Chris Johns: Brexit fight has poisoned UK politics

UK recession is probable in event of exit, with unintended consequences for Ireland

The UK's first naval battle since the Falkland's war took place this week on the river Thames. A flotilla of boats carrying Brexit supporters sprayed water on an opposing squadron, who in turn fired back with loud music and shouted insults. Tourists were seen to stare, take lots of pictures and occasionally wave. It is tempting to laugh but the only proper response is to despair.

With inspiration taken from Donald Trump, the Leave campaign has embraced, with alacrity, gross exaggerations, untruths and whopping lies. As the Brexiteers have come to realise they can say what they like without fear of the consequences, their claims have become ever wilder. On social media, anonymity regularly encourages trolling, vile commentary and nothing that resembles civilised debate. So it has been with Brexit. Michael Gove, previously thought to be a cerebral member of the UK cabinet, declared "We have had enough of experts"; rational debate immediately became passé and pitchforks adopted as the weapon of choice.

Brexiteers have discovered that even when their claims are proved to be at odds with the facts, it simply doesn’t matter. Indeed, they have learned that the best response is repetition. The simplest example is their assertion that European Union membership costs the UK £350 million a week. It’s written on the side of the Leave’s battle bus, repeated ad nauseam and always linked to some suggestion that this money is being taken away from the health service. It doesn’t matter that the Office for National Statistics and other qualified observers have shown this number to be a wild exaggeration.

The efforts of the UK treasury, Bank of England, the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and Barack Obama to persuade voters of the risks of Brexit have not convinced anyone. That, for the Leavers, speaks to the failed state of these institutions, their loss of credibility. It explains why Brexiteers can say anything without fear of contradiction from a higher authority: there isn’t one. The fact that the economics profession is unprecedentedly unified in its warnings about the costs of Brexit is welcomed by the Leavers: more experts to be pitchforked.


Brexiteers claim the EU will soon be expanded to include Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. None of this is likely, at least not any time soon and certainly not without the UK’s agreement – like every other EU country it has a veto. No matter, just talking about this puts the debate on Leave’s favourite ground: immigration.

And the immigration facts don’t matter either: immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, they don’t depress wages and they are not responsible for delays in getting a GP appointment or access to other social services (that’s mostly down to George Osborne’s spending cuts). Non-EU immigration is running at a higher rate than arrivals from the EU.

By playing up populist fears, politicians who really do know better are asking for trouble. This is a referendum that shouldn't be taking place at all. It was irresponsible for David Cameron to call it. The first World War was an argument between a bunch of related royal families. Similarly, but hopefully without such dire consequences, Brexit is a family row within the Conservative party. But there are consequences already, with plenty more to come. Few of us think Boris Johnson actually believes in Brexit. He is just positioning himself to be the next prime minister. Rumours that he has offered Nigel Farage a seat in the House of Lords and a place at the cabinet table should not amuse anyone.

The UK economy is slowing down. This is at least in part due to all this nonsense. The economic debate focuses on what kind of trade relationships the UK can negotiate in the years ahead. They can’t be better than the ones they have. A vote to leave is a vote to be poorer.

The threat of Brexit is already causing economic damage. Sterling and UK equities are lower. The US Federal Reserve says Brexit is affecting interest- rate decisions. But the real carnage will come only if they do vote to leave. If they exit, I think an immediate UK recession is probable. With yet more unintended consequences, not least for Ireland. And that’s before we start talking about the Border. Even if they vote to remain, things will never be the same. There is little chance of business as usual. The British political well has been poisoned: the taking of such large risks with prosperity and security beggars belief. Such madness will be difficult to contain, whatever the result.