The first televised head-to-head debate between Johnson and Hunt

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, reacts as Boris Johnson, MP, speaks during the first televised head-to-head debate.

09-07-2019EFEf/ Matt Frost

This is a crazy way to choose a Prime Minister. Granting that privilege to 160,000 Conservative members, predominantly male, white and middle-aged, some of whom have only joined the party to have a say in the contest, is hardly in keeping with Britain’s venerated principles of parliamentary democracy.

Nor have the weeks in which senior Conservatives have knocked spots off each other in full public view done any favours to the party. As Boris Johnson said in the ITV debate this week: “This is why these blue-on-blue debates are so embarrassing.” What he meant was that the contestants were forced into publicly parading the party’s internal policy divisions and seeking to damage each other’s credibility, especially his.

Jeremy Hunt may have improved his own standing by displaying more robust qualities than he has so far shown in his ministerial career, but he has done so by making the public aware of shortcomings and inconsistencies in the man who will shortly be his Prime Minister. These self-inflicted wounds do nothing to help the Tories’ case for running the country.

The protracted contest has diverted attention from the Labour Party’s utter muddle over Brexit, signalling changes in policy every other day, its raging anti-semitic sickness, and the growing suspicions at the top of the party about the sinister Marxist (or even Stalinist) cabal surrounding Jeremy Corbyn.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that changing the leader will alter the basic facts about Brexit. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement will never secure the approval of a majority in the House of Commons while it contains the Irish backstop. Brussels shows no sign of wishing to alter the terms of the agreement, or even to discuss them.

Nor is there a parliamentary majority for leaving without a deal, or not in present circumstances. So Boris Johnson’s declared intention to leave the EU on October 31, come what may, invites the question: how?

One needs to consider that phrase, leaving without a deal - a concept regarded as a cardinal sin among those who oppose it. But what is it that Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and their co-conspirators among MPs really oppose? It isn’t leaving without a deal, as they insist, but leaving the EU at all, and they are prepared to bend parliamentary rules in any way they can to reject the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum.

Leaving without a deal is implicit in any negotiation where two sides cannot agree. A majority of the British people – 17.4 million of them – did not vote for leaving Europe if that’s OK with Europe; they voted to leave. Europe was never going to agree to terms that made it easy for Britain to leave, because they want and need Britain to stay.

The correct default position when terms cannot be agreed is leaving without an agreement, not staying in the EU in defiance of the public vote or holding another referendum.
What would “No Deal” actually mean? The air waves have been filled by the doom-laden claims of the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, the Brexit blocker-in-chief, who forecasts that leaving the EU without a deal would cost Britain £90 billion - a figure provided, without any supporting evidence, by the Treasury.

Jeremy Hunt now sings a different tune as he seeks to be Prime Minister, but last year he said that leaving the EU without the permission of Brussels could do economic damage “equivalent to the 2008 crash.”

No serious independent economist thinks No Deal will be anything like 2008. These predictions of a meltdown lack any credibility. They rely on the same Treasury methodology (a methodology it has declined to explain to economists) that inspired Project Fear about the likely effects of a No vote in the 2016 referendum.

The Treasury’s pre-referendum forecast of “an immediate and profound economic shock” was laughably wrong. Instead of tipping into recession, the UK economy sailed on, recording a 0.6% expansion in the next six months. The public finances have since strengthened, unemployment has fallen to a four-decade low, manufacturing is up – all making nonsense of the horror stories put out by the Treasury and the Bank of England.

Only 8 per cent of British firms trade with the EU at all, amounting to about 10 per cent of the UK economy. Consumer goods such as clothes and footwear would actually come down in price if they no longer had to carry the high tariffs demanded by the EU for goods imported from outside Europe.

We are told that it would be disastrous for British exports if the country was no longer part of the EU’s single market and customs union. Yet British exports to the EU have fallen from 60% to 43% over the past 20 years and the majority of our trade is now with the 85% of the world outside the EU – and this trade is growing fast, is already subject to World Trade Organisation rules, and produces a surplus.

There is bound to be disruption in a No Deal scenario, especially for farmers who rely on exports to the EU, but a great deal of preparation has been taking place to minimise the problems. Deals have been struck to keep exports flowing, planes will fly, and telephone roaming charges will be unchanged. Trade agreements with Britain’s biggest global customers have been agreed or are near.

The other bogey used by Remainers in their desperate bids to stop Brexit is that it would be illegal, unconstitutional or even revolutionary for a new Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament to stop MPs voting down No Deal. This would obviously be a last resort, but a Prime Minister who did this could argue, first, that this is already one of the longest parliaments on record, that he is implementing the results of a public referendum, that MPs voted in favour of Article 50 to leave Europe, and that Brexit was in his party’s manifesto at the General Election.

He might also add that Remainer MPs have used every trick in the book, some of them so dodgy that even a Remainer Speaker couldn’t allow them, and that he felt entitled to use every power at his command to achieve what the people voted for.
Boris Johnson may or may not turn out to be the most disastrous and short-lived of Prime Ministers, as even some senior members of his own party have predicted. But it should certainly be fun finding out.