A QUESTION OF TRADE

The slogan that defined the Brexit referendum campaign two years ago has lost its appeal. “Take back control” was a powerful message. Today, the dream of sovereignty takes second place to the demand for prosperity to be protected. This helps to explain a modest, but sustained, shift in public opinion since the Brexit referendum. A new survey by DeltaPoll suggests that a public vote today would produce almost exactly the opposite result to the verdict in June 2016: a five per cent majority for Remain today, compared with a four point lead for Leave two years ago. A new question posed by DeltaPoll shows what is happening – and illuminates a dangerously large gulf between those in early or mid-career and those who are in or close to retirement. We asked people which of two statements about the current Brexit negotiations comes closest to their view: “It's vital for jobs, investment and living standards here in the UK for us to continue to trade as freely with the EU as we do today, even if this limits our freedom to decide our own business and trading rules” or “It's vital that Britain regains the right to decide its own business and trading rules, even if this reduces our ability to trade freely with the EU and risks being bad for jobs, investment and living standards” Among the total sample, 48 per cent wanted to protect jobs and living standards at all costs, while 38 per cent regarded British sovereignty as the higher priority. Stripping out the “don’t knows”, the verdict is 56-44 per cent in favour of economic strength. The generation gap is huge. Among voters who are under 55, and therefore likely to be directly affected by the impact of Brexit on jobs and investment, then the margin is almost two-to-one: 65-35 per cent. But the over-55s regard sovereignty as more important, by 59-41 per cent. We are told by some that any attempt to reverse the 2016 referendum result would provoke public anger from those who voted Leave. Perhaps we should also consider the danger that younger Remain voters could rebel against the threat to future prosperity in the pursuit of a sovereignty that they consider of secondary importance. There is another argument that we need to face. It is that our question poses a false dichotomy: that we do not have to choose between prosperity and independence, for we can have both. The problem here is that hardly anyone outside the ranks of the most committed Brexiteers seems to share this view. The leaked assessments by the Government suggest that full control of our trade could lop 8 per cent off Britain’s economic growth over 15 years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that both growth and the public finances would suffer: there would be no chance of the much vaunted £350 million a week extra for the NHS. The CBI and Institute of Directors have voiced their concerns. And only this week, a delegation of business leaders from Europe’s biggest companies met with the Prime Minister to warn of the dangers of the persistent uncertainties over Britain’s future relationship with the EU. That is not all. The most optimistic projections of the Brexiteers assume free and frictionless trade with the rest of the EU, as well as new trade deals with the rest of the world. With each passing week, it becomes clear that the price of frictionless trade beyond December 2020 – the end of the “implementation” phase – will be a requirement for the UK to apply the current Customs Union and Single Market rules, or something very like them, at least for food, components and manufactured goods. Jacob Rees Mogg has said this outcome would turn the UK into a “vassal state”. For the great majority of those with much of their working lives ahead of them, better that than one that threatens the future prospects for them and their families. Peter Kellner is consulting director of DeltaPoll This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. Full results are available here.
Peter KellnerAuthor: Peter Kellner