Richard North, 04/02/2018  

Rees Mogg's attempts to pin the blame on civil servants for "fiddling the figures" on Brexit should not be afforded any credibility. Although he thinks the civil servants are exaggerating the costs in a politically-motivated attempt to keep the UK in the EU's customs union, it is just as likely that the figures they have come up with are under-estimates.

Certainly, by our reckoning, the WTO option could cost us ten percent of GDP in the first full year of Brexit. And if the domino effect kicks in, it could trigger an economic winter that takes 20 percent annually from our GDP and lasts for decades.

Needless to say, the Telegraph takes the contrary view, with the egregious Halligan arguing that the civil service sums "don't stack up", failing – in his view – to take account of the gains from trade deals with the likes of the United States.

Of the Europhiles in the pre-referendum days, Booker and I used to say that they always seemed to rely on the theoretical gains from political integration that would come at some unspecified time in the future. And now we have the "ultras" playing the same trick, talking up future, unproven gains from trade deals that we haven't yet negotiated – ignoring any downside from leaving.

Former head of the civil service under Tony Blair, Andrew Turnbull, takes a different view. He suggests that Whitehall officials have become the victims of "pre-emptive scapegoating" by Brexiters who feared they were losing the argument.

The fact is, though, that we are embarking on a vast experiment, the like of which no one has ever experienced. Immediately after the referendum, it could have gone either way but, as time passes and the incompetence of government becomes ever more apparent, the chances of a successful outcome look increasingly remote.

What really saps the morale are the constant, all-embracing demonstrations of ignorance, pointed out on this blog so often and, in one of its latest exemplars by Booker in this week's column .

As our Government's handling of Brexit becomes ever more worryingly fraught by the day, he writes - noting that last week Brussels again slammed the door on any hope that we could continue enjoying those "passporting" rights which have made London the financial centre of the EU – an excoriatory leader in the London Evening Standard (edited by the "non-Brexiteer" George Osborne) ends by urging that "it is not too late for the Tories to change course".

"Here's a simple step", it said. "We can stay in the European Free Trade Association (sic), as a growing number of Tory MPs now advocate". This, the editorial went on, would "minimise the economic damage", "solve the Irish border problem" and allow us to "keep our sovereignty".

The only problem here, Booker reminds us, is that we are not in the European Free Trade Association, as the Standard seems to think. What it might have said is that we should join Efta in order to remain in the European Economic Area, which would indeed solve a whole raft of otherwise insuperable problems.

That Mr Osborne's newspaper makes this kind of elementary mistake is an indication of how little so many people who should know better understand even the most basic facts about our involvement with Europe. And that, Booker concludes, is precisely why we are making such an unholy mess of leaving it.

And gradually, as we intimated in our earlier piece, the remainers are gaining confidence, with Dominic Grieve declaring that the public is "running out of time" to change its mind on Brexit. The next few months, he says, "are decision time".

The former Attorney General has been talking to the Independent, telling the newspaper that people can change their minds about Brexit if they want to, but it cannot be after 29 March 2019, and "frankly it cannot be after the end of the autumn of this year".

"I'm not calling for a second referendum", he said. "But we should not exclude the possibility that people's opinion may change. And to start from an opinion on an issue that was expressed 18 months ago, where people are bound to have had their opinion influenced since, we must be very careful to listen about what it is they want".

He continued: "It the most extraordinary conundrum. We have an instruction from the electorate, by a small but significant majority, to do something that many of us [in Parliament] think is going to be very hard to achieve without serious damage to the wellbeing of every citizen in this country. It is an ethical conundrum and it is a practical conundrum".

All this reflects the lack of direction from the Brexiteers but it also emboldens the likes of Nick Cohen who argues that the right does not want British institutions to take back control from the EU. It wants, he says, to take control of British institutions, adding: "Understand its raging ambition and you will understand why self-proclaimed Conservatives are so anxious to destroy".

Interestingly, Cohen refers to the Jacobins who denounced judges as "enemies of the people" and draws a parallel between then and the Tory right. But he misses a trick, omitting to note that the Jacobins too were known as "ultras".

Instead, Cohen beats a different path, asserting that you do not have to know much history to recognise a stab-in-the-back myth in the making. German militarists and fascists, he reminds us, explained away defeat in the First World War with the dolchstosslegende: the German armies had not been defeated by their enemies in France but by communists, Jews and pacifists at home.

So, he asserts, Brexit will not be defeated because the Tory right sold the British a fantasy but because judges, civil servants, saboteurs and mutineers subverted a glorious victory.

Mrs May, he tells us, wants Britain to walk away from the EU, its single market, customs union and courts, while retaining privileged access to its markets. That, however, is impossible to achieve. Thus, Cohen predicts there will be a nationalist reaction to Brexit's inevitable disappointment. Millions will find they can't have it all and look for someone to blame.

Extreme though that might be, this is no longer an outcome that can be ruled out. If Brexit is a failure, there will be consequences. And Cohen is schooling us to expect a right wing government deflecting attention from its own culpability and using conspiracy theory to justify attacks on the independence of the judiciary, civil service and BBC.

But if we are to take this at face value, it would seem that we end up staying in the EU, with the consequence that an extreme right wing government takes power here at home.

This simply does not compute. But it does raise the interesting and important issue of what we might expect if Brexit does fail. If that is a prospect, and Cohen is to be believed, revolution could be in the air. And that, in the final analysis, is the price we might have to pay for the ignorance of our political masters.

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