Plenty of flip flops from summer's very silly season
The dog days of summer are traditionally a time for Fleet Street's finest to get creative as they try to fill the lull in politics. And that has never been more so than this year, as the Brexit press see the wheels coming off their cherished project. LIZ GERARD reviews how a very silly season played out in the papers
It's time to get serious, Michel Barnier told David Davis when they reconvened to talk about Brexit on Monday.
Which just goes to show how little the EU's chief negotiator understands Britain. Monday was August Bank Holiday, the last hurrah of the British press' annual 'silly season' – that summer hiatus in the political cycle, when newspapers tend to get especially creative, or frivolous. Who could seriously expect our Brexit bulldog to get serious before September?
From Theresa's pink shirtwaister to Jeremy's flip-flops, this has been, for the newspapers, the Brexit summer and a record-breaking August: record drops in the value of the pound, in unemployment, in migration, in rain.
First task of any summer is to see who is going to run the country while the boss is away. We actually have a deputy prime minister, of sorts, in Damian Green, but nobody seemed to expect him to do the job. Boris was sent to far-off lands to minimise his mischief-making. Davis, if we are to believe reports, is too idle. So Philip Hammond picked up Caesar's crown and the rest of the Cabinet (and not a few backbenchers) picked up their knives. The Mail helped their cause along with a hatchet job from Andrew Pierce on the mandarin he claimed was pulling Phil's strings.
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Before you knew it, we had Liam and Boris against Phil on a transition period, then we had Gove v Hammond on fishing. Then Liam and Phil united on transition. And then Davis and Hammond united on negotiations. Are you keeping up?
This was, of course, what Madam May wanted. Let the underlings squabble and everyone would see how strong and stable she was as leader. Except in the background we had the papers talking up Boris or Ruth or David v Theresa and the silliest story of all: Moggmania and the prospect that Jacob, begetter of six offspring, might move his brood into No 10. It was enough to make former Thatcher aide Matthew Parris, now of the Times, talk about voting Labour.
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Top priority for M Barnier is the divorce bill. But nobody has a clue how much it will be. Figures mentioned through the summer included £100bn, £80bn, £50bn, £36bn and £10bn (as a 'gesture of goodwill', as the Express put it). There is at least recognition all round now that we'll have to pay something, prompting an attack of realism from Boris Johnson who went from saying 'go whistle' to 'We will meet our obligations.' Yikes!
That's not all we'll have to pay. There's the small matter of the two European agencies leaving our shores when we quit the EU. The Times got August off to a cheery start by reporting that moving the European Medicines Agency is likely to set us back 600m euros. More than half of that is because some bright spark signed a 25-year lease that doesn't run out until 2039 – so, with no break clause, we'll be paying 347m euros for a building we won't be using. Very silly.
But never fear, the Express tells us that Britain's Brexit boom has seen £50bn invested in the UK and the promise of 44,000 new jobs. The claims come from the 'making Brexit happen' campaign group Change Britain, based on 'company statements and media reports' – presumably like the one last November when Jaguar said it might consider creating 10,000 jobs if the Government spent £450m on infrastructure. There are no specifics, but we're promised that the 'true figures' may be higher.
And, as we are constantly told, Europe needs us more than we need them; the world is gagging to buy our stuff – especially, it seems, in the summer holidays. 'From ice cream to swimwear, you can find UK holiday exports in travel destinations around the world,' declared Liam Fox. 'Last year alone, more than £300m of these goods have been sold across the globe.'
Sadly, as the Times pointed out, official figures released that same day showed a 5% fall in goods exports between May and June – an 8% drop in sales outside of Europe (the world is our oyster?) being partly offset by a 2.7% increase in sales within the EU (who needs Europe?).
But let's celebrate the fact that share prices are soaring. Which might have something to do with the fact that the pound dropped to an eight-year low as the divorce talks started this week – to 1.075 euros, compared with 1.30 euros just before the referendum.
The Express doesn't seem too worried about this, which seems odd, given that it was the holiday season. But perhaps it doesn't expect its readers to venture abroad any more. Oh those halcyon days, when it used to celebrate our strong currency with splash headlines saying 'Now shares and £ surge' (April, 2010), 'Summer holidays get even cheaper' (July 2012) and 'Bargain holidays as costs slashed – half-term joy as pound soars' (February 2015).
Never mind about Liam's swimsuits and ice cream, what about the flip-flops? There have been plenty of them. Remember how Spreadsheet Phil was supposed to be sacked for suggesting a transition period might be in order? Well, now we're going to have one lasting up to four years, except it's not going to be called that. It'll be an implementation period. We'll be out of the single market and customs union, but in something that's basically the customs union. If M Barnier lets us.
And if Labour has its way, we'll be back to a transition period. And we'll still be in the single market and customs union. Which means our sandal-wearing bearded leftie has made the biggest flip-flop of all, having announced unequivocally in July that we would most definitely be leaving the single market. No question. The change of heart secured by Keir Starmer had the amazing effect of producing similar front page headlines from the Guardian: 'Backlash over Labour's shift to soft Brexit', and Express: 'Outrage over EU exit betrayal'.
