Taking back control?

Alf Young, Visiting Professor, International Public Policy Institute, First appeared on IPPI Blog.

TAKING back control. That was the core promise of the leave campaign’s message in the EU referendum. In the final televised  debate it was repeated in almost every intervention by all three of its advocates. Little more than three days on from Vote Leave’s stunning victory, any semblance of control has been sucked out of great tracts of the political realm. The Metro, the free sheet read by most commuters across the UK, caught the mood beautifully. Over a front page picture of an illuminated House of Parliament it noted; “The lights are on but nobody’s home”.

The prime minister has resigned. The leader of the opposition is floundering in a growing tide of shadow ministerial resignations, including his only Scottish MP. The chancellor, after going to ground over the weekend, has now tried to calm markets, postponing his threatened emergency budget but insisting he will stay in post to try and make the best of a referendum outcome he vociferously opposed. Osborne will reveal his own political fate in due course.

The victors are also in self-imposed purdah, although Boris Johnson has used his regular Telegraph column this morning to claim the decision was never really about curbing immigration. Tell that to the people of Boston in Lincolnshire, from where most UK supermarkets get most of their home-grown vegetables, who gave leave its biggest majority last Thursday.

Throughout the campaign Johnson’s fellow lead Brexiteer, Michael Gove, insisted a post-EU Britain would have nothing to do with its single market. Staying in it requires continued agreement to free movement of labour. Access also, as Norway and Switzerland can confirm, comes at a price. A price almost as big as that fabled £350m a week (gross) that the UK currently pays as its EU membership fee and that Vote Leave promised to invest in the NHS after we leave.

Now Johnson tells us there will be “a better relationship with the EU, based on free trade and partnership”. But that’s not in their control either. That’s for the EU we are supposedly leaving behind, concerned about the knock-on impact elsewhere among its remaining 27 members states, to negotiate. Many of the people across Europe we are taking control back from want the precise terms of our departure to be thrashed out sooner rather than later. Last Thursday’s victors are, self-confessedly, in absolutely no hurry.

They don’t appear to agree on who will negotiate the terms of departure or how inclusive that team will be. In areas like thrashing out new trade deals around the world there is, whisper it in Mr Gove’s presence, a chronic dearth of expertise in today’s civil service. Having persuaded more than 17m UK electors to vote to leave, the Brexiteers are already struggling to describe what taking back control will actually feel like. Or how long it will take.

The leading lights have, before they get round to any of that, another pressing battle to fight. The one that decides who should replace David Cameron as the next leader of the Tory Party. That will take until at least October. Some, like long-odds prospect, Liam Fox, suggest it should take even longer. The intriguing unknown is how many of the dominant Remain majority among Tory MPs at Westminster are minded to find ways of keeping Boris Johnson off the final two choices that will be put to the party membership.

The internal battle for the Tory Party’s soul could become so fractious, Cameron’s successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, may have little choice but to seek ways round the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act. And seek to secure their own electoral mandate by calling a general election early next year.

For the Brexiteers, controlling their own political destinies appears, for now, to have trumped taking back control from Brussels. Under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty it is for the member state to give formal notice to leave the EU and trigger negotiation on the terms, a process that should then last no more than two years. But, were there to be an early general election, the whole process could take us well into 2019.

How sustainable is that? Current turbulence – a weaker pound, lower gilt yields and falling share prices, particularly in banks – has consequences. Some good. Some bad. The odds on another recession have shortened. The longer uncertainty about the shape and form of the UK’s departure from the EU persists, the more investment intentions will be reappraised, with obvious implications for future jobs and growth. Before too long disgruntled leave voters will start wondering: When is this brave new world we were promised going to make its presence felt? Long before 2019 the have-nots from forgotten industrial towns the length and breadth of England and Wales, who triumphed last Thursday, may begin to wonder whether they’ve been had by politicians yet again.


The Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) is a leading economy research institute based in the Department of Economics at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.