Do they get it? The Brexit questions that the Tory leadership contenders must answer

Do they get it? The Brexit questions that the Tory leadership contenders must answer

Now we know that the nation is about to be led by either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt.

It could be considered that this choice is private grief, a matter only for the Conservative Party – and in practice it is – but it is also, clearly, a matter of great concern to the country.

On 2nd July when I cease to be an MEP “elect” and become an MEP proper, I will for the first time be officially a politician.

I have never been fond of politicians in general. I have rubbed shoulders with politicians for most of my long career in business and public service. I have observed them up close and personal during my time as head of the British Chambers of Commerce, my time with the Vote Leave campaign and since as Chairman of Leave Means Leave – politicians of all stripes, for and against.

There are many whom I have met who are dedicated to their constituents, their cause and who work tirelessly for what they believe in. There are very many whose order of priority appears to be self, party, country.

Amongst ministers, what never ceases to amaze me is how little they understand much of their briefs and the fundamentals of the way the country runs, in particular business and the economy. They are quite adept at arbitrarily spending money, which is often referred to as “government spending” but which is, in reality, the spending of our money, dear reader, taxpayers’ money, the hard-earned money of those who produce.

They far too often rely on the “advice” of the agenda-ridden Whitehall to cover off the inconvenient detail. I have written before that you could let off a thousand party poppers in Parliament and not hit anyone who has been in business proper. That would be entirely true of the civil service.

We now see a candidate to be Prime Minister in Mr Hunt, who has apparently done some stuff in his life and should therefore understand the hard yards of creating and running a business, of producing. One would imagine this is an advantage. Of course, Mr Johnson has “worked” as a journalist and editor.

Both candidates have done stuff other than politics, in contrast to many of the new generation of MPs who go from being “policy wonks” to being politicians without having done any other stuff at all.

The next few weeks will be full of questions and both candidates should rightly be quizzed in depth as to their beliefs and understanding, not least to avoid the catastrophic outcome last time around that led to the appointment of an out-and-out Remainer as PM, with her Remainer coterie of Hammond, Liddington and Rudd. This piece is full of rhetorical questions for that reason as, at the moment we have no answers.

Do either of the candidates understand what it is like to go to an ordinary school, with ordinary parents and a normal college, or no college at all, and strive to make a life, a career or a business? Does this matter, provided they have the imagination and empathy to connect? Provided they understand what needs to be done at a macro level to deliver what people want, to leave the EU, create a better economy, greater wealth for all and improved public services. Does it matter?

The real question is, do they get it?

Does Jeremy Hunt realise that that the vast majority of Conservative supporters want to leave the EU on 31st October with or without a deal? They don’t just want it, they want it viscerally, as do many of the five million Labour supporters who want Brexit and many others, including many who voted Remain but recognise the existential threat to the democratic system of our country if Brexit is not delivered. For Hunt to even hint that he may extend the date of leaving is beyond comprehension, unless he wishes to destroy trust in politics, the consent of the people in democracy and the Conservative Party in the process.

Do we think that Mr Hunt understands that it is perfectly possible to strike a deal with the EU before 31st October, provided there is a willingness on the part of both parties to do so under Article 24 of the GATT? Clearly there are some current ministers, including our current Secretary of State for International Trade, who appear not to. And if there is no will to do a deal, does he understand that it is possible to leave without such a deal and prosper?

For that matter, does Mr Johnson understand all of this?

Is it clear to our future PM, whoever that might be, that the Withdrawal Agreement is redundant? That there is a distinction between the WTO GATT Article 24 Most Favoured Nation approach and a commitment to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement? It certainly seems to have escaped many commentators and the BBC. That a failure on the part of the EU to agree to such an arrangement would be proof positive that the only logical alternative is to leave without a deal? After all, if the EU refuse to agree to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with their near neighbour and often greatest export market, it is unlikely that they will come to a reasonable conclusion for our leaving.

If there is no alternative but to pursue a move to world trade terms, do the candidates understand that this will necessitate a new economic strategy which, incidentally, will create faster growth and greater wealth, or will the new PM simply ask Sir Humphrey and the usual political policy wonks in the CBI? It would be comforting to think that our new PM would have the slightest clue of their own.

The leaving of the EU has, as far as I am concerned, always been predicated on a series of understandings and measures.

Firstly, that the Withdrawal Agreement or any equivalent treaty of servitude is dead and was always a non-starter; that there should not be and should never have been, a transition period – we have already had three years to prepare; that an Article 24 standstill on tariffs requires agreement that there is a negotiation in progress towards an FTA, which means both the EU and UK have to agree this is so. A simple piece of paper will suffice.

Should either party not agree to this, that we leave on 31st October without an agreement (probably with temporary measures regarding aviation, residency rights, visa arrangements etc.). In order for this to be credible the Government will need a post-Brexit economic strategy which should include: smart unilateral tariff removal, reducing the cost of living; business and personal tax cuts; infrastructure investment; a boost in investment into manufacturing; a managed competitive currency (at least for a while); serious intent on improved productivity – again investment and reduced cheap labour from the EU; export support and reduced foreign inward investment via a new public interest test (DfT will actually have to do some work rather than facilitating the selling of assets); a real rebalancing towards manufacturing and the regions.

The City will need to concentrate more on its added value work and on financing the rest of the economy, rather than becoming expert in and rich on, selling off UK assets to the detriment of the economy as a whole, which has characterised a successful proportion of financial activity in recent decades.

There needs to be a realisation that there is no EU single market in services to speak of. Manufacturing is important in respect of balance of payments and trade and should be expanded. A recognition that Barnier et al are determined that any agreement on financial services would require compliance for all businesses in the UK whether or not they trade into the EU and that given no agreement on so called “access”,  deregulation is a bigger prize.

We have heard nothing of any of this from any candidate to be PM. They could be keeping their powder dry, hiding their light under a bushel. Since the future of the country, not to mention of the major political parties will be determined between now and the end of October, I would argue it is rather concerning that this is so.

At least the Brexit Party is thinking about these things and is already making interventions.