", saying: "To think you have any idea where the economy will be in 15 years is erroneous".

This Deacon contrasted with what appeared to be "a change of heart", where Rees Mogg was now presenting "a group of economists" which, he assured the public, "had forecast that a no-deal Brexit 'would result in a £1.1 trillion boost to the economy over 15 years…'".

For Rees-Mogg, there must at least be some consolation from The Times, which describes him (and not Johnson) as "leader of the rebels".

Today, he is to hold a press conference on Northern Ireland where he will insist that a hard border is unnecessary. Yet, we are told, "he understates the seriousness of the border question and overstates the capacity of a Canada-style free trade deal to preserve the just-in-time supply chains on which British manufacturing and the British food industry depend".

According to this newspaper, Rees-Mogg would do well to recognise the flaws in his own argument. And, "if that means ending up with a version of Brexit that is not his preferred one, that is democracy at work".

Irritating, mendacious, slovenly and intellectually derelict the "ultras" most certainly are. But, despite their obvious and repeated faults, this might have been their finest hour. As it is, they have come away more than a little bruised. And if Mrs May isn't winning the argument, she is perhaps losing it less badly, while the "ultras" seem to be on the back foot.