We’re in a fine mess if George Osborne is our last hope of halting Brexit

William Keegan
A copy of the article 50 bill, introduced by the government to seek parliamentary approval to start the process of leaving the EU. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

To adapt Dr Samuel Johnson’s famous saying: attacking the BBC for alleged bias is a last refuge of the scoundrel. In this case, the scoundrel is one Julian Knight MP, who last week assembled some 70 fellow Brexiters to attack the BBC for allegedly being biased in favour of the Remain camp.

Yes, we Remainers still exist and, according to an interesting finding by Alastair Campbell, our numbers may well be growing, which could help to explain why the Leave camp, ostensibly monarch of all it surveys, is displaying increasing signs of insecurity, as the falsity of its prospectus becomes manifest to a more reflective audience.

Campbell wrote in the New European that at speaking events, he asks for a show of hands in response to the question: “Are you broadly optimistic or pessimistic about Brexit?”

When he put this recently to 250 people who recruit from universities for their companies or organisations, only one optimistic hand went up. As Campbell says: “For the other 249 or so … you get the picture. Pessimism by a landslide. These are people who feel they have no voice in the debate as May wishes to conduct it.”

It is sad that the man for whom Campbell was once his master’s voice, namely Tony Blair, should have tainted his record over Iraq, because Blair – like Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Sir John Major – has been quintessentially statesmanlike in warning of the dangers ahead for this country and the rest of Europe. They know that the Brexit tail is wagging the Conservative dog. Major, in particular, must find it bizarre that the obsessively anti-European group while he was prime minister – including John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith, whom he once labelled “the bastards”, – seem to have taken over the asylum.

One of the interesting things about the attack on the BBC is that, if anything, the corporation is so nervous of the combined forces of the Brexit press and the current Conservative leadership that it seems to bend over backwards not to offend the Leave camp – the amount of airtime devoted to the egregious Nigel Farage being a good example.

The terrible truth is that the Conservative and Unionist party has become the Conservative and Ukip party

There was a classic demonstration recently when a leading BBC interviewer was grilling a member of the government about the official excuse for the U-turn after the budget on national insurance contributions. The reason for the U-turn was that the prime minister was running scared in the face of criticism that not raising NICs had been a manifesto commitment. Why, then, the interviewer might have asked, are you now planning to leave the single market? Surely, remaining in it was a manifesto commitment?

The terrible truth is that the once-proud Conservative and Unionist party has become the Conservative and Ukip party. The union is at risk, as is free movement between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. And when the Brexiters threaten Nicola Sturgeon with dire warnings about Scotland losing its largest market, namely England, they seem unaware of the irony that the newly fashionable strategy of “no agreement is better than a bad agreement” involves England itself leaving its largest market.

The furore over national insurance dominated coverage of the budget but, for me, the really interesting aspect, apart from Chancellor Philip Hammond’s choice to continue with George Osborne’s socially destructive austerity programme, was that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) report on the economic and fiscal outlook contained a sober assessment of the consequences of Brexit for our economy – and it was hardly calculated to lift the spirits.

The point about the OBR is that it is independent and thoroughly trustworthy. Its best assessment is that business investment will suffer from Brexit, as will trade, consumer spending and the quality of life generally, not to say the budgetary finances. This is quite apart from the potentially dire impact Brexit may have on centrifugal forces in the EU as a whole – forces, we learn from US intelligence agencies, that were being encouraged by President Putin and his sidekick Donald Trump in the run-up to the 23 June referendum.

I gather that the trade secretary Liam Fox, who not so long ago had to have the definition of a customs union and the single market explained to him, was asked recently which economy he would like a “newly free England” to resemble, ruling out Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which seem to have an absurd attraction to extreme Brexiters as models for our rather different economy. Apparently Fox named Germany, seemingly oblivious that it is a leading EU member.

Wednesday is the day that Theresa May plans to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty to set Brexit in motion. This September will see the 25th anniversary of Black Wednesday, when the pound was ejected from the European exchange rate mechanism, the precursor of the single currency.

Unless the religious May undergoes a Damascene conversion, this week will see another Black Wednesday. In her winning entry to the Times/Essex Court essay competition last week, Genevieve Woods, a pupil at a Gray’s Inn barristers’ chamber, argued convincingly that parliament had the constitutional right to overrule a referendum result if it chose.

It is time our elected representatives stood up to be counted. Unfortunately, we have no effective opposition. We are now reduced to hoping that George Osborne, as editor of the London Evening Standard, will redeem himself by producing an effective counterblast to all of the Brexit nonsense.

Back in 1983, when the Labour party was also letting down the nation, Gerald Kaufman MP famously described its manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”. According to Labour peer David Lea, the 137-word article 50 bill – passed, to its eternal shame, by the House of Commons – is “the shortest suicide note in history”.

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