All the papers seemed to think this switch was a betrayal of Labour voters. Really? Labour constituencies may have voted Leave, but more than 70% of those who voted Labour in the 2015 general election opted to Remain. And a British Election Study of 30,000 voters found that anti-Brexiteers were largely responsible for Labour's surprise performance in June. It found that Labour took two-thirds of the Green votes cast in 2015 and a quarter of Lib Dem votes. Labour was seen as the 'best for those wanting to keep ties with our European neighbours'. So much for betraying the voters. Maybe Corbyn was finally listening to them.
In Mail land, however, we are not only all Brexiteers now, most of us are Hard Brexiteers. Having cited polls suggesting that even Remain voters want to 'get on with it', it is now using as ammunition an LSE poll that offered interviewees binary choices between Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit and no deal at all. Remainers preferred a deal, hard or soft, to no deal, and – perhaps surprisingly – a clean break over a Soft Brexit. Remaining in the EU wasn't an option, but the Mail felt justified in interpreting the figures as 'Most Remainers now backing a Hard Brexit'.
The silliest poll interviewees of the summer were unearthed by YouGov, which found that 61% of Leave voters felt that significant economic damage to the UK was a price worth paying to be rid of the EU. Not only that, 39% said that if they or a relative were to lose their job, it would still be worth it. The figures rose to 71% and 50% among those over 65. In other words, half of Leave-voting pensioners didn't mind their children or grandchildren being put out of work for the sake of Brexit. This prompted Vince Cable to denounce 'Brexit martyrs' and accuse the old of shafting the young. Which in turn prompted a flurry of columnists to denounce Sir Vince as 'ageist, disdainful and plain wrong'.
That British Election Study may have found that Labour voters cared more about the single market than immigration, but the reverse was the case – by a similar margin – for Tories, who garnered 60% of the Leave vote. For the Brexit papers, there is no either/or. They don't want the single market and they definitely want less immigration. So for the Express, nothing demonstrated the need for action than figures published on August 17 showing that a record 2.73m EU migrants were working in Britain.
One in five people seeking work was an immigrant and the number of foreigners working here was up by 126,000 – 87,000 of them Romanians and Bulgarians. This, said Lord Green of MigrationWatch, shows that talk of an exodus of EU workers was just scaremongering.
The actual migration figures, which came out on a week later, were therefore a bit inconvenient for the Express. Net migration had fallen to a three-year low of 246,000, largely thanks to 'a surge in the number of EU nationals leaving the country'. This, said Lord MigrationWatch was the result of 'good fortune'. For immigration minister Brandon Lewis it was encouraging. For Cable it was a deeply worrying Brexodus.
On the same day, another report showed that, far from outstaying their welcome, 97.4% of overseas students go home on time. That means that instead of the 100,000 included in the official migration statistics, there are just over 4,000.
The data put May under pressure to remove students from the figures, but she doesn't want to be seen as cooking the books (the Times calculates that if they were taken out, the latest net migration figure would be 132,000 – which suddenly makes that 100k target look achievable). George Osborne, who fought May on this very issue in Cabinet, makes mischief from the editor's chair at the Evening Standard, and urges MPs to rebel and force her hand.
The exit checks report also looked at other visitors requiring visas – tourists and workers as well as students – and found that 96.3% went home on time. What a relief for the Mail, where every silver lining has a cloud: the story homes in on the 3.7% to wail '50,000 stay on illegally and vanish'.
As for Brexodus, investment banks continued with plans to move thousands of staff out of London and on Monday, a KPMG UK survey suggests that a million EU nationals working in Britain were considering leaving the country. These are key people: half have doctorates, more than a third have postgrad degrees. The Times headline says 'Brexit brain drain will leave UK short of top employees'. The Express, working from the same press release, takes the same angle. What a lack of imagination. The survey actually found that 8% of its 2,000 respondents planned to leave and 35% were thinking about it – against 45% who intended to stay. If I were writing for the Express, I'd take the definite stayers over the maybe leavers.
It's not only high flyers who are planning to flee: the Guardian reports that Brits approaching retirement are scrambling to settle in Spain, Portugal and France before Brexit. One financial adviser has seen a doubling of inquiries and a 25% increase in business in the past year. Another reports a 20% increase in people looking for European passports.
A week earlier, the paper had noted that 46% of the 148,000 British expats living in France were over 55 and that 43% were economically inactive. Slightly more French expats live over here – 158,000. Of these 65% work in the 'high level professions' and more than half are aged between 25 and 44.
Which country has the better deal?
Liz Gerard worked in Fleet Street for more than 30 years, latterly as night editor of the Times. She now writes SubScribe, a blog about newspaper journalism, at www.sub-scribe.co.uk
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