Mr Oborne changed his mind. A once staunch supporter of Brexit, the journalist now advocates for the project’s suspension. He gazed into the economic abyss and found he did not like what gazed back.
It’s not clear how as a media culture we have reached a point where changing an opinion when presented with new evidence is an act of courage worthy of national lionisation. Yet I readily accept the simple rarity of such an event makes it worthy of attention, like a lunar eclipse or a coherent statement on Brexit from any national politician not named “Jess Phillips”.
I welcome Mr Oborne’s revelations, his courage in sharing them, and his introspection. Yet, like the Dickensian pauper Brexit threatens to turn half the country into, I find myself standing bowl in hand before Mr Oborne asking, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
In explaining how the failure of economic assumptions about Brexit led to his about-face, Mr Oborne adopts the air of a gambler cheated by cruel fate. Not so. The outflow of investment from the United Kingdom, the shuttering of factories, and the howling of business groups are not black swan events, snatching the trout of UK prosperity from the otherwise tranquil lake of Brexit. They are the piranhas that experts and economists have been screaming warnings about for years.
Emblematic of Mr Oborne’s air of ‘had we but known’ are his comments regarding the World Trade Organisation. When asked by Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy to explain why his revelations arrived after the horse had not only bolted the stable but been eaten by a local bear, Mr Oborne offered the following gem: ‘The [Brexit] economic model which depended on the World Trade Organisation has collapsed for reasons it was hard to tell in 2016; namely the rise of protectionism from President Trump’s United States of America and Premier Xi’s China.’
I was a WTO delegate in 2016. Let me assure you, the “Brexit WTO model” wasn’t killed by US and Chinese protectionism. It died for the same reason the Fyre Festival did: no one involved except the marketing team knew what they were doing, and the marketing team didn’t let reality slow them down.
On joining (or forming) the World Trade Organisation, the economies involved agree to a set of baseline commitments to one another. They essentially say, “even if we never discuss trade again, here are some promises regarding how I will treat your exports in exchange for your promise to afford mine the same courtesy.” In the 20 years since its founding, WTO Members have only managed to agree very minor expansions of those original promises.
The primary economic impact of Brexit, under any model, is and was always going to be the gap between these minimal promises under the WTO and the vastly more advanced integration provided by the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. The issue isn’t that a WTO weakened by Trumpian protectionism and Chinese state-capitalism cannot enforce its rules on a vengeful EU, it’s that the EU’s promises under the WTO are a pale shadow of what the UK currently enjoys.
This is not new information. Nor is it privileged information I have access to only as a former WTO negotiator.
Mr Oborne, to his credit, is quick to point out that he is not an economist and relied on the judgement of fellow travellers with a greater grounding in such matters. In an era where the ability to turn a phrase is considered by so many to qualify them to opine on anything (I write without apparent irony), this self-awareness is laudable. Yet it does beg some questions.
If we have already established they were not simply unfortunate, were those Mr Oborne relied on for economic guidance ignorant or deceptive?
Did those claiming the WTO agreements on Technical Barriers to Trade and Trade Facilitation precluded disruption at the border not know, or not care, that businesses listening to their guidance might be lulled into delaying vital preparations?
Did those predicting withdrawal from the EU’s data protection laws would turn Hoxton into the “software capital of the world” know how absurd that prediction would prove, or had they merely stolen a march by sampling mushrooms they hope the UK would legalize post Brexit?
There is much to laud in Mr Oborne’s acknowledgement that he wandered down the wrong path and I understand fully why Remainers are keen to embrace such high profile converts. Yet I would call on Mr Oborne to go one step further and reflect on the guides he trusted to lead him true. They were not, as his comments imply, the victims of misfortune, Trumpian whim or economic happenstance. Through ignorance or with intent, they steered him and the country wrong. He can help ask the hard questions about their place at the wheel.