FEATURE14 September 2016

Britain after the referendum

Brexit Features Public Sector UK

An illustrious panel lined up at the Royal Society of the Arts last night to take part in Ipsos MORI’s discussion about the next stage for Britain as it embarks on Brexit. Jane Bainbridge reports.

Brexit cutting the ties_crop

It was probably indicative of the demographics of the referendum polling that the five strong panel lined up by Ipsos MORI for its Britain after the Referendum – what next? discussion – educated and London-based – was heavily weighted in favour of Remainers. Ipsos MORI’s chief executive Ben Page attempted to remain neutral but the chinks started to show as the debate unfolded. Which left The Times columnist Tim Montgomerie in glorious Brexit isolation to sing the praises of the referendum outcome and what lies ahead for the UK government.

Page started by sharing the latest polling on post Brexit opinion. In what he referred to as a “phoney war” he said there’s no sign of ‘Bregret’ – 89% of Leave voters still think it was the right decision and exactly the same percentage of Remain voters think it was the wrong decision.

As yet, the much feared collapse in consumer confidence has not materialised; there is a split in opinion on the economic impact of Brexit with a slight improvement in long term confidence – 55% think Britain’s economy will get better over the next 10 to 20 years compared to 39% pre Referendum.

Inevitably the polling showed that the number one issue in the referendum was immigration ( 33%) compared with 28% for the economy and 12% to make our own laws.

Ipsos Brexit panel_crop

The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP was in fiery form. A committed Europhile, he was not happy with the referendum, not happy with the government’s performance to date in dealing with the outcome and not happy about the rhetoric around immigration.

“Immigration is the primary public concern but we have to have an honest debate about what bringing down immigration really means. And many people who voted for Brexit have the lowest levels of immigration in the UK, so even if you bring it down it won’t make any difference to those parts of the country. The economy is the great driver of numbers (EU immigration to the UK plummeted by 50% in the recession). In many parts of the country issues of identity, segregation, these have mutated into rhetoric of immigration but you are dealing with problems among people are already UK passport holders,” he said.

As a political insider with experience of negotiating trade deals, Clegg shared some interesting insight. “We underestimated the commitment of other countries to the EU” he said. “The rest of the EU’s priority is that Brexit doesn’t unravel what is left of the EU. We can’t persist in the illusion that we can have our cake and eat it.”

Exit negotiations

He then pointed to the particular problems of this government negotiating our exit.

“What worries me most is the internal contradictions in the Conservative party; there are two mutually incompatible preferences, which are two sides of the Conservative brain. There are the free traders wanting untrammelled access to EU markets and the ones that say ‘we will not be subservient to rules set by other people’. It is impossible to have access to the single market – this is nothing to do with tariffs, it’s a body of law – if you are not prepared to abide by the laws of that single market. So the present government’s stance is creating a paralysing tension in the government.”

The CBI’s president, Paul Drechsler went for the disappointed but optimistic position. But he concurred with Clegg on just what trade negotiations entailed.

While Clegg said trade negotiations are “ferociously difficult to do – we don’t have any trade negotiation skills in Whitehall and it will take much longer than anyone thinks” Drechsler said they were a form of competitive sport and “the toughest thing you can do”.

“You should never enter negotiations until you know what your end goal objective is,” said Drechsler. “Trade negotiations are dog eat dog so there’s never been a time for more brilliant British democracy

“Great Britain is going to survive, no doubt about it. Do we want the next generation to do better than us? If so we must create the best possible opportunity to trade our goods and services globally. We have to find a solution to the societal concern about immigration. If we don’t find that there is no trade deal possible.”

Workers’ rights

He also raised the issue of EU workers already in the UK and – even with the support of Montgomerie – argued that they must be given immediate clarification on their position and not be treated as pawns in the negotiation. Not least, because so many of our public services rely on them for staffing.

“They deserve to know and have assurance about their future. They are vital contributors to our society,” said Drechsler.

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee seemed to still hold out hope that Article 50 wouldn’t be implemented or that if MPs were allowed a vote on ratifying the referendum they could vote it down.

“The ‘angry old’ bear most of the blame for what they inflicted on the country. I wonder what would it take for those leavers to change their mind?” she said.

Toynbee was characteristically scathing of Theresa May’s choice of ministers to handle Brexit – Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis – “We have three off-the-wall mavericks with no experience, let alone tact.”

Montgomerie argued strongly against any possibility of a second referendum. “People don’t want a second referendum and more people voted for Brexit than for anything in British history.”

EU without Merkel

But even he couldn’t deny the difficulties ahead and that if the pragmatic Angela Merkel loses the election in Germany and isn’t part of the negotiations it would be tougher for the UK.

“We are going to have a less good relationship with the EU in a few years’ time than we have now. You can’t leave the club and have better terms.”

But on immigration he argued that leaving the EU could lead to a “more decent and fairer immigration policy”, especially for migrants from countries such as India.

Nick Clegg Ipsos_crop

So in terms of ‘what next?’ there was no consensus only more questions and the recognition that nothing was likely to happen quickly. As Clegg put it: “There is no possibility that the UK will leave in an orderly fashion within two years. It’s a fiction; [Article 50 ] wasn’t written for that to happen.”