Brexit is the worst decision of modern times. Why are its critics in cabinet so silent?

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The UK will soon be on its own – sovereign, in charge and control regained. Yet none of that creates jobs or ensures a glorious future

A union flag flies on Big Ben on 27 June 2016, four days after the EU referendum.
A union flag flies on Big Ben on 27 June 2016, four days after the EU referendum. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
A union flag flies on Big Ben on 27 June 2016, four days after the EU referendum. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 04.58 EST

After a lifetime close to the workings of government, I approach drafting an article about Brexit for a Sunday publication with trepidation. Both sides have said a decision will be taken today, but not what that may be; and anyway, can you believe that any decision will really be the last?

What I do know is that both sides will be presenting the story that best serves their negotiating positions and pleases their most important audiences. Facts are in short supply; there is a plethora of spin.

“Taking back control” will summon up the blood of British patriotism. The union jack prominently displayed before the negotiating table reinforces the demand for sovereignty, while a few asides about cheating foreigners reinforce national prejudices. The leadership necessary to listen to the other side, and understand where compromises may lead, all too soon becomes a cult of nationalism led by the most extreme of partisan groupings.

“I will have my cake and eat it” is rather a good joke on this side of the Channel. It has a quite different implication for the rest of Europe where sovereignty matters as well – theirs, not ours.

I don’t know exactly where all this posturing will end up by January; but I do know that – deal or no deal – we will in theory and in practice be outside the European Union. That is the policy on which the government was elected; they have a mandate and I would not vote against their legislation. I believe that it will be seen as a Tory measure and I will have nothing to do with it. This government will be – and should be – held responsible for quite simply the worst peacetime decision of modern times. I know of members of the cabinet who believe this as firmly as I do. I cannot understand their silence.

So we are where we are. Christmas is upon us and before the country goes back to work we are on our own. Sovereign, in charge, control regained. None of that creates a single job, one pound’s worth of investment or any rise in living standards. We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market on our doorstep, which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports.

Yet we are constantly told of a glorious tomorrow. All that is missing is a shred of evidence or a single fact.

The illusion that Donald Trump would do some favourable deal evaporated with Donald Trump. We have rolled over 20 existing European deals on the same terms in the future as we have now. No gain there. What happens when, say, Country A renegotiates its deal with the EU? Silence. Are we to believe that we will be able to continue to export to Country A products that will then be of a lower standard than they will have agreed with the EU? How long would arguments about British sovereignty or control hold out against the united refusal of Country A and the EU to let us continue trading on the terms previously agreed?

A no-deal Brexit would relegate us to World Trade Organization terms. (Forgive me if I don’t follow the attempt to confuse my affection and admiration for Australia to adopt the latest propaganda technique of renaming WTO as Australian.) These mean that any tariffs offered to one country must be offered to all. Sovereignty over the rules will simply transfer from Brussels to the WTO head office in Geneva.

A little more light has now been shed on a future support system for agriculture after Brexit. The old system has always been controversial here. After the war, French governments were anxious to avoid the flood of people from large parts of rural France into urban areas. Anyone familiar with southern France can understand the challenges of maintaining viable economic lifestyles. A deal was struck with Germany to underpin the countryside with subsidies, in exchange for access for manufactured goods. It was not a good system and has now been significantly reformed, but we accepted it in 1973 as a condition of EEC membership. Its main characteristic was a per-acre subsidy which is now to be replaced by a more grant-based system. Grant-based systems need forms, inspection and contributions to cost. Large farms such as my family company will adjust, although almost certainly prices will rise. However, tenant farmers will be particularly hard hit, especially those without capital to invest in land they don’t own, and in areas of marginal viability.

The fishing controversy is a particularly emotive one on both sides of the Channel. Memories of the cod wars reinforce the consequences of effective control, particularly when the Royal Navy has only a fraction of the number of ships deployed at that time. But how little do we hear of the licences issued to British fishing fleet-owners, when we joined the common fisheries policy, who promptly sold their licences to the Europeans who could then fish in our waters. A large proportion of fish caught by British trawlers is landed directly in France and sold on within the EU. Is it not a racing certainty that, with no deal, the French fishermen will block their ports to entry by British trawlers to stop this happening? The Royal Navy has been put on standby to board French trawlers. The European community was born to prevent such incidents precipitating the continent into yet greater violence

Of course Britain must use every endeavour to take advantage of the relative high growth rates of the Asian markets. Success will depend on having something someone wants to buy at prices someone will pay.

There are virtually no British-owned volume car companies. An exception is Ineos, whose owner, Sir Jim Radcliffe, last week overcame his enthusiasm for Brexit by deciding to locate production of his Grenadier 4x4 in France. The Americans are located here historically, while the Japanese came to secure a foothold in the European market. If they have significant ambitions to sell in Asia they will manufacture in Asia, taking advantage of lower labour and transit costs, and proximity of supply lines.

This will apply to much of manufacturing. We have great strengths in the service industries but there are few exceptions to the rule that to gain access to a market you need local managers and employees. To really succeed in these markets you need to be there, not thousands of miles away with different languages and culture.

My most serious criticism of the government is that it has done so little to understand the real nature of the challenges we face or to prepare our country to meet them. No one can blame the government for the Covid crisis, which, in any case, may be at last seriously diminished by the vaccine. But Covid has acted as a curtain behind which, unseen, Brexit has crept closer.

The government has greeted this crisis in the traditional Whitehall-knows-best way, underpinned by vast quantities of borrowing money. What is missing is any attempt to recognise the disparate nature of our local city economies. They are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses, requirements and, above all, effective local leadership.

Yet the elected mayors in these vital parts of our economy have had no call to arms. Ministers borrow the money and define how it should be spent along lines that reflect the structure of Whitehall. No other similar economy so centralises its decision-making. We need to enthuse communities and build on the partnerships between public and private sectors that exist there.

My hope is that, by the time you read this, common sense will have prevailed and both sides will have drawn back from the abyss. But if the prime minister has been forced to remain inflexible by hardliners at his shoulder, then he will have failed his test of leadership. We will pay the price.

• Michael Heseltine is a former Conservative deputy prime minister