What Noel Edmonds can teach us about Brexit*

Lord of the Jungle.

It is slick programming by ITV to have Noel Edmonds featuring in this year’s I’m a Celebrity….. Why? Because the phrase “Deal or No Deal” is suddenly assuming a sickening relevance. And on December 11th, two days after Celebrity… reaches its climax, MPs will vote on whether to accept or reject the withdrawal agreement the government has agreed.

Let’s be clear: the deal is problematic. Its description of future trading arrangements is necessarily scant, due to the EU’s insistence that those cannot be discussed until after the Brexit deal has been struck; the Northern Ireland backstop plan is imperfect (though overblown by trumpeting politicians); and, yes, the decision to stay in the customs union will impact the UK’s ability to seek radically new trade arrangements.

But Trump – for one – is wrong that it would mean the UK is unable to trade with the US. We would trade just as we currently do. Which is to say, pretty effectively. When Boris Johnson cries that the deal would mean that for the first time in 1000 years, the UK would have no control over its laws, he gives away the lie of the whole Brexit campaign. Despite what Leave said at the time, inside the EU, the UK was a collaborative rule-maker. Outside it will not be.

If we end up with a no deal Brexit, the sad truth is that Britain will have to take whatever terms the big economies demand, whether it is begging for scraps of chlorinated chicken from the US or access to a brutally subsidised steel market in China. That is because it will have burned its bridges with the EU if parliament rejects the deal on the table.

For an in-depth analysis of what a no deal Brexit would look like, go to the Economist’s excellent briefing this week. The Economist makes no apology for its long-held stance that Brexit of any form is harmful: but a no deal Brexit would be catastrophic, its analysis contends. And not just for trading: all the agreements that bind us on everything from food standards, to pharmaceuticals, to electricity supply, to legal and security cooperation, would be torn apart.

But let’s just stick to trade. A no deal Brexit would mean negotiating our own trading terms with every country in the world. The fact that, 58 years after its first trade agreement, Switzerland is still in negotiation with several key countries should be alarming enough. It took Canada seven years to get an agreement with Europe – and they hadn’t just walked away from EUR39bn in contracted obligations, as the no-deal fantasists have suggested we do. (Surely, that in itself would give future future trade partners pause for thought.)

So what would no deal mean for the UK economy – which, despite claims that the Brexit vote has not impacted negatively, has already gone from being one of the fastest growing G7 economies to one of the slowest since 2016? Well, the Bank of England is pretty clear that it would be a disaster, with the economy shrinking up to 8%, though an excellent counterbalancing article by Paul Marshall from earlier this year is well worth a visit. The government offers similar gloom (they would, wouldn’t they?). And the arch-Brexiteers from Open Europe, usually the most optimistic of forecasters, are predicting a downturn in GDP growth, even while they gloss over the problems – and costs, and impact – of hitching a ride on the WTO framework.

So far, so depressing.

On the other side are the ever-so-hopeful fundamentalist remainers, still clinging to an unfeasible version of the future where, through a convoluted number of what-ifs, Article 50 is revoked and we remain in the EU, and all is forgiven. This is an equally dangerous fantasy; not because, if achieved, it would damage the economy. No: everyone from Arron Banks to Dominic Raab to the Chancellor now posit that we would be better off under the existing treaties than under the new proposed deal.

So why not a readmission?

You can cut and slice this scenario a million different ways. The best scenario for the uber-remainers is that, after the vote is lost on December 11th, and in no particular order, the government has hasty renegotiations with the EU; presents a new deal within 21 days, which is voted down too; a vote of no confidence is held, which the government loses; the fixed term parliament act is suspended, and May resigns; a request for an indefinite extension to Article 50 is accepted by the EU; a general election is held which Labour wins (despite their Eurosceptic leader); we go through another period of negotiation – which will almost certainly end up with a deal that looks genetically identical to this one; a second ‘back the deal or stay’ referendum is held; and, amazingly, despite the fury of the 52% who voted Leave, Remain wins. Unlikely, no? Yes, and very, very lengthy. Even if all these incompatible events fall into place, we are back to where we are today, probably another three years down the road.

This company was founded in 2008. Within months, we had the global financial crisis. Then the ideological idiocy of austerity, ‘double dip’ recession,  the Brexit campaign, the Brexit vote, and several unsatisfactory elections, all contributing to the ongoing crisis in confidence that business hates.

That the UK economy has managed to grow at all is a miracle: both  the no-deal or remain fantasy scenarios will heap many more years of uncertainty on an already strained economy. Even if the UK were to officially return to the EU fold in 2021, say, it is likely that the economy would have been hugely damaged by so many years of poor growth: businesses will have left or invest elsewhere, inflation will drive up interest rates and lower investment further, and consumer confidence would be shattered. The very real possibility of a Japan style ‘stagflation’ looms.

If MPs choose to vote down the deal on minor issues, they will be doing the country a disservice. None of them have offered a better alternative. Labour’s six tests are mutually exclusive. The blithe promises of Brexiters of the “exact same benefits” with none of the costs have been comprehensively destroyed. John Redwood’s naïve fantasy of a world lining up to trade with us is exactly that. We will have the ridiculous and unedifying spectacle of Jacob Rees Mogg lining up with Jeremy Corbyn and the DUP’s Nigel Dodd in common cause.

And what is the common cause that drives them? Opposition. The pathetic need to object, rather than to think what might be best for their constituents. When they face each other in the ‘no’ lobby, they should ask themselves only one question: is there any other conceivable deal in which they could all find themselves together in the ‘yes’ lobby?

Of course not. Opposition is easy. Reality is not. But the May deal has found a path that – with a little humility – many of those MPs could justify on the grounds that it is the best available outcome for the people they represent.

The deal is far from perfect: but the fact is that Mrs May’s deal does deliver most of what Brexiteers stipulated, and certainly many of the key things that floating voters wanted. It also delivers most of what business wants: the hope of frictionless trade within an acceptable compliance framework. It is unlikely anyone could have got a much better deal: one country negotiating with 27 tends not to. Ask Canada.

As we have said before, egos need to be parked and the pragmatic solution embraced. I think it is fair to say that literally nobody wanted to find themselves in the position we are currently in. But MPs should be encouraged by their constituents, and by business, to hold their noses and vote for the deal on December 11th. It is not perfect, but it is better than any of the alternatives: Gideon Rachman explains here why the deal should be embraced by MPs.

I like this fact: Deal or No Deal had 3003 episodes. Nine contestants got what they wanted and won the top prize – that is a success rate of 0.003%. Five times as many walked away with the lowest possible 1p. Everyone else had to accept a compromise: that’s what happens in life.

And that’s what you get when you open a box and don’t know what’s inside.

 

*Update 2nd December 2018: So, Noel Edmonds was voted off Celebrity… the weekend after this blog was published. But he will, of course, be returning with all the other rejected jungle candidates for the grand final on 9th December. Ironically, the final will go head-to-head with the BBC debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. I wonder who will win that ratings plebiscite?

 

Martin Tripp

martin@trippassociates.co.uk

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.