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If Clark is right about Brexit, the Tories could face electoral oblivion

Many Brexiteers call it Project Fear but Greg Clark says it is just the reality of his conversations with businesses up and down the country: thousands of jobs will be lost if the next prime minister presses on with a no-deal Brexit.

In what could be his final interview as business secretary, Mr Clark didn't pull his punches about the damage a no-deal could do to UK business as he warned his colleagues that the "discussions and evidence business and industry has presented" over the last three years is not "somehow forgotten" in the rush to get Brexit across the line.

His Brexiteer opponents believe that he – together with Chancellor Philip Hammond – have dragged their heels over no-deal planning and sought to frustrate the UK's departure from the EU.

Mr Clark says he has not, pointing out he voted for Theresa May's deal three times.

Boris Johnson
Image: Boris Johnson says Brexit must happen before the end of October

But it is clear that he sees the march towards no-deal Brexit as not just foolish but deeply dangerous. He argues the government cannot just mitigate the risk of a no-deal and disputes Boris Johnson's view that a no-deal becomes "vanishingly inexpensive if we prepare".

He points out that while he can help businesses get their paperwork in order for customs and origin checks, there are things "you simply can't prepare for" and gives the example of just-in-time car production in which parts arrive into British factories sometimes with just four hours' notice. Car makers don't have warehouses to stockpile these parts so disruption to the flow of goods across border could hit the entire production chain: "To leave abruptly without a deal would be very disruptive in ways that you can't guide against."

But for Brexiteer colleagues, Mr Clark's warnings are little more than a re-run of 2016 when George Osborne's Treasury warned of Brexit Armageddon if the UK voted to leave the EU. There was meant to be an emergency budget to fill a £30bn black hole in the public finances caused by a plunging economy. It never happened, so you can understand why the economic warnings of a no-deal now fall on deaf ears.

This is ideological warfare in which those backing Brexit believe those who wanted to remain are being overly pessimistic. Those who are concerned about the fall-out from no-deal believe their opponents are swapping facts for beliefs.

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As Brexit supporter and Conservative MP Mark Francois told me, he believes the "economic risk has been exaggerated" and Mr Clark's job loss warnings overdone. "He's an arch Remainer. He voted remain, he argued for remain he's always wanted remain. He's never going to change his mind. Once we've left I believe I'll be right and he'll be wrong."

What perhaps all politicians can at least agree on is that the close result of the referendum pointed to a compromise deal which meant leaving the EU, while also reassuring those who wanted to remain that ties to Europe would stay strong. It hasn't worked out like this. Parliament has polarised and views have hardened. Something that was once unthinkable – a no-deal Brexit – has now become a very real outcome.

And as the two sides argue about no-deal risk, in reality the vast majority of Tory MPs hope it won't be put to the test and their next prime minster can find a way to get a deal across the line. Because if no-deal ends up the only way to avoid a further Brexit delay, there will be a cost. And the Conservatives might find out that the price they pay is electoral oblivion if Mr Clark's warnings come true.

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